Count it all Joy

The following is an adaptation of the first post I published on Back 2 the Garden, July 1, 2014, with concluding comments pertinent to current events.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  (James 1:2-3)

February 1998. Ten months earlier, my beloved husband, Ray, died of a heart attack a few weeks after his 39th birthday. Even though I was a rational person who could recount the details surrounding his death, I maintained a protective mantle of denial. How could my engaging, energetic mate go to work one sunny spring Saturday and never return home to me and our two young daughters? The reality dripped into my soul bit by bit and oozed through the cracks in my shield, creating an underlying pool of sadness that crept over its banks and flooded many of my days.

Joy? Not so much.

In preparing for Ray’s funeral, I wrote a letter for one of the pastors to read during the service. Among other things, I stated he’d not only left a lasting legacy in the lives of our daughters, but also in the beauty of our garden. Ray had a horticulture degree and though he didn’t shun common plants, he preferred to plant unique specimens in our yard. He told me about the special plants he selected and patiently taught me their names. I helped weed, water, and mow, but left landscape planning to him.

Several of Ray’s horticulture colleagues paid a visit and walked the garden with me after he died. Listening to them exclaim over first one plant and then another confirmed yet again the garden was an exceptional part of his legacy.

It became equally evident I needed to learn how to take care of it otherwise it would only be a matter of time before weeds overtook everything, much like sorrow entwined my thoughts.

And so that February day found me outside, bundled against the late-winter chill. I stooped to pull back the blanket of leaves shrouding the planting beds, my heart as numb as my fingers. I longed for Ray to be there, kneeling beside me shoulder-to-shoulder, to remove those leaves. Occasional tears watered the patch of soil where I labored.

IMG_5217I placed one handful of leaves after another into the big brown yard debris bag. Then, Wait! What’s that? I detected flecks of green amidst the weathered leaf litter. Perennials Ray planted were beginning to emerge from the soil. Seeing those tiny-but-determined plants sparked hope within me. If they could make it through the cold, stark winter, maybe I would survive my season of darkness.

I didn’t know it then, but I experienced my first session of garden therapy that day. And I caught a glimpse of the joy that comes from persevering, one of many lessons the Lord had prepared for me in His outdoor classroom.

Over 20 springs have come and gone since that late-February day. Some were short, giving way to the heat of southern summers by mid- May. Others teased us with early warmth, followed by killing frost. This year, we’ve been blessed by a long period of pleasant weather – more sun than showers, moderate temperatures perfect for nudging plants from their winter slumber.

Oh how we need the reminders of life and light as we continue to shelter in place, separate from friends and relatives, unsure how long the restrictions will remain. COVID-19 brought an end to everyday life as we knew it just as surely as Ray’s heart attack forever shattered what was normal for me and my daughters.

I’ve spent many hours in my garden in the past month, weeding, praying, digging, praying some more. And I’ve found the peace I’ve come to count on when I’m surrounded by evidence of God’s sustaining power, His love poured out in and on creation.

The Apostle Paul joined James in extolling the beneficial results of hardship when he wrote to the Roman believers, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3b-5a).

Hope. Hope that doesn’t put us to shame because it’s grounded in a Person, the One who endured His own suffering, even to the point of death on the cross, for us, securing hope for eternity.

23-years ago Ray left for work on a sun-drenched day much like today and the Lord called him Home. From the moment I first heard the news of his death until today, God has shown Himself to be faithful. I know I can trust Him to work all things together for good, whether trials are personal or pervasive (Romans 8:28).

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Don’t Cry!

12-20-2013, Hi, Grammie 1I suppose I should begin with a confession: I’m an equal-opportunity crier. My eyes are just as likely to well up in moments of joy as in sorrow – while reading sweet sentiments in Hallmark cards, watching heartbreaking news stories, attending weddings or funerals, even when leading Bible study as the magnitude of God’s grace and mercy floods over me. Yes, from a barely-there trickle to gut-wrenching sobs, I’ve shed my share of tears and expect to shed plenty more.

A quick search on Google reveals three different types of tears. Basal tears keep our eyes lubricated, while reflex tears pop up in response to irritants like slicing onions or having a pesky gnat flit into your eye. And then there are psychic tears, those associated with our emotions, distinct from the other two in that they contain stress hormones.[1] No wonder we often feel better after shedding them. They’re like an overflow valve for the soul.

Even so, our attempts to comfort others are often accompanied by, “Don’t cry!”

The Bible has much to say about tears and the circumstances surrounding them. Consider for example:

  • Loss of a loved one by separation or death
    • David grieved the loss of his closer-than-a-brother friend, Jonathan, first from necessary distancing and then by death (1 Samuel 20:41; 2 Samuel 1:12).
    • Mary and Martha bemoaned Lazarus’ death. Seeing their bereavement, Jesus wept too, even though He knew his Father would hear his prayer to raise him. Jesus had compassion on the sisters in their time of loss and He has compassion on us as well (John 11:31-35).
    • Jesus’ followers were bereft and befuddled after His death in spite of the many times He’d told them what was to come (Luke 18:31-34; 36:13-49).
  • Disappointments of various sorts
    • Esau wept over the loss of his birthright, when he realized how his brother had tricked their father (Genesis 27:30-38).
    • Hannah’s unfulfilled desire for a child, exacerbated by her rival’s provocation and her husband’s lack of understanding, led to her fervent, tear-stained prayer for relief (1 Samuel 1:1-10)
  • Sorrow for sin
    • Three of the four Gospels recount Peter’s tear-punctuated dismay when Jesus’ statement that he’d betray Him came to pass (Matthew 26:75; Mark 14:72; Luke 22:62).
    • James says we should be wretched and mourn and weep over our transgressions, humbly drawing near to God for forgiveness and restoration (James 4:8-10).
  • Worship and Gratitude
    • The penitent woman who wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with ointment was motivated by her love for her Savior.
  • Joyous reunion
    • Though bitterness marked their estrangement and Jacob feared the worst from Esau, the brothers’ reunion was accompanied by joyful tears (Genesis 33:4).
    • I’m taking some liberty here because none of the translations I consulted mention crying, but I’ve got to believe the prodigal son’s compassionate father had tears of elation streaming down his face as he ran to greet his returning son (Luke 15:20).

Even though these passages and others make it clear psychic tears are part of our God-given emotions, we’re quick to admonish, “Don’t cry!” Could it be others’ tears make us uncomfortable or tearful ourselves? Or worse, might we believe God’s children aren’t supposed to cry because we know the end of the story?

Mournful tears have dotted my days this past month. They sneak up on me as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic breaks through my carefully-constructed mantle of Truth. Woven together from precious promises and reliable assurances found in Scripture it protects me from despair and hopelessness.[2] Nonetheless, people are hurting on a worldwide scale for myriad reasons. Closer to home, I miss seeing my children and grandchildren, worshiping in person with my covenant family. And so tears flow as I grieve the loss and brokenness.

The women who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion no doubt wailed at the sight of their beloved son, teacher, friend, bloodied and beaten, being nailed to a Roman cross. The innocent One, put to death for the sins of others. Isaiah 53 is one of my most cherished passages, but also one which I can rarely get through without tears. Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Despised. Rejected. Wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. My transgressions. My iniquities.

We are so blessed to live on this side of the Resurrection. No matter how dark the days or how great the losses, we know Jesus’ atoning sacrifice ensures our own resurrection and eternal security. Furthermore, as we go through difficulties in this life, we know He is seated at the right hand of God, interceding for us. Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:31-39).

The One who keeps track of every tear (Psalm 56:8) has promised to return, to usher in a new heaven and a new earth, to wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:1-4). Until then, may we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, unafraid of our tears.

O Lord, how I thank You that You hear our cries for help. Though weeping may last through the night, joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30). You have shown your great mercy in sending Jesus to die for our sins and will turn our mourning into gladness. For we know this momentary affliction is preparing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). May we sing your praise forever!

 

[1] “What are the three different types of tears found in our eyes?”, http://www.sharecare.com

[2] Please see previous posts, “It is Well” and “Pollen Season”.

Love Never Ends

February 14th. Valentine’s Day. One of several days throughout the year when I have to take myself in hand and preach truth to myself even more so than usual. Father’s Day, my late husband’s birthday, our would-be wedding anniversary, the day God called Ray Home. Difficult days when I’m tempted to question God’s goodness; to wonder why He wrote my beloved spouse’s too-soon-for-me departure into our story.

The sunshine streaming through my windows this morning provided a stark contrast to my mood. No card, no flowers, no warm embrace from my forever love. Everything in me wanted to ignore the holiday. Well, almost everything. Whispers of truth made their way through the silent, solitary morning moments, “You’re not alone. Reach out.”

I sent a few texts, their content more cheerful than my prevailing state of mind. Soon my phone began to ping notifying me of incoming replies, most bedecked with emoji hearts and hugs:

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my friend!”

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you as well! I am thankful today for friends and family! Love to you today!”

“’The Lord has appeared of old unto me, saying, ‘Yea, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you.’ Jeremiah 31:3 . . . Praying this will minister to you.”

Gratitude, love, the Word of the Lord – potent antidotes for sorrow, doubt, and self-pity. They provided the traction I needed to extricate myself from the emotional quagmire I was languishing in. Back on solid footing, I redirected my thoughts.

img_2626-1I’m thankful for the time Ray and I spent together. I’d rather have been married to him for 13 years than not at all. The last card he gave me was a Valentine card. Unlike other memorabilia tucked away in various boxes and file folders, it resides in a special spot on my bookshelf. Lost in my reverie, I retrieved it from its slot and reverently removed it from its well-worn envelope. After savoring the sentiments within, I placed it on the edge of my dining room table which also serves as my desk. There, alongside other tangible reminders of loved ones, it radiated a message of glowing encouragement.

When I first read the words some 23 years ago I asked Ray if he truly felt that way about me. I didn’t see much of myself in the card’s lofty ideals which reference the Proverbs 31 woman. He didn’t hesitate before confirming the message rang true. What a gift to be able to see someone’s potential in the Lord, wherever they may be in the life-long process of sanctification, and then graciously point it out to them.

God used Ray’s unconditional love to show His love for me throughout our marriage. What a blessing to read the words contained in that final card all these years later and hear Ray’s resounding affirmation.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

With my thoughts on a decidedly-positive trajectory, I pondered some things our pastor pointed out during last night’s study of the Westminster Confession of Faith: God is pleased to reveal Himself to us in His Word. He desires intimacy with His people. The Bible is a living document, God’s direct link with us. When we read our Bibles we should imagine God smiling at us because He loves us.

Isn’t that amazing?!!

And now here I sit, joyfully overwhelmed by God’s great love, with so many pertinent passages running through my mind, I don’t know how to end this post. Likewise, I don’t know how you’re feeling on this Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Maybe, like me, you’re yearning for a loved one who’s no longer with you. Then again, you may have a special date planned with your sweetie. Regardless, I pray the following Scriptures will cause your heart to rejoice as you remember the One who loves His children with a love that never ends (Psalm 100:5). To Him be all praise, honor, and glory!

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8a, 13).

And the next time you’re feeling down or doubting God’s goodness, remember Martyn Lloyd- Jones admonition:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul, ‘Why are thou down cast? What business have you to be disquieted?’ You must turn on yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself, ‘Hope thou in God’ instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is and what God is and what God has done and what God has pledged Himself to do.”

 

A Tale of Three Trees

A year or so after we moved to Georgia, my husband Ray and I began a tradition we called “walking the property”. Let me dispel any notion you may have about us owning a vast estate. No, our property situated in a typical suburban housing development outside Atlanta measured approximately 1/3 of an acre.

Nonetheless, our small tract was special. Ray had a horticulture degree with an emphasis on woody ornamentals so he asked the builder to leave as many trees as he could when he cleared the property to make room for our home. In the nearly-five years we lived there together, Ray installed a number of unique plants whose names he patiently taught me – over and over again. Although I received a degree in Fashion Merchandising, I loved plants and being outside and spending time with Ray, thus I looked forward to our rambles and Ray’s lessons.

Warmth and copious hints of spring accompanied the evening of April 16, 1997. Ray dropped Jessie and Mary, our 7-and-10-year-old daughters, off at church for their mid-week children’s activities. When he returned, we started our evening stroll at the left front corner of our house, leisurely made our way through the woods, up the other side, and back to the driveway.

Ray stopped multiple times along our route. He pointed out plants of interest, mentioned specific landscaping plans, and commented on the health of things he’d planted in the much-amended Georgia clay. We paused by a grove of three bald cypress trees. All these years later, I don’t remember how tall the juvenile trees were, probably not much taller than Ray, but I distinctly remember his comments:

“These are some of my favorite trees. They’re interesting because they lose their needles.”

I didn’t know it would be the last time we’d walk the property. But God did.

Three nights later, my young daughters and I received life-shattering news: Ray, a mere 39 years old, had a fatal heart attack at work. He wouldn’t be coming home. Ever.

Over two decades have passed since that last stroll and the unthinkable loss. I focused on raising my daughters, finished a 30-year career at a large corporation, welcomed three grandchildren. Along the way, gardening became my therapy, a connection to Ray and a connection to a loving Father who’s reminded me of spiritual truths, softened my sorrows, and given me innumerable indications of His presence as I’ve worked in my yard.

And, amazingly, I got to go back to school to study horticulture! In my Woody ID class, I learned there are very few conifers[1] that lose their needles: dawn redwood, several larch species, and bald cypress. Confirmation of Ray’s long-ago statement.

IMG_0049The small specimens he planted now tower high above the back corner of my house. Each fall their needles create a brilliant color display before they let go, drift to the ground, and blanket the bed beneath their intertwined branches. I’ve thought so often about Ray’s comments and how special the trees are.

Five years ago, I noticed a number of seedlings peeking through the mantle of fallen needles. Upon closer inspection, I deduced they weren’t pesky pine seedlings that tend to pop up everywhere. They were baby bald cypresses!  I contacted a friend well-versed in all things coniferous. His comment upon hearing the news: “Those must be happy trees to be reproducing like that.”

I beamed at hearing this, adding to myself, “Well-loved, too.”

252I dug several of the seedlings and potted them in individual containers. In the seasons since, I watered, watched, and worried them along, hoping at least three of them – one for each grandchild – would make it. And make it they did. Last week, we moved them to Mary and son-in-law Justin’s house. With the help of a friend, the children planted the offspring of their grandfather’s favorite conifers.

The mind’s-eye images of that gorgeous fall afternoon – cloudless blue sky, warm-for-November breeze, dirty hands, and delighted laughter – have been underscored by a snippet of lyrics from the hymn, “Day by Day”, whose first stanza reads as follows:

Day by day and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best –
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
[2]

Oh how I wish Ray was here to be Grandpa Kuipers to our grandchildren. I mourn the fact he isn’t. But at 8, 6 and 3, Joshua, Lyla, and Emma are old enough to grasp the concept of having a grandfather in heaven. I speak about him often, recounting his love of plants and people, and his faith.

When I told Joshua I was thinking about writing this post, he said, “Grammie, I read another story about three trees. One was used for Jesus’ manger, one for the boat He was in during the storm, and one for the cross.” The faith of a child, borne of a legacy of faith going back generations on all branches of my grandchildren’s family tree – faith that connects them to Ray and guarantees they’ll get to meet him in eternity (John 6:37-40).

Life can be so hard. After all, we’re not Home yet. But God graciously mixes in good gifts along the way to soften the blows and smooth the sharp edges – family and friends, plants and promises, conversations and conifers – all part of His beneficial plan for this grateful daughter (Jeremiah 29:11-13).

When I took my last stroll with Ray, I didn’t know the day would come when I’d be blessed to have three grandchildren, much less that we’d get to plant progeny of the very trees Ray singled out that night. But God did (Isaiah 46:9-10).256

 

[1] In basic terms, conifers are plants that bear their seeds in cones.

[2] “Day by Day”, lyrics by Carolina Sandell Berg; translated by Andrew L. Skoog.

The Anchor Holds

I suppose I should have expected his arrival. But, distracted by other things, I didn’t notice his approach until it was too late to bolt the door and deny him entry. By the time I perceived his presence, he’d unpacked his bags and flung a cloak of melancholy over my heart.

And just who was this uninvited guest? Loneliness.

After spending a week at the beach with my family, my house, usually a welcome oasis of tranquility, felt silent and empty instead. Nonetheless, being home alone wasn’t the calling card I referred to above. I could have invited a grandchild over or texted one of my daughters. No, the profound loneliness sprang from knowing I couldn’t be with the one person I longed for most at that moment, my late husband Ray.

The Crucible of Life

As is often the case when I write or teach about scriptural principles and God’s promises, real life intervenes, compelling me to speak the truth I profess to myself, to apply the healing balm of assurance to my own woundedness.  Such was the case last Saturday morning as I sat at my kitchen table, with whispers of fall meandering through windows open to the breeze after summer finally loosened its stranglehold on metro Atlanta.

You see, a few days before I returned home, my podcast, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”, aired on CDM’s enCourage[1] website and I posted a companion article, “Stewarding our Stories”, on my blog. I used both platforms to proclaim God’s faithfulness across the 22 years since Ray died suddenly at age 39 and accompanied my proclamation with the assurance we can trust God as He sovereignly writes even the most difficult chapters of our stories.

So the appearance of my uninvited guest should have come as no surprise. In addition, my defenses were down, weakened by responsibilities and issues set aside while I was on vacation, only to be prayerfully resumed and mulled over when I returned. Thus, I didn’t shoo my squatter away as quickly as I might have under different circumstances.

Rather, I embraced him. My mind wandered, taking my heart with it. I wished Ray was sitting at his place at the table, holding my hand, listening as I poured out my concerns, a scenario played out numerous times during our marriage. I thought about how pleasant it would be to work in the yard together on that first fall-like day. And I remembered a long-ago night when I crawled into bed tearful and exhausted, bemoaning how little time Ray and I had to do things together. Our daughters were tiny, one an infant, the other a toddler. The days were long and my to-dos unending. In his attempt to comfort me, Ray uttered words that have become increasingly poignant over the years, “They’ll grow up so fast and then we’ll have lots of time together.”

Oh, Ray. You were gone long before our nest emptied. The lots of time you promised didn’t come to be.

Grieving

Over two decades of widowhood have tempered the searing pain of loss. Body-racking sobs are rare, replaced by silent tears, the occasional overflow of a heart yearning for its missing piece. There’s a sigh deep in my soul, born of sorrow mingled with longing and acceptance.

Even though those who belong to God don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14), we still grieve, because death wasn’t part of God’s good plan. It’s part of the curse, a severe consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:19b). Losing loved ones is painful and mourning our separation is a process, one that will continue until we’re reunited, as grief ebbs and flows. May we remember as much and be compassionate toward ourselves and others when the thorns of grief prick anew.

Never Forsaken

'Tis so SweetBut there is hope, dear reader, now and eternally. Having found comfort in the promises of the One who’s vowed to never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8), I dispatched my erstwhile visitor. Furthermore, I can reaffirm all I said in the podcast and wrote in my last post. The bottom is good.[2] The anchor holds (Hebrews 6:19). Victory is certain (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).

Faith refined by trials is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). And life-tested truth allows me to say with hymn writer Louisa M. R. Stead,

“’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His word,
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[3]

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4, emphasis added.)

 

[1] CDM – Christian Discipleship Ministries is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America. The enCourage website features blog posts and podcasts aimed at “connecting the hearts of women to the hope of the Gospel.”

[2] Hopeful’s comment to Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, as they prepare to cross the river to get to their final destination, the Celestial City.

[3] ‘Tis So sweet to Trust in Jesus, text Louisa M.R. Stead, music, William J. Kirkpatrick.

The ring

So many unpleasant, unfamiliar decisions accompany the sudden death of a beloved spouse. The first few days after Ray’s passing found me shrouded in a protective state of semi-shock, barely able to think, yet having to make one difficult choice after another – dates, places and times of visitation, funeral, burial and the details of each. My mind would churn and churn and finally spit out an answer, only to go numb again until being summoned for another round of decisions.

The initial weeks of incredulity passed and the realization Ray wasn’t coming back sank deeper into my soul leaving me with new, every-bit-as difficult questions: How long should I keep his clothes? What should I do with his other things? Is there a proper time to stop wearing my wedding ring?

Every time I dreamt about Ray after giving away his clothes, I would apologize profusely, “I’m so sorry I gave your clothes away! I didn’t think you were coming back.”

Ray was never angry in those nighttime encounters. Instead, he calmly assured me, “It’s ok. I don’t need them anymore!”

Over and over, slight variations of the dream plagued my restless nights, until they and the deep-seated angst that spawned them finally subsided.

But what to do about my wedding ring?[1] I took it off about six months after Ray died, didn’t like the look or feel of my naked finger, put it back on, then went through the sequence again. When I sought to retrieve my ring from its place in my jewelry cabinet the second time, there was only an empty slot where it should have been. I closed the drawer and re-opened it more slowly, hoping, praying the ring would reappear. The repeated action, accompanied by a rising sense of panic, yielded the same result. The vacant spot glared accusingly as regret overtook me. Why, oh why had I ever taken my ring off to begin with?

The knot in my stomach grew as I tried to piece together what happened to my ring. I’d only taken it off a few days earlier. No one other than immediate family had been in my house since. A sickening realization seized me: someone had paid a visit – an HVAC technician. I hadn’t monitored his visit the day before, instead trusting him to service my furnaces and leave my things alone. How could I have been so naïve?

I called the HVAC company to report my suspicions and trailed the next tech around like a puppy on a leash as he confirmed the other guy hadn’t done the service. He’d spent the time pilfering my ring and a few other items and pawned them before I even knew they were missing.[2] He’d also been stealing from his employer; a fact discovered when they took possession of his company-issued van and inspected its contents.

I was heart-broken at losing my wedding and engagement rings, such an important part of my history with Ray. The business owner agreed to pay to have them replaced so I searched through my records, found the original receipts, including diamond and band descriptions, and called the jewelry store in Delaware. They still carried bands by that jewelry designer and they had a diamond of similar size and quality in stock. A week or so later, I received my new rings, soldered together and engraved “RNK to PLT, 8-5-83” just like the first ones.

IMG_6445I gazed in wonder at the rings and bittersweet tears filled my eyes. Gratitude for having my precious rings restored as close as possible to the originals mingled with sorrow. It took a little time and money, but I was able to replace my rings. Yet I knew if I sold all my belongings and scraped together every cent of the proceeds, I couldn’t ever pay anyone enough to get Ray back. One day, I will go to him. But he will never return to me. (2 Samuel 12:23)

Reverend Bob Auffarth pastored the church we attended in Delaware. On more than one occasion Pastor Auffarth commented, “I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul”, as he reminded us of the temporal nature of material possessions. His words took on new meaning the evening of April 19, 1997. My young daughters and I hurried to Kennestone Hospital, clinging to hope that Ray was alive. Instead, we received the unimaginable news he’d suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack. After making a few phone calls and gathering my wits as best I could, we readied ourselves to leave the hospital, our world forever changed. The patient care representative handed me a small plastic bag containing Ray’s wallet, watch and a few coins. Pastor Auffarth’s words came rushing back to me. Ray hadn’t taken even a penny with him.

Scripture is clear on the kind of treasure we’re to store up – the kind that can’t be stolen, the kind that will last for an eternity in heaven, the kind no U-Haul is capable of carrying. (Matthew 6:19-21) Knowing that Ray stored up much heavenly treasure during his brief life comforted me as I clutched the tiny bag in my trembling hands. He was a kind, gentle, godly man, who quietly served others and lived out his faith.

May we do likewise, using our gifts and abilities to benefit others and glorify God. All we have and are has been entrusted to us (1 Chronicles 29:14) One day we’ll be called upon to give an account of our stewardship (Mathew 25:14-30) and the nature of the treasure we’ve laid up will be revealed. (Romans 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

 

[1] My wedding band and engagement ring were soldered together so the pattern on the bands would be aligned correctly. So, even though I refer to the missing “ring”, both rings were stolen.

[2] This information came out during the police investigation.

Remember Me

Our final fortnight, one fateful day, the following week – each year when the wheel of time comes to rest on another April, I intentionally, tenderly open my drawer of memories and recall the happenings of the fourth month of 1997.[1] Even after 21 years, the details are clear, etched in my mind because of the life-changing impact of the central event.

Daughters, 10-year-old Mary and 7-year-old Jessie, and I spent Spring break week with my parents, returning home on April 13th. As we prepared to re-enter our worlds of work and school, we had no notion our remaining time with Ray, our beloved husband and father, would be so short.

I cherish the final evenings we spent at home, particularly the last time Ray and I walked the property together. He pointed out favorite plants and talked of future landscaping plans, some of which I’ve implemented over the years. Before we strolled our yard, we went for a walk in the neighborhood. Ray’s inability to reach the top of what we referred to as the “big hill” due to a shortness of breath was my first inkling anything might be wrong. Nonetheless, the next few days proceeded normally enough, until the moment that Saturday night when my young daughters and I heard the news that forever shattered normal as we knew it.

Anticipating an upcoming conference and another customer visit as I completed my biannual season of travel, I kept telling myself, “One more hard week, then I can put my suitcases away for a few months.” Oh how I wish I’d been able to keep those commitments! They would have been so easy to handle compared to what occurred instead, resulting in what is still the most difficult week of my life: calling family and friends to tell them of Ray’s fatal heart attack; planning and attending his services – visitation Wednesday evening, funeral Thursday morning, burial Friday afternoon in the cemetery of a tiny country church in North Carolina. The familiarity of boarding a plane and sleeping in a hotel would have been far preferable to the uncharted waters I was forced to navigate. I coped with one unthinkable decision at a time as my shock-shrouded mind struggled to process reality.

A torrent of regrets came rushing in. The girls and I were finishing lunch when Ray left for work. Why hadn’t I gotten up to hug him goodbye? Why didn’t I call him that afternoon to see how his day was going? Why wasn’t I kinder in general? Why was I such an awful wife? No time to say goodbye, no opportunity to apologize, no chance to say “I love you” one more time. The remorse and sorrow mingled, creating a bitter brew.

Over two decades have come and gone since, tempering both of those strong emotions. Although I still miss Ray every day and wish I could share my life with him, the raw, searing pain has diminished. I also have a more balanced view of our marriage. I know the measure of what we felt for each other wasn’t predicated on what did or didn’t happen during our last moments together. In fact, our love for each other and our daughters fueled my determination to finish what Ray and I had started, to honor his memory by raising our girls well. Furthermore, his love for me was unconditional. God used it to bless and change me. Its healing impact has endured. Talking about Ray – his character, his faith and, yes, even his foibles – comes naturally to me. I want others to know and remember him, because he’s too special to forget.

This week, I have the pleasure of vacationing in Delaware, visiting gardens and longtime friends, opening other memory-laden drawers in my mind. Not only did I grow up in this area, but Ray and I met, married and started our family here. Contrary to what you might expect, recollections of those early years together have been accompanied by deep joy and abiding thankfulness. Even though I would have chosen to spend many more seasons in wedlock than in widowhood, I praise God for blessing me with a godly husband at all and for our progeny which now includes three wonderful grandchildren.

During his Easter sermon,[2] our pastor reminded us that Jesus’ resurrection ensures not only eternal spiritual life for those who call on Him as Lord and Savior, but that our physical bodies will be raised – whole, incorruptible, no longer susceptible to the ravages of aging or sickness.[3]

055When I visit the cemetery where Ray is laid to rest, I usually sit on the coping surrounding my grandparents’ graves. There I contemplate what it will be like when Jesus returns. In addition to Ray and my much-loved Murve and Papa, my baby sister, several aunts and uncles and a pair of great-grandparents are sleeping there, awaiting the call to arise. We can be assured that glorious day will come to pass, because God keeps His promises.[4] He sent a Savior, who bore our sins and paid the debt we could never pay so that we could take on His righteousness and dwell in His Holy Presence forever. [5] Jesus is preparing a place. He’ll summon us Home.[6]

Each April when I mark another anniversary of Ray’s sudden death, I remind myself I’m another year closer to seeing his beautiful brown eyes again and hearing his happy laughter. I’ll finally get to give him the long-delayed hug. Our reunion is guaranteed by the priceless blood shed on our behalf by the One worthy of all glory, praise and honor,[7] the One too precious to forget.[8]

 

[1] Please see “In remembrance”, Archives, April 2015 for my explanation of “memory drawers”.

[2] “Why the Resurrection of Jesus Matters”, Pastor Ben Duncan, April 1, 2018, Grace Covenant Church.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:52-57

[4] Hebrews 10:23

[5] 1 Peter 1:3-5

[6] John 14:2-3

[7] Revelation 5:12

[8] Luke 22:19