Count it all Joy

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

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

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

Joy? Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never alone – Reprise

Dear Readers,

I pray you’re finding ways to stay connected during this time of social distancing. Though technology can sometimes be intrusive, I’m grateful to live in an age when there are so many options available to keep in touch. 057While Grammie Mondays and Wednesdays are temporarily suspended, FaceTime allows me to visit with my grandchildren, though I’m just as likely to see a knee or the floor as they wiggle and giggle in and out of view. Mom and I logged on to Facebook Live for last night’s church service. I start most of my days listening to a podcast or two. Phone calls, e-mails, texts throughout the day keep me attached.

But oh how I miss the hugs and being in each other’s presence. Thus gathering with my neighbors for another Sunday afternoon session of worshipful singing yesterday was a special blessing. No hugs, of course, as we kept the prescribed distance. Even so, raising our voices together in song, prayer, and cheerful banter lifted my spirits in ways virtual visits can’t.

055I awoke to brilliant sunshine this morning, with one of the hymns we sang yesterday playing in my mind. I’ve hummed snippets of “Because He Lives” sporadically ever since, thankful to belong to the Lord of all, thankful to be sheltering in place surrounded by fellow believers. So I dedicate this post, a slightly-modified version of one I first published in June 2018, to them. I pray it will encourage you to look up and reach out during these unprecedented times.

* * * * *

Later this month, I’ll mark the 26th anniversary of my family’s move to Georgia. My tenure in the home my late husband Ray and I chose as our “raise-the-kids” house will then surpass by a decade my second-longest-term abode, the house I grew up in. Neighbors have come and gone over the years and I’ve watched several crops of children, including my own dear daughters, grow up. Currently, the homes around my cul-de-sac are filled with a pleasant mix of young families and empty-nesters.

IMG_6001I was working in my garden one recent afternoon, when my youngest neighbor, sweet-spirited Sadie, paid me a visit. We were chatting about flowers and butterflies and bumblebees when she suddenly asked, “Do you have a husband?” I replied, “I used to, but he’s already in heaven. He planted a lot of my trees. That’s why I love them so much.” As I watched, belatedly realizing I’d given a much-too-detailed reply to her simple question, her countenance was overshadowed by pensive consternation. Nonetheless, before I had a chance to offer up something more appropriate, Sadie’s expression brightened once again as she assured me, “But you’re not alone! You have lots of people around you!” I immediately followed up with, “You’re right! I have such good neighbors.”

With this, we took turns naming all the folks who live around us. Sadie finished the list, “And Sophie!” Yes, the boisterous ball of fluffy white fur, canine companion to our newest neighbors, is an essential part of the mix. With our conversation thus concluded, Sadie skipped across the street and up her driveway, ponytail swinging side to side with each hop.

I’ve reflected on our exchange several times since. It was such a life-giving reminder of the blessing of community. Created in the image of our Triune God, we are meant to live in relationship with Him and others. Early on, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Although the Genesis account refers specifically to Adam’s need of a suitable helpmate (wife), it’s also clear the animals couldn’t provide the requisite companionship fellow human beings could (Genesis 2:18-23). People need people. We’re not meant to navigate life alone.

Sometimes it’s tempting to try, especially if you’re an introvert or an I-can-handle-this-myself type. Or maybe you figure everyone else is busy with their own responsibilities and you don’t want to be a bother. Or perhaps you’ve gotten your feelings hurt one time too many and decided to withdraw. (Please note: each of these scenarios has applied to me at some point in my life and most likely will again!) Whatever your rationale might be, Scripture is full of passages on the importance of relationships as well as how to treat each other. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves, to consider others’ needs before our own, to share and forgive and encourage (Matthew 22:39; Philippians 2:3-4; Luke 6:37-38).

In addition to our biological families, those who belong to God are part of a spiritual family, with unique benefits and obligations. For example:

  • The Apostle Paul says believers form the Body of Christ on earth, with each having a specific role, just as the various parts of our physical bodies have a critical part in keeping us healthy and alive. We are called to use our gifts and abilities to benefit others and to refrain from comparing ourselves to our brothers and sisters whose gifts and abilities are different (1 Corinthians 12).
  • We’ve been adopted into the very family of God and are being conformed more and more to the image of our elder Brother, Jesus, the firstborn Son (Ephesians 1:3-5; Romans 8:29). We are assured of an eternal inheritance and an eternal Home (1 Peter 1:3-5; John 14:2-3).
  • Though spending time with God individually is essential to our spiritual growth and transformation, Hebrews 10:24-25 clearly states the necessity of corporate worship: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
  • James instructed believers to pray for one another while Paul admonished believers to pray without ceasing (James 5:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Such supplications can unite us, even when we’re unable to be together physically (Romans 15:30-32). Furthermore, Scripture tells us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who’ve gone before us, persevering in the faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). [1]
  • We are blessed with the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and counsel us (John 14:15-17, 25-26). Apart from this divine Helper, we’d have no hope of pleasing God; with Him, our sanctification and, ultimately, our glorification, are ensured (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Family and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, a loving Father, a selfless older Brother, the indwelling Spirit – sweet Sadie was so right. I’m not alone!

* * * * *

O Lord, how I thank You for the blessing of relationships and for your promise to never leave or forsake us. Please help us to be ever-mindful of your presence during this time of social distancing and potential isolation. And may we reach out to others with the love You’ve lavished upon us, using the amazing array of options available to do so.

 

[1] Note: This passage begins with “Therefore”, referring back to the long list of bygone saints who lived by faith.

It is Well

Last week, a friend posted he needed a villain worthy of the heroine in the novel he’s working on. Not any villain would do since the heroine is possibly the best he’s ever created. I almost commented, “How about a villainous virus?” In light of all that’s transpired in the days-that-seem-like-weeks since, I’m glad I didn’t share my attempt at humor.

Preventive measures ramped up quickly, as it became apparent the coronavirus spreads exponentially.  The avalanche of precautionary decisions wiped out rights-of-spring sporting events like March Madness and the Masters, closed schools for the foreseeable future, and led to the cancellation of myriad other events. Our governor declared a healthcare state of emergency, a first in the history of Georgia.

And, just like that, normal as we knew it disappeared.

As the dominoes kept falling, an underlying sense of sadness crept into my soul. I’d felt it before, in the wake of 9/11, when our nation came to a standstill, dazed by the vicious attack. Fear and uncertainty veiled our country then as it does now. Activities and freedoms so integral to our national psyche that they’re taken for granted, ground to a halt. No telling how long the threat might last or what kind of havoc it will wreak in the meantime.

A different perspective

Scripture refers to us as dust and grass, finite creatures, yet precious to the Creator who has great compassion for us (Psalm 103:13-16). He understands our fears and frailties and encourages us to keep our eyes fixed on things above, eternal things, for what is seen is temporary (2 Corinthians 4:18).

No stranger to sudden changes and unexpected loss, I’ve turned repeatedly to those unseen things this week, finding consolation and reassurance as I have in the past. In that spirit, I offer the following somewhat-random observations, not to be dismissive of anyone’s concerns, but as a reminder of our Father’s loving oversight. I pray one or more of these analogies and assurances will comfort your heart as they’ve been comforting mine:

  • No frenzied rush to the grocery store for me. I didn’t need much anyway and stuck to my usual grocery-buying schedule. Almost-bare shelves greeted me in nearly every aisle and there was no loaf bread or milk to be found. So much for my measured approach. Back at home unloading the meager provisions I managed to procure, I remembered Jesus’ references to Himself as the Bread of Life and the Spring of living water (John 6:35; John 4:10; 13-14). We have a Source of spiritual sustenance and refreshment that will never be depleted.
  • Last week’s stock market volatility was enough to make even the most ardent thrill-seeker queasy. But we’re told to store up treasures in heaven, out of reach of earthly threats (Matthew 6:19-21). Furthermore, we have an eternal inheritance, guaranteed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:14) and the immeasurable riches of God’s grace toward us in Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).
  • I frequently gaze out my kitchen windows at the birds flocked around the various feeders I provide for them. Watching them the other day, I thought how carefree they seemed, going about their bird business – finding mates, building nests, eating copious amounts of seed –  oblivious to COVID-19. img_2837Similar thoughts accompanied me as I strolled my woods exclaiming over the latest plant finds. Jesus’ declaration that we need not worry because the God who cares for the birds and the lilies will watch over His beloved children, who are much more precious, is among my most cherished (Matthew 6:25-34). It’s also one of the reasons I find so much solace in my garden since I see the truth of His statement played out repeatedly.
  • img_2754You may argue that the birds and flowers aren’t capable of worrying since they don’t know what we know or reason as we reason. But God says the same about us. Even though we’re created in His image, His ways and His thoughts are higher than ours, beyond our finite minds (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is Sovereign. We aren’t. And it often takes events that are obviously out of our control to remind us, even though every breath we take is a gift from God.
  • Satan is the arch-villain who came to kill, steal, and destroy. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down His life for the sheep that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10-11). No matter what befalls us, our eternal destiny is secure. No one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand and nothing can separate us from His love (John 10:29; Romans 8:38-39).

As we go through these next days and weeks, may we rest in all we know about God’s character, His goodness and mercy toward all His creatures.

Father, how I thank You for your lovingkindness and sufficient grace which allow us to say, “It is well with my soul”, regardless of our circumstances. You are our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. We have nothing to fear.

Love Never Ends

February 14th. Valentine’s Day. One of several days throughout the year when I have to take myself in hand and preach truth to myself even more so than usual. Father’s Day, my late husband’s birthday, our would-be wedding anniversary, the day God called Ray Home. Difficult days when I’m tempted to question God’s goodness; to wonder why He wrote my beloved spouse’s too-soon-for-me departure into our story.

The sunshine streaming through my windows this morning provided a stark contrast to my mood. No card, no flowers, no warm embrace from my forever love. Everything in me wanted to ignore the holiday. Well, almost everything. Whispers of truth made their way through the silent, solitary morning moments, “You’re not alone. Reach out.”

I sent a few texts, their content more cheerful than my prevailing state of mind. Soon my phone began to ping notifying me of incoming replies, most bedecked with emoji hearts and hugs:

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my friend!”

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you as well! I am thankful today for friends and family! Love to you today!”

“’The Lord has appeared of old unto me, saying, ‘Yea, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you.’ Jeremiah 31:3 . . . Praying this will minister to you.”

Gratitude, love, the Word of the Lord – potent antidotes for sorrow, doubt, and self-pity. They provided the traction I needed to extricate myself from the emotional quagmire I was languishing in. Back on solid footing, I redirected my thoughts.

img_2626-1I’m thankful for the time Ray and I spent together. I’d rather have been married to him for 13 years than not at all. The last card he gave me was a Valentine card. Unlike other memorabilia tucked away in various boxes and file folders, it resides in a special spot on my bookshelf. Lost in my reverie, I retrieved it from its slot and reverently removed it from its well-worn envelope. After savoring the sentiments within, I placed it on the edge of my dining room table which also serves as my desk. There, alongside other tangible reminders of loved ones, it radiated a message of glowing encouragement.

When I first read the words some 23 years ago I asked Ray if he truly felt that way about me. I didn’t see much of myself in the card’s lofty ideals which reference the Proverbs 31 woman. He didn’t hesitate before confirming the message rang true. What a gift to be able to see someone’s potential in the Lord, wherever they may be in the life-long process of sanctification, and then graciously point it out to them.

God used Ray’s unconditional love to show His love for me throughout our marriage. What a blessing to read the words contained in that final card all these years later and hear Ray’s resounding affirmation.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

With my thoughts on a decidedly-positive trajectory, I pondered some things our pastor pointed out during last night’s study of the Westminster Confession of Faith: God is pleased to reveal Himself to us in His Word. He desires intimacy with His people. The Bible is a living document, God’s direct link with us. When we read our Bibles we should imagine God smiling at us because He loves us.

Isn’t that amazing?!!

And now here I sit, joyfully overwhelmed by God’s great love, with so many pertinent passages running through my mind, I don’t know how to end this post. Likewise, I don’t know how you’re feeling on this Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Maybe, like me, you’re yearning for a loved one who’s no longer with you. Then again, you may have a special date planned with your sweetie. Regardless, I pray the following Scriptures will cause your heart to rejoice as you remember the One who loves His children with a love that never ends (Psalm 100:5). To Him be all praise, honor, and glory!

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).

For I am convinced that 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8a, 13).

And the next time you’re feeling down or doubting God’s goodness, remember Martyn Lloyd- Jones admonition:

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

 

Sibling Rivalry

In my post, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” (see Archives, December 2019), I shared some thoughts from the devotion I presented at our women’s Christmas brunch. In writing that piece, I focused primarily on the good tidings of God’s promise to be with us: “I will be your God; you will be my people; I will dwell among you.”  Today I turn my attention to the other half of the message I delivered to the women in attendance.

Scripture is full of precious promises of God’s presence. Yet too often the noise and busyness of the world drown out the tidings of comfort and joy associated with God’s assurances. Or Satan tempts us to doubt. “Where’s God now?” he taunts. “Did He really say He wouldn’t leave you? Ever??”

Though His presence is sufficient, God didn’t intend for us to go it alone. Created in His image, we’re relational beings. Having been adopted into His family, we have spiritual brothers and sisters to remind us of truth, to testify to His faithfulness, and to be His hands and feet as we minister to one another.

045My baby sister barely reached 8 months of age, hence I grew up an only child with no sibling rivalry and no one to bicker with. But I saw plenty of both as I raised my daughters and now witness more of the same as I spend time with my grandchildren.

“Mine!”

“Me first!!”

“I was playing with that!!!”

Sound familiar?

Sadly, similar rivalries and bickering occur in the family of God. Remember the mother who asked Jesus if her sons could be seated next to Him in heaven, one on His left, the other on His right? Talk about a bold request! (Matthew 20:20-28) Then there were the disciples Jesus caught arguing about who would be the greatest. (Luke 22:24-27) Our presumptions may be more subtle, but they’re there, remnants of our sinful nature that won’t be fully eradicated until we’re called Home.

In the instances cited, Jesus made it clear the world’s definition of greatness didn’t apply to His disciples. Instead of exalting themselves, they were to follow His example by humbly serving others.

But God’s directives regarding His children’s interactions don’t stop there.  Scripture contains numerous passages expressing God’s will for our dealings with one another. Consider this one from Colossians:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

With our elder Brother as our example, we’re told to forgive one another, to be compassionate and kind, and most importantly, to love one another. In fact, Jesus commanded us to love one another so well that it sets us apart. If we do, it will make others notice (John 13:34-35). Even better, it may make them long to be part of God’s family.

During a recent visit, one of the missionaries our church supports described such a scenario. He became acquainted with a shopkeeper in the country where he and his wife serve and invited him to church. The shopkeeper accepted his invitation because he knew him to be a “nice” person. Even so, he was unprepared to meet a church full of “nice” people.  Wonderment at the tangible difference he observed provided an opportunity for the missionary to explain the why behind the behavior.

I put “nice” in quotes because as believers we know apart from Christ, even our best deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We’re utterly incapable of conducting ourselves according to the Lord’s commands. But, praise God, His promise to be with us includes sending the Holy Spirit to remind us of Jesus’ teachings, to help us want to obey, and to enable us to do so (John 14:16, 26; Philippians 2:13), albeit imperfectly until we’re ushered into heaven.

044My sister’s death left an empty spot, a life-long yearning to have been able to grow up and grow old with her. In spite of my daughters’ and grandchildren’s childhood squabbling, they’re family, forever part of each other. And so it is in God’s family as He knits our hearts and lives together in love.

O, Lord, thank You for not only promising to never leave us or forsake us, but for also giving us each other, brothers and sisters in Christ. Please help us to follow our elder Brother’s example of putting others’ interests before our own, setting aside all rivalries and jealousy, loving and forgiving as He loves and forgives us. In so doing, may we draw others to You, ever ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

 

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

IMG_2338I don’t know about you, but in spite of my best intentions to remain calm and focused on the real reason for the season, I unravel at some point in December. I experience inevitable episodes of middle-of-the-night sleeplessness wondering if I’ll ever get everything done in time. Similarly-distressing thoughts creep into my waking hours. My and my granddaughter’s back-to-back birthdays less than a week before Christmas add to the myriad festivities and to-dos. However, it also means there’s lots of shared joy and family time.

And so I’ve fixed myself a cup of tea, warmed up some breakfast bread, and silenced my phone. Even though my kitchen looks like an Amazon delivery van collided with a Kroger truck, it’s time for a reset. I hope you’ll join me as I revisit some reflections from a brief devotional I prepared for our women’s Christmas brunch earlier this month.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:10-11

The news of great joy contained in the angels’ message to the frightened shepherds allows us to extend tidings of comfort and joy to others and ourselves. Generations upon generations before that night in Bethlehem, God made a covenant with His people: I will be your God, you will be my people, I will dwell with you (Exodus 29:45-46; 1 Peter 2:9-10).

Let that sink in a minute. The Almighty, Everlasting God, complete in Himself, not lacking anything, nonetheless chose a people for Himself and promised to dwell among them. How amazing!

Even though the faithful followers in Old Testament times believed His promises, they never could have imagined how He’d carry out His plan. For in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, bringing Light to a dark, dark world (John 1:1-5).

The second Person of the Trinity humbled himself, not counting equality with God something to be grasped (Philippians 2:5-8). The tiny baby born in a manger grew into a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and took our sins upon Himself (Isaiah 53:3-6) – fully God and fully man. A mystery our finite minds can’t comprehend, but one that gives us hope for the present and assurance of eternity.

Jesus’ disciples were troubled when He told them the time was drawing near for Him to depart. Yet He declared it would be even better because He would send the Holy Spirit – the Helper, Counselor, and Comforter – to remind us of all He’d said. God not only with us, but in us! (John 14:16-17; 26)

Furthermore, Jesus assured us He’d prepare a place for us and return to take us to our IMG_2337forever Home (John 14:2-3). The Apostle Paul wrote: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even death (Romans 8:38-39). In fact, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Emmanuel, God with us, from first breath to last and into eternity – tidings of great joy indeed.

* * * * *

I wish you a merry, Christ-centered Christmas, dear readers! As my friend Karen Hodge often says after a podcast[1], I hope you’ll find some encouraging nugget in this post. Tuck it in your heart and return to it in these final days before Christmas whenever you need to quiet your spirit and refocus on the greatest Gift ever given.

 

[1] Karen Hodge serves as Co-ordinator for Women’s Ministry for the Christian Discipleship Ministry of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). One of the ways she helps connect women to resources is by hosting the weekly enCourage podcast.

One-on-one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hide and seek

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

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

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

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

Child’s play?

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

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

Shame or guilt?

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

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

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

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

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

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

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

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

Becoming a safe place

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

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

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

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

 

A nestful of hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Encourage one another

(This is the promised continuation of my last post, “Through the night”.)

More prayer preceded my call to ICU the next morning. My heart rate increased as I waited for the nurse’s update, only to hear, “She’s not here.” What?! Not there?? I’m sure only moments passed until she added, “She’s still in the ED”, but it was plenty long enough for a panic-laden “Mom died and they didn’t call me?!” to pierce my racing heart. Instead, her condition had improved over-night and they were going to move her to a regular room.

“THANK YOU, LORD!!” I instantly recognized God had graciously heard the prayers of His people on Mom’s behalf. It wasn’t the first time I experienced the palpable power of prayer.

Mom suffered a heart attack the week after Christmas, 2010 while strolling through the neighborhood with my dad. They spent the night in cardiac ICU as Mom awaited a heart catheterization the next afternoon. When I arrived at the hospital to relieve my exhausted father, I assured him I’d be Mom’s responsible person so he could go home to rest. My “I’ve-got-this” confidence would soon dissipate like mist blown by the wind.

The image of the attendants who rolled Mom out of the testing area is imprinted on my mind. Stationed one on either end of the gurney, they gazed down, refusing to meet my eyes after saying the doctor would be out to talk to me. A niggling sense of concern began to infiltrate my optimistic expectations.

The doctor delivered the sucker punch moments later: “We have a life-threatening situation here. Your mother has three blocked arteries – one 90%, one 80% and one 70%. We’re going to start prepping her for surgery immediately so she’ll be ready as soon as an operating room becomes available.”

My mind struggled to accept this verdict. “Wait! Surely there must be a mistake. I’m here alone!!” The techs’ immediate response as they whisked Mom away dispelled any lingering doubt. In the midst of my turmoil, God’s still quiet voice reminded me Mom and I weren’t alone at all. I may have been undone by the news of Mom’s condition, but it hadn’t surprised Him.

In spite of the Spirit’s timely nudge, I knew I needed some of my people with me. Any attempt to steady my voice as I called daughter Mary and asked her to bring my dad to the hospital vanished when she answered. Like a child who scrapes her knee and bravely holds back the tears until she reaches home and the consolation of her mother, I poured out the details, urging Mary to come quickly.

Mom and I were able to spend a few minutes together before they wheeled her into the OR. I prayed, I held her hand, I told her she was the best mom I could have ever hoped for. And then I watched, desolate, as the doors closed behind her and her attendants, wondering if we’d shared our last moments in this life.

grace logoI trudged to the waiting room and slumped into a seat, longing for the arrival of my family. But I knew there were other reinforcements to call on – our church family. Almost as soon as I sent the prayer request e-mail, I heard a chime alerting me to an incoming message. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, our prayer chain coordinator forwarded my note to the congregation as soon as she received it.

The taunting fears echoing through my mind since I heard the results of the heart cath fell silent. My family’s physical presence was imminent and God’s people were praying as He sovereignly watched over Mom and guided the surgeons’ hands.

I wrote in recent posts, “Preach to yourself” and “Through the night”, how essential it is for us to remind ourselves of all we know about God – His character, promises, assurances, faithfulness, love, goodness.[1] Nonetheless, we’re not meant to navigate this world alone. We are relational beings, like the Triune God who created us in His image. (Genesis 1:26) As such, Scripture tells us to:

  • rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)
  • comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from the God of all comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
  • pray for one another (Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16)
  • bear one another’s burdens. (Galatians 6:2)
  • stir one another up to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:24)
  • encourage each other. (Hebrews 10:25)

There are times when the road becomes steep, the journey difficult; times when healing doesn’t come and death does. Jesus told us we would have troubles in this world (John 16:33), but He promised to never leave us (Matthew 28:20) and sent His Spirit to comfort us. (John 14:16, 26) Furthermore, He adopted us into His family, a family full of brothers and sisters, so we might mutually encourage and assist each other as we make our way Home.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

O, Lord, please help us to be faithful comforters, encouragers and prayer warriors!

 

Epilogue: During my annual reminiscences surrounding my husband’s death in 1997, I came across this notation in my journal: “This has been the most difficult week of my entire life, but I can honestly say I’ve never felt more loved. Lord, thank you for loving me through so many people.” Since I started working on this post several days ago, my brother-in-law David passed away. My prayer is that his family will be able to say the same, as they feel the love of God surrounding them in the prayers and presence of His people.

[1] See Archives April 4, 2019 and May 9, 2019 respectively.