The Aroma of Christ

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

A Familiar Fragrance

I’ve begun the difficult task of going through my parents’ things in preparation to sell their house, the site of countless dinners, family gatherings, and celebrations over the past 25 years. Myriad emotions accompany my almost-daily visits, which I continued after Dad moved into assisted living so I could keep an eye on things. Some days I can complete my rounds and remain detached, while others find me in tears before I even exit my car.

I walked the property several days ago to ensure nothing was amiss outside. As I rounded the back corner of the house, a familiar fragrance wafted toward me. I stopped and turned toward the gardenia bush, so full of flowers that its branches bent beneath the load.

Memories of Mom and past summer evenings came flooding back. Many nights during gardenia season, I would arrive for dinner and be greeted with Mom’s cheerful, “Look what I got for us, Babe!”[1]

She would point toward a glass or vase holding multiple stems of the sweet-smelling flowers – some for her to keep and some for me to take home.

The Perfume of Selflessness

As the season waned and the blossoms became less plentiful, Mom always wanted to make sure I had some for my house, even if it meant only a sprig or two for her. Humble and with a servant’s heart, Mom exemplified Philippians 2 as she considered others’ needs before her own, even in things as small as sharing flowers.

Mom’s generosity included food of all kinds. She not only made dinner for me most nights, but she also encouraged me to take leftovers home or pick something from the fruits and vegetables she purchased in the summertime. She always wanted me to have the juiciest peach or the ripest tomato. I can hear her saying, “Not that one! It’s got a bad spot.” Or, “That’s not enough! Here, take another one.”

It became a joke between us, and I finally stopped trying to choose for myself. I’d laugh, hand Mom the bag, and say, “Why don’t you go ahead and pick for me?”

Remembering those exchanges, representative of Mom’s sweet spirit, makes me smile.

A Pleasing Aroma

One of our former pastors used to tell us, “When you see ‘therefore,’ you need to ask ‘What’s the therefore there for?”

In the case of the introductory verses above, “therefore” links the directive that follows to Paul’s description in the previous chapter regarding our status as new creatures in Christ (Ephesians 4:21-24). Paul gets specific with the requisite put-offs and put-ons associated with our old and new natures, respectively (Ephesians 4:25-32). He then delivers summary instructions: because of our new life in Christ, we’re to be imitators of God, to walk in love, and to live so our lives will be an aroma pleasing to Him, just as Jesus’ sacrificial life was.

As our pastor has taught through this portion of Ephesians, he’s repeatedly encouraged us to be conduits of God’s love and grace. Sadly, as we live between the now and not yet (eternally saved, yet still in the flesh), we sometimes slip into the extremes of self-righteousness or self-condemnation instead.

I know there are times when my scent is more off-putting than welcoming, more sweaty than sweet. But, praise God for the power of His Spirit at work in His children, transforming us more and more into the image of Christ and enabling us to spread His pleasing aroma.

A Lingering Fragrance

I cut a dozen stems off the gardenia and brought them home. I placed some in a vase upstairs and the rest in a container on my kitchen counter. Soon the lovely fragrance was drifting through my house, reminding me of Mom. The essence of her beautiful life lived for Christ remains in the lives and memories of those she touched with His love, just as the fragrance of the gardenia blossoms lingers in my home.  

May it be the same with ours.

Dear Lord, thank You for the sacrificial love of Jesus and the power of Your Spirit at work within us. Please help us embrace, embody, and express the love and grace You’ve shown us so that we might spread a fragrant aroma that is pleasing to You and attractive to others.


[1] Babe was my grandfather’s pet name for Mom, the youngest of his eight children. She frequently used it with me and my daughters.

Hide and Seek, Reprise

 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
1 John 4:18-20

Let’s Hide!

One of the earliest and most endearing games we play with babies involves disappearing behind our hands only to reappear moments later, smiling and exclaiming, “peek-a-boo!” We repeat the sequence of movements multiple times, rewarded by baby’s surprised chuckles.

Before long, infants turn into mobile toddlers, able to participate in the hiding aspect of the game. Hide-and-seek became my grandchildren’s oft-requested favorite, complete with random-number counting and much laughter while scurrying to find the perfect hiding spot. Shrieks were just as likely to accompany finding as being found.

Sometimes the hiding wasn’t all that effective. For instance, even though a blanket would cover most of a tiny body, a foot might remain visible. Or, try as I might, I couldn’t fully wedge myself between the wall and the recliner when the little people were hunting me.

And then there were times when I wandered around, pretend-seeking the hidden one, musing, “Hmm, I wonder where (insert grandchild’s name) is?” The confident, she-can’t-find-me laughter that followed allowed me to zero in like a honey bee to its hive. More laughter, then, “Let’s hide again, Grammie!”

Child’s Play?

The first recorded episode of hide-and-seek was no child’s game. It was unplanned, and it certainly wasn’t accompanied by laughter unless it was the nervous kind borne of embarrassment. Genesis 3 recounts the story of the Fall. Satan, disguised as a serpent, engaged Eve in a doubt-God’s-goodness conversation – surely it wasn’t proper for God to withhold something as delightful as the forbidden fruit? Sadly, it didn’t take much to convince Eve of her right to partake. She ate and then shared the bounty with Adam (verses 1-6).

Oh, their eyes were opened, just like Satan promised. But instead of reveling in their newfound enlightenment, they were overcome with shame as they realized they were naked (verse 7a). Knowing God would soon arrive for His daily garden stroll, they hastily covered themselves with leafy loincloths and hid (verses 7b-8).

Guilt or Shame?

We’ve been hiding from God and each other ever since, haven’t we? Afraid if people knew our shortcomings and the secret sins that plague us, they’d turn away.

Guilt is a helpful, God-given poke to our conscience, convicting us of specific wrongdoing, leading us to confess, repent, seek forgiveness, and be restored to fellowship with God and others. By contrast, shame condemns, whispering some variation of, “You’re bad, and you always will be,” to our weary souls. Despite our best efforts, we just can’t rid ourselves of that sense of not measuring up, the vague feeling of not fitting in or meeting expectations.

So we cover up and keep our distance, as we strive to maintain an acceptable facade at all times, even, or maybe especially, at church where it seems like everyone else has it all together. We hide in our respective caves, safe but so alone.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Even though we usually don’t want to be found out, we do want to be found.

Praise God for coming to the garden in the cool of that fateful day, like He always had before. He sought His wayward children, even though He already knew of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the extreme pain it would cause their offspring, and the price He Himself would pay to redeem them (John 3:16). He came bearing a perfect plan and the promise of better garments. The seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent so all of God’s children could be robed in the righteousness of His beloved Son (Genesis 3:15).

Jesus, the Good Shepherd who came to seek the lost (Luke 19:10). The unblemished Lamb, slain for us (John 1:29). The Risen Savior who bids us come that we might find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:29). He knows the very worst about us, but calls us from darkness into light (Isaiah 9:2, John 1:5), to be cleansed by His precious blood that He might present us spotless before God (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Jesus is the safest of safe places for the children of God (John 3:17; Romans 8:1).

Becoming a Safe Place

Scripture is clear that we are to be conformed to the likeness of our elder brother (Romans 8:29), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). So how can we become safe places for fellow, flawed sojourners, afraid to come out of their caves? Scripture instructs us to:

  • Practice humility, considering others’ needs, hurts, and heartaches before our own (Philippians 2:3-4). Each one of us is dealing with things known only to God (Psalm 139:1-3, 23-24).
  • Judge not, remembering all we’ve been forgiven (Matthew 7:1-5; Luke 6:37-38). Though our sins may differ from those of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re all sinners saved by grace (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23).
  • Be willing to become vulnerable, stewarding our own stories well as we share examples of God’s goodness, faithfulness, even discipline, across the years we’ve walked with Him (Psalm 78).

May we live in such a way that it’s safer, indeed more desirable, for those tempted to hide to come out of their caves, into the light of the One who will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3).

Dear Lord, as Your chosen people, holy and dearly loved, please help us clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with and forgiving each other as You’ve forgiven us. And, by the power of Your Spirit, help us put on love, which binds all these virtues together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

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

I was planning to write another in my series of reflections inspired by Mom’s hospitalization and Homegoing, but a Facebook memory popped up yesterday and sent my thoughts meandering down a different pathway. The post reminded me I met my late husband 40 years ago, on June 19, 1981.

The Backstory

Some of you are already familiar with the story behind how Ray and I met since I like to share it every year on the anniversary of our first encounter. But I’ll gladly retell it here for those of you who are more recent friends and readers.

Ray and I attended a church-sponsored singles group on that warm June evening, both for the first time. Food-fueled fellowship followed the Bible study lesson. As I willed my introverted self to mingle, my gaze kept returning to the handsome young man also making his way around the room.  I watched Ray interact with others, noting that he seemed like a nice guy who genuinely listened to people he engaged in conversation.

I finally got my chance to talk to Ray and, entirely out of character,  gave him one of my business cards after adding my home phone number. “Give me a call sometime.” Looking back, I credit divine inspiration for my bold gesture.

Regardless, I was mortified when I woke up the following day, thinking, “I gave a total stranger my business card, with my home phone number on the back!!!” And then I said a simple prayer, “Lord, if you want something to come of it, fine. If not, that’s fine too.”

I don’t remember how much time passed, but Ray did call. The friendship we developed in the singles group blossomed into a romantic relationship that led to 13 years of marriage and two daughters. Occasionally I would tease Ray, telling him it was the best use of a business card ever.

The years were punctuated by laughter and tears, filled with love, commitment, and hard work as the bonds between us grew ever-stronger. Then, in a moment, it ended.

Love That Endures

Or did it?

Imagine my surprise when I found that business card in Ray’s Bible several weeks after he died suddenly of a heart attack. Tears of amazement mingled with sorrow when I saw he’d kept it all those years. I left it there and look at it from time to time, a sweet reminder of how the Lord brought us together on that long-ago night. And of the love that grew over the years that followed, an unconditional love that didn’t end when Ray died because it flows from the fountain of God’s love.

My reminiscences on this 40th anniversary led me to think of others who, like Ray, loved me so well during their lifetimes that I still feel their love even though they’ve been gone many years. No surprise, my contemplation of enduring love included Mom. Though she passed away more recently, she poured so much selfless, unconditional love into me I have no doubt the bucket will remain full the rest of my life. I imagine her joining the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds me, urging me to finish strong.

A Legacy of Love

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the wonder I feel when I ponder the power of love that transcends the grave, undimmed by the passage of time, and it most likely won’t be the last. Though I cherish tangible reminders of departed loved ones, material gifts aren’t the basis for our lasting connections. Shared experiences bolstered by loving acceptance and encouragement form the links that bind us together.

Love grounded in faith and hope is the most valuable legacy we can bestow, far more significant than any earthly treasures we might bequeath. I suppose my thoughts frequently turn to those who loved me well because I want to love the way they loved, to pass on the legacy they left me.

The Father’s Love

The Father first loved us by sending His Son to die for us, the just for the unjust. Empowered by the Spirit, we are to love others as God has loved us (1 John 4:9-11). Jesus even said His followers’ love for each other should be notable, a distinguishing characteristic  (John 13:34-35).

And how blessed we are that nothing on earth or in heaven will ever be able to separate us from God’s love:  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-9).

What a glorious assurance!

Dear Lord, thank You for Your infinite, eternal love. May we live in such a way that our love and faith are evident to a watching world, hallmarks of our relationship with You. And may we love others so well that the effects endure even after You’ve called us Home.

Bearing Fruit

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Luke 6:43-45

Identifying Features

Before I studied horticulture, I tried to identify trees by their leaves. Don’t get me wrong, leaves are important identifiers for many species, but they can be misleading in others. When botanists classify plants, they look instead at their reproductive structures –  flowers, fruit, and seeds.

Although oak leaves come in different shapes, all oaks sprout from acorns. Likewise, there are numerous forms of maple leaves, not just the classic silhouette that appears on the Canadian flag. But all maple seeds are borne in samaras, those little winged carriers that float to the ground like tiny helicopters.

Once I learned this, it became a fun game to see if I could spot similarities between plants at the botanical garden where I volunteered. I first noted the flowers on  Abutilon with their crepe paper-like petals resemble dwarf hibiscus blossoms. Despite the shape of its leaves, which leads to one of its common names, flowering maple, Abutilon is part of the Malvaceae family, as are hibiscus and okra.

Next, I noticed the tiny white bell-shaped flowers on  Pieris japonica look like those on a small tree, known as farkleberry, and both resemble those on blueberry bushes. Those three belong to the Ericaceae family.

The more I studied, the easier it became to see the distinguishing characteristics and successfully match plants with their relatives. I wondered why I found it to be so gratifying, musing that it must be because family, both biological and spiritual, is so important to me.

Family Resemblance

Just like we can recognize plants by their fruit, Jesus taught that members of His family would bear distinguishing fruit as well, and He made it clear the only way to bear abundant spiritual fruit was to abide in Him:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5

I’m frequently reminded of His statement when I’m pruning. I sometimes leave piles of discarded branches on the ground and then go back to collect them after I finish cutting. Inevitably, the leaves on the severed limbs are already beginning to wilt. The longer the time apart from their source of nourishment and the hotter the day, the quicker their demise. They can no longer live, much less produce fruit.

When I think of abiding, I think of peace – no striving or struggling. The word appears ten times in verses 4 to 10 of John 15, emphasizing the permanence of our relationship with Christ as well as the eternal significance of the fruit we bear. Securely connected to the Giver of Life, His life flows through us to bless and benefit others, all to the praise of His glory.

Distinctive Fruit

And what kind of distinct fruit do we produce when we abide in Him? Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). All are marks of God’s children, but one outshines them all – love. Jesus prayed that the love He and the Father shared would dwell richly in His followers (John 17:26). That singular mark of distinction would allow all people to identify them as being part of God’s family (John 13:35).

He also warned against false prophets, those seeking to deceive. Like leaves that mimic those of other plants, their outward appearance may initially camouflage their deceit. But closer inspection of the fruit borne of the evil intent in their hearts will give them away, ultimately leading to their destruction (Matthew 7:15-20).

Not so the children of God who bear fruit in keeping with repentance and shine as lights in this dark world (Ephesians 5:8-11).

O Lord, what a privilege it is to be a branch on Your family tree. We bear the imprint of the true Vine, Whose life in us allows us to bear abundant fruit of eternal value.

Good Gifts

My friend could scarcely contain her excitement as she said, “Be sure to see me after church. I have something for you. It has your name written all over it!”

083Her statement piqued my curiosity and nudged a long-ago, gift-related memory from the recesses of my mind. The recollection tempered my enthusiasm as I wondered which traits I’d projected to inspire this perfect gift. Much to my relief, the beautiful bookends my friend joyfully presented after the worship service reflected my love of gardening and reading.

080So what about the memory? Two small, resin snapping turtles, a Mother’s Day gift from my then-elementary-aged daughters. Snapping turtles! To this day, some 25 years later, my daughters declare they thought the scary critters were cute. Cute?! Maybe it was my late husband’s barely-suppressed grin or my insecurities as a busy, often-tired mom, but no amount of explaining could convince me the turtles weren’t a commentary on my character flaws.

God’s Gifts

God is the supreme gift-giver. There’s no hiding our selves or our sins from Him. We deserve condemnation from One so holy, yet from the beginning He determined to give us the gift we needed most – salvation. As soon as Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit their eyes were opened to the reality of their condition. They tried to hide, just as we do. But God came to the garden as usual and promised the seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3).

Jesus fulfilled that promise by living a life of perfect obedience, taking our sins upon himself, enduring God’s wrath on the cross, dying, and being raised again to eternal life (Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

In addition, Jesus promised his distraught disciples He wouldn’t leave them as orphans. He’d send a Helper (John 14:18, 25-26). The Holy Spirit came bearing specially-selected gifts. He empowers us to accomplish the good works prepared for us, not for personal glory, but for the building up of the body of believers to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 12).

Reflecting His Goodness

But there’s more. As we abide in Christ, we’ll produce good fruit in keeping with our salvation – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control – which in turn reflects His goodness to others (Galatians 5:22-23a).

A dear friend gave me just such a gift when she asked if she could walk my garden with me. She knows, as most of you longtime readers do, that my garden is a refuge, a place of peaceful times with the Lord. Restrictions associated with COVID-19 have kept me home much more than usual the past two months. I’ve spent many happy hours trimming, weeding, and planting. Nonetheless, there are unsightly patches dotting my 1/3 acre, where weeds abound or poison ivy is winding its way around tree trunks.

Even so, my friend commented repeatedly on how beautiful it was and that she could see I’d worked hard to make it so. Reflecting on our stroll later, I realized this is exactly what she’s done across the years of our friendship. As one of my closest confidants, she’s seen me entangled in vines sprung from seeds I should never have sown and has prayerfully cheered me on as I sought to remove briars impeding my spiritual journey. She’s reminded me who I am in Christ and has never made me feel less than beautiful, even when I struggled to see beyond the weeds.

Isn’t that what God does? As long as we’re in the flesh we’ll battle our sin nature, but when God looks at us, He sees us robed in the perfect righteousness of His Son. What an amazing gift! Furthermore, we don’t battle alone. Not only is the power of the Spirit at work within us, conforming us more and more to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), but God also graciously provides fellow believers to come alongside us on our journey.

Perhaps it’s time for me to accept my daughters’ explanation of their long-ago gift. Maybe they did look past the menacing mouths of those tiny turtles and saw the cuteness of their size, just like they looked past my moments of fatigue and impatience and saw my heart full of love for them.

O Lord, please help us to love others well and to reflect your goodness to those who we come in contact with that they might long to know Jesus, the greatest gift ever given.

Never alone – Reprise

Dear Readers,

I pray you’re finding ways to stay connected during this time of social distancing. Though technology can sometimes be intrusive, I’m grateful to live in an age when there are so many options available to keep in touch. 057While Grammie Mondays and Wednesdays are temporarily suspended, FaceTime allows me to visit with my grandchildren, though I’m just as likely to see a knee or the floor as they wiggle and giggle in and out of view. Mom and I logged on to Facebook Live for last night’s church service. I start most of my days listening to a podcast or two. Phone calls, e-mails, texts throughout the day keep me attached.

But oh how I miss the hugs and being in each other’s presence. Thus gathering with my neighbors for another Sunday afternoon session of worshipful singing yesterday was a special blessing. No hugs, of course, as we kept the prescribed distance. Even so, raising our voices together in song, prayer, and cheerful banter lifted my spirits in ways virtual visits can’t.

055I awoke to brilliant sunshine this morning, with one of the hymns we sang yesterday playing in my mind. I’ve hummed snippets of “Because He Lives” sporadically ever since, thankful to belong to the Lord of all, thankful to be sheltering in place surrounded by fellow believers. So I dedicate this post, a slightly-modified version of one I first published in June 2018, to them. I pray it will encourage you to look up and reach out during these unprecedented times.

* * * * *

Later this month, I’ll mark the 26th anniversary of my family’s move to Georgia. My tenure in the home my late husband Ray and I chose as our “raise-the-kids” house will then surpass by a decade my second-longest-term abode, the house I grew up in. Neighbors have come and gone over the years and I’ve watched several crops of children, including my own dear daughters, grow up. Currently, the homes around my cul-de-sac are filled with a pleasant mix of young families and empty-nesters.

IMG_6001I was working in my garden one recent afternoon, when my youngest neighbor, sweet-spirited Sadie, paid me a visit. We were chatting about flowers and butterflies and bumblebees when she suddenly asked, “Do you have a husband?” I replied, “I used to, but he’s already in heaven. He planted a lot of my trees. That’s why I love them so much.” As I watched, belatedly realizing I’d given a much-too-detailed reply to her simple question, her countenance was overshadowed by pensive consternation. Nonetheless, before I had a chance to offer up something more appropriate, Sadie’s expression brightened once again as she assured me, “But you’re not alone! You have lots of people around you!” I immediately followed up with, “You’re right! I have such good neighbors.”

With this, we took turns naming all the folks who live around us. Sadie finished the list, “And Sophie!” Yes, the boisterous ball of fluffy white fur, canine companion to our newest neighbors, is an essential part of the mix. With our conversation thus concluded, Sadie skipped across the street and up her driveway, ponytail swinging side to side with each hop.

I’ve reflected on our exchange several times since. It was such a life-giving reminder of the blessing of community. Created in the image of our Triune God, we are meant to live in relationship with Him and others. Early on, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Although the Genesis account refers specifically to Adam’s need of a suitable helpmate (wife), it’s also clear the animals couldn’t provide the requisite companionship fellow human beings could (Genesis 2:18-23). People need people. We’re not meant to navigate life alone.

Sometimes it’s tempting to try, especially if you’re an introvert or an I-can-handle-this-myself type. Or maybe you figure everyone else is busy with their own responsibilities and you don’t want to be a bother. Or perhaps you’ve gotten your feelings hurt one time too many and decided to withdraw. (Please note: each of these scenarios has applied to me at some point in my life and most likely will again!) Whatever your rationale might be, Scripture is full of passages on the importance of relationships as well as how to treat each other. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves, to consider others’ needs before our own, to share and forgive and encourage (Matthew 22:39; Philippians 2:3-4; Luke 6:37-38).

In addition to our biological families, those who belong to God are part of a spiritual family, with unique benefits and obligations. For example:

  • The Apostle Paul says believers form the Body of Christ on earth, with each having a specific role, just as the various parts of our physical bodies have a critical part in keeping us healthy and alive. We are called to use our gifts and abilities to benefit others and to refrain from comparing ourselves to our brothers and sisters whose gifts and abilities are different (1 Corinthians 12).
  • We’ve been adopted into the very family of God and are being conformed more and more to the image of our elder Brother, Jesus, the firstborn Son (Ephesians 1:3-5; Romans 8:29). We are assured of an eternal inheritance and an eternal Home (1 Peter 1:3-5; John 14:2-3).
  • Though spending time with God individually is essential to our spiritual growth and transformation, Hebrews 10:24-25 clearly states the necessity of corporate worship: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
  • James instructed believers to pray for one another while Paul admonished believers to pray without ceasing (James 5:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Such supplications can unite us, even when we’re unable to be together physically (Romans 15:30-32). Furthermore, Scripture tells us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who’ve gone before us, persevering in the faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). [1]
  • We are blessed with the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and counsel us (John 14:15-17, 25-26). Apart from this divine Helper, we’d have no hope of pleasing God; with Him, our sanctification and, ultimately, our glorification, are ensured (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Family and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, a loving Father, a selfless older Brother, the indwelling Spirit – sweet Sadie was so right. I’m not alone!

* * * * *

O Lord, how I thank You for the blessing of relationships and for your promise to never leave or forsake us. Please help us to be ever-mindful of your presence during this time of social distancing and potential isolation. And may we reach out to others with the love You’ve lavished upon us, using the amazing array of options available to do so.

 

[1] Note: This passage begins with “Therefore”, referring back to the long list of bygone saints who lived by faith.

Sibling Rivalry

In my post, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” (see Archives, December 2019), I shared some thoughts from the devotion I presented at our women’s Christmas brunch. In writing that piece, I focused primarily on the good tidings of God’s promise to be with us: “I will be your God; you will be my people; I will dwell among you.”  Today I turn my attention to the other half of the message I delivered to the women in attendance.

Scripture is full of precious promises of God’s presence. Yet too often the noise and busyness of the world drown out the tidings of comfort and joy associated with God’s assurances. Or Satan tempts us to doubt. “Where’s God now?” he taunts. “Did He really say He wouldn’t leave you? Ever??”

Though His presence is sufficient, God didn’t intend for us to go it alone. Created in His image, we’re relational beings. Having been adopted into His family, we have spiritual brothers and sisters to remind us of truth, to testify to His faithfulness, and to be His hands and feet as we minister to one another.

045My baby sister barely reached 8 months of age, hence I grew up an only child with no sibling rivalry and no one to bicker with. But I saw plenty of both as I raised my daughters and now witness more of the same as I spend time with my grandchildren.

“Mine!”

“Me first!!”

“I was playing with that!!!”

Sound familiar?

Sadly, similar rivalries and bickering occur in the family of God. Remember the mother who asked Jesus if her sons could be seated next to Him in heaven, one on His left, the other on His right? Talk about a bold request! (Matthew 20:20-28) Then there were the disciples Jesus caught arguing about who would be the greatest. (Luke 22:24-27) Our presumptions may be more subtle, but they’re there, remnants of our sinful nature that won’t be fully eradicated until we’re called Home.

In the instances cited, Jesus made it clear the world’s definition of greatness didn’t apply to His disciples. Instead of exalting themselves, they were to follow His example by humbly serving others.

But God’s directives regarding His children’s interactions don’t stop there.  Scripture contains numerous passages expressing God’s will for our dealings with one another. Consider this one from Colossians:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

With our elder Brother as our example, we’re told to forgive one another, to be compassionate and kind, and most importantly, to love one another. In fact, Jesus commanded us to love one another so well that it sets us apart. If we do, it will make others notice (John 13:34-35). Even better, it may make them long to be part of God’s family.

During a recent visit, one of the missionaries our church supports described such a scenario. He became acquainted with a shopkeeper in the country where he and his wife serve and invited him to church. The shopkeeper accepted his invitation because he knew him to be a “nice” person. Even so, he was unprepared to meet a church full of “nice” people.  Wonderment at the tangible difference he observed provided an opportunity for the missionary to explain the why behind the behavior.

I put “nice” in quotes because as believers we know apart from Christ, even our best deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We’re utterly incapable of conducting ourselves according to the Lord’s commands. But, praise God, His promise to be with us includes sending the Holy Spirit to remind us of Jesus’ teachings, to help us want to obey, and to enable us to do so (John 14:16, 26; Philippians 2:13), albeit imperfectly until we’re ushered into heaven.

044My sister’s death left an empty spot, a life-long yearning to have been able to grow up and grow old with her. In spite of my daughters’ and grandchildren’s childhood squabbling, they’re family, forever part of each other. And so it is in God’s family as He knits our hearts and lives together in love.

O, Lord, thank You for not only promising to never leave us or forsake us, but for also giving us each other, brothers and sisters in Christ. Please help us to follow our elder Brother’s example of putting others’ interests before our own, setting aside all rivalries and jealousy, loving and forgiving as He loves and forgives us. In so doing, may we draw others to You, ever ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

 

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

Hide and seek

11-5-2012, Peek-a-boo 5Surely one of the earliest and most endearing games we play with babies involves disappearing behind our hands only to reappear moments later, smiling and exclaiming, “peek-a-boo!” We repeat the sequence of movements multiple times, rewarded with baby’s surprised chuckles.

11-5-2012, Peek-a-boo 6Before long, infants turn into mobile toddlers, able to participate in the hiding aspect of the game. In fact, hide-and-seek becomes an oft-requested favorite, complete with random-number counting and much laughter while scurrying to find the perfect hiding spot. Shrieks are just as likely to accompany finding as being found.

IMG_1258Sometimes the hiding isn’t all that effective. For instance, even though most of the tiny body is covered up, a foot may remain visible. Or, try as I might, I can’t fully wedge myself between the wall and the recliner when the little people are hunting me.

And then there are times when I wander around, pretend-seeking the hidden one, musing, “Hmm, I wonder where (insert grandchild’s name) is?” The confident, she-can’t-find-me laughter that follows allows me to zero in like a honey bee to its hive. More laughter ensues, along with, “Let’s hide again, Grammie!”

Child’s play?

The first recorded episode of hide-and-seek was no child’s game. It wasn’t planned and it certainly wasn’t accompanied by laughter, unless it was the nervous kind borne of embarrassment. Genesis 3 recounts the story of the Fall. Satan, disguised as a serpent, engaged Eve in a doubt-God’s-goodness conversation – surely it wasn’t proper for God to withhold something as wonderful as the forbidden fruit? Sadly, it didn’t take much to convince Eve of her right to partake. She ate and then shared some of the bounty with Adam. (verses 1-6).

Oh, their eyes were opened, just like Satan promised. But instead of delighting in their newfound enlightenment, they were overcome with shame as they realized they were naked (verse 7a). Knowing God would soon arrive for His daily garden stroll, they hastily covered themselves with leafy loincloths and hid (verses 7b-8).

Shame or guilt?

We’ve been hiding from God and each other ever since, haven’t we? Afraid if people knew our short-comings and the secret sins that plague us, they’d turn away.

Guilt is a helpful, God-given poke to our conscience convicting us of a specific wrongdoing, leading us to confess, repent, seek forgiveness and be restored. By contrast, shame condemns, whispering some variation of, “You’re bad and you always will be”, to our weary souls. Like Georgia-clay stains on white socks, we just can’t rid ourselves of that sense of not measuring up, the vague feeling of not fitting in or meeting expectations.

So we cover up and keep our distance, as we strive to maintain an acceptable facade at all times, even, or maybe especially, at church where it seems like everyone else has it all together. We hide in our respective caves, safe, but so alone.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Even though we usually don’t want to be found out, we do want to be found.

Praise God for coming to the garden in the cool of that fateful day, just like He always had before. This, even though He already knew of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the great pain it would cause their offspring and the price He Himself would pay to redeem them (John 3:16). He came bearing a perfect plan and the promise of better garments. The seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent so all of God’s children could be robed in the righteousness of His beloved Son (verse 15).

Jesus. The Good Shepherd who came to seek the lost (Luke 19:10). The unblemished Lamb, slain for us (John 1:29). The Risen Savior who bids us come that we might find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:29). He knows the very worst about us, but calls us from darkness into light (Isaiah 9:2, John 1:5), to be cleansed by His precious blood that He might present us spotless before God (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Jesus is the safest of safe places for the children of God (John 3:17; Romans 8:1).

Becoming a safe place

Scripture is clear that we are to be conformed to the likeness of our elder brother (Romans 8:29), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). So how can we become safe places for fellow, flawed sojourners, afraid to come out of their caves? Scripture entreats us to:

  • Practice humility, considering others’ needs, hurts and heartaches before our own (Philippians 2:3-4). Each one of us is dealing with things known only to God (Psalm 139:1-3, 23-24).
  • Judge not, remembering all we’ve been forgiven (Matthew 7:1-5; Luke 6:37-38). Though our sins may differ from those of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re all sinners saved by grace (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23).
  • Be willing to become vulnerable, stewarding our own stories well as we share examples of God’s goodness, faithfulness, even discipline across the years we’ve walked with Him (Psalm 78).

May we live in such a way that it’s safer, indeed more desirable, for others to come out of their caves, into the Light of the One who will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3).

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

 

Encourage one another

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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