Heavenly Hugs

Several weeks ago, I received the following text from a dear sister in Christ, “Praying that the Lord will refresh you by His Word and Spirit today . . . some heavenly hugs to remind you of His presence . . . some quiet moments.”

Prompted by her knowledge that I was dealing with some weighty matters, the text itself felt like one of the hugs she wished for me. Oh the blessing of friends who take note of our concerns and reach out to encourage us!

I texted my thanks and mentioned I hoped to spend time in my garden, the backdrop to some of my sweetest moments with the Lord, later that day. Being outside often feels like a big Fatherly bear hug, one that melts my stress and recalibrates my perspective. But those of you who are longtime readers know I frequently find special treasures when I’m working in my yard. Gifts I imagine the Lord tucking tenderly here and there for me to discover and delight over.

Attired in my yard clothes – faded jeans, PFG shirt, well-worn work boots, and a wide-brimmed hat – I headed outside in search of solace. The reel mower whirred as I pushed it around and around what I refer to as my “keyhole of grass”. (I’m NOT a proponent of giant swaths of perfectly-manicured turf, but I’ll save that soapbox for another post.) The sun warmed my back and the tension in my shoulders subsided. Bees and butterflies visited one bright blossom after another. The fresh air worked its usual magic and nudged my cares aside, at least for a while.

I’d been outside for a couple of hours when I remembered my friend’s message, her prayer for heavenly hugs. Although I’d been reveling in the beauty of the afternoon, grateful to be playing in the dirt, I hadn’t come across anything specific that prompted an exclamation of, “That’s it! That’s today’s treasure, a heavenly hug.”

It’s ok, I thought. The whole afternoon’s been a blessing.

125My time outside was drawing to a close when I pulled up a spent summer annual, revealing a spindly bit of passionflower vine with a solitary gulf fritillary caterpillar munching intently on a bedraggled leaf. My heart soared! I’d been hugged.

I suppose most folks wouldn’t have paid much attention to the tiny orange visitor arrayed with black, predator-discouraging spikes. Yet as I gazed at him, I received a reminder of two important truths:

God’s provision. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is the only food source for gulf fritillary caterpillars. For several years I intentionally planted the vine by my mailbox, enjoying wave after wave of caterpillars until all the leaves were consumed and only bare stems remained. My summer reveries came to an end though when I realized neighbors’ mosquito treatments killed the caterpillars. I pulled up the vine, unwilling to create a death trap for my annual visitors. Sprigs of the vine continue to emerge from roots left in the ground. I sadly and dutifully pull them up too. The one the caterpillar was feeding on escaped my notice, hidden under another plant. But an egg-laying butterfly found it amidst all the other plants on my property. Isn’t that amazing?! And if God provides for butterflies and caterpillars and birds and lilies, we can be sure He’ll provide for His beloved children (Matthew 6:25-33).

Perseverance. By the time I discovered the miniature passionflower vine with its voracious visitor, we’d endured several weeks of drought accompanied by way-above-average temperatures. Although the plant’s leaves bore faded splotches, it had survived the unfavorable conditions and was available to host the egg that became the caterpillar. Endurance is an essential aspect of our walk with the Lord. Hardships, challenges, droughts of various kinds – we’re told to expect them. But great blessings, from godly character to eternal life, come with perseverance (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:12). The indwelling Spirit enables us to persevere until the day of Jesus’ return when God will complete the good work He began in us (Philippians 1:6).

At times we need reminders, don’t we? The world can be so loud and demanding, muffling God’s still, quiet voice. But He’s always with us, just as He promised, and sometimes He sends perfectly-packaged heavenly hugs to reassure us. Our Father knows each of us by name. He never loses sight of us. And He loves us so much more than we can fathom.

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. 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. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:13-20)

 

Stewarding our Stories (aka, “Podcast, the Backstory”)

Who am I to tell my story on a podcast? I haven’t written a book, though I hope to do so. I don’t lead a well-known ministry or have a bunch of followers on any form of social media.

Such were my thoughts when Karen Hodge, Women’s Ministry Coordinator for the PCA[1], first mentioned the possibility. I was grateful for the opportunity to share blog posts on the enCourage website from time to time. But record an episode for the weekly podcast? Thanks, but I preferred to leave that to the more well-known women in our denomination.

A year after that brief conversation, the offer resurfaced. In the intervening months, I had a change of heart.  What brought about the change? I still hadn’t published a book or become a household name in PCA circles. No, but I’d become acquainted with the idea of stewarding our stories, enlightened to the fact that my story isn’t ultimately about me. It’s all about God and His amazing grace extended to those He loves, a story begun before the foundation of the world and lasting into eternity (Ephesians 1:3-14).

This is the time and place God has appointed for me to live out my earthly chapter of that grand narrative (Acts 17:26). I began my blog, Back 2 the Garden, to glorify Him and encourage others by proclaiming His faithfulness, compassion, and lovingkindness. Now I was being given an opportunity to put an audible voice to those words.

It was still with some trepidation, but I agreed to proceed and submitted an outline of my story. Karen responded with a list of appropriate questions. I prepared and prayed. Yet when the day arrived to record the podcast I kept checking the clock, as the knot in my stomach tightened and those same old “who am I?” misgivings cluttered my thoughts.

Once we began our conversation, the knot relaxed and I focused on my message. Half an hour later we were done. Phew! Mission accomplished.

But alas, there appeared to be some technical issues. Hopefully, the glitches could be resolved through the magic of editing. Nonetheless, doubt regarding the viability of the recording watered the seed of “not good enough”, which germinated into a prayer of, “If it isn’t good enough, Lord, please help the recording not to be fixable.”

Weeks passed before I got to listen to the tape. My part was barely audible, but what I said made sense and included most of what I hoped to convey. My relief was short-lived, supplanted the next day by news the disparity in volume between my part and Karen’s couldn’t be resolved.  However, the message included an invitation to try again.

It took 24 hours for me to accept that invitation, a full day to quell the doubts running rampant. “See! It’s not meant to be. Nobody needs to hear your story.”

On the day appointed to re-record the interview, a technology-adept friend provided special headphones with a built-in microphone to improve the sound quality on my end. Numerous friends were praying. I was ready. And then, one question into the interview, my internet went down. And came back. And went down again. After three attempts to reply to that first question, Karen offered one last time slot the following week, saying mine was the only segment of the new season left to record and she truly wanted to include it. I agreed, buoyed by her sincere desire to give me every possible chance to tell my story.

I hadn’t even had time to unplug my computer when Karen’s assistant, also a longtime friend, texted, “This is a spiritual battle.”

Yep. This brazen interference made it abundantly obvious who didn’t want me to praise God in a broader-than-usual forum. And that realization transformed my timidity into firm resolve. I wouldn’t be silenced by the father of lies (John 8:44).

An hour before the last-chance interview was to begin, my internet went down. Noooo! I packed up my technology – computer, power cord, super headphones – and mostly obeyed the speed limit as I drove to my daughter’s house.  I should have planned to be there all along since my son-in-law proudly told me not two days before that their internet speed had been upgraded to a level comparable to NASA’s. The house was uncharacteristically quiet with the children at school, empty except for June, the family dog. I tucked her into the garage with her water dish and some extra kibble. No need to have her BIG voice providing background music for the interview. I ensconced myself in Mary and Justin’s walk-in closet – the most soundproof place in the house – in case their overly-zealous leaf-blowing neighbor decided to crank up his equipment.

IMG_1739I took several deep breaths to settle my nerves. There in my safe cocoon, surrounded by clothes and innumerable prayers, I proceeded to have a pleasant chat with Karen. Within 24 hours I received the all-clear – the recording was usable. When I listened to it a few days later, I sounded more conversational, less stressed than the first time. Though some of the details varied, the message was the same: God is faithful. We can trust Him, even in our most difficult circumstances when we don’t understand. He’ll never leave us or forsake us. My story to steward, my testimony to bear.

You have a story too, dear reader. Satan attempts to silence us with lies and doubts, but Jesus made it clear we’re not to hide our light under a basket (Matthew 5:14-16). Furthermore, scripture tells us to be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15). Our hope rests on the certain promises of God and provides a sure and steadfast anchor for our souls (Hebrews 6:19).

Just like every blog post I write, I pray the Lord will use the podcast for His glory, to send hope and encouragement to those who hear it.

Here’s the link if you’d like to listen to my conversation with Karen, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”:https://encourage.pcacdm.org/?p=2731

[1] Presbyterian Church in America

Respite

I’m not sure if it’s been hotter than usual or if I suppress memories from one year to the next of how endless the summer heat feels by the time late August rolls around in Hotlanta. Regardless, we experienced a string of seemingly-interminable days where high temperatures and accompanying humidity combined to produce daytime heat indexes hovering around 100 degrees – too uncomfortable for even garden-loving me to venture outside. But last week, a rainy Monday ushered in a cooler-than-usual series of days. I turned off the air conditioner and, wait for it, opened several windows. What a delight to catch a whiff of rain-scented air, to listen to the soothing patter of liquid ballerinas pirouetting on breeze-nudged leaves.

The days that followed were adorned with clear-blue skies and cool, crisp mornings, allowing for more open windows. I reveled in hearing humming cicadas and chirping birds, their distinct sounds no longer muffled by panes of glass. Dry leaves drifted to the ground, laying the foundation of a crunchy carpet for critters to rustle through as they began to lay up their winter provisions. Hickory nuts and acorns plummeted from lofty perches, hitting my deck with loud pops akin to firecrackers’, before skittering to a stop.

As my grandmother used to say, “It’s a great big, beautiful world!”

I’ve lived here nearly 30 years – plenty long enough to know summer is far from over. Nonetheless, the series of fall-like days provided both a respite from the intolerable heat and a promise of things to come. Whispers of autumn to help us hold on until longer-lasting relief arrives.

Sometimes life events conspire to create conditions as oppressive and unbearable as summer in the South. One hard thing after another leaves us wondering if the cooling rains will ever return to quench our thirsty, drought-weary souls. A longtime friend has experienced just such conditions most of this year. My heart aches for her, my prayers are filled with petitions for relief. Then at last, as I was rejoicing in my week of open windows, came the news that she’d had several good days filled with enjoyable family time, a refreshing respite for her soul. Thank You, Lord!

Just as I know I’ll have to turn the air conditioner back on and close my windows, shutting out the sounds and aromas of my garden, my friend knows she has more difficult days ahead. But, being sisters in Christ, we remind each other of Truth: God has promised to never leave us or forsake us. He’s working all things together for good, including the most challenging ones. Jesus beckons us to come to Him for the kind of rest that will last forever (Deuteronomy 31:6; Romans 8:28; Matthew 11:28-30).

Our best days offer mere glimpses of the unimaginable glory that awaits. Nevertheless, we savor the sample of what’s to come. I didn’t realize how much I missed being outside, how much I needed some garden therapy, until I was finally able to walk the property again. I will let photos I took on those strolls do the speaking for the rest of this post. My prayer is that you will feel some of the joy and awe I experience when I behold the beauty of Creation in the presence of the Creator, assured that the One who cares for the birds and lilies sees even me (Matthew 6:25-34).

A nestful of hope

(This is the third in a series of posts inspired by events surrounding my mom’s recent hospitalization.)

As if having a seriously-ill wife wasn’t enough stress for my dad, the painting company scheduled my parents’ house for the week I transferred Mom from the hospital to a rehab facility. Any kind of home improvement project comes with its attendant potential for tension and this job was no different. The workmen arrived early and stayed late, accompanied by the sounds of clanging ladders, humming pressure washers and pounding hammers.

IMG_1082Uh oh! As they prepared to clean the deck, they found a lovingly-crafted nest containing four tiny blue eggs. Under normal circumstances, the location selected by the mama bird – perched on a ladder stored horizontally under the deck – would have been ideal – out of sight of predators and protected from the elements. But these were not normal circumstances. Knowing the commotion of scouring and staining the deck would most likely scare the mother away and that the high-powered stream of water might damage the tiny home, the painters carefully moved the ladder out of their work zone.

However, as the ladder and its not-yet-hatched tenants rested on the ground at the edge of the woods, the nest was fully exposed. Would the mother abandon her little brood? Would an enemy eat the eggs as they lay within easy reach? Oh the anxiety! My dad became a second mother to the little ones and each evening he gave me a report.

Once the ladder was returned to its normal spot, with the nest still positioned on its metal perch, Dad checked on its occupants. Not only were all four eggs present, they were hatching! The next day, Dad resumed his vigil from inside and, after seeing no sign of the mother bird, he trekked around the house to the little ones, cup of water and eye dropper in hand. Hydration duty complete, he debated what to feed them. Fortunately for him and the hatchlings, mama bird returned and faithfully cared for her babies in the ensuing days as they grew and eventually left the nest.

God was so good to give my dad something to take his mind off Mom’s very serious condition, at least for brief respites during her time away from home. The week the baby bird saga was unfolding coincided with my annual observation of my husband’s death. As I read through journal entries I made 22 years ago, I came across these words, penned the day after his burial: “Picked out a grass marker for Ray’s grave then went to (my aunt’s) for lunch and to see the baby bunnies again. They’re adorable as are the baby chickadees she showed us. Lord, thank You for the reminder, amidst our sadness, that life goes on and that there are still blessings and beauty to be enjoyed.”

Life can be so hard. This world is full of brokenness. (John 16:33a) From minor disappointments and promises-not-kept to aging bodies, terminal illness and death, proof abounds that things aren’t the way they were in the beginning (Genesis 1:31) or the way they were meant to be. But evidence of God’s love and His sustaining power is all around us – reminders that He hasn’t left us and never will. (Deuteronomy 31:8; John 16:33b)

IMG_1539Fluffy white masses towering in a blue summer sky. Busy bees with full pollen baskets. Birds singing their praises to the One who assures us if He cares for the lilies and sparrows, He’ll certainly care for His children. IMG_1115(Matthew 6:25-34) Your list will look different, my friend, but make that list. Look. For glimpses of what the new earth will be like. Listen. For whispers of love from our Father who attends to every detail of our lives. Taste and see that the Lord is good, His love endures forever! (Psalm 34; 1 Chronicles 16:34; Psalm 106:1)[1]

 

[1] These are just a few of the many, many verses that speak of the Lord’s steadfast, enduring love. Use a concordance or Bible app and search for “steadfast love endures” sometime!

Encourage one another

(This is the promised continuation of my last post, “Through the night”.)

More prayer preceded my call to ICU the next morning. My heart rate increased as I waited for the nurse’s update, only to hear, “She’s not here.” What?! Not there?? I’m sure only moments passed until she added, “She’s still in the ED”, but it was plenty long enough for a panic-laden “Mom died and they didn’t call me?!” to pierce my racing heart. Instead, her condition had improved over-night and they were going to move her to a regular room.

“THANK YOU, LORD!!” I instantly recognized God had graciously heard the prayers of His people on Mom’s behalf. It wasn’t the first time I experienced the palpable power of prayer.

Mom suffered a heart attack the week after Christmas, 2010 while strolling through the neighborhood with my dad. They spent the night in cardiac ICU as Mom awaited a heart catheterization the next afternoon. When I arrived at the hospital to relieve my exhausted father, I assured him I’d be Mom’s responsible person so he could go home to rest. My “I’ve-got-this” confidence would soon dissipate like mist blown by the wind.

The image of the attendants who rolled Mom out of the testing area is imprinted on my mind. Stationed one on either end of the gurney, they gazed down, refusing to meet my eyes after saying the doctor would be out to talk to me. A niggling sense of concern began to infiltrate my optimistic expectations.

The doctor delivered the sucker punch moments later: “We have a life-threatening situation here. Your mother has three blocked arteries – one 90%, one 80% and one 70%. We’re going to start prepping her for surgery immediately so she’ll be ready as soon as an operating room becomes available.”

My mind struggled to accept this verdict. “Wait! Surely there must be a mistake. I’m here alone!!” The techs’ immediate response as they whisked Mom away dispelled any lingering doubt. In the midst of my turmoil, God’s still quiet voice reminded me Mom and I weren’t alone at all. I may have been undone by the news of Mom’s condition, but it hadn’t surprised Him.

In spite of the Spirit’s timely nudge, I knew I needed some of my people with me. Any attempt to steady my voice as I called daughter Mary and asked her to bring my dad to the hospital vanished when she answered. Like a child who scrapes her knee and bravely holds back the tears until she reaches home and the consolation of her mother, I poured out the details, urging Mary to come quickly.

Mom and I were able to spend a few minutes together before they wheeled her into the OR. I prayed, I held her hand, I told her she was the best mom I could have ever hoped for. And then I watched, desolate, as the doors closed behind her and her attendants, wondering if we’d shared our last moments in this life.

grace logoI trudged to the waiting room and slumped into a seat, longing for the arrival of my family. But I knew there were other reinforcements to call on – our church family. Almost as soon as I sent the prayer request e-mail, I heard a chime alerting me to an incoming message. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, our prayer chain coordinator forwarded my note to the congregation as soon as she received it.

The taunting fears echoing through my mind since I heard the results of the heart cath fell silent. My family’s physical presence was imminent and God’s people were praying as He sovereignly watched over Mom and guided the surgeons’ hands.

I wrote in recent posts, “Preach to yourself” and “Through the night”, how essential it is for us to remind ourselves of all we know about God – His character, promises, assurances, faithfulness, love, goodness.[1] Nonetheless, we’re not meant to navigate this world alone. We are relational beings, like the Triune God who created us in His image. (Genesis 1:26) As such, Scripture tells us to:

  • rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)
  • comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from the God of all comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
  • pray for one another (Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16)
  • bear one another’s burdens. (Galatians 6:2)
  • stir one another up to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:24)
  • encourage each other. (Hebrews 10:25)

There are times when the road becomes steep, the journey difficult; times when healing doesn’t come and death does. Jesus told us we would have troubles in this world (John 16:33), but He promised to never leave us (Matthew 28:20) and sent His Spirit to comfort us. (John 14:16, 26) Furthermore, He adopted us into His family, a family full of brothers and sisters, so we might mutually encourage and assist each other as we make our way Home.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

O, Lord, please help us to be faithful comforters, encouragers and prayer warriors!

 

Epilogue: During my annual reminiscences surrounding my husband’s death in 1997, I came across this notation in my journal: “This has been the most difficult week of my entire life, but I can honestly say I’ve never felt more loved. Lord, thank you for loving me through so many people.” Since I started working on this post several days ago, my brother-in-law David passed away. My prayer is that his family will be able to say the same, as they feel the love of God surrounding them in the prayers and presence of His people.

[1] See Archives April 4, 2019 and May 9, 2019 respectively.

Through the night

Mom didn’t sound quite like herself when I called to say I was on my way to pick her up for our weekly trip to daughter Mary’s house to spend the day with the children. When I arrived a few minutes later, one look was enough to confirm my suspicions. I’d like to say I took Mom directly to the emergency room, but knowing Mary had a full slate of work planned and praying Mom was just off to a slow start, I went to Mary’s instead.

Mom still wasn’t fully functioning by lunchtime and my concern had escalated to the point I texted Mary to come home. Mom, who isn’t a fan of doctors’ offices, much less hospitals, compliantly took my son-in-law’s arm[1] as he gently guided her into the passenger seat of my CR-V. I managed to remain calm during the 20-minute drive, reassuring Mom that I’d get her the help she needed. Nonetheless, when an attendant from the emergency department met us at the curb and, seeing Mom’s condition, whisked her into the building in a wheelchair, I couldn’t contain my barely-suppressed tears any longer.

Given her speech difficulties and wobblier-than-usual steps, I suspected a small stroke, but several hours and multiple tests later, the true culprit was identified: a severe case of pneumonia, resulting in critically-low oxygen saturation in Mom’s bloodstream. No wonder she couldn’t think clearly or walk without assistance! Any relief I felt over it not being a stroke was summarily eclipsed by the attending physician’s matter-of-fact statement that things often get worse, much worse, for elderly pneumonia patients before they get better, if they get better at all.

Having delivered the full-disclosure version of the diagnosis, the doctor strode out, leaving me to process his message. Thankfully, Mom didn’t hear or comprehend his dire declaration or take note of my obvious distress. But her nurse did. “I don’t know why doctors feel like they have to say things like that. We also see patients get better without declining first.”

My reply? “It’s all in God’s hands”, a mighty truth I’d cling to in the coming hours.

I reluctantly left Mom to the capable care of the medical team. As I trudged to the parking garage, I thought about another night, 22 years before, when I left that same emergency department, dazed, numb, knowing I’d never experience another day of life in this world with my beloved husband, Ray.[2] And I wondered if I’d spent my last with my dear mother.

Shortly before bedtime, my phone rang. The night-shift physician called to let me know Mom was stable and to confirm their intentions to move her to ICU as soon as a room became available. Then this: “I was told your mother wasn’t thinking clearly when she came in so I need you to confirm her stated DNR wishes.”[3]

Pause. Deep breath. “That’s correct. Mom’s consistently expressed her wishes regarding no life support or extraordinary measures to keep her alive. But please take good care of her so we won’t have to make that decision.”

Not a conversation conducive to sweet dreams. It, along with images of Mom when I left her, attached to multiple monitors, with a breathing mask strapped across her face, marched through my mind. Would she make it through the night, the next several days? Or would I be faced with planning another April funeral, tucking one more piece of my heart into a loved one’s grave?

I prayed fervently for Mom to recover and eventually be able to return home to us. Nonetheless, I knew if her earthly days were over, it would be ok. Every time a doubt or fear prodded me from my fitful sleep, Truth arose to quell it:

  • I know Who Mom belongs to. Whether in life or death, no one will be able to snatch her out of His hand. (John 10:28-29)
  • I thought about a quote I saw shortly before my Ray’s death: “Until it’s my time to go, nothing can take me. When it’s my time to go, nothing can keep me here.”
  • I pondered a proclamation one of our pastors made at Ray’s funeral: “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer, it is the most glorious beginning.”
  • I considered God’s love and faithfulness across the years since losing my life partner. I knew those same comforts would attend future losses. (Psalm 23)
  • I imagined Mom taking her place in our heavenly family circle, reunited with so many departed loved ones, now joyfully gathered in Jesus’ presence.
  • And I compiled a mental playlist of cherished hymns – Amazing Grace, Blessed Assurance, It is Well with My Soul – that further calmed my troubled mind.

The Spirit ministered to me throughout the night, battling my fears by reminding me of God’s promises and assuring me of His presence (Psalm 16:7-8; Zephaniah 3:17; Romans 8:26-27), just as Jesus said he would. (John 14:25-26)

We can’t foresee what any given day may hold for us and those we love, but nothing ever catches God by surprise (Isaiah 46:8-10). I don’t know what you may be going through, dear reader, but I pray you too will meditate on Truth. Consider, for example:

  • God has a plan for each of us. (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
  • All our days are written in His book before even one comes to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • He sees every tear. (Psalm 56:8)
  • He works all things together for good for those who love Him. (Romans 8:28)
  • He’ll never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • He’s conquered death. (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)
  • He’ll take us Home to be with Him forever. (John 14:1-3)

We have this hope as a sure and steadfast anchor for our souls. (Hebrews 6:19-20) And I will gladly testify that the anchor holds, even through the darkest night.

IMG_E1080

(To be continued.)

 

[1] Justin and Mom are buddies. He came home to help too.

[2] My husband, Ray, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 39 on April 19, 1997. Mom went into the hospital on April 17, 2019.

[3] “Do not resuscitate”

Emmanuel, God with us

This has been one of those weeks. You know, the kind dotted with numerous reminders things aren’t the way they’re meant to be. I’m not even talking about national or global events. No, just in my little corner of the world, the consequences of the Fall have been abundantly evident. From broken relationships to childish misbehavior to my own selfishness. Add in the effects of my precious parents’ aging, as well as mine – my IMG_E0161hands have made it clear they’re not happy with the repeated gripping and lifting required to set up my beloved Dickens Village – and the final enemy, death, which paid an unexpected visit to one of our church families. The weight has grown heavy indeed.

I suppose the world was every bit as dark, with sin and sorrow pressing in all around, when God sent His one and only Son, the Light of the world, full of grace and truth to that lowly manger in Bethlehem. The most precious gift ever given came packaged as a tiny baby, grew to be a man who lived a sinless life and took our sins upon Himself, that we might have hope now and eternal life in God’s very presence.

So, dear friends, whether you, too, have had one of those weeks or if you simply need to step back from the busyness of the season and refocus on the reason for our celebrations, I offer these passages, some of my very favorites. May they speak peace into our lives as we reflect on the coming of God’s promised Messiah and look forward to His equally-certain return.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone . . . For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)

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

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

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.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. (Lamentations 3:21-25)

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

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

O, Lord, thank You for your great love and faithfulness, the assurance that every one of your promises finds its Yes in Jesus. (2 Corinthians 1:20) Please help us to never lose heart, remembering that the afflictions of this world are light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory You have prepared for us. (2 Corinthians 4:16-17) May we ever praise You for your incomparable gift of Life, not only at Christmastime, but throughout the year, with joyful, grateful hearts.

Thanks, Mom!

Her children rise up and call her blessed.
Proverbs 31:28a

Ok, you probably think I’ve gotten my holidays mixed up. No, I know it’s not Mother’s Day. But it is the season of Thanksgiving and today is my dear mom’s 87th birthday. Thus, I want to thank God for the blessing of a godly mother as well as celebrate this very special woman by documenting some of the nuggets of wisdom she’s shared with me for as long as I can remember.

People will let you down, but God never will. Mom and I have been through numerous trials together in the nearly-60 years since she gave birth to me. Lies, disappointments, job loss, broken relationships, deaths. Through it all, Mom has taught me to depend on the One who says He’ll never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6); who faithfully keeps His promises (Hebrews 10:23) and speaks only truth. (Hebrews 6:18) We will have troubles in this world, but Jesus has overcome the world. We can find peace in Him. (John 16:33)

When faced with a list of tasks, do whatever’s bothering you the most first and get it behind you. When I feel overwhelmed, which is more often than I like to admit, Mom encourages me with this time-tested advice bestowed upon her by one of her grade-school teachers. Though it may not have been inspired by scripture originally, there’s certainly a Biblical tie-in. Usually when my to-do list becomes over-loaded, it’s filled with chores associated with temporal concerns. Cooking, cleaning, weeding, mulching, paying bills and the like are necessary. But Jesus makes it clear we’re to seek eternal things first, trusting Him to provide all we need (Matthew 6:25-33) and spending time at His feet to learn of Him. (Luke 10:38-42)

We can’t change anyone else, much as we’d like to sometimes. We can only give an account of ourselves. My reply when Mom tells me this? “You’re right. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in line!” Once again, there’s Biblical truth in Mom’s statement. As part of His magnificent Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against judging others, especially since we have sin in our own lives to deal with. (Matthew 7:1-5) Praise God for giving us His Spirit, which is at work in us to bring about the transformation we’re incapable of accomplishing on our own. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) Furthermore, we’re called to pray for others, but only He can soften hardened hearts. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

We can’t give up. We’ve got to hold on to our faith and keep going. Throughout her life, Mom’s faced challenges that may have led some to quit or become bitter. In the last decade alone, she:

  • shattered the bones in her right shoulder, an injury that required surgery to install a plate and multiple screws and left her with limited range of motion in that arm.
  • suffered a heart attack that led to the discovery of three severely-blocked arteries resulting in emergency open-heart surgery.
  • fractured a vertebra in her back and had a procedure known as kyphoplasty to repair it.

Mom endures daily pain due to the ravages of arthritis that have led to enlarged joints in her fingers and cartilage deterioration in her now-bone-on-bone right knee. Yet she rarely mentions her constant aches. Instead, she clings to God’s mercies which are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24) and encourages those in her inner circle to do the same. Though she’s never declared a favorite verse, I expect Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, would be a front-runner.

That’s a Gulf song. Granted, this statement isn’t advice, but I include it because it alludes to my heritage of faith. Mom grew up in the tiny town of Gulf, NC, where she attended a small Presbyterian church established in the 1800’s. When the strains of a familiar hymn from her childhood begin to play at our current church, Mom’s face brightens and one of us will usually lean toward the other and whisper, “That’s a Gulf song.” I don’t know how many generations my heritage of faith encompasses, but I know there are at least two behind me and two in front. I pray that legacy of faith will be passed continually from generation to generation until Christ returns. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

IMG_4723Though petite in stature, Mom’s my biggest cheerleader and most dependable defender. We all need someone who’s unconditionally, unreservedly in our corner. I’m so thankful Mom’s in mine. She’s my rock because she consistently points me to the Rock and reminds me His everlasting arms are securely holding all who belong to Him in an eternal embrace. (Deuteronomy 33:26-27a) O LORD, please help me to do the same for my precious children and grandchildren. Thank You for the priceless blessing of a godly mother!

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)

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)

Becoming fluent

The church I attend recently began a small-group discipleship ministry for our women. As part of getting to know each other better, the leader of my group asked us to share a little-known fact about ourselves. I decided to tell the group about living in Argentina in the early-1970’s. The usual questions regarding life in a foreign country followed, accompanied by my well-practiced answers. Being so far away from family and friends at a time when communication was limited to snail mail was decidedly difficult, but the opportunity to experience a different culture and learn a second language was priceless.

Our 2-year stay abroad resulted from my dad accepting a temporary transfer to work for the Argentine subsidiary of his U.S. employer. Thus, part of the pre-move preparations involved my parents’ 2-week, company-paid attendance at a local Berlitz total-immersion language school. It was a stressful, morning-to-night grind, no English allowed.

Unlike my beleaguered parents, I began my language studies once we landed in Argentina. I was enrolled in an American school where I had classes in English in the morning and classes in Spanish in the afternoon. That, plus daily interaction with native speakers in our community, provided an excellent learning environment. Nonetheless, my parents hired a tutor to help me with the intricacies of sentence structure and verb tenses.

IMG_6898Just as I benefitted greatly from learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, Christians thrive best when we’re part of God’s visible church. Scripture is clear that each of us has an important, God-ordained place in His body (1Corinthians 12:12-30) and that we should not neglect meeting together. (Hebrews 10:24-25) Furthermore, God’s family is composed of members of varying ages, abilities and spiritual maturities, just like biological families. We are called to do life together in compassionate covenant communities, where we rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and come alongside each other to teach, support and encourage according to the gifts we’ve been given. (Romans 12:3-21)

In addition, we have a responsibility to tell the younger generations of the mighty deeds of the Lord and to instruct them in His ways. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Psalm 145:10-13) Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s directions to Titus are clear regarding the role older women are to play in tutoring the younger women, teaching them the finer points of Biblical womanhood through both word and action. (Titus 2:3-5)

I don’t remember how long it took, but one day, to my amazement, I realized I could speak and respond in Spanish without a conscious translation step. The second language had become second-nature.

And so it is with our spiritual transformation. Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf, we’re no longer slaves to sin. Instead, we’ve become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6) Through the Spirit’s power at work within us, we’re able to discern what is right and true, something we could never do when we were dead in our trespasses. Furthermore, as our sanctification progresses, Christ’s light shines ever-brighter in us and we produce spiritual fruit. (Matthew 5:14-15; Galatians 5:22-23) More and more, our renewed nature becomes second-nature as we seek to please God and abide in Him. (John 15:5)

Nonetheless, aspects of our old selves will persist until God calls us Home, as Paul so eloquently describes in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 7:15-20) And so we press on to become fluent in God’s ways, by studying His Word, praying and joining with fellow believers to worship Him and stir one another to love and good works.

Even now, over four decades later and without daily use, I’m apt to spontaneously sprinkle Spanish sentences into conversations with my grandchildren. They’ve become used to these linguistic detours and know an immediate translation-repetition-translation mini-lesson is sure to follow. Yes, I can speak Spanish, though far from flawlessly – I still can’t roll my Rs and I mix up verb tenses – but I enjoy the language and sharing it with my grandchildren.

How much more I savor sharing our Savior with them. I’m far from perfect when it comes to fluency in my Christian walk as well. But I pray I’ll always be faithful to spontaneously sprinkle His ways and words into our conversations as I point them to the only perfect One who loves them even more than I do and encourage them to take their places in His family. May His nature become increasingly second-nature for us all.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

Bucket-fillers

Most Mondays and Wednesdays find me at daughter Mary’s house. As 1pm draws nigh, I start herding 7-year-old Joshua and 2-year-old Emma toward the car so we can pick almost-5-year-old Lyla up from pre-school. Depending on the number of distraction-produced detours they take, the process can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Likewise, the drive to school and back may be filled with enthusiastic commentary on the scenes passing by or with shrieks of “Grammie, tell (insert sibling’s name) not to look at/touch/talk to me!!!” Yes, the trek to retrieve Lyla from school and return home safely is often the most stressful part of my day.

But a couple of Mondays ago, the events surrounding our mid-day trip were decidedly pleasant. As soon as Lyla and her teacher exited the building, Joshua, exclaimed, “Lyla’s got the bucket! She’s kid of the day!!” And so she was.

As Lyla climbed aboard and buckled up for the ride home, we all started talking excitedly. Congratulatory remarks blended with curious queries regarding the contents of her bucket. Several pieces of candy, a stencil, a super-cool, light-up pen, a certificate declaring her kid-of-the-day and two books resided inside.

IMG_6750Joshua read the books to us after lunch. They were all about how we fill or empty each other’s imaginary buckets by being kind or being mean. Furthermore, the books pointed out we’re doing one or the other all the time. The narrative went on to say that by filling up others’ buckets, we’re filling up our own as well since being helpful, obedient and thoughtful makes situations better for everyone involved. Bucket-fillers, buoyed by the results of their good deeds, are much happier than bucket-dumpers, whose actions contribute to continued strife.

As I listened to Joshua’s expressive reading, I smiled knowing I was hearing a child-friendly version of one of my most cherished spiritual principles: our calling to glorify God by being life-giving helpers. This concept was introduced to me over two decades ago by Susan Hunt, my dear friend and spiritual mother.

In the beginning, when God spoke everything into existence, He declared it all good, with one exception. In Genesis 2:18, God states, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” The helper was so perfect, Adam stated, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23)

Her name (Woman) acknowledged her equal status before God, having been created in God’s image just as Adam was, though her function was different. Lest we think women’s helper position is somehow inferior, we need only look at other uses of the Hebrew word ezer (translated “helper”) in the Old Testament. It is frequently used to describe attributes of God Himself: Defender (Exodus 18:4), Protector (Psalm 33:20), Comforter (Psalm 86:17), Deliverer (Psalm 70:5), Champion of the poor and oppressed (Psalm 72:12-14).[1] These are strong, necessary, life-giving roles.

But sin intervened. As Susan explains:

“When the man and woman sinned, Woman lost her ability to be a true helper. At this point of hopelessness, God gave hope. He promised that the woman’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Adam affirmed and celebrated his belief in this promise by renaming her. ‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living’ (Genesis 3:30). Eve means ‘life-giver’. Because of her rebellion the woman became a life-taker, but because of the promise of life she became a ‘life-giver’. This is more than biological. Woman’s redemptive calling is to be a life-giver in every relationship and circumstance.”[2] (Emphasis mine.)

Left to ourselves, we would be utterly incapable of carrying out our calling. But, praise God, He didn’t leave it up to us. Because of Jesus’ promise-fulfilling sacrifice on our behalf, we’ve been given hearts of flesh that want to please our Lord and Savior and the power of His indwelling Spirit to help us accomplish His purposes. (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Ephesians 1:19-20)

Though being life-givers is part of women’s distinctive design, all believers are called to love and serve others well, as evidenced by:

  • God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, which Jesus confirmed as being second only to the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:28-31)
  • Jesus’ instruction to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, a concept so basic and essential that we refer to it as “The Golden Rule”. (Matthew 7:12)
  • Jesus’ reminder that when we care for the needy among us, we’re caring for Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • Paul’s teaching that we should consider other’s needs before our own, following Jesus’ example of humility. (Philippians 2:3-8)
  • James’ warning that faith without works is dead. In fact, true faith will result in action – good fruit produced from being intimately and securely attached to the Life-giving Vine. (James 2:14-17; John 15:4-5)

As sojourners longing for Home, we may be tempted to despair when we look at current events. Most of us don’t have the influence or following to bring about change on a grand scale. But we belong to the One who is Sovereign over all things. (Psalm 2) He’s assigned us a place (Acts 17:24-26) and calls us to be life-givers in the midst of our unique situations – in our families, our communities, our churches. From brief exchanges with fellow shoppers in a check-out line all the way to decades-long relationships with cherished friends and family members, we are called to be life-givers in every relationship and circumstance.

Lyla is a sweet-natured child, a blessing to all in her small sphere of influence. She earned her kid-of-the-day title by collecting five “warm fuzzies”, each representing an act of kindness toward her teacher or classmates. May we be equally faithful to fill others’ buckets with hope and truth as we point them to the ultimate Giver of Life. (John 1:1-5; John 10:10-11)

 

[1] J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, (Wheaton, IL; Crossway Books, 2006), pp. 34-35

[2] Ibid, p. 34