Welcome Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Ibid, p. 27

Beauty of the soul

(This is the 4th and final post inspired by my mom’s recent hospitalization.)

The mid-April morning began normally enough as I went to pick Mom up for our weekly Wednesday date with our (great)grandchildren. But when I arrived at her house, Mom’s unsteady gait and inability to hold up her side of the conversation alarmed me. A sense of foreboding lapped at the edges of my mind, like small waves at the beach, precursors to the one that will knock you off your feet. Was the abnormal behavior just a slow start to her morning or a sign of something more serious?

Several hours later, with no improvement in Mom’s physical or cognitive abilities, I took her to the emergency department at our local hospital. It was serious, very serious. In fact, 24 days would come and go before she was well enough to return home. Yet even in those first few hours in the ED, weak and wheezing with every breath, Mom was thanking her caregivers and trying to joke with them in spite of the breathing mask strapped securely across her face.

It didn’t take long for Mom to enchant the nurses on her assigned floor once she moved to the room prepared for her; this, in spite of her precarious physical condition. By the second day, they were telling me what a delight she was, as they and Mom bantered back and forth about one or the other taking her home with them. Some stopped by to chat on days when Mom wasn’t officially their patient – to visit, to make sure she was ok and to bask in the radiance of her smile.

IMG_1081The same story played out at the rehab facility, as Mom became an instant favorite with the staff. When the long-awaited day arrived for me to collect her and bring her home, it took the better part of an hour for all the goodbyes to be said. Mom wanted to thank everyone who’d helped her. They in turn didn’t want to miss giving Miz Thelma a farewell hug and wishing her the best.

Though her tiny frame weighed a mere 85 pounds and her flesh was bruised from multiple needle sticks during the course of her treatment, Mom’s smile shone like the sun that warmed the early-May morning.

Beauty Regimen

I recently came across the following statement: “Old age strips the body of its glamour to emphasize the beauty of the soul.”

The aging process is inexorable. It’s difficult to experience our own declining capabilities, often heart-breaking to watch in elderly friends and relatives. Because it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Death wasn’t part of God’s very good creation. Then man chose to disobey, ushering in all the pain and suffering that accompany us as we progress toward our eventual demise (Genesis 3). There’s no effective surgery or exotic cream or miraculous supplement, no fountain of youth to drink from to ward off the ravages of time.

But, praise God, that’s not the end of the story. Those who belong to Him will receive new bodies when Jesus returns, bodies that won’t grow old or die, suited for our eternal souls. (1 Corinthians 15:50-56) In the meantime, we’re being transformed more and more into the likeness of our elder Brother (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18), as the Holy Spirit expertly applies a variety of refining products to enhance the beauty of our souls:

  • The Word of God, living and active (Hebrew 4:12); the source of spiritual sustenance (Matthew 4:4; John 6:32-35).
  • Instruction and encouragement from fellow believers (Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:24-25)
  • Gifts and graces to be used for the building up of the church (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
  • Wisdom wrought from living as a Christ-follower across many years (Job 12:12-13; Isaiah 46:4).
  • The sandpaper of suffering to abrade the callouses of sin – pride, arrogance, anger, bitterness, resentment – and promote the growth of Christ-like characteristics (Romans 5:3-5; Philippians 3:8-10; James 1:2-4).

Jesus’ teaching regarding storing up treasure was clear – we’re to focus on heavenly treasure, the kind no one can steal, that rust and moth can’t destroy. (Matthew 6:19-21) The same imperative applies to the kind of beauty we’re called to cultivate, the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:3-4).

I’ve been blessed to both witness and receive the overflow of goodness from Mom’s heart for six decades so I wasn’t surprised by the mutual affection that developed between her and her caregivers. Even so, her life-giving example never becomes ordinary or loses its luster. Though her nearly-90 years of life have taken a toll on her body, her smile endures as her most defining feature, evidence of the light and love of her Savior burning ever-brighter as she nears Home.

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (Proverbs 31:30)

Bucket-fillers

Most Mondays and Wednesdays find me at daughter Mary’s house. As 1pm draws nigh, I start herding 7-year-old Joshua and 2-year-old Emma toward the car so we can pick almost-5-year-old Lyla up from pre-school. Depending on the number of distraction-produced detours they take, the process can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Likewise, the drive to school and back may be filled with enthusiastic commentary on the scenes passing by or with shrieks of “Grammie, tell (insert sibling’s name) not to look at/touch/talk to me!!!” Yes, the trek to retrieve Lyla from school and return home safely is often the most stressful part of my day.

But a couple of Mondays ago, the events surrounding our mid-day trip were decidedly pleasant. As soon as Lyla and her teacher exited the building, Joshua, exclaimed, “Lyla’s got the bucket! She’s kid of the day!!” And so she was.

As Lyla climbed aboard and buckled up for the ride home, we all started talking excitedly. Congratulatory remarks blended with curious queries regarding the contents of her bucket. Several pieces of candy, a stencil, a super-cool, light-up pen, a certificate declaring her kid-of-the-day and two books resided inside.

IMG_6750Joshua read the books to us after lunch. They were all about how we fill or empty each other’s imaginary buckets by being kind or being mean. Furthermore, the books pointed out we’re doing one or the other all the time. The narrative went on to say that by filling up others’ buckets, we’re filling up our own as well since being helpful, obedient and thoughtful makes situations better for everyone involved. Bucket-fillers, buoyed by the results of their good deeds, are much happier than bucket-dumpers, whose actions contribute to continued strife.

As I listened to Joshua’s expressive reading, I smiled knowing I was hearing a child-friendly version of one of my most cherished spiritual principles: our calling to glorify God by being life-giving helpers. This concept was introduced to me over two decades ago by Susan Hunt, my dear friend and spiritual mother.

In the beginning, when God spoke everything into existence, He declared it all good, with one exception. In Genesis 2:18, God states, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” The helper was so perfect, Adam stated, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23)

Her name (Woman) acknowledged her equal status before God, having been created in God’s image just as Adam was, though her function was different. Lest we think women’s helper position is somehow inferior, we need only look at other uses of the Hebrew word ezer (translated “helper”) in the Old Testament. It is frequently used to describe attributes of God Himself: Defender (Exodus 18:4), Protector (Psalm 33:20), Comforter (Psalm 86:17), Deliverer (Psalm 70:5), Champion of the poor and oppressed (Psalm 72:12-14).[1] These are strong, necessary, life-giving roles.

But sin intervened. As Susan explains:

“When the man and woman sinned, Woman lost her ability to be a true helper. At this point of hopelessness, God gave hope. He promised that the woman’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Adam affirmed and celebrated his belief in this promise by renaming her. ‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living’ (Genesis 3:30). Eve means ‘life-giver’. Because of her rebellion the woman became a life-taker, but because of the promise of life she became a ‘life-giver’. This is more than biological. Woman’s redemptive calling is to be a life-giver in every relationship and circumstance.”[2] (Emphasis mine.)

Left to ourselves, we would be utterly incapable of carrying out our calling. But, praise God, He didn’t leave it up to us. Because of Jesus’ promise-fulfilling sacrifice on our behalf, we’ve been given hearts of flesh that want to please our Lord and Savior and the power of His indwelling Spirit to help us accomplish His purposes. (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Ephesians 1:19-20)

Though being life-givers is part of women’s distinctive design, all believers are called to love and serve others well, as evidenced by:

  • God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, which Jesus confirmed as being second only to the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:28-31)
  • Jesus’ instruction to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, a concept so basic and essential that we refer to it as “The Golden Rule”. (Matthew 7:12)
  • Jesus’ reminder that when we care for the needy among us, we’re caring for Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • Paul’s teaching that we should consider other’s needs before our own, following Jesus’ example of humility. (Philippians 2:3-8)
  • James’ warning that faith without works is dead. In fact, true faith will result in action – good fruit produced from being intimately and securely attached to the Life-giving Vine. (James 2:14-17; John 15:4-5)

As sojourners longing for Home, we may be tempted to despair when we look at current events. Most of us don’t have the influence or following to bring about change on a grand scale. But we belong to the One who is Sovereign over all things. (Psalm 2) He’s assigned us a place (Acts 17:24-26) and calls us to be life-givers in the midst of our unique situations – in our families, our communities, our churches. From brief exchanges with fellow shoppers in a check-out line all the way to decades-long relationships with cherished friends and family members, we are called to be life-givers in every relationship and circumstance.

Lyla is a sweet-natured child, a blessing to all in her small sphere of influence. She earned her kid-of-the-day title by collecting five “warm fuzzies”, each representing an act of kindness toward her teacher or classmates. May we be equally faithful to fill others’ buckets with hope and truth as we point them to the ultimate Giver of Life. (John 1:1-5; John 10:10-11)

 

[1] J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, (Wheaton, IL; Crossway Books, 2006), pp. 34-35

[2] Ibid, p. 34