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.

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.”

Purposeful Pondering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks, Mom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longing for Egypt

A recent devotional reading directed me to one of several Old Testament instances of God’s chosen people grumbling against Moses and Aaron. But, ultimately, their protests were against the Lord himself. The particular passage in Exodus recounts how the Israelites complained about not having anything to eat. This, as you may recall, occurred soon after God’s gracious provision of water from a rock in response to their grievance regarding thirst. (Exodus 15:23-25) The grumbling escalated to the point that they lamented the fact they’d ever left Egypt. “If we had only died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”, they moaned. (Exodus 16:3)

To listen to their description, you’d think they’d been on an extended vacation. Had they so quickly forgotten God delivered them not from some idyllic existence, but from slavery?

IMG_6094 (2)Our pastor has been preaching through the book of Exodus. The events recorded in the second book of the Bible – the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments – have been part of my Biblical knowledge for as long as I can remember, dating back to my childhood Sunday school classes. Nevertheless, this ongoing sermon series has yielded a number of thought-provoking insights for now-grown-up me to ponder.

Consider for example: When the people initially cried out to God, they were seeking relief, not rescue. (Exodus 2:23) By then, they’d been in Egypt 400 years and had grown accustomed to that culture. It felt like home. In fact, they even worshiped Egyptian gods.[1] The Israelites were focused on their day-to-day existence, just hoping conditions would improve. But God took note of the darkness of their spiritual condition. He knew He had to not only get his people out of Egypt; He had to get Egypt out of them.[2]

God initiated their deliverance. Indeed, He initiates the deliverance of every one of his children.[3] For until He calls us, we remain dead in our trespasses, unable to save ourselves or to even realize our need of salvation. (Ephesians 2:1-9) Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf frees us from the penalty of sin – God’s wrath and eternal separation from Him – as well as sin’s ultimate pull and power as we navigate life in a world that’s no more our Home than Egypt was home to those God freed from Pharaoh.

Nonetheless, as long as we’re in the flesh, surrounded by worldly influences without and our own not-yet-perfected desires within, we will struggle to do what’s right. The Apostle Paul outlines the ongoing battle well in Romans 7:18-20. God and sin both promise us joy, peace, and happiness, but sin lies. And it fights back with a vengeance when we try to get free.[4]

It’s so easy for us to read the accounts in Exodus and think, “What was wrong with those people?” They saw God do mighty miracles on their behalf, they heard his voice (Exodus 19:9, 16-19), they ate food He rained down from heaven (Exodus 16:4-36), yet they grumbled and complained and even longed for Egypt. But, sadly, we are capable of the same amnesia, grumbling and self-deceit when it comes to forgetting our helpless, hopeless estate apart from God, how vulnerable we are to temptation.

God, in his mercy, provides a way out when we’re tempted. (1 Corinthians 10:13) Even so, there are times when we turn away from the offered escape, rationalizing some sort of exemption for ourselves, yet knowing there are no such exemptions. It is then that our loving Father disciplines us, allowing consequences of our actions to chasten us and draw us back to himself. (Hebrews 12:5-11) The Spirit contends within us, reminding us Who we belong to, who we are called to be. My own times of wandering have convinced me that unless I live a life that satisfies God, I will not live a life which satisfies myself.[5] Obeying, loving and glorifying Him are to be my primary purpose, now and forever.

Just like the Israelites, we’re apt to forget or downplay distasteful aspects of our past. A wise counselor recommended I record the hardships I endured during a difficult situation some years ago. She advised, “In time you’ll forget how bad it was. Write down specific events, so you can look back and be reminded of the reality.” And so I did. And many are the times I’ve read what I recorded. Psalm 40:1-3 became my refrain: I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.

O, Lord, throughout history, You’ve told your people to set up memorials, (Joshua 4:1-24), to observe days of remembrance, to recall your great mercies. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)[6] May we never forget how lost we were before You found us and may we ever praise You for your daily protection and provision as You faithfully lead us Home.

[1] “The God Who Knows”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, January 28, 2018.

[2] “Throwing Down the Gauntlet”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, February 25, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Throwing Down the Gauntlet, Part II”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, March 11, 2018.

[5] Arthur Bennett, “The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions”, p. 161, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1975.

[6] The sacrament of Communion is one of our most important ways of remembering Jesus and his atoning sacrifice.

No fit pitchin’

I bet it’s happened to you. You’ll read a passage of Scripture, one you’ve scanned countless times before, and the Spirit will point out something you hadn’t noticed previously. Not surprising, since God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.[1]

Such was the case when I was asked to prepare a devotion on Philippians 4:11. I suppose I’d always focused on Paul’s ability to be content in whatever situation he found himself in, but this time, “I have learned” caught my attention. The fact Paul had to learn how to be content implies contentment isn’t a natural state for us.

If we have any doubt about that, we need look no further than our children. Even if I’d forgotten the clashes and complaints of my own dear, now-adult daughters, I spend time with my beloved grandchildren, ages 2, 4 and 6, on a regular basis. Just the other day, all three were howling over the same orange ball. Said item held no interest whatsoever until one chose to play with it, whereupon it became the only toy worth having. This, even though there were dozens of other options to choose from.

Likewise, protests can erupt over perceived parental partiality, different foods touching on the dinner plate and being asked to come inside on a pretty day. As they get older, our offspring often chafe under our rules. Stakes are higher as peer pressure sets in and they become more aware of status associated with material belongings.

To be sure, I’m not saying dissatisfaction is only an issue for the young. We know contentment is just as tenuous and elusive for adults, if not more so. Frequently, we  strive to  fulfill not only our own needs, desires and expectations, but also those of our significant others – spouses, parents, children, friends. Too often we seek fulfillment in circumstances, relationships, accomplishments and/or possessions. But circumstances change, sometimes quickly, possessions lose their luster as the next best thing comes along and relationships can be stressful, especially if we’re people pleasers.

If we think of contentment as a first cousin to joy and peace, which are fruits of the Spirit,[2] we begin to see it isn’t a result of externals at all, but a reflection of our internal state. Neither is contentment an emotion. In one of his sermons on Philippians, our pastor declared, “Contentment is a state of being, anchored firmly in the confidence that God is sovereignly working out the details of our lives, moment by moment from beginning to end.”[3] That’s why Paul could say he’d learned to be content in any and every situation – the reason for his hope and the guarantee of his well-being, both temporal and eternal, rested in One who never changes.[4]

IMG_5098Faced with the orange-ball debacle, I decided no one would get to play with it. This, of course, resulted in more sobbing and anguished pleas. Eventually my three charges turned their attention to other things and peace prevailed, at least for a while. Mustering all her 2-year-old earnestness, Emma confided something to me. A smile accompanied my comprehension of what I’d missed the first time when she repeated, “No fit pitchin’, Gammie.” “That’s right, Emma. We don’t pitch fits when we don’t get what we want!”

“No fit pitchin’”, a phrase I’ve used innumerable times over the years, first with my daughters and now with my grandchildren. As I thought about the rounds of peace-followed-by-protest we’d cycled through several times that day, I wondered if I try my Father’s patience as much as my little ones try mine. No doubt I do, though my fits take a different form. Regardless of our stage of life, we have times of grumbling, fear and doubt because we’re still in the flesh.[5] That’s one reason we need each other – to remind our fellow sojourners of God’s promises. Indeed, being able to recount more and more examples of God’s faithfulness in my life and the lives of my friends is one of the best benefits of getting older. And it’s a great antidote to fit pitchin’!

Lord, please help us to say with Paul, “I’ve learned in whatever situation I am to be content”, knowing that no matter how many changes or challenges we’re faced with, You never change. You are the same from beginning to end, the Alpha and the Omega,[6] and your promises are trustworthy and true.[7]

 

For further study

The fourth chapter of Philippians holds many clues to the building blocks of the contentment Paul attests to:

  • In verses 4 thru 7 we’re told to rejoice ALWAYS, not to be anxious, to pray with thankfulness, with the promise that in so doing, the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Thankfulness is a key component of contentment, as we recognize and acknowledge all God has already done for us.
  • In verses 8 and 9 Paul encourages his readers to think on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Once again with the attendant benefit, “the God of peace will be with you.” Similarly, 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ, while 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us to keep our eyes fixed not on what is seen, but what is unseen, for the former is passing away and the latter is eternal.
  • When Paul says he’s learned to be content in whatever situation he finds himself, we know his life as an apostle wasn’t an easy one (major understatement). His second letter to the Corinthians details many of the hardships he endured for the Gospel, including beatings, shipwrecks and lack of adequate food and shelter.[8]
  • Nonetheless, in Philippians 4:12 Paul goes on to say, “I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And in verse 13, a favorite of many Christians, Paul shares the “secret”: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Note his use of absolutes: every circumstance, all things.
  • Then finally in verse 19, the assurance that “God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Our loving heavenly Father, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and sent his precious Son to die for us has promised to meet all our needs.

 

[1] Hebrews 4:12

[2] Galatians 5:22-23

[3] Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant PCA, Dallas, GA, sermon “The Secret of Contentment, July, 17, 2016

[4] Hebrews 13:8

[5] Psalm 103:13-14

[6] Revelation 22:13

[7] Revelation 21:5

[8] 2 Corinthians 11:24-27

All I’ll ever need

If it’s true that confession is good for the soul, I’ll feel better after I write this. On the other hand, I may just embarrass myself by publicly airing yet another dust moment.[1] Regardless, I pray the following will encourage at least a few of my fellow dusty sojourners.

I was sleeping soundly when my alarm chimed at 5:15am last Saturday morning. After getting a mere five hours of sleep, it would have been understandable if I’d silenced the pesky dinging and snuggled deeper under the covers. Instead, I drug my groggy self out of the warm cocoon. After performing a few minor ablutions, I pulled on several layers of clothes, packed some snacks and ventured out into the dark. I was intent on arriving at daughter Mary’s house by 6am, in time to accompany her to a half-marathon she’d been training for.

As I drove through the pre-dawn stillness, my anticipation intensified. Mary and I see each other several times a week, but are usually surrounded by three little people vying for our attention and so rarely get to enjoy one-on-one time. Not only would the 3-hour round trip give us time to visit, but getting to cheer her on in such an important race would be special in itself. I’ve been attending her races since middle school and our early-morning trek was reminiscent of oh-so-many drives to cross country events and track meets.

The sun rose on a beautiful morning. We made it to the race site at Berry College in time for Mary to easily collect her packet. But I hadn’t eaten breakfast. And I have hypoglycemia. I thought I could drop her off, pick up a breakfast sandwich somewhere and be back in time to cheer her at the start. Nope! Not only was the race location several miles from any fast-food emporiums, but traffic flow had been changed to one-way to accommodate the influx of participants. As I computed these details and realized I’d miss the start even if I could find an alternate way to exit the campus, I opted to eat one of my snacks to stabilize my blood sugar.IMG_7884

It worked! I was able to stroll to the start line with Mary and shout, “Go Mary! You can do this!”, and the like, as she jogged past with the rest of the jostling mass.

She was barely out of sight when my inner whiny-voice began to complain, “Now what am I going to do about breakfast? I wanted to be here for Mary, but I’m going to have to go in search of something to eat.” I even added some version of “Why, Lord?” to my grumbling, as if He’d somehow let me down. As this discouraging mental monologue continued, I spied a number of tents behind the start/finish line. Maybe one would be selling heartier breakfast fare as a fund raiser? I approached the only one that looked promising, the one displaying “Refreshments” on its front flap. I quickly realized the tables were laden with post-race alimentation for the contestants. Thinking the young women staffing the booth might be Berry students, I asked if there was any place on campus to buy food. My assumption was wrong and they weren’t familiar with any possible eateries within walking distance, however, they kindly invited me to choose something from their bounty of bagels and fruit. I thanked them, but confided I was hoping to find some eggs. Upon hearing my plight, one of the young ladies handed me an egg-and-sausage biscuit, probably from the stash meant for the workers. “Feel free to take a bottle of water too,” she added.

In that moment, I’m not sure which was greater, my gratitude or my remorse. I thanked them profusely, then immediately turned my attention to acknowledging the One who ultimately provided that needed nourishment. My gratitude was intertwined with apologies for doubting and a plea for forgiveness, a petition God gently assured me He’d heard as I engaged in prolonged self-castigation.[2]

It’s so easy to read Biblical accounts of the Israelites’ grumblings against God as they wandered in the desert and think, “What was wrong with those people? How could they so easily forget the wonders they’d seen as God delivered them from the Egyptians?”[3] And then God uses my own hangry moments to remind me how easily “O ye of little faith” can become “O me of little faith”, when I allow myriad examples of faithful provision to be overshadowed by immediate circumstances.

In one of my earliest posts,[4] I recounted the epiphany I had one evening while restocking the toilet paper in my daughters’ bathroom closet. In realizing they didn’t have to worry about procuring food and household essentials because I did that for them, it occurred to me that God does the same for me. Everything I’ll ever need is already in his possession and He’ll make it available when I need it. From salvation to sustenance, He’ll not withhold any good thing from those He loves.[5]

I’d looked forward to a great day with Mary. It was more than I asked or imagined[6], as my loving Father used a sausage-and-egg biscuit to remind me, yet again, that He’s always watching over me and knows my every need.[7]

 

 

[1] Psalm 103:13-14 is one of my favorite passages: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers we are dust.” For more on this, please see “Dust moments” in Archives, March 2017.

[2] 1 John 1:9

[3] See, for example Exodus 16:2-3 and Exodus 17:2-3.

[4] Please see, “Thoughts on Romans 8:32”, Archives, August 2014.

[5] Romans 8:32

[6] Ephesians 3:20

[7] Matthew 7:7-11

Through the storm

Unlike tornados that pop up with little advance notice, potential hurricanes can be tracked from their inception as tropical waves off the coast of Africa. Meteorologists keep watch, naming, categorizing and modeling them. And, when conditions merit it, they issue warnings so people in their paths can prepare.

Such was the case last week. As Irma plowed her way through the Caribbean, it became evident her interaction with the tiny islands wouldn’t slow her down. Not only was Irma expected to wreak havoc in Florida, but she was big enough and strong enough to elicit a tropical storm warning for metro Atlanta, several hundred miles north of the point of initial landfall. My Friday-night grocery trek proved more challenging than usual. Lines snaked around the gas pumps outside; inside, the aisles teemed with apprehensive shoppers. Nonetheless, I was able to get all the essentials on my list – except bottled water – and headed home to hunker down.

Like a moth drawn to a flame, I checked the forecast frequently over the weekend, fretfully wondering when we’d feel the brunt of the storm. Finally the models zeroed in on late-afternoon Monday. Sunday evening found me bringing potted plants into the garage, securing outdoor furniture and pondering how many of the trees on my property might still be standing Tuesday. Even though I trust God to work all things together for good[1], I couldn’t completely rid myself of an undercurrent of anxiety. I went to sleep praying for protection for all in the storm’s path.

I awoke Monday, still praying, something I would continue throughout the day.[2] A gentle rain pattered on the roof. An occasional breeze-nudged branch tapped the house. And then I heard them. My bird friends arrived for breakfast as usual. A quick glance at the weather prognostications – no high winds predicted until later in the day – gave me confidence to hang the larger of the two feeders for a few hours. I barely closed the door to the deck before my feathered companions flocked to their meal. Soon I perceived the characteristic call of the woodpecker and returned the suet, his favorite treat, to its hanger.

All day the rain fell, steady showers repeatedly giving way to insistent downpours, as Irma’s blustery remains coursed through our area. In spite of the less-than-favorable conditions, the birds continued to flit from branch to feeder to tree trunk, seemingly oblivious to the circumstances.

I returned repeatedly to the window that overlooks my woods. I suppose I was hoping to somehow will the trees to keep standing with my frequent and fervent gazes, all the while petitioning the only One with the power to keep them upright. As I watched the green canopy sway in the ever-increasing gusts and beheld the unperturbed behavior of the birds, calm pervaded my spirit. The scene before me embodied one of Jesus’ most precious lessons: our Father, who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, will surely sustain his children. Those who trust in Him need not worry about tomorrow.[3]

Many of the storms in our lives aren’t meteorological in nature. They have nothing to do with barometric pressure or wind speed. Broken relationships, unexpected health issues, the death of a loved one. These and other tempests enter our lives, often unexpectedly. Yet nothing ever catches God by surprise and his promise to never leave us or forsake us[4] is certain regardless of the source of the upheaval.

Notwithstanding his assurances, there are times when we concentrate on the storm instead of the One who the wind and rain obey.[5] We’re in good company. Jesus’ disciples feared for their lives when a fierce windstorm descended on the lake they were crossing, even though their Master was asleep in the boat with them.[6] Likewise, Peter’s confident water-walk turned into fearful flailing as his focus shifted from his steadfast Lord to his tenuous circumstances.[7] On both occasions Jesus chided their lack of faith, but He didn’t hesitate to calm the storm-tossed lake or to rescue Peter with an outstretched hand.

IMG_4319The Lord deals with us in much the same way, remembering we are dust, frail creatures who sometimes lose sight of Him amidst our storms. As our compassionate Father, He often sends personally-prepared reassurances of his watchful care. On the day Irma blew through, my reminder came via the unruffled presence of the birds as they fed contentedly. When I strolled my woods several days later, I discovered another special gift. Nestled safely at the base of a towering oak bloomed a tiny cyclamen, unfazed by events earlier in the week.

The One who provides for the sparrows and the lilies graciously sustains us. He bids us to cast our care on Him that we might not be shaken.[8] In confident obedience, may we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, trusting Him to take care of all our tomorrows.[9]

 

[1] Romans 8:28

[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

[3] Matthew 6:25-34

[4] Deuteronomy 31:8; Hebrews 13:5

[5] Luke 8:25

[6] Luke 8:22-24

[7] Matthew 14:22-33

[8] Psalm 55:22

[9] Matthew 6:34

He reigns!

Last week was a trying one personally, nationally and internationally. Too much stress, too much fear, too much shouting. Keeping our eyes fixed on what is above becomes particularly difficult when we’re surrounded by circumstances beyond our control that threaten to overwhelm us. Yet not only are we commanded to fix our eyes on the unseen, we’re told our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.[1] Furthermore, we’re advised to cast all our anxiety on God because He cares for us.[2] In addition, the Apostle Paul’s exhortations to the Philippians (and us) include a directive to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy[3].

As I sought to follow Paul’s advice, I returned to my garden as soon as other responsibilities allowed. Bees buzzed busily in and out of flowers, filling up their pollen pouches. IMG_4178A spikey orange and black gulf fritillary caterpillar munched methodically on a passionflower bud while butterflies flitted around the vine ready to lay the next generation of eggs. Japanese anemone and wood asters displayed the first of their late-summer blooms. Peace began to return to my soul. The One who spoke everything into existence created me in his image.[4] Moreover, He sustains all He’s made[5] and not even a sparrow falls to the ground outside his care.[6]

The next day’s lessons at church brought further encouragement as I was reminded God remains on the throne, no matter what earthly rulers may plan, plot or scheme.[7]

Then yesterday brought with it the solar eclipse. For various reasons, I opted not to travel to an area of totality. Even so, it was plenty-fascinating to watch as the moon crept over the face of the sun. First it took a nibble out of the upper right quadrant, next it reduced the glowing orb to a crescent and finally it eclipsed 97% of its surface from my and daughter Mary’s sight. We marveled at how much light remained in spite of the near-totality of the coverage. IMG_4196I’ve since contemplated the statement in Revelation regarding the new order of things. “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.”[8] How awesome and powerful is our God who will replace the sun with his own glory!

And today I’m writing this post, hoping to encourage you, dear readers[9], while further shoring up my own foundation of truth. One of my favorite quotes is attributable to Welsh pastor, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

“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 downcast? What business do you have 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.”

In addition to the passages already cited and with Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ admonition in mind, I offer the following for further reflection:

The Lord God is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. (Revelation 1:8, Revelation 22:13)

God does not lie or change his mind. He keeps his promises. (Numbers 23:19)

God loved us so much He sent his only Son to die for us that we might not perish in our sins, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

We’ll have trouble in this world. Jesus said as much, but we have the assurance He has overcome the world (John 16:33) and that God is working all things together for good for those who love Him. (Romans 8:28)

Jesus is preparing a place for us and will return to gather his own. (John 14:1-3)

God has promised a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more weeping, the wolf will lie down with the lamb and there will be no more destruction. (Isaiah 65:17-28)

Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39); no one can snatch us out of his hand. (John 10:27-29)

As we await Jesus’ return, may we abide in hope, encouraging ourselves and each other with the truth of his everlasting word.[10] For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.[11]

[1] 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

[2] 1 Peter 5:7

[3] Philippians 4:8

[4] Genesis 1:27

[5] Matthew 6:25-34

[6] Matthew 10:28-31

[7] Psalm 2

[8] Revelation 22:5a

[9] 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13

[10] Isaiah 40:8

[11] 2 Corinthians 1:20

‘Tis so sweet

Probably not the heading you’d expect for a reflection on two decades of widowhood . . . at least not until you complete the title of the cherished hymn, ’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus and recall its first verse: “’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, Just to take Him at His word, Just to rest upon His promise, Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” [1] As I’ve contemplated writing this memorial post, the refrain of that anthem has come to my mind repeatedly: “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er! Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[2]

This time 20 years ago I was in a daze, a protective state of shock. On some level I recognized the need to make decisions regarding my 39-year old husband’s services – visitation, funeral, burial. So many decisions brought about by his sudden death the night before. But more than anything I just felt numb. My thoughts churned. “How could he have gone to work and not come home? Surely he’ll drive up any minute now, won’t he?” My mind and emotions grappled with the surreal situation I found myself in.

It was a Sunday and my house was full as friends came and went all day. Many heard the news at church, where we would normally have spent our morning had the unthinkable not occurred. Visitors came bearing food and encouraged me to eat, but I had no appetite. All I wanted was to be with Ray, to somehow help him, to know he was ok. When I finally got to see him on Tuesday afternoon, the knot in my stomach began to relax. I know that sounds contradictory, but in viewing his lifeless body I knew he was beyond any help I could offer. Furthermore, I was comforted to know his spirit was with the Lord. He was much more than ok. He was Home.[3]

Decisions were made, relatives and out-of-town friends made arrangements to attend the services – visitation Wednesday evening, funeral Thursday morning, burial in North Carolina on Friday afternoon. I can recall the events of that week in vivid detail. The people who gathered around us; prayers so abundant and fervent I could feel them; numerous gestures of support. I remember and am thankful.055

The flurry of activity and visitors eventually subsided and my daughters, ages 10 and 7, and I were left to contend with reality. I don’t recollect how many nights passed before one or more of us didn’t cry ourselves to sleep, how long it was before my subconscious stopped expecting Ray to come home from work, or when a “new normal” finally took hold. The raw pain of loss eventually diminished, but the longing to talk to Ray, to have my wise and loving partner by my side remains to this day.

So much has happened since that warm week in April, the daily ins and outs of life plus birthdays, graduations, weddings and the arrival of grandchildren. These momentous occasions were bittersweet without Ray to share them, but there has been much joy nonetheless.

Because God has never forsaken us![4]

From the second we heard the devastating news in a tiny room at Kennestone hospital to this very moment, God has been a faithful defender of this widow and a Father to her fatherless girls.[5] As I’ve thought about what to write on this 20th anniversary, each hardship that came to mind was met with a “but God”. A few examples: He made it possible for my parents to move to Georgia to help me raise Mary and Jessie, provided friends who’ve faithfully prayed for us and offered other assistance as needed, and he allowed me to be gainfully employed all the years my daughters were dependent upon me and my income. In addition there are the over-and-above gifts, like getting to go back to school to study horticulture.

I’ve often said if there’d been a signup sheet entitled “Get to know God better by losing your Husband”, I wouldn’t have put my name on it. Yet God sovereignly saw fit to add the roles of widow and single parent to my resumé. I have no doubt I’ve come to know him far better than if I’d had my earthly husband and provider to depend on. And so I can say as Louisa M.R. Stead did in the last stanza of her hymn, “I’m so glad I learned to trust Him, Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend, And I know that He is with me, Will be with me to the end.”

God owes me nothing, including explanations. Although I don’t remember ever being angry with God, I have wondered on more than one occasion why he took Ray so young. I’d reason it made no sense because he was a kind, caring spouse, parent, friend. But God sending his perfect Son to die in my place doesn’t make sense either.[6] Moreover, it is ample proof of his infinite and unconditional love. Yet He constantly pours out reminders, blessings both big and small.

Although my girls and I bear the scars of losing a beloved father and husband all-too-soon (at least from a human perspective), the Lord has comforted us that we might comfort others.[7] He has bestowed upon us the oil of joy instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.[8] Some who’ve witnessed our journey comment on our strength. May they recognize that apart from the Lord we would have none.[9] We are a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor[10]. Truly all praise, glory and honor belong to him alone.

 

[1] Louisa M.R. Stead, lyrics; William J. Kirkpatrick, music, 1882

[2] Ibid

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:1-9

[4] Deuteronomy 31:6

[5] Psalm 68:5

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

[7] 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

[8] Isaiah 61:3a

[9] See, for example Psalm 46:1-3, Psalm 73:25-26 and Isaiah 40:28-31

[10] Isaiah 61:3b