Death benefits

(Note: If you haven’t read my last post, “The countdown”, I invite you to do so now since this one is a sequel of sorts.)

I’ve been known to gasp over a post-Christmas credit card bill or cringe when writing my annual property tax check, but this may have been a first – tears filled my eyes as I gazed at a deposit to my account. The deposit was present because my husband no longer is.

After dealing with the aftermath of Ray’s sudden death – notifying family and friends, planning and attending his visitation, funeral and burial services, traveling back and forth to North Carolina – grief clouded my thinking and slowed my body. Not yet able to fully grasp the finality of the situation, I moved through my days moment-by-moment, piecing thoughts and decisions together, struggling to complete a puzzle missing an essential piece.

My parents’ presence not only comforted me, but their clearer minds filled in some of the gaps in my own thinking. And so, some 10 days after Ray’s passing, at my dad’s urging, we made our way to the Social Security office. I recorded the following in my journal:

“Gathered things to take to meeting with Social Security after I took Mary and Jessie to school – marriage license, passports, M&J’s birth certificates – happy bits of my life, now gathered for a very unhappy purpose.”

Nonetheless, thankfulness and relief washed over me when I heard my minor daughters qualified to receive monthly benefits, based on their dad’s earnings, until their 18th birthdays. I received a small, one-time widow’s stipend along with the news that I would be eligible to collect Ray’s benefits when I reached age 60, at least if I hadn’t remarried by then. Remarrying seemed highly improbable. Like a swan, I felt I mated once, for life. Regardless, my 60th birthday loomed 22 years in the future, a distant speck on a 21st-century calendar, so I filed that bit of information in the far reaches of my mind.

IMG_E1025I dedicated myself to raising my daughters, completed a 30-year career at a large corporation, went back to school to study horticulture, became “Grammie” to three precious little ones. All the while, the calendar pages kept turning with increasing velocity until that distant speck became an entry, “me – 60!!” Once again, I gathered important documents and made my way to the Social Security office. Thoughts of the former trip accompanied me, as did so many similar emotions, which became barely-contained tears as I resolutely recounted my story to the kind agent who entered my claim.

Several months later, on the promised date, the first deposit appeared, eliciting the aforementioned tears. Ray’s benefits, based on his years of diligent work, were credited to my account.

* * * * *

He is Risen!

As usual, that glorious truth entered my mind as soon as I awoke on Easter morning. It appeared all creation joined in the celebration, as brilliant sunlight illuminated the spring-green of new leaves and birds twittered happily amongst the tree branches. The 2019 calculation[1] placed what I’ve long deemed the best day of the entire year almost in the middle of my annual remembrance of my husband’s sudden death in 1997. I intentionally recall the events of the last week I spent with Ray and the first one I spent without him.

As I’ve often done across the years, I signed up to provide a flower arrangement for IMG_E0999church in memory of my beloved husband. In view of the timing of Resurrection Sunday, this year’s floral offering was also given to the praise and glory of our Risen Savior.

From my usual vantage point in the sanctuary, my gaze shifted intermittently from the cloudless cerulean sky to the arrangement I lovingly prepared the night before and then back to our pastor. My heart feasted on the message of hope he proclaimed as I dabbed at occasional tears, some shed in sorrow for a husband gone much too soon, others borne of gratitude for the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior that ensures I’ll see Ray again.

Indeed, Jesus’ sinless life, atoning death and subsequent resurrection guarantee numerous benefits for those who belong to Him. Consider, for example:

  • Peace with God – “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1 (See also Luke 2:14; Romans 15:13)
  • Forgiveness – “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43 (See also, Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:13-14)
  • God’s abiding presence now – “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b (See also Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • and forever – “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.” Revelation 21:1-3
  • An eternal home – “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14:2-3
  • An imperishable body – “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 (See 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 for the full description of the change to come.)
  • An eternal inheritance – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” 1 Peter 1:3-5

I’m grateful to receive Ray’s Social Security payments. They connect me to him and remind me of his love and care while he was with me. But each month, when I see that deposit on my statement, it will also remind me of the One who is my ultimate and eternal Provider, the Giver of all good gifts (James 1:17), who didn’t spare His only Son, but gave Him up for us all (Romans 8:32) to secure death benefits of the most enduring kind.

 

[1] According to timeanddate.com, “Easter falls on the first Sunday after the Full Moon date, based on mathematical calculations, that falls on or after March 21. If the Full Moon is on a Sunday, Easter is celebrated on the following Sunday.”

The countdown

Each year as the anniversary of my husband Ray’s death approaches, I intentionally, day-by-day, review the details of our last week together. It’s my way of honoring his memory, of thanking God for the blessing of a godly husband and reminding myself not to take anything for granted, especially time with our loved ones.

I began my annual tradition yesterday. It included an impromptu stop at The Home Depot Woodstock (GA) where Ray worked as head of the indoor gardening department. Though I make frequent visits to The Home Depot closest to my house, I couldn’t remember the last time I was at that particular store, but I was in the area and paying a visit seemed a fitting part of my remembering. On April 13, 1997, I was driving back from Charlotte, NC with my elementary-aged daughters, Mary and Jessie. We’d spent the week of spring break with my parents. Ray was working his usual 1pm to 10pm Sunday shift. I called to let him know we made it home safely and again later to report on Tiger Woods’ first-of-several Masters wins, that one at the age of 21 and by a margin of 12 strokes, a record that still stands.

Funny how all those details coalesced in such a way that retrieving one allows me to retrieve them all.

The store was busy, as it no doubt was on Ray’s last Sunday there. I entered through the outdoor gardening section, and made my way to the space between it and the main store – Ray’s domain, indoor gardening. My breathing deepened and tears welled as I stepped through the door. I immediately sensed Ray’s presence as I gazed at the beautifully arrayed houseplants. My mind conjured up the now-gone potting desk, along with visions of previous visits over two decades ago when Ray walked me around his department enthusiastically pointing out changes he’d made. I could almost hear his laughter, feel his kindness as he patiently waited on customers and answered their questions. It was a worthwhile stop, a meaningful beginning to this year’s reminiscences.

Our final week was oh-so-normal, with the girls back to school and Ray and I working at our respective jobs. Then came Saturday evening. Ray’s sudden death shattered normal as we knew it and stole our dreams for the future.

Just as I deliberately call to mind the events of my last week with Ray, I purposefully remember Jesus’ last week – the triumphal entry on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday; His final Passover celebration with His disciples, washing their feet and instituting the Lord’s Supper; the fervent pleas in the Garden of Gethsemane; Judas’ betrayal; the mock trials, the scourging; the agony of the cross; His final words. Unlike me and my family, who proceeded through our week blissfully unaware of what lay ahead, Jesus knew exactly what He would endure, yet He set His face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).

Jesus tried to tell His disciples, but they couldn’t grasp the enormity of it all. They were still hoping for a more immediate kingdom and shared power (Matthew 20:20-21), so when the guards took Him away, they scattered, afraid for their own lives (Mark 14:50). Even Peter, self-avowed-loyal-to-the-end Peter, denied his Lord (Luke 22:54-62). And when Jesus died? Their hopes and plans died too (Luke 24:21a). Or so they thought.

But then Sunday came, with the best news EVER, news that restored hope, news that changed everything FOREVER: He is Risen! (Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke24:5-6)

Two men. Both demonstrated unconditional love, One in the most ultimate sense. Every so often the commemorative countdowns to the anniversaries of their deaths overlap, at least partially, as they do this year. And when they do, it softens the blow of one loss by magnifying the sacrificial benefits of the other. Because Jesus died and rose again, death doesn’t have the final say (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

IMG_0972Dear readers, as we enter Holy Week, I encourage you to read through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last week on earth. Meditate on His final teachings. Contemplate the single-mindedness of His actions on our behalf. Ponder His supplications in the High Priestly Prayer (John 17). And let us never forget what it cost Him to redeem us.

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.

Slow to anger

After raising two daughters, some of my grandson’s antics surprise and puzzle me. From the time he could first toddle around, Joshua had to have a stick whenever we went outside. But said treasure wasn’t merely a bit of yard debris. In his hands it quickly became a fishing pole or a sword or a gun. He soon had me enacting parts of his scenarios, be they tracking down bad guys, rounding up cattle or marching into battle. I purchased a copy of James Dobson’s “Bringing up Boys” and conferred with a friend, grandmother to six little boys. Both confirmed Joshua’s behavior was quite normal, part of his God-given design to protect and provide.

As sisters Lyla and Emma joined the family, Joshua incorporated them into his playtime activities. The girls are usually happy to join in. But sometimes one or the other will announce, “I don’t want to play boy stuff”, and return to her craft project or resume twirling around the living room in full princess regalia. Having been rebuffed, Joshua may resort to annoying his would-be playmates – interrupting their girly activity, begging them to reconsider, stealing a favorite stuffed animal which always provokes a chase – anything to get his sisters to engage.

IMG_E0789These and similar interactions between the siblings give me ample opportunities to play referee on Grammie days as we cycle from harmonious play to sob-laced outbursts and back multiple times. As the hours pass, my reserves of patience often diminish. And so it was one recent afternoon when Joshua inadvertently knocked Lyla’s special colored pencils off the kitchen table, scattering all 24 of them on the floor.

My voice taut, I asked Joshua to step away. “We’ve got too many people crowded around to be able to do anything!”

Sensing that the pencils clattering to the ground may just have been the tipping point of yet another rainy day that had kept us cooped up like our neighbors’ chickens, Joshua obeyed immediately.

But, thankfully, before I could utter another word, Lyla started comforting her brother who’d hunkered down in a corner. “It’s ok, Joshua. I know you didn’t mean to. It was an accident. Really, it’s ok.”

And she was right. Even though her brother had engaged in his usual boyish, sister-baiting tactics throughout the day, he hadn’t intentionally caused her precious pencils to fall. 5-year-old Lyla’s kindness both silenced and convicted me. I’ve reflected on her response several times since, such a beautiful example of bearing with one another, being slow to anger and quick to forgive.

It’s so easy to feel slighted, isn’t it? Too often we think the worst or take offense where none was intended. Each of us is a unique bundle of experiences and emotions which in turn influence our actions and reactions. We interpret the behavior of others through those filters, as they interpret ours through theirs, sometimes leading to misunderstandings.

For example, consider my compulsion to begin almost all communications, including those intended to be brief, i.e. text messages, with a personal greeting so as not to appear rude. I’m guessing plenty of the recipients of my communiqués would prefer “just the facts, ma’am” since we’re all bombarded with more than we can possibly read or reply to. Nonetheless, most good-naturedly accept it as part of who I am. And, in the spirit of considering others, I’m trying to be more concise, while not equating their brevity with curtness. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Scripture repeatedly describes God as merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.[1] Psalm 103:13-14 portrays Him as a compassionate Father who remembers His children are dust. As those dearly-loved children, we are to do likewise:

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

O, Lord, please grant us discernment so we, like Lyla, might rightly determine when one of our fellow dusty sojourners hasn’t meant to hurt or offend us. May we be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:18), forgiving others as You’ve so graciously forgiven us. (Luke 6:37)

[1] See, for example, Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, 103:8 and 145:8

No Unnecessary Parts

Soon after I turned 50, I began noticing a disconcerting trend whenever I mentioned an ailment to my doctor or dentist. Time after time, they prefaced their replies with, “As we age”, and then went on to explain my symptoms were to be expected given my advancing years. (Insert eye roll.)

Well, here I am, having completed another decade with its attendant wear and tear and I’m starting to believe them. But, being my mother’s daughter, I refuse to go down easily or give up my favorite pastimes, even though most of them – gardening, writing[1], needlework – take a toll on my hands and arms. Then, when my hands and arms get tired, other parts try to compensate, particularly my neck and back. They in turn grow weary from assisting in addition to carrying their own loads.

It’s getting easier and easier for me to relate to the Apostle Paul’s assertion that all parts of the body are necessary and the body performs best when each part is functioning as God designed it to. (1 Corinthians 12) Of course, Paul was using that superb analogy to describe how beautifully God equipped His children with varying gifts and graces to build up the church, the body of believers. And, just as I’m increasingly aware of the veracity of my doctor’s statements, serving as Coordinator of our Women’s Ministry Committee is teaching me how appropriate Paul’s comparison is.

IMG_E0722The committee was in transition late last year when I was asked to join. The remaining members were dedicated to the ministry and each other, but tired from trying to do it all, especially when the assigned tasks didn’t fit their gifts. Fortunately, our pastor asked long-time women’s ministry leader and member of our church, Susan Hunt, to mentor us. With Susan’s guidance, and using the five foundational principles outlined in Women’s Ministry in the Local Church[2], we restructured the committee around several areas of service: Compassion, Community, Elder/Deacon Support and Bible Study, with a Coordinator to guide, support and disciple the ministry leaders.[3]

As the time approached to allocate the various roles, each woman on the committee prayerfully considered her giftedness as well as the gifts of her sisters in light of the positions we needed to fill. We prayed for God’s guidance and we prayed for a spirit of unity and harmony when we assigned leaders to the ministry areas.

Nonetheless, we were concerned about the possibility of more than one woman thinking she was best-suited to a given ministry, while another ministry remained unclaimed. We also wanted to avoid the feeling of a hierarchy, where one role was deemed more or less valuable than another. The previously-referenced 12th chapter of 1st Corinthians makes it abundantly clear that there are many different gifts, all valuable and bestowed by God as He sees fit, for the building up of the church. Paul affirms the same in Romans 12:3-8:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

O, us of little faith! As we went ministry by ministry the morning we met, each woman respectfully requested her role, with her sisters gladly affirming the fit. We were relieved. We were energized. And we were so grateful God had graciously gone before us, pre-assembling our team based on the needs of our congregation and how He’s gifted us.

In my 30-year corporate career, the best managers were the ones who matched the talents and abilities of their workers to the available tasks, resulting in a happier and more productive team. I’ve already seen a similar outcome since we apportioned the assignments. Within days of our planning meeting, ministry leaders started sending e-mails to each other, unprompted by me, as the women embraced their responsibilities and enthusiastically shared ideas with other committee members.

Several days before our first event, a Ladies’ Winter Tea, I awoke with a start one morning thinking, “What about the food? I don’t know what we’re serving!” My heart returned to its normal cadence as I reminded myself, “I don’t have to know. Roseann and her team have it covered.” And did they ever! The food was plentiful and delicious, the tables beautifully decorated. The women were joyfully using their gifts to glorify God and bless those in attendance.

We shared the new ministry structure with the women at the tea and encouraged them to consider their God-given gifts and where they can best use them to glorify Him and build up his body. Our prayer is that all of our women will become involved with one or more of the ministry areas this year.

In addition to special events, we have Bible studies and small discipleship groups. We are thankful for the positive momentum since restructuring the committee, however, this is the time we need to stay focused on God’s glory, not self-glory and self-congratulation. We must remember our confidence is in Christ alone, leaving no room for boasting in any aspect of our lives. Only then can we be life-giving leaders who reflect God’s goodness to those we seek to serve.

How about you? Are you doing your part to keep the Body strong?

Lord, You have graciously given each of us gifts and graces, abilities to be used for your glory and for the building up of your church. Please help us to gladly take on our roles, neither coveting the gifts of others nor being prideful about our own, for all we have and are, both spiritual and material, comes from You. (1 Chronicles 29:10-13; Ephesians 2:8-10; James 1:17)

 

[1] Including pen, typing and texting!

[2] Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2006.

[3] Discipleship is part of each ministry leader’s role, as she disciples women serving in her area.

Spring is coming!

When I awoke this morning an almost-forgotten sight greeted me: sunshine! Yes, after a rain-filled week that felt more like a month and led one of my cousins to report his mildew was growing mildew, bright, beautiful sunlight streamed through my windows. My heart rejoiced and “Thank You, Lord!” escaped my lips.

A short time later, I took my usual seat at church. From there, I had a perfect vantage point to gaze at the brilliant blue sky, framed by the large window behind the pulpit. As we sang “Before the Throne of God Above”, I watched, misty-eyed, while wispy, breeze-borne clouds meandered by. The scene before me underscored the greatness of the One we praised in song.

Despite numerous indoor chores looming over me, I scampered outside as soon as I finished lunch. My weary soul longed for a dose of garden therapy. A scavenger hunt ensued. I gently nudged aside leaves to see if any plant friends had managed to puncture the soil and emerge from their winter rest. I inhaled the sweet aroma wafting from the paperbush. My gaze lingered on artful displays of moss. Each discovery buoyed my spirits. Spring is coming! The tiny sprouts sense it. The birds taking turns at my feeders know it.

There are times when we experience storms in our lives, seasons when it feels like the rain won’t ever go away. But, just like the sun is shining brightly above the clouds and the plants are nestled under their leafy blankets ready to burst forth, God is with us. Even when circumstances cloud our spiritual vision, even when we’re buffeted by doubts. Because He promised to be with us forever. (Deuteronomy 31:8; Matthew 28:20) And He always keeps His promises. (Joshua 21:45; 2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

Furthermore, He’s pledged to return, to take us to the Home He’s preparing for us (John 14:1-3), a Home where there will be no more death or tears or pain. (Revelation 21:4) Until then, He’s left countless reminders of His love and goodness, as exemplified below. May the photos from my afternoon stroll give you a sense of the hope and joy I felt as I ambled through my garden, warmed by the Son.

“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 Savior God to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”[1]

 

 

 

[1] “How Great Thou Art” (2nd stanza), Text and Music, Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

Considering Others

IMG_5752Almost-3-year-old granddaughter Emma was napping peacefully when my daughter Mary arrived home with 7-year-old Joshua in tow. As he headed upstairs to change out of his school clothes, Mary and I both admonished him to be quiet so he wouldn’t wake his sleeping sister. Joshua clumped up the stairs and Mary followed up with a sternly whispered, “Joshua! Quiet!!” But, after a long day at school, Joshua was ready for some sibling interaction. By the time he reached the second floor, he was singing and then, right outside Emma’s door, he let out a spirited whoop. Mary and I barely had time to groan before he called out, “Emma’s awake!” (Really?!)

Attempting to find some humor in the situation, I quipped, “If she’d slept through all of that, one of us would have to go up and check her pulse.” Mary was not amused.

IMG_6716From his earliest days, Joshua has enjoyed company and his philosophy is if he’s awake, someone else should be awake to talk to or play with. Unfortunately, there are times when the person on the receiving end of his cheerful, “Wakey, wakey!”, isn’t ready to wake up, much less engage in a conversation. For now, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not being malicious, just thoughtless. But I hope he’ll soon learn to be more considerate and put his sisters’[1] need for sleep ahead of his longing for a playmate.

Soon after the events described above, several of my own actions caused me to think back to that afternoon and reflect on how easy it is for us to make decisions based on our own desires, regardless of our age. In fact, thinking of ourselves and our well-being comes naturally. Sometimes no one is inconvenienced or bothered. Then again, our acts may puzzle, annoy or even hurt others, as we tread all over their feelings and wishes, whether carelessly or deliberately.

Each time God pricked my conscience about my innocent-to-me, yet self-focused choices, the Spirit quickly reminded me of Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2:3-8:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

As children of the King (Romans 8:16-17), we’re called to a higher standard than simply not harming others on purpose. We’re to consider their interests, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40), to serve as Jesus served (Mark 10:42-45), and, ultimately, to die more and more to self so the image of our Savior becomes increasingly apparent in us. (Luke 9:23-24)

I recently came across a story from the life of Helen Roseveare, a missionary doctor who went to Africa in 1953. After watching her lose her temper with a patient, her spiritual mentor, Pastor Ndugu, pointed out, “I, the capital I in our lives, Self, is the great enemy . . . the trouble with you is that we can see so much Helen that we cannot see Jesus.”[2]

Ouch! I know there are many times when people see way too much Patsy and not enough Jesus, times when I’m self-absorbed and oblivious of others. But I’m so thankful my Father always sees Jesus when He looks at me (Romans 5:17-18) and is patiently transforming me until the day when my robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10a) will be a perfect fit. Indeed, He faithfully uses everything, from the antics of my boisterous and dearly-loved grandson to the depth and riches of his everlasting Word (Isaiah 40:8) to complete the good work He began in me. (Philippians 1:6)

 

[1] 5-year-old Lyla is another favorite target of Joshua’s wake-up tactics.

[2] Karen Hodge & Susan Hunt, “Transformed, Life-taker to life-giver”, (Ross-shire Scotland, Christian Focus Publications, 2016), p. 105. Story originally appeared in “Faithful Women & Their Extraordinary God” by Noel Piper (Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books, 2005), pp. 158-160.

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)

 

Measuring up

img_0026Several weeks ago my daughter, Mary, found her not-quite-three-year-old daughter, Emma, peering intently into a mirror. Curious as to the cause of her staring, Mary asked what she was looking at. Stoically, Emma replied she had no eyebrows. It was one of those moments when Mary most likely had to fight to control any laughter that threatened to erupt. After all, Emma was quite serious. Her light-blond brows are barely discernible and that, she realized, set her apart from the rest of her darker-browed family members.

img_0478Little more than a week had passed since Mary’s recounting of the eyebrow incident, when Emma approached me, tape measure in hand, and asked if I would measure her. I obliged, measuring around her tummy, a place or two on her legs, and both little arms. I knew her request was inspired by wanting to be like Mommy, her very favorite person. You see, Mary uses that same pink tape measure to periodically assess her progress since starting a strengthening and conditioning program last fall.

The occurrence of these two incidents in such proximity to one another impressed upon me, yet again, that much of what our children (and grandchildren) learn from us is caught rather than taught. And, ever-observant, they easily detect discrepancies between what we say and what we do. Consistency between verbal and behavioral lessons is crucial. But, when such consistency is lacking, our deeds supersede our admonitions as the old adage, “actions speak louder than words”, attests.

Most of us truly want to be good examples, to live lives of integrity. Yet, in spite of our best intentions, we frequently struggle to do what we know is right, what we yearn to do. The Apostle Paul described this tension between giving into the flesh and obeying the Spirit in his letter to the Romans (Romans 7:15) and to the Galatians. (Galatians 5:17) In fact, he described himself as the chief of sinners not withstanding all he did and sacrificed for the early church. Instead, he focused on the great grace that had been shown him by the only perfect One. (1 Timothy 1:15)

Oh that we would do likewise. Instead we too often compare ourselves to our fellow sinners, thinking, “I’m not that bad.” (Luke 18:9-14) But the thoughts and behavior of our fellow sinners are not our standard. Jesus’ perfect righteousness and sinless life are. We are to be holy as He is Holy. (Leviticus 11:45; Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:14-16) Furthermore, Jesus made it clear that keeping the Law begins in our hearts and encompasses more than our actions:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

The longer we walk with Jesus and the closer we get to Him, the more easily we recognize our flaws and failings. There are times when a thought pops into my mind, uncensored, appalling. I’m shocked and saddened at the darkness that still dwells in me. Yet I know my dismay is evidence my heart of stone was replaced with a heart of flesh that desires to obey God. (Ezekiel 36:26-27) It also reminds me that the One who began a good work in me is faithfully transforming me into the image of his Son and will finish what He started. (Philippians 1:6; Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18)

I long to be a good role model for my children and grandchildren, someone worthy of emulation. But, even more, I want to point them to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2); the Servant Leader who set us an example in all things (John 13:14-15); the One who died that we might be clothed in His perfect righteousness. (Isaiah 61:10; 2 Corinthians 5:21) He alone is our flawless standard.

O Lord, please help us to remember that all we have and are is a gift from you, leaving no room for boasting or comparing. (Romans 12:3; 2 Corinthians 10:17-18; Ephesians 2:8-9) And may we grow to resemble our elder Brother more and more, by the power of your Spirit at work within us.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Logs and Specks

img_6403One recent Grammie day[1] found me, 7-year-old Joshua, and almost-three-year-old Emma having a pleasant chat about some kid-friendly subject. Somehow the topic turned to an episode of disobedience on Emma’s part. I watched as my sweet, spunky sprite withered under the weight of her brother’s words. She rounded her shoulders and gazed intently at the floor while Joshua relished telling every detail about the infraction and the ensuing Mom-administered discipline.

Joshua’s words trailed off and Emma cast a cautious glance my way, no doubt wondering if I would compound her embarrassment by adding to Joshua’s diatribe. I calmly confirmed her behavior was objectionable and not to be repeated, but quickly turned my attention to her accuser. Most Grammie days provide at least one opportunity to quote the Golden Rule. (Matthew 7:12) This was such a time.

“Joshua, how would you like it if Emma told me all about your misbehavior and how Mommy disciplined you? Do unto others!”

I followed up with my best effort at an age-appropriate explanation of Jesus’ teaching regarding putting a higher priority on making sure our own behavior honors Him before we start pointing out others’ flaws. As recorded in Matthew 7, Jesus said:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, we’ve been hiding and blame-shifting. (Genesis 3:1-13) Burdened with shame, we attempt to take the spotlight off of our own failings by magnifying the short-comings of others. But the One who knows our every thought and action (Psalm 139:1-12) isn’t impressed by our diversionary tactics or our self-righteous attitudes, as recounted in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

(Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Likewise, Jesus refused to allow the woman caught in adultery to be used as a pawn by the sanctimonious religious leaders who were trying to trip Him up, yet again, by presenting Him with what they hoped would be a no-win situation. Instead, Jesus reminded them of their own sinfulness:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)

Forgiveness instead of condemnation. Isn’t that what we all long for? Praise God, we have a Savior who took our sins upon Himself and bore the penalty we deserved. (Isaiah 53:4-6) Furthermore, when we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

We’ll continue to struggle with sin until we’re called Home, as so eloquently described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 7:15-19) Indeed, each one of us has plenty of logs to deal with. Nonetheless, there are times when we must address the sins of others. Speaking truth in love, we are to restore them gently, being watchful lest we too be tempted (Ephesians 4:15; Galatians 6:1), always remembering how much God has forgiven us.

Somewhere in the course of all the reading I do, I came across this sentiment: “Be the kind of woman who can help a sister in Christ straighten her crown without telling anyone else it was crooked.”

Do unto others. Restore gently. Forgive much.

O Lord, if You kept a record of our iniquities, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3) Like sweet Emma and the careless words of her brother, we would wither under the weight of your wrath. But with You there is forgiveness. You are our compassionate Father, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6) You know our frames and remember we are but dust. (Psalm 103:13-14) Please help us to do likewise, granting others the same grace we’ve received from You.

 

[1] My grandchildren and I refer to my bi-weekly, day-long stays while daughter Mary is at work as “Grammie days”.