Garden Stories

I’m a member of the “Play in the Dirt Club”, a frequent-shopper program at a local nursery. I adopted their phrase years ago to describe my gardening ventures. Weeding, mowing, mulching, planting – I love playing in the dirt!

To use one of Mom’s old expressions, I suppose I come by it honest. My grandfathers supported their families by farming in central North Carolina. My grandmothers canned, preserved, or froze the excess fruits of their husbands’ labors, those not consumed or shared right after harvesting.

Memories of summertime Sunday dinners around their tables are vibrant even though decades have passed since I last sat elbow-to-elbow with relatives of multiple generations: plates of juicy red tomato slices and steaming corn on the cob; bowls full of fried okra, green beans, and lima beans; freshly-made biscuits and gravy. Laughter seasoned the conversation as family stories mingled with good-natured ribbing.

Other recollections are equally vivid – flowers edging the fields; straw hats perched on hooks by the door, ready to be grasped on the way out to the garden; a metal dipper hung on a nail above the back-porch sink for a refreshing sip of water upon returning to the house.

In My Genes?

My mom was one of eight siblings, my dad one of ten. They, along with most of my aunts and uncles, gardened. Their efforts ranged from plots to grow a few vegetables to a commercial tomato farm, from fruit trees to flower-filled beds surrounding suburban homes.

179Multiple members of my generation love tending plants, as do a number of our children and grandchildren. Recognizing our shared passion, I smile when cousins post pictures of their gardens, sometimes with young offspring sampling produce fresh from the vine.042

My gardening efforts are aimed at ornamentals since I don’t have a spot sunny enough to grow veggies. Nonetheless, the delight I feel in caring for my flowers and shrubs is enhanced by the connection to generations of loved ones.

Sometimes I muse that gardening is in my genes.

In the Beginning

Maybe that notion isn’t so far-fetched, at least when you consider where God placed our very first ancestors – in an idyllic garden, where all sorts of plants thrived, and God strolled in the cool of the evening. He entrusted them with the responsibility of maintaining the garden and gave them all the plants as food, save one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8, 15-17).

One exception amidst abundance we can’t imagine, yet Adam and Eve didn’t obey. Satan cunningly twisted God’s command and Eve ate, believing his lie that God was withholding something pleasant and necessary. She offered Adam a bite and he ate. In a moment, everything changed (Genesis 3:1-7).

But God came to the garden, as always, even though He knew of their disobedience. He drew them out of their hiding place. In the midst of declaring the penalties they’d incur, He planted a kernel of hope, a promise they could count on. One day the Seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent, dealing death itself a fatal blow. (Genesis 3:8-19).

Centuries passed and the time came for God to send His beloved Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Jesus left His place at the Father’s right hand and dwelt among us for a while (John 1:1-5, 14). On the night of His betrayal, He retreated with His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. With sorrow weighing heavily on His soul, He fervently prayed that the cup might pass from Him (Matthew 26:36-44). But it was the Father’s will to crush Him for our sake (Isaiah 53:10).

Jesus remained perfectly obedient to His Father’s will, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8). There was a new tomb in the garden near the place of  Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:41). Joseph of Arimathea placed His body in that tomb, but death couldn’t hold Him there. On the third day, God raised Him by the power of the Spirit. According to the Apostle John, the resurrected Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden. In her grief, she even mistook Him for the gardener (John 20:14-16).

The New Earth

So many momentous garden moments in His-story, with more to come. Jesus promised to return. When He does, heaven and earth will pass away, making way for the new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with His people forever (Revelation 21:1-4). Creation will be redeemed right along with the children of God (Romans 8:19-22).

One continuous story from beginning to end. Could it be the sweet connections woven through generations of gardeners in my family are rooted in echoes of Eden? Our hearts harbor a deep-seated longing for perfect communion with God in a world unmarred by sin. No more thistles and thorns. No more pain or tears or death.

As we wait for Jesus’ return, God gifts us with hints of heaven, in blue skies and gentle breezes, in fruits and flowers and fresh-from-the-field vegetables, in gatherings with friends and family around food-laden tables. Let us give thanks, remembering even the most splendid day here is a mere shadow of the beauty that awaits in the restored garden (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Good Gifts

My friend could scarcely contain her excitement as she said, “Be sure to see me after church. I have something for you. It has your name written all over it!”

083Her statement piqued my curiosity and nudged a long-ago, gift-related memory from the recesses of my mind. The recollection tempered my enthusiasm as I wondered which traits I’d projected to inspire this perfect gift. Much to my relief, the beautiful bookends my friend joyfully presented after the worship service reflected my love of gardening and reading.

080So what about the memory? Two small, resin snapping turtles, a Mother’s Day gift from my then-elementary-aged daughters. Snapping turtles! To this day, some 25 years later, my daughters declare they thought the scary critters were cute. Cute?! Maybe it was my late husband’s barely-suppressed grin or my insecurities as a busy, often-tired mom, but no amount of explaining could convince me the turtles weren’t a commentary on my character flaws.

God’s Gifts

God is the supreme gift-giver. There’s no hiding our selves or our sins from Him. We deserve condemnation from One so holy, yet from the beginning He determined to give us the gift we needed most – salvation. As soon as Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit their eyes were opened to the reality of their condition. They tried to hide, just as we do. But God came to the garden as usual and promised the seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3).

Jesus fulfilled that promise by living a life of perfect obedience, taking our sins upon himself, enduring God’s wrath on the cross, dying, and being raised again to eternal life (Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

In addition, Jesus promised his distraught disciples He wouldn’t leave them as orphans. He’d send a Helper (John 14:18, 25-26). The Holy Spirit came bearing specially-selected gifts. He empowers us to accomplish the good works prepared for us, not for personal glory, but for the building up of the body of believers to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 12).

Reflecting His Goodness

But there’s more. As we abide in Christ, we’ll produce good fruit in keeping with our salvation – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control – which in turn reflects His goodness to others (Galatians 5:22-23a).

A dear friend gave me just such a gift when she asked if she could walk my garden with me. She knows, as most of you longtime readers do, that my garden is a refuge, a place of peaceful times with the Lord. Restrictions associated with COVID-19 have kept me home much more than usual the past two months. I’ve spent many happy hours trimming, weeding, and planting. Nonetheless, there are unsightly patches dotting my 1/3 acre, where weeds abound or poison ivy is winding its way around tree trunks.

Even so, my friend commented repeatedly on how beautiful it was and that she could see I’d worked hard to make it so. Reflecting on our stroll later, I realized this is exactly what she’s done across the years of our friendship. As one of my closest confidants, she’s seen me entangled in vines sprung from seeds I should never have sown and has prayerfully cheered me on as I sought to remove briars impeding my spiritual journey. She’s reminded me who I am in Christ and has never made me feel less than beautiful, even when I struggled to see beyond the weeds.

Isn’t that what God does? As long as we’re in the flesh we’ll battle our sin nature, but when God looks at us, He sees us robed in the perfect righteousness of His Son. What an amazing gift! Furthermore, we don’t battle alone. Not only is the power of the Spirit at work within us, conforming us more and more to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), but God also graciously provides fellow believers to come alongside us on our journey.

Perhaps it’s time for me to accept my daughters’ explanation of their long-ago gift. Maybe they did look past the menacing mouths of those tiny turtles and saw the cuteness of their size, just like they looked past my moments of fatigue and impatience and saw my heart full of love for them.

O Lord, please help us to love others well and to reflect your goodness to those who we come in contact with that they might long to know Jesus, the greatest gift ever given.

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”.

Never alone – Reprise

Dear Readers,

I pray you’re finding ways to stay connected during this time of social distancing. Though technology can sometimes be intrusive, I’m grateful to live in an age when there are so many options available to keep in touch. 057While Grammie Mondays and Wednesdays are temporarily suspended, FaceTime allows me to visit with my grandchildren, though I’m just as likely to see a knee or the floor as they wiggle and giggle in and out of view. Mom and I logged on to Facebook Live for last night’s church service. I start most of my days listening to a podcast or two. Phone calls, e-mails, texts throughout the day keep me attached.

But oh how I miss the hugs and being in each other’s presence. Thus gathering with my neighbors for another Sunday afternoon session of worshipful singing yesterday was a special blessing. No hugs, of course, as we kept the prescribed distance. Even so, raising our voices together in song, prayer, and cheerful banter lifted my spirits in ways virtual visits can’t.

055I awoke to brilliant sunshine this morning, with one of the hymns we sang yesterday playing in my mind. I’ve hummed snippets of “Because He Lives” sporadically ever since, thankful to belong to the Lord of all, thankful to be sheltering in place surrounded by fellow believers. So I dedicate this post, a slightly-modified version of one I first published in June 2018, to them. I pray it will encourage you to look up and reach out during these unprecedented times.

* * * * *

Later this month, I’ll mark the 26th anniversary of my family’s move to Georgia. My tenure in the home my late husband Ray and I chose as our “raise-the-kids” house will then surpass by a decade my second-longest-term abode, the house I grew up in. Neighbors have come and gone over the years and I’ve watched several crops of children, including my own dear daughters, grow up. Currently, the homes around my cul-de-sac are filled with a pleasant mix of young families and empty-nesters.

IMG_6001I was working in my garden one recent afternoon, when my youngest neighbor, sweet-spirited Sadie, paid me a visit. We were chatting about flowers and butterflies and bumblebees when she suddenly asked, “Do you have a husband?” I replied, “I used to, but he’s already in heaven. He planted a lot of my trees. That’s why I love them so much.” As I watched, belatedly realizing I’d given a much-too-detailed reply to her simple question, her countenance was overshadowed by pensive consternation. Nonetheless, before I had a chance to offer up something more appropriate, Sadie’s expression brightened once again as she assured me, “But you’re not alone! You have lots of people around you!” I immediately followed up with, “You’re right! I have such good neighbors.”

With this, we took turns naming all the folks who live around us. Sadie finished the list, “And Sophie!” Yes, the boisterous ball of fluffy white fur, canine companion to our newest neighbors, is an essential part of the mix. With our conversation thus concluded, Sadie skipped across the street and up her driveway, ponytail swinging side to side with each hop.

I’ve reflected on our exchange several times since. It was such a life-giving reminder of the blessing of community. Created in the image of our Triune God, we are meant to live in relationship with Him and others. Early on, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Although the Genesis account refers specifically to Adam’s need of a suitable helpmate (wife), it’s also clear the animals couldn’t provide the requisite companionship fellow human beings could (Genesis 2:18-23). People need people. We’re not meant to navigate life alone.

Sometimes it’s tempting to try, especially if you’re an introvert or an I-can-handle-this-myself type. Or maybe you figure everyone else is busy with their own responsibilities and you don’t want to be a bother. Or perhaps you’ve gotten your feelings hurt one time too many and decided to withdraw. (Please note: each of these scenarios has applied to me at some point in my life and most likely will again!) Whatever your rationale might be, Scripture is full of passages on the importance of relationships as well as how to treat each other. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves, to consider others’ needs before our own, to share and forgive and encourage (Matthew 22:39; Philippians 2:3-4; Luke 6:37-38).

In addition to our biological families, those who belong to God are part of a spiritual family, with unique benefits and obligations. For example:

  • The Apostle Paul says believers form the Body of Christ on earth, with each having a specific role, just as the various parts of our physical bodies have a critical part in keeping us healthy and alive. We are called to use our gifts and abilities to benefit others and to refrain from comparing ourselves to our brothers and sisters whose gifts and abilities are different (1 Corinthians 12).
  • We’ve been adopted into the very family of God and are being conformed more and more to the image of our elder Brother, Jesus, the firstborn Son (Ephesians 1:3-5; Romans 8:29). We are assured of an eternal inheritance and an eternal Home (1 Peter 1:3-5; John 14:2-3).
  • Though spending time with God individually is essential to our spiritual growth and transformation, Hebrews 10:24-25 clearly states the necessity of corporate worship: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
  • James instructed believers to pray for one another while Paul admonished believers to pray without ceasing (James 5:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Such supplications can unite us, even when we’re unable to be together physically (Romans 15:30-32). Furthermore, Scripture tells us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who’ve gone before us, persevering in the faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). [1]
  • We are blessed with the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and counsel us (John 14:15-17, 25-26). Apart from this divine Helper, we’d have no hope of pleasing God; with Him, our sanctification and, ultimately, our glorification, are ensured (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Family and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, a loving Father, a selfless older Brother, the indwelling Spirit – sweet Sadie was so right. I’m not alone!

* * * * *

O Lord, how I thank You for the blessing of relationships and for your promise to never leave or forsake us. Please help us to be ever-mindful of your presence during this time of social distancing and potential isolation. And may we reach out to others with the love You’ve lavished upon us, using the amazing array of options available to do so.

 

[1] Note: This passage begins with “Therefore”, referring back to the long list of bygone saints who lived by faith.

Hold the Mayo

img_2711My late husband, Ray, long-suffering when it came to my foibles, drew the line at fast food orders. In the days before “have it your way” became a slogan, I’d request a cheeseburger, lettuce, tomato, no mayo, no onions. Minutes drug past while they made my special order.

Ray would mumble, “You know it’s not fast food when you ask for something special.” Who could blame him? After all, he was hangry.

That long-ago scenario came to mind as I thought about writing this post.

Sandwiched

Often, when someone asks how I’m doing, I reply, “I’m sandwiched.”

According to a HuffPost article, “Social worker Dorothy Miller originally coined the term ‘sandwich generation’ back in 1981 to describe women in their 30s to 40s who were ‘sandwiched’ between young children and aging parents as their primary caregiver . . .  Women are delaying child-bearing and seniors are living longer . . . the ‘sandwich generation’ definition has morphed along the way and tends to target both genders and the predominant age is 40-65 years old.”[1]

I’m blessed to have my 88-year-old parents living close by in their own home, able to take care of each other and their daily needs. I’m equally blessed that my daughter, son-in-law, and 3 grandchildren live a mere 6 miles away. Mary and Justin are capable of tending to their little brood. So, technically, I’m only responsible for my own upkeep. Nonetheless, I’m part of the support team for my parents and my children and grandchildren. I check in with Mom and Dad each day, have dinner with them several evenings a week, and take Mom to most of her medical appointments.  And I spend two days each week with my grandchildren.

These people are precious to me. I’m thankful to be retired and available to help out.

What about me?

But I’m one person, an only-child and widow at that. Sometimes the load gets heavy. Days go by when I can’t keep up with my chores, much less work in my garden or write anything meaningful. The hardest moments are those when both generations need me, such as times I’ve been with Mom or Dad at the hospital on a day when I’d normally be helping Mary with the children.

I’ve never figured out how to be two places at once, though there were plenty of times I longed for that superpower. Over the years I worked full-time for a large corporation, raising my daughters alone, I’d sometimes quip, “I wish I could lie down on the copy machine and make copies of myself – one to stay at home, one to go to work, one to handle miscellaneous stuff.”

Even though I’m retired, I still occasionally yearn for the ability to duplicate myself.

The next thing

By now you may be wondering about my disdain for mayo. It’s not so much that I dislike it, more that I prefer it in limited quantities. And therein lies the problem – fast-food cooks tend to slather on way too much, thus overpowering the other flavors. Burger, cheese, lettuce, tomato –all present, but indiscernible as bite after bite tastes like mayonnaise!

Likewise, seemingly ceaseless demands, commitments, and responsibilities can produce a layer of stress, anxiety, even resentment and guilt, which overwhelms and disguises the sweeter flavors of life. The blessings associated with relationships, serving others, and stewarding the gifts and talents God has entrusted to us become obscured when our existence feels like one big to-do list.

Elisabeth Elliot is quoted in the book Suffering is Never for Nothing: “There’s an old legend, I’m told, inscribed in a parsonage in England somewhere on the sea coast, a Saxon legend that said, ‘Do the next thing.’ I don’t know any simpler formula for peace, for relief from stress and anxiety than that very practical, very down-to-earth word of wisdom. Do the next thing. That has gotten me through more agonies than anything else I could recommend.”[2]

That sage advice lines up with Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6:34 to concentrate on the immediate instead of heaping up concerns about future events.

Sufficient grace

I recently had the opportunity to attend a 3-day women’s conference. The extended time of fellowship and learning allowed me to focus, to savor the experience unencumbered by responsibilities at home.  As I packed my bag on the last morning, a too-familiar sense of anxiety crept into my consciousness. Re-entry loomed on the horizon.

Tears welled up and spilled over when I told a friend about my apprehension. Her life-giving words echoed the teachings of the weekend: “Patsy, you didn’t need that extra measure of grace the past couple of days. God will give it to you when you need it again.”

You may not be “sandwiched” as defined above, dear reader; however, I’m guessing you have some conglomeration of responsibilities piled on your plate, a conglomeration that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers.

But there is One who assures us His yoke is easy, who offers rest for our very souls (Matthew 11:29-30). May we trust Him for wisdom and strength, moment by moment. For His grace is indeed sufficient and His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9a).

[1] Huffpost.com, “The Sandwich Generation: Who is Caring for You?”, 9/7/14, updated 11/7/14

[2] Eilsabeth Elliot, “Suffering is Never for Nothing”, (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 45-46.

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.”

 

Sibling Rivalry

In my post, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” (see Archives, December 2019), I shared some thoughts from the devotion I presented at our women’s Christmas brunch. In writing that piece, I focused primarily on the good tidings of God’s promise to be with us: “I will be your God; you will be my people; I will dwell among you.”  Today I turn my attention to the other half of the message I delivered to the women in attendance.

Scripture is full of precious promises of God’s presence. Yet too often the noise and busyness of the world drown out the tidings of comfort and joy associated with God’s assurances. Or Satan tempts us to doubt. “Where’s God now?” he taunts. “Did He really say He wouldn’t leave you? Ever??”

Though His presence is sufficient, God didn’t intend for us to go it alone. Created in His image, we’re relational beings. Having been adopted into His family, we have spiritual brothers and sisters to remind us of truth, to testify to His faithfulness, and to be His hands and feet as we minister to one another.

045My baby sister barely reached 8 months of age, hence I grew up an only child with no sibling rivalry and no one to bicker with. But I saw plenty of both as I raised my daughters and now witness more of the same as I spend time with my grandchildren.

“Mine!”

“Me first!!”

“I was playing with that!!!”

Sound familiar?

Sadly, similar rivalries and bickering occur in the family of God. Remember the mother who asked Jesus if her sons could be seated next to Him in heaven, one on His left, the other on His right? Talk about a bold request! (Matthew 20:20-28) Then there were the disciples Jesus caught arguing about who would be the greatest. (Luke 22:24-27) Our presumptions may be more subtle, but they’re there, remnants of our sinful nature that won’t be fully eradicated until we’re called Home.

In the instances cited, Jesus made it clear the world’s definition of greatness didn’t apply to His disciples. Instead of exalting themselves, they were to follow His example by humbly serving others.

But God’s directives regarding His children’s interactions don’t stop there.  Scripture contains numerous passages expressing God’s will for our dealings with one another. Consider this one from Colossians:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

With our elder Brother as our example, we’re told to forgive one another, to be compassionate and kind, and most importantly, to love one another. In fact, Jesus commanded us to love one another so well that it sets us apart. If we do, it will make others notice (John 13:34-35). Even better, it may make them long to be part of God’s family.

During a recent visit, one of the missionaries our church supports described such a scenario. He became acquainted with a shopkeeper in the country where he and his wife serve and invited him to church. The shopkeeper accepted his invitation because he knew him to be a “nice” person. Even so, he was unprepared to meet a church full of “nice” people.  Wonderment at the tangible difference he observed provided an opportunity for the missionary to explain the why behind the behavior.

I put “nice” in quotes because as believers we know apart from Christ, even our best deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We’re utterly incapable of conducting ourselves according to the Lord’s commands. But, praise God, His promise to be with us includes sending the Holy Spirit to remind us of Jesus’ teachings, to help us want to obey, and to enable us to do so (John 14:16, 26; Philippians 2:13), albeit imperfectly until we’re ushered into heaven.

044My sister’s death left an empty spot, a life-long yearning to have been able to grow up and grow old with her. In spite of my daughters’ and grandchildren’s childhood squabbling, they’re family, forever part of each other. And so it is in God’s family as He knits our hearts and lives together in love.

O, Lord, thank You for not only promising to never leave us or forsake us, but for also giving us each other, brothers and sisters in Christ. Please help us to follow our elder Brother’s example of putting others’ interests before our own, setting aside all rivalries and jealousy, loving and forgiving as He loves and forgives us. In so doing, may we draw others to You, ever ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

 

Welcome Home

Two years ago our church leaders decided it would be good to form a Welcome Team to greet visitors and members alike on Sunday mornings. I wasn’t surprised to see Gene Hunt’s name on the list of volunteers for the new team. Gene, a longtime pastor, was retired by then. Nonetheless, I clearly recall how he visited me and my husband, Ray, soon after we first attended Midway Presbyterian Church, where he served as assistant pastor, in July 1992. From that early encounter and across the ensuing years I came to know Gene as a natural when it came to welcoming others – genuine, warm, and caring.

Thus it also came as no surprise that Gene would be in the narthex greeting people even on Sundays when he wasn’t officially assigned to the task. Those of us within hearing range would smile when we heard him heartily exclaim, “Hey, this was great! Let’s do it again sometime. How about next Sunday?”, as he shook hands with visitors after morning worship.

240Gene entered his heavenly Home last month. I had the privilege of attending his memorial service. The sanctuary of our small church overflowed as several hundred people from all stages of Gene’s life gathered to celebrate by worshiping the One he faithfully served, for we do not grieve as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Even so, tears mingled with laughter as various speakers shared reminiscences about our beloved brother because death does bring about a time of separation until Jesus’ promised return. I blotted at intermittent tears until one of my fellow congregants described a heavenly scene where Gene was greeting others, complete with the signature phrase I described above. That did it – my tears escaped and spilled down my cheeks. I sorely sensed the void Gene’s passing would leave on Sunday mornings.

One of Gene’s grandsons spoke next. His comments included a recounting of his grandfather’s testimony – how he’d been born into a non-Christian family, to parents who made no effort to take him to church. But after Gene’s dad died, God providentially placed his family in a neighborhood where he became friends with a little boy whose family was greatly involved in the life of the local Presbyterian church. Sonny would drag Gene along because he didn’t want to go alone. In Gene’s words, “I was enfolded into this community of believers and moved among them as if I belonged. It never occurred to me that I was an outsider. It all seemed perfectly natural and normal. Now I see that it was supernatural. It was the Gospel of grace being lived out in daily life.”[1]

I’d heard Gene’s testimony before, but it wasn’t until that moment I clearly recognized the connection between the tag-along boy, loved and accepted by a long-ago church family, and the man I was blessed to know, who genuinely loved others and welcomed them as he’d been welcomed. He never forgot what it meant to be included even though he “had no resources to contribute to the church.”[2]

Sound familiar? This storyline should resonate with every believer: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Furthermore, the Gospel itself is welcoming. Once we were separated from Christ, strangers to the covenants of promise. But now in Christ Jesus we have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . So we are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:12-13, 19)

I was one of the greeters last Sunday. After the worship service, a couple of folks asked if I’d had a chance to talk to our visitors (yes, briefly). Then one of us began to recite Gene’s phrase and the three of us finished in unison, “Let’s do it again. How about next Sunday?”, agreeing we need to add his words to our exit lines. We shared a laugh, warm with the memory of the man who showed us how to love others as we’ve been loved.

I expect God assigned Gene to the varsity greeting team as soon as he arrived on the other side. I like to imagine the day I’ll get to see him again, welcoming me with a big smile and another of his classic phrases, “Ain’t God good?!” Oh yes, Gene, so very good! I pray He will enable me to serve Him and others joyfully as you did, from the overflow of a grateful heart.

 

[1] Susan Hunt, “Your Home A Place of Grace”, (Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books, 2000) pp. 26-27

[2] Ibid, p. 27

Heavenly Hugs

Several weeks ago, I received the following text from a dear sister in Christ, “Praying that the Lord will refresh you by His Word and Spirit today . . . some heavenly hugs to remind you of His presence . . . some quiet moments.”

Prompted by her knowledge that I was dealing with some weighty matters, the text itself felt like one of the hugs she wished for me. Oh the blessing of friends who take note of our concerns and reach out to encourage us!

I texted my thanks and mentioned I hoped to spend time in my garden, the backdrop to some of my sweetest moments with the Lord, later that day. Being outside often feels like a big Fatherly bear hug, one that melts my stress and recalibrates my perspective. But those of you who are longtime readers know I frequently find special treasures when I’m working in my yard. Gifts I imagine the Lord tucking tenderly here and there for me to discover and delight over.

Attired in my yard clothes – faded jeans, PFG shirt, well-worn work boots, and a wide-brimmed hat – I headed outside in search of solace. The reel mower whirred as I pushed it around and around what I refer to as my “keyhole of grass”. (I’m NOT a proponent of giant swaths of perfectly-manicured turf, but I’ll save that soapbox for another post.) The sun warmed my back and the tension in my shoulders subsided. Bees and butterflies visited one bright blossom after another. The fresh air worked its usual magic and nudged my cares aside, at least for a while.

I’d been outside for a couple of hours when I remembered my friend’s message, her prayer for heavenly hugs. Although I’d been reveling in the beauty of the afternoon, grateful to be playing in the dirt, I hadn’t come across anything specific that prompted an exclamation of, “That’s it! That’s today’s treasure, a heavenly hug.”

It’s ok, I thought. The whole afternoon’s been a blessing.

125My time outside was drawing to a close when I pulled up a spent summer annual, revealing a spindly bit of passionflower vine with a solitary gulf fritillary caterpillar munching intently on a bedraggled leaf. My heart soared! I’d been hugged.

I suppose most folks wouldn’t have paid much attention to the tiny orange visitor arrayed with black, predator-discouraging spikes. Yet as I gazed at him, I received a reminder of two important truths:

God’s provision. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is the only food source for gulf fritillary caterpillars. For several years I intentionally planted the vine by my mailbox, enjoying wave after wave of caterpillars until all the leaves were consumed and only bare stems remained. My summer reveries came to an end though when I realized neighbors’ mosquito treatments killed the caterpillars. I pulled up the vine, unwilling to create a death trap for my annual visitors. Sprigs of the vine continue to emerge from roots left in the ground. I sadly and dutifully pull them up too. The one the caterpillar was feeding on escaped my notice, hidden under another plant. But an egg-laying butterfly found it amidst all the other plants on my property. Isn’t that amazing?! And if God provides for butterflies and caterpillars and birds and lilies, we can be sure He’ll provide for His beloved children (Matthew 6:25-33).

Perseverance. By the time I discovered the miniature passionflower vine with its voracious visitor, we’d endured several weeks of drought accompanied by way-above-average temperatures. Although the plant’s leaves bore faded splotches, it had survived the unfavorable conditions and was available to host the egg that became the caterpillar. Endurance is an essential aspect of our walk with the Lord. Hardships, challenges, droughts of various kinds – we’re told to expect them. But great blessings, from godly character to eternal life, come with perseverance (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:12). The indwelling Spirit enables us to persevere until the day of Jesus’ return when God will complete the good work He began in us (Philippians 1:6).

At times we need reminders, don’t we? The world can be so loud and demanding, muffling God’s still, quiet voice. But He’s always with us, just as He promised, and sometimes He sends perfectly-packaged heavenly hugs to reassure us. Our Father knows each of us by name. He never loses sight of us. And He loves us so much more than we can fathom.

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:13-20)

 

Me, funny?

Silly, witty, comical – words rarely, if ever, used to describe me. No, I inherited my dad’s serious demeanor. Smiles and chuckles constitute the extent of my joviality – most of the time. But every so often, something lands on the bullseye of my funny bone, provoking breath-stealing laughter accompanied by tears of merriment.

Such was the case one recent evening when my 8-year-old grandson Joshua and I ate dinner at my parents’ house. We’d almost finished our meal when the phone rang. Dad answered.  Despite his solemn character, he’s been known to have some fun with telemarketers. He once told a carpet cleaning rep we had no use for his company’s services because we lived in a shack with dirt floors.

“Recording. Someone calling about cleaning ducts.” he reported as he made his way back to the table.

Alas, no chance for a funny exchange. But wait!

187Just as I took a drink of water, I noticed Joshua’s confused look. I knew in an instant what was coming next and oh how I regretted taking that extra-large gulp.

Wide-eyed, Joshua asked, “Duck cleaning?”

Bullseye! No way could I swallow the water without it being sucked into my lungs as I began to cackle. Out it came in an explosive burst, inundating my plate, spilling over the edge of the table and onto my lap. In between guffaws and gasps for air, I managed to squeak out a few apologies.

It took several minutes for my laughter to subside enough to assure my worried parents I would survive and to explain to Joshua what Papop actually said. In spite of my uncharacteristic outburst of glee, Joshua  willingly went home with me to spend the night as planned.

Serious, contemplative, not very good at telling jokes – now there are some descriptors more befitting my persona. In fact, there are times when I try to be funny and people still take me seriously, a trait that’s come in handy over the years on April 1st, but proves frustrating otherwise. And then there’s a longtime pal who dubbed me “least spontaneous” among her friends.

Taken together, these labels conspire to make me feel un-fun, boring, less-than. But a recent devotional reading reminded me when God knits us together (Psalm 139:13), He creates a unique package – physical appearance, gifts and graces, and temperament. Thus God determined the just-so blend of Dad’s resting-face scowl and Mom’s irrepressible smile along with myriad other physical and emotional components resulting in me. No mistakes, no room to covet aspects of others’ personalities or giftedness (1Corinthians 12:12-26).

And so it is for each of us. Not in a “this is me, take it or leave it” way, since we have the assurance our temperaments are being sanctified as we’re transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29), but in a way that’s most glorifying to God.

I may not accept a last-minute invitation or be able to remember a punchline, but if you need a safe place for a quiet conversation over a cup of tea, I’m your person. Underneath this sometimes stoic exterior resides a cheerful and welcoming heart, one that even appreciates moments of unbridled, soul-lifting laughter.