Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. James 1:2-3
Eight years ago, on July 1, 2014, I began my first post, “Consider it Pure Joy,” with those verses from James. Since then, I have faced trials of many kinds. I’ve shared most of them, plus others I experienced before I started blogging, in the over 200 posts now residing in the Back 2 the Garden archives.
My love of writing and a desire to honor God by telling others of His faithfulness fueled my blogging aspirations. A longing to provide Scripture-based encouragement and hope that belies the bad news the world dishes out keeps me writing.
Once again, I’m facing a trial; one brought about by the need to go through all of my parents’ things in preparation for an upcoming estate sale. The sale of the house itself, my parents’ home for the last 24 years of their almost-70 years of marriage, will immediately follow.
The process is exhausting, physically and emotionally, but it’s also giving me opportunities to draw on past instances of God’s faithfulness and see new ones. And it’s providing material for future posts and a second book that’s been taking shape in my mind over the past year.
For now, though, I’ll stick to celebrating eight years of blogging by thanking you, readers, for coming along on the journey. I pray that whether you’ve been a faithful reader from the beginning or have found your way to the Garden more recently, my stories will give you plenty to ponder while consistently pointing you to Jesus, the Source of life and light.
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (Numbers 6:24-26).
My heart is overflowing with praise of my Lord, my soul is full of joy in God my Saviour. For he has deigned to notice me, his humble servant. Luke 1:46b-48a (Phillips)
April 19, 2022 – 25 years since my beloved husband left for work one beautiful spring Saturday, had a fatal heart attack at age 39, and never returned home.
Some of you know me personally, others only from reading my blog. Either way, I’m sure you’ve noticed my intentionality in looking back when special days roll around. Months ago, even before I started penciling things in on my 2022 calendar, I began pondering how I would observe this momentous anniversary.
But, as is often the case, the Lord was far ahead of me, with a plan so astonishing that I couldn’t have imagined it, much less asked for it (Ephesians 3:20).
An Intriguing Email
Last October, I was scrolling through my inbox when this subject line grabbed my attention: “Video Request – Focus on the Family.” Intrigued, I opened the email and began to read.
The writer introduced himself as a video producer and described the project he was working on, a series of brief videos to be released this year. Each would feature a family who’d been impacted by the Focus on the Family ministry.
I kept reading, barely able to grasp the words. I love telling others about God’s goodness and faithfulness – that’s why I started this blog – but who was I to be in a video for a major ministry? Not that I questioned the email’s authenticity, but I couldn’t fathom receiving such an opportunity, and the thought humbled me.
The embedded quote from a letter I’d written to Focus several years ago dispelled any lingering doubts about mistaken identity. In it, I recounted a phone call I made soon after Ray died and the kind, affirming remark by the Focus counselor who took my call. In describing my loss, I told her I felt like a part of me was missing. Her reply still resonates with me 25 years later: “During the years you and your husband were married, you became one. Part of you is missing.”
I forwarded the email to my daughters with the message, “This goes into the category, ‘you never know what to expect on any given day!’”
A Change of Plans
Despite my initial disbelief, I responded the next day, thanking Tim, the producer, for considering my story and requesting additional information regarding timing and logistics. Several emails and a phone call or two later, we agreed Tim would come to Georgia to film on November 19th and 20th.
But life intervened. My dad’s stroke in late October and additional commitments for Tim led us to agree to postpone filming until after the holidays.
God’s timing is perfect – always. Even though I can find something beautiful in my garden any time of the year, late November would have found it in decline, going to sleep for the winter. Springtime, however, is the time of rebirth and new life, when the exuberance of Creation shouts praises to the Creator. It’s a season of personal loss, yet one that pours hope into my heart.
Images to Treasure
I’ve written before about my figurative chest of drawers where I tenderly tuck memories to savor again in the future. This experience gave me a whole drawer full to cherish, some bittersweet, but each one a treasure:
The women in my Bible study gathering around me to pray several days before the taping.
Gathering mementos from Ray’s life – family photos, his wedding ring, neatly-folded Home Depot shirts – to be used in the video.
Working with Tim, a young man who would fit right in with my kids, with the mutual goal of producing a God-honoring video to bless others.
The joy of including my grandchildren, Joshua, Lyla, and Emma. Though Ray hasn’t met them yet, they’re as much a part of his legacy as my daughters and the beautiful garden he left for me to tend.
Over and Above
For the first few days after taping, I kept replaying the events in my mind, scarcely able to find words to describe what they meant to me.
Though the experience was a gift in itself, God was far from finished. When we agreed to film in November, I hoped Focus would release the video in April to coincide with the anniversary of Ray’s passing. I set that hope aside when we delayed to the end of March, recognizing that editing and production usually take 3-4 months. Three weeks seemed impossible.
Several days after Tim returned to Colorado, I received a text from him asking which day Ray passed, followed by another in response to mine saying he would try to get the video ready by April 19. Then, a mere six days after we finished shooting, Tim texted, “I have the first version of the video done! Do you want to see it? I’m shocked at how fast it came together. Felt like the Lord carrying it.”
Tim’s text confirmed what I already sensed. Nothing is impossible for God, and my loving Heavenly Father was orchestrating a most remarkable gift for me. I could finally articulate why the experience had left me speechless. I was overwhelmed by the reality that God never lost sight of me. He’d remembered the date, kept track of my tears (Psalm 56:8), and counted the years right along with me. Knowing how important it is for me to recall His favor and tell others of His steadfast love, He set up an unforgettable memorial stone to commemorate this 25th anniversary, one that will stand for future generations of my family (Joshua 4:1-7).
Hours after Ray died, I penned the following in my journal, “This is the worst day of my life up to this point. Ray, my dear, dear husband and friend, died tonight. Even as I write it, I don’t believe it. It will probably take time for the numbness to wear off, but when it does, Lord, please enfold Mary, Jessie, and me in your love. I don’t understand this and I can’t even begin to imagine what my life will be like without him.”
I knew the joy of eternity awaited me, but as ensuing days found one, two, or all three of us in tears at bedtime, I wondered if I’d ever find joy again in this life. Later journal entries documented my concerns about being alone after Mary and Jessie grew up and went on with their adult lives.
But just as I couldn’t imagine life without Ray, I couldn’t imagine the abundant blessings God had in store for me. Good gifts of His presence, provision, and protection, of family, friends, and flowers.
Beauty From Ashes
I’m an equal-opportunity crier. I cry as easily over happy events as sad ones. Thus, I asked several friends to pray that I wouldn’t sniffle my way through the video interview. With a couple of minor exceptions, I managed to hold it together.
Nonetheless, when I finished watching the video for the first time, I wept. Tim captured the sorrow of what I lost, but my tears flowed because he also portrayed the beauty the Lord has exchanged for my ashes. My fears of being alone were unfounded. Not only has the Lord kept His promise never to leave or forsake me, but He’s also filled my life with people to love and be loved by and given me a foretaste of heaven in my garden.
I don’t deserve any of His good gifts, yet He pours them out on me, as He does all His children. He lavishes His love on us, leaving no doubt He sees us individually and intimately. Having already given us the greatest gift in Jesus, we have no reason to think He’ll withhold any lesser benevolence (Romans 8:32).
Though losing Ray remains the single most significant loss in my life, there have been other hardships and sorrows over the past 25 years, and I know there will most likely be more before the Lord calls me Home. But I’ve learned to trust Him in ways I never would have if I hadn’t experienced those difficulties. The Lord has repeatedly done far more than I could ask or imagine, including the opportunity to share my testimony of His goodness to a much broader audience than I ever expected. I pray this video will bring much glory to Him and point others to the life and hope found in Jesus.
Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? 1 Corinthians 15:54b-55
Beware the Ides of April
Though Ides looks plural, it is, in fact, singular and means the middle of a given month. According to the ancient Roman calendar, the Ides fell on the 15th of March, May, July, and October, and the 13th of the other months.
I’m not superstitious, and I realize I’m taking liberties with one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s often-quoted lines. Still, I’ve become wary of the middle of April, those days between the 10th and 20th, because they are dotted with significant anniversaries of loss, both personal and national:
Waco Massacre – April 19, 1993
Oklahoma City Bombing – April 19, 1995
Ray, my dearly-loved husband, passed away from a heart attack on April 19, 1997, at the age of 39.
Columbine – April 20, 1999
VA Tech Shooting – April 16, 2007
Marcia, a dear sister-in-law, died on April 12, 2014, after a fall at her farm.
Mom was diagnosed with pneumonia on April 17, 2019, and spent the next 24 days in the hospital. There were several times we thought we’d lose her.
Mom fell and broke her hip on April 20, 2021, Dad’s 90th birthday. She went Home ten days later.
A Melancholy Month
When the calendar page turns to the fourth month, a thin layer of melancholy settles over my soul, much like pine pollen coats the Georgia landscape. I’ll admit I had to look up the specific dates of the national tragedies, though I knew they all occurred in April. Not so with the personal losses. Those dates and their attendant memories are etched into my mind.
Ray’s death forever divided my life into two pieces, before and after. Each year I intentionally revisit our last days together, when I had no idea how few there were, and the first days without him, when I wondered how I’d ever go on.
This year, I’m doing the same with memories of Mom. Last April, medical appointments filled the calendar as I desperately sought help for Mom, whose health was precarious and becoming more so each day. Yet I didn’t realize I had less than a month left in this life with the one who had been my chief cheerleader and devoted prayer warrior my whole life. Unlike Ray’s final days, which were filled with typical family and work activities, Mom’s were plagued with pain and confusion, making the memories even more heartbreaking.
Purposely observing the passing of Ray and Mom, my two most ardent supporters, touches tender scars and re-opens the wounds. But it is a price I’m willing to pay as I honor the memory of these dear ones, gratefully recalling the love and blessings they poured into my life.
Despite the undercurrent of loss that runs through April reminiscences, my mood seldom remains somber for long. The beauty of springtime bursting forth all around me won’t allow it to.
I revel daily in the signs of new life, as leaves emerge on formerly bare branches, flowering shrubs look resplendent in their colorful array of blossoms, and perennials push their way out of the soil for another season of growth. And I delight in the increased activity around my bird feeders as my feathered friends form couples and begin raising their young.
Everywhere I look, I see reminders of resurrection hope.
Just as I intentionally think back about Ray’s (and now Mom’s) final days, each year as Easter approaches, I ponder Jesus’ last week. On Palm Sunday, we remember His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but over the next five days, the chants of adoration would be replaced by those of, “Crucify Him!” (John 12:12-13; John 19:15)
In His final week, our beloved Savior, the Spotless Lamb of God, would wash His disciples’ feet, be betrayed with a kiss, abandoned by His closest friends, arrested, beaten, mocked, and crucified. Writing those words, contemplating all it cost Him to save me, brings tears to my eyes as quickly as thoughts of losing Ray and Mom – tears of sorrow for my sins and all He endured on my behalf.
Grieving with Hope
But death doesn’t get the final say. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees He’ll have the last word.
Though it is right to mourn our sins with sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10), we can rejoice knowing His atoning sacrifice removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). They no longer define us because our identity is hidden in Christ, and we are robed in His righteousness.
Furthermore, Jesus’ victory over death enables us to grieve the passing of our loved ones with the hope of knowing the separation, though painful, is only temporary (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Jesus’ journey through the streets of Jerusalem, heralded by hosannas and palm branches, is but a shadow of His promised return. On that day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. The dwelling place of God will be with His people, and He will wipe away every tear. Death, mourning, and pain will be no more, for the former things will have passed away (Revelation 21:3-4).
Thank You, Lord, for the hope we have in You. Because You took our punishment upon Yourself and then rose in victory over death, we have the assurance our sins are pardoned, and we too will be resurrected to eternal life in Your presence. May we be ever mindful of this truth to comfort our hearts while we tarry in this world where the effects of sin and brokenness remain.