When We Least Expect It, Reprise

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.
1 Thessalonians 4:16

Surprise!

It caught my eye as soon as I pulled into the driveway, weary from a long drive home after a week at the beach. So much time had passed since the cream-colored Lycoris last 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 has shown up each year since, accompanied by additional specimens in adjacent flower beds.

One of the common names for Lycoris albiflora and its more common red-flowered cousin, Lycoris radiata, is “surprise lily”[1] because its foliage disappears weeks before the bloom spike appears, thus allowing time for you to forget it’s there.

Be Prepared!

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).
  • And finally, the tale of the ten virgins, five wise and five foolish (Matthew 25:1-14).

All three have the same warning: be prepared! Our Master may return at any moment.

Telling Future Generations

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).

Called Home  

When my mom was a little girl, talk of the 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. My husband, barely 39 years old, went to work on a beautiful spring day, suffered a fatal heart attack, and never returned home.

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)

Dear Lord, thank You that even though present circumstances sometimes cause us to forget we’re merely pilgrims in this world, we can look forward to arriving safely Home. We may not be able to pencil in the day of Your return on our calendars, but it’s a surprise we can anticipate with joy and certainty.


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

Blessed Ties, Reprise

Dear Readers, I’ve got some exciting news – I’m working on my next book! Since most of my writing time will go toward that project, I’ll be sprucing up some previous posts to keep Back 2 the Garden going. They’ll be new for those of you who’ve found your way to the Garden more recently, and I’m hoping longtime followers will find the updated versions worth reading again. And, as you think of it, I would appreciate your prayers for my writing efforts.

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
Galatians 3:26

First Impressions

It’s customary to meet the family of your intended before making a lifetime commitment to each other. Ray had ample opportunity to interact with my parents in Delaware, but it took a 1,400-mile trek to South Dakota for me to get to know his kin.

The sixth of seven siblings, Ray was preceded by three sisters and two brothers. His youngest brother, Phil, completed the family. There were also 18 nieces and nephews at the time of my first visit in September 1982. Thus, we spent much of our flight going over relationships, with Ray patiently coaching me on who was married to who and the names and ages of their offspring.

Although I’m an only child, I’m no stranger to large families. My dad was one of ten, my mom one of eight, so I had plenty of aunts and uncles as well as 31 first cousins. Nonetheless, knowing Ray was seeking his family’s input before he asked me to marry him made me somewhat nervous.

I’m not sure what those fun-loving folks from the heartland thought of this serious, suburbanite introvert, but they welcomed me warmly. Furthermore, I must have garnered enough support since Ray proposed three months later, and a substantial Midwest contingent attended our wedding the following year. Ray and I exchanged vows one sweltering August evening as they and other relatives and friends watched. Thus I became “Patsy Kuipers,” an official member of the family.

Building Bonds

Years passed. We added two daughters to the tally of nieces and nephews, and we strived to return to Ray’s hometown every other year, keeping in touch via phone calls and cards in between.

Then came April 19, 1997. Barely 39 years old, Ray succumbed to a fatal heart attack, like his father 34 years before him. I trembled as I dialed my sister-in-law’s number, tasked with placing a call I didn’t want to make. I was relieved when her husband answered, confident he was strong enough to hear the unthinkable news, wise enough to know how to convey it to the unsuspecting kinfolk.

Once again, my Kuipers family made the journey eastward, first to Georgia for Ray’s funeral and then on to North Carolina for his burial. In our shared grief, we cried, laughed, and celebrated the life of the one we’d lost. We reminded each other that death is not the end for those who belong to Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

Mary, Jessie, and I resumed our every-other-year visits until cumulative life events kept us away for almost eight years. When we finally returned in 2014, our family unit had increased by three. What a delight to have son-in-law Justin, and grandchildren, Joshua and Lyla, with us for the long-awaited reunion.

Familiar Grounds

The summer of 2017 found Jessie and me back in the heartland. Ray’s hometown, Platte (population ~1,300), is a picturesque farming community. The surrounding land is flat, the roads straight, and the horizon seems to stretch forever. The vista is a swath of differently-hued greens and browns dotted with placid cows and classic red barns. As the crops sway in the ever-present breeze, it’s virtually impossible to keep from mentally humming “America the Beautiful.” 

Inevitably, when I mention I’m going to South Dakota to visit my Kuipers relatives, someone will comment, “How nice that you’ve kept in touch with Ray’s family.” I suppose some would view Ray’s death as having severed those ties. How wrong they would be!

As I traversed miles of open country on my most recent trip, I thought how familiar it all feels, how much I enjoy the traditions that have developed over the years, and treasure the relationships. My brothers and sisters-in-law connect me to Ray, while my children and grandchildren allow them to see glimpses of their brother.

Unbreakable Bond

Although much fun accompanies our visits (I laugh more in a week in Platte than I do in a month at home!), our times together are tinged with sadness for the ones no longer with us. My melancholy lingered after I returned home last time. Maybe it was the visit to South Dakota State, Ray’s alma mater, or watching brother-in-law Dave tenderly clean the grave marker of his beloved wife or standing by brother-in-law Phil’s grave for the first time since we attended his service.

But most likely, it was the photos from one of my early trips to Platte that nudged me over the edge. Ray and I were newlyweds, blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Grief that usually resides deep within my soul after 25 years without my partner spontaneously surfaced as I gazed at our youthful innocence through tear-filled eyes.

I lost Ray’s care and companionship when his earthly life ended, but I didn’t lose his family, my family. How thankful I am our shared history now spans 40 years. So many memories – times of laughter and tears, rejoicing and sorrow. Yet I am most grateful for the strong heritage of faith that exists in my family-by-marriage. Our shared belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord sustains us. It’s the real tie that binds us. The one that will last through eternity when we are reunited with our loved ones around His throne (John 6:40; John 10:28; Revelation 7:13-17).

I was so honored when the siblings invited me to stand in Ray’s place in this age-order photo taken in July 2014.

Dear Lord, thank You for the blessing of being Your children and the eternal bond we have with You and each other through Jesus, our elder Brother.

“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares.

When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.”[1]


[1] “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” John Fawcett, lyrics

Eating Apples – encore

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 because it’s about one of my favorite people. 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. Today I’m posting this revision in honor of the 132nd anniversary of his birth.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13

Cherished Memories

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 spoke 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 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 undoubtedly contributed to his wiry physique. My 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, sterner 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 a small knife in the other. He’d cut a slice for me, then a slice for himself. Back and forth the ritual would continue until we finished the tasty fruit. 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.

A Godly Man

“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, and 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. The doctor’s order was like a death sentence for a man who loved his garden and was used to being outside. 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.

Nearly 57 years ago, on October 25, 1965, God called PaPa Home. He had gone outside to check on some work a neighbor was doing 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.

Abiding Love

Although our relationship was brief in terms of time, and nearly six decades have passed since we last shared an apple, 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 that one, a self-awareness workshop, was different. A team of psychologists facilitated it, 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 when compared to the bonds of unconditional love and acceptance formed during our time together.

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, who they’ve come to know by my loving accounts of my short yet precious time with him.

A Promised Reunion

I don’t get to visit the small graveyard where my grandparents and many other maternal relatives are laid to rest as often as I’d like. My husband Ray is resting there, too, near my sister, Mary Jeannette, who died in infancy. Last spring, Mom took her place between them, leaving a space for me.

When I worked, my job frequently took me to that area of North Carolina, and I’d visit the cemetery as often as possible. I would gaze at the tombstones, each representing someone I love and long to see again, pondering 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.

O Lord, how great are the gifts of familial love and a heritage of faith! Please help us to be resolute in telling those coming along behind us about Your great love and faithfulness that they too may know the joy of belonging to Your family.

Benevolent Dominion

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
Genesis 2:15

Tree Hugger

Several years ago, then-seven-year-old grandson Joshua made a derogatory comment about tree huggers. Guessing he was mimicking something he’d heard, I smiled and replied, “Careful there, Joshua! One of your favorite people might be a tree hugger.”

He looked at me sheepishly as he realized I was referring to myself, his plant-loving Grammie.

Since that light-hearted exchange, we’ve had many conversations regarding invasive species of plants and insects, the effects of pesticides on pollinators, and our part in caring for God’s beautiful creation. Though neither of us is likely to chain ourselves to a tree in an attempt to save it, we both prefer protecting rather than pillaging our earthly home.

Rebellious Co-Regents

In the beginning, God created man in His image, male and female He created them. God blessed Adam and Eve, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

How amazing that Almighty God, Creator and Ruler of everything, would allow His creatures to participate in ruling over all He had created. As His representatives, they were to extend the beauty and peace that existed in Eden to the whole earth.

Alas, they weren’t content with their position. When Satan tempted Eve, she exchanged the desire to glorify God for self-exaltation. Her eyes were opened, just as Satan promised, but her disobedience brought death and dismay, not equality with God.

The keeping of the garden that was to be pleasant work in the presence of God became onerous as God cursed the ground, and thistles and thorns sprang up to impede man’s attempt to cultivate crops. I often think of the curse when I struggle to free my azaleas and hydrangeas from the prickly vines that ensnare them or labor to rid my woods of poison ivy.

Relationships also suffered. No longer was there peace between God and man or between husband and wife. It wasn’t long before brother turned on brother. Strife became the norm, as God’s rebellious image-bearers were led astray by their deceitful hearts, each doing what was right in their own eyes. Even the creation groaned under the burden of sin (Romans 8:19-23).

Be Fruitful

Another, more recent, lunchtime conversation with my grandkids found us discussing pets. Since my 19-year-old cat, Willie, died several years ago, I haven’t had a pet, so I offered up, “The birds are my outdoor pets.”

Emma replied, “Those aren’t your birds, Grammie! Those are the world’s birds.”

“You’re right, Emma. They’re God’s birds, but He lets me feed them.”

And so He does.

Despite Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God didn’t give up on His original design or consign His wayward children to eternal exile. Before He banished them from the garden, God promised there would be a way back, a perfect plan developed before the foundation of the world (Genesis 3:15; Ephesians 1:4).

In the fullness of time, Jesus, the only begotten Son, was born, lived a sinless life, and died a brutal death, exchanging His spotless garments of perfect righteousness for our filthy rags of wretched sinfulness.

When it came time for Him to return to His Father, Jesus gave His disciples instructions that hearkened back to those God gave Adam and Eve, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Righteous Rule

Too often, when we hear words like authority, dominion, and subdue, we think of harsh force, one side crushing the other and subjecting them to cruel treatment. But that’s not the way God deals with His creatures. He provides and cares for them so they might flourish under His watchful eye (Psalm 145:15-16). As His children who’ve been given authority to rule in His stead, we’re to do the same.

The Apostle Paul tells us we’ve been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus’ followers are to be fruitful and multiply spiritually. We’re to be peacemakers, sharing the Gospel message of how to be reconciled to God and each other (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

Thus, God still calls us to extend the peace and beauty of Eden to the world in our homes, gardens, communities, and relationships – a foretaste of heaven. Though we won’t be able to do it perfectly until Jesus returns, we are empowered by the Spirit, enabled to bring the sweet aroma of Christ and the light of His love to a world in desperate need of both.

Enemies Vanquished

There will come a time when God displays the force we typically associate with dominion. When Jesus returns, it will be as the conquering King, the One Who will abolish all remaining enemies, including death (Revelation 19:11-16). Everything will be redeemed and made new, yet better than Eden because there will be no place for sin or evil in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:3-4).

Christ is currently seated at the Father’s right hand, possessing all authority in heaven and on earth (Luke 22:69). However, at the consummation of all things, He will assume His visible, eternal rule when every knee will bow and every tongue confesses His Lordship (Isaiah 45:22-24).

And we will rule with Him forever (Revelation 3:21)! How amazing!

Dear Lord, what a privilege it is to be allowed to rule with You even now though sin continues to influence our thoughts and behavior. Whether we’re caring for birds and plants or each other, please help us extend Your grace to all You place in our sphere of influence as we endeavor to be fruitful and multiply, all for Your glory.

My Forever Cheerleaders

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Hebrews 12:1

Watching the Clock

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

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

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

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

And then she was gone. Or was she?

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glorious Reunion

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A Month for Remembering

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

Beware the Ides of April

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

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

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

A Melancholy Month

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

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

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

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

Hope Abounds

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

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

Everywhere I look, I see reminders of resurrection hope.

Suffering Savior

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

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

Grieving with Hope

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

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

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

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

Perseverance Personified

Perseverance Personified

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

Set Backs

After growing up in Delaware, one of the things I like best about living in Georgia is the relatively mild winters dotted with spring-like interludes. But sometimes, early hints of spring stretch into several days of balmy temperatures, enough to coax plants out of their winter hibernation early. Inevitably, the temperatures return to a more normal range. Every few years, though, they plummet to well below freezing, jeopardizing new foliage, early flowers, and buds on the verge of opening.

Such was the case last month. I watched as tender green shoots and spring ephemerals began popping out, hoping the unseasonable highs wouldn’t give way to record-breaking cold. Nearly a week of days passed with temperatures in the 70s, well above average for March. Flower buds swelled, and some burst open, overcome by the welcoming warmth. The exuberant plants just couldn’t contain themselves!

Seeing the forecast for nighttime temps in the lower 20s, I strolled my property, took some photos, and whispered encouragement to the young sprouts, “Hunker down, guys, you can make it!”

After successive nights of such cold, I walked my garden again to assess the damage. Some of my plant friends survived unscathed, while others bore significant evidence of the relentless cold. New leaves, bright green a few days before, hung brown and limp from branches. The first courageous flowers, zapped by the deep freeze, bore the same appearance.

Persistence

I’ve watched my plants undergo various hardships over the years – drought, hail, temperature extremes, both high and low – and am inspired by their will to live. Their perseverance is one of the things I like best about gardening, the thing that makes it such a hope-filled endeavor.

Despite my sorrow at seeing their injuries, I expect most will persist and begin to flourish again when more typical spring weather settles in. Some have already started to produce new leaves to replace the brown, lifeless ones. Even those that won’t be able to bear flowers this year will have the hope of doing so next year.

I’ve learned that as long as the roots and crown of perennials haven’t been damaged, the plants will survive.

Our Example

Scripture likewise praises perseverance, telling us that our suffering produces endurance, which in turn produces character, which then yields hope (Romans 5:3-4). James even goes so far as to counsel us to count it all joy when we encounter trials of various kinds because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness (James 1:2-3).

Jesus is our ultimate example of perseverance. He knew from before the foundation of the world what it would cost Him to save God’s chosen ones. Still, He came, humbling Himself by taking on flesh, enduring the punishment and mistreatment due to us, and remaining obedient to the point of death on the cross.

Why? For the joy set before Him. And what was that joy? Spending eternity with us in the presence of His Father! Think about that, dear readers. Marvel and wonder at it! Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, endured far more than any of us will ever have to bear so we can be with Him forever. The writer of Hebrews urges us to consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that (we) may not grow weary or fainthearted. In (our) struggle against sin, (we) have not yet resisted to the point of shedding (our) blood (Hebrews 12:3-4).

Though we’ll never have to bear the weight of God’s wrath because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we will have troubles in this broken world, even times when we wonder how we’ll endure and if we’ll remain steadfast. But we’re never alone (John 16:33). Just like the plants whose outward appearance is alarming but whose roots are strong and healthy, those of us who are rooted and built up in Jesus will draw on His living water and bear much fruit for His glory despite setbacks, daunting conditions, and seasons of dormancy (Jeremiah 17:8). And one day, He’ll call us Home where we’ll flourish forever.

Thank You, Lord, for loving us unconditionally and sacrificially. You lived a sinless life yet became sin for us that we might be robed in Your righteousness, enduring unimaginable pain and separation from the Father so we’ll never have to (2 Corinthians 5:21). As we go through this Easter season, please help us take time to meditate on all it cost You to save us. May we follow Your example of perseverance so our faith roots grow strong and deep in the nourishing soil of Your presence.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy, Reprise

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

Greetings!

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

Reset, Refocus

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

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

Timeless Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Longing for Home

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Hebrews 11:15-16

A Devastating Blow

I watched as the EMTs carried Mom, cradled in her bedsheet, to the waiting ambulance. Though it appeared one of my worst fears, a fall-induced broken hip, had come to pass, I prayed Mom would somehow be able to recover and return home.

Several hours later,  x-rays confirmed our initial suspicions. I texted my kids[1] and called my dad to relay the daunting news along with the doctors’ recommendation that Mom have surgery to repair her hip. We debated surgery due to Mom’s overall fragile state, but there was no discussion necessary when it came to our ultimate goal: to bring Mom home, whatever it took.

Not only did Mom make it through the surgery, but her surgeon said she did well, and the rod he placed in her hip would be sturdy enough to support her when she was ready to stand up. All good news. Thank You, Lord!

Sadly, Mom’s mental state offset the positive report regarding her physical status. She was confused and disoriented. We prayed those symptoms were the after-effects of anesthesia and would soon wear off. Though her thinking remained muddled, Mom made it clear to anyone who’d listen that she wanted to go home – the sooner, the better.

Preparations

Physical and occupational therapy began the day after surgery as we looked forward to Mom getting strong enough to be discharged. We arranged to have the necessary equipment delivered and contracted with an in-home healthcare agency to provide 24/7 care.

I was present for the equipment delivery and watched as the technician set everything up. All the while, a knot in my stomach drew tighter and tighter. I half-listened while he explained how each piece of equipment worked, fearing the knot would tighten to the point of cutting off my breath.  Left alone to survey the place prepared for Mom, a sense of despair welled up within me. I knew Mom wanted to come home, but not like this, not to be bedridden.

Even before she broke her hip, a severe case of sciatica had limited her mobility and activities. She spent her last weeks at home sitting, resting her leg, no doubt torturous for someone used to being so active. Seeing her frustration at being sidelined, I was reminded of the story she recounted of her beloved father, a farmer who cherished being outside. After he had a heart attack, his doctor told him he couldn’t work in his garden anymore. As Mom told it, PaPa would sit in the kitchen of the home he shared with my grandmother, gazing out the window toward the little church where he was a lifelong member. “I’d rather be up there in the cemetery than sitting here doing nothing,” he’d lament.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Mom hadn’t had similar thoughts. Even though the little church was 400 miles away, I knew she could see it just as clearly in her mind’s eye as my grandfather could sitting at his kitchen window all those years ago.

God’s Plan

Long days in the hospital passed with no perceptible improvement. Still, we doggedly pursued keeping our promise to Mom to bring her home. With the specter of long-term disability looming menacingly, we turned our attention to procuring in-home hospice to supplement the 24/7 caregiver.

When I told the hospice coordinator about Mom’s oft-expressed plea to go home, she asked if I knew what she meant by “home.” Though I never questioned her desire to be back at home with Dad, I pondered Audrey’s question. Could it be, after days of suffering, Mom had begun to long for her heavenly Home?

Audrey suggested moving Mom to a hospice facility for a few days to address her pain more effectively. We agreed, still intending to bring her home. But God had other plans. Barely 24 hours after she arrived at Tranquility, the Lord called Mom to Himself.

As sad as I was not to be able to keep my promise to Mom, I rejoiced, knowing God was fully capable of keeping His (John 14:2-3). Though we had prepared a place for Mom, the one He had waiting offered ultimate healing and the joy of being in His presence (Jude 24).

A Promise Kept

Some years ago, when we discussed last wishes,  Mom told me she wanted her body brought back to the country church where she grew up. That was a promise I could keep. On May 7th, we gathered in the dearly-loved sanctuary. We sat on decades-old wooden pews, Mom’s flower-bedecked casket in front of us, as my son-in-law led her service. We couldn’t take her back to her home in Georgia, but we brought her back to her heart’s home, where she first knew the love of family and the love of her Savior.

After the service, several of my cousins serving as pallbearers carried Mom’s earthly remains to their final resting place – for now. 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 4:16-18).

As I stood by her grave, peace overcame my sorrow, a peace I’ve felt each time I visit that cemetery and observe the gravemarkers of other departed relatives, including my baby sister and dear husband, Ray. I imagine the day of Jesus’ return described in 1 Thessalonians when we’ll all rise together. He’ll welcome us into our forever Home, the one we’re truly longing for (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Dear Lord, how I thank You for the assurance of eternal life in Your presence, a promise secured by the precious blood of Jesus shed on our behalf. I look forward to the Home where there will be no more death or mourning, or crying, or pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4).


[1] “My kids” = adult daughters, Mary and Jessie, and Mary’s husband Justin.

Tell Them Hello

“Those whom you laid in the grave with many tears are in good keeping: you will yet see them again with joy. Believe it, think it, rest on it. It is all true.”
J.C. Ryle

“Tell them hello for me” was one of Mom’s signature sayings. Depending on who “them” referred to, she might also tack on, “and that I love them.” I delivered her message countless times over the years. Sometimes when Mom and I would muse about being reunited with our departed loved ones, we’d extend the request to the other side. One of us would say, “If you get there first, tell them hello for me.” And I would often add, “Please give Ray a big hug!”

A Wondrous Vision

As I recounted in “Either Way, It Hurts,”[1] we didn’t have many coherent conversations with Mom after the surgery to repair her broken hip. Hallucinations hounded her. She repeatedly referred to her nurses by my daughters’ names and mistook my son-in-law for one of her late brothers-in-law. One of her sweeter scenarios found us taking care of a baby. Though she referenced playing peek-a-boo with great-granddaughter Emma, I couldn’t help but wonder if the infant she was tending wasn’t my little sister, who died almost 60 years ago.

Nearly-constant fidgeting accompanied Mom’s imaginings, so I spent most of my visits standing at her bedside. I held her hands and stroked her head and arms in an attempt to calm her mind and body. Sometimes I played hymns on my phone or sang. I recited scripture and prayed.

One afternoon, as I was trying to soothe her, Mom’s gaze shifted to something beyond me. She became quiet and smiled several times as a look of joy and wonder transformed her countenance. I asked her what she saw.

Instead of responding to me, she marveled, “Well, is that Ray?”

Another big smile. Mom turned her eyes slightly as if surveying a room and exclaimed, “There you all are! Do you remember me? It’s been a long time!”

I thought the Lord was going to call Mom Home, but the moments of calm passed, replaced all-too-soon by agitation that would continue to plague Mom’s final days.

Reassurance

Though I spent numerous hours at the hospital, I didn’t have the emotional or physical stamina to be there 24/7. My daughters and son-in-law took turns visiting and soothing, but still, there were times when no family members were with Mom, only her dedicated caregivers. I fretted she might be alone if the Lord did call her Home.

The palliative care doctor attempted to alleviate my concerns. “Don’t feel guilty if you’re not here when your mother passes. I’ve seen instances where family members have kept bedside vigils for hours, step out of the room for a few minutes, and find their loved one is gone when they return.”

I consoled myself with Dr. Gordon’s words, knowing friends who’d experienced the sequence of events she described. I also knew God would never leave or forsake Mom in this life or the next.

But then He graciously gave me the gift of witnessing that brief respite, filled with wonder and joy and recognition, which buoyed my hope that Mom would be surrounded by loved ones even if we weren’t there.

A Greater Gift

My concerns were unfounded, as they often are. In His exceeding kindness, God made it possible for all of us – Dad, daughters Mary and Jessie, son-in-law Justin, our pastor, and me – to be with Mom in her final hour on this earth.

By the time we arrived, Mom was drawing ever-closer to her heavenly rest. Her breathing was shallow, and she didn’t respond to our expressions of love or our whispered prayers and hushed goodbyes. Nonetheless, I prayed God would enable her to know we were there.

I began to sing our family anthem, “Amazing Grace,”[2]  fully expecting my voice to falter before I got to the second stanza. Instead, it grew steadier, as a strength not my own carried me to the very last word of the final verse. By then, Mom had drawn her last breath and peacefully entered into the presence of Jesus. I imagined my voice blending with a heavenly chorus as Mom’s faith became sight (1 Corinthians 13:12).

I also imagined loved ones there to greet her. Then, much like her gaze focused beyond me the afternoon she initially saw them, I fancied her being captivated by her first glimpse of Jesus, His arms open wide to receive her, another saint safely Home (John 10:27-29).

And I like to think she gave Ray that hug.

Lord, there are many things we don’t know about heaven, but Your Word assures us that we’ll be with You and all those who belong to You (Revelation 21:3) in a place of unimaginable beauty and blessings (Psalm 16:11). Our faith will become sight as we behold Jesus and see that all of Your promises are indeed yes in Him (2 Corinthians 1:20).


[1] Please see Archives, May 2021.

[2] Please see “Let’s All Sing,” Archives, June 2020.