I love to tell the story – epilogue

I have a confession: I struggled to bring last week’s post to a satisfying end. I added words, moved sentences, and deleted phrases for several hours without making any meaningful progress. This, even though I’d worked diligently on the post across several previous days and had a clear mental outline of what I wanted to say. As bedtime loomed before me, I finally conceded and published the result of my efforts. Nonetheless, doubts lodged in my subconscious and accompanied my restless sleep. They continued to invade my thoughts the next day and the next, making me wonder if I should have published the piece at all.

I now realize I needed the experiences of the intervening week to be able to write the rest of the story and a more comprehensive conclusion.

A Look Back

Some 30 years ago, the Lord ordained a series of events in my life that forced me to deal with long-buried hurts I alluded to in “I love to tell the story”. After years of trying to keep the box of painful memories securely closed, I could no longer keep the lid on. The kind Physician came to heal the sick (Mark 2:16-18). Unwilling for us to remain stuck in a quagmire sin, guilt and wrong-thinking, He opens the wounds, gently cleans out the infection, and applies the balm of truth. My time had come.

In most cases, transformation is a long, often arduous, process. In fact, when I entered counseling, my therapist made it clear that it takes, on average, 5 years for new ways of thinking and responding to replace the old. That seemed like an eternity for determined, goal-oriented me. But she was right and eventually, bit by bit, a new normal settled in. (The grieving process is similar, but that’s a story for another time.)

As my sessions wrapped up months later, my counselor added a warning: “Although you’ve been very intentional about working on your issues and have made significant progress, you’ll always be vulnerable to the old beliefs, especially when stress and exhaustion deplete your emotional and physical reserves.”

The events of the past week left me in just such a state.

The Enemy

A line from a song by one of the early contemporary Christian groups plays in my head from time to time: “Satan is a liar and he wants us to believe we are paupers when he knows we are children of the King.” (Maybe one of you reading this can remind me who sang it!)

I hold fast to the admonition of the pastor who also counseled me during those early months of healing: “Rebuke the lies, no matter how many times you have to tell yourself, ‘That’s a lie!’”

And rebuke I did, over and over again, until I could recognize and embrace the truth more often than not. There are still times when what I’ve come to call my “old stuff” pops up and I recite, “That’s a lie!”

Even so, Satan doesn’t give up easily. He knows he can’t ultimately defeat us, but he delights in keeping us off-balance and making us ineffective (1 Peter 5:8). Since writing my last post, I’ve been distracted by many things, as the evil one stacked the kindling, stick by stick, preparing a target for his flaming arrows. His aim, perfected over millennia, hit the mark and soon I was surrounded by flames of self-doubt, choking on the smoke of his incendiary lies.

Nonetheless, the intensity of the attack opened my eyes to the source of the week’s trials, piled one on top of another, until I had no strength to fight. But He who is in me is infinitely stronger than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). I called on Him whose ear is ever-attentive to the cries of His children (Psalm 34:15). When the flames subsided and the smoke dissipated, I could see clearly that I was safe in the grasp of the One who’ll never let me go, just as I had been all along (John 10:28-29).

The Ultimate Victory

Our past informs our present. God is the Author of our stories. He redeems our brokenness and works even the hardest, most hurtful things together for our good and His glory albeit in ways we may not comprehend until we get to heaven.

I don’t know where you are on your journey, my friend. But whether you’re just learning to rebuke the lies or have been fighting to hold onto truth for years, victory is certain. Jesus will return to deal the final death blow to the ancient serpent and to make all things new (Revelation 12:7-10; Revelation 20:9-10; Revelation 21:1-7). We’ll know as we are known and, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of the Most Glorious One (1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18). No more lies. No more tears. No more battles.

IMG_1469Until then, may we avail ourselves daily of the comfort and protection God has provided, confident that we have nothing to fear because the Lord goes before us (Ephesians 6:10-18; Deuteronomy 1:30). His steadfast love never ceases. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). And His grace is sufficient to meet every need (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:10-18).

A nestful of hope

(This is the third in a series of posts inspired by events surrounding my mom’s recent hospitalization.)

As if having a seriously-ill wife wasn’t enough stress for my dad, the painting company scheduled my parents’ house for the week I transferred Mom from the hospital to a rehab facility. Any kind of home improvement project comes with its attendant potential for tension and this job was no different. The workmen arrived early and stayed late, accompanied by the sounds of clanging ladders, humming pressure washers and pounding hammers.

IMG_1082Uh oh! As they prepared to clean the deck, they found a lovingly-crafted nest containing four tiny blue eggs. Under normal circumstances, the location selected by the mama bird – perched on a ladder stored horizontally under the deck – would have been ideal – out of sight of predators and protected from the elements. But these were not normal circumstances. Knowing the commotion of scouring and staining the deck would most likely scare the mother away and that the high-powered stream of water might damage the tiny home, the painters carefully moved the ladder out of their work zone.

However, as the ladder and its not-yet-hatched tenants rested on the ground at the edge of the woods, the nest was fully exposed. Would the mother abandon her little brood? Would an enemy eat the eggs as they lay within easy reach? Oh the anxiety! My dad became a second mother to the little ones and each evening he gave me a report.

Once the ladder was returned to its normal spot, with the nest still positioned on its metal perch, Dad checked on its occupants. Not only were all four eggs present, they were hatching! The next day, Dad resumed his vigil from inside and, after seeing no sign of the mother bird, he trekked around the house to the little ones, cup of water and eye dropper in hand. Hydration duty complete, he debated what to feed them. Fortunately for him and the hatchlings, mama bird returned and faithfully cared for her babies in the ensuing days as they grew and eventually left the nest.

God was so good to give my dad something to take his mind off Mom’s very serious condition, at least for brief respites during her time away from home. The week the baby bird saga was unfolding coincided with my annual observation of my husband’s death. As I read through journal entries I made 22 years ago, I came across these words, penned the day after his burial: “Picked out a grass marker for Ray’s grave then went to (my aunt’s) for lunch and to see the baby bunnies again. They’re adorable as are the baby chickadees she showed us. Lord, thank You for the reminder, amidst our sadness, that life goes on and that there are still blessings and beauty to be enjoyed.”

Life can be so hard. This world is full of brokenness. (John 16:33a) From minor disappointments and promises-not-kept to aging bodies, terminal illness and death, proof abounds that things aren’t the way they were in the beginning (Genesis 1:31) or the way they were meant to be. But evidence of God’s love and His sustaining power is all around us – reminders that He hasn’t left us and never will. (Deuteronomy 31:8; John 16:33b)

IMG_1539Fluffy white masses towering in a blue summer sky. Busy bees with full pollen baskets. Birds singing their praises to the One who assures us if He cares for the lilies and sparrows, He’ll certainly care for His children. IMG_1115(Matthew 6:25-34) Your list will look different, my friend, but make that list. Look. For glimpses of what the new earth will be like. Listen. For whispers of love from our Father who attends to every detail of our lives. Taste and see that the Lord is good, His love endures forever! (Psalm 34; 1 Chronicles 16:34; Psalm 106:1)[1]

 

[1] These are just a few of the many, many verses that speak of the Lord’s steadfast, enduring love. Use a concordance or Bible app and search for “steadfast love endures” sometime!

Preach to yourself!

Even though it still appears plenty sturdy, my 27-year-old house is showing signs of wear and tear – peeling paint, random cracks from settling, occasional major repairs – reminders of inevitable decline in spite of well-intentioned upkeep.

So, the other day when a large puddle appeared where my master bath toilet is bolted to the floor, I sighed, called my always-dependable plumber and tried not to worry too much about the time and money required to fix the problem. Nonetheless, a nagging little voice heckled from the recesses of my mind, “This could be a big, costly deal.”

The next day dawned, bright and beautiful, as my garden beckoned me to come outside, which is exactly where I headed as soon as the plumber left. The repair took part of my tax refund that I would rather have spent on landscaping, but several hours of adjusting, tightening and probing various elements of my plumbing system appeared to solve the problem.

Or so I thought.

After an hour of playing in the dirt, I came inside for a drink and heard, “Tap. Tap, tap. Tap. Tap, tap, tap.” My first inclination was to check the deck to see if one of my feathered friends was pecking on the house, but a quick glance revealed only the usual array of contented visitors around the birdfeeders. Further investigation exposed the source of the mystery sound: water drops splatting on the floor beneath the ceiling fan as several ever-widening damp spots formed under the master bath drain pipe.

I left a distress-laden message for my plumber and trudged back outside. The repair-associated relief I felt earlier had fled, taking with it the joy normally associated with being in my garden. The rest of the afternoon found me making frequent reconnaissance treks to check on the incessant dripping. I silently pleaded with it to stop, hoping I could stare it into submission. Meanwhile, I engaged in a back-and-forth discussion with myself, see-sawing between imagining the worst and reminding myself it was a thing to be repaired, not a person with a terminal illness.

IMG_0816In spite of my valiant efforts, the taunting thoughts multiplied and threatened to overtake the more reasonable ones. I almost convinced myself it was time to move into an over-55 community where upkeep was someone else’s responsibility. But then, two hours into my plumber’s return visit, as I gazed at strategically-placed tarps and tubs and several holes in my ceiling, one of my grandmother’s sayings came to me, “Nothing’s so bad it couldn’t be worse.”

And so it was in this case. Had the leak occurred a few weeks earlier, dozens of pieces from my beloved Dickens Village would have been on display in the now-besieged room. Instead, they were all safely packed away, leaving plenty of space for the accouterments associated with the follow-up repair. That realization dealt the decisive blow to the negative side of my hours-long internal argument and allowed me to utter a sincere, “Thank You, Lord. It really could have been so much worse.” Even so, I regretted my inability to arrive at that place of peace hours earlier, since the cause of my angst was indeed fixable.

I recalled a long-ago conversation with my late husband, Ray. Exasperated by his peaceful demeanor in the midst of my recounting of some tale of woe, I had the audacity to ask, “Does anything short of death upset you?” His calm reply? “Not much.” After his sudden death some months later at age 39, I knew he was right. It’s a lesson I strive to remember, though there are times I behave otherwise.

As long as we’re in this fallen world, we’ll have troubles of varying kinds, from minor annoyances to life-changing trauma. Jesus said as much. But in the next breath, He added the admonition not to fear followed by the assurance He’d overcome the world (John 16:33). Our dear Savior suffered much when He walked this earth. As a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, He compassionately comprehends the hardships we face (Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 4:15).

Furthermore, God uses trials, big and small, to transform us, to strengthen our faith and to remind us we’re not in control. We can trust His sovereign plans for us, knowing He will work all things together for good (Romans 8:28-29).

Scripture overflows with God’s promises and the longer we walk with Him, the more examples of His love and faithfulness we have to draw on from our own lives. When faced with challenges, we must encourage ourselves with truth, not ceasing until truth triumphs in our hearts and minds. This quote from Welsh pastor D. Martyn Lloyd Jones is one I’ve turned to repeatedly over the years:

“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 art thou cast down’– what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn 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.”[1]

My aging house isn’t the only thing that’s showing signs of wear and tear. One look in the mirror reminds me I’m far from 20-something, as does the muscle stiffness that accompanies my daily exodus from the comfort of my bed. All creation groans, waiting to be set free when Jesus returns (Romans 8:18-23). But I know Jesus is preparing a forever Home for me that will never deteriorate (John 14:1-3) and an imperishable body that won’t get sick or die (1 Corinthians 15:50-56).

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

 

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965/2002), 20-1.

Exfoliation

Throughout most of the years I worked for a large corporation, I held the role of colorist. As such, I developed, named and presented new carpet color options to our customers. After all the time spent honing my skills at work, I was thrilled when given the chance to choose all the interior and exterior colors as our home was being built in Georgia.

My late husband’s specialty was horticulture, a no-less creative endeavor. Little did I know how challenging I’d made his plant selection assignment when I picked a terra cotta color scheme for the bricks and shutters, especially when it came to picking the must-have southern plant on our list – a crape myrtle.

Nonetheless, being a skilled horticulturalist, Ray made an excellent choice. Unlike other cultivars whose pink or purple flowers would have offended my color sensibilities as they clashed with our cinnamon-colored exterior, the creamy-white blossoms of the now-stately Natchez create a harmoniously-floriferous cascade each summer. But the brilliance of Ray’s choice is most apparent in the fall. For it is then that the annual process of exfoliation occurs.

IMG_6558As summer wanes, cracks begin to appear in the bark along the mighty trunk, signaling the coming changes. Soon, the cracks turn into fissures as the old skin lifts away from the tree, before finally letting go completely, falling to the ground in long, jagged shards. To the uninitiated observer, this series of events may be unsettling. How could such a shedding of bark possibly be good for the plant? Yet that very act allows the trunk to increase its girth and grow stronger. Best of all, it reveals the most magnificent cinnamon-colored covering. Ray saw the potential in the sapling he planted so long ago. He knew what it could become.

There are several concepts that I consider to be spiritual touchstones. One such idea is that of putting off and putting on. In His analogy of an unclean spirit leaving a man only to return to its neat but empty former abode, Jesus made it clear it’s not enough to make a show of getting rid of sinful thoughts and behavior. (Matthew 12:43-45) Instead, our repentance must be true, the kind that produces fruit in keeping with our profession of faith, as we put on right-thinking and conduct pleasing to God.

The Apostle Paul affirms this teaching in his letter to the Romans, where he encourages his readers not to conform to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:2) And in his letter to the Ephesians, he goes even further. After admonishing them to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24), Paul goes on to provide specific examples of behavior to put off as well as corresponding replacements:

  • Put away falsehood and speak truth. (vs. 25)
  • Let the thief no longer steal, but perform honest labor. (vs. 28)
  • Do not use unwholesome language, but that which benefits and builds up those who listen. (vs.29)
  • Put away all bitterness, wrath, anger and every form of malice. Be kind to one another, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. (vs. 31-32)

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, God already sees His righteousness when He looks at us (2 Corinthians 5:21), but there is much refining left to be done. We are not yet holy as He is Holy, nor will our makeover be complete until He returns. Nonetheless, the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us with the same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead. (Ephesians 1:18-20)

At times our refinement is painful, as bits of our old nature are stripped away. Our Savior suffered much. (Isaiah 53:3-6) How better to know Him than to endure loss, sorrow, and persecution as He did? (Romans 8:17) Such challenges may cause outside observers or even believers themselves to question God’s methods, but we can trust the One who made us to have a good and perfect plan and to work all things together for good. (Jeremiah 29:11; Romans 8:28)

Yes, just as Ray knew what the crape myrtle could become, given sufficient time and proper care, God knows who He created us to be. (Ephesians 2:10) Furthermore, He’s promised to complete the work He’s begun in us (Ephesians 1:6) and to never leave or forsake us at any point in the process. (Deuteronomy 31:8) The Helper will be with us to remind us of His promises, to empower us to do His will and to persevere to the end. (John 14:16-17, 26) On that glorious day, our transformation will be complete and all vestiges of our former selves will be gone. We will gather around the throne, our new selves robed in white, to forever praise our Redeemer King. (Revelation 7:9-17)

New box, old post

The door of my aging mailbox refused to stay closed. After several episodes of retrieving its damp contents, I knew it was time to replace it. Upon inspection, the wooden post appeared to be sturdy, despite its slight tilt, which dates back to its initial installation and has been a source of irritation ever since. Being a frugal sort who adheres to the philosophy “waste not, want not”, I decided to replace the box and make do with the leaning post.

I made my way to Home Depot, determined to leave with only a standard-size mailbox and no new plants. I resisted the temptation to stroll through the garden department, went directly to the aisle where the mailboxes are located, paid for the one I selected and returned home.[1] Upon removing the old box, I realized the wooden board it had been attached to was warped and the holes that accommodated the screws were compromised. Not to be thwarted, I decided to use longer screws in an attempt to secure the new box to its perch.

After I attached it, I stood back to admire my handiwork. The sight of the shiny new box contorted into place atop its aged roost was disappointing to say the least. The effect was similar to viewing photos of me and my granddaughters. Just as their unlined faces make mine look more wrinkled by comparison, the post appeared so much older once topped with the gleaming mailbox. And, while I’m ratting on myself, I may as well admit that it took exceptional effort to open and close the door because of the box’s forced mis-alignment. Nonetheless, I decided to live with it.

From the moment I took the initial step back and beheld the disparity between old and new, as well as multiple times since, I’ve been reminded of Jesus’ parable warning against mixing old and new. His examples of using a new patch on an old garment and putting new wine into old wineskins appear in three of the four Gospels, underscoring the importance of His admonition.[2] As recorded in Matthew, after replying to some disciples of John the Baptist regarding fasting, Jesus went on to say, “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)

The parable was most likely directed at the ever-judgmental Pharisees hovering nearby. Over the centuries since Moses received the Ten Commandments, the religious legalists had tacked on more and more requirements and drifted further and further away from the Spirit of the Law. Jesus reserved some of His harshest criticism for the spiritually-blind leaders who misled those who looked to them for guidance. (Matthew 23:1-36)

Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and to establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) as so beautifully foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. Nonetheless, some of the early believers thought they had to add their formerly-mandated works of righteousness to Jesus’ all-sufficient sacrifice. The Apostle Paul made it clear that was unnecessary, for them and for us. (Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:8-9) Likewise, we are told to put off our old selves, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds and to put on our new selves. (Ephesians 4:20-24) In addition, we are called to walk as children of light, having nothing to do with darkness. (2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:8)

IMG_6600The incongruence between the old post and new mailbox continued to grate on me, so I gave in and contacted the HOA-approved mailbox supplier. He came to rectify the situation yesterday. Even though I returned home after dark last night, I breathed a sigh of relief when the new post-new mailbox ensemble appeared in the light of the street lamp. Ahh, the incompatibility was gone.

Oh that we would be similarly perturbed by inconsistencies between the faith we profess and our actions. May we never think we can simply patch our old natures with a dab or two of Christ’s righteousness or live in twilight on the edge of darkness when we’re called to a life of light. And may we long for Christ’s return when the old will pass away completely, all will be made new and our struggles against darkness will cease forever. (Revelation 21:1-5; Revelation 21:21-27)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

 

[1] Long-time readers will recognize the self-control this required of plant-loving me!

[2] See Matthew 9:16-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-39.