A Tale of Three Trees

A year or so after we moved to Georgia, my husband Ray and I began a tradition we called “walking the property”. Let me dispel any notion you may have about us owning a vast estate. No, our property situated in a typical suburban housing development outside Atlanta measured approximately 1/3 of an acre.

Nonetheless, our small tract was special. Ray had a horticulture degree with an emphasis on woody ornamentals so he asked the builder to leave as many trees as he could when he cleared the property to make room for our home. In the nearly-five years we lived there together, Ray installed a number of unique plants whose names he patiently taught me – over and over again. Although I received a degree in Fashion Merchandising, I loved plants and being outside and spending time with Ray, thus I looked forward to our rambles and Ray’s lessons.

Warmth and copious hints of spring accompanied the evening of April 16, 1997. Ray dropped Jessie and Mary, our 7-and-10-year-old daughters, off at church for their mid-week children’s activities. When he returned, we started our evening stroll at the left front corner of our house, leisurely made our way through the woods, up the other side, and back to the driveway.

Ray stopped multiple times along our route. He pointed out plants of interest, mentioned specific landscaping plans, and commented on the health of things he’d planted in the much-amended Georgia clay. We paused by a grove of three bald cypress trees. All these years later, I don’t remember how tall the juvenile trees were, probably not much taller than Ray, but I distinctly remember his comments:

“These are some of my favorite trees. They’re interesting because they lose their needles.”

I didn’t know it would be the last time we’d walk the property. But God did.

Three nights later, my young daughters and I received life-shattering news: Ray, a mere 39 years old, had a fatal heart attack at work. He wouldn’t be coming home. Ever.

Over two decades have passed since that last stroll and the unthinkable loss. I focused on raising my daughters, finished a 30-year career at a large corporation, welcomed three grandchildren. Along the way, gardening became my therapy, a connection to Ray and a connection to a loving Father who’s reminded me of spiritual truths, softened my sorrows, and given me innumerable indications of His presence as I’ve worked in my yard.

And, amazingly, I got to go back to school to study horticulture! In my Woody ID class, I learned there are very few conifers[1] that lose their needles: dawn redwood, several larch species, and bald cypress. Confirmation of Ray’s long-ago statement.

IMG_0049The small specimens he planted now tower high above the back corner of my house. Each fall their needles create a brilliant color display before they let go, drift to the ground, and blanket the bed beneath their intertwined branches. I’ve thought so often about Ray’s comments and how special the trees are.

Five years ago, I noticed a number of seedlings peeking through the mantle of fallen needles. Upon closer inspection, I deduced they weren’t pesky pine seedlings that tend to pop up everywhere. They were baby bald cypresses!  I contacted a friend well-versed in all things coniferous. His comment upon hearing the news: “Those must be happy trees to be reproducing like that.”

I beamed at hearing this, adding to myself, “Well-loved, too.”

252I dug several of the seedlings and potted them in individual containers. In the seasons since, I watered, watched, and worried them along, hoping at least three of them – one for each grandchild – would make it. And make it they did. Last week, we moved them to Mary and son-in-law Justin’s house. With the help of a friend, the children planted the offspring of their grandfather’s favorite conifers.

The mind’s-eye images of that gorgeous fall afternoon – cloudless blue sky, warm-for-November breeze, dirty hands, and delighted laughter – have been underscored by a snippet of lyrics from the hymn, “Day by Day”, whose first stanza reads as follows:

Day by day and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best –
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
[2]

Oh how I wish Ray was here to be Grandpa Kuipers to our grandchildren. I mourn the fact he isn’t. But at 8, 6 and 3, Joshua, Lyla, and Emma are old enough to grasp the concept of having a grandfather in heaven. I speak about him often, recounting his love of plants and people, and his faith.

When I told Joshua I was thinking about writing this post, he said, “Grammie, I read another story about three trees. One was used for Jesus’ manger, one for the boat He was in during the storm, and one for the cross.” The faith of a child, borne of a legacy of faith going back generations on all branches of my grandchildren’s family tree – faith that connects them to Ray and guarantees they’ll get to meet him in eternity (John 6:37-40).

Life can be so hard. After all, we’re not Home yet. But God graciously mixes in good gifts along the way to soften the blows and smooth the sharp edges – family and friends, plants and promises, conversations and conifers – all part of His beneficial plan for this grateful daughter (Jeremiah 29:11-13).

When I took my last stroll with Ray, I didn’t know the day would come when I’d be blessed to have three grandchildren, much less that we’d get to plant progeny of the very trees Ray singled out that night. But God did (Isaiah 46:9-10).256

 

[1] In basic terms, conifers are plants that bear their seeds in cones.

[2] “Day by Day”, lyrics by Carolina Sandell Berg; translated by Andrew L. Skoog.

Stewarding our Stories (aka, “Podcast, the Backstory”)

Who am I to tell my story on a podcast? I haven’t written a book, though I hope to do so. I don’t lead a well-known ministry or have a bunch of followers on any form of social media.

Such were my thoughts when Karen Hodge, Women’s Ministry Coordinator for the PCA[1], first mentioned the possibility. I was grateful for the opportunity to share blog posts on the enCourage website from time to time. But record an episode for the weekly podcast? Thanks, but I preferred to leave that to the more well-known women in our denomination.

A year after that brief conversation, the offer resurfaced. In the intervening months, I had a change of heart.  What brought about the change? I still hadn’t published a book or become a household name in PCA circles. No, but I’d become acquainted with the idea of stewarding our stories, enlightened to the fact that my story isn’t ultimately about me. It’s all about God and His amazing grace extended to those He loves, a story begun before the foundation of the world and lasting into eternity (Ephesians 1:3-14).

This is the time and place God has appointed for me to live out my earthly chapter of that grand narrative (Acts 17:26). I began my blog, Back 2 the Garden, to glorify Him and encourage others by proclaiming His faithfulness, compassion, and lovingkindness. Now I was being given an opportunity to put an audible voice to those words.

It was still with some trepidation, but I agreed to proceed and submitted an outline of my story. Karen responded with a list of appropriate questions. I prepared and prayed. Yet when the day arrived to record the podcast I kept checking the clock, as the knot in my stomach tightened and those same old “who am I?” misgivings cluttered my thoughts.

Once we began our conversation, the knot relaxed and I focused on my message. Half an hour later we were done. Phew! Mission accomplished.

But alas, there appeared to be some technical issues. Hopefully, the glitches could be resolved through the magic of editing. Nonetheless, doubt regarding the viability of the recording watered the seed of “not good enough”, which germinated into a prayer of, “If it isn’t good enough, Lord, please help the recording not to be fixable.”

Weeks passed before I got to listen to the tape. My part was barely audible, but what I said made sense and included most of what I hoped to convey. My relief was short-lived, supplanted the next day by news the disparity in volume between my part and Karen’s couldn’t be resolved.  However, the message included an invitation to try again.

It took 24 hours for me to accept that invitation, a full day to quell the doubts running rampant. “See! It’s not meant to be. Nobody needs to hear your story.”

On the day appointed to re-record the interview, a technology-adept friend provided special headphones with a built-in microphone to improve the sound quality on my end. Numerous friends were praying. I was ready. And then, one question into the interview, my internet went down. And came back. And went down again. After three attempts to reply to that first question, Karen offered one last time slot the following week, saying mine was the only segment of the new season left to record and she truly wanted to include it. I agreed, buoyed by her sincere desire to give me every possible chance to tell my story.

I hadn’t even had time to unplug my computer when Karen’s assistant, also a longtime friend, texted, “This is a spiritual battle.”

Yep. This brazen interference made it abundantly obvious who didn’t want me to praise God in a broader-than-usual forum. And that realization transformed my timidity into firm resolve. I wouldn’t be silenced by the father of lies (John 8:44).

An hour before the last-chance interview was to begin, my internet went down. Noooo! I packed up my technology – computer, power cord, super headphones – and mostly obeyed the speed limit as I drove to my daughter’s house.  I should have planned to be there all along since my son-in-law proudly told me not two days before that their internet speed had been upgraded to a level comparable to NASA’s. The house was uncharacteristically quiet with the children at school, empty except for June, the family dog. I tucked her into the garage with her water dish and some extra kibble. No need to have her BIG voice providing background music for the interview. I ensconced myself in Mary and Justin’s walk-in closet – the most soundproof place in the house – in case their overly-zealous leaf-blowing neighbor decided to crank up his equipment.

IMG_1739I took several deep breaths to settle my nerves. There in my safe cocoon, surrounded by clothes and innumerable prayers, I proceeded to have a pleasant chat with Karen. Within 24 hours I received the all-clear – the recording was usable. When I listened to it a few days later, I sounded more conversational, less stressed than the first time. Though some of the details varied, the message was the same: God is faithful. We can trust Him, even in our most difficult circumstances when we don’t understand. He’ll never leave us or forsake us. My story to steward, my testimony to bear.

You have a story too, dear reader. Satan attempts to silence us with lies and doubts, but Jesus made it clear we’re not to hide our light under a basket (Matthew 5:14-16). Furthermore, scripture tells us to be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15). Our hope rests on the certain promises of God and provides a sure and steadfast anchor for our souls (Hebrews 6:19).

Just like every blog post I write, I pray the Lord will use the podcast for His glory, to send hope and encouragement to those who hear it.

Here’s the link if you’d like to listen to my conversation with Karen, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”:https://encourage.pcacdm.org/?p=2731

[1] Presbyterian Church in America

One-on-one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love to tell the story

I spent most of my 30-year career working for DuPont as a stylist in their carpet fibers division. I followed color trends, made samples using the fibers we produced and visited customers, helping sales and marketing reps explain the exceptional qualities of our products. But there was a brief stint when I worked with bath rug fibers, the softest, most luxurious fibers we made for floor covering end uses.

IMG_E1442Even though over three decades have passed, I clearly remember a customer meeting where we were requesting input on a developmental fiber. I touted its attributes and started a single sample on its journey around the conference room table. It never made it beyond the owner of the company. Like a child with a pet bunny, he stroked the sample repeatedly, exclaiming over its softness. I passed out other samples featuring styling suggestions for existing fibers. He’d finger them, comment, then pass them along, all the while retaining possession of his far-superior prize.

I can’t recall if anyone else got to touch the prototype or how I eventually removed it from his grasp, but I can still see him stroking that sample.

Controlled by the Past?

I was recently reminded of this long-ago scenario when daughter Mary introduced me to the intriguing phrase, “story fondling”. I followed up our conversation with some online searching and came across an article that described in more detail what Mary alluded to. In essence, story fondling involves an unwillingness to let go of the past and move on. Instead, some of us choose to hold on to past hurts and regrets, be they self-inflicted or brought about by others. Much like my customer and the beloved sample, we grasp the memories, caressing, replaying, retelling, until they come to define and, all too often, paralyze us.

Please don’t misunderstand. I know firsthand how detrimental denying the impact of our past can be. We may manage reasonably well in the present, at least until something tears the scab off a long-festering wound. Early in my marriage, I’d occasionally respond to something with such intensity, my perplexed husband would comment, “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” Of course, his query only served to fuel my dismay and evoke glare-accompanied replies such as, “You don’t understand!” Nonetheless, looking back with a perspective transformed by time and Truth, I know he was right. My vehement response had a little to do with the event that precipitated it, but so much more to do with the inner demons it awoke.

The father of lies (John 8:44b) delights in pushing “play” on the litany of negative messages we’ve embraced. Like a pesky earworm of the soul, the subconscious recording relentlessly repeats:

  • “You messed up. Again.”
  • “You’ll never be good enough.” (Or smart enough or thin enough or pretty enough or . . .)
  • “If people really knew you, they wouldn’t like you.”

Sound familiar?

A Renewed Perspective

Those well-worn, oft-replayed lines may feel comfortable in a twisted sort of way. After all, they’ve been part of us for a long time. But we belong to the Good Shepherd and are meant to listen to His voice as He contradicts the lies. Scripture assures us we are:

  • new creations in Christ. The old has passed away; the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
  • being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
  • being conformed to the likeness of Jesus (Romans 8:29).
  • eternally and securely loved by the Father (Romans 8:31-39).

Not only does God’s Word give us a true picture of who we are in Christ, but it also points us forward:

  • This is what the Lord says—he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters . . . “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:16;18-19)
  • God forgives our sins and removes them as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:11-12), thus we may say with the Apostle Paul, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13b-14).
  • Ultimately, all things will be made new and perfect (Revelation 21:1-5).

Informed by the Past

Long-time readers of this blog know I’m intentional in remembering milestones, anniversaries and loved ones who’ve joined the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). Though there are days I’m tempted to indulge in self-pity or allow past experiences to become excuses for present behavior, I endeavor instead to use these times of recollection to:

  • remember God’s faithfulness (Deuteronomy 7:9)
  • give thanks for His deliverance (Psalm 40:1-3)
  • celebrate my legacy of faith (2 Timothy 1:5)
  • resist repeating former sins (1 Corinthians 10:13; James 4:7-8)
  • comfort others with the comfort I’ve received (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

If you’re going to cling to a story, make sure it’s one worth holding onto!

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see[1].

I love to tell the story – ‘tis pleasant to repeat what seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet; I love to tell the story, for some have never heard the message of salvation from God’s own holy Word. I love to tell the story! Twill be my theme in glory – to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love. [2]

 

[1] “Amazing Grace”, 1st stanza, Text: John Newton.

[2] “I Love to Tell the Story”, 2nd stanza. Text: A. Catherine Hankey.

Hide and seek

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

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

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

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

Child’s play?

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

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

Shame or guilt?

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

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

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

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

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

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

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

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

Becoming a safe place

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

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

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

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

 

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!

Through the night

Mom didn’t sound quite like herself when I called to say I was on my way to pick her up for our weekly trip to daughter Mary’s house to spend the day with the children. When I arrived a few minutes later, one look was enough to confirm my suspicions. I’d like to say I took Mom directly to the emergency room, but knowing Mary had a full slate of work planned and praying Mom was just off to a slow start, I went to Mary’s instead.

Mom still wasn’t fully functioning by lunchtime and my concern had escalated to the point I texted Mary to come home. Mom, who isn’t a fan of doctors’ offices, much less hospitals, compliantly took my son-in-law’s arm[1] as he gently guided her into the passenger seat of my CR-V. I managed to remain calm during the 20-minute drive, reassuring Mom that I’d get her the help she needed. Nonetheless, when an attendant from the emergency department met us at the curb and, seeing Mom’s condition, whisked her into the building in a wheelchair, I couldn’t contain my barely-suppressed tears any longer.

Given her speech difficulties and wobblier-than-usual steps, I suspected a small stroke, but several hours and multiple tests later, the true culprit was identified: a severe case of pneumonia, resulting in critically-low oxygen saturation in Mom’s bloodstream. No wonder she couldn’t think clearly or walk without assistance! Any relief I felt over it not being a stroke was summarily eclipsed by the attending physician’s matter-of-fact statement that things often get worse, much worse, for elderly pneumonia patients before they get better, if they get better at all.

Having delivered the full-disclosure version of the diagnosis, the doctor strode out, leaving me to process his message. Thankfully, Mom didn’t hear or comprehend his dire declaration or take note of my obvious distress. But her nurse did. “I don’t know why doctors feel like they have to say things like that. We also see patients get better without declining first.”

My reply? “It’s all in God’s hands”, a mighty truth I’d cling to in the coming hours.

I reluctantly left Mom to the capable care of the medical team. As I trudged to the parking garage, I thought about another night, 22 years before, when I left that same emergency department, dazed, numb, knowing I’d never experience another day of life in this world with my beloved husband, Ray.[2] And I wondered if I’d spent my last with my dear mother.

Shortly before bedtime, my phone rang. The night-shift physician called to let me know Mom was stable and to confirm their intentions to move her to ICU as soon as a room became available. Then this: “I was told your mother wasn’t thinking clearly when she came in so I need you to confirm her stated DNR wishes.”[3]

Pause. Deep breath. “That’s correct. Mom’s consistently expressed her wishes regarding no life support or extraordinary measures to keep her alive. But please take good care of her so we won’t have to make that decision.”

Not a conversation conducive to sweet dreams. It, along with images of Mom when I left her, attached to multiple monitors, with a breathing mask strapped across her face, marched through my mind. Would she make it through the night, the next several days? Or would I be faced with planning another April funeral, tucking one more piece of my heart into a loved one’s grave?

I prayed fervently for Mom to recover and eventually be able to return home to us. Nonetheless, I knew if her earthly days were over, it would be ok. Every time a doubt or fear prodded me from my fitful sleep, Truth arose to quell it:

  • I know Who Mom belongs to. Whether in life or death, no one will be able to snatch her out of His hand. (John 10:28-29)
  • I thought about a quote I saw shortly before my Ray’s death: “Until it’s my time to go, nothing can take me. When it’s my time to go, nothing can keep me here.”
  • I pondered a proclamation one of our pastors made at Ray’s funeral: “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer, it is the most glorious beginning.”
  • I considered God’s love and faithfulness across the years since losing my life partner. I knew those same comforts would attend future losses. (Psalm 23)
  • I imagined Mom taking her place in our heavenly family circle, reunited with so many departed loved ones, now joyfully gathered in Jesus’ presence.
  • And I compiled a mental playlist of cherished hymns – Amazing Grace, Blessed Assurance, It is Well with My Soul – that further calmed my troubled mind.

The Spirit ministered to me throughout the night, battling my fears by reminding me of God’s promises and assuring me of His presence (Psalm 16:7-8; Zephaniah 3:17; Romans 8:26-27), just as Jesus said he would. (John 14:25-26)

We can’t foresee what any given day may hold for us and those we love, but nothing ever catches God by surprise (Isaiah 46:8-10). I don’t know what you may be going through, dear reader, but I pray you too will meditate on Truth. Consider, for example:

  • God has a plan for each of us. (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
  • All our days are written in His book before even one comes to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • He sees every tear. (Psalm 56:8)
  • He works all things together for good for those who love Him. (Romans 8:28)
  • He’ll never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • He’s conquered death. (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)
  • He’ll take us Home to be with Him forever. (John 14:1-3)

We have this hope as a sure and steadfast anchor for our souls. (Hebrews 6:19-20) And I will gladly testify that the anchor holds, even through the darkest night.

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(To be continued.)

 

[1] Justin and Mom are buddies. He came home to help too.

[2] My husband, Ray, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 39 on April 19, 1997. Mom went into the hospital on April 17, 2019.

[3] “Do not resuscitate”

Preach to yourself!

Even though it still appears plenty sturdy, my 27-year-old house is showing signs of wear and tear – peeling paint, random cracks from settling, occasional major repairs – reminders of inevitable decline in spite of well-intentioned upkeep.

So, the other day when a large puddle appeared where my master bath toilet is bolted to the floor, I sighed, called my always-dependable plumber and tried not to worry too much about the time and money required to fix the problem. Nonetheless, a nagging little voice heckled from the recesses of my mind, “This could be a big, costly deal.”

The next day dawned, bright and beautiful, as my garden beckoned me to come outside, which is exactly where I headed as soon as the plumber left. The repair took part of my tax refund that I would rather have spent on landscaping, but several hours of adjusting, tightening and probing various elements of my plumbing system appeared to solve the problem.

Or so I thought.

After an hour of playing in the dirt, I came inside for a drink and heard, “Tap. Tap, tap. Tap. Tap, tap, tap.” My first inclination was to check the deck to see if one of my feathered friends was pecking on the house, but a quick glance revealed only the usual array of contented visitors around the birdfeeders. Further investigation exposed the source of the mystery sound: water drops splatting on the floor beneath the ceiling fan as several ever-widening damp spots formed under the master bath drain pipe.

I left a distress-laden message for my plumber and trudged back outside. The repair-associated relief I felt earlier had fled, taking with it the joy normally associated with being in my garden. The rest of the afternoon found me making frequent reconnaissance treks to check on the incessant dripping. I silently pleaded with it to stop, hoping I could stare it into submission. Meanwhile, I engaged in a back-and-forth discussion with myself, see-sawing between imagining the worst and reminding myself it was a thing to be repaired, not a person with a terminal illness.

IMG_0816In spite of my valiant efforts, the taunting thoughts multiplied and threatened to overtake the more reasonable ones. I almost convinced myself it was time to move into an over-55 community where upkeep was someone else’s responsibility. But then, two hours into my plumber’s return visit, as I gazed at strategically-placed tarps and tubs and several holes in my ceiling, one of my grandmother’s sayings came to me, “Nothing’s so bad it couldn’t be worse.”

And so it was in this case. Had the leak occurred a few weeks earlier, dozens of pieces from my beloved Dickens Village would have been on display in the now-besieged room. Instead, they were all safely packed away, leaving plenty of space for the accouterments associated with the follow-up repair. That realization dealt the decisive blow to the negative side of my hours-long internal argument and allowed me to utter a sincere, “Thank You, Lord. It really could have been so much worse.” Even so, I regretted my inability to arrive at that place of peace hours earlier, since the cause of my angst was indeed fixable.

I recalled a long-ago conversation with my late husband, Ray. Exasperated by his peaceful demeanor in the midst of my recounting of some tale of woe, I had the audacity to ask, “Does anything short of death upset you?” His calm reply? “Not much.” After his sudden death some months later at age 39, I knew he was right. It’s a lesson I strive to remember, though there are times I behave otherwise.

As long as we’re in this fallen world, we’ll have troubles of varying kinds, from minor annoyances to life-changing trauma. Jesus said as much. But in the next breath, He added the admonition not to fear followed by the assurance He’d overcome the world (John 16:33). Our dear Savior suffered much when He walked this earth. As a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, He compassionately comprehends the hardships we face (Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 4:15).

Furthermore, God uses trials, big and small, to transform us, to strengthen our faith and to remind us we’re not in control. We can trust His sovereign plans for us, knowing He will work all things together for good (Romans 8:28-29).

Scripture overflows with God’s promises and the longer we walk with Him, the more examples of His love and faithfulness we have to draw on from our own lives. When faced with challenges, we must encourage ourselves with truth, not ceasing until truth triumphs in our hearts and minds. This quote from Welsh pastor D. Martyn Lloyd Jones is one I’ve turned to repeatedly over the years:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? . . . The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’– what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’– instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.”[1]

My aging house isn’t the only thing that’s showing signs of wear and tear. One look in the mirror reminds me I’m far from 20-something, as does the muscle stiffness that accompanies my daily exodus from the comfort of my bed. All creation groans, waiting to be set free when Jesus returns (Romans 8:18-23). But I know Jesus is preparing a forever Home for me that will never deteriorate (John 14:1-3) and an imperishable body that won’t get sick or die (1 Corinthians 15:50-56).

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

 

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965/2002), 20-1.

Purposeful Pondering

There are a number of days and seasons throughout the year when I intentionally open my figurative chest of memories, select the appropriate box and carefully remove the lid so I can inspect the contents. Sometimes the momentous events which trigger my reflections were joyfully anticipated, like the births of my daughters and grandchildren. But others, like the sudden death of my husband, came without warning and brought deep sorrow and bewilderment. Irrespective of the emotions associated with the initial event, I choose to remember. Because time offers perspective. And anniversaries provide opportunities to reflect on God’s goodness.

Eight years ago today, I awoke to my first day of unemployment in over three decades. Although not completely unexpected, the news the day before that I was no longer needed because my job was being eliminated left me numb and disoriented. I recognized those feelings, milder versions of the shock I felt after my husband’s unexpected death.

Unlike the previous afternoon when the slate sky matched the tenor of the windowless conference room where I received my termination notice, the morning was drenched in brilliant sunlight. In spite of my surreal circumstances, I held onto hope every bit as bright as the sunshine streaming through my windows. In fact, I posted the following status on Facebook:

“30+ years of continuous employment came to a halt yesterday when my job was eliminated. God obviously has something else for me to do. I can’t wait to see what it is!”

Even though I was uncertain how being unemployed would affect my life, I rested in the certainty that my life was exactly where it had been before I lost my job – secure in the hands of the One who declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10), who has a plan for good and not harm (Jeremiah 29:11). The previous day’s events did not surprise Him or catch Him off-guard.

I reminded myself of another windowless room where I and my elementary-aged daughters were told the unthinkable – that our beloved husband and father had succumbed to a fatal heart attack – and I recalled God’s provision across the 13 ½-intervening years. He’d graciously allowed me to work as long as my daughters depended on me for support. Single parent, sole provider, but underneath were the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27) of the One who’s promised to never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8)

img_0495Even so, I couldn’t have imagined all God had in store for me. A mere two days after losing my job, I contacted the admissions office at the local community college to inquire about enrolling in their horticulture program. Six months later, my first grandchild was born. Joshua was my study buddy, as I strolled him around the neighborhood while practicing my new-found plant identification skills. He, along with my mom and daughter Mary were present at my graduation ceremony the following year. Yes, 18 months after losing my job, I fulfilled my dream of acquiring an Environmental Horticulture diploma. God is truly able to do far more than all we ask or think. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Two more grandchildren, Lyla and Emma, have joined our family. I’m blessed to spend a couple of days a week with them and big-brother Joshua. I volunteer at a local botanical garden. I started this blog. I’m available to help my aging parents. I’m a member of our Women’s Ministry Committee. Engaging in these activities would be impossible if I was still working in my cubicle, making carpet samples and visiting customers. For a time, that was my work, but now God has other work for me to do. (Ephesians 2:10) And I am grateful for both seasons of my life.

I don’t know what you may be going through, dear reader. Maybe your life is relatively free of difficulties, but we know troubles of various kinds will come. Jesus said as much. However, He also told us not to fear because He would be with us to the end. (John 16:33; Matthew 28:20b) So let us call to mind the good He’s already done for us, in full assurance that His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. And may we be diligent in telling our children and their children of His great faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-24)

When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:1-7)

 

Emmanuel, God with us

This has been one of those weeks. You know, the kind dotted with numerous reminders things aren’t the way they’re meant to be. I’m not even talking about national or global events. No, just in my little corner of the world, the consequences of the Fall have been abundantly evident. From broken relationships to childish misbehavior to my own selfishness. Add in the effects of my precious parents’ aging, as well as mine – my IMG_E0161hands have made it clear they’re not happy with the repeated gripping and lifting required to set up my beloved Dickens Village – and the final enemy, death, which paid an unexpected visit to one of our church families. The weight has grown heavy indeed.

I suppose the world was every bit as dark, with sin and sorrow pressing in all around, when God sent His one and only Son, the Light of the world, full of grace and truth to that lowly manger in Bethlehem. The most precious gift ever given came packaged as a tiny baby, grew to be a man who lived a sinless life and took our sins upon Himself, that we might have hope now and eternal life in God’s very presence.

So, dear friends, whether you, too, have had one of those weeks or if you simply need to step back from the busyness of the season and refocus on the reason for our celebrations, I offer these passages, some of my very favorites. May they speak peace into our lives as we reflect on the coming of God’s promised Messiah and look forward to His equally-certain return.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone . . . For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. (Lamentations 3:21-25)

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

O, Lord, thank You for your great love and faithfulness, the assurance that every one of your promises finds its Yes in Jesus. (2 Corinthians 1:20) Please help us to never lose heart, remembering that the afflictions of this world are light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory You have prepared for us. (2 Corinthians 4:16-17) May we ever praise You for your incomparable gift of Life, not only at Christmastime, but throughout the year, with joyful, grateful hearts.