Prepared, Not Scared

007Last year, my daughter, Mary, helped start an American Heritage Girls troop at her church and serves as one of the leaders. Each week, Mary and my granddaughters, Lyla and Emma, look forward to meeting with their friends. They engage in a variety of activities as they work toward the organization’s goal of developing Christ-like character and leadership skills.[1]

005After a long period of separation related to coronavirus restrictions, the troop began meeting again last month. Though always vital, the skills they’re learning to earn their Emergency Preparedness badge seem especially appropriate during this time of uncertainty. They’ve talked about stranger danger, paid a virtual visit to a local fire station, and got an up-close look at an ambulance, all while discussing how to help themselves and others during emergency situations.

One comment in particular from a recent weekly recap warmed this grandmother’s heart: “First and foremost, we learned that God has told us not to fear, and is always with us. We want to be ‘Prepared Not Scared’ as we learn about different situations and how to handle them or how to help others.”

“Prepared, not scared.” That phrase resonated with me. If I had to pick one word to describe the prevailing feeling in a post-COVID world, fear would come out on top. Fear of the unknown effects of the virus. Fear of being separated from loved ones. Fear of empty shelves at the store. Fear of death itself. How about you? Have you been battling anxiety-producing fears?

Fear Not!

Though there will be times when we give way to fear because our flesh is weak, scripture provides ample assurance for those who belong to God – as children of the King, we have nothing to fear. Consider:

All of our days were written in God’s book before even one came to be (Psalm 139:16). Shortly before my husband died suddenly in April 1997, I read a quote that gave me much comfort after his passing and many times since: “Until it’s my time to go, nothing can take me. When it’s my time to go, nothing can keep me here.” God is sovereign over every breath, and we’re never out of His sight.

Does that mean we can live irresponsibly because God has foreordained our length of days? Not at all! Even Jesus wouldn’t test His Father by throwing Himself off a Temple spire when tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:5-7). Furthermore, God has given us sound minds and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7), which we’re to use to be good stewards of our bodies. Even so, we can rest knowing our days are ultimately in God’s hands.

The passage in 2 Timothy begins with the statement that God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear. A familiar passage in 1 John expresses a similar sentiment: there’s no fear in love because fear has to do with condemnation and the perfect, sacrificial, atoning love of Christ ensures there will be no condemnation for believers on the day of judgment (1 John 4:18; Romans 5:18; Romans 8:1).

Worry and anxiety are close relatives of fear. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a beautiful word picture for His listeners. In reminding them of God’s care for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, He assured them God would care for them. He admonished them not to worry. Doing so wouldn’t add a single hour to their lives. Instead, it would rob them of the joys of the present (Matthew 6:25-32).

Yet, amidst the assurances, Jesus sounded a warning: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  There is a real and eternal danger for those who don’t accept God’s gift of salvation through His Son (John 14:6; Revelation 20:15).

Be Prepared

As those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, we do not fear God’s condemnation, but as sojourners, we know we’ll face trials in this world. How do we prepare for battle?

The Apostle Paul instructs us to put on the whole armor of God so that we can stand firm against the attacks of Satan and his comrades and their flaming darts of doubt (Ephesians 6:10-17):

  • The belt of truth protects us from Satan’s lies and accusations.
  • The breastplate of righteousness covers our hearts and defends us from guilt and self-condemnation.
  • Shoes of the gospel of peace provide an unshakable foundation.
  • The shield of faith keeps us from fear.
  • The helmet of salvation guards our minds against worldly influences.
  • The sword of the Spirit is an offensive weapon – God’s Word, living and active, fully capable of accomplishing God’s purposes (Hebrews 4:12, Isaiah 55:10-11).

Paul concludes his description of our spiritual weapons by urging us to pray at all times in the Spirit, for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 6:18-19). Like good soldiers, we’re to remain alert, because our enemy prowls about like a roaring lion seeking his prey (1 Peter 5:8). In his commentary on Ephesians, John Stott proclaims, “Paul adds prayer not because he thinks of prayer as another though unnamed weapon but because it is to pervade all our spiritual warfare . . . Scripture and prayer belong together as the two chief weapons which the Spirit puts into our hand.”[2]

Take heart, dear readers. God graciously provides all we need to prevail. Clothed in Christ and His righteousness, we can be prepared, not scared, in this life, and for the life to come.

Father, thank You that Your children have nothing to fear, for our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Please help us to shine the light of Your truth into the darkness, illuminating the way for others to find hope and peace in You.

 

[1] “American Heritage Girls is a Christ-centered character and leadership development program for girls 5 to 18 years of age. AHG is dedicated to the mission of building women of integrity through service to God, family, community, and country.” Taken from the American Heritage Girls website: https://americanheritagegirls.org/

[2] J.R.W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, God’s New Society (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1979), 283.

Legacy of Love

029My maternal grandfather was born 130 years ago today. This post, in honor of his birthday, is a meditation on enduring love and includes some reflections published in previous posts.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a; 13, emphasis mine).

Death has visited my family often in October.  Three of my four grandparents, a beloved aunt, a cherished uncle – all six passed away during the tenth month of different years.

October 2017 found us bereaved once again, as son-in-law Justin’s grandfather completed his earthly sojourn.  His memorial service was a celebration of a life well-lived, a race faithfully run, a servant safely Home.  As Justin and his brother and cousin shared memories of their grandfather, it was clear he made a lasting, positive impact on their lives.

Though their memories won’t be as distinct or numerous, “Papa” touched the lives of the next generation as well.  Great-grandson, Joshua, six at the time, comforted himself and others with truth: “He’s not sick anymore.  He’s in heaven!” “In heaven, guess what?  You can’t die again! Papa is there waiting for us!” And, possibly my favorite, “Papa doesn’t have to pray anymore.  He can walk right up and talk to Jesus!”

Oh, the beauty and simplicity of child-like faith, the kind of faith Jesus commended (Matthew 19:13-14), the kind God tells us to pass on to our offspring (Deuteronomy 4:9).  It’s apparent Papa followed that mandate, modeling a godly walk for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

I think of my own dear Papa, called Home in October 1965, when I was six. A life-long farmer, he was short and wiry, yet mighty in his faith. According to Mom, he was present at the tiny country church, where he served as a deacon, every time the doors were open. My memories of him are few but precious – sitting on his lap eating apple slices, walking to the small general store, stopping at the post office, waving to the train conductor and counting the cars. I still feel his love over five decades later.[1]

Likewise, during my husband’s graveside service, one of the pastors told daughters Mary and Jessie, their lives would be forever blessed by having a godly father. Even though he was with us for a relatively short time, we continue to experience the impact of Ray’s unconditional love and steadfast faith some 23 years hence.

Other loved ones people my heritage of faith: A great-aunt, poor by worldly standards, but exceedingly wealthy in grace and kindness. Aunts who didn’t think a visit was complete until they’d fed me, physically and spiritually. Grandmothers with well-worn Bibles and “Jesus Loves Me” on their lips. All of them have long-since joined the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews, but their influence lives on (Hebrews 12:1).

I’ve pondered these relationships, marveling how love can reach beyond death, undimmed by the passage of time. Though I cherish tangible reminders of departed loved ones, the lasting connections aren’t based on material gifts. They’re woven together from shared experiences undergirded by loving acceptance and encouragement. Love grounded in faith and hope is the greatest legacy any of us can bestow, far more valuable than any earthly treasures we might bequeath. It’s the legacy I most want to leave.

O Lord, your word has much to say about love. We love because You first loved us, unconditionally and sacrificially (1 John 4:10-11). May we live in such a way that our love and faith are evident, hallmarks of our relationship with You (John 13:35). Please help us to love others as You love us so that the effects linger long after You’ve called us Home, connecting one generation to another.

[1] Please see “Eating Apples (reprise)” in Archives October 2018.

A Tale of Three Trees

A year or so after we moved to Georgia, my husband Ray and I began a tradition we called “walking the property”. Let me dispel any notion you may have about us owning a vast estate. No, our property situated in a typical suburban housing development outside Atlanta measured approximately 1/3 of an acre.

Nonetheless, our small tract was special. Ray had a horticulture degree with an emphasis on woody ornamentals so he asked the builder to leave as many trees as he could when he cleared the property to make room for our home. In the nearly-five years we lived there together, Ray installed a number of unique plants whose names he patiently taught me – over and over again. Although I received a degree in Fashion Merchandising, I loved plants and being outside and spending time with Ray, thus I looked forward to our rambles and Ray’s lessons.

Warmth and copious hints of spring accompanied the evening of April 16, 1997. Ray dropped Jessie and Mary, our 7-and-10-year-old daughters, off at church for their mid-week children’s activities. When he returned, we started our evening stroll at the left front corner of our house, leisurely made our way through the woods, up the other side, and back to the driveway.

Ray stopped multiple times along our route. He pointed out plants of interest, mentioned specific landscaping plans, and commented on the health of things he’d planted in the much-amended Georgia clay. We paused by a grove of three bald cypress trees. All these years later, I don’t remember how tall the juvenile trees were, probably not much taller than Ray, but I distinctly remember his comments:

“These are some of my favorite trees. They’re interesting because they lose their needles.”

I didn’t know it would be the last time we’d walk the property. But God did.

Three nights later, my young daughters and I received life-shattering news: Ray, a mere 39 years old, had a fatal heart attack at work. He wouldn’t be coming home. Ever.

Over two decades have passed since that last stroll and the unthinkable loss. I focused on raising my daughters, finished a 30-year career at a large corporation, welcomed three grandchildren. Along the way, gardening became my therapy, a connection to Ray and a connection to a loving Father who’s reminded me of spiritual truths, softened my sorrows, and given me innumerable indications of His presence as I’ve worked in my yard.

And, amazingly, I got to go back to school to study horticulture! In my Woody ID class, I learned there are very few conifers[1] that lose their needles: dawn redwood, several larch species, and bald cypress. Confirmation of Ray’s long-ago statement.

IMG_0049The small specimens he planted now tower high above the back corner of my house. Each fall their needles create a brilliant color display before they let go, drift to the ground, and blanket the bed beneath their intertwined branches. I’ve thought so often about Ray’s comments and how special the trees are.

Five years ago, I noticed a number of seedlings peeking through the mantle of fallen needles. Upon closer inspection, I deduced they weren’t pesky pine seedlings that tend to pop up everywhere. They were baby bald cypresses!  I contacted a friend well-versed in all things coniferous. His comment upon hearing the news: “Those must be happy trees to be reproducing like that.”

I beamed at hearing this, adding to myself, “Well-loved, too.”

252I dug several of the seedlings and potted them in individual containers. In the seasons since, I watered, watched, and worried them along, hoping at least three of them – one for each grandchild – would make it. And make it they did. Last week, we moved them to Mary and son-in-law Justin’s house. With the help of a friend, the children planted the offspring of their grandfather’s favorite conifers.

The mind’s-eye images of that gorgeous fall afternoon – cloudless blue sky, warm-for-November breeze, dirty hands, and delighted laughter – have been underscored by a snippet of lyrics from the hymn, “Day by Day”, whose first stanza reads as follows:

Day by day and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best –
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
[2]

Oh how I wish Ray was here to be Grandpa Kuipers to our grandchildren. I mourn the fact he isn’t. But at 8, 6 and 3, Joshua, Lyla, and Emma are old enough to grasp the concept of having a grandfather in heaven. I speak about him often, recounting his love of plants and people, and his faith.

When I told Joshua I was thinking about writing this post, he said, “Grammie, I read another story about three trees. One was used for Jesus’ manger, one for the boat He was in during the storm, and one for the cross.” The faith of a child, borne of a legacy of faith going back generations on all branches of my grandchildren’s family tree – faith that connects them to Ray and guarantees they’ll get to meet him in eternity (John 6:37-40).

Life can be so hard. After all, we’re not Home yet. But God graciously mixes in good gifts along the way to soften the blows and smooth the sharp edges – family and friends, plants and promises, conversations and conifers – all part of His beneficial plan for this grateful daughter (Jeremiah 29:11-13).

When I took my last stroll with Ray, I didn’t know the day would come when I’d be blessed to have three grandchildren, much less that we’d get to plant progeny of the very trees Ray singled out that night. But God did (Isaiah 46:9-10).256

 

[1] In basic terms, conifers are plants that bear their seeds in cones.

[2] “Day by Day”, lyrics by Carolina Sandell Berg; translated by Andrew L. Skoog.

The Anchor Holds

I suppose I should have expected his arrival. But, distracted by other things, I didn’t notice his approach until it was too late to bolt the door and deny him entry. By the time I perceived his presence, he’d unpacked his bags and flung a cloak of melancholy over my heart.

And just who was this uninvited guest? Loneliness.

After spending a week at the beach with my family, my house, usually a welcome oasis of tranquility, felt silent and empty instead. Nonetheless, being home alone wasn’t the calling card I referred to above. I could have invited a grandchild over or texted one of my daughters. No, the profound loneliness sprang from knowing I couldn’t be with the one person I longed for most at that moment, my late husband Ray.

The Crucible of Life

As is often the case when I write or teach about scriptural principles and God’s promises, real life intervenes, compelling me to speak the truth I profess to myself, to apply the healing balm of assurance to my own woundedness.  Such was the case last Saturday morning as I sat at my kitchen table, with whispers of fall meandering through windows open to the breeze after summer finally loosened its stranglehold on metro Atlanta.

You see, a few days before I returned home, my podcast, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”, aired on CDM’s enCourage[1] website and I posted a companion article, “Stewarding our Stories”, on my blog. I used both platforms to proclaim God’s faithfulness across the 22 years since Ray died suddenly at age 39 and accompanied my proclamation with the assurance we can trust God as He sovereignly writes even the most difficult chapters of our stories.

So the appearance of my uninvited guest should have come as no surprise. In addition, my defenses were down, weakened by responsibilities and issues set aside while I was on vacation, only to be prayerfully resumed and mulled over when I returned. Thus, I didn’t shoo my squatter away as quickly as I might have under different circumstances.

Rather, I embraced him. My mind wandered, taking my heart with it. I wished Ray was sitting at his place at the table, holding my hand, listening as I poured out my concerns, a scenario played out numerous times during our marriage. I thought about how pleasant it would be to work in the yard together on that first fall-like day. And I remembered a long-ago night when I crawled into bed tearful and exhausted, bemoaning how little time Ray and I had to do things together. Our daughters were tiny, one an infant, the other a toddler. The days were long and my to-dos unending. In his attempt to comfort me, Ray uttered words that have become increasingly poignant over the years, “They’ll grow up so fast and then we’ll have lots of time together.”

Oh, Ray. You were gone long before our nest emptied. The lots of time you promised didn’t come to be.

Grieving

Over two decades of widowhood have tempered the searing pain of loss. Body-racking sobs are rare, replaced by silent tears, the occasional overflow of a heart yearning for its missing piece. There’s a sigh deep in my soul, born of sorrow mingled with longing and acceptance.

Even though those who belong to God don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14), we still grieve, because death wasn’t part of God’s good plan. It’s part of the curse, a severe consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:19b). Losing loved ones is painful and mourning our separation is a process, one that will continue until we’re reunited, as grief ebbs and flows. May we remember as much and be compassionate toward ourselves and others when the thorns of grief prick anew.

Never Forsaken

'Tis so SweetBut there is hope, dear reader, now and eternally. Having found comfort in the promises of the One who’s vowed to never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8), I dispatched my erstwhile visitor. Furthermore, I can reaffirm all I said in the podcast and wrote in my last post. The bottom is good.[2] The anchor holds (Hebrews 6:19). Victory is certain (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).

Faith refined by trials is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). And life-tested truth allows me to say with hymn writer Louisa M. R. Stead,

“’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His word,
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[3]

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, emphasis added.)

 

[1] CDM – Christian Discipleship Ministries is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America. The enCourage website features blog posts and podcasts aimed at “connecting the hearts of women to the hope of the Gospel.”

[2] Hopeful’s comment to Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, as they prepare to cross the river to get to their final destination, the Celestial City.

[3] ‘Tis So sweet to Trust in Jesus, text Louisa M.R. Stead, music, William J. Kirkpatrick.

Through the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_E1080

(To be continued.)

 

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

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

[3] “Do not resuscitate”

Emmanuel, God with us

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. (Lamentations 3:21-25)

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

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

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

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

Eating apples (reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

No fit pitchin’

I bet it’s happened to you. You’ll read a passage of Scripture, one you’ve scanned countless times before, and the Spirit will point out something you hadn’t noticed previously. Not surprising, since God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.[1]

Such was the case when I was asked to prepare a devotion on Philippians 4:11. I suppose I’d always focused on Paul’s ability to be content in whatever situation he found himself in, but this time, “I have learned” caught my attention. The fact Paul had to learn how to be content implies contentment isn’t a natural state for us.

If we have any doubt about that, we need look no further than our children. Even if I’d forgotten the clashes and complaints of my own dear, now-adult daughters, I spend time with my beloved grandchildren, ages 2, 4 and 6, on a regular basis. Just the other day, all three were howling over the same orange ball. Said item held no interest whatsoever until one chose to play with it, whereupon it became the only toy worth having. This, even though there were dozens of other options to choose from.

Likewise, protests can erupt over perceived parental partiality, different foods touching on the dinner plate and being asked to come inside on a pretty day. As they get older, our offspring often chafe under our rules. Stakes are higher as peer pressure sets in and they become more aware of status associated with material belongings.

To be sure, I’m not saying dissatisfaction is only an issue for the young. We know contentment is just as tenuous and elusive for adults, if not more so. Frequently, we  strive to  fulfill not only our own needs, desires and expectations, but also those of our significant others – spouses, parents, children, friends. Too often we seek fulfillment in circumstances, relationships, accomplishments and/or possessions. But circumstances change, sometimes quickly, possessions lose their luster as the next best thing comes along and relationships can be stressful, especially if we’re people pleasers.

If we think of contentment as a first cousin to joy and peace, which are fruits of the Spirit,[2] we begin to see it isn’t a result of externals at all, but a reflection of our internal state. Neither is contentment an emotion. In one of his sermons on Philippians, our pastor declared, “Contentment is a state of being, anchored firmly in the confidence that God is sovereignly working out the details of our lives, moment by moment from beginning to end.”[3] That’s why Paul could say he’d learned to be content in any and every situation – the reason for his hope and the guarantee of his well-being, both temporal and eternal, rested in One who never changes.[4]

IMG_5098Faced with the orange-ball debacle, I decided no one would get to play with it. This, of course, resulted in more sobbing and anguished pleas. Eventually my three charges turned their attention to other things and peace prevailed, at least for a while. Mustering all her 2-year-old earnestness, Emma confided something to me. A smile accompanied my comprehension of what I’d missed the first time when she repeated, “No fit pitchin’, Gammie.” “That’s right, Emma. We don’t pitch fits when we don’t get what we want!”

“No fit pitchin’”, a phrase I’ve used innumerable times over the years, first with my daughters and now with my grandchildren. As I thought about the rounds of peace-followed-by-protest we’d cycled through several times that day, I wondered if I try my Father’s patience as much as my little ones try mine. No doubt I do, though my fits take a different form. Regardless of our stage of life, we have times of grumbling, fear and doubt because we’re still in the flesh.[5] That’s one reason we need each other – to remind our fellow sojourners of God’s promises. Indeed, being able to recount more and more examples of God’s faithfulness in my life and the lives of my friends is one of the best benefits of getting older. And it’s a great antidote to fit pitchin’!

Lord, please help us to say with Paul, “I’ve learned in whatever situation I am to be content”, knowing that no matter how many changes or challenges we’re faced with, You never change. You are the same from beginning to end, the Alpha and the Omega,[6] and your promises are trustworthy and true.[7]

 

For further study

The fourth chapter of Philippians holds many clues to the building blocks of the contentment Paul attests to:

  • In verses 4 thru 7 we’re told to rejoice ALWAYS, not to be anxious, to pray with thankfulness, with the promise that in so doing, the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Thankfulness is a key component of contentment, as we recognize and acknowledge all God has already done for us.
  • In verses 8 and 9 Paul encourages his readers to think on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Once again with the attendant benefit, “the God of peace will be with you.” Similarly, 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ, while 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us to keep our eyes fixed not on what is seen, but what is unseen, for the former is passing away and the latter is eternal.
  • When Paul says he’s learned to be content in whatever situation he finds himself, we know his life as an apostle wasn’t an easy one (major understatement). His second letter to the Corinthians details many of the hardships he endured for the Gospel, including beatings, shipwrecks and lack of adequate food and shelter.[8]
  • Nonetheless, in Philippians 4:12 Paul goes on to say, “I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And in verse 13, a favorite of many Christians, Paul shares the “secret”: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Note his use of absolutes: every circumstance, all things.
  • Then finally in verse 19, the assurance that “God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Our loving heavenly Father, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and sent his precious Son to die for us has promised to meet all our needs.

 

[1] Hebrews 4:12

[2] Galatians 5:22-23

[3] Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant PCA, Dallas, GA, sermon “The Secret of Contentment, July, 17, 2016

[4] Hebrews 13:8

[5] Psalm 103:13-14

[6] Revelation 22:13

[7] Revelation 21:5

[8] 2 Corinthians 11:24-27

Have you seen Jesus?

I caught a glimpse of Jesus. It happened in our local hospital, where Mom spent several nights while various tests were run in an attempt to discover the cause of her dizziness. Thankfully all results were normal. Upon receiving the good news of her imminent release, I went to check on Mom’s discharge papers. When I returned to her room moments later, the chair she’d been sitting in was empty. Her back was to me as she stood by the other patient’s bed and she had no idea I was observing her kind ministrations. Jesus’ love emanated from my tiny mother as she stood beside her roommate’s bed, gently holding the hand of a woman she’d just met the day before. Verbal communication was limited by a language barrier. Nonetheless, Mom’s spoken, “I love you”, was underscored with such tenderness, there could be no mistaking her message of encouragement and care.

I’ve thought about that brief encounter numerous times since it occurred nearly three weeks ago. So many lessons, so many reminders. The following may be a bit more stream-of-consciousness than usual, but I pray you’ll glean some points worth pondering.

On their inaugural album, Christian contemporary band, Casting Crowns, challenged, “But if we are the body, why aren’t His arms reaching? Why aren’t His hands healing? Why aren’t His words teaching? And if we are the body, why aren’t His feet going? Why is His love not showing them there is a way?”[1] Their lyrics remind me of the parable of the sheep and goats wherein Jesus made it clear that in caring for practical needs of the least among us, we are caring for Him.[2] Likewise, James emphasized that faith without works is dead.[3]

In the Acts 4 recounting of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, “when (the people) saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”[4] Peter, the disciple who was so afraid of being associated with Jesus on the night He was betrayed that he denied Him three times, courageous? Yes, that very same man, forgiven and restored by Jesus, empowered by the promised Holy Spirit, was notably, distinctly different. As believers, we too have been forgiven, restored and empowered. May we be conformed more and more to the image of Jesus, that others might readily take note of our association with Him.

In the lesson of the vine and the branches, Jesus promised we’ll bear good fruit as long as we abide in Him. But apart from Him, we wither and are useless.[5] Furthermore, Jesus taught that each tree is recognized by its fruit. Likewise, we bring forth fruit based on what’s stored in our hearts.[6] Thus, the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control[7] – must set us apart in an increasingly self-focused world.

IMG_5428Of all the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, love reigns supreme.[8] We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves[9]; to love our brothers and sisters in Christ[10]; even to love our enemies.[11] In fact, love is to be the hallmark of those who belong to Jesus.[12]

I usually read each of my blog posts to Mom. I most likely won’t read this one. It would embarrass her. Her love and concern for others are such an innate part of who she is – a senior saint who bears much fruit for her Savior after many years of abiding in him. Accolades for those qualities would be discomfiting. And rightly so, since Jesus taught us not to perform our righteous deeds to impress others, but to please our Father, who sees all.[13] Furthermore, we’re called to work as if we’re working for the Lord, not men, knowing He is ultimately the One we serve.[14]

Although God is faithfully sanctifying us, perfection will remain elusive until Jesus returns to make all things new. Even the very best of us sin and fall short of the glory of God. How grateful I am for the spotless Lamb who took our iniquities upon Himself and paid the debt we owed so that even now, when the Father gazes at us, He sees the righteousness of his beloved Son.[15]

Dear Father, thank you for loving us so much You sent your only Son to die for us, that we might live with You forever.[16] Please help us to display Jesus’ attributes more and more, loving and serving others in such a way that they may taste and see that You are good.[17]

[1] “If We are the Body” from “Casting Crowns” by Casting Crowns, July 2003.

[2] Matthew 25: 31-46.

[3] James 2:14-17.

[4] Acts 4:13.

[5] John 15:1-6.

[6] Luke 6:43-45.

[7] Galatians 5:22.

[8] 1 Corinthians 13:1-7, 13.

[9] Matthew 22:34-40

[10] Numerous references, including John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 John 4:11.

[11] Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36.

[12] John 13:35.

[13] Matthew 6:1-18.

[14] Colossians 3:23-24.

[15] Romans 3:21-26.

[16] John 3:16.

[17] Psalm 34:8a.

All I’ll ever need

If it’s true that confession is good for the soul, I’ll feel better after I write this. On the other hand, I may just embarrass myself by publicly airing yet another dust moment.[1] Regardless, I pray the following will encourage at least a few of my fellow dusty sojourners.

I was sleeping soundly when my alarm chimed at 5:15am last Saturday morning. After getting a mere five hours of sleep, it would have been understandable if I’d silenced the pesky dinging and snuggled deeper under the covers. Instead, I drug my groggy self out of the warm cocoon. After performing a few minor ablutions, I pulled on several layers of clothes, packed some snacks and ventured out into the dark. I was intent on arriving at daughter Mary’s house by 6am, in time to accompany her to a half-marathon she’d been training for.

As I drove through the pre-dawn stillness, my anticipation intensified. Mary and I see each other several times a week, but are usually surrounded by three little people vying for our attention and so rarely get to enjoy one-on-one time. Not only would the 3-hour round trip give us time to visit, but getting to cheer her on in such an important race would be special in itself. I’ve been attending her races since middle school and our early-morning trek was reminiscent of oh-so-many drives to cross country events and track meets.

The sun rose on a beautiful morning. We made it to the race site at Berry College in time for Mary to easily collect her packet. But I hadn’t eaten breakfast. And I have hypoglycemia. I thought I could drop her off, pick up a breakfast sandwich somewhere and be back in time to cheer her at the start. Nope! Not only was the race location several miles from any fast-food emporiums, but traffic flow had been changed to one-way to accommodate the influx of participants. As I computed these details and realized I’d miss the start even if I could find an alternate way to exit the campus, I opted to eat one of my snacks to stabilize my blood sugar.IMG_7884

It worked! I was able to stroll to the start line with Mary and shout, “Go Mary! You can do this!”, and the like, as she jogged past with the rest of the jostling mass.

She was barely out of sight when my inner whiny-voice began to complain, “Now what am I going to do about breakfast? I wanted to be here for Mary, but I’m going to have to go in search of something to eat.” I even added some version of “Why, Lord?” to my grumbling, as if He’d somehow let me down. As this discouraging mental monologue continued, I spied a number of tents behind the start/finish line. Maybe one would be selling heartier breakfast fare as a fund raiser? I approached the only one that looked promising, the one displaying “Refreshments” on its front flap. I quickly realized the tables were laden with post-race alimentation for the contestants. Thinking the young women staffing the booth might be Berry students, I asked if there was any place on campus to buy food. My assumption was wrong and they weren’t familiar with any possible eateries within walking distance, however, they kindly invited me to choose something from their bounty of bagels and fruit. I thanked them, but confided I was hoping to find some eggs. Upon hearing my plight, one of the young ladies handed me an egg-and-sausage biscuit, probably from the stash meant for the workers. “Feel free to take a bottle of water too,” she added.

In that moment, I’m not sure which was greater, my gratitude or my remorse. I thanked them profusely, then immediately turned my attention to acknowledging the One who ultimately provided that needed nourishment. My gratitude was intertwined with apologies for doubting and a plea for forgiveness, a petition God gently assured me He’d heard as I engaged in prolonged self-castigation.[2]

It’s so easy to read Biblical accounts of the Israelites’ grumblings against God as they wandered in the desert and think, “What was wrong with those people? How could they so easily forget the wonders they’d seen as God delivered them from the Egyptians?”[3] And then God uses my own hangry moments to remind me how easily “O ye of little faith” can become “O me of little faith”, when I allow myriad examples of faithful provision to be overshadowed by immediate circumstances.

In one of my earliest posts,[4] I recounted the epiphany I had one evening while restocking the toilet paper in my daughters’ bathroom closet. In realizing they didn’t have to worry about procuring food and household essentials because I did that for them, it occurred to me that God does the same for me. Everything I’ll ever need is already in his possession and He’ll make it available when I need it. From salvation to sustenance, He’ll not withhold any good thing from those He loves.[5]

I’d looked forward to a great day with Mary. It was more than I asked or imagined[6], as my loving Father used a sausage-and-egg biscuit to remind me, yet again, that He’s always watching over me and knows my every need.[7]

 

 

[1] Psalm 103:13-14 is one of my favorite passages: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers we are dust.” For more on this, please see “Dust moments” in Archives, March 2017.

[2] 1 John 1:9

[3] See, for example Exodus 16:2-3 and Exodus 17:2-3.

[4] Please see, “Thoughts on Romans 8:32”, Archives, August 2014.

[5] Romans 8:32

[6] Ephesians 3:20

[7] Matthew 7:7-11