Beauty of the soul

(This is the 4th and final post inspired by my mom’s recent hospitalization.)

The mid-April morning began normally enough as I went to pick Mom up for our weekly Wednesday date with our (great)grandchildren. But when I arrived at her house, Mom’s unsteady gait and inability to hold up her side of the conversation alarmed me. A sense of foreboding lapped at the edges of my mind, like small waves at the beach, precursors to the one that will knock you off your feet. Was the abnormal behavior just a slow start to her morning or a sign of something more serious?

Several hours later, with no improvement in Mom’s physical or cognitive abilities, I took her to the emergency department at our local hospital. It was serious, very serious. In fact, 24 days would come and go before she was well enough to return home. Yet even in those first few hours in the ED, weak and wheezing with every breath, Mom was thanking her caregivers and trying to joke with them in spite of the breathing mask strapped securely across her face.

It didn’t take long for Mom to enchant the nurses on her assigned floor once she moved to the room prepared for her; this, in spite of her precarious physical condition. By the second day, they were telling me what a delight she was, as they and Mom bantered back and forth about one or the other taking her home with them. Some stopped by to chat on days when Mom wasn’t officially their patient – to visit, to make sure she was ok and to bask in the radiance of her smile.

IMG_1081The same story played out at the rehab facility, as Mom became an instant favorite with the staff. When the long-awaited day arrived for me to collect her and bring her home, it took the better part of an hour for all the goodbyes to be said. Mom wanted to thank everyone who’d helped her. They in turn didn’t want to miss giving Miz Thelma a farewell hug and wishing her the best.

Though her tiny frame weighed a mere 85 pounds and her flesh was bruised from multiple needle sticks during the course of her treatment, Mom’s smile shone like the sun that warmed the early-May morning.

Beauty Regimen

I recently came across the following statement: “Old age strips the body of its glamour to emphasize the beauty of the soul.”

The aging process is inexorable. It’s difficult to experience our own declining capabilities, often heart-breaking to watch in elderly friends and relatives. Because it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Death wasn’t part of God’s very good creation. Then man chose to disobey, ushering in all the pain and suffering that accompany us as we progress toward our eventual demise (Genesis 3). There’s no effective surgery or exotic cream or miraculous supplement, no fountain of youth to drink from to ward off the ravages of time.

But, praise God, that’s not the end of the story. Those who belong to Him will receive new bodies when Jesus returns, bodies that won’t grow old or die, suited for our eternal souls. (1 Corinthians 15:50-56) In the meantime, we’re being transformed more and more into the likeness of our elder Brother (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18), as the Holy Spirit expertly applies a variety of refining products to enhance the beauty of our souls:

  • The Word of God, living and active (Hebrew 4:12); the source of spiritual sustenance (Matthew 4:4; John 6:32-35).
  • Instruction and encouragement from fellow believers (Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:24-25)
  • Gifts and graces to be used for the building up of the church (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
  • Wisdom wrought from living as a Christ-follower across many years (Job 12:12-13; Isaiah 46:4).
  • The sandpaper of suffering to abrade the callouses of sin – pride, arrogance, anger, bitterness, resentment – and promote the growth of Christ-like characteristics (Romans 5:3-5; Philippians 3:8-10; James 1:2-4).

Jesus’ teaching regarding storing up treasure was clear – we’re to focus on heavenly treasure, the kind no one can steal, that rust and moth can’t destroy. (Matthew 6:19-21) The same imperative applies to the kind of beauty we’re called to cultivate, the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:3-4).

I’ve been blessed to both witness and receive the overflow of goodness from Mom’s heart for six decades so I wasn’t surprised by the mutual affection that developed between her and her caregivers. Even so, her life-giving example never becomes ordinary or loses its luster. Though her nearly-90 years of life have taken a toll on her body, her smile endures as her most defining feature, evidence of the light and love of her Savior burning ever-brighter as she nears Home.

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (Proverbs 31:30)

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”

Death benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

He is Risen!

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

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

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

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

  • Peace with God – “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1 (See also Luke 2:14; Romans 15:13)
  • Forgiveness – “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43 (See also, Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:13-14)
  • God’s abiding presence now – “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b (See also Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • and forever – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Revelation 21:1-3
  • An eternal home – “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14:2-3
  • An imperishable body – “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 (See 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 for the full description of the change to come.)
  • An eternal inheritance – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” 1 Peter 1:3-5

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

 

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

The countdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating apples (reprise)

I first published “Eating apples” on October 25, 2015, the 50th anniversary of my beloved grandfather’s death. It remains one of my favorite posts. I’ve made several edits and added some scripture references, but the heart of the story – my grandfather’s legacy of faith and love – remains.

I don’t have many distinct memories of my grandfather since I was in first grade when he passed away. However, I cherish the recollections I do have. Details provided by my mom as she’s spoken lovingly of her father over the years complete my mental portrait of this kind and gentle man.

Born July 31, 1890, James Alton Phillips was a short fellow, about 5’ 3”, who weighed in at 125 pounds, give or take a few. No doubt genetics played a part in his slight build, but a lifetime of hard work farming his land surely contributed to his wiry physique. 029My mom was the baby of her family, the youngest of eight siblings and her father’s darling. He called her “Babe” and warmed her clothes by the fire for her before she went off to school on cold mornings. Occasionally my grandmother, a bit more stern in her demeanor, would delegate the task of disciplining a wayward child to my grandfather. He would take the offending party outside beyond her view and tell the child to cry out while he used the switch on some inanimate object instead of their legs.

As for me, I recall walking hand in hand with him to the small general store, stopping by the post office to check Box 73 for mail, and waiting for the train to come by so we could wave to the conductor and count the cars. But my favorite activity was eating apples with him. “Papa” as I called him, would sit me on his lap, produce an apple in one hand and his pocket knife in the other. He’d cut a slice for me, then a slice for himself. Back and forth the ritual would continue until the tasty fruit had been consumed. For as long as I can remember, I’ve eaten an apple almost every day. And when I do, I always think of my grandfather.

IMG_6759“Mr. Jim”, as the people around town knew him, was a man of faith, a deacon in the tiny country church where he worshiped. He embodied the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) When he suffered a heart attack a few months before he died, the doctor told him he had to limit his physical activities. For a man who loved his garden and was used to being outside, it was like a death sentence. He’d sit in the kitchen of the home he shared with my grandmother, his wife of 55 years, turn his gaze toward the little church and comment he’d rather be in the cemetery than just sitting around.

Fifty-three years ago today, on October 25, 1965, he was called Home. He had gone outside to check on some work being done for him, work he would much rather have done himself. In a fitting end to his earthly life, he died in his garden. I can still hear my mother’s anguished cry, “No, not Daddy!”, when she received the phone call telling her of his passing.

Although our relationship was brief in terms of time, Papa’s love impacts me to this day. Years after his death, the large corporation I worked for sent me to a training course, one of many I attended during my career. But this one, a self-awareness workshop, was different. It was facilitated by a team of psychologists and it was intense. One of our first exercises involved closing our eyes and imagining a safe place. I immediately envisioned myself in my grandfather’s lap, sharing an apple with him. The physical nourishment we’d partaken of paled by comparison to the bonds of unconditional love and acceptance that were formed.

Today I’m privileged to be “Grammie” to three precious grandchildren. Sharing snacks, especially apples, is one of my favorite things to do with them. It connects me to them and them to my grandfather.

It’s been much too long since I last visited the small graveyard where my grandparents and a number of other maternal relatives are laid to rest. My husband is resting there too, alongside my sister who died in infancy. But when I worked, my job frequently took me to that area of North Carolina and I’d visit the cemetery as often as I could. As I gazed at the tombstones, each representing someone I love and miss, I’d think about how glorious it will be when we all rise to new life, a life that will never end. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) For the love we share now is but a shadow of the Love that awaits when the Everlasting Arms reach out to embrace us and welcome us Home. (1 Corinthians 13:4-13)

Until then, I’ll remain thankful for little rituals and rock-solid faith, lovingly shared, that can reach across the decades, blessing one generation after another.

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)

 

 

 

Exfoliation

Throughout most of the years I worked for a large corporation, I held the role of colorist. As such, I developed, named and presented new carpet color options to our customers. After all the time spent honing my skills at work, I was thrilled when given the chance to choose all the interior and exterior colors as our home was being built in Georgia.

My late husband’s specialty was horticulture, a no-less creative endeavor. Little did I know how challenging I’d made his plant selection assignment when I picked a terra cotta color scheme for the bricks and shutters, especially when it came to picking the must-have southern plant on our list – a crape myrtle.

Nonetheless, being a skilled horticulturalist, Ray made an excellent choice. Unlike other cultivars whose pink or purple flowers would have offended my color sensibilities as they clashed with our cinnamon-colored exterior, the creamy-white blossoms of the now-stately Natchez create a harmoniously-floriferous cascade each summer. But the brilliance of Ray’s choice is most apparent in the fall. For it is then that the annual process of exfoliation occurs.

IMG_6558As summer wanes, cracks begin to appear in the bark along the mighty trunk, signaling the coming changes. Soon, the cracks turn into fissures as the old skin lifts away from the tree, before finally letting go completely, falling to the ground in long, jagged shards. To the uninitiated observer, this series of events may be unsettling. How could such a shedding of bark possibly be good for the plant? Yet that very act allows the trunk to increase its girth and grow stronger. Best of all, it reveals the most magnificent cinnamon-colored covering. Ray saw the potential in the sapling he planted so long ago. He knew what it could become.

There are several concepts that I consider to be spiritual touchstones. One such idea is that of putting off and putting on. In His analogy of an unclean spirit leaving a man only to return to its neat but empty former abode, Jesus made it clear it’s not enough to make a show of getting rid of sinful thoughts and behavior. (Matthew 12:43-45) Instead, our repentance must be true, the kind that produces fruit in keeping with our profession of faith, as we put on right-thinking and conduct pleasing to God.

The Apostle Paul affirms this teaching in his letter to the Romans, where he encourages his readers not to conform to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:2) And in his letter to the Ephesians, he goes even further. After admonishing them to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24), Paul goes on to provide specific examples of behavior to put off as well as corresponding replacements:

  • Put away falsehood and speak truth. (vs. 25)
  • Let the thief no longer steal, but perform honest labor. (vs. 28)
  • Do not use unwholesome language, but that which benefits and builds up those who listen. (vs.29)
  • Put away all bitterness, wrath, anger and every form of malice. Be kind to one another, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. (vs. 31-32)

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, God already sees His righteousness when He looks at us (2 Corinthians 5:21), but there is much refining left to be done. We are not yet holy as He is Holy, nor will our makeover be complete until He returns. Nonetheless, the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us with the same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead. (Ephesians 1:18-20)

At times our refinement is painful, as bits of our old nature are stripped away. Our Savior suffered much. (Isaiah 53:3-6) How better to know Him than to endure loss, sorrow, and persecution as He did? (Romans 8:17) Such challenges may cause outside observers or even believers themselves to question God’s methods, but we can trust the One who made us to have a good and perfect plan and to work all things together for good. (Jeremiah 29:11; Romans 8:28)

Yes, just as Ray knew what the crape myrtle could become, given sufficient time and proper care, God knows who He created us to be. (Ephesians 2:10) Furthermore, He’s promised to complete the work He’s begun in us (Ephesians 1:6) and to never leave or forsake us at any point in the process. (Deuteronomy 31:8) The Helper will be with us to remind us of His promises, to empower us to do His will and to persevere to the end. (John 14:16-17, 26) On that glorious day, our transformation will be complete and all vestiges of our former selves will be gone. We will gather around the throne, our new selves robed in white, to forever praise our Redeemer King. (Revelation 7:9-17)

New box, old post

The door of my aging mailbox refused to stay closed. After several episodes of retrieving its damp contents, I knew it was time to replace it. Upon inspection, the wooden post appeared to be sturdy, despite its slight tilt, which dates back to its initial installation and has been a source of irritation ever since. Being a frugal sort who adheres to the philosophy “waste not, want not”, I decided to replace the box and make do with the leaning post.

I made my way to Home Depot, determined to leave with only a standard-size mailbox and no new plants. I resisted the temptation to stroll through the garden department, went directly to the aisle where the mailboxes are located, paid for the one I selected and returned home.[1] Upon removing the old box, I realized the wooden board it had been attached to was warped and the holes that accommodated the screws were compromised. Not to be thwarted, I decided to use longer screws in an attempt to secure the new box to its perch.

After I attached it, I stood back to admire my handiwork. The sight of the shiny new box contorted into place atop its aged roost was disappointing to say the least. The effect was similar to viewing photos of me and my granddaughters. Just as their unlined faces make mine look more wrinkled by comparison, the post appeared so much older once topped with the gleaming mailbox. And, while I’m ratting on myself, I may as well admit that it took exceptional effort to open and close the door because of the box’s forced mis-alignment. Nonetheless, I decided to live with it.

From the moment I took the initial step back and beheld the disparity between old and new, as well as multiple times since, I’ve been reminded of Jesus’ parable warning against mixing old and new. His examples of using a new patch on an old garment and putting new wine into old wineskins appear in three of the four Gospels, underscoring the importance of His admonition.[2] As recorded in Matthew, after replying to some disciples of John the Baptist regarding fasting, Jesus went on to say, “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)

The parable was most likely directed at the ever-judgmental Pharisees hovering nearby. Over the centuries since Moses received the Ten Commandments, the religious legalists had tacked on more and more requirements and drifted further and further away from the Spirit of the Law. Jesus reserved some of His harshest criticism for the spiritually-blind leaders who misled those who looked to them for guidance. (Matthew 23:1-36)

Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and to establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) as so beautifully foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. Nonetheless, some of the early believers thought they had to add their formerly-mandated works of righteousness to Jesus’ all-sufficient sacrifice. The Apostle Paul made it clear that was unnecessary, for them and for us. (Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:8-9) Likewise, we are told to put off our old selves, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds and to put on our new selves. (Ephesians 4:20-24) In addition, we are called to walk as children of light, having nothing to do with darkness. (2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:8)

IMG_6600The incongruence between the old post and new mailbox continued to grate on me, so I gave in and contacted the HOA-approved mailbox supplier. He came to rectify the situation yesterday. Even though I returned home after dark last night, I breathed a sigh of relief when the new post-new mailbox ensemble appeared in the light of the street lamp. Ahh, the incompatibility was gone.

Oh that we would be similarly perturbed by inconsistencies between the faith we profess and our actions. May we never think we can simply patch our old natures with a dab or two of Christ’s righteousness or live in twilight on the edge of darkness when we’re called to a life of light. And may we long for Christ’s return when the old will pass away completely, all will be made new and our struggles against darkness will cease forever. (Revelation 21:1-5; Revelation 21:21-27)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

 

[1] Long-time readers will recognize the self-control this required of plant-loving me!

[2] See Matthew 9:16-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-39.

When we least expect it

IMG_6520It caught my eye as soon as I pulled into the driveway, weary from a homeward drive after a week at the beach. So much time had passed since the cream-colored lycoris bloomed, I didn’t even remember it was there. Yet despite its long absence, in a perfectly-timed reappearance, it provided a cheerful, “Welcome home!” Its return was even sweeter because my late husband, Ray, planted the bulb from which it sprouted over two decades ago. The intriguing inflorescence showed up againIMG_4314 this year, accompanied a week or so later by another long-forgotten specimen in an adjacent flower bed. But I haven’t seen a single red one yet, even though several of them flowered last year. No wonder “surprise lily” is one of lycoris’ common names![1]

Jesus said His promised return will be a surprise. In fact, He said no one knows the day or hour except the Father. (Matthew 24:36) After making this statement, Jesus went on to tell several parables emphasizing the importance of being watchful and ready. First, there’s the tale of the master of the house who would have stayed awake to protect his dwelling from a break-in had he known when the thief would arrive. (Matthew 24:43-44) Then there’s the story contrasting the behavior of faithful and wicked servants, (Matthew 24:45-51) followed by the tale of the ten virgins, five wise and five foolish. (Matthew 25:1-14) All three have the same admonition: be prepared! Our Master may return at any moment.

The Old Testament is full of prophecies regarding Jesus’ incarnation, yet 400 years passed from the time of the last one until His appearance – more than enough time for people to forget or doubt. Nonetheless, God preserved the memory of His covenant promises across all those centuries, as exemplified by Simeon and Anna. Both were devout. Both watched hopefully for the coming of the Savior. Enlightened by the Spirit, they exulted over weeks-old Jesus when He was presented at the Temple, knowing the long-awaited One was before them. (Luke 2:22-36)

The wait for Jesus’ return is nearing 2,000 years. I rejoice that I am one of those expectantly waiting because generations before me told their children who in turn told their children so the marvelous message of God’s glorious deeds would not be forgotten. (Psalm 78:1-4) Likewise, we must tell our children and grandchildren of His great love and faithfulness, and instruct them in His commandments. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

When my mom was a little girl, talk of the impending end of the world scared her. In her wisdom, my grandmother told her, “Honey, the end of the world comes for someone every day.” And so it does, sometimes when we least expect it. On a beautiful spring day, my husband went to work, suffered a fatal heart attack and never returned home.[2]

Whether we remain until Jesus returns or He calls us Home before, may we be found ready and watchful, faithfully going about our Father’s business. Though the timing is unknown, His second coming is as certain as His first and our eternal destiny is secure.

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)

[1] Common names for Lycoris radiata include surprise lily, hurricane lily and spider lily.

[2] Because I’m writing this on September 11th, I want to remember the ones who left home 17 years ago and didn’t return either.

Remember Me

Our final fortnight, one fateful day, the following week – each year when the wheel of time comes to rest on another April, I intentionally, tenderly open my drawer of memories and recall the happenings of the fourth month of 1997.[1] Even after 21 years, the details are clear, etched in my mind because of the life-changing impact of the central event.

Daughters, 10-year-old Mary and 7-year-old Jessie, and I spent Spring break week with my parents, returning home on April 13th. As we prepared to re-enter our worlds of work and school, we had no notion our remaining time with Ray, our beloved husband and father, would be so short.

I cherish the final evenings we spent at home, particularly the last time Ray and I walked the property together. He pointed out favorite plants and talked of future landscaping plans, some of which I’ve implemented over the years. Before we strolled our yard, we went for a walk in the neighborhood. Ray’s inability to reach the top of what we referred to as the “big hill” due to a shortness of breath was my first inkling anything might be wrong. Nonetheless, the next few days proceeded normally enough, until the moment that Saturday night when my young daughters and I heard the news that forever shattered normal as we knew it.

Anticipating an upcoming conference and another customer visit as I completed my biannual season of travel, I kept telling myself, “One more hard week, then I can put my suitcases away for a few months.” Oh how I wish I’d been able to keep those commitments! They would have been so easy to handle compared to what occurred instead, resulting in what is still the most difficult week of my life: calling family and friends to tell them of Ray’s fatal heart attack; planning and attending his services – visitation Wednesday evening, funeral Thursday morning, burial Friday afternoon in the cemetery of a tiny country church in North Carolina. The familiarity of boarding a plane and sleeping in a hotel would have been far preferable to the uncharted waters I was forced to navigate. I coped with one unthinkable decision at a time as my shock-shrouded mind struggled to process reality.

A torrent of regrets came rushing in. The girls and I were finishing lunch when Ray left for work. Why hadn’t I gotten up to hug him goodbye? Why didn’t I call him that afternoon to see how his day was going? Why wasn’t I kinder in general? Why was I such an awful wife? No time to say goodbye, no opportunity to apologize, no chance to say “I love you” one more time. The remorse and sorrow mingled, creating a bitter brew.

Over two decades have come and gone since, tempering both of those strong emotions. Although I still miss Ray every day and wish I could share my life with him, the raw, searing pain has diminished. I also have a more balanced view of our marriage. I know the measure of what we felt for each other wasn’t predicated on what did or didn’t happen during our last moments together. In fact, our love for each other and our daughters fueled my determination to finish what Ray and I had started, to honor his memory by raising our girls well. Furthermore, his love for me was unconditional. God used it to bless and change me. Its healing impact has endured. Talking about Ray – his character, his faith and, yes, even his foibles – comes naturally to me. I want others to know and remember him, because he’s too special to forget.

This week, I have the pleasure of vacationing in Delaware, visiting gardens and longtime friends, opening other memory-laden drawers in my mind. Not only did I grow up in this area, but Ray and I met, married and started our family here. Contrary to what you might expect, recollections of those early years together have been accompanied by deep joy and abiding thankfulness. Even though I would have chosen to spend many more seasons in wedlock than in widowhood, I praise God for blessing me with a godly husband at all and for our progeny which now includes three wonderful grandchildren.

During his Easter sermon,[2] our pastor reminded us that Jesus’ resurrection ensures not only eternal spiritual life for those who call on Him as Lord and Savior, but that our physical bodies will be raised – whole, incorruptible, no longer susceptible to the ravages of aging or sickness.[3]

055When I visit the cemetery where Ray is laid to rest, I usually sit on the coping surrounding my grandparents’ graves. There I contemplate what it will be like when Jesus returns. In addition to Ray and my much-loved Murve and Papa, my baby sister, several aunts and uncles and a pair of great-grandparents are sleeping there, awaiting the call to arise. We can be assured that glorious day will come to pass, because God keeps His promises.[4] He sent a Savior, who bore our sins and paid the debt we could never pay so that we could take on His righteousness and dwell in His Holy Presence forever. [5] Jesus is preparing a place. He’ll summon us Home.[6]

Each April when I mark another anniversary of Ray’s sudden death, I remind myself I’m another year closer to seeing his beautiful brown eyes again and hearing his happy laughter. I’ll finally get to give him the long-delayed hug. Our reunion is guaranteed by the priceless blood shed on our behalf by the One worthy of all glory, praise and honor,[7] the One too precious to forget.[8]

 

[1] Please see “In remembrance”, Archives, April 2015 for my explanation of “memory drawers”.

[2] “Why the Resurrection of Jesus Matters”, Pastor Ben Duncan, April 1, 2018, Grace Covenant Church.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:52-57

[4] Hebrews 10:23

[5] 1 Peter 1:3-5

[6] John 14:2-3

[7] Revelation 5:12

[8] Luke 22:19

Tradition!

(This is the final post in my reflections-on-a-different-December trilogy.)

Do you hear it? The opening strains of “Fiddler on the Roof”, that is. I do almost every time I come across the word “tradition”. Like the townspeople in the critically-acclaimed musical, my family cherishes our traditions. In fact, we make good-natured fun of ourselves by saying once we’ve done something two years in a row, it acquires tradition status. Nonetheless, we’ve had to accept that there are times when circumstances intervene and beloved customs must be modified or set aside completely.

My husband’s sudden death when our daughters were still in elementary school ushered in significant changes to our Christmas celebrations. Years later, eldest-daughter Mary’s marriage brought about another shift in the flow of holiday events, as did the births of her children. Not only were there in-laws to visit, but she and husband Justin sought to develop their own blend of old and new traditions, as Ray and I had decades earlier.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is our oft-uttered proclamation, “Being together is the best gift.” Reiterated on a variety of gift-giving, tradition-laden, special occasions, there are times when its veracity is confirmed by prevailing events. Such was the case this past December as Mom spent an unscheduled six-day stay in the hospital, a detour which included back surgery. Her unforeseen hospitalization brought about a number of deviations to not only our daily schedules, but also to some pre-holiday plans. Nonetheless, Mom was released in time to attend great-granddaughter Lyla’s birthday party on the 23rd and all subsequent Christmas festivities. Having her home, pain-free, truly was better than anything to be found in a brightly-wrapped box.

As I contemplated the various vicissitudes visited upon us in December, I was repeatedly reminded that everything that genuinely matters hadn’t changed at all. Indeed, most of the traditions I hold dear are special because of the people associated with them. The love, laughter, and, sometimes, tears shared as we create memories that bind us together are priceless. Those ties encompass ones who have been called Home, sustain those of us temporarily left behind and are the stuff of family lore for our youngest, providing a foundation for their own celebrations.

Yes, some of the memories now associated with the twelfth month of 2017 are different, but if you look beneath the surface, you’ll find the similarities to so many of our traditions – our love for each other manifested in our commitment to be together, to celebrate when we can and to navigate uncertain waters together. All of which is a blessing, bestowed by the Giver of every good gift.[1]

Furthermore, we love because He first loved us[2], by sending his Son[3], as a tiny, helpless baby who grew into a man, lived a sinless life and died a horrific death on our behalf.[4] All so we could be with God FOREVER.[5] Good news, amazing news, the news we’re commanded to teach our children[6] and share to the ends of the earth.[7]

Even though some may say we’re too quick to initiate traditions and declare special occasions, every day is celebration-worthy when viewed in the light of God’s goodness.

Oh Father, how we thank you for the gift of your Son. Please help us to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge[8], for comprehending who we are in Him changes everything.

 

[1] James 1:17

[2] 1 John 4:19

[3] John 3:16

[4] Isaiah 53:5-6

[5] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[6] Deuteronomy 4:9; Psalm 34:11

[7] Matthew 28:18-19

[8] Ephesians 3:18-19