Garden Stories

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

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

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

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

In My Genes?

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

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

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

Sometimes I muse that gardening is in my genes.

In the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

The New Earth

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

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

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

Six Years

Dear Readers,

I’ve journaled since I was a teen, filling numerous notebooks with descriptions of family vacations and special occasions. The lined pages also contain plenty of what I came to call “written therapy sessions”. But it wasn’t until I read “A Heart Set Free”[1] that I realized those sessions had a scriptural counterpart.  The characteristic pattern of the Psalms of Lament described by author Christina Fox closely resembles the one I frequently follow in times of emotional upheaval. I begin by describing the sad state of affairs leading up to that particular journal entry, follow with ruminations on how to address it, and intersperse petitions to God to help me sort it out. As I write, I remind myself of His character, add Bible verses, and hearken back to other times He’s been faithful. By the time I reach the end, I feel better. Writing doesn’t change my circumstances, but it does change my perspective.

img_3562I launched Back 2 the Garden six years ago today with “Consider It Pure Joy”. (July 2014 Archives) My venture into the world of blogging was fueled by a desire to use my God-given writing ability to tell whoever would read my words of His great love and faithfulness. I wanted to encourage others with the promises and assurances God has brought to my mind as I’ve dealt with challenges stemming from widowhood, job loss, family illnesses, the deaths of beloved friends and family members, and world events.

This is my 166th post. Some of you have been faithful readers from the very first one. Thank you for your comments and support over the years! Some of you have found your way here more recently. Thank you for joining me in the Garden. To all of you, I pray my posts will always honor God and help you find hope in Him, whatever your specific circumstances.

And remember my goal of publishing a book based on my blog posts? It’s finally making its way from dream to reality. More on that later this year.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll come Back 2 the Garden often and find life-giving words to point you to the One who loves us more than we can imagine.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  Ephesians 3:14-19

[1] Christina Fox, A Heart Set Free, A Journey to Hope Through the Psalms of Lament, Christian Focus Publications, 2016.

Let’s All Sing

If you’ve ever visited Disneyland or Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I bet those three words caused an image to pop into your head, accompanied by the rest of the stanza, “ . . . like the birdies do, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet.”[1]  You may even be humming the tune sung by the inhabitants of the Enchanted Tiki Room, where “the birds sing words and the flowers croon”. [2]

The cheerful ditty has come to my mind repeatedly the past couple of months because of a mockingbird who’s taken up residence in my crape myrtle. The canopy of the majestic tree reaches across much of the front of my house and above the roofline, shading the windows of my bedroom and providing a proper perch for the mockingbird to serenade me. I often hear it singing soon after I awake, prompting me to think, “That bird sure sounds happy!” And then, “I can rejoice and be exceeding glad too because God has allowed me to wake up to another day.” (Psalm 118:24)

But sometimes we burrow under the covers instead, our enthusiasm stifled by the demands and uncertainties looming in the hours ahead. There have been plenty of the latter the past 3 months, right? Even so, Scripture is full of assurances:

  • God’s mercies never fail. They are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:21-23)
  • Jesus acknowledged we’d have troubles in this world, but went on to say, “Take heart. I’ve overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
  • If God cares for the birds who sing so sweetly, He’ll surely take care of us, His beloved children. (Matthew 10:29-31)

As I’ve navigated the challenges of the past weeks, I’ve been comforted by these and other promises in the form of lyrics from beloved hymns. Before long, I’m whistling the tune and then singing complete verses aloud. Great is Thy Faithfulness, It is Well with my Soul, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Be Thou My Vision, and our family anthem, Amazing Grace.  Such is the power of music to encourage and edify.

And to connect.

Musical Ties

My mom grew up attending a tiny Presbyterian church in rural North Carolina. Some 8 decades later, when the first few strains of a hymn familiar since childhood emanate from the piano at our current church, she smiles, leans over, and whispers, “That’s a Gulf song!” I nod and return her smile as we fondly recall the white wooden structure and the loved ones buried in its cemetery, links in our heritage of faith.

When my now-adult daughters were little, my husband Ray and I used Amazing Grace as a lullaby. Though their dad died when they were in elementary school, leaving them with few memories of their godly father, they clearly remember him singing them to sleep with that classic hymn.

img_3559When my grandchildren were born, I continued the tradition their grandfather and I began with their mother, soothing them to sleep with Amazing Grace, planting seeds of faith from their earliest days. Six-year-old granddaughter Lyla is prone to humming as she works on a craft project or tackles one of her small household chores. I believe it’s an overflow of her happy heart. Occasionally she’ll sigh, “I’ve got this song stuck in my head!”

Frequently the song on replay is a hymn. Because she and her siblings are being brought up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

How wonderful to have God’s Word sewn into our hearts with threads of music, binding us to Him and to generations of fellow believers!

Let All Creation Sing

Hearing the shouts of praise and adoration as Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, the Pharisees, indignant and no doubt jealous, said, “’Teacher rebuke your disciples.’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40)

The psalmist shares similar sentiments: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 96:1-4)

Indeed creation does praise the Creator in myriad ways. Yet we who’ve been the recipients of God’s great love and mercy are best-equipped to articulate all He’s done for us. So let us sing with joyful abandon like the mockingbird outside my window, proclaiming His goodness and faithfulness, as we rejoice in the gift of each new day.

 

[1] “Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing” was written in 1932 by a team of songwriters lead by English composer Tolchard Evans.

[2] Songwriters: Richard M. Sherman / Robert B. Sherman, “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company

Enlightened Eyes

I’d opened my Bible study lesson but hadn’t silenced my phone yet. It dinged three times in rapid succession alerting me to incoming text messages, most likely of the group variety.

043My curiosity piqued, I had to look. After all, I hadn’t officially settled into my quiet time. The glance confirmed my hunch. Daughter Jessie sent a photo to me and her older sister, Mary, with the comment, “Fun game! Let me know when you spot it.”

Mary replied without hesitation, “Cool!!!”

I stared at the up-close photo of a tree trunk, admiring the bark, but had to enlarge the image before I found the hidden critter and exclaimed, “That guy is super camouflaged!”

Jessie conceded, “I totally wouldn’t have seen the moth except he was sitting right below a trail blaze (blue rectangles painted around the trail so you can keep track of it) and I had looked up at the blaze just by chance.”

Our pleasant text conversation came to an end and I turned my attention back to the lesson before me, astounded to read, “Unless a power beyond us opens our eyes, we will blindly walk right past the infinite magnificence of God’s treasure. We take for granted the glorious truth in Christ: we are God’s beloved children.” (1)

Talk about an immediate spiritual application of Jessie’s trail blaze experience!

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians, proclaims, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).

Paul then goes on to recount those blessings. In Christ we are:

  • Chosen by God before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him (vs. 4).
  • Predestined for adoption to himself (vs. 5).
  • Redeemed (vs. 7)
  • Forgiven (vs. 7)
  • Made recipients of the riches of God’s grace, lavished upon us (vs. 7-8)
  • Given wisdom and insight to understand God’s plan of redemption (vs. 9-10)
  • Made heirs (vs. 11-12)
  • Sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our inheritance (vs. 13-14)

Paul prays for the eyes of their hearts to be enlightened that they may know the hope to which they’ve been called, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of His power toward those who believe – precisely the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (vs. 18-19a).

Fueled by that kind of power, you’d think we’d be better at living out the reality of all the blessings heaped upon us.  But too often our spiritual sight is clouded by immediate demands, our ears filled with voices clamoring for our attention. The temporal hides the eternal as effectively as the moth’s disguise allowed it to blend into the bark.

Jesus frequently taught in parables, many of which had a connection to plants – sowing, reaping, seasons, soils. When his disciples asked why He used such stories, He replied, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given . . .  Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.’ . . .  But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (Matthew 13:11, 14, 16)

Blessed indeed! Jesus came not just to restore sight and hearing to those physically blind and deaf, but to open our spiritual eyes and ears to His message and the evidence of His love all around us. And, when Jesus ascended to heaven, He didn’t leave us as orphans. The Father sent the promised Helper to be our trail blaze (John 14:16-17, 26).

Even so, we must be intentional about seeing and hearing.

Interludes spent in my garden allow me to be still in God’s presence, to deliberately look and listen. Time after time, Jesus’ parables come to life as I dig and prune, weed and water. I stroll my property in search of treasures I imagine God’s tucked lovingly here and there for me to find. Years of practicing these purposeful walks have honed my sight, enabling me to recognize even barely-there plants as they emerge from the soil. How much more should I seek to know the things of God, to perceive the guidance of His Spirit, and to hear His still, quiet voice by becoming intimately acquainted with the treasures found in His Word?

O Lord, how I thank you for lavishing your spiritual blessings upon your chosen ones and for enlightening the eyes of our hearts to understand the magnitude of those blessings. Please help us to be ever-attentive to the leading of your Spirit.

 

(1) Lisa Tarplee,”Hinged, Vitally Connected to Christ and His Church, Women’s Bible Study on Ephesians”, Week 2, CDM Discipleship Ministries, 2020, p. 31.

Soil Amendments

When we moved from Delaware to Georgia 28 years ago, we had the opportunity to start from the ground up. We chose our lot, chose a house plan, chose a builder. Though most of the construction communication occurred long-distance, business trips provided opportunities for me to stop by the construction site periodically during the months leading up to our relocation.

After years of working as a colorist and carpet stylist for a large corporation, I enthusiastically put my job experience into practice. I selected all the finishes for the house – from bricks to shingles, wall colors to carpet – and amassed a burgeoning file of paint chips and swatches. My late husband, Ray, was equally excited about using his horticulture training in designing our landscape. His task proved to be much more challenging than mine.

For starters, most of the top soil had been scraped away by bulldozers cruising back and forth grading the site.  Compacted Georgia clay – think terra cotta pottery – remained in its place. I watched as Ray struggled to dig holes in the hardened ground, thinking he might as well have been chipping away at the concrete driveway.

Next, there was the appalling, but then-legal practice of burying construction debris on the property. Among our stranger discoveries – the lid to a 5-gallon paint bucket and a caulking gun containing a half-empty caulk canister.

051And then there were rocks to deal with, some too big to dig up, others temporary yet annoying obstacles. The distinct clank of the shovel hitting their unyielding surfaces accompanied Ray’s efforts to install carefully-chosen plants.

053Born and raised in South Dakota farm country, Ray was accustomed to soil so rich it’s nearly black. When we lived in Delaware we would occasionally get a load of mushroom compost to top dress the yard – smelly, but effective when it came to adding nutrients to the soil. These experiences plus his horticulture degree informed Ray there would be no shortcut when it came to improving the hardpan he’d been left with. Thus he began the tedious process of amending the clay by tilling in top soil and compost.

But was it ever worth it!

Now, almost 30 years later, the soil is dark, easy to dig, and full of busy earthworms, a sure sign of health. When I cultivate those beds, my thoughts often drift to the early days when Ray was challenged by the conditions he’d been dealt. Nonetheless, he persevered, patiently applying the principles he knew would yield the longed-for results.

By now, I bet some of you are thinking about Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. Recounted in three of the four Gospels[1], Jesus described different kinds of soil and compared them to one’s ability to accept and sustain the seed of Gospel truth.

Certainly, there are parallels to the various soils within the saga I’ve described, however, I want to focus on the good soil that yielded a bountiful harvest. Though Jesus’ parable begins with sowing, other passages introduce the idea of preparing the heart to receive Truth (Ezekiel 36:26). After our stony hearts are replaced with hearts of flesh, the Master Gardener sends the Spirit to tend the now-receptive plot.

Though the heart exchange is a once-and-done event, the tending will continue until we’re called Home. With the Spirit’s help, we’re to amend our softened hearts with the Word, working it ever-deeper into our lives. Then our roots will have room to grow and we’ll be like the trees planted by streams of water described in Jeremiah 17:8 – unafraid of drought, consistently bearing fruit.

And there will no doubt be rocks and debris to be removed as we dig deeper into our souls, stumbling blocks to our spiritual growth. Here too, we can depend on the Spirit to empower our efforts as He conforms us to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29)

When I went back to school to study horticulture, I gained a whole new appreciation for soil. Structure, drainage, nutrient-holding capacity – all are important in determining what kind of life it can sustain.

How about you? Are you amending the soil of your soul with the life-giving, life-sustaining Word of God?

 

[1] Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23; Mark 4:3-8, 14-20; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15.

 

Good Gifts

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

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

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

God’s Gifts

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

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

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

Reflecting His Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pink Pearl

I appreciate the convenience technology affords us, especially in these times of social distancing, but there are some things I refuse to let go of. I’ll take a printed book instead of an e-version any day, still subscribe to the local newspaper, and prefer a pretty paper calendar over one connected to my email. In fact, I have some traditions associated with the latter.

I start each year by writing birthdays and anniversaries on the pristine pages. These milestones are recorded in ink. All other entries are penciled in as they come up –– things to look forward to, savor, and then look back on.

I suppose my habit of writing changeable events in pencil began shortly after my career did.  (I didn’t have a computer, much less an iPhone back in 1980!) I soon discovered there are many moving pieces to corporate life and that meetings were apt to change as were travel plans, so pencil it was. Forty years later, I’m still penciling in items subject to change.

Cancellations Here, There, and Everywhere

I never would have imagined all the times I’d reach for my trusty Pink Pearl eraser the past several weeks. One by one, activities came off my calendar –  appointments of various kinds, lunch with friends,  5k races, garden tours, even Grammie days[1] – disappearing into so much eraser stubble. The avalanche of cancellations gradually turned into a trickle, sparking tentative hope the few remaining events, further in the future, could be salvaged.

Alas, the cancellations continue. A calendar entry marking a much-anticipated family reunion in South Dakota became the latest to succumb to my eraser, another casualty of unknowns surrounding the trajectory of COVID-19.

I recognize my situation is being played out repeatedly, as individuals and families the world over cancel or postpone activities, some long-awaited like weddings and graduations, others traditions looked forward to from year to year. So. Many. Disappointments.

Permanent Ink

Like many of you, I’ve been taking advantage of online sermons to fill the gap created by the suspension of in-person worship services.  In one such sermon, “From Grumbling to Joy”, Pastor Chris Hodge talked about how quickly we complain when our plans are disrupted or when things are taken away from us. He went on to point out that believers can rejoice, even in suffering, because God has made provision for us in Jesus’ sacrifice and is sustaining us in all our troubles. Too often our joy rests in Jesus plus something or someone else. But the Gospel should be our everything, our joy complete in Jesus.

And then this statement, which I’ve revisited many times since: “No matter how many things are taken away from you, no one can take Jesus and what He’s done for you away.” [2]

What a blessed assurance! God chose me to be His daughter before the foundation of the world. Jesus’ precious blood erased my sins from God’s record and from His memory (Psalm 130:3-4; Psalm 103:11-12, Isaiah 43:25. Furthermore, His atoning sacrifice ensures my name is written in the Book of Life in permanent ink (Revelation 3:5).

Dear Readers, I pray you, too, will find reason to rejoice as we fix our eyes not on our ever-changing circumstances, but on never-changing heavenly realities (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Heavenly Father, this life holds many uncertainties and disappointments even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic. Thank You for the certain provision You’ve made for us in Jesus, the promise that no one will ever snatch us out of Your hand, and the assurance of eternal life in Your presence (John 10:27-29).

[1] My grandchildren and I refer to the days I spend with them each week, usually Mondays and Wednesdays, as “Grammie days”.

[2] “From Grumbling to Joy”, Pastor Chris Hodge, King’s Cross Church, on-line sermon, April 26, 2020.

Count it all Joy

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

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

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

Joy? Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Cry!

12-20-2013, Hi, Grammie 1I suppose I should begin with a confession: I’m an equal-opportunity crier. My eyes are just as likely to well up in moments of joy as in sorrow – while reading sweet sentiments in Hallmark cards, watching heartbreaking news stories, attending weddings or funerals, even when leading Bible study as the magnitude of God’s grace and mercy floods over me. Yes, from a barely-there trickle to gut-wrenching sobs, I’ve shed my share of tears and expect to shed plenty more.

A quick search on Google reveals three different types of tears. Basal tears keep our eyes lubricated, while reflex tears pop up in response to irritants like slicing onions or having a pesky gnat flit into your eye. And then there are psychic tears, those associated with our emotions, distinct from the other two in that they contain stress hormones.[1] No wonder we often feel better after shedding them. They’re like an overflow valve for the soul.

Even so, our attempts to comfort others are often accompanied by, “Don’t cry!”

The Bible has much to say about tears and the circumstances surrounding them. Consider for example:

  • Loss of a loved one by separation or death
    • David grieved the loss of his closer-than-a-brother friend, Jonathan, first from necessary distancing and then by death (1 Samuel 20:41; 2 Samuel 1:12).
    • Mary and Martha bemoaned Lazarus’ death. Seeing their bereavement, Jesus wept too, even though He knew his Father would hear his prayer to raise him. Jesus had compassion on the sisters in their time of loss and He has compassion on us as well (John 11:31-35).
    • Jesus’ followers were bereft and befuddled after His death in spite of the many times He’d told them what was to come (Luke 18:31-34; 36:13-49).
  • Disappointments of various sorts
    • Esau wept over the loss of his birthright, when he realized how his brother had tricked their father (Genesis 27:30-38).
    • Hannah’s unfulfilled desire for a child, exacerbated by her rival’s provocation and her husband’s lack of understanding, led to her fervent, tear-stained prayer for relief (1 Samuel 1:1-10)
  • Sorrow for sin
    • Three of the four Gospels recount Peter’s tear-punctuated dismay when Jesus’ statement that he’d betray Him came to pass (Matthew 26:75; Mark 14:72; Luke 22:62).
    • James says we should be wretched and mourn and weep over our transgressions, humbly drawing near to God for forgiveness and restoration (James 4:8-10).
  • Worship and Gratitude
    • The penitent woman who wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with ointment was motivated by her love for her Savior.
  • Joyous reunion
    • Though bitterness marked their estrangement and Jacob feared the worst from Esau, the brothers’ reunion was accompanied by joyful tears (Genesis 33:4).
    • I’m taking some liberty here because none of the translations I consulted mention crying, but I’ve got to believe the prodigal son’s compassionate father had tears of elation streaming down his face as he ran to greet his returning son (Luke 15:20).

Even though these passages and others make it clear psychic tears are part of our God-given emotions, we’re quick to admonish, “Don’t cry!” Could it be others’ tears make us uncomfortable or tearful ourselves? Or worse, might we believe God’s children aren’t supposed to cry because we know the end of the story?

Mournful tears have dotted my days this past month. They sneak up on me as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic breaks through my carefully-constructed mantle of Truth. Woven together from precious promises and reliable assurances found in Scripture it protects me from despair and hopelessness.[2] Nonetheless, people are hurting on a worldwide scale for myriad reasons. Closer to home, I miss seeing my children and grandchildren, worshiping in person with my covenant family. And so tears flow as I grieve the loss and brokenness.

The women who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion no doubt wailed at the sight of their beloved son, teacher, friend, bloodied and beaten, being nailed to a Roman cross. The innocent One, put to death for the sins of others. Isaiah 53 is one of my most cherished passages, but also one which I can rarely get through without tears. Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Despised. Rejected. Wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. My transgressions. My iniquities.

We are so blessed to live on this side of the Resurrection. No matter how dark the days or how great the losses, we know Jesus’ atoning sacrifice ensures our own resurrection and eternal security. Furthermore, as we go through difficulties in this life, we know He is seated at the right hand of God, interceding for us. Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:31-39).

The One who keeps track of every tear (Psalm 56:8) has promised to return, to usher in a new heaven and a new earth, to wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:1-4). Until then, may we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, unafraid of our tears.

O Lord, how I thank You that You hear our cries for help. Though weeping may last through the night, joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30). You have shown your great mercy in sending Jesus to die for our sins and will turn our mourning into gladness. For we know this momentary affliction is preparing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). May we sing your praise forever!

 

[1] “What are the three different types of tears found in our eyes?”, http://www.sharecare.com

[2] Please see previous posts, “It is Well” and “Pollen Season”.

Never alone – Reprise

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

 

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