Eulogy For a Godly Mother

Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Proverbs 31:28-30

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Dear Family and Friends,

I’ve mentally written and rewritten this eulogy many times over the past few days. After all, how can you sum up the blessing of having a godly mother in a few minutes and several hundred words? But, as I look out on those of you gathered before me, I know many of you have your own sweet recollections of Mom, and so I hope my comments will help us reminisce together and maybe provide some other images for you to add to your collection.

Tell Them Hello

I was looking forward to bringing Mom back to church with me after she received her Covid vaccinations. Although that occurred several months ago, she was experiencing such pain in her left leg due to sciatica that she couldn’t sit still long enough to attend service. She recently lamented, “This is the longest I’ve ever been away from church in my life.”

She missed her church family so much. But she was here in spirit and, each week when she knew I’d be at church, she’d say, “Tell them all hello for me, and I really appreciate their prayers. That’s what’s getting me through.”

During her year away from Grace, many of you reached out to her via cards, phone calls, and visits. And when you did, it was usually the first thing she’d mention when I’d see her.

“Guess who called me today?”

“I got a nice card. I left it on the counter for you to see.”

“So and so came to see me.”

And a little over a month ago, “A group from church stopped by to sing to me!”

So, “Hello!” from Mom and “Thank you!” from both of us for being here today and for loving her so well to the very end.

Mom’s Mottos

I bet I’m not the only one who has some of their mother’s sayings deeply ingrained in their beings. I want to share a few of what I call “Mom’s Mottos,” most of which were grounded in Scripture.

People will let you down, but God never will. Mom saw me through numerous trials during the 60-plus years we were together. Lies, disappointments, job loss, broken relationships, deaths. Through it all, Mom 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)

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 would say this? “You’re right. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in line!” As part of His 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 transform us more and more into the image of Christ, a transformation we’re incapable of accomplishing on our own  (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

We can’t give up. We’ve got to hold on to our faith. Throughout her life, Mom 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.
  • spent a combined 24 days in the hospital and rehab recovering from pneumonia.
  • endured daily pain associated with the ravages of arthritis.

Yet Mom rarely mentioned her constant aches. Instead, she clung to God’s mercies which are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24), and encouraged those in her inner circle to do the same, often quoting her favorite verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Her final struggle was no different. I watched her battle valiantly to stay with us, her tiny body so fragile and racked with pain and her mind often overwhelmed by imaginings, some pleasant, others troubling.  As I marveled at her tenacity, I remembered the Apostle Paul’s debate in his letter to the Philippians. He knew it would be best for him personally to depart and be with the Lord, but he preferred to remain in the flesh to benefit his children in the faith (Philippians 1:21-24).

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There’s nothing so bad it couldn’t be worse. My grandmother passed this saying to Mom, and we’ve quoted it to each other many times over the years. It’s been an undercurrent in my thoughts the past couple of weeks. Last year when the pandemic struck, I prayed none of us would end up in the hospital, isolated from loved ones. God graciously answered that prayer. Mom did end up in the hospital, but by then, the stringent visitation protocols were no longer in place. There wasn’t a single day we weren’t able to be with her. And what a blessing to be able to gather today to celebrate her life.

Even so, some may look at the situation and think, “But she died! How could it be worse?” No, for those who die in Christ, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). I always recall Rev. Todd Allen’s declaration at Ray’s funeral, “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer,  it is the most glorious beginning.”

The Little Moments

Any of you who know me well know I’m a proponent of savoring the little moments in life. I believe God showers us with good gifts, but we need to be intentional to see and appreciate them. Mom’s final days with us were no different as God provided memorable moments to add to our treasury of good memories.

Two days before Mom broke her hip, Dad left a message for me while I was at church. He asked me to come straight away to help him with Mom, who’d been experiencing some hallucinations. When I arrived, I found her calm and asked if she’d like to spend the afternoon at my house. Typically she would have said, “No, that’s ok. I know you have things to do. I’ll stay here.” Instead, she accepted my invitation. We spent several hours in my sunlit kitchen that afternoon, her reading and me working on my computer. We chatted about the birds, the beautiful day, and the pretty plants growing in my garden.

A couple of times, she said, “Are you sure I can’t help you with something?”

“No, I’m good, thanks!”

“Ok, well, just go ahead with what you need to do. I’m fine.”

One of the things I was working on was a project for our Women’s Ministry Committee, E-ncouragement Through Song, where we’ve been sharing our favorite hymns several times a week. I asked Mom for her favorite, fully expecting Amazing Grace, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, or the like. Instead, she mentioned a song I don’t ever remember hearing, The Land Where We’ll Never Grow Old. I pulled it up on my computer. As the first few notes played, I asked, “Is this it, Mom?” She smiled, nodded, and started to hum along.

As I listened to the lyrics, I understood why she selected it. Even though Mom aged with grace and flourished into old age, with her spirit growing ever more beautiful, she didn’t like the toll the years had taken on her body. She missed driving and working in the yard and, in the last days, even being able to clean her house.

Given all that’s transpired since, I know that afternoon was a beautiful gift, several hours of sweet normalcy with my dear Mom before her earthly life started unraveling at a frantic pace.

Even after she broke her hip and had few lucid periods, there were precious moments to deposit into my memory bank – times when we prayed together, declared our love and appreciation for each other and for God’s many blessings, and professed our assurance that eternity in a land where we’ll never grow old awaits. 

Mom’s final moment was perhaps the most precious of all. Gathered around her bedside, we watched as she took her last breath and slipped peacefully away from us into the presence of Jesus. God mercifully answered our prayers to heal her by calling her Home, where she’s now free from all pain and suffering.

Now What?

I keep thinking I’m going to break down from the weight of this tremendous loss, and I suppose the time will come when grief overwhelms me. I stand before you today, not in my strength, but by the power of the Spirit, the same strength that Mom depended on. I know from losing Ray that it’s often the little things that get to me, not the big events I know to prepare for. Going to get my hair cut without Mom, waiting in line at Starbucks, lunchtimes when I reach for my phone, then remember I can’t call her anymore.

But I also know how blessed I’ve been to have her godly influence for 62 years. Mom will always be with me. She lavished so much love and care and wisdom on me that my heart will be filled to overflowing for the rest of my life. I’ll hear her voice encouraging me and be inspired by her sayings and example. Likewise, my children and grandchildren will benefit from their time with her as she’s shown them the same unconditional love and acceptance she’s always shown me.

I invite you to join me in honoring Mom’s memory by embodying some of her characteristics, which she in turn modeled after Jesus – her love for God and others, her welcoming smile, her steadfast faith.  May we grieve her passing well, not as those without hope, but as those who have an unwavering assurance in Jesus’ promise to return (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). We look forward to the fulfillment of John’s prophecy, recorded in Revelation:

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)

A Single Red Rose, Remix

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10

An Iconic Flower

Red roses and romantic love have been linked for centuries. “The red rose began its illustrious symbolic history in Greek and Roman iconography, where it was tied to Aphrodite, or Venus, the goddess of love . . . Throughout its long, storied history, the red rose still reigns as the ultimate symbol of passionate affection.”[1]

Like many of you, I  have been touched by the beauty of red roses. In fact, one played a role in changing the course of my life. If that sounds like hyperbole, read on for the rest of the story.

A Broken Heart

When I was in my early twenties, I met a handsome young man and promptly fell head-over-heels for him. Thus smitten, I had no trouble convincing myself he was “the one.” Some months later, it became evident he wasn’t. He stated his desire to return to his college sweetheart, who he’d never completely gotten over, thereby crushing my happily-ever-after dreams.

But God has a plan for our lives and is always going before us. One week to the day after receiving the hurtful news from Mr. Not-the-one-after-all, I met Ray, another handsome young man, who I’d come to know and love, at a church singles group.

At subsequent gatherings, I noted Ray was thoughtful and kind, a godly young man who cared about others. He also had a stubborn streak. His tenacity came in handy since it took no small effort on his part to break through the fog of despondency that settled around me after the painful breakup. As summer turned into fall, I continued to decline Ray’s invitations, seeing him instead at activities sponsored by the singles group.

I commented to my mom, “I’m not sure why Ray keeps asking me out.” Her reply, “He’s obviously found someone he likes and isn’t going to give up easily!”

I’m forever thankful he didn’t give up.

A Breakthrough

108The singles group held their Christmas dinner on my birthday that year. After the banquet, Ray presented me with a single red rose. Somehow his gesture broke through my defenses and opened my heart to the possibility of loving again. Founded on friendship and undergirded by faith and shared values, our relationship blossomed.

Paying homage to that initial flower, I carried a red rose with a sprig of baby’s breath and some greenery when Ray and I got married two years later; this despite the florist’s protestations that the bridesmaids’ bouquets cost more than mine. Over the years that followed, Ray often gave me a single red rose for my birthday, our anniversary, and other special occasions, hearkening back to the first one and what it meant to us.

010The last birthday Ray spent with me was no different. When I came home from work that night, he had adorned the kitchen with roses – miniature pink ones for our daughters and a dozen yellow ones for me. And, amidst those beauties, a single red one. Ray also gave me an exquisite pin – a delicate red rose on a gold stem. I still marvel at this gift in light of the fact he died precisely four months later. Ray didn’t know he wouldn’t be around to purchase single red roses on birthdays yet to come, but God did. I believe He somehow nudged Ray to give me the pin I now wear each year on my birthday.

Love Never Ends

When Ray died, I took a single red rose to the funeral home and asked the funeral director to place it in his hands for me. It seemed a fitting close to our tradition, at least for now. Sometimes I think about what it will be like when I finally get to see Ray again. Might he have that rose in his hands, ready to give it back to me? After all, nothing’s impossible for God. Yet rose or no rose, I’m confident the longed-for reunion will take place. Ray and I will spend eternity together worshipping and praising our great Redeemer because God didn’t give up on His people. He loved us so much, He sent His only Son to die for us, that we might live with Him forever (John 3:16).

What a blessing to know that nothing can separate us from the love of God – neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (Romans 8:38-39).

I sometimes buy a single red rose for myself “from Ray” on special occasions, and I gratefully remember the gift of unconditional love that persists beyond the grave (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a).

Dear Lord, thank You for loving us so much that You sent Jesus to die for us. We can’t fully fathom the height, depth, breadth, and width of Your great love, Lord, but we are grateful for the glimpses You give us in our relationships with others who love us unconditionally.

[1] https://www.proplants.com/blog/history-and-meaning-behind-red-roses, ProFlowers Blog, “History and Meaning Behind Red Roses”, January 18, 2017.

A Book Is Born

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Dear Readers,

It is with great joy that I announce my first book, Be Still, Quiet Moments With God in My Garden, went live on Amazon this morning. I want to write something profound about the process and journey of getting to this point, but I’m feeling so overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude that God has allowed me to fulfill this dream that I can’t get the words to line up in my mind or on the page. There’s just a happy jumble of thoughts and emotions tumbling around in my heart as tears of amazement well up repeatedly and blur my vision.

So, for now, I’ll share the author’s note from the book and say a sincere, “Thank you!” to all of you who’ve read my blog posts, encouraged me to keep writing, and prayed for me as I labored over Be Still. I pray the Lord will use my stories and my efforts for His glory.

Blessings to you and yours as we enter into this Advent season.

Author’s Note

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

Scattered. A word I often use to describe my thoughts, my activities, and my days. Numerous distractions and responsibilities vie for attention. They scramble my mind and weary my soul. But there’s a place I can turn to for solace, a place where I spend some of my sweetest times with the Lord – my garden. There I’m reminded of the first garden and the promise of a new, redeemed garden. I see Jesus’ parables come to life as I observe the flowers and birds, the seasons and soils. My spirit soars as I behold God’s tremendous power, yet is quieted by the assurance that the One who cares for all creation also cares for me.

Several years ago, the lessons I’ve learned in my garden met up with my love of writing, and I began a blog, Back 2 the Garden (patsykuipers.com). I longed to share what God had been teaching me and to tell others of His great love and faithfulness.

As my portfolio of stories grew, so did the dream to compile them into a book, something that will be around for my children and grandchildren even after my blog and I are not.  Five years in the making, Be Still is the fulfillment of that dream.

I’ve arranged the 35 devotional readings in Be Still in five categories, with distinct yet intertwined themes:

  • Glimpses of Glory – evidence of God’s love all around us
  • The Benevolent Gardener – God’s protection and provision
  • Planted Together – principles for life-giving relationships
  • Cultivating Holiness – disciplines of spiritual growth
  • Transformation – God’s work of sanctification

Each entry begins with a passage from the Bible and ends with a brief prayer. In between, you’ll find the timeless truths of Scripture wrapped in simple stories. I pray they will encourage you to slow down and open your eyes to the wonders all around us, to be still and draw near to God.

Good Gifts

My friend could scarcely contain her excitement as she said, “Be sure to see me after church. I have something for you. It has your name written all over it!”

083Her statement piqued my curiosity and nudged a long-ago, gift-related memory from the recesses of my mind. The recollection tempered my enthusiasm as I wondered which traits I’d projected to inspire this perfect gift. Much to my relief, the beautiful bookends my friend joyfully presented after the worship service reflected my love of gardening and reading.

080So what about the memory? Two small, resin snapping turtles, a Mother’s Day gift from my then-elementary-aged daughters. Snapping turtles! To this day, some 25 years later, my daughters declare they thought the scary critters were cute. Cute?! Maybe it was my late husband’s barely-suppressed grin or my insecurities as a busy, often-tired mom, but no amount of explaining could convince me the turtles weren’t a commentary on my character flaws.

God’s Gifts

God is the supreme gift-giver. There’s no hiding our selves or our sins from Him. We deserve condemnation from One so holy, yet from the beginning He determined to give us the gift we needed most – salvation. As soon as Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit their eyes were opened to the reality of their condition. They tried to hide, just as we do. But God came to the garden as usual and promised the seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3).

Jesus fulfilled that promise by living a life of perfect obedience, taking our sins upon himself, enduring God’s wrath on the cross, dying, and being raised again to eternal life (Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

In addition, Jesus promised his distraught disciples He wouldn’t leave them as orphans. He’d send a Helper (John 14:18, 25-26). The Holy Spirit came bearing specially-selected gifts. He empowers us to accomplish the good works prepared for us, not for personal glory, but for the building up of the body of believers to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 12).

Reflecting His Goodness

But there’s more. As we abide in Christ, we’ll produce good fruit in keeping with our salvation – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control – which in turn reflects His goodness to others (Galatians 5:22-23a).

A dear friend gave me just such a gift when she asked if she could walk my garden with me. She knows, as most of you longtime readers do, that my garden is a refuge, a place of peaceful times with the Lord. Restrictions associated with COVID-19 have kept me home much more than usual the past two months. I’ve spent many happy hours trimming, weeding, and planting. Nonetheless, there are unsightly patches dotting my 1/3 acre, where weeds abound or poison ivy is winding its way around tree trunks.

Even so, my friend commented repeatedly on how beautiful it was and that she could see I’d worked hard to make it so. Reflecting on our stroll later, I realized this is exactly what she’s done across the years of our friendship. As one of my closest confidants, she’s seen me entangled in vines sprung from seeds I should never have sown and has prayerfully cheered me on as I sought to remove briars impeding my spiritual journey. She’s reminded me who I am in Christ and has never made me feel less than beautiful, even when I struggled to see beyond the weeds.

Isn’t that what God does? As long as we’re in the flesh we’ll battle our sin nature, but when God looks at us, He sees us robed in the perfect righteousness of His Son. What an amazing gift! Furthermore, we don’t battle alone. Not only is the power of the Spirit at work within us, conforming us more and more to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), but God also graciously provides fellow believers to come alongside us on our journey.

Perhaps it’s time for me to accept my daughters’ explanation of their long-ago gift. Maybe they did look past the menacing mouths of those tiny turtles and saw the cuteness of their size, just like they looked past my moments of fatigue and impatience and saw my heart full of love for them.

O Lord, please help us to love others well and to reflect your goodness to those who we come in contact with that they might long to know Jesus, the greatest gift ever given.

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.”