Count it all Joy

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

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

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

Joy? Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pollen Season

I first noticed the yellow dusting atop my dark-blue CR-V. Then it appeared on my black mailbox. Yesterday I found it sprinkled across everything from leaves to walkway to my water bottle. What might the stealthy invader be? Pine pollen!

I usually grimace when I detect the initial signs of yellowness that descends on our area each spring, knowing what lies ahead. Depending on rainfall or lack thereof, the layer of pollen can become so thick tire tracks materialize on driveways and footprints on sidewalks. Some years I watch incredulously as windblown clouds drift off pines, destined to coat everything in their path. Nothing is immune from the intruder.

But this year the opening salvo made me smile. Because it reminded me God is keeping the covenant promise He made to Noah, his offspring, and every living creature. “While earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)

img_2910Last week, when I wrote “It is Well”, I figured everything that was going to suspend operations and activities had done so. Wrong! Notices of closings and cancellations continued to mount up, though at a slower pace. I found myself turning repeatedly to the passages I included in that post, truth to combat fear and quell anxious thoughts.

362I’ve also been outside more, strolling through my neighborhood, working in my garden. I’ve seen sidewalks chalked with cheerful messages. Encouraging posts fill my Facebook feed. And earlier today I joined my neighbors for a hymn sing as we gathered, socially-distanced, outside our piano-playing neighbor’s home. God is working difficult circumstances for good.  He always does. (Romans 8:28)

173In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, spring is here, full of hope and visible reminders of God’s goodness. I’ll let photos, scripture passages, and hymn lyrics do the talking for the rest of this post – my offering of praise to the One who lovingly sustains us, my contribution to the thread of encouragement weaving its way through social media.

248“Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son; Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor, Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown. Fair are the meadows, Fairer still the woodlands, Robed in the blooming garb of spring: Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, Who makes the woeful heart to sing.”[1]

342Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28a-29)

The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:10)

047Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11)

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. (Psalm 57:1)

265“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider all the words They hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy pow’r  throughout the universe displayed. When thro’ the woods and forest glades I wander And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze. Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee: How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”[2]

351I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving . . . Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. (Psalm 69:30, 34)

The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. (Psalm 89:11)

042“This is my Father’s world, And to my listening ears All nature sings, and round me rings The music of the spheres. This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas – His hands the wonders wrought. This is my Father’s world, The birds their carols raise, The morning light, the lily white, Declare their Maker’s praise. This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair; In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.”[3]

4-10-2014, The Pocket 5For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. (Psalm 92:4)

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.  Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever . . . for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. (Psalm 73:25-26; 28)

[1] “Fairest Lord Jesus”, anonymous German Hymn, stanzas 1 and 2.

[2] “How Great Thou Art”, stanzas 1 and 2 and chorus; Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

[3] “This is My Father’s World”, stanzas 1 and 2; Maltbie D. Babcock.

The Anchor Holds

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

And just who was this uninvited guest? Loneliness.

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

The Crucible of Life

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

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

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

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

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

Grieving

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

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

Never Forsaken

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Always a Mother

img_1628Those who know me well know I cry easily – tears of joy or sorrow, tears when beholding exceptional beauty or kindness, tears of frustration and disappointment. But sometimes, even I am surprised by what provokes the tears. This week it was a picture my daughter Mary posted – of her feet. Yep, you read that correctly. You see, her feet were clad in colorful running shoes, posed in a position unattainable since she fractured her ankle while participating in a half-marathon last November. Until now.

Cross country was Mary’s sport-of-choice in high school and she rededicated herself to distance running several years ago. This isn’t the first time a foot or ankle injury has sidelined her. Consequently, she was smart about rehabbing her ankle, not doing too much too soon. Being awarded a spot to run in this year’s Chicago Marathon, one of the most coveted invitations in the running world, provided further motivation to recover well.

Another Setback

A local municipality sponsors a series of 5k races each year, one race per month fromIMG_3857 May to October. After several years of participation, the Kennesaw Grand Prix Series is now a family tradition. I take my place on the sidewalk to cheer my runners[1] on from the final curve, down the straight-away, and across the finish line. I relish those Saturday mornings.

Mary ran the May race, her first since the fracture, continued training strategically and participated in the 50th-anniversary edition of the Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10k, on July 4th. The July 5k took place the following week. I cheered myself almost-hoarse as I watched 5-year-old granddaughter, Lyla, complete the 1-mile race. Moments later, my exuberance over her accomplishment gave way to disappointment brought about by Mary’s last-minute decision not to run. Pain in her right hip prevented her from trotting more than a few steps without wincing. And it hasn’t felt right since.

My heart hurts for my beloved daughter. Mary should be well into her training regimen for the Chicago Marathon, racking up 10-15 miles at a time, yet even 1-mile outings are proving difficult. But that’s not all. She’s endured some emotional injuries as well. Add those to her physical limitations and you’ve got the makings of a spiritual battle. One she has to wage without the benefit of her usual heart-thumping, mind-clearing time with the Lord. Solitary, stress-reducing time she’s come to count on to sustain her as a dedicated wife and mother of three, partially-homeschooled little ones, plus the demands of her not-so-part-time paid employment.

Mama Bear Lives

“Once a mother, always a mother.”

“When you hurt, I hurt.”

Lines I’ve heard my mom utter countless times throughout my life. With every passing year, I become more convinced of the veracity of her statements, no matter how old our children are. In fact, at age 87 and weighing in at about the same number, Mom is still my staunchest supporter and most fervent prayer warrior.

When my daughters were little, I wanted to protect them from hurts and disappointments, to keep them safe. That hasn’t changed now that they’re all grown up. The stakes are often higher, the hurts deeper in adulthood. I continue to pray for their safety and well-being.

A Higher Purpose

If I had my way, I wouldn’t let any harm come to my children or grandchildren, my friends or family members, EVER. But I don’t have my way. And though it may sound like I’m contradicting myself, I’m thankful I don’t. Because I have no doubt I’ve come to know God more intimately through the hard times than I ever would had I gone through life without pain or problems. My faith is stronger because of adversity, from being stretched and tested, just like our physical muscles grow strong from being used and bearing increasingly-heavy loads (James 1:2-4).

Why would I want any less for my loved ones? But I’m not wise enough to comprehend which trials will produce endurance or solidify their relationship with their Savior or conform them more to His image. When I contemplate Mary’s situation, I’m tempted to ask, “Why this, Lord? Why take running away from her? Why now when she received an invitation to run in Chicago?” I must trust God to have a good plan for her, remembering that nothing is ever lost or wasted as God weaves our stories into His grand, over-arching story of redemption (Jeremiah 29:11). I cling to the promise that He works all things together for good for those who love Him, confident Mary belongs to Him (Romans 8:28).

Just as the fractured ankle wasn’t Mary’s first run-inhibiting injury, the spiritual battle isn’t a first either. She’s suffered losses, challenges and disappointments aplenty in her 30-some years. And just as she knew how to rehab her ankle, Mary has a time-proven plan to strengthen her spirit – prayer, reading God’s word, seeking godly counsel (Romans 12:12; Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 11:14).

IMG_7889I watch and pray, embracing a friend’s assurance offered up when Mary was only a few months old: “God loves her even more than you do.”

Hold onto your faith, dear Mary. And remember, Mama Bear is cheering you on.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;  but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;  they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:28-31).

[1] “My runners” include daughters, Mary and Jessie, granddaughters, Lyla and Emma, and assorted friends, depending on the race.

Through the night

Mom didn’t sound quite like herself when I called to say I was on my way to pick her up for our weekly trip to daughter Mary’s house to spend the day with the children. When I arrived a few minutes later, one look was enough to confirm my suspicions. I’d like to say I took Mom directly to the emergency room, but knowing Mary had a full slate of work planned and praying Mom was just off to a slow start, I went to Mary’s instead.

Mom still wasn’t fully functioning by lunchtime and my concern had escalated to the point I texted Mary to come home. Mom, who isn’t a fan of doctors’ offices, much less hospitals, compliantly took my son-in-law’s arm[1] as he gently guided her into the passenger seat of my CR-V. I managed to remain calm during the 20-minute drive, reassuring Mom that I’d get her the help she needed. Nonetheless, when an attendant from the emergency department met us at the curb and, seeing Mom’s condition, whisked her into the building in a wheelchair, I couldn’t contain my barely-suppressed tears any longer.

Given her speech difficulties and wobblier-than-usual steps, I suspected a small stroke, but several hours and multiple tests later, the true culprit was identified: a severe case of pneumonia, resulting in critically-low oxygen saturation in Mom’s bloodstream. No wonder she couldn’t think clearly or walk without assistance! Any relief I felt over it not being a stroke was summarily eclipsed by the attending physician’s matter-of-fact statement that things often get worse, much worse, for elderly pneumonia patients before they get better, if they get better at all.

Having delivered the full-disclosure version of the diagnosis, the doctor strode out, leaving me to process his message. Thankfully, Mom didn’t hear or comprehend his dire declaration or take note of my obvious distress. But her nurse did. “I don’t know why doctors feel like they have to say things like that. We also see patients get better without declining first.”

My reply? “It’s all in God’s hands”, a mighty truth I’d cling to in the coming hours.

I reluctantly left Mom to the capable care of the medical team. As I trudged to the parking garage, I thought about another night, 22 years before, when I left that same emergency department, dazed, numb, knowing I’d never experience another day of life in this world with my beloved husband, Ray.[2] And I wondered if I’d spent my last with my dear mother.

Shortly before bedtime, my phone rang. The night-shift physician called to let me know Mom was stable and to confirm their intentions to move her to ICU as soon as a room became available. Then this: “I was told your mother wasn’t thinking clearly when she came in so I need you to confirm her stated DNR wishes.”[3]

Pause. Deep breath. “That’s correct. Mom’s consistently expressed her wishes regarding no life support or extraordinary measures to keep her alive. But please take good care of her so we won’t have to make that decision.”

Not a conversation conducive to sweet dreams. It, along with images of Mom when I left her, attached to multiple monitors, with a breathing mask strapped across her face, marched through my mind. Would she make it through the night, the next several days? Or would I be faced with planning another April funeral, tucking one more piece of my heart into a loved one’s grave?

I prayed fervently for Mom to recover and eventually be able to return home to us. Nonetheless, I knew if her earthly days were over, it would be ok. Every time a doubt or fear prodded me from my fitful sleep, Truth arose to quell it:

  • I know Who Mom belongs to. Whether in life or death, no one will be able to snatch her out of His hand. (John 10:28-29)
  • I thought about a quote I saw shortly before my Ray’s death: “Until it’s my time to go, nothing can take me. When it’s my time to go, nothing can keep me here.”
  • I pondered a proclamation one of our pastors made at Ray’s funeral: “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer, it is the most glorious beginning.”
  • I considered God’s love and faithfulness across the years since losing my life partner. I knew those same comforts would attend future losses. (Psalm 23)
  • I imagined Mom taking her place in our heavenly family circle, reunited with so many departed loved ones, now joyfully gathered in Jesus’ presence.
  • And I compiled a mental playlist of cherished hymns – Amazing Grace, Blessed Assurance, It is Well with My Soul – that further calmed my troubled mind.

The Spirit ministered to me throughout the night, battling my fears by reminding me of God’s promises and assuring me of His presence (Psalm 16:7-8; Zephaniah 3:17; Romans 8:26-27), just as Jesus said he would. (John 14:25-26)

We can’t foresee what any given day may hold for us and those we love, but nothing ever catches God by surprise (Isaiah 46:8-10). I don’t know what you may be going through, dear reader, but I pray you too will meditate on Truth. Consider, for example:

  • God has a plan for each of us. (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
  • All our days are written in His book before even one comes to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • He sees every tear. (Psalm 56:8)
  • He works all things together for good for those who love Him. (Romans 8:28)
  • He’ll never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • He’s conquered death. (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)
  • He’ll take us Home to be with Him forever. (John 14:1-3)

We have this hope as a sure and steadfast anchor for our souls. (Hebrews 6:19-20) And I will gladly testify that the anchor holds, even through the darkest night.

IMG_E1080

(To be continued.)

 

[1] Justin and Mom are buddies. He came home to help too.

[2] My husband, Ray, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 39 on April 19, 1997. Mom went into the hospital on April 17, 2019.

[3] “Do not resuscitate”

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.

Purposeful Pondering

There are a number of days and seasons throughout the year when I intentionally open my figurative chest of memories, select the appropriate box and carefully remove the lid so I can inspect the contents. Sometimes the momentous events which trigger my reflections were joyfully anticipated, like the births of my daughters and grandchildren. But others, like the sudden death of my husband, came without warning and brought deep sorrow and bewilderment. Irrespective of the emotions associated with the initial event, I choose to remember. Because time offers perspective. And anniversaries provide opportunities to reflect on God’s goodness.

Eight years ago today, I awoke to my first day of unemployment in over three decades. Although not completely unexpected, the news the day before that I was no longer needed because my job was being eliminated left me numb and disoriented. I recognized those feelings, milder versions of the shock I felt after my husband’s unexpected death.

Unlike the previous afternoon when the slate sky matched the tenor of the windowless conference room where I received my termination notice, the morning was drenched in brilliant sunlight. In spite of my surreal circumstances, I held onto hope every bit as bright as the sunshine streaming through my windows. In fact, I posted the following status on Facebook:

“30+ years of continuous employment came to a halt yesterday when my job was eliminated. God obviously has something else for me to do. I can’t wait to see what it is!”

Even though I was uncertain how being unemployed would affect my life, I rested in the certainty that my life was exactly where it had been before I lost my job – secure in the hands of the One who declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10), who has a plan for good and not harm (Jeremiah 29:11). The previous day’s events did not surprise Him or catch Him off-guard.

I reminded myself of another windowless room where I and my elementary-aged daughters were told the unthinkable – that our beloved husband and father had succumbed to a fatal heart attack – and I recalled God’s provision across the 13 ½-intervening years. He’d graciously allowed me to work as long as my daughters depended on me for support. Single parent, sole provider, but underneath were the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27) of the One who’s promised to never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8)

img_0495Even so, I couldn’t have imagined all God had in store for me. A mere two days after losing my job, I contacted the admissions office at the local community college to inquire about enrolling in their horticulture program. Six months later, my first grandchild was born. Joshua was my study buddy, as I strolled him around the neighborhood while practicing my new-found plant identification skills. He, along with my mom and daughter Mary were present at my graduation ceremony the following year. Yes, 18 months after losing my job, I fulfilled my dream of acquiring an Environmental Horticulture diploma. God is truly able to do far more than all we ask or think. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Two more grandchildren, Lyla and Emma, have joined our family. I’m blessed to spend a couple of days a week with them and big-brother Joshua. I volunteer at a local botanical garden. I started this blog. I’m available to help my aging parents. I’m a member of our Women’s Ministry Committee. Engaging in these activities would be impossible if I was still working in my cubicle, making carpet samples and visiting customers. For a time, that was my work, but now God has other work for me to do. (Ephesians 2:10) And I am grateful for both seasons of my life.

I don’t know what you may be going through, dear reader. Maybe your life is relatively free of difficulties, but we know troubles of various kinds will come. Jesus said as much. However, He also told us not to fear because He would be with us to the end. (John 16:33; Matthew 28:20b) So let us call to mind the good He’s already done for us, in full assurance that His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. And may we be diligent in telling our children and their children of His great faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-24)

When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:1-7)

 

It’s all about Him

I had the privilege of attending the funeral of a dear saint who was suddenly called Home last week. The bold type on the front of the program proclaimed it would be a memorial and worship service in honor of her Lord and Savior.IMG_6739

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The focus wasn’t on the departed, though her faith, kindness and devotion to family and friends were certainly mentioned during the service. No, her family desired to give glory first and foremost to God, no doubt honoring the wishes of their loved one as well. They asked the pastor to preach the Gospel. And so he did, reminding each of us not only of our helpless estate apart from Christ, but also of our assurance of eternal life in God’s presence because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. (Romans 5) It was a message of hope in the midst of sorrow because it emphasized the sovereignty of our loving LORD.

I’ve been studying the book of Ruth in preparation to teach an upcoming Bible study. On the surface, Ruth certainly appears to be the main character. After all, the book’s named after her, right? Her mother-in-law, Naomi, and kinsman redeemer, Boaz, fill important supporting roles and the townspeople are there to provide occasional commentary.

But look again. God is the main character.

After losing her husband and both sons, Naomi acknowledges God was the one behind her bereavement, though she doesn’t appear to blame God or lose faith in Him. (Ruth 1:20-21) As the narrative progresses, we see how God goes before them to redeem Naomi’s brokenness and bring Ruth into His family. In fact, He orchestrated every detail of their redemption. And, wonder of wonders, Naomi, the woman who returned to her homeland empty, became King David’s great-great-grandmother. Talk about working all things together for good! (Romans 8:28)

Though each one of us navigates a unique set of circumstances throughout our lives, our stories are ultimately about God as well. It’s so easy for us to think in terms of “I”, “me”, “mine”, yet it’s really all about Him. Everything we have and are is His.

God:

  • Chose us before the foundation of the earth. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
  • Spoke the world into being. (Genesis 1)
  • Wrote every one of our days in His book before even one came to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • Provided His only Son for our salvation. (John 3:16)
  • Called us out of darkness. (John 8:12; John 12:46)
  • Is working to transform us more and more into Jesus’ likeness through the power of His Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
  • Is preparing a place for us. (John 14:1-3)
  • Will return to take us Home. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

Yes, it’s all of Him, from beginning to end.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so thankful it is. Even though I’m dust (Psalm103:13-14), and my best efforts are filthy rags (Isaiah 54:6), and I have no way of saving myself (Ephesians 2:8-9), I can be certain everything will be ok eventually and eternally. Because God is sovereign. (1 Timothy 6:15-16) He keeps His promises. (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 10:23) And nothing can ever separate us from His love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So even when death comes unexpectedly or circumstances take an unforeseen and unpleasant turn, we can be assured nothing catches God by surprise and no detail escapes His careful plan. We can trust Him to weave all our stories together in a beautiful, epic masterpiece whose end we can be certain of because He’s promised to return and take us to the Home He’s preparing even now.

Hope. Hope in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty. Hope because it’s all about Him.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

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)

Make note

The Lord has been faithful to provide for me and my family in so many ways across the years. In fact, a desire to encourage others by sharing some examples of His goodness is what led me to begin blogging. I promised to write this particular post for some friends in various stages of buying and selling homes, but I pray the over-arching message of God going before us will resonate with many of you.

As I open up my mental portfolio containing instances of God’s providence, the file marked “Real Estate Transactions” stands out because it encompasses events that still give me amazement-induced goose bumps when I recall the specifics all these years later.

Several months after my late husband Ray and I got married, we began to contemplate the possibility of purchasing our first home. The image of him sitting at his drawing board/desk, his silhouette illuminated by a clamp-on light as he calculated and re-calculated the numbers, is etched in my memory. After several such assessments, we decided to purchase a townhouse attached to one other unit. We had three bedrooms on the top floor, an open floor plan on the main level and a full basement which we partially finished – plenty of room even after our daughter Mary was born two years later.

But when I became pregnant with daughter Jessie, Ray and I decided to start looking for a single family home to accommodate our growing family. Unfortunately, the houses we could afford weren’t within our desired distance to work and those in our preferred areas were priced beyond our budget. We looked and looked, our hopes repeatedly dashed. It was a hot, humid summer in Delaware and I was eight months pregnant, with all the attendant hormonal upheaval. So, when Ray excitedly told me about an open house at an older home in the same neighborhood as our townhome, I suggested he check it out while I treated my hot, tired, grumpy self to a nap.

Ray returned from the open house, his spirits still high, and announced, “You really need to see this one! It could be our house.” Several days later, I accompanied him on his return visit. I, too, liked what I saw. Coached by our realtor, we made an offer slightly under the asking price, only to be outbid. Once again deflated by dejection, we surmised it wasn’t the one after all.

Several weeks and more disappointing house-shopping jaunts later, the owners called to let us know the deal had fallen through and their house was back on the market. After thorough consideration of our options, Ray and I decided their house actually was the one.

Having finally concluded the search phase of our mission, we asked fellow members of our Sunday school class to pray our townhouse would sell. A young couple came up to us after class and said they’d be interested in looking at it. They did just that a few days after Jessie’s birth[1] and, without ever putting up a for sale sign, we secured buyers.

5-29-2015, 108 DewaltThe house on Dewalt Road was to be our long-term, raise-the-kids residence, but DuPont decided to move my entire work group to Georgia so we could be closer to our customers in the carpet industry. Once again we were faced with selling a house, this time one filled with toys and accessories parents of toddlers are used to stepping over and around. I dreaded the process of keeping the house picked up and ready to show at any moment. After Ray and I signed a contract with our realtor the day before I left for a weeklong business trip to California, I told them, “Ok, you two. I want you to find a buyer before I get back.” (Cue laughter.) But God graciously provided a young family, much like our own, who could no doubt imagine their own children’s toys strewn across the playroom and parked in the yard. They were ready to make an offer by the time I returned home.

Fast forward five years to when the unthinkable happened. My beloved 39-year-old husband went to work one beautiful spring day, suffered a fatal heart attack and didn’t make it back to what has indeed been my long-term, raise-the-kids residence. My parents were living in Charlotte at the time and had been considering a move since my dad was recently-retired. What a blessing when they chose to move to Georgia to help me with the logistics and challenges associated with being a single mother. They had an offer on their house within a few days of putting it on the market. And, when my mom told the owners of the house they bought in Georgia the reason for their move, the woman replied, “Our house was under contract several months ago, but the deal fell through. Now I know why. God was saving it for you.”

I realize your real estate history probably differs from mine. Maybe you’ve endured weeks without showings and multiple price cuts during stagnant markets. But, as I hope you can see, this recounting isn’t about houses at all. It’s about remembering God’s faithfulness. About recording instances of His provision and sharing them to encourage yourself and fellow believers when times get tough. (Psalm 63:1-8) About speaking truth to yourself: “Just look what He’s done! He’s never forsaken me and I know He never will.” (Deuteronomy 31:8; Psalm 9:10; Psalm 37:25)

Your list of examples will be as unique as you are. But, even if you’re a brand new believer, you have instances to look back on, including the fact He called you out of darkness and welcomed you into His family. (Matthew 4:16; John 8:12; Ephesians 1:3-14) And the longer we walk with Him, the more extensive and varied our personal inventories become, as He does exceedingly more than all we can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20)

May we be ever-faithful to recall and recount the Lord’s goodness.

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. (Psalm 9:1-2)

 

[1] We’d originally planned for them to come over earlier, “unless I went into labor”, which I did on the previously-scheduled date.

Milestones and memories

1-10-5-67-5-35

Self-picked numbers on a Powerball ticket? Nope! Those numbers relate to early-August marital milestones:

  • 8-1-2008 – Ten years ago, daughter Mary and her high school sweetheart, Justin, tied the knot outdoors on a muggy summer evening. At the reception which followed, over 300 family members and friends joyfully celebrated the union of two young people they had watched grow up.
  • 8-5-1951 – My parents said their vows before a South Carolina Justice of the Peace since Dad’s brief leave from the Air Force wouldn’t accommodate the church ceremony Mom hoped for. Their now-67 years together are a true testament to the power of prayer and perseverance.
  • 8-5-1983 – Ray and I married on Mom and Dad’s 32nd wedding anniversary in a stuffy, air-conditionless sanctuary filled with wilting attendees, some of whom still refer to our ceremony as the hottest wedding EVER. For the past week, I’ve been reminiscing, yearning to celebrate a 35th anniversary with my long-departed spouse.

I’d always dreamed of a spring wedding. But when I met my prince charming, he hailed from South Dakota farm country and spring is planting season. Someone suggested August as the best month for our mid-western relatives to travel. The 5th fell on a Friday that year, so it seemed like a great idea to get married on my parents’ anniversary, making the event doubly-special.

IMG_638125 years later, Mary and Justin chose to wed in the warmest month of the year too, but by then, there was no dad to walk Mary down the aisle. Instead, she bravely trod the runner-clad distance herself, since no one could take the place of the man who first captured her little-girl heart. I linked arms with her to walk the last few steps to the altar, then gave her away, without reservation, to a young man I knew her dad would not only approve of, but would have been good friends with. A single red rose[1] and an empty chair next to mine served to remind all in attendance of the one we carried in our hearts.

There are no days when thoughts of Ray don’t inhabit my mind, not a single one when I don’t long to talk to him. But there are some seasons when the thoughts are more numerous, the recollections bittersweet. April, the month of his passing, and August, laden with anniversaries of all those family nuptials, bring with them so many memories. My reminiscences are occasionally punctuated with, “Why, Lord?” The question escapes my soul not in a shake-my-fist manner as you might imagine, but like a deep, lonely sigh. From my finite human perspective, having Ray with us all these years seems like a better storyline. Surely we would have benefitted greatly from the presence of a godly, loving husband and father and now, grandfather, right?

I distinctly remember the point in my grieving process when I had to wrestle with the fact Ray’s death was no accident. Accepting God’s sovereignty was a critically important crossroads in my faith journey. I knew God hadn’t glanced away only to turn back and be surprised to see Ray in the throes of a fatal heart attack. No, God never lost sight of Ray. (Psalm 34:15) Each one of my beloved husband’s days was written in God’s book before even one came to be. (Psalm 139:16)

Within hours of Ray’s passing, I posed a question to one of our pastors, “Do you think Ray can see us? Not to see how sad we are, but to know how much we love him?”

Pastor Allen replied kindly, carefully, “Scripture isn’t clear on what the departed know, but God can make known to them whatever He sees fit.”

I’ve often prayed God would let Ray discern how much I love him, to know there’s a place in my heart only he can fill and to see the lasting, positive impact of his unconditional love on my life. And on the many momentous days we’ve experienced without him – high school and college graduations, weddings, the births of three precious grandchildren – I’ve pleaded, “Lord, please help Ray to see. This is his legacy too.”

Yes, my heart aches when I envision how things could have been. Yet I know my story would be so different if Ray had been with me all these years. I most likely wouldn’t have gone back to school to study horticulture. I may not have started this blog. And I’m certain I wouldn’t comprehend the love and faithfulness of my Father as intimately, had I not been depending on Him instead of my earthly husband. (Psalm 68:5)

God writes our stories in such a way that we’ll be conformed more and more to the likeness of Jesus, fitted for eternal life with Him. (Romans 8:28-30) And how better to know our Savior than to partake of God’s sustaining grace through times of hardship and sorrow, to die to self-will and accept God’s plan as best. (Matthew 26:36-39) It’s not all about happiness in the here-and-now, but it does have a delightful ending and a promise of eternal peace and joy in His presence. (Psalm 16:11)

IMG_6379My grandchildren are getting old enough to understand the man by my side in the wedding photo on Mary’s wall is their grandpa in heaven. My heart leapt yesterday when 2-year-old Emma mentioned Grandpa Kuipers for the first time. I love telling them about Ray, sharing his love for God and people and plants and assuring them they’ll get to meet him one day.

As I’ve thought about my would-be 35th anniversary and 13-year marriage, a line kept skipping through my mind: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” And so I smile, because Ray and I did happen. I praise God for blessing me with a godly husband, whose love and influence continue to this day and who I’ll surely see again. Our marriage was so short, but, in light of eternity, our temporary separation will be as well. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

[1] Please see, “A single red rose” in Archives, December 2014, to understand the significance of this floral choice.