Celebrate the Light

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5

Traditions

I’m a Christmas baby, born on December 19th. Mom and Dad brought me home on Christmas Eve, and Dad hung a bootie up as my first stocking. Despite my birthday falling within a week of Christmas, Mom made sure I had a birthday celebration each year, complete with cake and presents. Some years we invited friends over for a party, while other times, Dad took us out to dinner at a nice restaurant. And each year, my gifts included a pretty dress from Mom.

Christmas traditions were equally dear and included shopping, preparing dozens of goodie boxes to share with friends, decorating, and attending Christmas cantatas and worship services.

As the years passed, I married and started a family, so we tweaked and added to our traditions. We joked that our holiday season begins with daughter Mary’s late-October birthday and continues into November with Mom’s birthday and Thanksgiving.  Granddaughter Lyla’s birthday is the day after mine, then Christmas. We finally wrap up our celebrations on New Year’s Day. Different foods and festivities accompany each occasion, as do plenty of reminiscences and lots of photo-taking.

Just Skip It

Several weeks ago, I began to contemplate this year’s holiday season. Unlike most years when joyful anticipation colors my feelings, I thought, “I wish I could fast-forward past the holidays.”

You see, for the first time in my life, Mom won’t be with me to celebrate. Granted, we curtailed our goodie-making some years ago, and Mom’s ability to fully participate in shopping, wrapping, and sending out Christmas cards had declined the last few years. However, her smile still shone brightly, and her joy at being together was infectious.

Pondering Mom’s absence on my birthday and Christmas morning weighed heavy on my heart.

Not Celebrate?!

Those dismal thoughts didn’t have a chance to put down roots, though. Almost as quickly as they came, another took their place, “What do you mean, not celebrate?! How would that honor her memory, much less the One whose birth we’re celebrating?”

Last week’s sermon[1] further dispelled the notion of merely going through the motions this December. After acknowledging that not everyone experiences hope and joy during the holidays, Pastor Donovan reminded us of the following:

  • Biblical hope isn’t maybe-things-will-work-out wishful thinking, but the confident expectation that God will act according to His purpose, plan, and promises.
  • Advent is a season of celebrating God choosing to come near, to save us. (What a gift!) We must:
    • Gratefully acknowledge and receive the gift. Don’t take it for granted or think, “I’ve heard the Christmas story so many times.” Never stop marveling at the fact the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!
    • Actively cultivate hope by remembering God’s past faithfulness to look forward with assurance. God is worthy of our joy, expectation, and trust. He will fulfill all His promises.
    • Communicate that hope to the hopeless. Celebrate what is and what’s coming. Don’t complain about what (or who) no longer is.
    • We’re to be agents of hope by sharing and celebrating the Light of the World.

Grief Veteran

Shortly after Mom passed away, a friend described me as a grief veteran. It was her way of encouraging me, of acknowledging the path wouldn’t be easy, but it would be passable. Having been widowed at age 38, knowing what it’s like to miss a loved one across over two decades of holidays yet find joy in celebrating and remembering, I knew she was right.

This Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote is one of my favorites regarding grief:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love . . . it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain . . . the dearer and richer the memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

Each year when I set up the Dickens Village my late husband Ray started for me or purchase poinsettias in memory of the last Christmas he worked at Home Depot, tears of sorrow and joy mingle together. Sorrow that he’s no longer here to help me set up the village or see how much it’s grown, but such joy and gratitude for the love and years we shared. As Bonhoeffer observed, the memories are a precious gift in themselves.

It is the same with Mom. I cherish all the years we had to laugh, love, and celebrate in so many ways. Though she’s no longer physically present, I know she’ll always be with me.

Pass it On

I’m blessed to have three grandchildren to create and share traditions with. But I’m most excited to share the true meaning of Christmas as we celebrate the Light that came into the world. All the love and joy bound up in our celebrations is a reflection of God’s great love and an outpouring of thanksgiving for the blessings we have in Christ. Because He came as a tiny baby, lived a sinless life, and died on our behalf, death doesn’t have the final say. The circle of love is unbroken. And one day, we’ll be reunited around His throne to praise His name together forever.

Heavenly Father, thank You for sending Your Son, the Light of the World, to bring everlasting hope to this dark world. Regardless of the source of darkness – sin, grief, illness, loss – we have the confidence that the darkness will never overcome the Light. Please help us not to hide our light under a basket, but place it on a pedestal for all to see, ever ready to share the reason for our hope.


[1] “Advent: Having Hope and God With Us in This World,” Pastor David Donovan, Grace Covenant Church, November 27, 2021.

Abiding Love

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

Do They Remember?

Several months after Mom passed away, Dad asked a surprising question, “Do you think the little children remember Thelma?”

Puzzled, I replied, “Do you mean Joshua, Lyla, and Emma?”[1]

Dad nodded; a mix of sadness and resignation lined his face.

Confusion turned to disbelief. I assured him, “Of course they do! At least one of us mentions her every time we’re together, especially if snakes come up in our conversation!”

Despite my lighthearted attempt to console him by referring to Mom’s most despised critters, I understood Dad’s concern. Given their ages, my grandchildren won’t have many detailed memories of specific moments shared with Mom by the time they’re adults.

Then again, I know they’ll never forget her.

I Remember

How can I make such a bold statement? Because I know firsthand how unconditional love transcends the grave.

Though my dear maternal grandfather, PaPa,  died over 50 years ago when I was a couple of months shy of my seventh birthday, tears of love and longing well up when I think of him. My memories are few, but precious – sitting on his lap eating apple slices, walking hand-in-hand to the small general store, stopping at the post office, waving to the conductor and counting the cars as the train passed by his house.

I’ve eaten an apple almost every day for as long as I can remember and began sharing apple slices with my grandchildren as soon as they could chew them properly. I attribute both practices to the connection to my grandfather. I eat and share and think of him. I still feel the warmth of his love.

Photographs and Memories

Which memories might fill my grandchildren’s mental portfolio of recollections of time spent with Mom? In addition to her loathing of snakes, I expect they’ll recall her reading to them, as all three snuggled as close to Mama as possible to see the story illustrations. Then there was the ritual of standing next to their diminutive great-grandmother to see how much they needed to grow to catch up to her, something Joshua accomplished the last time they compared heights. Maybe there will even be memories of marathon Play-Doh sessions or coloring with her. And I hope they’ll remember making goodies with her a few days before her last Christmas.

I have photos and details to go along with all those experiences to help reinforce them in the minds of my grandchildren. And like me with my grandfather, an enduring sense of her love for them will bind those memories together. 

Legacy of Faith

Tucked amidst my memories of PaPa are those of attending Sunday school at the little country church where he served as a deacon. When Mom talked about her father, she often mentioned how much he loved God and that church and how he was there to serve and worship every time the doors were open.

Mom and PaPa were cut from the same cloth. Both small in stature, they had big, compassionate hearts and lived their lives based on their abiding faith in God, a faith they instilled in subsequent generations.  Mom brought some of her childhood Sunday school papers to show Joshua, Lyla, and Emma during one of our weekly visits. Seeing the four of them huddled close, looking at the decades-old leaflets that proclaimed timeless truths, is one of my most cherished memories.

When we held Mom’s funeral in that tiny church, I was able to show my grandchildren the very Sunday school classroom where she’d studied those lessons.

Cloud of Witnesses

During my husband’s graveside service, one of the pastors told then 10-year-old Mary and 7-year-old Jessie their lives would be forever blessed by having a godly father. Even though he was with us for a relatively short time, we continue to experience the impact of Ray’s unconditional love and steadfast faith nearly 25 years later.

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

I’ve pondered these relationships, marveling how love can reach beyond death, undimmed by the passage of time. Though I cherish tangible reminders of departed loved ones, the lasting connections aren’t based on material gifts. They’re woven together from shared experiences undergirded by loving acceptance and encouragement.

Love grounded in faith and hope is the 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!

Just as I recognize the importance of telling my grandchildren about the faithful loved ones who are no longer with us, I know telling them about the Father who loves them is even more important, with implications that will last for eternity (Psalm 78:1-8).

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, connecting one generation to another until we’re reunited around Your throne.


[1] My grandchildren, who were 9, 7, and 5 when Mom died.

Live It Out

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
James 2:17-18

The Letter

Soon after Mom passed away, Dad began the arduous task of sorting through her things. Each evening when I went over to prepare dinner, he would show me the day’s treasures. I know how taxing it can be to go through a loved one’s belongings, having done so after my husband Ray died over two decades ago.

One of the gems Dad found and shared with me was a letter Mom wrote to him after they decided to move to Georgia, a decision precipitated by Ray’s passing. They were living in Charlotte at the time but had been considering relocation options since Dad’s retirement several years prior.  Ray’s sudden, unexpected death added urgency to their decision, and they graciously agreed to move to Georgia to be close to my elementary-aged daughters and me. Though such a move had been one of the options all along, circumstances made it feel like there was no longer a choice, and misgivings plagued my dad.

Words to Live By

As I read Mom’s words, penned so long ago and at a time of great stress for all of us, it was like reading a manifesto of her life. Her brief letter, written to calm and encourage my dad, oozed faith and overflowed with scriptural principles. Consider these statements[1] and their biblical underpinnings:

  • “I know we’re making sacrifices, but if it will make a difference for Patsy, Mary, and Jessie, then I am willing to do whatever we can to help them.”
    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  (Philippians 2:3-4).
  • “We did not know what to do with our time. Well, I think God in His own way is showing us that we are needed and have a purpose.”
    For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah  29:11-13).
    For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
  • “I do not feel that a move to Georgia is finishing our lives, but maybe it can be a new beginning.”
    Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:19).
  • “We do not know our future or how much longer we will be on this earth, so we must live each day to the fullest and live our lives for God.”
    So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
    So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  • “God is in control, and when our time on this earth has been served, then we too shall be gone.”
    Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand (Proverbs 19:21).
    In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:16).
  • “My hope and prayer is that we shall be prepared so our soul will be rewarded with a place in Heaven with our Lord and Saviour.”
    Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Matthew 24:44).
    And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:3).
  • “It is up to us if we make things miserable or good for ourselves.”
    Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (Psalm 42:11).
    Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).
    For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
  • “My prayer is that you will trust God and lean on Him so you can get ok.”
    Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
    Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

A Life of Integrity

Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Familiar catchphrases, but Scripture confirms their veracity. The Apostle James, who wrote the sometimes controversial sentiments in the introductory verses, also admonished, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Jesus Himself instructed, “You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone, a gift of God, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), but once saved, the power of the Spirit enables us to produce good fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) and fuels our desire to serve the Lord out of love and gratitude for all He’s done for us (Philippians 2:2-13).

I don’t doubt it took Mom some time to find the words to express her feelings and concerns. Nevertheless, writing the letter was the easy part; it was much more challenging to live out the principles it embodied. Reading Mom’s words, knowing all that had transpired since she wrote them, confirmed what I already knew. Her life was built on the Solid Rock, the One Who never failed her, Whom she trusted completely (Psalm 18:1-2).

My daughter Mary commented in her eulogy, “I don’t remember Mama ever sitting us down and teaching us a Bible lesson, but she taught us every day by the way she lived.”

And so she did, for as long as I can remember, selflessly loving others, showing us Jesus, and pointing us to the hope we have in Him. What a legacy!

Dear Lord, thank You for the blessing of a godly mother. Please help us to follow her example as she followed You.


[1] Quoted directly from Mom’s letter.

Who’s in Control?

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.
Proverbs 19:21

As We Age

My mom faced several significant physical challenges during the last decade of her life – an operation to repair her shattered right shoulder[1], a heart attack followed by emergency triple bypass surgery, and aspiration pneumonia that landed her in the hospital for 24 days. Each time, I wondered if we’d lose her, but each time, the Lord sustained her and returned her home to us.

Still, the relentless deterioration associated with aging continued as arthritis pain became a constant companion, and osteoporosis made falling a potentially life-threatening event. I escorted Mom to most of her medical appointments and heard many of her doctors reply to her list of symptoms with a statement beginning with, “As we age.” It was one of Mom’s least favorite phrases since it usually meant there wasn’t much to be done to improve the situation.

It was difficult enough for me to watch Mom’s physical decline, but a year or so ago, I started noticing some changes in her mental capacity. Her inability to balance her checkbook after a long career in banking and failure to successfully produce her delicious pound cake, a recipe she’d been making for 50 years, caused me great consternation. I tried to explain her mistakes away. I didn’t want to embarrass or alarm her, plus I couldn’t bear the thought of there coming a time when my dear mother and best friend didn’t know me, a fate several of my friends have experienced with their parents.

Running in Front of a Freight Train

Mom’s decline, which had been progressing slowly, picked up speed earlier this year, exacerbated by severe pain in her left leg. Dad and I took turns accompanying her to various appointments in search of a definitive cause and potential solution. A steroid shot, low-dose pain meds, massage therapy – nothing helped, at least not for long. There were even times when I fretted my well-meaning attempts to help added to Mom’s misery instead.

All the while, an ominous sense of foreboding formed on the edges of my mind and colored my thoughts. The uneasiness grew with each successive failure to procure help for Mom until one day I told my daughter, “I feel like I’m running in front of a freight train, and I hear it getting closer.”

I got an appointment for Mom with my longtime physician, confident she would help us pinpoint the source of Mom’s pain. A series of X-rays revealed compressed discs in Mom’s lower spine were causing sciatica, those shooting pains that nearly incapacitated her.

Finally, a definitive diagnosis! I made an appointment for Mom to see a pain specialist in hopes he could administer a nerve block or an epidural, anything to give her some relief and enable her to return to at least some of her usual activities.

Sidelined

Sciatica, coupled with the bone-on-bone condition in her right knee, led to her being confined to the main floor of the multi-story house she shared with my dad. Perfectly reasonable considering her age (89) and increasing fragility. But as Mom’s world became ever-smaller, her emotional and mental stability weakened as well.

I watched as my once-active, always-determined mother spent more and more time sitting. When I made my lunchtime phone call, she’d say, “I’m just finishing breakfast. It took me a while to get going this morning.” A similar report accompanied my evening visits, “I didn’t do much today. I just sat here.”

All the while, the sound of that freight train kept getting louder and louder. Mom was slipping away whether I was willing to acknowledge it or not.

Flattened

I kept the afternoon of April 20th, the day we were scheduled to see the pain specialist, in front of Mom. I held it up as a beacon of hope, trying to keep both of us motivated and focused on the long-hoped-for relief instead of the ever-growing pain and despair. But we never made it to the appointment.

Early on the morning of April 20th, Dad called to let me know he’d found Mom on the floor. She’d fallen and most likely broken her hip. At that moment, I knew the freight train had caught up. It flattened me and kept on going.

Yet it was then I also remembered what I had forgotten amidst the increasingly frantic flurry of attempts to help Mom – I wasn’t in control and never had been.

Sovereign Lord

In the truest sense, I hadn’t forgotten God is sovereign over all. I prayed fervently for wisdom for those of us trying to help Mom and for relief of her pain. However, as efforts continually fell short and her condition deteriorated, desperation overtook me. My mind worked overtime trying to figure out how to help Mom, and anxious, guilt-infused thoughts prevented restful sleep.

It was appropriate for me to persist in seeking help for Mom, but at some point, I crossed a line. I didn’t want to let Mom down. But, instead of casting my cares on God and finding peace, I picked up the burden, convinced the outcome depended entirely on my self-fueled efforts.

The timing of Mom’s fall, just a few hours before the appointment with the pain specialist, wasn’t lost on me. I humbly acknowledged God had a different plan, one that would prevail. In the days that followed, Jehoshaphat’s prayer became my mantra, “Lord, (I) don’t know what to do, but (my) eyes are fixed on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

The Lord faithfully went before me, directing and redirecting my steps over the last ten days of Mom’s life. But I’ll save that story for another time. The details of God’s goodness to us as He led Mom Home are deserving of a separate post.

O, Lord, how I thank You that You never meant for us to carry burdens too big for us. As our loving heavenly Father, You invite us to bring every care to You, that we might find peace that passes understanding. Please help us to remember You are sovereign over all, declaring the end from the beginning, always accomplishing Your purposes (Isaiah 46:10).


[1] An injury she sustained after falling off her bed while attempting to change a lightbulb in her ceiling fan!

Longing for Home

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

A Devastating Blow

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

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

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

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

Preparations

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

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

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

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

God’s Plan

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

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

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

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

A Promise Kept

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

After the service, several of my cousins serving as pallbearers carried Mom’s earthly remains to their final resting place – for now. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).

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

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


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

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.

Role Reversal

Honor your father and your mother.
Exodus 20:12a

Baby Critters

Here in NW Georgia, it’s baby bird season – and baby deer, squirrels, chipmunks – you get the idea. Juvenile squirrels are relentlessly trying to figure out how to breach the bird feeder, an hours-old fawn traversed my daughter’s front yard on wobbly legs, and birds are devouring cakes of suet at the rate of one to two per day.[1] The wonder, joy, and occasional irritations associated with new life are everywhere.

Recently I’d opened a few windows to enjoy the breeze before summer’s impending humidity arrives and forces me to turn on the air conditioning for months to come. Suddenly, I heard such a riotous twittering coming from the back deck, I stopped what I was doing to investigate. Instead of finding one of the neighborhood cats threatening the birds, I observed a mother finch surrounded by three offspring almost as big as she was. The frantic chirping emanated from her little brood, each member demanding, “Feed me, Mommy, feed ME!”

Always a Mother

My mind has replayed the scene over the past few weeks as I’ve contemplated my own dear mother’s care for me. Like the mama bird faithfully feeding her babies even though they were nearly grown, Mom’s nurturing didn’t end when I left her nest. She respected my adult independence, yet I knew I could count on her for unwavering support, be it a home-cooked meal, attentive listening, or fervent prayer. Mom nourished me both physically and spiritually for 62 years.

When my 39-year-old husband died suddenly, leaving me to raise my 7-and-10-year-old daughters, my parents graciously moved to Georgia to help us. For the next 24 years, Mom lavished the same love and care on Mary and Jessie that she’d shown me.

Sometimes when I’d thank her for her steadfast devotion, she’d quip, “Once a mother, always a mother!”

Unwelcome Changes

If we live long enough, the effects of aging will bring about unwanted changes in our bodies, our minds, and our abilities. Such is life in this world marred by sin.

It was no different for Mom. Though her spirit and determination were as strong as ever, her physical self declined. Relinquishing her driver’s license was the most significant single blow as it made her dependent on others for transportation. She lamented imposing on me whenever I took her to a medical appointment regardless of how many times I tried to assure her it wasn’t a bother. (Besides, we’d often find a way to fit in a stop at Starbucks for our favorite beverages!)

Gradually I began providing more help with banking, household chores, and toward the end, personal care. Mom thanked me constantly, often apologizing for taking up my time. She told others I’d become the mother and she didn’t know what she’d do without me.

As our roles reversed, something inside each of us withered a bit, and a sad acceptance entered our relationship, not because I resented helping Mom, but because I knew how much it hurt her not to be able to do for herself and her loved ones. No amount of reassurance on my part could convince Mom it was alright. Our recurring conversation went something like this:

“I’ll never be able to repay you for all your help.”

“Mom! If we start keeping accounts, you know it’s me who’ll never be able to repay you! You’ve helped me far more than I’ve ever helped you!!”

“That doesn’t count. You’re mine, and I did it because I love you.”

“Well, you’re mine, and I love you. It’s a privilege to help you. You’re not a burden!”

In a moment of frustration a few days before she broke her hip, Mom exclaimed, “I’d hoped you’d never have to deal with this!” (“This” being providing so much practical help.)

Scriptural Mandates

Though I usually didn’t try to refute Mom’s protests with Scripture, there are several passages I could have quoted. Consider, for example:

  • But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (Timothy 5:8). Providing for relatives includes practical help, not just financial assistance.
  • Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old (Proverbs 23:22). This verse is closely aligned with the fifth commandment to honor father and mother.
  • Love is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4). Mom’s love for me abounded in patience and kindness. I endeavored to show her the same, though sometimes I grew weary and my efforts fell short.
  • So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them (Matthew 7:12). I have no idea how my end-of-life scenario will play out, but I know I would like to be treated with love and respect. I pray Mom felt that despite her misgivings about needing help.

Motivated by Love and Gratitude  

The hours I spent assisting Mom weren’t burdensome because my efforts were inspired by my love for her and gratitude for all she’d done for my daughters and me. If we had been keeping accounts, I knew of no better way to pay down my debt.

Likewise, I recognize I owed an unpayable debt to the One who loved me so much that He sent His Son to die for me (John 3:16). Yet, when God credited Jesus’ righteousness to my account, He stamped it “paid in full.” How amazing!

Scripture states that salvation comes by faith alone as we depend on Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf. However, James declared that faith without works is dead. In fact, our faith is made evident by our good works (James 2:14-26) and the good fruit we bear (Matthew 7:17-20).

Just as I was motivated by love and gratitude to help my dear little mother, may our actions be motivated by love for God and gratitude for all He’s done. Let us gladly serve others well and love our neighbors as ourselves as we manifest the grace He’s shown us so abundantly.

Dear Lord, thank You for the blessing of a godly mother who showed me Your unconditional love. I praise You for the privilege of serving her in her time of need. And Lord, how I thank You for Jesus’ willingness to reverse roles with me, to take on the punishment for my sin, that I might be redeemed (2 Corinthians 5:21).


[1] A cake of suet usually lasts up to five days other times of the year. I surmise birds are feeding the soft, easy-to-digest treat to their babies.

Our Refuge

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Psalm 61:1-3

Like Dominoes

This time last year, we were at the beginning of what we thought would be a couple of weeks of quarantine. Surely if we all stayed home and kept our germs to ourselves, we’d be back to normal by Easter, right? In light of all that’s transpired since, those notions seem so naïve now.

Like most life-changing events, the early days of the pandemic etched images into my memory – bare grocery store shelves, cheerful drawings and encouraging messages chalked onto sidewalks, empty streets in place of rush-hour traffic. But one of my first Covid-related recollections is my dad’s statement that the ACC had canceled the rest of their basketball tournament and that the NCAA basketball championship would likely meet the same fate.  Incredulous, I pooh-poohed the thought. “What? No way they won’t have March Madness!”

But there was no March Madness 2020. And once the cancellations began, they just kept coming, like a legion of perfectly arranged dominoes, falling one after another, until we didn’t know what to expect next. Easter came and went with no return to normalcy. It was the saddest day of the entire time of isolation for me because I couldn’t go to church and repeatedly exchange the cherished greeting, “He is Risen!”  “He is Risen indeed!” I texted the first phrase to friends and family. Many replied with the second. But it wasn’t the same as sitting together in worship, rejoicing over our Savior’s resurrection victory.

As days turned into weeks, it became evident there would be no quick and easy fix, that some aspects of what we considered normal might not return at all. It didn’t take much to make me cry. Not deep, heaving sobs, but drops of sorrow welling up and spilling over. And then my daughter sent an article, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” It put words to my tears and our collective sense of loss.

Naming it didn’t make it all better, but it was affirming and helped me understand the underlying sense of angst I felt.

Here Come Those Tears Again

I’m thankful for the pieces of my life that have gradually returned over the ensuing months  – hug-filled time with my grandchildren, fully-stocked grocery shelves, in-person worship.

Even so, I’m dealing with feelings similar to those associated with the early, uncertain days of the pandemic when we didn’t know what to expect next but surmised it most likely wouldn’t be good news.  This time, the circumstances are personal, not global.

My dad and I have spent the past few weeks taking Mom to various appointments in an attempt to help her find relief for excruciating pain in her left leg. One doctor diagnosed it as bursitis, another sciatica, while my massage therapist confirmed Mom’s muscles on that side are tight from her lower back to her foot. No wonder she’s in pain! Shots, pain meds, and massage have given her little relief. She needs to rest her leg and give it time to heal.

Even at 89-years-old, rest isn’t in Mom’s vocabulary. Her motto? “I’d rather wear out than rust out.” At 85 pounds, plagued with arthritis and osteoporosis, she’s just about fulfilled her objective. Her will is strong, but her little body is failing, and her mind isn’t as sharp as it once was.

After restless nights and days punctuated by frustration and tears, I finally realized the discomfort I’m feeling is grief, just like last year. Even if Mom’s leg gets better and she can resume some of her normal activities, she’ll never return to the vigor of her younger days. The years have taken their toll, and the relentless march of aging will continue to its ultimate conclusion as it will for all of us unless Jesus returns first.

Re-gaining Perspective

Just like last year, proper identification of my emotional state hasn’t made it all better, but it has allowed me to begin to deal with the actual source of my distress. When I woke up yesterday morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. Uncertain what the day would hold, yet expecting my daily phone call to Mom would convey news of more pain for this one who I dearly love, I preferred to stay curled up under my covers.

Despite my depressive feelings, I recited the Serenity Prayer and reminded myself God knew every detail of the hours to come. Moreover, He would give me the grace and strength I needed to face the day, going before me, walking beside me, carrying me if need be (Lamentations 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 12:9).

I came downstairs to find the first day of Spring awash with sunshine. The birds descended on the feeders as soon as I placed them on the hooks and returned inside. I perused my woodland garden and observed signs of life returning everywhere I looked. My spirits lifted as I continued reminding myself of the truth I’ve written about many times – the One who cares for the sparrows and the lilies cares for me (Matthew 6:25-33).

After breakfast, I reached out to a friend and, later, to one of my cousins, both of whom have walked the path I’m trodding now. They faithfully and lovingly cared for their mothers, even as they navigated their sorrow at watching them decline bit by bit. I received their empathy as a heaven-sent gift (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

One of my daughters stopped by. Her loving presence and genuine concern as we sat outside, catching up, warmed my heart as the afternoon sun warmed my body and dealt another blow to the lies I’d been feeling a few days ago – that I was alone in all of this.

If there was ever any doubt about our need for fellowship and friendship, the separations we’ve endured since the beginning of the pandemic have made it abundantly clear God created us for community. I’m thankful for those He’s placed in my life who want to know how I’m truly doing, who will come alongside me during hard times.

Crying Out

The Lord is abounding in steadfast love toward His children. His only begotten Son knows the hardships and heartaches that come with living as a finite being in a world wracked with the effects of sin, because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). God hears our cries, counts our tears, and bids us draw near to the throne of grace, where Jesus is seated, interceding for us (Psalm 56:8; Hebrews 4:16; Romans 8:34).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve repeatedly prayed, “Lord, I don’t know how to help Mom. Please show me what to do. Please take the pain away.” I will continue to cry out to Him –  for wisdom for me and relief for Mom – but I will also be praying for the ability to accept His will for her, knowing He’ll give her strength as He always has.[1]

As I watch Mom suffer, I grieve, but not as those who have no hope. I belong to the One who conquered death. So does she. Even if healing doesn’t come in this life, health and wholeness are guaranteed in the life to come, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Lord willing, I’ll be in church on Easter Sunday, celebrating  Jesus’ victory over death.

He is Risen!

He is Risen indeed!!

O Lord, how I thank You that You are our Refuge, an ever-present help in times of trouble, a strong tower against all our enemies, be they doubts or infirmities or death itself. Please help us come alongside each other as You come alongside us, to encourage and remind and point each other to You, the Rock that is higher than we are.

 

[1] Mom’s life verse is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Legacy of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden Stories

I’m a member of the “Play in the Dirt Club”, a frequent-shopper program at a local nursery. I adopted their phrase years ago to describe my gardening ventures. Weeding, mowing, mulching, planting – I love playing in the dirt!

To use one of Mom’s old expressions, I suppose I come by it honest. My grandfathers supported their families by farming in central North Carolina. My grandmothers canned, preserved, or froze the excess fruits of their husbands’ labors, those not consumed or shared right after harvesting.

Memories of summertime Sunday dinners around their tables are vibrant even though decades have passed since I last sat elbow-to-elbow with relatives of multiple generations: plates of juicy red tomato slices and steaming corn on the cob; bowls full of fried okra, green beans, and lima beans; freshly-made biscuits and gravy. Laughter seasoned the conversation as family stories mingled with good-natured ribbing.

Other recollections are equally vivid – flowers edging the fields; straw hats perched on hooks by the door, ready to be grasped on the way out to the garden; a metal dipper hung on a nail above the back-porch sink for a refreshing sip of water upon returning to the house.

In My Genes?

My mom was one of eight siblings, my dad one of ten. They, along with most of my aunts and uncles, gardened. Their efforts ranged from plots to grow a few vegetables to a commercial tomato farm, from fruit trees to flower-filled beds surrounding suburban homes.

179Multiple members of my generation love tending plants, as do a number of our children and grandchildren. Recognizing our shared passion, I smile when cousins post pictures of their gardens, sometimes with young offspring sampling produce fresh from the vine.042

My gardening efforts are aimed at ornamentals since I don’t have a spot sunny enough to grow veggies. Nonetheless, the delight I feel in caring for my flowers and shrubs is enhanced by the connection to generations of loved ones.

Sometimes I muse that gardening is in my genes.

In the Beginning

Maybe that notion isn’t so far-fetched, at least when you consider where God placed our very first ancestors – in an idyllic garden, where all sorts of plants thrived, and God strolled in the cool of the evening. He entrusted them with the responsibility of maintaining the garden and gave them all the plants as food, save one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8, 15-17).

One exception amidst abundance we can’t imagine, yet Adam and Eve didn’t obey. Satan cunningly twisted God’s command and Eve ate, believing his lie that God was withholding something pleasant and necessary. She offered Adam a bite and he ate. In a moment, everything changed (Genesis 3:1-7).

But God came to the garden, as always, even though He knew of their disobedience. He drew them out of their hiding place. In the midst of declaring the penalties they’d incur, He planted a kernel of hope, a promise they could count on. One day the Seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent, dealing death itself a fatal blow. (Genesis 3:8-19).

Centuries passed and the time came for God to send His beloved Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Jesus left His place at the Father’s right hand and dwelt among us for a while (John 1:1-5, 14). On the night of His betrayal, He retreated with His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. With sorrow weighing heavily on His soul, He fervently prayed that the cup might pass from Him (Matthew 26:36-44). But it was the Father’s will to crush Him for our sake (Isaiah 53:10).

Jesus remained perfectly obedient to His Father’s will, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8). There was a new tomb in the garden near the place of  Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:41). Joseph of Arimathea placed His body in that tomb, but death couldn’t hold Him there. On the third day, God raised Him by the power of the Spirit. According to the Apostle John, the resurrected Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden. In her grief, she even mistook Him for the gardener (John 20:14-16).

The New Earth

So many momentous garden moments in His-story, with more to come. Jesus promised to return. When He does, heaven and earth will pass away, making way for the new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with His people forever (Revelation 21:1-4). Creation will be redeemed right along with the children of God (Romans 8:19-22).

One continuous story from beginning to end. Could it be the sweet connections woven through generations of gardeners in my family are rooted in echoes of Eden? Our hearts harbor a deep-seated longing for perfect communion with God in a world unmarred by sin. No more thistles and thorns. No more pain or tears or death.

As we wait for Jesus’ return, God gifts us with hints of heaven, in blue skies and gentle breezes, in fruits and flowers and fresh-from-the-field vegetables, in gatherings with friends and family around food-laden tables. Let us give thanks, remembering even the most splendid day here is a mere shadow of the beauty that awaits in the restored garden (1 Corinthians 13:12).