Bundled Up

It’s been an overcast day here in Georgia. A few shafts of sunlight have split the steely sky, only to be engulfed once again by clouds that looked like they might produce snow flurries at any moment. Alas, there has been no sprinkling of white to add enchantment to this mid-winter day, just increasing wind gusts and decreasing temps.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, I decided to bundle up and go for a walk. I was feeling out of sorts and hoped the brisk air and some time with the Lord would lift my spirits, even if it chilled my face, fingers, and toes in the process.

I retrieved my Delaware coat – the one I wore a lot in the land of longer winters but turn to only occasionally in the South – along with my mittens and earmuffs.  Given this information, some of you hardier folks, including my relatives in South Dakota, are probably thinking the temperature must have been near zero to merit such gear. At the risk of being labeled a winter-weather wimp, I’ll admit the windchill was 32 degrees when I exited the house, balmy by January Midwestern standards.

Inevitably, this level of bundling up reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon from my childhood. In the first few frames, Charlie Brown is donning his coat, scarf, hat, and boots. In the last frame, he laments, “Can someone please open the door? I can’t move!”

Fortunately, my long, puffy coat doesn’t hinder the movement of my legs, even though I look like I’m walking around in a sleeping bag. Thus prepared for the elements, I ventured out. It wasn’t long before striding through my neighborhood had the hoped-for effect. My torso was warm, and my mind, relieved of its previous concerns, turned to a Bible study lesson from earlier in the week.

Secure in the Lord

My small group has been working our way through the 25th chapter of 1 Samuel, which recounts the story of foolish Nabal, his beautiful, discerning wife, Abigail, and their encounter with anointed-but-not-yet-king, David. Though a mere 44 verses long, the chapter is packed with high drama and reminders that,  “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly” (Proverbs 15:1-2).

The whole chapter and its attendant lessons are beneficial, but the phrase I pondered as I walked along came from Abigail’s impassioned plea to David. She respectfully implored him not to behave foolishly as her husband had and repay evil with evil.  She reminded him his life was bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord his God and that the Lord would take care of David’s enemies in His time (1 Samuel 25:29).

Isn’t it wonderful to know the same can be said about every one of God’s children?  Regardless of the form our enemies take, each of us is eternally bound in the bundle of the living, safe in the Lord’s care, where no one can snatch us away (John 10:28-29). We will face trials and tribulations of varying kinds, but nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

Pressing On

Although my winter garb allows me more freedom of movement than Charlie Brown’s, once I pull my hood up and fasten the top snap of my coat, it’s difficult for me to turn my head. There too, my musings led to a spiritual parallel. Multiple references in the Old Testament document God’s warnings to His people regarding the consequences of straying from His commandments. He admonished them not to turn to the left or right but to stay on course.[1]

Likewise, in his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul described such single-minded focus as he wrote about pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-15).

And then there’s the precious promise of Isaiah 30:21: When we’re tempted to wander off, we’ll hear a word behind us, constraining us from turning to the left or right as the Spirit shows us the proper path.

Whichever climate you’re in, my friend, I pray you will feel the warmth of being securely bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord our God.

Dear Lord, how I thank You for quiet moments with You this winter afternoon, full of reminders that Your children are eternally secure. Nothing can snatch us out of Your hand or separate us from Your love as Your Spirit guides us along our Homeward path.


[1] See for example Joshua 1:7, Joshua 23:6, 2 Kings 22:2, and Proverbs 4:26-27.

Through the Waters

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
 For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Isaiah 43:1-3a

Hello, dear readers.  I know you’re not used to hearing from me this frequently, but I need to remind myself of a few things as this challenging year draws to a close, and I thought you might need a reminder as well.

Bad News

After months of staying out of the crosshairs of Covid-19, my daughter and son-in-law contracted the disease last week, sending me into self-quarantine and separation from my elderly parents. I’m thankful their cases have been mild and that none of the rest of us have developed symptoms so far.

But then, within the space of an hour yesterday, I received news that:

  • More members of the church I attend tested positive for Covid-19, while others had possibly been exposed to the virus, at church and elsewhere.
  • Cases of Covid-19 had popped up at the rehab facility where my friend’s mother is receiving care.
  • A longtime friend had been diagnosed with cancer.

I barely had time to process one communication before another reached me. The coronavirus isn’t a distant threat anymore. It’s affecting people in my everyday circles. And old enemies, like cancer, are still very much present.

As I mulled over the morning’s messages, a ditty from the old TV show Hee Haw came to mind. In Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me, the comedians proclaimed, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” I tweaked the refrain: “If it weren’t for bad news, I’d have no news at all.” Unlike the minstrels of the catchy tune, I found no humor in the situations facing my friends and family. Concern for them furrowed my brow and troubled my thoughts.

Shifting Focus

I needed a spiritual pep talk, an attitude adjustment, a change of perspective. The shift began when a Facebook memory reminded me that yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of Mom’s emergency triple bypass surgery. I pondered the events of that day, how a catheterization two days after her heart attack revealed three life-threatening blockages. The images are still fresh all these years later: the nurses on either end of Mom’s bed who wouldn’t meet my gaze as we waited for the doctor to tell me the devastating news; the haste to prepare Mom for surgery; how our eyes locked lovingly for what I wondered might be the last time as they took her back to the operating room and the doors closed behind her.

Those ruminations led me to contemplate another health scare last spring at the same hospital after Mom developed a severe case of pneumonia. Late that night, when I left her with the emergency department’s capable caregivers, she was attached to all sorts of contraptions to help her breathe.  Once again, I parted company, not knowing if she’d be alive the next time I saw her.[1]

But she was. And she still is, blessing my life and that of many others, thanks be to God!

Sometimes the unexpected plot twists don’t end the way we would hope, though. On the evening of April 19, 1997, I received a phone call informing me my 39-year-old husband had been transported to the hospital by ambulance. My mind raced as I drove. Clenching the steering wheel, I prayed I’d find him alive. But I didn’t. Unbeknownst to me, we’d said our last goodbye hours earlier when he’d left for work.

Gains and losses. We can trust God to work them all together for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

The Best News

This time last year, as we were getting ready to bid farewell to 2019 and welcome 2020, we had no idea what lay ahead – a pandemic, social unrest, political discord, personal challenges and triumphs of various sorts. The truth is, we don’t know what the next hour holds, much less the coming year. But, unlike my edited version of the old Hee Haw song, there is good news, the most excellent news: we belong to the One who does know, the One who ordains the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10). And He’s promised never to leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8). That’s what we just celebrated last week – Immanuel, God with us.

I’ll close with two quotes I came across recently. I pray they’ll encourage you as they do me. As we enter a new year, may we endeavor to remind ourselves and each other daily of God’s steadfast love.

“God’s grace is sufficient, and his grace is specific. When it’s time to age, he gives aging grace. When it’s time to suffer, he gives suffering grace. When it was (my husband) Gene’s time to die, the Lord gave dying grace. And now he is giving me grieving grace.” Susan Hunt [2]

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’” Minnie Louise Haskins[3]

Dear Lord, what a blessing to know that no matter how deep the waters or how hot the fiery trials we may face, we have nothing to fear because You’ve promised to be with us. Please help us to turn to You each day for the grace to meet our needs, knowing Your mercies are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness!

[1] You can read about both of these experiences in more detail and find more encouraging verses in “Through the Night” and “Encourage One Another” in the May 2019 archives.

[2] Sharon W. Betters & Susan Hunt, Aging With Grace, Flourishing In An Anti-Aging Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 26.

[3] From Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem, God Knows, aka The Gate of the Year, written in 1908.

A Post-Christmas Meditation

Merry Christmas, dear readers. I pray you have found renewed hope as we’ve celebrated the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. As I write, various piles of  Christmas-related items are beckoning, but this post is begging to be written, so the clutter will have to wait as I  compose this meditation.

209I bet it wouldn’t surprise you to know I read Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth each Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-20). I’m guessing many of you do as well. No matter how many times I ponder it, I’m overcome by the depiction of that long-ago night. The angel of the Lord declaring the glorious news. Startled shepherds, who nonetheless went immediately to investigate this thing the angel proclaimed. And the Baby in the manger. The second person of the Trinity, a helpless babe, the Word made flesh. How amazing! No wonder a multitude of the heavenly host joined the herald angel, praising and glorifying God!

Now, what if I told you I also read Isaiah 53 each Christmas Eve? Would you think it incongruous, too dark a chapter for such a night of rejoicing? I read it because I want to remember the joyful news of peace on earth came at the price of Jesus’ very life. Take a look at the first six verses:

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Jesus knew what it would cost Him, and He came anyway. The Apostle Paul wrote, one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:7).

Having humbled Himself even to the point of death on the cross, Jesus accomplished His mission and returned to the Father’s right hand (Hebrews 10:12). There He sits, interceding for us.  And we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Therein lies our hope for today and for eternity. Jesus knows what it’s like to walk this earth, to be acquainted with grief and sorrow, to be tempted. Our compassionate Savior understands. He gave His life that we might draw near to the throne of grace – not in fear, but with confidence –  to receive the mercy and grace we so desperately need as we await His return.

Christmas decorations will soon be stored away, piles sorted, boxes and paper recycled. But the greatest gift ever given will never lose its luster or wear out. It’s to be embraced and cherished every day of our lives.

Dear Jesus, Luke wrote that the shepherds returned to their flocks glorifying and praising God after they’d seen You. They found everything just as the angel had told them. Thank You that we too will find every one of Your promises and proclamations to be true. Thank You for giving Your life to make it so.

The Baby in the Manger

Setting up my Dickens Village is one of my most beloved Christmas traditions. My late husband, Ray, gave me the first pieces in 1989 and added to it each year until he passed away in 1997. I’ve continued to do the same, until now, 31 years later, the village has spread to three rooms of my house. Setting it up requires many hours across multiple days, but it’s a labor of love, one I look forward to every November. [1]

As you might imagine, I’ve developed a system over the years to make constructing the vast display more manageable. I usually begin in my small living room, which houses the fewest pieces, to build momentum. Inevitably, tears punctuate the initial opening of boxes as I think about Ray, both how thankful I am that he started the village for me and how much I wish he were here to see how much it’s grown.

035The living room holds not only some of my oldest Dickens pieces but also a Precious Moments nativity. It, too, is a long-ago gift from Ray that elicits tears. But the tears that well up as I carefully place the pieces – various animals, a shepherd boy, Mary and Joseph, wise men, and angels  – around the tiny figurine of the baby in the manger spring from wonder and amazement. And deep-seated gratitude.

Think about it. Jesus’ suffering didn’t begin when He was arrested or mocked, beaten, and nailed to the cross. It commenced when He willingly left His Father’s side, took on flesh, and proceeded to endure all the temptations and brokenness of this life during His earthly sojourn. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords came to earth to save us, to give us the gift of eternal life, a priceless gift we could never earn or buy for ourselves.

Just like it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite Dickens piece, I can’t pick a best-loved  Bible passage, but verses from the first chapter of John are near the top of the list:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-5, 14

My heart fills with joy when I read that beautiful description of our Savior. The assertion that the darkness has not overcome the light gives me peace.  The world was a dark place when Jesus was born. There is darkness now, and there will be until He returns. Sometimes shadows are personal, resulting from private grief or suffering; sometimes, they’re widespread, like the pandemic we’ve endured this year. Regardless of the source of darkness, God assures us that the Light of the World will outshine it, providing eternal hope for His children.

I pray you’ll join me in meditating on this glorious promise this Advent season.

O, Lord, how I thank You for sending the priceless gift of Your only begotten Son, the Light of the World, to redeem us. We have the assurance that no matter how dark things might seem, the darkness will never overcome the Light of Jesus. May that be our hope now and in the coming year.

[1] If you’d like to read more about my Dickens Village please see “It’s All in the Details” in the November 2016 Archives.

A Book Is Born

094

Dear Readers,

It is with great joy that I announce my first book, Be Still, Quiet Moments With God in My Garden, went live on Amazon this morning. I want to write something profound about the process and journey of getting to this point, but I’m feeling so overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude that God has allowed me to fulfill this dream that I can’t get the words to line up in my mind or on the page. There’s just a happy jumble of thoughts and emotions tumbling around in my heart as tears of amazement well up repeatedly and blur my vision.

So, for now, I’ll share the author’s note from the book and say a sincere, “Thank you!” to all of you who’ve read my blog posts, encouraged me to keep writing, and prayed for me as I labored over Be Still. I pray the Lord will use my stories and my efforts for His glory.

Blessings to you and yours as we enter into this Advent season.

Author’s Note

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Matthew 11:28-29

Scattered. A word I often use to describe my thoughts, my activities, and my days. Numerous distractions and responsibilities vie for attention. They scramble my mind and weary my soul. But there’s a place I can turn to for solace, a place where I spend some of my sweetest times with the Lord – my garden. There I’m reminded of the first garden and the promise of a new, redeemed garden. I see Jesus’ parables come to life as I observe the flowers and birds, the seasons and soils. My spirit soars as I behold God’s tremendous power, yet is quieted by the assurance that the One who cares for all creation also cares for me.

Several years ago, the lessons I’ve learned in my garden met up with my love of writing, and I began a blog, Back 2 the Garden (patsykuipers.com). I longed to share what God had been teaching me and to tell others of His great love and faithfulness.

As my portfolio of stories grew, so did the dream to compile them into a book, something that will be around for my children and grandchildren even after my blog and I are not.  Five years in the making, Be Still is the fulfillment of that dream.

I’ve arranged the 35 devotional readings in Be Still in five categories, with distinct yet intertwined themes:

  • Glimpses of Glory – evidence of God’s love all around us
  • The Benevolent Gardener – God’s protection and provision
  • Planted Together – principles for life-giving relationships
  • Cultivating Holiness – disciplines of spiritual growth
  • Transformation – God’s work of sanctification

Each entry begins with a passage from the Bible and ends with a brief prayer. In between, you’ll find the timeless truths of Scripture wrapped in simple stories. I pray they will encourage you to slow down and open your eyes to the wonders all around us, to be still and draw near to God.

Bearing Fruit

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Luke 6:43-45

Identifying Features

Before I studied horticulture, I tried to identify trees by their leaves. Don’t get me wrong, leaves are important identifiers for many species, but they can be misleading in others. When botanists classify plants, they look instead at their reproductive structures –  flowers, fruit, and seeds.

Although oak leaves come in different shapes, all oaks sprout from acorns. Likewise, there are numerous forms of maple leaves, not just the classic silhouette that appears on the Canadian flag. But all maple seeds are borne in samaras, those little winged carriers that float to the ground like tiny helicopters.

Once I learned this, it became a fun game to see if I could spot similarities between plants at the botanical garden where I volunteered. I first noted the flowers on  Abutilon with their crepe paper-like petals resemble dwarf hibiscus blossoms. Despite the shape of its leaves, which leads to one of its common names, flowering maple, Abutilon is part of the Malvaceae family, as are hibiscus and okra.

Next, I noticed the tiny white bell-shaped flowers on  Pieris japonica look like those on a small tree, known as farkleberry, and both resemble those on blueberry bushes. Those three belong to the Ericaceae family.

The more I studied, the easier it became to see the distinguishing characteristics and successfully match plants with their relatives. I wondered why I found it to be so gratifying, musing that it must be because family, both biological and spiritual, is so important to me.

Family Resemblance

Just like we can recognize plants by their fruit, Jesus taught that members of His family would bear distinguishing fruit as well, and He made it clear the only way to bear abundant spiritual fruit was to abide in Him:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5

I’m frequently reminded of His statement when I’m pruning. I sometimes leave piles of discarded branches on the ground and then go back to collect them after I finish cutting. Inevitably, the leaves on the severed limbs are already beginning to wilt. The longer the time apart from their source of nourishment and the hotter the day, the quicker their demise. They can no longer live, much less produce fruit.

When I think of abiding, I think of peace – no striving or struggling. The word appears ten times in verses 4 to 10 of John 15, emphasizing the permanence of our relationship with Christ as well as the eternal significance of the fruit we bear. Securely connected to the Giver of Life, His life flows through us to bless and benefit others, all to the praise of His glory.

Distinctive Fruit

And what kind of distinct fruit do we produce when we abide in Him? Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). All are marks of God’s children, but one outshines them all – love. Jesus prayed that the love He and the Father shared would dwell richly in His followers (John 17:26). That singular mark of distinction would allow all people to identify them as being part of God’s family (John 13:35).

He also warned against false prophets, those seeking to deceive. Like leaves that mimic those of other plants, their outward appearance may initially camouflage their deceit. But closer inspection of the fruit borne of the evil intent in their hearts will give them away, ultimately leading to their destruction (Matthew 7:15-20).

Not so the children of God who bear fruit in keeping with repentance and shine as lights in this dark world (Ephesians 5:8-11).

O Lord, what a privilege it is to be a branch on Your family tree. We bear the imprint of the true Vine, Whose life in us allows us to bear abundant fruit of eternal value.

Superfood for the Soul

But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’”
Matthew 4:4

Unequal  Options

From the time he was big enough to sit in his highchair, grandson Joshua and I have enjoyed watching the birds flock to the feeder his dad had hung from their deck. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I added “birdfeeder” to my Christmas list several years ago. My dad fulfilled my wish, launching a pastime that’s given me hours of enjoyment since.

Being a novice faced with multiple options, I didn’t know what kind of food to buy. I settled on a bag of Southern Regional Blend. The tagline on the bag declared, “blended to attract Southern songbirds,” while another statement promised “25% sunflower plus safflower” seeds. However, a closer look at the ingredients list revealed millet to be the predominant component.

I chose a location for the feeder where I could keep an eye on it from two key vantage points: the window above the kitchen sink and my seat at the table. I filled the feeder and awaited the birds’ arrival with joyful expectancy. It took a couple of days for them to notice the new food source, but one morning a red-bellied woodpecker arrived, followed by several tiny chickadees and some tufted titmice.

I mentioned my new hobby to a fellow bird-feeding friend who promptly shared some of his stash of many birds’ favorite food: black oil sunflower seed. I gradually transitioned the contents of the feeder from the original blend until it contained only that delicacy. The changeover led to increased activity around the feeder and attracted a wider variety of birds.

In the years since, I’ve become more knowledgeable about the preferences of different birds. I’ve added suet, thistle seeds, and a premium blend containing peanuts and striped sunflower seeds to the bird buffet.

Soul Food

Observing my feathered visitors, I’ve reflected on the options available to us when it comes to nourishing our souls. We’re blessed to live at a time when technology allows us to access spiritual teaching in many different ways – podcasts, blogs, and books, both printed and electronic. Yet, with such an assortment of choices available, we need to be discerning consumers.

Just like the components in the blend of seeds I originally purchased varied dramatically in nutritional value, some lessons are little more than filler. We must be careful not to feast on snack food when we require a diet of sound teaching instead. The Apostle Peter confirmed the importance of feeding our souls with the proper nourishment. He urged those who received his letter to crave pure spiritual milk, like infants hungering for their mothers’ milk, that they would grow strong in their faith (1 Peter 2:2).

Praise God for providing His inerrant Word, the standard against which all other instruction is to be measured. Scripture is

  • profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, capable of equipping us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  • living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
  • able to accomplish the purposes of God and never return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11).

Given the power of this spiritual superfood, it’s no wonder Jesus deflected Satan’s temptation to turn stones into bread by affirming the real source of our sustenance – every word that comes from the mouth of God.

In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul warned that a time would come when people would no longer listen to the truth but instead turn to teachers who told them what they wanted to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Like my friend who enlightened me when it came to feeding the birds, may we faithfully point fellow believers to the supreme soul food found in the Word of God.

O Lord, how blessed we are to have Your Word to guide and sustain us! Thank You for providing many ways for us to receive spiritual nourishment. Please help us to make Your Word the benchmark against which we evaluate the nutritional value of all other sources. 

Seasons

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Nature’s Seasons

I once attended a presentation where the speaker began with, “Summer, fall, and winter are seasons – spring is a miracle.” I’ve thought about her comment every spring since. Early warm spells begin to nudge plants from their winter slumber in January here in the South. Witchhazel, Lenten roses, and paperbush start the floral parade that continues for multiple weeks as plants take turns in the spotlight. Trees, flowers, baby birds – all embody the joyful message of rebirth, which in turn stimulates hope and rejuvenation in us.

But spring gives way to summer, and tender ephemerals disappear for another year as heat-loving specimens flourish. Summer annuals and perennials bloom, then set and disperse their seeds before beginning their decline. Fall arrives. Crops are ripe for harvest, the fruit of spring planting and summer tending. Soon daylight hours decrease, as does the temperature, and autumnal leaves create a riotous display of color – one last hurrah before they let go and blanket the ground for the winter.

Ah, winter. Based on my observations, I’ve concluded it is the most misunderstood, under-appreciated season, at least from a gardening standpoint. Those unfamiliar with the ways of plants scan the leafless, apparently lifeless landscape and pronounce, “everything’s dead.” I used to think that too, but my horticulture studies dissuaded me from that notion. For instance, some seeds won’t germinate without scarification, some bulbs won’t bloom without adequate chill time, and many plants depend on the decreased daylight and increased darkness that accompany winter to flower at the appropriate time.

My newfound knowledge has given me a different perspective. Now when I contemplate winter vistas, I prefer to think the plants are resting while building reserves for the next season of fruitfulness.

Seasons of the Soul

Contemplating the bedraggled state of my summer annuals one early-September day reminded me of a book I’d been reading. Instead of equating the aging process with seasons as is often done, author Mark Buchanan explores what he’s deemed “cycles in our hearts.” In Spiritual Rhythm, Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul, he describes different periods in our lives in terms of the four seasons, each with its own set of challenges and blessings, each necessary if we’re to bear fruit.

The friends who gave me the book thought the analogy would resonate with me because of my love of gardening. And so it does. Year after year, I’ve observed and anticipated the changes, as one season follows another, each dependent on the ones that precede.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in a constant state of springtime, emotionally and spiritually speaking – productive, energetic, surrounded by resurgent, hope-producing, joy-filled circumstances. But like the plants, God knows we need all the seasons to produce abundant fruit and to become more like Jesus.

We need to slow down and be still, to rest and draw near to God in all seasons, but we’re most likely to do so during the winters of our souls – times of loss and suffering. For it’s then we realize our utter reliance upon God, a dependence present every moment, but most evident when we come to the end of our supposed self-sufficiency.

My own winters have convinced me of the veracity of Elisabeth Elliot’s declaration, “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.” (1)

Yet, like the trees and flowers, I’ve emerged able to bear more fruit, because I know my Father and His ways more intimately (Romans 5:3-5). Signs of life return, as our winter gives way to another cycle of spring planting, summer tending, fall harvesting, a cycle that will continue in us and the natural world until our final winter. Our bodies will rest in the ground, waiting for reunion with our souls when we’re called Home, glorified, and welcomed into the joy of eternal spring (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16).

Dear Lord, just as we savor the changing of the seasons in the natural world, please help us to embrace the seasons of our souls, knowing that You have a purpose and plan for each as the cycles of our lives continue until Jesus’ return.

(1) Elisabeth Elliot, “Suffering is Never for Nothing”, lecture series, 1989.

Prudent Pruning

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit (John 15:1-2).

Pruning requires skill and an understanding of the plant being pruned. Some plants bloom on old wood, others on new. Some require severe pruning to increase fruitfulness, while such treatment will stunt, disfigure, or kill others.

As much as I decry the practice of crape murder,[1] I recognize the need for proper pruning. Done correctly, it is an essential part of maintaining a specimen’s health and enhancing its aesthetic value. After some years of practice, I feel more confident when it comes time to trim my trees and shrubs, yet I still approach the task with a measure of trepidation. What if the results of my efforts look more like a bad haircut? Or I snip off next year’s buds? Or I accidentally remove the flowering branch instead of the dead one next to it because the shrub was so thick I didn’t have a clear view? Yep, I’ve found myself in those situations – more than once.

And I’ve learned to call for professional help when the job is too big or too complicated for me to handle.

The introductory verses above from the Gospel of John are familiar. Removing dead branches and those that aren’t bearing fruit seems reasonable—but pruning the fruitful ones to make them more fruitful? Increasing by taking away sounds counterintuitive until you understand the science behind the analogy. Without delving too deeply into the details, pruning stimulates plant growth at the point of the cut by removing growth-inhibiting hormones present in the tips of branches and stems.

So what might pruning look like in the spiritual realm given we’re to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, fruit that provides evidence of our faith?

  • Loss leads to empathy for others experiencing similar losses. I’ve often said before Ray died, I was genuinely sorry for those who lost a beloved spouse, but after losing him, I became intimately acquainted with the sorrow associated with such a blow. My sympathy became empathy, which in turn has allowed me to comfort others with the comfort I’ve received from the Lord (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
  • Trials produce patience and strengthen our faith as we wait on the Lord.  As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “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 3b-4). That’s a bountiful harvest of desirable traits! Furthermore, we can encourage others by stewarding our stories well, sharing examples of God’s love and faithfulness.
  • Discipline engenders repentance, which yields the fruit of righteousness and, later, humility. We recognize no one is righteous apart from Christ (Romans 3:10). We’re to take the log out of our own eye before dealing with the speck in others’, and to forgive as God has forgiven us (Matthew 7:3-5; Colossians 3:13).

How about you? Are there areas in your life where God has removed something or someone, resulting in an abundance of spiritual fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Proper pruning, even the most severe that leaves the plant looking like a shadow of its former self, doesn’t hurt the plant. Fortunately, we belong to the Master Vinedresser, not a weekend warrior wielding a chainsaw. He determines exactly where and how to make the required cuts to enable us to bear more fruit for Him. Sometimes the pruning is relentless, and the process is painful, but we can always trust Him. He knows us by name and loves us far more than we can imagine. He’s tenderly transforming us into who He created us to be. 

O Lord, trials, loss, discipline – the very thought makes us tremble. But we know we can trust You to bring joy from suffering, beauty from ashes, and life from death.


[1] A term used to describe the act of severely pruning crape myrtles, sometimes back to their main trunks.

Prepared, Not Scared

007Last year, my daughter, Mary, helped start an American Heritage Girls troop at her church and serves as one of the leaders. Each week, Mary and my granddaughters, Lyla and Emma, look forward to meeting with their friends. They engage in a variety of activities as they work toward the organization’s goal of developing Christ-like character and leadership skills.[1]

005After a long period of separation related to coronavirus restrictions, the troop began meeting again last month. Though always vital, the skills they’re learning to earn their Emergency Preparedness badge seem especially appropriate during this time of uncertainty. They’ve talked about stranger danger, paid a virtual visit to a local fire station, and got an up-close look at an ambulance, all while discussing how to help themselves and others during emergency situations.

One comment in particular from a recent weekly recap warmed this grandmother’s heart: “First and foremost, we learned that God has told us not to fear, and is always with us. We want to be ‘Prepared Not Scared’ as we learn about different situations and how to handle them or how to help others.”

“Prepared, not scared.” That phrase resonated with me. If I had to pick one word to describe the prevailing feeling in a post-COVID world, fear would come out on top. Fear of the unknown effects of the virus. Fear of being separated from loved ones. Fear of empty shelves at the store. Fear of death itself. How about you? Have you been battling anxiety-producing fears?

Fear Not!

Though there will be times when we give way to fear because our flesh is weak, scripture provides ample assurance for those who belong to God – as children of the King, we have nothing to fear. Consider:

All of our days were written in God’s book before even one came to be (Psalm 139:16). Shortly before my husband died suddenly in April 1997, I read a quote that gave me much comfort after his passing and many times since: “Until it’s my time to go, nothing can take me. When it’s my time to go, nothing can keep me here.” God is sovereign over every breath, and we’re never out of His sight.

Does that mean we can live irresponsibly because God has foreordained our length of days? Not at all! Even Jesus wouldn’t test His Father by throwing Himself off a Temple spire when tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:5-7). Furthermore, God has given us sound minds and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7), which we’re to use to be good stewards of our bodies. Even so, we can rest knowing our days are ultimately in God’s hands.

The passage in 2 Timothy begins with the statement that God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear. A familiar passage in 1 John expresses a similar sentiment: there’s no fear in love because fear has to do with condemnation and the perfect, sacrificial, atoning love of Christ ensures there will be no condemnation for believers on the day of judgment (1 John 4:18; Romans 5:18; Romans 8:1).

Worry and anxiety are close relatives of fear. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a beautiful word picture for His listeners. In reminding them of God’s care for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, He assured them God would care for them. He admonished them not to worry. Doing so wouldn’t add a single hour to their lives. Instead, it would rob them of the joys of the present (Matthew 6:25-32).

Yet, amidst the assurances, Jesus sounded a warning: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  There is a real and eternal danger for those who don’t accept God’s gift of salvation through His Son (John 14:6; Revelation 20:15).

Be Prepared

As those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, we do not fear God’s condemnation, but as sojourners, we know we’ll face trials in this world. How do we prepare for battle?

The Apostle Paul instructs us to put on the whole armor of God so that we can stand firm against the attacks of Satan and his comrades and their flaming darts of doubt (Ephesians 6:10-17):

  • The belt of truth protects us from Satan’s lies and accusations.
  • The breastplate of righteousness covers our hearts and defends us from guilt and self-condemnation.
  • Shoes of the gospel of peace provide an unshakable foundation.
  • The shield of faith keeps us from fear.
  • The helmet of salvation guards our minds against worldly influences.
  • The sword of the Spirit is an offensive weapon – God’s Word, living and active, fully capable of accomplishing God’s purposes (Hebrews 4:12, Isaiah 55:10-11).

Paul concludes his description of our spiritual weapons by urging us to pray at all times in the Spirit, for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 6:18-19). Like good soldiers, we’re to remain alert, because our enemy prowls about like a roaring lion seeking his prey (1 Peter 5:8). In his commentary on Ephesians, John Stott proclaims, “Paul adds prayer not because he thinks of prayer as another though unnamed weapon but because it is to pervade all our spiritual warfare . . . Scripture and prayer belong together as the two chief weapons which the Spirit puts into our hand.”[2]

Take heart, dear readers. God graciously provides all we need to prevail. Clothed in Christ and His righteousness, we can be prepared, not scared, in this life, and for the life to come.

Father, thank You that Your children have nothing to fear, for our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Please help us to shine the light of Your truth into the darkness, illuminating the way for others to find hope and peace in You.

 

[1] “American Heritage Girls is a Christ-centered character and leadership development program for girls 5 to 18 years of age. AHG is dedicated to the mission of building women of integrity through service to God, family, community, and country.” Taken from the American Heritage Girls website: https://americanheritagegirls.org/

[2] J.R.W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, God’s New Society (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1979), 283.