Let’s All Sing

If you’ve ever visited Disneyland or Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I bet those three words caused an image to pop into your head, accompanied by the rest of the stanza, “ . . . like the birdies do, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet.”[1]  You may even be humming the tune sung by the inhabitants of the Enchanted Tiki Room, where “the birds sing words and the flowers croon”. [2]

The cheerful ditty has come to my mind repeatedly the past couple of months because of a mockingbird who’s taken up residence in my crape myrtle. The canopy of the majestic tree reaches across much of the front of my house and above the roofline, shading the windows of my bedroom and providing a proper perch for the mockingbird to serenade me. I often hear it singing soon after I awake, prompting me to think, “That bird sure sounds happy!” And then, “I can rejoice and be exceeding glad too because God has allowed me to wake up to another day.” (Psalm 118:24)

But sometimes we burrow under the covers instead, our enthusiasm stifled by the demands and uncertainties looming in the hours ahead. There have been plenty of the latter the past 3 months, right? Even so, Scripture is full of assurances:

  • God’s mercies never fail. They are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:21-23)
  • Jesus acknowledged we’d have troubles in this world, but went on to say, “Take heart. I’ve overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
  • If God cares for the birds who sing so sweetly, He’ll surely take care of us, His beloved children. (Matthew 10:29-31)

As I’ve navigated the challenges of the past weeks, I’ve been comforted by these and other promises in the form of lyrics from beloved hymns. Before long, I’m whistling the tune and then singing complete verses aloud. Great is Thy Faithfulness, It is Well with my Soul, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Be Thou My Vision, and our family anthem, Amazing Grace.  Such is the power of music to encourage and edify.

And to connect.

Musical Ties

My mom grew up attending a tiny Presbyterian church in rural North Carolina. Some 8 decades later, when the first few strains of a hymn familiar since childhood emanate from the piano at our current church, she smiles, leans over, and whispers, “That’s a Gulf song!” I nod and return her smile as we fondly recall the white wooden structure and the loved ones buried in its cemetery, links in our heritage of faith.

When my now-adult daughters were little, my husband Ray and I used Amazing Grace as a lullaby. Though their dad died when they were in elementary school, leaving them with few memories of their godly father, they clearly remember him singing them to sleep with that classic hymn.

img_3559When my grandchildren were born, I continued the tradition their grandfather and I began with their mother, soothing them to sleep with Amazing Grace, planting seeds of faith from their earliest days. Six-year-old granddaughter Lyla is prone to humming as she works on a craft project or tackles one of her small household chores. I believe it’s an overflow of her happy heart. Occasionally she’ll sigh, “I’ve got this song stuck in my head!”

Frequently the song on replay is a hymn. Because she and her siblings are being brought up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

How wonderful to have God’s Word sewn into our hearts with threads of music, binding us to Him and to generations of fellow believers!

Let All Creation Sing

Hearing the shouts of praise and adoration as Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, the Pharisees, indignant and no doubt jealous, said, “’Teacher rebuke your disciples.’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40)

The psalmist shares similar sentiments: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 96:1-4)

Indeed creation does praise the Creator in myriad ways. Yet we who’ve been the recipients of God’s great love and mercy are best-equipped to articulate all He’s done for us. So let us sing with joyful abandon like the mockingbird outside my window, proclaiming His goodness and faithfulness, as we rejoice in the gift of each new day.

 

[1] “Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing” was written in 1932 by a team of songwriters lead by English composer Tolchard Evans.

[2] Songwriters: Richard M. Sherman / Robert B. Sherman, “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company

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.

Hold the Mayo

img_2711My late husband, Ray, long-suffering when it came to my foibles, drew the line at fast food orders. In the days before “have it your way” became a slogan, I’d request a cheeseburger, lettuce, tomato, no mayo, no onions. Minutes drug past while they made my special order.

Ray would mumble, “You know it’s not fast food when you ask for something special.” Who could blame him? After all, he was hangry.

That long-ago scenario came to mind as I thought about writing this post.

Sandwiched

Often, when someone asks how I’m doing, I reply, “I’m sandwiched.”

According to a HuffPost article, “Social worker Dorothy Miller originally coined the term ‘sandwich generation’ back in 1981 to describe women in their 30s to 40s who were ‘sandwiched’ between young children and aging parents as their primary caregiver . . .  Women are delaying child-bearing and seniors are living longer . . . the ‘sandwich generation’ definition has morphed along the way and tends to target both genders and the predominant age is 40-65 years old.”[1]

I’m blessed to have my 88-year-old parents living close by in their own home, able to take care of each other and their daily needs. I’m equally blessed that my daughter, son-in-law, and 3 grandchildren live a mere 6 miles away. Mary and Justin are capable of tending to their little brood. So, technically, I’m only responsible for my own upkeep. Nonetheless, I’m part of the support team for my parents and my children and grandchildren. I check in with Mom and Dad each day, have dinner with them several evenings a week, and take Mom to most of her medical appointments.  And I spend two days each week with my grandchildren.

These people are precious to me. I’m thankful to be retired and available to help out.

What about me?

But I’m one person, an only-child and widow at that. Sometimes the load gets heavy. Days go by when I can’t keep up with my chores, much less work in my garden or write anything meaningful. The hardest moments are those when both generations need me, such as times I’ve been with Mom or Dad at the hospital on a day when I’d normally be helping Mary with the children.

I’ve never figured out how to be two places at once, though there were plenty of times I longed for that superpower. Over the years I worked full-time for a large corporation, raising my daughters alone, I’d sometimes quip, “I wish I could lie down on the copy machine and make copies of myself – one to stay at home, one to go to work, one to handle miscellaneous stuff.”

Even though I’m retired, I still occasionally yearn for the ability to duplicate myself.

The next thing

By now you may be wondering about my disdain for mayo. It’s not so much that I dislike it, more that I prefer it in limited quantities. And therein lies the problem – fast-food cooks tend to slather on way too much, thus overpowering the other flavors. Burger, cheese, lettuce, tomato –all present, but indiscernible as bite after bite tastes like mayonnaise!

Likewise, seemingly ceaseless demands, commitments, and responsibilities can produce a layer of stress, anxiety, even resentment and guilt, which overwhelms and disguises the sweeter flavors of life. The blessings associated with relationships, serving others, and stewarding the gifts and talents God has entrusted to us become obscured when our existence feels like one big to-do list.

Elisabeth Elliot is quoted in the book Suffering is Never for Nothing: “There’s an old legend, I’m told, inscribed in a parsonage in England somewhere on the sea coast, a Saxon legend that said, ‘Do the next thing.’ I don’t know any simpler formula for peace, for relief from stress and anxiety than that very practical, very down-to-earth word of wisdom. Do the next thing. That has gotten me through more agonies than anything else I could recommend.”[2]

That sage advice lines up with Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6:34 to concentrate on the immediate instead of heaping up concerns about future events.

Sufficient grace

I recently had the opportunity to attend a 3-day women’s conference. The extended time of fellowship and learning allowed me to focus, to savor the experience unencumbered by responsibilities at home.  As I packed my bag on the last morning, a too-familiar sense of anxiety crept into my consciousness. Re-entry loomed on the horizon.

Tears welled up and spilled over when I told a friend about my apprehension. Her life-giving words echoed the teachings of the weekend: “Patsy, you didn’t need that extra measure of grace the past couple of days. God will give it to you when you need it again.”

You may not be “sandwiched” as defined above, dear reader; however, I’m guessing you have some conglomeration of responsibilities piled on your plate, a conglomeration that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers.

But there is One who assures us His yoke is easy, who offers rest for our very souls (Matthew 11:29-30). May we trust Him for wisdom and strength, moment by moment. For His grace is indeed sufficient and His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9a).

[1] Huffpost.com, “The Sandwich Generation: Who is Caring for You?”, 9/7/14, updated 11/7/14

[2] Eilsabeth Elliot, “Suffering is Never for Nothing”, (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 45-46.

Love Never Ends

February 14th. Valentine’s Day. One of several days throughout the year when I have to take myself in hand and preach truth to myself even more so than usual. Father’s Day, my late husband’s birthday, our would-be wedding anniversary, the day God called Ray Home. Difficult days when I’m tempted to question God’s goodness; to wonder why He wrote my beloved spouse’s too-soon-for-me departure into our story.

The sunshine streaming through my windows this morning provided a stark contrast to my mood. No card, no flowers, no warm embrace from my forever love. Everything in me wanted to ignore the holiday. Well, almost everything. Whispers of truth made their way through the silent, solitary morning moments, “You’re not alone. Reach out.”

I sent a few texts, their content more cheerful than my prevailing state of mind. Soon my phone began to ping notifying me of incoming replies, most bedecked with emoji hearts and hugs:

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my friend!”

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you as well! I am thankful today for friends and family! Love to you today!”

“’The Lord has appeared of old unto me, saying, ‘Yea, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you.’ Jeremiah 31:3 . . . Praying this will minister to you.”

Gratitude, love, the Word of the Lord – potent antidotes for sorrow, doubt, and self-pity. They provided the traction I needed to extricate myself from the emotional quagmire I was languishing in. Back on solid footing, I redirected my thoughts.

img_2626-1I’m thankful for the time Ray and I spent together. I’d rather have been married to him for 13 years than not at all. The last card he gave me was a Valentine card. Unlike other memorabilia tucked away in various boxes and file folders, it resides in a special spot on my bookshelf. Lost in my reverie, I retrieved it from its slot and reverently removed it from its well-worn envelope. After savoring the sentiments within, I placed it on the edge of my dining room table which also serves as my desk. There, alongside other tangible reminders of loved ones, it radiated a message of glowing encouragement.

When I first read the words some 23 years ago I asked Ray if he truly felt that way about me. I didn’t see much of myself in the card’s lofty ideals which reference the Proverbs 31 woman. He didn’t hesitate before confirming the message rang true. What a gift to be able to see someone’s potential in the Lord, wherever they may be in the life-long process of sanctification, and then graciously point it out to them.

God used Ray’s unconditional love to show His love for me throughout our marriage. What a blessing to read the words contained in that final card all these years later and hear Ray’s resounding affirmation.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

With my thoughts on a decidedly-positive trajectory, I pondered some things our pastor pointed out during last night’s study of the Westminster Confession of Faith: God is pleased to reveal Himself to us in His Word. He desires intimacy with His people. The Bible is a living document, God’s direct link with us. When we read our Bibles we should imagine God smiling at us because He loves us.

Isn’t that amazing?!!

And now here I sit, joyfully overwhelmed by God’s great love, with so many pertinent passages running through my mind, I don’t know how to end this post. Likewise, I don’t know how you’re feeling on this Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Maybe, like me, you’re yearning for a loved one who’s no longer with you. Then again, you may have a special date planned with your sweetie. Regardless, I pray the following Scriptures will cause your heart to rejoice as you remember the One who loves His children with a love that never ends (Psalm 100:5). To Him be all praise, honor, and glory!

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).

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 8:38-39).

Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8a, 13).

And the next time you’re feeling down or doubting God’s goodness, remember Martyn Lloyd- Jones admonition:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul, ‘Why are thou down cast? What business have you to be disquieted?’ You must turn on yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself, ‘Hope thou in God’ instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is and what God is and what God has done and what God has pledged Himself to do.”

 

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.

 

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.

One-on-one

Most weeks I spend Mondays and Wednesdays with my grandchildren so my daughter can focus on her paid employment. We refer to those days as “Grammie days” and, best I can tell, the children look forward to them as much as I do. Occasionally a holiday falls on a Monday and a whole week passes before I return. Even though I’m tired at the end of Grammie days, I miss the kiddos when my weekly visits are reduced by one.

The new school year brought with it a slightly modified schedule. Every third week, I’ll be helping out on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. All the children go to school on Tuesdays, but I pick 3-year-old Emma up from pre-school at 1 pm and we get to have several hours of one-on-one time before Mary arrives home with 8-year-old Joshua, and 5-year-old Lyla in tow.

2053Those hours allow for some sweet, uninterrupted chats with Miss Emma, something that ranges from difficult to impossible when all of us are there. Never fear, we’re working on the basic building block of conversation etiquette – having one person talk while everyone else listens. However, more often than not, the listeners grow impatient for their turn and before I know it I’m trying to keep track of multiple storylines. I’m only able to catch a word or two from their various tales, resulting in frustration for all of us, frequently accompanied by shouts of “Hey, I wanted to tell Grammie!”

Time to linger over a meal or cup of tea with a friend or relative is such a rare and precious commodity given our fast-paced lives and overflowing to-do lists. I well remember the demands of young adulthood, working for a large corporation and raising my daughters. Thus when those now-adult daughters are intentional about spending focused time with me, I cherish the gift of togetherness.

Just as I value one-on-one time with my children and grandchildren, my heavenly Father wants to spend time with me. My finite human mind can’t fully grasp the enormity of that truth, especially when I contemplate what it cost Him (John 3:16).

The fulfillment of God’s covenant promise – I will be your God, you will be my people and I will dwell among you – would be impossible without us being holy, perfect, sinless for God cannot abide any unclean thing in His presence. The sacrifice of the spotless Lamb made it possible for us to approach the throne of grace, robed in righteousness, fully acceptable and pleasing to God (1 Peter 1:14-21).

It grieves me to think how often I overlook this great privilege. Like the occasional cacophony of my grandchildren around the lunch table, demands and responsibilities splinter my days. Some are so trivial, like the dinging of my phone summoning me to check a text or e-mail or Facebook post. My thoughts scatter as I repeatedly respond to this palm-sized taskmaster. Meanwhile, the Maker and Sustainer of all things beckons me to come to Him for soul rest (Matthew 11:28-30) and everlasting sustenance (John 6:35; John 7:37-38). Infinite and omnipresent, He’s capable of attending to each and every one of His children (Proverbs 15:3). We don’t have to compete for His attention or wait for our turn to speak (Psalm 34:15; Psalm 139:1-12).

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

O, Lord, I know how much I cherish time spent with my beloved family, especially uninterrupted, one-on-one time. I am humbled and amazed to think that You, Lord of lords and King of kings, want to spend time with me (Psalm 8:3-4). Please help me not to take the gift of your presence for granted. By the power of your Spirit, enable me to set aside mundane distractions to partake of the one thing I truly need, time to sit at your feet and learn of You.

Always a Mother

img_1628Those who know me well know I cry easily – tears of joy or sorrow, tears when beholding exceptional beauty or kindness, tears of frustration and disappointment. But sometimes, even I am surprised by what provokes the tears. This week it was a picture my daughter Mary posted – of her feet. Yep, you read that correctly. You see, her feet were clad in colorful running shoes, posed in a position unattainable since she fractured her ankle while participating in a half-marathon last November. Until now.

Cross country was Mary’s sport-of-choice in high school and she rededicated herself to distance running several years ago. This isn’t the first time a foot or ankle injury has sidelined her. Consequently, she was smart about rehabbing her ankle, not doing too much too soon. Being awarded a spot to run in this year’s Chicago Marathon, one of the most coveted invitations in the running world, provided further motivation to recover well.

Another Setback

A local municipality sponsors a series of 5k races each year, one race per month fromIMG_3857 May to October. After several years of participation, the Kennesaw Grand Prix Series is now a family tradition. I take my place on the sidewalk to cheer my runners[1] on from the final curve, down the straight-away, and across the finish line. I relish those Saturday mornings.

Mary ran the May race, her first since the fracture, continued training strategically and participated in the 50th-anniversary edition of the Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10k, on July 4th. The July 5k took place the following week. I cheered myself almost-hoarse as I watched 5-year-old granddaughter, Lyla, complete the 1-mile race. Moments later, my exuberance over her accomplishment gave way to disappointment brought about by Mary’s last-minute decision not to run. Pain in her right hip prevented her from trotting more than a few steps without wincing. And it hasn’t felt right since.

My heart hurts for my beloved daughter. Mary should be well into her training regimen for the Chicago Marathon, racking up 10-15 miles at a time, yet even 1-mile outings are proving difficult. But that’s not all. She’s endured some emotional injuries as well. Add those to her physical limitations and you’ve got the makings of a spiritual battle. One she has to wage without the benefit of her usual heart-thumping, mind-clearing time with the Lord. Solitary, stress-reducing time she’s come to count on to sustain her as a dedicated wife and mother of three, partially-homeschooled little ones, plus the demands of her not-so-part-time paid employment.

Mama Bear Lives

“Once a mother, always a mother.”

“When you hurt, I hurt.”

Lines I’ve heard my mom utter countless times throughout my life. With every passing year, I become more convinced of the veracity of her statements, no matter how old our children are. In fact, at age 87 and weighing in at about the same number, Mom is still my staunchest supporter and most fervent prayer warrior.

When my daughters were little, I wanted to protect them from hurts and disappointments, to keep them safe. That hasn’t changed now that they’re all grown up. The stakes are often higher, the hurts deeper in adulthood. I continue to pray for their safety and well-being.

A Higher Purpose

If I had my way, I wouldn’t let any harm come to my children or grandchildren, my friends or family members, EVER. But I don’t have my way. And though it may sound like I’m contradicting myself, I’m thankful I don’t. Because I have no doubt I’ve come to know God more intimately through the hard times than I ever would had I gone through life without pain or problems. My faith is stronger because of adversity, from being stretched and tested, just like our physical muscles grow strong from being used and bearing increasingly-heavy loads (James 1:2-4).

Why would I want any less for my loved ones? But I’m not wise enough to comprehend which trials will produce endurance or solidify their relationship with their Savior or conform them more to His image. When I contemplate Mary’s situation, I’m tempted to ask, “Why this, Lord? Why take running away from her? Why now when she received an invitation to run in Chicago?” I must trust God to have a good plan for her, remembering that nothing is ever lost or wasted as God weaves our stories into His grand, over-arching story of redemption (Jeremiah 29:11). I cling to the promise that He works all things together for good for those who love Him, confident Mary belongs to Him (Romans 8:28).

Just as the fractured ankle wasn’t Mary’s first run-inhibiting injury, the spiritual battle isn’t a first either. She’s suffered losses, challenges and disappointments aplenty in her 30-some years. And just as she knew how to rehab her ankle, Mary has a time-proven plan to strengthen her spirit – prayer, reading God’s word, seeking godly counsel (Romans 12:12; Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 11:14).

IMG_7889I watch and pray, embracing a friend’s assurance offered up when Mary was only a few months old: “God loves her even more than you do.”

Hold onto your faith, dear Mary. And remember, Mama Bear is cheering you on.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;  but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;  they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:28-31).

[1] “My runners” include daughters, Mary and Jessie, granddaughters, Lyla and Emma, and assorted friends, depending on the race.

Keeping current

IMG_0321I’m playing catch-up. December descended, as it always does, with its attendant whirlwind of activities. I’m one of those who revel in the festivities, from sending and receiving cards to plotting gift strategy with family members to savoring special meals with loved ones. But, as I’m enjoying the merriment the season has to offer, day-to-day chores and responsibilities start to pile up and about now, as the celebrations wind down, I realize just how far behind I am. I don’t regret my decision to enjoy the season, since it comes but once a year, while chores persist year-round. But I know I now need to pick up the reins and get the more mundane aspects of life back in order. As much as I relish celebrating, I also look forward to returning to a normal schedule.

There are times when it’s ok to step back from our daily routines, to focus on special occasions and events, to appreciate holidays and vacations. But the Bible is clear there are some things we need to make every effort to keep current on, many of which involve relationships. Consider, for example:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27)

I don’t like conflict. I’d much rather compliment than confront. Faced with disappointment, I’m more likely to withdraw, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, or risk being hurt more deeply myself. Yet these two passages direct us to address discord in a timely manner and not allow misunderstandings to fester. I’ve learned first-hand the necessity of doing so. Unresolved differences provide fertile soil for Satan to inflict further misery, including divisions and estrangement.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-9)

Here we receive guidance on how to conduct our relationships. We are to treat each other with kindness and consideration, humbly forgiving as we ourselves have been forgiven. God asks nothing of us that He hasn’t already done Himself in ways that far surpass any giving or humbling or forgiving we’ll ever do.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18b-21)

These last two passages are similar in their decree: we’re to give thanks, rejoice and pray continually – no slacking or falling behind!

The directives in the passages above are impossible for us to carry out in our own strength, but, praise God, we’ve been given the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20-21) May we ever depend on Him to help us keep current in the things that matter most.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)