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.

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).

5 Years!

IMG_1369Any of you who’ve read my posts for more than a few months know I’m intentional about recognizing all kinds of milestones and anniversaries. Depending on what’s being recalled, it may be a solemn remembrance, such as marking another year without my beloved husband, or one accompanied by a special commemorative treat for an accomplishment.

Though I have yet to figure out what the reward will be, this post is a celebration of the latter type, specifically the 5-year anniversary of launching Back 2 the Garden. After several months of contemplation, my desire to use my God-given writing abilities to tell others of His great faithfulness triumphed over my concerns that no one would be interested in what I had to say. I published my first post, “Consider it all Joy”, on July 1, 2014. Today’s post is my 136th!

My original goals included posting once a week and writing helpful horticulture tips from time to time. Do the math and you’ll see I’ve averaged posting closer to every two weeks. As for the hort hints? Other than my annual pleas of “Please no crape murder!”, they never materialized, as I realized the importance of staying focused on my primary objective – delivering Scripture-based encouragement wrapped in simple stories.

I can count the years and the number of posts, however I’ve lost track of the number of times I thought about quitting. WordPress stats give me some post-related insights, but, unless someone comments, likes or follows, I don’t know who’s reading or what they think. Nonetheless, every time I’ve come close to giving up my tiny bit of real estate in the great global blogosphere, God has provided the nudge I need to continue:

  • A stat will pop up indicating someone on the other side of the world accessed one of my posts, followed by a podcast describing how new technologies are making Christian content more accessible in closed countries.
  • A fellow writer will blog about the importance of stewarding our stories well, of using our gifts and graces to glorify the One who is the Fount of every blessing.
  • A longtime follower will comment on a specific line from a post and how it resonated with her.

And so I keep writing, trusting God to help me put words together in a meaningful manner, to use them in ways I may never know, all for His glory.

Thank you for coming alongside me on this journey, dear readers, for allowing me to share my thoughts, concerns, and hopes, even my failings, with you. I pray you’ll be encouraged as you read the stories God puts on my heart.

In closing, here’s one of the quotes God used to renew my writing resolve earlier this year:

“If you’re a writer, forget about your place in the hierarchy. You don’t have a place in the hierarchy because there is no hierarchy in any meaningful sense. What you have is a territory—a little patch of ground that is yours to cultivate. Your patch of ground is your unique combination of experiences and perspective and voice and loves and longings and community. Tend that patch of ground. Work hard. Be disciplined. Get better. Your patch of ground and your community are worth it.” (Jonathan Rogers)

I appreciate my community (you all!) and, with the Lord’s help, I’ll endeavor to cultivate my patch of ground (Back 2 the Garden) in such a way that it may bear much fruit for Him.

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!

Death benefits

(Note: If you haven’t read my last post, “The countdown”, I invite you to do so now since this one is a sequel of sorts.)

I’ve been known to gasp over a post-Christmas credit card bill or cringe when writing my annual property tax check, but this may have been a first – tears filled my eyes as I gazed at a deposit to my account. The deposit was present because my husband no longer is.

After dealing with the aftermath of Ray’s sudden death – notifying family and friends, planning and attending his visitation, funeral and burial services, traveling back and forth to North Carolina – grief clouded my thinking and slowed my body. Not yet able to fully grasp the finality of the situation, I moved through my days moment-by-moment, piecing thoughts and decisions together, struggling to complete a puzzle missing an essential piece.

My parents’ presence not only comforted me, but their clearer minds filled in some of the gaps in my own thinking. And so, some 10 days after Ray’s passing, at my dad’s urging, we made our way to the Social Security office. I recorded the following in my journal:

“Gathered things to take to meeting with Social Security after I took Mary and Jessie to school – marriage license, passports, M&J’s birth certificates – happy bits of my life, now gathered for a very unhappy purpose.”

Nonetheless, thankfulness and relief washed over me when I heard my minor daughters qualified to receive monthly benefits, based on their dad’s earnings, until their 18th birthdays. I received a small, one-time widow’s stipend along with the news that I would be eligible to collect Ray’s benefits when I reached age 60, at least if I hadn’t remarried by then. Remarrying seemed highly improbable. Like a swan, I felt I mated once, for life. Regardless, my 60th birthday loomed 22 years in the future, a distant speck on a 21st-century calendar, so I filed that bit of information in the far reaches of my mind.

IMG_E1025I dedicated myself to raising my daughters, completed a 30-year career at a large corporation, went back to school to study horticulture, became “Grammie” to three precious little ones. All the while, the calendar pages kept turning with increasing velocity until that distant speck became an entry, “me – 60!!” Once again, I gathered important documents and made my way to the Social Security office. Thoughts of the former trip accompanied me, as did so many similar emotions, which became barely-contained tears as I resolutely recounted my story to the kind agent who entered my claim.

Several months later, on the promised date, the first deposit appeared, eliciting the aforementioned tears. Ray’s benefits, based on his years of diligent work, were credited to my account.

* * * * *

He is Risen!

As usual, that glorious truth entered my mind as soon as I awoke on Easter morning. It appeared all creation joined in the celebration, as brilliant sunlight illuminated the spring-green of new leaves and birds twittered happily amongst the tree branches. The 2019 calculation[1] placed what I’ve long deemed the best day of the entire year almost in the middle of my annual remembrance of my husband’s sudden death in 1997. I intentionally recall the events of the last week I spent with Ray and the first one I spent without him.

As I’ve often done across the years, I signed up to provide a flower arrangement for IMG_E0999church in memory of my beloved husband. In view of the timing of Resurrection Sunday, this year’s floral offering was also given to the praise and glory of our Risen Savior.

From my usual vantage point in the sanctuary, my gaze shifted intermittently from the cloudless cerulean sky to the arrangement I lovingly prepared the night before and then back to our pastor. My heart feasted on the message of hope he proclaimed as I dabbed at occasional tears, some shed in sorrow for a husband gone much too soon, others borne of gratitude for the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior that ensures I’ll see Ray again.

Indeed, Jesus’ sinless life, atoning death and subsequent resurrection guarantee numerous benefits for those who belong to Him. Consider, for example:

  • Peace with God – “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1 (See also Luke 2:14; Romans 15:13)
  • Forgiveness – “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43 (See also, Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:13-14)
  • God’s abiding presence now – “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b (See also Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • and forever – “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.” Revelation 21:1-3
  • An eternal home – “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14:2-3
  • An imperishable body – “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 (See 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 for the full description of the change to come.)
  • An eternal inheritance – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” 1 Peter 1:3-5

I’m grateful to receive Ray’s Social Security payments. They connect me to him and remind me of his love and care while he was with me. But each month, when I see that deposit on my statement, it will also remind me of the One who is my ultimate and eternal Provider, the Giver of all good gifts (James 1:17), who didn’t spare His only Son, but gave Him up for us all (Romans 8:32) to secure death benefits of the most enduring kind.

 

[1] According to timeanddate.com, “Easter falls on the first Sunday after the Full Moon date, based on mathematical calculations, that falls on or after March 21. If the Full Moon is on a Sunday, Easter is celebrated on the following Sunday.”

No Unnecessary Parts

Soon after I turned 50, I began noticing a disconcerting trend whenever I mentioned an ailment to my doctor or dentist. Time after time, they prefaced their replies with, “As we age”, and then went on to explain my symptoms were to be expected given my advancing years. (Insert eye roll.)

Well, here I am, having completed another decade with its attendant wear and tear and I’m starting to believe them. But, being my mother’s daughter, I refuse to go down easily or give up my favorite pastimes, even though most of them – gardening, writing[1], needlework – take a toll on my hands and arms. Then, when my hands and arms get tired, other parts try to compensate, particularly my neck and back. They in turn grow weary from assisting in addition to carrying their own loads.

It’s getting easier and easier for me to relate to the Apostle Paul’s assertion that all parts of the body are necessary and the body performs best when each part is functioning as God designed it to. (1 Corinthians 12) Of course, Paul was using that superb analogy to describe how beautifully God equipped His children with varying gifts and graces to build up the church, the body of believers. And, just as I’m increasingly aware of the veracity of my doctor’s statements, serving as Coordinator of our Women’s Ministry Committee is teaching me how appropriate Paul’s comparison is.

IMG_E0722The committee was in transition late last year when I was asked to join. The remaining members were dedicated to the ministry and each other, but tired from trying to do it all, especially when the assigned tasks didn’t fit their gifts. Fortunately, our pastor asked long-time women’s ministry leader and member of our church, Susan Hunt, to mentor us. With Susan’s guidance, and using the five foundational principles outlined in Women’s Ministry in the Local Church[2], we restructured the committee around several areas of service: Compassion, Community, Elder/Deacon Support and Bible Study, with a Coordinator to guide, support and disciple the ministry leaders.[3]

As the time approached to allocate the various roles, each woman on the committee prayerfully considered her giftedness as well as the gifts of her sisters in light of the positions we needed to fill. We prayed for God’s guidance and we prayed for a spirit of unity and harmony when we assigned leaders to the ministry areas.

Nonetheless, we were concerned about the possibility of more than one woman thinking she was best-suited to a given ministry, while another ministry remained unclaimed. We also wanted to avoid the feeling of a hierarchy, where one role was deemed more or less valuable than another. The previously-referenced 12th chapter of 1st Corinthians makes it abundantly clear that there are many different gifts, all valuable and bestowed by God as He sees fit, for the building up of the church. Paul affirms the same in Romans 12:3-8:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

O, us of little faith! As we went ministry by ministry the morning we met, each woman respectfully requested her role, with her sisters gladly affirming the fit. We were relieved. We were energized. And we were so grateful God had graciously gone before us, pre-assembling our team based on the needs of our congregation and how He’s gifted us.

In my 30-year corporate career, the best managers were the ones who matched the talents and abilities of their workers to the available tasks, resulting in a happier and more productive team. I’ve already seen a similar outcome since we apportioned the assignments. Within days of our planning meeting, ministry leaders started sending e-mails to each other, unprompted by me, as the women embraced their responsibilities and enthusiastically shared ideas with other committee members.

Several days before our first event, a Ladies’ Winter Tea, I awoke with a start one morning thinking, “What about the food? I don’t know what we’re serving!” My heart returned to its normal cadence as I reminded myself, “I don’t have to know. Roseann and her team have it covered.” And did they ever! The food was plentiful and delicious, the tables beautifully decorated. The women were joyfully using their gifts to glorify God and bless those in attendance.

We shared the new ministry structure with the women at the tea and encouraged them to consider their God-given gifts and where they can best use them to glorify Him and build up his body. Our prayer is that all of our women will become involved with one or more of the ministry areas this year.

In addition to special events, we have Bible studies and small discipleship groups. We are thankful for the positive momentum since restructuring the committee, however, this is the time we need to stay focused on God’s glory, not self-glory and self-congratulation. We must remember our confidence is in Christ alone, leaving no room for boasting in any aspect of our lives. Only then can we be life-giving leaders who reflect God’s goodness to those we seek to serve.

How about you? Are you doing your part to keep the Body strong?

Lord, You have graciously given each of us gifts and graces, abilities to be used for your glory and for the building up of your church. Please help us to gladly take on our roles, neither coveting the gifts of others nor being prideful about our own, for all we have and are, both spiritual and material, comes from You. (1 Chronicles 29:10-13; Ephesians 2:8-10; James 1:17)

 

[1] Including pen, typing and texting!

[2] Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2006.

[3] Discipleship is part of each ministry leader’s role, as she disciples women serving in her area.

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.

Thanks, Mom!

Her children rise up and call her blessed.
Proverbs 31:28a

Ok, you probably think I’ve gotten my holidays mixed up. No, I know it’s not Mother’s Day. But it is the season of Thanksgiving and today is my dear mom’s 87th birthday. Thus, I want to thank God for the blessing of a godly mother as well as celebrate this very special woman by documenting some of the nuggets of wisdom she’s shared with me for as long as I can remember.

People will let you down, but God never will. Mom and I have been through numerous trials together in the nearly-60 years since she gave birth to me. Lies, disappointments, job loss, broken relationships, deaths. Through it all, Mom has taught me to depend on the One who says He’ll never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6); who faithfully keeps His promises (Hebrews 10:23) and speaks only truth. (Hebrews 6:18) We will have troubles in this world, but Jesus has overcome the world. We can find peace in Him. (John 16:33)

When faced with a list of tasks, do whatever’s bothering you the most first and get it behind you. When I feel overwhelmed, which is more often than I like to admit, Mom encourages me with this time-tested advice bestowed upon her by one of her grade-school teachers. Though it may not have been inspired by scripture originally, there’s certainly a Biblical tie-in. Usually when my to-do list becomes over-loaded, it’s filled with chores associated with temporal concerns. Cooking, cleaning, weeding, mulching, paying bills and the like are necessary. But Jesus makes it clear we’re to seek eternal things first, trusting Him to provide all we need (Matthew 6:25-33) and spending time at His feet to learn of Him. (Luke 10:38-42)

We can’t change anyone else, much as we’d like to sometimes. We can only give an account of ourselves. My reply when Mom tells me this? “You’re right. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in line!” Once again, there’s Biblical truth in Mom’s statement. As part of His magnificent Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against judging others, especially since we have sin in our own lives to deal with. (Matthew 7:1-5) Praise God for giving us His Spirit, which is at work in us to bring about the transformation we’re incapable of accomplishing on our own. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) Furthermore, we’re called to pray for others, but only He can soften hardened hearts. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

We can’t give up. We’ve got to hold on to our faith and keep going. Throughout her life, Mom’s faced challenges that may have led some to quit or become bitter. In the last decade alone, she:

  • shattered the bones in her right shoulder, an injury that required surgery to install a plate and multiple screws and left her with limited range of motion in that arm.
  • suffered a heart attack that led to the discovery of three severely-blocked arteries resulting in emergency open-heart surgery.
  • fractured a vertebra in her back and had a procedure known as kyphoplasty to repair it.

Mom endures daily pain due to the ravages of arthritis that have led to enlarged joints in her fingers and cartilage deterioration in her now-bone-on-bone right knee. Yet she rarely mentions her constant aches. Instead, she clings to God’s mercies which are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24) and encourages those in her inner circle to do the same. Though she’s never declared a favorite verse, I expect Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, would be a front-runner.

That’s a Gulf song. Granted, this statement isn’t advice, but I include it because it alludes to my heritage of faith. Mom grew up in the tiny town of Gulf, NC, where she attended a small Presbyterian church established in the 1800’s. When the strains of a familiar hymn from her childhood begin to play at our current church, Mom’s face brightens and one of us will usually lean toward the other and whisper, “That’s a Gulf song.” I don’t know how many generations my heritage of faith encompasses, but I know there are at least two behind me and two in front. I pray that legacy of faith will be passed continually from generation to generation until Christ returns. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

IMG_4723Though petite in stature, Mom’s my biggest cheerleader and most dependable defender. We all need someone who’s unconditionally, unreservedly in our corner. I’m so thankful Mom’s in mine. She’s my rock because she consistently points me to the Rock and reminds me His everlasting arms are securely holding all who belong to Him in an eternal embrace. (Deuteronomy 33:26-27a) O LORD, please help me to do the same for my precious children and grandchildren. Thank You for the priceless blessing of a godly mother!

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)

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)

Thank You!

IMG_6549 (3)I don’t know about you, but there are times when I’m truly confounded by the things small children quibble over. For example, my dear grandchildren, ages 2, 4 and 7, will argue about whose turn it is to say the blessing. In fact, they’ll talk over said blessing should one of them start praying before we’ve fully sorted out whose turn it is. Although I’d like to think their bickering arises because they realize how important it is to thank God, I’m afraid it is due instead to a desire for the honor of saying it.

Ah, teachable moments around the table for sure. I’ve tried telling them they can each say a blessing or we can all pray together because God delights in hearing from us and receiving our praises, all to no avail. And so I’m often left silently raising a petition of my own, “Lord, please help them to always have this much enthusiasm when it comes to wanting to thank You!”

Several weeks ago, I was helping daughter, Mary tuck the children in. 7-year-old Joshua selected the recounting of Jesus healing the 10 lepers from his children’s Bible as his bedtime story. In my ESV[1] Bible, the narrative in the Gospel of Luke appears as follows:

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)

All ten of the lepers cried out to Jesus to heal them. All ten had faith He could do so and followed His command to present themselves to the priest even though the healing didn’t occur immediately in Jesus’ presence. Yet only one took the time to come back and thank Him. And this was no weak, afterthought of a “thanks”. Look again. The passage states the man was praising God with a loud voice and fell on his face at Jesus’ feet in gratitude.

When’s the last time we’ve acknowledged God’s good gifts with such exuberant praise? Not only do we rarely demonstrate such gratitude, but too often we behave like the nine who didn’t return to thank Jesus at all, overlooking or taking for granted His many blessings. Scripture is clear that God is worthy of all praise and thanks. David’s prayer after the Israelites made their offerings for the construction of the Temple is exemplary in acknowledging God’s ownership and benevolence:

Therefore David blessed the Lord in the presence of all the assembly. And David said: “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” (1Chronicles 29:10-14)

Jesus himself set an example for us by thanking the Father for sustenance (Matthew 15:36; John 6:11), as well as for hearing His prayers. (John 11:41) And the Apostle Paul repeatedly thanked God for the faith of his fellow believers (see, for example, Romans 1:8, 1 Corinthians 1:4, and Ephesians 1:15-16) and for the inexpressible gift of salvation itself (1 Corinthians 15:57; 2 Corinthians 9:15), reminding us of Jesus’ teaching regarding the superiority of imperishable spiritual treasure. (Matthew 6:19-20)

Furthermore, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul instructed his readers three times in as many sentences to be thankful:

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17)

From the priceless gift of salvation to daily bread, from the beauty of creation to the warmth of friendship, from answered prayer to our very breath and every heartbeat, the reasons to thank God are infinite. Let us avail ourselves of myriad opportunities to praise Him. In so doing, may we model for our little ones how important it is to thank Him with happy hearts and joyful voices for His gracious gifts – not for our glory, but for His.

[1] English Standard Version