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.

Either Way, It Hurts

Jesus wept.
John 11:35

Across the years since Ray, my then-39-year-old husband, went to work, suffered a fatal heart attack, and never came home, I’ve pondered which is more painful, losing someone suddenly or watching them decline over time before they pass away. Having now experienced the latter with my dear mother, I can affirm what I suspected all along – either way, it hurts.

Sudden Loss

The phone rang within minutes of my young daughters and I returning home from a shopping outing. I answered to hear someone who identified herself as Chris, a patient care coordinator from the local hospital. She told me Ray had been transported from work to the emergency department by ambulance and asked if someone could bring me to the hospital. I assured her I could drive myself, gathered my girls, and said a brief prayer for Ray’s well-being before we set out.

As I drove, hands clasping the steering wheel, praying we’d find Ray alive, it occurred to me that Chris’s question regarding someone accompanying me already provided a clue to what lay ahead. The knot in my stomach was as tight as my clenched fingers.

When we arrived, Chris asked me some questions about Ray’s medical history as she ushered us to a private room to await the doctor, who would provide more details. As she turned to go, I asked, “Can’t you at least tell me if he’s alive?” She looked at me, silent.

I demanded, “Is he alive?”

“No, honey, he isn’t.”

Ten-year-old Mary, seven-year-old Jessie, and I heard the unthinkable, life-altering news as one and uttered a collective protest of disbelief. How could it be that our beloved father and husband would go to work on a beautiful spring day and not return to us?

In describing the aftermath of Chris’s statement, I’ve said it was as if I took it in only briefly before a giant door slammed shut to protect me from the enormity of it all. Shock, numbness, denial. But sometimes, the pain of profound, searing loss would overtake me, leaving me sobbing uncontrollably, longing for my life partner. Gradually, over weeks and months, reality dripped into my soul bit by bit as I was able to accept it.

There’s a tender scar where the raw wound used to be, and the torrents of tears have given way to deep sighs of acceptance, the expression of a heart pining for its missing piece.

A Gradual Decline

Even though I had no idea the Lord would call Mom Home a few weeks after I wrote Our Refuge (please see March 2021 Archives), I now know He was graciously preparing me for what was to come. I could no longer deny the changes I’d observed in Mom’s body and mind over the past few years, each one chipping away at her abilities, each one like a knife to my own heart. It grieved me so to watch her world become ever-smaller, to see her struggle to accomplish tasks once so easy for her.

I often thought of a friend’s comment two years ago when Mom was so frail, her body weakened by pneumonia, “I think seeing our loved ones decline makes it easier to let them go when the time comes.”

Even so, I couldn’t imagine the time would come when I’d sit by her hospital bed and plead with the Lord to relieve her pain entirely by taking her Home. But it did.

This time, the life-changing call came from my dad. On the morning of April 20th, his 90th birthday, he phoned to let me know Mom had fallen and broken her hip. I rushed to their house, two miles from mine, praying as I had on the drive to the hospital 24 years ago. The EMTs arrived soon after I did, followed shortly by the ambulance.

The image of them carrying Mom out to the ambulance, cradled in her sheet, pain etched on her face, gave me notice regarding the likely outcome, much as Chris’s question about someone bringing me to the hospital had. The following day, Mom made it through the surgery to repair her hip, but it soon became apparent even if her body recovered, her mind might not.

Mary and her husband, Justin, Jessie, and I took turns staying with Mom. There were some peaceful, lucid moments, but mostly we watched as she fidgeted and imagined all sorts of things and people, some pleasant, others deeply troubling. We wondered how her tiny body could keep up the almost-incessant activity without shutting down. We mourned as the bruises multiplied on her paper-thin skin, the aftermath of the fall, the surgery, and numerous blood draws. And we began to pray those prayers for ultimate relief and deliverance.

God mercifully answered our petitions on Mom’s behalf on April 30th, when she took her last breath and peacefully passed from our presence into the presence of Jesus.[1]

Different, Yet the Same

Losing Ray suddenly gave me no opportunity to prepare and resulted in a cycle of denial followed by painful acceptance of reality, a process repeated for months, the dripping I described earlier. Even though I was a rational person and recognized what happened, my subconscious searched for Ray everywhere I went and expected him to return home, hopes that could never be fulfilled.

On the other hand, every moment I had with Ray was normal. I didn’t watch him decline and become a shadow of his former self. Our last conversation was about attending church the next day. But not getting to tell Ray goodbye or express my love and appreciation one last time caused me much sorrow and regret.

Losing Mom a little at a time led me to begin grieving while she was still with me, as I missed activities and aspects of our relationship that were no longer possible. The accelerated pace of her decline after she broke her hip prepared me to let her go. In those final days, I also had the chance to pray with her, thank her for being a wonderful mother, and tell her how much I loved her. Though losing her is painful, it’s not the raw, open-wound kind of pain I felt when Ray died. It’s already a deep sigh of acceptance in my soul, tempered by the joy of knowing Mom is no longer suffering.

Prepared or unprepared, the result is the same. Death is absolute in this life, leading to separation, albeit temporary. For now, there are no more conversations, no more hugs or hand-holding, no shared reminiscences about past experiences or anticipation of future fun-filled activities.

Despite knowing death would not have the final say, Jesus wept outside Lazarus’ tomb. Likewise, we weep over the passing of our loved ones. Because it hurts. Aging and illness and death weren’t part of God’s good plan. Death entered in when Adam and Eve disobeyed, the penalty for their sin, just as God said it would (Genesis 2:16-17).

But God already had a plan of salvation. God would send His Son to crush the head of the Serpent (Genesis 3:15), to redeem those He chose before the foundation of the world. Jesus, man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3a), comprehends our heartbreak when we watch loved ones suffer and die. So we approach His throne to receive grace and mercy in our time of need, knowing we have a great High Priest who understands (Hebrews 4:15-16), no matter how our loss comes about.

Furthermore, we grieve with hope as we look forward to Jesus’ promised return when He’ll wipe away every tear, and death will be no more (Revelation 21:4).

O Lord, it’s so hard to be separated from our loved ones. Thank You that You come alongside us to comfort us as One who understands our grief and who enables us to grieve with hope, knowing the separation is only temporary because of Your sacrifice on our behalf.


[1] Dad, Mary, Justin, Jessie, our pastor (David Donovan), and I were with Mom when the Lord called her Home.

Walking Mom Home

IMG_0579

Thelma Thomas November 24, 1931 – April 30, 2021

“I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job (of writing) . . . It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” Stephen King

Dear Readers,

It may surprise you to see a Stephen King quote at the top of my post instead of a passage of Scripture, but it’s most appropriate given the events of the past month. Perhaps you’ve noticed I haven’t written for a while. My thoughts and efforts have focused on walking with my beloved mother on the last leg of her journey Home. My flesh grew tired and my brain foggy as I accompanied her. But what a blessing and privilege to do so!

As I sat by her bedside, the Lord allowed her to teach me some final lessons, which I look forward to sharing with you in the coming weeks when I get Back 2 the Garden. Indeed, as Stephen King intimated, life, with all its joys and sorrows, provides the fodder for our stories. For believers that means opportunities to testify to God’s great faithfulness and amazing grace through all of life, from first breath to last.

For now, though, there are services to be planned and held in honor of this precious soul who fought the good fight, finished her race, and kept the faith. May all we say and do in those services glorify Jesus, our Lord and Savior, Who Mom always depended on for her strength.

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

Bundled Up

It’s been an overcast day here in Georgia. A few shafts of sunlight have split the steely sky, only to be engulfed once again by clouds that looked like they might produce snow flurries at any moment. Alas, there has been no sprinkling of white to add enchantment to this mid-winter day, just increasing wind gusts and decreasing temps.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, I decided to bundle up and go for a walk. I was feeling out of sorts and hoped the brisk air and some time with the Lord would lift my spirits, even if it chilled my face, fingers, and toes in the process.

I retrieved my Delaware coat – the one I wore a lot in the land of longer winters but turn to only occasionally in the South – along with my mittens and earmuffs.  Given this information, some of you hardier folks, including my relatives in South Dakota, are probably thinking the temperature must have been near zero to merit such gear. At the risk of being labeled a winter-weather wimp, I’ll admit the windchill was 32 degrees when I exited the house, balmy by January Midwestern standards.

Inevitably, this level of bundling up reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon from my childhood. In the first few frames, Charlie Brown is donning his coat, scarf, hat, and boots. In the last frame, he laments, “Can someone please open the door? I can’t move!”

Fortunately, my long, puffy coat doesn’t hinder the movement of my legs, even though I look like I’m walking around in a sleeping bag. Thus prepared for the elements, I ventured out. It wasn’t long before striding through my neighborhood had the hoped-for effect. My torso was warm, and my mind, relieved of its previous concerns, turned to a Bible study lesson from earlier in the week.

Secure in the Lord

My small group has been working our way through the 25th chapter of 1 Samuel, which recounts the story of foolish Nabal, his beautiful, discerning wife, Abigail, and their encounter with anointed-but-not-yet-king, David. Though a mere 44 verses long, the chapter is packed with high drama and reminders that,  “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly” (Proverbs 15:1-2).

The whole chapter and its attendant lessons are beneficial, but the phrase I pondered as I walked along came from Abigail’s impassioned plea to David. She respectfully implored him not to behave foolishly as her husband had and repay evil with evil.  She reminded him his life was bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord his God and that the Lord would take care of David’s enemies in His time (1 Samuel 25:29).

Isn’t it wonderful to know the same can be said about every one of God’s children?  Regardless of the form our enemies take, each of us is eternally bound in the bundle of the living, safe in the Lord’s care, where no one can snatch us away (John 10:28-29). We will face trials and tribulations of varying kinds, but nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

Pressing On

Although my winter garb allows me more freedom of movement than Charlie Brown’s, once I pull my hood up and fasten the top snap of my coat, it’s difficult for me to turn my head. There too, my musings led to a spiritual parallel. Multiple references in the Old Testament document God’s warnings to His people regarding the consequences of straying from His commandments. He admonished them not to turn to the left or right but to stay on course.[1]

Likewise, in his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul described such single-minded focus as he wrote about pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-15).

And then there’s the precious promise of Isaiah 30:21: When we’re tempted to wander off, we’ll hear a word behind us, constraining us from turning to the left or right as the Spirit shows us the proper path.

Whichever climate you’re in, my friend, I pray you will feel the warmth of being securely bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord our God.

Dear Lord, how I thank You for quiet moments with You this winter afternoon, full of reminders that Your children are eternally secure. Nothing can snatch us out of Your hand or separate us from Your love as Your Spirit guides us along our Homeward path.


[1] See for example Joshua 1:7, Joshua 23:6, 2 Kings 22:2, and Proverbs 4:26-27.

Pink Pearl

I appreciate the convenience technology affords us, especially in these times of social distancing, but there are some things I refuse to let go of. I’ll take a printed book instead of an e-version any day, still subscribe to the local newspaper, and prefer a pretty paper calendar over one connected to my email. In fact, I have some traditions associated with the latter.

I start each year by writing birthdays and anniversaries on the pristine pages. These milestones are recorded in ink. All other entries are penciled in as they come up –– things to look forward to, savor, and then look back on.

I suppose my habit of writing changeable events in pencil began shortly after my career did.  (I didn’t have a computer, much less an iPhone back in 1980!) I soon discovered there are many moving pieces to corporate life and that meetings were apt to change as were travel plans, so pencil it was. Forty years later, I’m still penciling in items subject to change.

Cancellations Here, There, and Everywhere

I never would have imagined all the times I’d reach for my trusty Pink Pearl eraser the past several weeks. One by one, activities came off my calendar –  appointments of various kinds, lunch with friends,  5k races, garden tours, even Grammie days[1] – disappearing into so much eraser stubble. The avalanche of cancellations gradually turned into a trickle, sparking tentative hope the few remaining events, further in the future, could be salvaged.

Alas, the cancellations continue. A calendar entry marking a much-anticipated family reunion in South Dakota became the latest to succumb to my eraser, another casualty of unknowns surrounding the trajectory of COVID-19.

I recognize my situation is being played out repeatedly, as individuals and families the world over cancel or postpone activities, some long-awaited like weddings and graduations, others traditions looked forward to from year to year. So. Many. Disappointments.

Permanent Ink

Like many of you, I’ve been taking advantage of online sermons to fill the gap created by the suspension of in-person worship services.  In one such sermon, “From Grumbling to Joy”, Pastor Chris Hodge talked about how quickly we complain when our plans are disrupted or when things are taken away from us. He went on to point out that believers can rejoice, even in suffering, because God has made provision for us in Jesus’ sacrifice and is sustaining us in all our troubles. Too often our joy rests in Jesus plus something or someone else. But the Gospel should be our everything, our joy complete in Jesus.

And then this statement, which I’ve revisited many times since: “No matter how many things are taken away from you, no one can take Jesus and what He’s done for you away.” [2]

What a blessed assurance! God chose me to be His daughter before the foundation of the world. Jesus’ precious blood erased my sins from God’s record and from His memory (Psalm 130:3-4; Psalm 103:11-12, Isaiah 43:25. Furthermore, His atoning sacrifice ensures my name is written in the Book of Life in permanent ink (Revelation 3:5).

Dear Readers, I pray you, too, will find reason to rejoice as we fix our eyes not on our ever-changing circumstances, but on never-changing heavenly realities (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Heavenly Father, this life holds many uncertainties and disappointments even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic. Thank You for the certain provision You’ve made for us in Jesus, the promise that no one will ever snatch us out of Your hand, and the assurance of eternal life in Your presence (John 10:27-29).

[1] My grandchildren and I refer to the days I spend with them each week, usually Mondays and Wednesdays, as “Grammie days”.

[2] “From Grumbling to Joy”, Pastor Chris Hodge, King’s Cross Church, on-line sermon, April 26, 2020.

The Last Enemy

The New Year had barely begun before death visited our family. Dad’s sister, my Aunt Ruby, passed peacefully into eternity on January 12th, eight days shy of her 94th birthday.  She impacted many during her long, full, productive life. Blindness plunged her into darkness some three years ago and, along with the normal effects of aging, shrank her world.  Thus, knowing she’d been released from the constraints of her frail, mortal body consoled our grieving hearts.079

Seeing Mom, Dad, and Dad’s sister, my Aunt Margie, together at Aunt Ruby’s funeral brought to mind a long-ago conversation with my late husband, Ray. We lamented the number of loved ones we were bound to lose in the years ahead. You see, Mom was one of eight siblings, Dad one of ten. Including spouses, I once had 30 aunts and uncles. Now two aunts remain and only three of the 18 brothers and sisters.

Two weeks after Aunt Ruby’s passing, the news of basketball great Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash reverberated around the world. I don’t follow the NBA, but I know Kobe possessed legendary talent and set a number of records during his 20-year career. Now retired, he died en route to a youth basketball tournament, accompanied by his 13-year-old daughter and seven others – parents, players, and the pilot. 055I grieved, not as a sports fan, but as a widow who knows what it’s like to bid your beloved husband goodbye on an ordinary day, never to see him alive again. Because Ray was called Home at age 39, long before most of the relatives whose loss we anticipated grieving together.

Then, less than a week later, while still vulnerable to unpredictable bouts of tears provoked by the losses described above, I received unthinkable news.  My cousin’s 5-year-old granddaughter died in a car accident on a slippery, snow-covered road in Illinois. As Grammie to 4, 6, and 8-year-old grandchildren of my own, I couldn’t let the scenario play out in my mind. Nonetheless, little Evie’s death colored my thoughts for days, as my anguished soul cried out, “Lord, this hurts so much! It’s not supposed to be this way!”

Indeed it isn’t. We weren’t meant to get sick or grow old much less die. But when Adam and Eve chose to disobey, death entered in. (Genesis 3:17-19) All creation has been groaning under the curse ever since, for the wages of sin is death. (Romans 8:19-23; Romans 6:23)

Grieving with Hope

Praise God, He didn’t leave us in that helpless, hopeless state! (John 3:16; Romans 5) So we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

No stranger to navigating sudden, profound loss, I strapped on my time-tested life preserver woven over the years from precious, promise-filled scriptures. Buffeted by waves of sorrow, I clung to hope that provides a sure anchor for my soul: death doesn’t get the final say. (Hebrews 6:19-20)

Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our own victory over death, the final enemy. For those who belong to Him, death isn’t the end. It’s a glorious beginning to eternity with Him.

At Ray’s funeral, one of the pastors read passage after passage outlining the assurances we have as believers. I offer several of them here. May they comfort our hearts when we experience the inevitable losses of this life, knowing Jesus has overcome all worldly tribulations. Even death.

(Jesus said) “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 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 14:1-3)

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 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. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:50-57)

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

Welcome Home

Two years ago our church leaders decided it would be good to form a Welcome Team to greet visitors and members alike on Sunday mornings. I wasn’t surprised to see Gene Hunt’s name on the list of volunteers for the new team. Gene, a longtime pastor, was retired by then. Nonetheless, I clearly recall how he visited me and my husband, Ray, soon after we first attended Midway Presbyterian Church, where he served as assistant pastor, in July 1992. From that early encounter and across the ensuing years I came to know Gene as a natural when it came to welcoming others – genuine, warm, and caring.

Thus it also came as no surprise that Gene would be in the narthex greeting people even on Sundays when he wasn’t officially assigned to the task. Those of us within hearing range would smile when we heard him heartily exclaim, “Hey, this was great! Let’s do it again sometime. How about next Sunday?”, as he shook hands with visitors after morning worship.

240Gene entered his heavenly Home last month. I had the privilege of attending his memorial service. The sanctuary of our small church overflowed as several hundred people from all stages of Gene’s life gathered to celebrate by worshiping the One he faithfully served, for we do not grieve as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Even so, tears mingled with laughter as various speakers shared reminiscences about our beloved brother because death does bring about a time of separation until Jesus’ promised return. I blotted at intermittent tears until one of my fellow congregants described a heavenly scene where Gene was greeting others, complete with the signature phrase I described above. That did it – my tears escaped and spilled down my cheeks. I sorely sensed the void Gene’s passing would leave on Sunday mornings.

One of Gene’s grandsons spoke next. His comments included a recounting of his grandfather’s testimony – how he’d been born into a non-Christian family, to parents who made no effort to take him to church. But after Gene’s dad died, God providentially placed his family in a neighborhood where he became friends with a little boy whose family was greatly involved in the life of the local Presbyterian church. Sonny would drag Gene along because he didn’t want to go alone. In Gene’s words, “I was enfolded into this community of believers and moved among them as if I belonged. It never occurred to me that I was an outsider. It all seemed perfectly natural and normal. Now I see that it was supernatural. It was the Gospel of grace being lived out in daily life.”[1]

I’d heard Gene’s testimony before, but it wasn’t until that moment I clearly recognized the connection between the tag-along boy, loved and accepted by a long-ago church family, and the man I was blessed to know, who genuinely loved others and welcomed them as he’d been welcomed. He never forgot what it meant to be included even though he “had no resources to contribute to the church.”[2]

Sound familiar? This storyline should resonate with every believer: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Furthermore, the Gospel itself is welcoming. Once we were separated from Christ, strangers to the covenants of promise. But now in Christ Jesus we have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . So we are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:12-13, 19)

I was one of the greeters last Sunday. After the worship service, a couple of folks asked if I’d had a chance to talk to our visitors (yes, briefly). Then one of us began to recite Gene’s phrase and the three of us finished in unison, “Let’s do it again. How about next Sunday?”, agreeing we need to add his words to our exit lines. We shared a laugh, warm with the memory of the man who showed us how to love others as we’ve been loved.

I expect God assigned Gene to the varsity greeting team as soon as he arrived on the other side. I like to imagine the day I’ll get to see him again, welcoming me with a big smile and another of his classic phrases, “Ain’t God good?!” Oh yes, Gene, so very good! I pray He will enable me to serve Him and others joyfully as you did, from the overflow of a grateful heart.

 

[1] Susan Hunt, “Your Home A Place of Grace”, (Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books, 2000) pp. 26-27

[2] Ibid, p. 27

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.”