Through the Waters

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

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

Bad News

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

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

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

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

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

Shifting Focus

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

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

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

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

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

The Best News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way the World Works

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).

Gulf fritillary butterflies depend on passionflower for survival. The vigorous vine, native to the southeastern United States, is the only food source for their caterpillars. As part of my efforts to create a pollinator oasis in my suburban neighborhood, I planted a passionflower vine by my mailbox. It took a couple of years to become established, but by the third year, it was flourishing – plenty of foliage for the caterpillars to devour and lots of lovely flowers for me to enjoy.

Except I couldn’t find any caterpillars.

I examined the vine every morning when I went out to collect the newspaper and every evening when I checked for mail. No caterpillars. Then one day, I saw a tiny caterpillar in the clutches of a wasp. What did I do? I turned to Google, of course! “Do wasps eat caterpillars?” Unfortunately, they do.

I kept up my twice-daily vigil, hoping there would eventually be enough caterpillars to satisfy the wasps and still leave some to make it through their life cycle. Days passed with only an occasional sighting. Then I realized there was an army of ants busily traversing the sprawling vines. Back to Google. “Do ants eat caterpillars?” Yes, they do. By this time, my anticipation at getting to watch wave after wave of caterpillars reach maturity on my vine had given way to despair since I doubted it would be possible to get rid of the ants without negatively impacting the caterpillars.

Grandson Joshua, five-years-old at the time, encouraged me to find the ant mound and deal with the pesky marauders at their source. I was somewhat surprised he didn’t say, “That’s the way the world works, Grammie,” as he often does when I mourn the fact some predator has taken down its prey. Being an avid fan of “Wild Kratts,” Joshua is incredibly knowledgeable about a multitude of creatures.  He takes the food chain in stride, knowing some animals get eaten by other animals as God provides for all of his creation.

Yet the world isn’t working the way God originally intended, particularly when it comes to death. Some time ago, I was reading the first chapter of Genesis, a passage I’ve read countless times, when I noticed something. Take a look at verses 29 and 30: Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.  And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” (Emphasis added.)  Do you see it too? In the beginning, when God created everything and it was all good, there was no death, not even animals eating each other.

Death entered in only after the fall, the penalty for disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17). I wonder what Adam and Eve thought when they saw the blood of the innocent animal God killed to provide garments of skin to cover their nakedness. What horror they must have felt when Cain killed Abel. The shedding of blood became commonplace. Sadly, that’s the way the world works now.

But the spotless Lamb of God came to save and restore by shedding His own precious blood. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. With it, we have the assurance that someday all things will be set right again. The world will work once more as its Creator initially intended. Speaking of Jesus’ return, the prophet Isaiah said,

 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness
the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea”(Isaiah 11:5-9)
(Emphasis added.)

Jesus’ promised return is certain. We can wait confidently and expectantly for the day when death is swallowed up in victory. And while we wait, God graciously sustains his creation.

My daily caterpillar search eventually yielded the results I’d been hoping for – a dozen or so voracious nibblers of various sizes. More followed as several generations consumed the vine. I suppose it’s a small thing in the overall scheme of life. But I see it as a gift from the One who knows how much I delight in hosting the Gulf fritillaries and their offspring each year.

O Lord, how I look forward to the day of Jesus’ return when the world will finally work as You’ve intended from the beginning. No more tears, no more death, no more harm on all Your holy mountain.

Prepared, Not Scared

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

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

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

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

Fear Not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Prepared

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Twiners and Climbers

Vines, whether ornamental like clematis and honeysuckle or food-producing like squash and beans, are plants whose stems require support – unless they’re left to trail along the ground because they bear more substantial fare like pumpkins and watermelons.  They use a variety of methods to climb and attach themselves to supporting structures, including twining stems, tendrils, aerial roots, and adhesive disks, also known as holdfasts.[1]

I know I’m showing my plant geek side, but please keep reading. Like so much of God’s creation, these details show how fearfully and wonderfully made everything is and how much care God took when He designed it all. They also offer some spiritual parallels, which I describe in the mini-devotions below.

Tenacious Tendrils

According to Britannica.com, tendrils are plant organs specialized to anchor and support vining stems, distinctive because they possess a strong twining tendency causing them to encircle any object encountered. The article goes on to say that tendrils are sensitive to contact and will turn toward objects they brush against. In time, tendrils grow strong enough to support the weight of the plant.[2] Think curly-cue fishing line, slender but sturdy.

016During a recent reconnaissance walk through my woods, I discovered a patch of passionflower vine. Though it chose to pop up on its own, I was delighted to see it since it’s the food source for caterpillars of Gulf Fritillary butterflies. The petite vine was already sprouting tendrils and reaching out for support. I smiled and shook my head when I found one tiny green appendage wrapped around a leaf lying on the ground. Even though the tendril had a stranglehold on the leaf,  the latter could never help the passionflower rise above the ground.

Tendrils borne on another sprig of vine clutched a more promising, but still less-than-ideal platform, a squat neighboring plant. I fetched a trellis from the garage and returned to the woods, determined to pry the tendril free from the leaf and unwrap those twirled around the unsuspecting coral bells. As I guided them to the trellis, nudging the newly-freed tendrils to grasp the appropriate support, I thought how prone we are to engage in misguided attachments.

Created in the image of the Triune God, we’re relational beings, designed for community. But often, we look to fellow finite sojourners to meet needs only God Himself can fill, overwhelming or alienating them in the process.

Or, worse, we turn to things to sustain us. Though we are meant to worship our Creator, we worship creation instead. At times, our hearts are like tendrils that turn toward whatever they brush against.

Praise God for sending the Spirit, just as Jesus promised (John 14:26). His power raised Jesus from the dead, and that same power is at work within every believer – to change our hearts, to transform us more and more into the image of Christ, and to enable us to walk worthy of our calling (Ephesians 1:19-20; 2 Corinthians 3:18). He is our all-sufficient, strong-enough Support.

Clinging Climbers

203Virginia creeper, a native vine with 5-leaved adult foliage, is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, because its juvenile foliage frequently has three leaves, like the pesky purveyor of itch-producing oil. Its ability to scale walls and tree trunks thanks to holdfasts that act like sticky toes, reminds me of the tiny lizards I see scampering up the bricks on the front of my house. Though both plant and critter are capable of ascending considerable heights, they’re easy to dislodge.

Earlier this summer, I yanked a Virginia creeper off the side of my daughter’s house. Nourished by plentiful rainfall, it had clambered all the way to the second story and put down roots in the gutter. Nonetheless, a few tugs brought the entire vine tumbling down as its little feet let go of the wall. Unlike the wayward tendrils in the first story, the vine picked a solid underpinning.  But it didn’t have the strength to hold on when adversity came in the form of my pulling.

In 1997, the year my husband Ray died, Christian artist Geoff Moore released his album “Threads,” which concluded with “The Letter.” The lyrics tell of someone ready to give up but encouraged not to do so by the friend who received the letter.  As I struggled to regain my footing after Ray’s sudden death, these words brought hope and comfort:

And when your hand starts to slip
And when you’re losing your grip
And when you know your hope is gone
You’re not the only one holding on[3]

There were many times I had to remind myself God was holding me and would never let go. Jesus said as much: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

We’ve been learning a new-to-us hymn at church, “He Will Hold Me Fast.” I catch myself humming the tune repeatedly while the lyrics play in my mind, offering the same assurance found in the long-ago Geoff Moore song:

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold through life’s fearful path;
For my love is often cold; He must hold me fast.

He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast;
For my Saviour loves me so, He will hold me fast.
[4]

An assurance that will carry us through this life until we’re called Home and our faith is made sight (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Lord, how I thank You for sending Your Spirit to guide and sustain us, to be our Support as we seek to grow according to your will for us. And I praise You for the precious promise that though our strength may fail, You’ll never let us go. We’re forever safe in Your mighty grasp.

 

[1] https://web.extension.illinois.edu/vines/attachment.cfm:

[2] https://www.britannica.com/science/tendril

[3] “The Letter” lyrics © 1997 Universal Music Publishing Group. Songwriters: Lisa Kainde Diaz / Maya Dagnino / Naomi Diaz / Paula Moore

[4] Ada R. Habersham, “He Will Hold Me Fast,” 1906

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

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).

Pollen Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Well

Last week, a friend posted he needed a villain worthy of the heroine in the novel he’s working on. Not any villain would do since the heroine is possibly the best he’s ever created. I almost commented, “How about a villainous virus?” In light of all that’s transpired in the days-that-seem-like-weeks since, I’m glad I didn’t share my attempt at humor.

Preventive measures ramped up quickly, as it became apparent the coronavirus spreads exponentially.  The avalanche of precautionary decisions wiped out rights-of-spring sporting events like March Madness and the Masters, closed schools for the foreseeable future, and led to the cancellation of myriad other events. Our governor declared a healthcare state of emergency, a first in the history of Georgia.

And, just like that, normal as we knew it disappeared.

As the dominoes kept falling, an underlying sense of sadness crept into my soul. I’d felt it before, in the wake of 9/11, when our nation came to a standstill, dazed by the vicious attack. Fear and uncertainty veiled our country then as it does now. Activities and freedoms so integral to our national psyche that they’re taken for granted, ground to a halt. No telling how long the threat might last or what kind of havoc it will wreak in the meantime.

A different perspective

Scripture refers to us as dust and grass, finite creatures, yet precious to the Creator who has great compassion for us (Psalm 103:13-16). He understands our fears and frailties and encourages us to keep our eyes fixed on things above, eternal things, for what is seen is temporary (2 Corinthians 4:18).

No stranger to sudden changes and unexpected loss, I’ve turned repeatedly to those unseen things this week, finding consolation and reassurance as I have in the past. In that spirit, I offer the following somewhat-random observations, not to be dismissive of anyone’s concerns, but as a reminder of our Father’s loving oversight. I pray one or more of these analogies and assurances will comfort your heart as they’ve been comforting mine:

  • No frenzied rush to the grocery store for me. I didn’t need much anyway and stuck to my usual grocery-buying schedule. Almost-bare shelves greeted me in nearly every aisle and there was no loaf bread or milk to be found. So much for my measured approach. Back at home unloading the meager provisions I managed to procure, I remembered Jesus’ references to Himself as the Bread of Life and the Spring of living water (John 6:35; John 4:10; 13-14). We have a Source of spiritual sustenance and refreshment that will never be depleted.
  • Last week’s stock market volatility was enough to make even the most ardent thrill-seeker queasy. But we’re told to store up treasures in heaven, out of reach of earthly threats (Matthew 6:19-21). Furthermore, we have an eternal inheritance, guaranteed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:14) and the immeasurable riches of God’s grace toward us in Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).
  • I frequently gaze out my kitchen windows at the birds flocked around the various feeders I provide for them. Watching them the other day, I thought how carefree they seemed, going about their bird business – finding mates, building nests, eating copious amounts of seed –  oblivious to COVID-19. img_2837Similar thoughts accompanied me as I strolled my woods exclaiming over the latest plant finds. Jesus’ declaration that we need not worry because the God who cares for the birds and the lilies will watch over His beloved children, who are much more precious, is among my most cherished (Matthew 6:25-34). It’s also one of the reasons I find so much solace in my garden since I see the truth of His statement played out repeatedly.
  • img_2754You may argue that the birds and flowers aren’t capable of worrying since they don’t know what we know or reason as we reason. But God says the same about us. Even though we’re created in His image, His ways and His thoughts are higher than ours, beyond our finite minds (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is Sovereign. We aren’t. And it often takes events that are obviously out of our control to remind us, even though every breath we take is a gift from God.
  • Satan is the arch-villain who came to kill, steal, and destroy. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down His life for the sheep that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10-11). No matter what befalls us, our eternal destiny is secure. No one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand and nothing can separate us from His love (John 10:29; Romans 8:38-39).

As we go through these next days and weeks, may we rest in all we know about God’s character, His goodness and mercy toward all His creatures.

Father, how I thank You for your lovingkindness and sufficient grace which allow us to say, “It is well with my soul”, regardless of our circumstances. You are our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. We have nothing to fear.