My Forever Cheerleaders

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.
Hebrews 12:1

Watching the Clock

For weeks after my 39-year-old husband Ray died suddenly of a heart attack at work, I dreaded Saturdays. I replayed the events of the fateful day when Ray passed away, becoming progressively tenser as 6 pm, the time of the heart attack, approached. I imagined what he went through, how his associates tried to help him until the EMTs arrived, and the wailing of the ambulance’s siren as they rushed him to the hospital. All the while, my young daughters and I were shopping, ignorant of the fact our lives had changed forever.

When Mom passed away last year, no such replays plagued me on subsequent Fridays. Though images of her tiny bruise-covered body and pain-racked countenance haunted me for several weeks, her peaceful passing surrounded by those closest to her was more of a comfort to me. Whereas Ray’s sudden death sent me into a state of shock, I’d begun to grieve Mom’s decline months before her death, and knowing she was pain-free and in the presence of Jesus was a relief, even though I missed her terribly.

Thus, when April 30th, the first anniversary of Mom’s Homegoing, arrived, I was caught off-guard by the flood of memories that accompanied it, memories as clear as if the events had happened last week, not last year. As soon as I woke up, the heaviness hit, and the tears soon followed. The morning progressed,  and I found myself watching the clock, tension building as the time of Mom’s final breath approached.

Last year’s sequence of events played out in my mind: I called her hospice nurse, who informed me Mom had rested well and was still dozing. The same nurse called an hour later, telling me Mom had taken a turn and we needed to come. Texts to my children and prayer warriors, a call to Dad. The tense drive. The hushed room where we gathered around our beloved to sing, pray, and whisper our goodbyes.

And then she was gone. Or was she?

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Twenty-five years ago, when I met with my pastor to plan Ray’s funeral, I asked, “Do you think Ray can see us? Not to see how sad we are, but how much we love him.”

His answer, paraphrased after all these years, went something like, “Scripture isn’t clear regarding how much our loved ones see, but God is sovereign over all and can allow them to know things if He chooses.”

I’ve held onto his answer and have even prayed for God to allow Ray to know about certain events if it’s His will to do so: my daughters’ graduations, my return to school to study horticulture, the births of my grandchildren, and sometimes a simple, “Please tell Ray I love him, Lord.”

Ray loved me so well for the years he was with me that I still feel his love. And so it is with Mom’s. I know I’ll carry her love with me for the rest of my life.[1]

In addition, there are times when I feel them very close to me. Such was the case in the days after I finished filming the video for Focus on the Family.[2] I longed to share the experience with Mom and Ray, the wonder, the excitement, and the misgivings. I dreamt about Ray two nights in a row, dreams that were like sweet visits, as I told him about the video. We were both so happy. And then, when the self-doubts set in – being filmed introduces a whole new level of vulnerability not associated with written words – I could sense Mom’s affirmations, her wholehearted support of my efforts, her joy.

I described these incidents to a dear friend and asked if she ever has similar instances with her departed husband. She smiled, nodded, and said, “Yes. Sometimes the veil is thin.”

Indeed it is. My two most ardent supporters haven’t left me. They’re part of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding me (Hebrews 12:1).

Glorious Reunion

Though there are many things we don’t know about heaven and our loved ones’ current state, there are others Scripture is quite clear about:

  • Believers who are absent from the body are present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
  • Jesus is preparing a place for us and will return to take us Home (John 14:2-3).
  • Our bodies will be raised imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:53-55).
  • We will dwell in His presence forever (Revelation 21:1-3).
  • There will be no more tears, death, mourning, or pain (Revelation 21:4).

As the clock continues to count down to Jesus’ return, let us comfort each other with the words of the Apostle Paul:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Dear Lord, as we recall all You did for us and await Your return, it is comforting to know that our departed loved ones are resting in Your presence. How sweet are the moments when You allow us to feel their nearness, and how dear the promise that we will one day be reunited in the new Jerusalem to live with You forever. Thank You for Your infinite, eternal love that unites us to You and each other.


[1] Please see “Legacy of Love,” Archives, July 31, 2020.

[2] Please see “Twenty-five Years,” April 19, 2022.

A Month for Remembering

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
1 Corinthians 15:54b-55

Beware the Ides of April

Though Ides looks plural, it is, in fact, singular and means the middle of a given month. According to the ancient Roman calendar,  the Ides fell on the 15th of  March, May, July, and October, and the 13th of the other months.

I’m not superstitious, and I realize I’m taking liberties with one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s often-quoted lines. Still, I’ve become wary of the middle of April, those days between the 10th and 20th,  because they are dotted with significant anniversaries of loss, both personal and national:

  • Waco Massacre – April 19, 1993
  • Oklahoma City Bombing – April 19, 1995
  • Ray, my dearly-loved husband, passed away from a heart attack on April 19, 1997, at the age of 39.
  • Columbine – April 20, 1999
  • VA Tech Shooting – April 16, 2007
  • Marcia, a dear sister-in-law, died on April 12, 2014, after a fall at her farm.
  • Mom was diagnosed with pneumonia on April 17, 2019, and spent the next 24 days in the hospital. There were several times we thought we’d lose her.
  • Mom fell and broke her hip on April 20, 2021, Dad’s 90th birthday. She went Home ten days later.

A Melancholy Month

When the calendar page turns to the fourth month, a thin layer of melancholy settles over my soul, much like pine pollen coats the Georgia landscape. I’ll admit I had to look up the specific dates of the national tragedies, though I knew they all occurred in April. Not so with the personal losses. Those dates and their attendant memories are etched into my mind.

Ray’s death forever divided my life into two pieces, before and after. Each year I intentionally revisit our last days together, when I had no idea how few there were, and the first days without him, when I wondered how I’d ever go on.

This year, I’m doing the same with memories of Mom. Last April, medical appointments filled the calendar as I desperately sought help for Mom, whose health was precarious and becoming more so each day. Yet I didn’t realize I had less than a month left in this life with the one who had been my chief cheerleader and devoted prayer warrior my whole life. Unlike Ray’s final days, which were filled with typical family and work activities, Mom’s were plagued with pain and confusion, making the memories even more heartbreaking.

Purposely observing the passing of Ray and Mom, my two most ardent supporters, touches tender scars and re-opens the wounds. But it is a price I’m willing to pay as I honor the memory of these dear ones, gratefully recalling the love and blessings they poured into my life.

Hope Abounds

Despite the undercurrent of loss that runs through April reminiscences, my mood seldom remains somber for long. The beauty of springtime bursting forth all around me won’t allow it to.

I revel daily in the signs of new life, as leaves emerge on formerly bare branches, flowering shrubs look resplendent in their colorful array of blossoms, and perennials push their way out of the soil for another season of growth. And I delight in the increased activity around my bird feeders as my feathered friends form couples and begin raising their young.

Everywhere I look, I see reminders of resurrection hope.

Suffering Savior

Just as I intentionally think back about Ray’s (and now Mom’s) final days, each year as Easter approaches, I ponder Jesus’ last week. On Palm Sunday, we remember His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but over the next five days, the chants of adoration would be replaced by those of, “Crucify Him!” (John 12:12-13; John 19:15)

In His final week, our beloved Savior, the Spotless Lamb of God, would wash His disciples’ feet, be betrayed with a kiss, abandoned by His closest friends, arrested, beaten, mocked, and crucified. Writing those words, contemplating all it cost Him to save me, brings tears to my eyes as quickly as thoughts of losing Ray and Mom – tears of sorrow for my sins and all He endured on my behalf.

Grieving with Hope

But death doesn’t get the final say. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees He’ll have the last word.

Though it is right to mourn our sins with sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10), we can rejoice knowing His atoning sacrifice removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). They no longer define us because our identity is hidden in Christ, and we are robed in His righteousness.

Furthermore, Jesus’ victory over death enables us to grieve the passing of our loved ones with the hope of knowing the separation, though painful, is only temporary (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Jesus’ journey through the streets of Jerusalem, heralded by hosannas and palm branches, is but a shadow of His promised return. On that day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. The dwelling place of God will be with His people, and He will wipe away every tear. Death, mourning, and pain will be no more, for the former things will have passed away (Revelation 21:3-4).

Thank You, Lord, for the hope we have in You. Because You took our punishment upon Yourself and then rose in victory over death, we have the assurance our sins are pardoned, and we too will be resurrected to eternal life in Your presence. May we be ever mindful of this truth to comfort our hearts while we tarry in this world where the effects of sin and brokenness remain.

Signs of Life

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20

Let All Creation Sing

Some years ago, I attended a horticulture conference where one of the speakers began her talk by saying, “Summer, fall, and winter are seasons. Spring is a miracle!”

I often think of her comment when we’re on the cusp of spring, anticipating the glorious bursting forth of foliage and flowers when all creation joins in a chorus of praise to the Creator, pointing us to Jesus’ resurrection.

Yet, even when I stroll my garden in the winter, weeks before the magnificent display of new life, I find signs of what will be. Leafless branches sport tiny buds, which will become the next season’s greenery. Flowering shrubs often set their buds months before they bloom. They sit patiently, awaiting the time of their awakening. After years of watching the cycle repeat, I look forward with confidence to the beauty to come.

I find bulbs and seeds to be equally remarkable. They don’t look like much, but each holds the promise of what it will become. Given time and the proper conditions, even the tiniest of seeds will produce a towering tree with branches to provide shelter for nesting birds (Mark 40:30-32).

His Life in Us

The introductory verse above from Galatians affirms the status of those who believe in Christ as Savior. We are alive in Him. And though we will continue to struggle with sin as long as we’re in the flesh, God already counts us righteous because of Jesus’ sacrifice. The Spirit is at work within us, with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20), transforming us more and more into the image of the Son.

Just as the promise of what will be resides in buds and bulbs and seeds, we have the assurance that He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion (Philippians 1:6).

Aspirations

The first half of Acts chapter 4 describes an occasion when Jewish religious leaders arrested Peter and John, then summoned them to give an account of healing a crippled man (Acts 4:1-22). No matter how much the leaders threatened them, they boldly proclaimed the power of Jesus and His resurrection, giving Him full credit for their ability to heal.

Verse 13 has always inspired me:  Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Emphasis mine.)

That’s me, common and ordinary, nothing of my own to boast about (Ephesians 2:8-9), but I want to look different – to captivate others with the beauty and aroma of Christ – because I’ve been with Him.  

Blessed to Be a Blessing

Both the current sermon series at our church[1] and a Bible study[2] I’m in have included the message that God chose a people for Himself, not to take them out of the world immediately, but to join Him in reconciling the nations to Himself.

While we live as sojourners between the now and not yet, we’re called to manifest signs of the life of Christ in us, always ready to give a reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). Paul tells us we’re God’s workmanship in Christ and that He prepared good works for us to carry out (Ephesians 2:10). According to James, good works provide evidence of a faith that’s alive and well (James 2:14-26).

Likewise, the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control –  reflects our abiding dependence on the One who makes all things new, including us.

So, dear readers, won’t you join me in endeavoring to embrace and embody who we are in Christ, that our lives might bear much fruit for Him?

Dear Lord, what a gift You give us in the beauty of springtime when reminders of Jesus’ resurrection are all around us. Thank You for the assurance we have in Him that we too will be raised to eternal life. Until then, please help us to exhibit unmistakable signs of His life in us to a watching world.


[1] “Our Shared Life and Mission in the Peacemaking Christ, A Sermon Series in Ephesians,” Pastor David Donovan, Grace Covenant Church.

[2] “From Garden to Glory,” Courtney Doctor, Committee on Discipleship Ministries, 2016.

Look Up!

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Psalm 121:1-2

The Long-lost Rug

This time 50 years ago, my parents and I were living in Argentina. Dad was working for a subsidiary of his US employer, and Mom and I were along for the 2-year adventure. We made use of school holidays to travel around Argentina and to other Latin American countries. And, as most tourists are wont to do, we accumulated plenty of souvenirs. One of our favorites was a llama-skin rug that depicted a woman tending one of the furry pack animals.

Mom and Dad used it as a wall-hanging when we returned to the States, and then at some point, my husband and I took possession of it. The rug hung on our wall for a while, but there was no place for it when we moved from Delaware to Georgia, so we returned it to my parents.

Then somehow, it disappeared.

Occasionally the rug would come up in conversation, and we’d muse, “Whatever happened to it?” Some good-natured banter would follow the question:

“I think you have it.”

“No, I’m pretty sure I gave it back to you.”

“Well, wherever it is, we haven’t seen it for years!”

So it went until one day last month when I was searching for something in my late mother’s closet. I looked up, and there it was, neatly folded on the top shelf! I’m not sure why Mom tucked it away in there with her clothes, but I felt like I’d found a long-lost treasure and couldn’t wait to tell my family about the discovery.

The Dark Hole is Real

I don’t know about you, but it seems like at least once a week, I or someone else in my family will bemoan the fact we’ve misplaced something. Sometimes we’ll find the missing item in relatively short order. Then again, there are times when objects remain lost for weeks, months, or even years, like the llama rug. We refer to this as “the dark hole syndrome,” as in “the dark hole ate it.”

A few days after locating the rug, I began helping my dad prepare to move into assisted living. His new apartment has a small porch that is still big enough to accommodate two of his deck chairs. I offered to get some cushions to make the metal seats more comfortable. Dad replied that he already had some, and we proceeded to hunt for them.

We searched in all the logical places – in the basement where he kept the patio set, in the garage, in the storage area tucked under the stairs – all to no avail.

“Chalk up another one for the dark hole,” Dad sighed.

I’ve made almost-daily trips between Dad’s house and his apartment, picking up necessities as well as niceties he forgot to include in the initial transport of stuff. I was standing in his closet, talking to him on the phone as he gave me instructions about where to find that day’s requested item. I looked up and started laughing.

“Guess what I just found!”

“What?”

“The chair cushions!!”

“Where?!”

“On the top shelf in your closet! I need to start looking up more instead of straight ahead all the time.”

A Spiritual Parallel

The words had barely left my mouth when a spiritual application occurred to me. Too often, when faced with a challenging situation, I focus on the dilemma in front of me. Instead of taking a Biblical perspective, I become mired in the what-ifs and oh-nos. The dark hole of doubt swallows up what I know to be true about God as surely as my family’s fictional dark hole occasionally devours objects.

But when I look up, I remember I’m not alone. My help comes from the Lord, the very Maker of heaven and earth (Psalm121:1-2).

Furthermore, the Spirit gently reminds me of the truth found in the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The things pressing in on me will soon pass, whereas those currently hidden or out of focus will become clear and constant (1 Corinthians 13:12). God’s promises and assurances are always there, ready to be seen by enlightened eyes of faith if we’ll simply look up.

Dear Lord, please enlighten the eyes of our hearts that we may know the hope you’ve called us to, the glorious riches of our inheritance in Christ, and the immeasurable greatness of Your power toward us who believe (Ephesians 1:18-19).

Snow Day

Be still and know that I am God.
Psalm 46:10

Soul-soothing Scene

It’s a rare snow day here in metro-Atlanta. I’ve spent the past several hours at my kitchen table, where I have a front-row seat to the view unfolding in my woods. The forecasted wintry mix greeted me when I came downstairs this morning, but the temperature has dropped since, and the precipitation has gradually changed to snow.

Watching the gently falling flakes soothes my soul. Somehow it always seems quieter, more peaceful when it’s snowing. And oh, how I need some soul-soothing peace and quiet after the past week.

A Monumental Move

In my last post, I alluded to upcoming changes.[1] We were fortunate to find a compassionate, experienced live-in caregiver to stay with my 90-year-old father after his stroke last fall. However, it became evident over the ensuing weeks that staying in the big house he and Mom shared for the past 24 years wasn’t the preferred long-term solution.[2]

Thankfully, the stroke did minimal lasting harm, but lingering cognitive issues and potent blood thinners make it inadvisable for Dad to live by himself. Thus, at his suggestion, we found an assisted living facility with a cozy one-bedroom apartment and set about planning for his move.

Details, Details

In reality, after we signed the contract, arranging all the details associated with the move became my responsibility since Dad is now easily confused by such minutiae. Informing his caregiver, hiring movers, filling out all sorts of paperwork, obtaining medical records and health screenings – the list was long. And, once we agreed on the move date, there was little room for error.

One week out, I began to wake up at night, mentally reviewing the requirements and deadlines. Sometimes I drifted back to sleep quickly, having successfully cast my cares upon the Lord (1 Peter 5:7), while other nights, my wakefulness stretched from minutes into hours.

Nevertheless, the process was moving along in a timely manner. Then, with less than 24 hours before the movers were scheduled to arrive, it looked like everything would derail. There was confusion regarding one of Dad’s prescriptions, so his primary care physician wouldn’t sign off on the paperwork required for the assisted living staff to administer his medication. The bloodwork for his TB screening was “indeterminate,” so I had to take him for a chest x-ray. We arrived less than half an hour before the imaging facility closed. And then there was the potential stopper of all stoppers: the result of his Covid test. Would it and the chest x-ray arrive in time? Would they be negative?

Oh Me of Little Faith

My anxiety sky-rocketed. I expect my blood pressure was off the charts too. I flung multiple prayers heavenward and kept going. Thoughts such as, “What if Dad’s stuff gets moved to his new apartment and his Covid results are positive and he can’t go?” ran rampant. Though the what-ifs almost overcame me, I didn’t cancel the movers. I continued to pray and sent an SOS to several of my staunchest prayer warriors, pleading with them to join me.

Several hours later, as I was organizing piles and emptying drawers in preparation for the movers’ arrival, the peace that had eluded me earlier quieted my anxious thoughts. Although it was fine for me to outline specific details in my prayers, by rehearsing them incessantly, I was acting as if God didn’t already know each one, as well as their ramifications, even better than I did. That acknowledgment, coupled with prayers that His will be done, finally squelched my stress. I knew if it was His will for Dad to move the next day, nothing would prevent it, and if it wasn’t, then God had a good reason for him not to go.

I awoke early the following day and checked my email. The PCR test results were available. I prayed as I scrolled and rejoiced when I saw: NEGATIVE. Other messages conveyed more good news: the chest x-ray was clear, and Dad’s PCP had signed the requisite paperwork. Dad could make the move along with his things.

Dust Moments

As is often the case when I’ve worry-warted over a critical outcome, the tears that instantly sprang to my eyes were a combination of relief and thankfulness mixed with remorse for doubting God and not trusting Him completely with the situation.

Several days later, I realized when I become anxiously frantic, the underlying cause is usually a subconscious assumption: “It’s all up to me. If I fail, all is lost. The world, or at least my little corner of it, is depending on me to hold it together.”

After nearly 50 years of walking with the Lord, you would think I would have outgrown such unfounded, even arrogant, notions. In fact, I took an intense refresher course this time last year as Mom was living out her final weeks.[3] But, alas, it appears I  have to relearn the lesson periodically.

And so I’m thankful for my compassionate heavenly Father, Who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6). He knows I’m dust and loves me anyway (Psalm 103:13-14).

His Part, My Part

From my vantage point at the table, I’ve not only been able to watch the snow, but I’ve also been able to keep an eye on the birds. They descended on the feeders as soon as I returned them to their hooks this morning, and there has been a steady stream of hungry visitors ever since.

Observing them and writing about the past week’s events reminded me of a recent conversation with my grandchildren. We were talking about pets and noted I no longer have any furry house companions.

I added, “But I have my birds! They’re my outside pets.”

Five-year-old Emma quipped, “Those aren’t your birds, Grammie. Those are the world’s birds.”

I acceded, “You’re right, Emma. They’re God’s birds, but He lets me help take care of them.”

And so it is with my loved ones. They belong to Him, and He allows me to help take care of them. He has a plan for them and me, and His purposes will prevail (Isaiah 55:8-11).

Heavenly Father, thank You for the quiet beauty of this day and the opportunity to be still in Your presence. Thank You that You are our compassionate Father, well-acquainted with the frailties of our finite flesh, yet always abounding in love for Your children.


[1] Please see “Age-old Assurances for a New Year.”

[2] Mom passed away last April.

[3] Please see “Who’s in Control?” in Archives, September 2021.

Age-old Assurances for a New Year

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
Lamentations 3:21-24

Downcast

It’s a rainy afternoon in Georgia, and my mood matches the scene outside my window. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used the last few days of December to reflect on the year just past and plan for the one ahead. But a week of isolation due to a positive Covid test may have given me too much time for my yearend ruminations.

Recent celebrations hammered home the resounding headline for 2021: Mom’s gone. The New Year won’t change that or bring her back.

And, already looming on the horizon, more significant changes for our family, the details and what-ifs of which are disconcerting. Plus, there will no doubt be challenges currently known only to God.

Fighting for Joy

As you may have gleaned from my last couple of posts, though, I’ve been valiantly fighting for joy throughout this first holiday season without Mom by counseling my heart with truth. This post is no different, so I’ll let Scripture do the talking for a while:

  • Deuteronomy 31:8: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
  • John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
  • Romans 8:28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
  • 2 Corinthians 4:17: This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
  • James 1:2-4: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Proven O’er and O’er

Scripture is the inspired word of God and to be trusted regardless of our feelings or circumstances; however, one of the things I like best about growing older is I have more and more real-life examples of God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness to recall. As the lyrics to ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus say, “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er! Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[1]

There will be challenges this year, but the Lord has never left or forsaken me, and He never will. In fact, He uses the hard things to draw me closer to Him, to grow my faith, and to comfort and encourage me so that I might comfort and encourage others with the same comfort and encouragement I’ve received (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

And, just as there are unknown difficulties ahead, there will be joy and blessing beyond what I can ask or imagine because God does work all things together for good for His beloved children.

Encourage One Another

I don’t know how you’re feeling today, dear reader. Maybe you’re entering the new year buoyed by fun family gatherings, having enjoyed all your favorite foods and traditions. Then again, you may be like me, fighting for joy, having engaged in those traditions without a loved one, and facing more changes in the near future.  

Regardless of our circumstances, we can take heart in knowing we belong to the One who never changes (Hebrews 13:8). Our loving Heavenly Father is always working out His purposes according to His good and perfect plans and will see them through to completion, when Jesus returns to set all things right. Therefore, let us encourage our own hearts and one another with all we know to be true as we await His promised return.

Dear Lord, thank You that we can come to You with our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, knowing that You are a compassionate Father who remembers we are dust. Your mercies are new every morning, and your grace is sufficient for each day. Thank You that we’ll never face life alone because You are with us, now and forever.

P.S. Since I started this post some three hours ago, the rain has stopped, and the sun has peeked out a time or two, providing the amen to my thoughts.


[1] Louisa M. R. Stead

Tidings of Comfort and Joy, Reprise

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16

Greetings!

Dear Readers,

It took me longer than usual to get into the Christmas spirit this year. Mom was such a big part of our traditions, the thought of celebrating without her cast a shadow over my usually-joyful anticipation. But as the days have passed and I’ve spent time with family and friends engaging in those traditions, the Christmas story seems even sweeter this year, knowing Mom is celebrating in the presence of Jesus. After all, God’s gift of eternal life is the very heart of Christmas.

Not wanting to let my blog languish over the holidays, and being on the cusp of my annual gift-wrapping marathon, I thought I’d share a post from a couple of years ago. I chuckled when I read it. Once again, Amazon boxes and Kroger bags litter my kitchen floor, and I’m enjoying a cup of tea and pumpkin bread, this time from Starbucks. I suppose the clutter and treats are officially part of my traditions!

I invite you to take a break with your favorite warm beverage and join me in reflecting on the priceless gift we’ve received in Jesus.

Reset, Refocus

I don’t know about you, but despite my best intentions to remain calm and focused on the real reason for the season, I unravel at some point in December. I experience inevitable episodes of middle-of-the-night sleeplessness, wondering if I’ll ever get everything done in time. Similarly-distressing thoughts creep into my waking hours. My and my granddaughter’s back-to-back birthdays less than a week before Christmas add to the myriad festivities and to-dos. However, it also means there’s lots of shared joy and family time.

And so I’ve fixed myself a cup of tea, warmed up some breakfast bread, and silenced my phone. Even though my kitchen looks like an Amazon delivery van collided with a Kroger truck, it’s time for a reset. I hope you’ll join me as I revisit some reflections from a brief devotional I prepared for our women’s Christmas brunch earlier this month.

Timeless Truth

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).

The news of great joy contained in the angel’s message to the frightened shepherds allows us to extend tidings of comfort and joy to others and ourselves. Generations upon generations before that night in Bethlehem, God made a covenant with His people: I will be your God, you will be my people, I will dwell with you (Exodus 29:45-46; 1 Peter 2:9-10).

Let that sink in a minute. The Almighty, Everlasting God, complete in Himself, not lacking anything, nonetheless chose a people for Himself and promised to dwell among them. How amazing!

Even though the faithful followers in Old Testament times believed His promises, they never could have imagined how He’d carry out His plan. For in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, bringing Light to a dark, dark world (John 1:1-5).

The second Person of the Trinity humbled himself, not counting equality with God something to be grasped (Philippians 2:5-8). The tiny baby born in a manger grew into a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and took our sins upon Himself (Isaiah 53:3-6) – fully God and fully man. A mystery our finite minds can’t comprehend, but one that gives us hope for the present and assurance of eternity.

Jesus’ disciples were troubled when He told them the time was drawing near for Him to depart. Yet He declared it would be even better because He would send the Holy Spirit – the Helper, Counselor, and Comforter – to remind us of all He’d said. God, not only with us but in us! (John 14:16-17; 26)

Furthermore, Jesus assured us He’d prepare a place for us and return to take us to our forever Home (John 14:2-3). The Apostle Paul wrote: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even death (Romans 8:38-39). In fact, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Emmanuel, God with us, from first breath to last and into eternity – tidings of great joy indeed!

I wish you a merry, Christ-centered Christmas, dear readers. As my friend Karen Hodge often says after a podcast[1], I hope you’ll find some encouraging nugget in this post. Tuck it in your heart and return to it in these final days before Christmas whenever you need to quiet your spirit and refocus on the greatest Gift ever given. And carry it with you into the new year.

Heavenly Father, thank You for sending Your precious Son to live among us, full of grace and truth. Because of His sinless life and atoning death, we can look forward to eternity in Your presence. What a gift!


[1] Karen Hodge serves as Co-ordinator for Women’s Ministry for the Christian Discipleship Ministry of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). One of the ways she helps connect women to resources is by hosting the weekly enCourage podcast.

Celebrate the Light

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5

Traditions

I’m a Christmas baby, born on December 19th. Mom and Dad brought me home on Christmas Eve, and Dad hung a bootie up as my first stocking. Despite my birthday falling within a week of Christmas, Mom made sure I had a birthday celebration each year, complete with cake and presents. Some years we invited friends over for a party, while other times, Dad took us out to dinner at a nice restaurant. And each year, my gifts included a pretty dress from Mom.

Christmas traditions were equally dear and included shopping, preparing dozens of goodie boxes to share with friends, decorating, and attending Christmas cantatas and worship services.

As the years passed, I married and started a family, so we tweaked and added to our traditions. We joked that our holiday season begins with daughter Mary’s late-October birthday and continues into November with Mom’s birthday and Thanksgiving.  Granddaughter Lyla’s birthday is the day after mine, then Christmas. We finally wrap up our celebrations on New Year’s Day. Different foods and festivities accompany each occasion, as do plenty of reminiscences and lots of photo-taking.

Just Skip It

Several weeks ago, I began to contemplate this year’s holiday season. Unlike most years when joyful anticipation colors my feelings, I thought, “I wish I could fast-forward past the holidays.”

You see, for the first time in my life, Mom won’t be with me to celebrate. Granted, we curtailed our goodie-making some years ago, and Mom’s ability to fully participate in shopping, wrapping, and sending out Christmas cards had declined the last few years. However, her smile still shone brightly, and her joy at being together was infectious.

Pondering Mom’s absence on my birthday and Christmas morning weighed heavy on my heart.

Not Celebrate?!

Those dismal thoughts didn’t have a chance to put down roots, though. Almost as quickly as they came, another took their place, “What do you mean, not celebrate?! How would that honor her memory, much less the One whose birth we’re celebrating?”

Last week’s sermon[1] further dispelled the notion of merely going through the motions this December. After acknowledging that not everyone experiences hope and joy during the holidays, Pastor Donovan reminded us of the following:

  • Biblical hope isn’t maybe-things-will-work-out wishful thinking, but the confident expectation that God will act according to His purpose, plan, and promises.
  • Advent is a season of celebrating God choosing to come near, to save us. (What a gift!) We must:
    • Gratefully acknowledge and receive the gift. Don’t take it for granted or think, “I’ve heard the Christmas story so many times.” Never stop marveling at the fact the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!
    • Actively cultivate hope by remembering God’s past faithfulness to look forward with assurance. God is worthy of our joy, expectation, and trust. He will fulfill all His promises.
    • Communicate that hope to the hopeless. Celebrate what is and what’s coming. Don’t complain about what (or who) no longer is.
    • We’re to be agents of hope by sharing and celebrating the Light of the World.

Grief Veteran

Shortly after Mom passed away, a friend described me as a grief veteran. It was her way of encouraging me, of acknowledging the path wouldn’t be easy, but it would be passable. Having been widowed at age 38, knowing what it’s like to miss a loved one across over two decades of holidays yet find joy in celebrating and remembering, I knew she was right.

This Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote is one of my favorites regarding grief:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love . . . it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain . . . the dearer and richer the memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

Each year when I set up the Dickens Village my late husband Ray started for me or purchase poinsettias in memory of the last Christmas he worked at Home Depot, tears of sorrow and joy mingle together. Sorrow that he’s no longer here to help me set up the village or see how much it’s grown, but such joy and gratitude for the love and years we shared. As Bonhoeffer observed, the memories are a precious gift in themselves.

It is the same with Mom. I cherish all the years we had to laugh, love, and celebrate in so many ways. Though she’s no longer physically present, I know she’ll always be with me.

Pass it On

I’m blessed to have three grandchildren to create and share traditions with. But I’m most excited to share the true meaning of Christmas as we celebrate the Light that came into the world. All the love and joy bound up in our celebrations is a reflection of God’s great love and an outpouring of thanksgiving for the blessings we have in Christ. Because He came as a tiny baby, lived a sinless life, and died on our behalf, death doesn’t have the final say. The circle of love is unbroken. And one day, we’ll be reunited around His throne to praise His name together forever.

Heavenly Father, thank You for sending Your Son, the Light of the World, to bring everlasting hope to this dark world. Regardless of the source of darkness – sin, grief, illness, loss – we have the confidence that the darkness will never overcome the Light. Please help us not to hide our light under a basket, but place it on a pedestal for all to see, ever ready to share the reason for our hope.


[1] “Advent: Having Hope and God With Us in This World,” Pastor David Donovan, Grace Covenant Church, November 27, 2021.

Overwhelmed

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

This post is based on an article I wrote for the November/December edition of our church’s bi-monthly women’s ministry newsletter. Instead of getting bogged down in all the to-dos of the holiday season, I wanted to remind my sisters in Christ and myself to stay focused on the blessings God poured out on us when He sent Jesus. I had no idea then how much I’d need the message in the weeks that followed. But God did.

Perspective

What came to your mind when you read the title of this post? Was your initial reaction positive or negative? Usually, when I say I’m overwhelmed, I’ve reached the point of waking up in the middle of the night, wondering how I’ll ever get everything done.

A quick check of Merriam-Webster online  yields results that support the negative connotations of the verb:

1: to upset, overthrow

2a: to cover over completely: submerge b: to overcome by superior force or numbers c: to overpower in thought or feeling

However,  inspired by our pastor’s sermon series on Ephesians, I’ve recently been pondering a more positive take on the word.  In Ephesians 1:3-14, the Apostle Paul gushes over God’s blessings in Christ:

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, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

I’ve read that passage many times, but the idea of Paul gushing over God’s goodness is new to me. Yet that’s precisely what he’s doing! I imagine him exalting God, nearly breathless, as he recounts all the blessings that are ours in Jesus. Pastor David has encouraged us to do likewise and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by God’s goodness toward us.

The Holiday Hustle

As the holiday season ramps up, so does my sense of overwhelmedness.  I contemplate adding cherished holiday traditions to my already bulging to-do list and restless nights are sure to follow. But this year, heartened by Pastor David’s invitation to embrace and embody our identity in Christ, I hope to approach the season differently. Rather than letting my to-do list have the final say, I pray I’ll be overwhelmed instead by all the blessings that are ours because God chose to send us the best gift ever – His only begotten Son.

A Positive Practice

Several days after I submitted the newsletter article, my 90-year-old father had a stroke. I’d been preparing to do battle with my usual holiday stresses when a barrage of new responsibilities hit. In those early days of trying to ensure I procured the proper care for Dad and managing day-to-day logistics once he returned home, I was tempted to ignore the holidays altogether. Over and over again, I thought, “I feel so overwhelmed.” And each time I did, the words I’d written came back to me, and I reminded myself of all the blessings that are mine in Christ.

After several weeks of this practice, the sequence has become instinctive. I sense the stress starting to build, sometimes multiple times a day. “How will I ever handle this?” runs through my mind, quickly followed by, “I feel so overwhelmed!” The once-negative word triggers the new, positive response, shifting my focus to the realities greater than my circumstances. I have all I’ll ever need in Christ, plus the promise He’ll never leave or forsake me:

He has said, “I will never [under any circumstances] desert you [nor give you up nor leave you without support, nor will I in any degree leave you helpless], nor will I forsake or let you down or relax My hold on you [assuredly not]!” (Hebrews 13:5, Amplified)

An Invitation

Will you join me? Pick one or more of Paul’s affirmations to meditate on the next time you feel weighed down by cares or responsibilities: In Christ, we are blessed, chosen, blameless, adopted into God’s family, redeemed, forgiven, sealed with the Holy Spirit, destined to receive the inheritance held secure for us in heaven. Just reading this makes my heart sing!

Take another look at the last definition above, “to overpower in thought or feeling.” When the truth of Who God is and all He’s done for us in Christ overpowers our worries, fears, and anxieties, it is a most blessed conquest indeed.

Dear Lord, as we shift our gaze from the immediate to the eternal, I pray our thoughts and feelings will be overwhelmed in the most positive way by Your amazing grace and all You’ve blessed us with in Christ, to the praise of Your glory.

One Piece

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. 
Psalm 46:1-3

A Song from the Past

Lyrics from the Wayne Watson song, “Hard Times,” have been replaying in my mind recently, not as an annoying melody that I can’t get out of my head, but as a gentle reminder of an eternal promise –  the Lord will never leave me or forsake me:

Hey, did I hear you say
You’ve fallen on some hard times?
That your dreams are crushed
And scattered to the wind
And if there’s a someday
When the pain will be forgotten
Right now, it’s too much
For your heart to comprehend

You say you wish that you
Could get back to the good times
Back when life and love
And plans fell into place
Before the floods came
Before the dam started breaking
Back when the waves kept their distance
From your faith

But in the hard times
When your world has gone to pieces
You pick up the one piece
That matters most
’Cause in hard times
You learn to hold on to Jesus
Oh, there’s no other place
To know the strength of your faith
But in the hard times[1]

When we moved to Georgia in 1992, it felt like the pieces of my life were scattered. My husband, two little girls, and I left our home, church, and friends, some of whom we’d known for years during our time in Delaware. But, by the time the song came out the following year, we were settling into our new community, church, school, and work routines. We chose a home close to church, the girls’ school, and Ray’s employer, which meant I had a 63-mile drive one-way to my job. Instead of a burden, though, my commute gave me some uninterrupted time with the Lord. I sometimes quipped, “The Lord took away the support system I had in Delaware, but He gave me Himself and an hourlong drive to Dalton.”

I spent the drive time praying and listening to contemporary Christian artists like Wayne Watson. The combination of music plus truth ensured the concepts they sang about were securely planted in my memory.

The One Piece hadn’t remained in Delaware. He was very much with me.

More Scattered Pieces

Little did I know that the upheaval caused by the move would pale compared to what was to come in April 1997. A few weeks after his 39th birthday, Ray went to work, had a fatal heart attack, and never returned home. My partner, the person I depended on most, was gone. Left to raise our two young daughters alone, I turned to the One who promised to be a Father to the fatherless and a Defender of widows. I found Him faithful.

In December 2010, as I stood by my mom’s hospital gurney, I received news that would rock my world yet again: her heart catheterization revealed three life-threatening blockages. The attendants began prepping Mom for surgery immediately so the surgeons could get to work as soon as an operating room became available. I stood there stunned, feeling so alone. But I wasn’t alone at all. God was with me.

Late January 2011 found me sitting in a windowless conference room across from my manager and her boss. Though I anticipated a life-changing message, hearing her words still caused me to go numb. “I know you’re expecting to have your annual review, but you won’t be having it because your job has been eliminated.” Just like that, my 30-year career ended. But God had other plans, new, incredible pieces to add to my life.

Late one night in April 2019, I left Mom in the emergency department, trudged to my car, and wondered if I’d see her alive again. The doctor’s diagnosis, aspiration pneumonia, didn’t bode well for someone so tiny and frail. I tossed and turned most of the night, countering fear with all I knew to be true about God’s character. Mom made it through 24 grueling days in the hospital and rehab, and we joyfully welcomed her home.

We were blessed to have her for two more years until she fell and broke her hip in mid-April 2021. The ten days between the fall and her Homegoing were some of the most difficult I’ve ever navigated. The excruciating physical pain she felt found its counterpart in my emotional distress. Even so, the Lord was near, directing and redirecting, until the moment He called her Home.

Another Storm

And now here I am, barely six months after losing my precious mother, dealing with the after-effects of my 90-year-old father’s stroke. There are moments when I’m tempted to despair, when the thought of burying my remaining parent is too much to bear.

But then the chorus from “Hard Times” starts playing in my head, and I pick up the One Piece that matters most and hold on as tightly as I can, knowing that even if my grasp starts to fail, He’ll never loosen His grip on me.

Strength Training

The lyrics, “There’s no better way to know the strength of your faith but in hard times,” remind me of the Apostle James’ statement, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2) The Apostle Paul affirms and expands upon the concept in his letter to the Romans: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5).

Rejoicing in suffering and finding joy in trials is counterintuitive until you realize experiencing difficult circumstances is the best way to grow our faith because we find God to be trustworthy to keep His promises, not sometimes, but every time. I don’t know what you’re going through, dear reader. Maybe life is smooth and hassle-free at the moment, but if you’re facing hardships and challenges, I pray you’ll do what I did above. Remind yourself of times in the past when God has been with you and know He will be with you to the end, no matter what He providentially allows into your life.

Dear Lord, how I praise and thank You that You are our Rock and our Refuge, an ever-present help in times of trouble. Even if other pieces of our lives are scattered, in disarray, or missing altogether, You will never leave or forsake us.  


[1] The first two verses and chorus of “Hard Times,” released on Wayne Watson’s 1993 album, “A Beautiful Place.” Words and music by Gary and Lisa Driskell.

One Piece