Count it all Joy

The following is an adaptation of the first post I published on Back 2 the Garden, July 1, 2014, with concluding comments pertinent to current events.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  (James 1:2-3)

February 1998. Ten months earlier, my beloved husband, Ray, died of a heart attack a few weeks after his 39th birthday. Even though I was a rational person who could recount the details surrounding his death, I maintained a protective mantle of denial. How could my engaging, energetic mate go to work one sunny spring Saturday and never return home to me and our two young daughters? The reality dripped into my soul bit by bit and oozed through the cracks in my shield, creating an underlying pool of sadness that crept over its banks and flooded many of my days.

Joy? Not so much.

In preparing for Ray’s funeral, I wrote a letter for one of the pastors to read during the service. Among other things, I stated he’d not only left a lasting legacy in the lives of our daughters, but also in the beauty of our garden. Ray had a horticulture degree and though he didn’t shun common plants, he preferred to plant unique specimens in our yard. He told me about the special plants he selected and patiently taught me their names. I helped weed, water, and mow, but left landscape planning to him.

Several of Ray’s horticulture colleagues paid a visit and walked the garden with me after he died. Listening to them exclaim over first one plant and then another confirmed yet again the garden was an exceptional part of his legacy.

It became equally evident I needed to learn how to take care of it otherwise it would only be a matter of time before weeds overtook everything, much like sorrow entwined my thoughts.

And so that February day found me outside, bundled against the late-winter chill. I stooped to pull back the blanket of leaves shrouding the planting beds, my heart as numb as my fingers. I longed for Ray to be there, kneeling beside me shoulder-to-shoulder, to remove those leaves. Occasional tears watered the patch of soil where I labored.

IMG_5217I placed one handful of leaves after another into the big brown yard debris bag. Then, Wait! What’s that? I detected flecks of green amidst the weathered leaf litter. Perennials Ray planted were beginning to emerge from the soil. Seeing those tiny-but-determined plants sparked hope within me. If they could make it through the cold, stark winter, maybe I would survive my season of darkness.

I didn’t know it then, but I experienced my first session of garden therapy that day. And I caught a glimpse of the joy that comes from persevering, one of many lessons the Lord had prepared for me in His outdoor classroom.

Over 20 springs have come and gone since that late-February day. Some were short, giving way to the heat of southern summers by mid- May. Others teased us with early warmth, followed by killing frost. This year, we’ve been blessed by a long period of pleasant weather – more sun than showers, moderate temperatures perfect for nudging plants from their winter slumber.

Oh how we need the reminders of life and light as we continue to shelter in place, separate from friends and relatives, unsure how long the restrictions will remain. COVID-19 brought an end to everyday life as we knew it just as surely as Ray’s heart attack forever shattered what was normal for me and my daughters.

I’ve spent many hours in my garden in the past month, weeding, praying, digging, praying some more. And I’ve found the peace I’ve come to count on when I’m surrounded by evidence of God’s sustaining power, His love poured out in and on creation.

The Apostle Paul joined James in extolling the beneficial results of hardship when he wrote to the Roman believers, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3b-5a).

Hope. Hope that doesn’t put us to shame because it’s grounded in a Person, the One who endured His own suffering, even to the point of death on the cross, for us, securing hope for eternity.

23-years ago Ray left for work on a sun-drenched day much like today and the Lord called him Home. From the moment I first heard the news of his death until today, God has shown Himself to be faithful. I know I can trust Him to work all things together for good, whether trials are personal or pervasive (Romans 8:28).

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Pollen Season

I first noticed the yellow dusting atop my dark-blue CR-V. Then it appeared on my black mailbox. Yesterday I found it sprinkled across everything from leaves to walkway to my water bottle. What might the stealthy invader be? Pine pollen!

I usually grimace when I detect the initial signs of yellowness that descends on our area each spring, knowing what lies ahead. Depending on rainfall or lack thereof, the layer of pollen can become so thick tire tracks materialize on driveways and footprints on sidewalks. Some years I watch incredulously as windblown clouds drift off pines, destined to coat everything in their path. Nothing is immune from the intruder.

But this year the opening salvo made me smile. Because it reminded me God is keeping the covenant promise He made to Noah, his offspring, and every living creature. “While earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)

img_2910Last week, when I wrote “It is Well”, I figured everything that was going to suspend operations and activities had done so. Wrong! Notices of closings and cancellations continued to mount up, though at a slower pace. I found myself turning repeatedly to the passages I included in that post, truth to combat fear and quell anxious thoughts.

362I’ve also been outside more, strolling through my neighborhood, working in my garden. I’ve seen sidewalks chalked with cheerful messages. Encouraging posts fill my Facebook feed. And earlier today I joined my neighbors for a hymn sing as we gathered, socially-distanced, outside our piano-playing neighbor’s home. God is working difficult circumstances for good.  He always does. (Romans 8:28)

173In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, spring is here, full of hope and visible reminders of God’s goodness. I’ll let photos, scripture passages, and hymn lyrics do the talking for the rest of this post – my offering of praise to the One who lovingly sustains us, my contribution to the thread of encouragement weaving its way through social media.

248“Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son; Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor, Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown. Fair are the meadows, Fairer still the woodlands, Robed in the blooming garb of spring: Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, Who makes the woeful heart to sing.”[1]

342Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28a-29)

The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:10)

047Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11)

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. (Psalm 57:1)

265“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider all the words They hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy pow’r  throughout the universe displayed. When thro’ the woods and forest glades I wander And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze. Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee: How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”[2]

351I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving . . . Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. (Psalm 69:30, 34)

The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. (Psalm 89:11)

042“This is my Father’s world, And to my listening ears All nature sings, and round me rings The music of the spheres. This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas – His hands the wonders wrought. This is my Father’s world, The birds their carols raise, The morning light, the lily white, Declare their Maker’s praise. This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair; In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.”[3]

4-10-2014, The Pocket 5For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. (Psalm 92:4)

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.  Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever . . . for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. (Psalm 73:25-26; 28)

[1] “Fairest Lord Jesus”, anonymous German Hymn, stanzas 1 and 2.

[2] “How Great Thou Art”, stanzas 1 and 2 and chorus; Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

[3] “This is My Father’s World”, stanzas 1 and 2; Maltbie D. Babcock.

Heavenly Hugs

Several weeks ago, I received the following text from a dear sister in Christ, “Praying that the Lord will refresh you by His Word and Spirit today . . . some heavenly hugs to remind you of His presence . . . some quiet moments.”

Prompted by her knowledge that I was dealing with some weighty matters, the text itself felt like one of the hugs she wished for me. Oh the blessing of friends who take note of our concerns and reach out to encourage us!

I texted my thanks and mentioned I hoped to spend time in my garden, the backdrop to some of my sweetest moments with the Lord, later that day. Being outside often feels like a big Fatherly bear hug, one that melts my stress and recalibrates my perspective. But those of you who are longtime readers know I frequently find special treasures when I’m working in my yard. Gifts I imagine the Lord tucking tenderly here and there for me to discover and delight over.

Attired in my yard clothes – faded jeans, PFG shirt, well-worn work boots, and a wide-brimmed hat – I headed outside in search of solace. The reel mower whirred as I pushed it around and around what I refer to as my “keyhole of grass”. (I’m NOT a proponent of giant swaths of perfectly-manicured turf, but I’ll save that soapbox for another post.) The sun warmed my back and the tension in my shoulders subsided. Bees and butterflies visited one bright blossom after another. The fresh air worked its usual magic and nudged my cares aside, at least for a while.

I’d been outside for a couple of hours when I remembered my friend’s message, her prayer for heavenly hugs. Although I’d been reveling in the beauty of the afternoon, grateful to be playing in the dirt, I hadn’t come across anything specific that prompted an exclamation of, “That’s it! That’s today’s treasure, a heavenly hug.”

It’s ok, I thought. The whole afternoon’s been a blessing.

125My time outside was drawing to a close when I pulled up a spent summer annual, revealing a spindly bit of passionflower vine with a solitary gulf fritillary caterpillar munching intently on a bedraggled leaf. My heart soared! I’d been hugged.

I suppose most folks wouldn’t have paid much attention to the tiny orange visitor arrayed with black, predator-discouraging spikes. Yet as I gazed at him, I received a reminder of two important truths:

God’s provision. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is the only food source for gulf fritillary caterpillars. For several years I intentionally planted the vine by my mailbox, enjoying wave after wave of caterpillars until all the leaves were consumed and only bare stems remained. My summer reveries came to an end though when I realized neighbors’ mosquito treatments killed the caterpillars. I pulled up the vine, unwilling to create a death trap for my annual visitors. Sprigs of the vine continue to emerge from roots left in the ground. I sadly and dutifully pull them up too. The one the caterpillar was feeding on escaped my notice, hidden under another plant. But an egg-laying butterfly found it amidst all the other plants on my property. Isn’t that amazing?! And if God provides for butterflies and caterpillars and birds and lilies, we can be sure He’ll provide for His beloved children (Matthew 6:25-33).

Perseverance. By the time I discovered the miniature passionflower vine with its voracious visitor, we’d endured several weeks of drought accompanied by way-above-average temperatures. Although the plant’s leaves bore faded splotches, it had survived the unfavorable conditions and was available to host the egg that became the caterpillar. Endurance is an essential aspect of our walk with the Lord. Hardships, challenges, droughts of various kinds – we’re told to expect them. But great blessings, from godly character to eternal life, come with perseverance (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:12). The indwelling Spirit enables us to persevere until the day of Jesus’ return when God will complete the good work He began in us (Philippians 1:6).

At times we need reminders, don’t we? The world can be so loud and demanding, muffling God’s still, quiet voice. But He’s always with us, just as He promised, and sometimes He sends perfectly-packaged heavenly hugs to reassure us. Our Father knows each of us by name. He never loses sight of us. And He loves us so much more than we can fathom.

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. 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. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:13-20)

 

Respite

I’m not sure if it’s been hotter than usual or if I suppress memories from one year to the next of how endless the summer heat feels by the time late August rolls around in Hotlanta. Regardless, we experienced a string of seemingly-interminable days where high temperatures and accompanying humidity combined to produce daytime heat indexes hovering around 100 degrees – too uncomfortable for even garden-loving me to venture outside. But last week, a rainy Monday ushered in a cooler-than-usual series of days. I turned off the air conditioner and, wait for it, opened several windows. What a delight to catch a whiff of rain-scented air, to listen to the soothing patter of liquid ballerinas pirouetting on breeze-nudged leaves.

The days that followed were adorned with clear-blue skies and cool, crisp mornings, allowing for more open windows. I reveled in hearing humming cicadas and chirping birds, their distinct sounds no longer muffled by panes of glass. Dry leaves drifted to the ground, laying the foundation of a crunchy carpet for critters to rustle through as they began to lay up their winter provisions. Hickory nuts and acorns plummeted from lofty perches, hitting my deck with loud pops akin to firecrackers’, before skittering to a stop.

As my grandmother used to say, “It’s a great big, beautiful world!”

I’ve lived here nearly 30 years – plenty long enough to know summer is far from over. Nonetheless, the series of fall-like days provided both a respite from the intolerable heat and a promise of things to come. Whispers of autumn to help us hold on until longer-lasting relief arrives.

Sometimes life events conspire to create conditions as oppressive and unbearable as summer in the South. One hard thing after another leaves us wondering if the cooling rains will ever return to quench our thirsty, drought-weary souls. A longtime friend has experienced just such conditions most of this year. My heart aches for her, my prayers are filled with petitions for relief. Then at last, as I was rejoicing in my week of open windows, came the news that she’d had several good days filled with enjoyable family time, a refreshing respite for her soul. Thank You, Lord!

Just as I know I’ll have to turn the air conditioner back on and close my windows, shutting out the sounds and aromas of my garden, my friend knows she has more difficult days ahead. But, being sisters in Christ, we remind each other of Truth: God has promised to never leave us or forsake us. He’s working all things together for good, including the most challenging ones. Jesus beckons us to come to Him for the kind of rest that will last forever (Deuteronomy 31:6; Romans 8:28; Matthew 11:28-30).

Our best days offer mere glimpses of the unimaginable glory that awaits. Nevertheless, we savor the sample of what’s to come. I didn’t realize how much I missed being outside, how much I needed some garden therapy, until I was finally able to walk the property again. I will let photos I took on those strolls do the speaking for the rest of this post. My prayer is that you will feel some of the joy and awe I experience when I behold the beauty of Creation in the presence of the Creator, assured that the One who cares for the birds and lilies sees even me (Matthew 6:25-34).

A nestful of hope

(This is the third in a series of posts inspired by events surrounding my mom’s recent hospitalization.)

As if having a seriously-ill wife wasn’t enough stress for my dad, the painting company scheduled my parents’ house for the week I transferred Mom from the hospital to a rehab facility. Any kind of home improvement project comes with its attendant potential for tension and this job was no different. The workmen arrived early and stayed late, accompanied by the sounds of clanging ladders, humming pressure washers and pounding hammers.

IMG_1082Uh oh! As they prepared to clean the deck, they found a lovingly-crafted nest containing four tiny blue eggs. Under normal circumstances, the location selected by the mama bird – perched on a ladder stored horizontally under the deck – would have been ideal – out of sight of predators and protected from the elements. But these were not normal circumstances. Knowing the commotion of scouring and staining the deck would most likely scare the mother away and that the high-powered stream of water might damage the tiny home, the painters carefully moved the ladder out of their work zone.

However, as the ladder and its not-yet-hatched tenants rested on the ground at the edge of the woods, the nest was fully exposed. Would the mother abandon her little brood? Would an enemy eat the eggs as they lay within easy reach? Oh the anxiety! My dad became a second mother to the little ones and each evening he gave me a report.

Once the ladder was returned to its normal spot, with the nest still positioned on its metal perch, Dad checked on its occupants. Not only were all four eggs present, they were hatching! The next day, Dad resumed his vigil from inside and, after seeing no sign of the mother bird, he trekked around the house to the little ones, cup of water and eye dropper in hand. Hydration duty complete, he debated what to feed them. Fortunately for him and the hatchlings, mama bird returned and faithfully cared for her babies in the ensuing days as they grew and eventually left the nest.

God was so good to give my dad something to take his mind off Mom’s very serious condition, at least for brief respites during her time away from home. The week the baby bird saga was unfolding coincided with my annual observation of my husband’s death. As I read through journal entries I made 22 years ago, I came across these words, penned the day after his burial: “Picked out a grass marker for Ray’s grave then went to (my aunt’s) for lunch and to see the baby bunnies again. They’re adorable as are the baby chickadees she showed us. Lord, thank You for the reminder, amidst our sadness, that life goes on and that there are still blessings and beauty to be enjoyed.”

Life can be so hard. This world is full of brokenness. (John 16:33a) From minor disappointments and promises-not-kept to aging bodies, terminal illness and death, proof abounds that things aren’t the way they were in the beginning (Genesis 1:31) or the way they were meant to be. But evidence of God’s love and His sustaining power is all around us – reminders that He hasn’t left us and never will. (Deuteronomy 31:8; John 16:33b)

IMG_1539Fluffy white masses towering in a blue summer sky. Busy bees with full pollen baskets. Birds singing their praises to the One who assures us if He cares for the lilies and sparrows, He’ll certainly care for His children. IMG_1115(Matthew 6:25-34) Your list will look different, my friend, but make that list. Look. For glimpses of what the new earth will be like. Listen. For whispers of love from our Father who attends to every detail of our lives. Taste and see that the Lord is good, His love endures forever! (Psalm 34; 1 Chronicles 16:34; Psalm 106:1)[1]

 

[1] These are just a few of the many, many verses that speak of the Lord’s steadfast, enduring love. Use a concordance or Bible app and search for “steadfast love endures” sometime!

Spring is coming!

When I awoke this morning an almost-forgotten sight greeted me: sunshine! Yes, after a rain-filled week that felt more like a month and led one of my cousins to report his mildew was growing mildew, bright, beautiful sunlight streamed through my windows. My heart rejoiced and “Thank You, Lord!” escaped my lips.

A short time later, I took my usual seat at church. From there, I had a perfect vantage point to gaze at the brilliant blue sky, framed by the large window behind the pulpit. As we sang “Before the Throne of God Above”, I watched, misty-eyed, while wispy, breeze-borne clouds meandered by. The scene before me underscored the greatness of the One we praised in song.

Despite numerous indoor chores looming over me, I scampered outside as soon as I finished lunch. My weary soul longed for a dose of garden therapy. A scavenger hunt ensued. I gently nudged aside leaves to see if any plant friends had managed to puncture the soil and emerge from their winter rest. I inhaled the sweet aroma wafting from the paperbush. My gaze lingered on artful displays of moss. Each discovery buoyed my spirits. Spring is coming! The tiny sprouts sense it. The birds taking turns at my feeders know it.

There are times when we experience storms in our lives, seasons when it feels like the rain won’t ever go away. But, just like the sun is shining brightly above the clouds and the plants are nestled under their leafy blankets ready to burst forth, God is with us. Even when circumstances cloud our spiritual vision, even when we’re buffeted by doubts. Because He promised to be with us forever. (Deuteronomy 31:8; Matthew 28:20) And He always keeps His promises. (Joshua 21:45; 2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

Furthermore, He’s pledged to return, to take us to the Home He’s preparing for us (John 14:1-3), a Home where there will be no more death or tears or pain. (Revelation 21:4) Until then, He’s left countless reminders of His love and goodness, as exemplified below. May the photos from my afternoon stroll give you a sense of the hope and joy I felt as I ambled through my garden, warmed by the Son.

“When thro’ the woods and forest glades I wander, And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze. Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”[1]

 

 

 

[1] “How Great Thou Art” (2nd stanza), Text and Music, Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

A little bit of heaven

The first time I visited The Pocket at Pigeon Mountain it was unseasonably cold. All I remember are snow flurries swirling through the crisp air while I huddled close to my fellow wildflower enthusiasts in an attempt to avoid the brunt of the biting wind. I can’t even tell you if anything was blooming. cropped-016.jpgTwo weeks later I returned to find the slopes bedecked with such a vast array of wildflowers I could barely take it in. I asked my companion if someone had planted the wondrous variety. “No”, he explained. “The soils and conditions here are such that it developed naturally.” From that moment on, I’ve thought of The Pocket as “God’s Garden”, a little bit of heaven on earth, where the Creator’s ingenuity is on magnificent display.

I’ve written previously about what has become a highly-anticipated annual pilgrimage to this outdoor mecca, where a reverent awe settles upon me each time I visit.[1] Last week was no different. Sunlight filtered through the leafy canopy as a gentle breeze wafted about. The gurgling brook and chirping birds provided background music as I retraced familiar pathways, stopping repeatedly to admire God’s handiwork. What a joy to behold the complexity and beauty, fIMG_3106 (2)rom the tiniest of flowers to massive tree trunks toppled long ago, the latter now moss-covered works of art. All tucked away, far from the traffic zipping by heedlessly on the interstate, waiting to be discovered, pondered and appreciated.

It may sound presumptuous, but I’ve designated a small section of my wooded backyard a mini-Pocket. I’m gradually introducing some of the native plants found in that special place to my own suburban property – trilliums, wood poppies, Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, Solomon’s plume. Though it is but a shadow of the original, it nonetheless allows me to experience the same sense of wonder each spring as the plants reawaken, each uniquely exquisite. IMG_3050I stroll the woods almost daily in the early months of the year, gently moving leaves, searching for signs of life. I sense God’s peace and presence as I meander and I pray that my joyful exclamations of delight upon finding the treasures He’s brought through another winter reach his ears as songs of praise and thanksgiving.

As I was contemplating my attempts to recreate some semblance of The Pocket, the Lord’s Prayer[2] came to my mind, specifically the lines, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” At times we may think of this request in terms of Jesus’ second coming when all things will be made new and God’s kingdom will indeed be established forever. But Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God when He came the first time, saving us from our sins, buying our pardon with his precious blood, [3] gaining victory over death,[4] all that we might live and reign with Him in the new, forever kingdom. But in the meantime, He sent the Holy Spirit to comfort and counsel us, to conform us more and more to His image.[5] We are to be salt and light.[6] We are to bear witness, to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us.[7] We are called to take up our crosses, to follow Jesus and to love like He did.[8] We are to bring a little bit of heaven into the lives of those who come our way, be it for a moment or a lifetime.

Our finite minds can’t comprehend what it will be like to be in God’s presence. Even the most beautiful day here will seem dingy when compared to the radiant light emanating from his throne. But I’m so thankful He gives us glimpses of how amazing it will be. In blue skies and breezes. In flowers and friends. In love that will last forever. Though now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.[9]

It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, proclaiming your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night, to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp. For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord; I sing for joy at what your hands have done. How great are your works, Lord, how profound your thoughts![10]

 

 

[1] Please see “He didn’t have to do it”, Archives, April 2017.

[2] Matthew 6:9-13

[3] John 1:29

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:54-57

[5] John 14:26

[6] Matthew 5:13-16

[7] 1 Peter 3:15

[8] Luke 9:23; John 13:35

[9] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[10] Psalm 92:1-5

Perseverance

We’ve had a rough winter here in metro Atlanta. Ten inches of snow in December, another 2-inch “dusting” in January plus a week-long string of high temperatures in the 30’s and lows in the teens and 20’s. We also awoke to single-digit wind chill readings on multiple occasions. Brrr!! I realize some of you may be perusing this from places where you experience long winters accompanied by plenty of snow and frigid temps every year. Thirty-seven degrees would feel like a welcome heat wave. But, after 25 years, this Delaware-transplant has more than acclimated to milder winters and is ready for the beginning of another Southern Spring!

IMG_0420After several days of near-average weather, a cold front blew in late yesterday, resulting in another brisker-than-usual day today. Nonetheless the sky was that brilliant blue that beckons me outside so I bundled up and went for a stroll through my neighborhood, praising God for the warm sun and glorious cerulean canopy. When I returned home, I just had to walk the property. Even though we’ve had an extra-cold couple of months, I wanted to see what signs of life I might be ableIMG_5078 to find. I wasn’t disappointed. My witch hazel is in full bloom, buds are ready to open any day on a number of Lenten roses and foliage of early daffodils has poked up through the soil.

These sightings brought a smile to my face, but what I found when I carefully moved the leaves back from the locations of some spring ephemerals elicited squeals of delight. Yes, if anyone had been close IMG_5133enough, they would have overheard several exclamations of, “Oh, yay! Thanks, Lord!!”, as I discovered the tiniest evidence of returning trilliums and trout lilies, their miniscule leaves barely protruding above the soil. I gently replaced their leafy blanket, buoyed by the anticipation of seeing them in all their glory in a few weeks.

And I was reminded of another late-winter day nearly 20 years ago when my heart was anything but light. I’d ventured out to start clearing the leaves from the planting beds, a task my husband would normally have performed. But, as I was gradually coming to accept, that and so many of his previous responsibilities shifted to me after a heart attack felled him suddenly a mere two months after his 39th birthday the year before. Grief and reality intermingled and permeated my soul. Nonetheless, just like today, when I moved the leaves, I saw tiny perennials popping up – plants that Ray had acquired and cared for. Seeing them gave me hope. If those tiny plants could survive the cold, dark winter, maybe I would survive mine as well.[1]

I’ve benefitted from many hours of garden therapy since, as God has used numerous aspects of his remarkable creation to encourage, teach and minister to me. Spending time with Him in my yard is indeed one of my most cherished pastimes.

Furthermore, plants’ perseverance through less-than-favorable circumstances is, for me, one of their most endearing characteristics, reminding me of my mom’s oft-uttered admonition, “We can’t give up! We have to hold onto our faith.” The Apostle James goes a step further when he instructs us to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds, because we know that the testing of our faith produces perseverance.[2]   I don’t know about you, but I rarely ever (ok, make that never) pray to be tested and I still say I wouldn’t have volunteered to be widowed at age 38. Nonetheless, I am certain I know God – his love, his faithfulness, his character – more intimately because He sovereignly incorporated that event into my story.

James says we must let perseverance finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. And Paul assures us we’re not striving alone as He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.[3] Each of us has our own unique set of difficulties, our own winters to endure, but He who watches over the birds of the air and the flowers of the field cares infinitely more for his children.[4]

The garden may appear lifeless these days, but the plants are merely awaiting their time to burst forth, reminding us of our resurrected Savior and his promise to return to set all things right and to dwell among his people forever.[5]

Oh, Lord, how we look forward to your promised return.[6] Please help us to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer as we await the glorious day of your coming.[7]

[1] I wrote my first blog post about this experience. Please see “Consider it pure joy” in Archives, July 2014.

[2] James 1:2-3

[3] Philippians 1:6

[4] Matthew 6:25-34

[5] Revelation 21:1-5

[6] John 14:1-3

[7] Romans 12:12

Good stewards*

Happy New Year, Readers! As I alluded to in my last post, “The best-laid plans”, December served up some surprises that weren’t wrapped and bowed. This is the first in a series of devotions reflecting on important truths brought to mind while navigating those unexpected circumstances. I pray these humble illustrations will bless you as well.

I checked the forecast before I went to bed. A mere dusting of snow was predicted for our area and the weatherman appeared confident as he stated, “Nothing to worry about.” Ever since experiencing Snowmageddon in January 2014[2], residents of metro-Atlanta join in collective hand-wringing at the thought of snow, so the prediction was  reassuring.

But it was so wrong! I awoke the next morning to a world already cloaked in white, as more fluffy flakes floated earthward. I made a hurried trip to the grocery store and returned home before the onslaught of school buses started ferrying hastily-dismissed pupils back to their neighborhoods. Safely ensconced in my warm home, with plenty of supplies, I settled in to witness the rare event unfolding outside. A line of near-freezing cold from the North made acquaintance with plenty of moisture from the South over our swath of Georgia, resulting in perfect conditions for an abundance of snow.

My initial delight gradually turned to concern as I beheld trees bending ever-closer to the ground, their branches succumbing to the weight of their heavy blanket. IMG_4857As many of you’ve discerned, I love plants and do my best to care for the ones on my small suburban property. Thus, when the precipitation slowed to a halt mid-afternoon, I bundled up and ventured outside. Armed with an old broom, I began to gently poke, nudge and sweep snow from trees and bushes. Limbs of azaleas and camellias, dogwoods and maples reached skyward again once they were freed from their frosty burden. I labored for nearly an hour before retreating inside, satisfied that I’d done what I could to help my plant friends, at least the ones within my reach.

And then it started to snow again. The flakes’ persistent descent proceeded throughout the evening and into the night, sometimes fast and abundant, sometimes unhurried and sparse. IMG_4852Darkness enshrouded our neighborhood. I peered frequently out my front windows, checking on trees that were once again drooping perilously. The serenity of the streetlight-illuminated scene belied the danger posed by the mounting accumulation. As I gazed in dismay, I saw a large branch of one of my favorite conifers give way, bending slowly toward the street as a horse might lower its head into a feeding trough.

I eventually gave up my vigil and crawled into bed, hoping, praying that more would be spared than damaged.

Precipitation had ceased by the time I made my way downstairs the following day, but the sky was steely. IMG_4856I hastened to measure the accumulation before it was disturbed by frolicking children. Almost 10 inches adorned my yard, an amount unheard of since the Blizzard of ’93. With a sinking heart, I made note that many of my trees and shrubs were still pitifully bent, the branch of the juniper indeed irreparably broken, along with three others on the same specimen.

The gray scene soon gave way to a glistening wonderland. Clouds dissipated, revealing a IMG_4866brilliant blue sky and sunshine that skipped across the now-sparkling blanket of white. As I watched, the benevolent rays and a gentle breeze began to free the trees from their frozen constraints, accomplishing much more than I could with my broom. Snow fell in flurries and chunks. Limbs commenced to thaw and unfurl.

I smiled sheepishly, acknowledging that the Lord is fully capable of caring for his creation, acceding, yet again, that I am a steward, He is the Owner. Every plant, bird, blade of grass is his. Nevertheless, He has entrusted each of us with gifts and resources to use for his glory, and has placed folks in our sphere of influence that we might minister to them in various ways.[3] Even though God doesn’t need our help, He not only graciously allows and enables us to take part in caring for our world and each other, He commands us to do so.[4]

It’s weighty enough to be good stewards of the material resources God has consigned to us, much less the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the people who share our lives, especially our children and grandchildren. What if I mess it up? What if my best efforts fall short? Our peace and assurance come from remembering He is God and we are not. He alone is able to replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.[5] And, as a wise friend told me when my firstborn was still an infant, God loves our children even more than we do, because ultimately they belong to Him. Precious truth for this once-young mom as well as her now-three-decades-older self.

Lord, please help us to have a proper view of our place and our efforts.[6] May we be faithful stewards of that which you’ve entrusted to us, but let us never forget You are Sovereign over the outcome. Grant us your peace as we trust You in all things.[7]

Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service, you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already.
(C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

[1] * Steward: A person who acts as the surrogate of another, especially by managing property, financial affairs, an estate, etc. (Dictionary.com)

[2] January 28, 2014. A combination of snow and ice created gridlock on area roads, stranded thousands of motorists and resulted in numerous schoolchildren spending the night at school or on buses. Metro-Atlanta finally started to thaw out several days later.

[3] 1 Peter 4:7-11

[4] Genesis 1:28; Matthew 28:18-20; Galatians 6:1-3

[5] Ezekiel 36:26-27

[6] Romans 12:3

[7] Philippians 4:6-7

He didn’t have to do it

I’d reconciled myself to the fact I probably wasn’t going to make it to The Pocket this year. Weather, friends’ schedules, my commitments – things weren’t aligning favorably and the window for making my annual trek was closing . . . but then came last Sunday.

It was a beautiful Sabbath day, perfect for a field trip. As I awaited the start of morning worship, I contemplated the brilliant blue sky, the backdrop visible through large windows behind the pulpit. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the wildflowers calling to me, beckoning me to return to the place I’ve come to refer to as “God’s Garden”. I knew I would be sorely disappointed if I didn’t go. And so, after service, I invited a friend to accompany me, scratched my plans for the afternoon and headed to a truly amazing place.

The Pocket at Pigeon Mountain, located in Walker County, Georgia, is home to a dazzling array of wildflowers.[1] When I first had the pleasure of visiting in the spring of 2013, one of my initial questions was, “Did someone plant all these flowers?” When I was informed the plants had sprung up and flourished there due to advantageous conditions, I was overwhelmed. To my believing heart, I recognized and embraced it as an incredible gift from a loving Father, the Almighty Creator. That sense of awe has accompanied every visit I’ve made since.

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, when I began to study horticulture I was astounded at the number of different kinds of plants that exist. So much variety and diversity! Consider, for example that there are approximately 600 species of oak trees and 250 species of camellias.[2] I suppose God could have created one kind of tree, a solitary selection of shrub, a single type of rose and left it at that. But he didn’t! I wonder if the vast array of plants (not to mention people, animals, insects . . .) isn’t at least partly a result of the sheer joy of creating and God’s desire to instill joy in us as we observe the complexity and beauty in the world around us.

IMG_3023To be sure, life in this world can be difficult.[3] From personal hardships to international conflict, we don’t have to look very far to find trouble. But we don’t have to look far to find evidence of God’s abiding love either. My heart sings when I’m at The Pocket, but it also soars when I find a returning trillium peeking out of the leaves in my woods, watch my granddaughter take her first tentative steps, or listen as a friend shares how God is working in her life.

Before the foundation of the world, God knew the choices we’d make, how we’d turn away from him. Nonetheless, he spoke this amazingly beautiful world into existence. He created men and women in his image and placed them in a perfect garden.[4] Yet Adam and Eve tried to usurp his rightful place[5], something their progeny have desired to do ever since.

Complete in himself and lacking nothing, God could have turned away from his ungrateful creatures. But he didn’t! Instead he sent his one and only Son to save us.[6] Jesus was pierced for our transgressions, his punishment brought us peace, his wounds healed us.[7] Therefore, we have the promise of abundant life now[8] and eternal life in his presence when he returns to restore all things.[9]

Until then, may we gratefully recognize the multitude of gifts surrounding us, ever thanking the Father for his lavish love.[10]

I hope you’ll enjoy this sampling of photos I took Sunday afternoon:

 

 

[1] For additional information on The Pocket, check out the US Wildflowers Journal site: http://journal.uswildflowers.com/spring-wildflowers-at-the-pocket-at-pigeon-mountain/

[2] Information on oaks from Wikipedia, on camellias from the American Camellia Society.

[3] John 16:33 – Jesus told us to expect trouble, but to take heart because he has overcome the world.

[4] Genesis 1:1-31

[5] Genesis 3:1-7

[6] John 3:16

[7] Isaiah 53:5

[8] John 10:10, Romans 5:17

[9] Revelation 21:1-5

[10] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18