A Tale of Three Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Me, funny?

Silly, witty, comical – words rarely, if ever, used to describe me. No, I inherited my dad’s serious demeanor. Smiles and chuckles constitute the extent of my joviality – most of the time. But every so often, something lands on the bullseye of my funny bone, provoking breath-stealing laughter accompanied by tears of merriment.

Such was the case one recent evening when my 8-year-old grandson Joshua and I ate dinner at my parents’ house. We’d almost finished our meal when the phone rang. Dad answered.  Despite his solemn character, he’s been known to have some fun with telemarketers. He once told a carpet cleaning rep we had no use for his company’s services because we lived in a shack with dirt floors.

“Recording. Someone calling about cleaning ducts.” he reported as he made his way back to the table.

Alas, no chance for a funny exchange. But wait!

187Just as I took a drink of water, I noticed Joshua’s confused look. I knew in an instant what was coming next and oh how I regretted taking that extra-large gulp.

Wide-eyed, Joshua asked, “Duck cleaning?”

Bullseye! No way could I swallow the water without it being sucked into my lungs as I began to cackle. Out it came in an explosive burst, inundating my plate, spilling over the edge of the table and onto my lap. In between guffaws and gasps for air, I managed to squeak out a few apologies.

It took several minutes for my laughter to subside enough to assure my worried parents I would survive and to explain to Joshua what Papop actually said. In spite of my uncharacteristic outburst of glee, Joshua  willingly went home with me to spend the night as planned.

Serious, contemplative, not very good at telling jokes – now there are some descriptors more befitting my persona. In fact, there are times when I try to be funny and people still take me seriously, a trait that’s come in handy over the years on April 1st, but proves frustrating otherwise. And then there’s a longtime pal who dubbed me “least spontaneous” among her friends.

Taken together, these labels conspire to make me feel un-fun, boring, less-than. But a recent devotional reading reminded me when God knits us together (Psalm 139:13), He creates a unique package – physical appearance, gifts and graces, and temperament. Thus God determined the just-so blend of Dad’s resting-face scowl and Mom’s irrepressible smile along with myriad other physical and emotional components resulting in me. No mistakes, no room to covet aspects of others’ personalities or giftedness (1Corinthians 12:12-26).

And so it is for each of us. Not in a “this is me, take it or leave it” way, since we have the assurance our temperaments are being sanctified as we’re transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29), but in a way that’s most glorifying to God.

I may not accept a last-minute invitation or be able to remember a punchline, but if you need a safe place for a quiet conversation over a cup of tea, I’m your person. Underneath this sometimes stoic exterior resides a cheerful and welcoming heart, one that even appreciates moments of unbridled, soul-lifting laughter.

The Anchor Holds

I suppose I should have expected his arrival. But, distracted by other things, I didn’t notice his approach until it was too late to bolt the door and deny him entry. By the time I perceived his presence, he’d unpacked his bags and flung a cloak of melancholy over my heart.

And just who was this uninvited guest? Loneliness.

After spending a week at the beach with my family, my house, usually a welcome oasis of tranquility, felt silent and empty instead. Nonetheless, being home alone wasn’t the calling card I referred to above. I could have invited a grandchild over or texted one of my daughters. No, the profound loneliness sprang from knowing I couldn’t be with the one person I longed for most at that moment, my late husband Ray.

The Crucible of Life

As is often the case when I write or teach about scriptural principles and God’s promises, real life intervenes, compelling me to speak the truth I profess to myself, to apply the healing balm of assurance to my own woundedness.  Such was the case last Saturday morning as I sat at my kitchen table, with whispers of fall meandering through windows open to the breeze after summer finally loosened its stranglehold on metro Atlanta.

You see, a few days before I returned home, my podcast, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”, aired on CDM’s enCourage[1] website and I posted a companion article, “Stewarding our Stories”, on my blog. I used both platforms to proclaim God’s faithfulness across the 22 years since Ray died suddenly at age 39 and accompanied my proclamation with the assurance we can trust God as He sovereignly writes even the most difficult chapters of our stories.

So the appearance of my uninvited guest should have come as no surprise. In addition, my defenses were down, weakened by responsibilities and issues set aside while I was on vacation, only to be prayerfully resumed and mulled over when I returned. Thus, I didn’t shoo my squatter away as quickly as I might have under different circumstances.

Rather, I embraced him. My mind wandered, taking my heart with it. I wished Ray was sitting at his place at the table, holding my hand, listening as I poured out my concerns, a scenario played out numerous times during our marriage. I thought about how pleasant it would be to work in the yard together on that first fall-like day. And I remembered a long-ago night when I crawled into bed tearful and exhausted, bemoaning how little time Ray and I had to do things together. Our daughters were tiny, one an infant, the other a toddler. The days were long and my to-dos unending. In his attempt to comfort me, Ray uttered words that have become increasingly poignant over the years, “They’ll grow up so fast and then we’ll have lots of time together.”

Oh, Ray. You were gone long before our nest emptied. The lots of time you promised didn’t come to be.

Grieving

Over two decades of widowhood have tempered the searing pain of loss. Body-racking sobs are rare, replaced by silent tears, the occasional overflow of a heart yearning for its missing piece. There’s a sigh deep in my soul, born of sorrow mingled with longing and acceptance.

Even though those who belong to God don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14), we still grieve, because death wasn’t part of God’s good plan. It’s part of the curse, a severe consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:19b). Losing loved ones is painful and mourning our separation is a process, one that will continue until we’re reunited, as grief ebbs and flows. May we remember as much and be compassionate toward ourselves and others when the thorns of grief prick anew.

Never Forsaken

'Tis so SweetBut there is hope, dear reader, now and eternally. Having found comfort in the promises of the One who’s vowed to never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8), I dispatched my erstwhile visitor. Furthermore, I can reaffirm all I said in the podcast and wrote in my last post. The bottom is good.[2] The anchor holds (Hebrews 6:19). Victory is certain (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).

Faith refined by trials is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). And life-tested truth allows me to say with hymn writer Louisa M. R. Stead,

“’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.’
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!”[3]

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

 

[1] CDM – Christian Discipleship Ministries is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America. The enCourage website features blog posts and podcasts aimed at “connecting the hearts of women to the hope of the Gospel.”

[2] Hopeful’s comment to Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, as they prepare to cross the river to get to their final destination, the Celestial City.

[3] ‘Tis So sweet to Trust in Jesus, text Louisa M.R. Stead, music, William J. Kirkpatrick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Presbyterian Church in America

Always a Mother

img_1628Those who know me well know I cry easily – tears of joy or sorrow, tears when beholding exceptional beauty or kindness, tears of frustration and disappointment. But sometimes, even I am surprised by what provokes the tears. This week it was a picture my daughter Mary posted – of her feet. Yep, you read that correctly. You see, her feet were clad in colorful running shoes, posed in a position unattainable since she fractured her ankle while participating in a half-marathon last November. Until now.

Cross country was Mary’s sport-of-choice in high school and she rededicated herself to distance running several years ago. This isn’t the first time a foot or ankle injury has sidelined her. Consequently, she was smart about rehabbing her ankle, not doing too much too soon. Being awarded a spot to run in this year’s Chicago Marathon, one of the most coveted invitations in the running world, provided further motivation to recover well.

Another Setback

A local municipality sponsors a series of 5k races each year, one race per month fromIMG_3857 May to October. After several years of participation, the Kennesaw Grand Prix Series is now a family tradition. I take my place on the sidewalk to cheer my runners[1] on from the final curve, down the straight-away, and across the finish line. I relish those Saturday mornings.

Mary ran the May race, her first since the fracture, continued training strategically and participated in the 50th-anniversary edition of the Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10k, on July 4th. The July 5k took place the following week. I cheered myself almost-hoarse as I watched 5-year-old granddaughter, Lyla, complete the 1-mile race. Moments later, my exuberance over her accomplishment gave way to disappointment brought about by Mary’s last-minute decision not to run. Pain in her right hip prevented her from trotting more than a few steps without wincing. And it hasn’t felt right since.

My heart hurts for my beloved daughter. Mary should be well into her training regimen for the Chicago Marathon, racking up 10-15 miles at a time, yet even 1-mile outings are proving difficult. But that’s not all. She’s endured some emotional injuries as well. Add those to her physical limitations and you’ve got the makings of a spiritual battle. One she has to wage without the benefit of her usual heart-thumping, mind-clearing time with the Lord. Solitary, stress-reducing time she’s come to count on to sustain her as a dedicated wife and mother of three, partially-homeschooled little ones, plus the demands of her not-so-part-time paid employment.

Mama Bear Lives

“Once a mother, always a mother.”

“When you hurt, I hurt.”

Lines I’ve heard my mom utter countless times throughout my life. With every passing year, I become more convinced of the veracity of her statements, no matter how old our children are. In fact, at age 87 and weighing in at about the same number, Mom is still my staunchest supporter and most fervent prayer warrior.

When my daughters were little, I wanted to protect them from hurts and disappointments, to keep them safe. That hasn’t changed now that they’re all grown up. The stakes are often higher, the hurts deeper in adulthood. I continue to pray for their safety and well-being.

A Higher Purpose

If I had my way, I wouldn’t let any harm come to my children or grandchildren, my friends or family members, EVER. But I don’t have my way. And though it may sound like I’m contradicting myself, I’m thankful I don’t. Because I have no doubt I’ve come to know God more intimately through the hard times than I ever would had I gone through life without pain or problems. My faith is stronger because of adversity, from being stretched and tested, just like our physical muscles grow strong from being used and bearing increasingly-heavy loads (James 1:2-4).

Why would I want any less for my loved ones? But I’m not wise enough to comprehend which trials will produce endurance or solidify their relationship with their Savior or conform them more to His image. When I contemplate Mary’s situation, I’m tempted to ask, “Why this, Lord? Why take running away from her? Why now when she received an invitation to run in Chicago?” I must trust God to have a good plan for her, remembering that nothing is ever lost or wasted as God weaves our stories into His grand, over-arching story of redemption (Jeremiah 29:11). I cling to the promise that He works all things together for good for those who love Him, confident Mary belongs to Him (Romans 8:28).

Just as the fractured ankle wasn’t Mary’s first run-inhibiting injury, the spiritual battle isn’t a first either. She’s suffered losses, challenges and disappointments aplenty in her 30-some years. And just as she knew how to rehab her ankle, Mary has a time-proven plan to strengthen her spirit – prayer, reading God’s word, seeking godly counsel (Romans 12:12; Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 11:14).

IMG_7889I watch and pray, embracing a friend’s assurance offered up when Mary was only a few months old: “God loves her even more than you do.”

Hold onto your faith, dear Mary. And remember, Mama Bear is cheering you on.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;  but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;  they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:28-31).

[1] “My runners” include daughters, Mary and Jessie, granddaughters, Lyla and Emma, and assorted friends, depending on the race.

I love to tell the story – epilogue

I have a confession: I struggled to bring last week’s post to a satisfying end. I added words, moved sentences, and deleted phrases for several hours without making any meaningful progress. This, even though I’d worked diligently on the post across several previous days and had a clear mental outline of what I wanted to say. As bedtime loomed before me, I finally conceded and published the result of my efforts. Nonetheless, doubts lodged in my subconscious and accompanied my restless sleep. They continued to invade my thoughts the next day and the next, making me wonder if I should have published the piece at all.

I now realize I needed the experiences of the intervening week to be able to write the rest of the story and a more comprehensive conclusion.

A Look Back

Some 30 years ago, the Lord ordained a series of events in my life that forced me to deal with long-buried hurts I alluded to in “I love to tell the story”. After years of trying to keep the box of painful memories securely closed, I could no longer keep the lid on. The kind Physician came to heal the sick (Mark 2:16-18). Unwilling for us to remain stuck in a quagmire sin, guilt and wrong-thinking, He opens the wounds, gently cleans out the infection, and applies the balm of truth. My time had come.

In most cases, transformation is a long, often arduous, process. In fact, when I entered counseling, my therapist made it clear that it takes, on average, 5 years for new ways of thinking and responding to replace the old. That seemed like an eternity for determined, goal-oriented me. But she was right and eventually, bit by bit, a new normal settled in. (The grieving process is similar, but that’s a story for another time.)

As my sessions wrapped up months later, my counselor added a warning: “Although you’ve been very intentional about working on your issues and have made significant progress, you’ll always be vulnerable to the old beliefs, especially when stress and exhaustion deplete your emotional and physical reserves.”

The events of the past week left me in just such a state.

The Enemy

A line from a song by one of the early contemporary Christian groups plays in my head from time to time: “Satan is a liar and he wants us to believe we are paupers when he knows we are children of the King.” (Maybe one of you reading this can remind me who sang it!)

I hold fast to the admonition of the pastor who also counseled me during those early months of healing: “Rebuke the lies, no matter how many times you have to tell yourself, ‘That’s a lie!’”

And rebuke I did, over and over again, until I could recognize and embrace the truth more often than not. There are still times when what I’ve come to call my “old stuff” pops up and I recite, “That’s a lie!”

Even so, Satan doesn’t give up easily. He knows he can’t ultimately defeat us, but he delights in keeping us off-balance and making us ineffective (1 Peter 5:8). Since writing my last post, I’ve been distracted by many things, as the evil one stacked the kindling, stick by stick, preparing a target for his flaming arrows. His aim, perfected over millennia, hit the mark and soon I was surrounded by flames of self-doubt, choking on the smoke of his incendiary lies.

Nonetheless, the intensity of the attack opened my eyes to the source of the week’s trials, piled one on top of another, until I had no strength to fight. But He who is in me is infinitely stronger than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). I called on Him whose ear is ever-attentive to the cries of His children (Psalm 34:15). When the flames subsided and the smoke dissipated, I could see clearly that I was safe in the grasp of the One who’ll never let me go, just as I had been all along (John 10:28-29).

The Ultimate Victory

Our past informs our present. God is the Author of our stories. He redeems our brokenness and works even the hardest, most hurtful things together for our good and His glory albeit in ways we may not comprehend until we get to heaven.

I don’t know where you are on your journey, my friend. But whether you’re just learning to rebuke the lies or have been fighting to hold onto truth for years, victory is certain. Jesus will return to deal the final death blow to the ancient serpent and to make all things new (Revelation 12:7-10; Revelation 20:9-10; Revelation 21:1-7). We’ll know as we are known and, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of the Most Glorious One (1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18). No more lies. No more tears. No more battles.

IMG_1469Until then, may we avail ourselves daily of the comfort and protection God has provided, confident that we have nothing to fear because the Lord goes before us (Ephesians 6:10-18; Deuteronomy 1:30). His steadfast love never ceases. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). And His grace is sufficient to meet every need (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:10-18).

Through the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(To be continued.)

 

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

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

[3] “Do not resuscitate”

Preach to yourself!

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Purposeful Pondering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

It’s all about Him

I had the privilege of attending the funeral of a dear saint who was suddenly called Home last week. The bold type on the front of the program proclaimed it would be a memorial and worship service in honor of her Lord and Savior.IMG_6739

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The focus wasn’t on the departed, though her faith, kindness and devotion to family and friends were certainly mentioned during the service. No, her family desired to give glory first and foremost to God, no doubt honoring the wishes of their loved one as well. They asked the pastor to preach the Gospel. And so he did, reminding each of us not only of our helpless estate apart from Christ, but also of our assurance of eternal life in God’s presence because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. (Romans 5) It was a message of hope in the midst of sorrow because it emphasized the sovereignty of our loving LORD.

I’ve been studying the book of Ruth in preparation to teach an upcoming Bible study. On the surface, Ruth certainly appears to be the main character. After all, the book’s named after her, right? Her mother-in-law, Naomi, and kinsman redeemer, Boaz, fill important supporting roles and the townspeople are there to provide occasional commentary.

But look again. God is the main character.

After losing her husband and both sons, Naomi acknowledges God was the one behind her bereavement, though she doesn’t appear to blame God or lose faith in Him. (Ruth 1:20-21) As the narrative progresses, we see how God goes before them to redeem Naomi’s brokenness and bring Ruth into His family. In fact, He orchestrated every detail of their redemption. And, wonder of wonders, Naomi, the woman who returned to her homeland empty, became King David’s great-great-grandmother. Talk about working all things together for good! (Romans 8:28)

Though each one of us navigates a unique set of circumstances throughout our lives, our stories are ultimately about God as well. It’s so easy for us to think in terms of “I”, “me”, “mine”, yet it’s really all about Him. Everything we have and are is His.

God:

  • Chose us before the foundation of the earth. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
  • Spoke the world into being. (Genesis 1)
  • Wrote every one of our days in His book before even one came to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • Provided His only Son for our salvation. (John 3:16)
  • Called us out of darkness. (John 8:12; John 12:46)
  • Is working to transform us more and more into Jesus’ likeness through the power of His Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
  • Is preparing a place for us. (John 14:1-3)
  • Will return to take us Home. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

Yes, it’s all of Him, from beginning to end.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so thankful it is. Even though I’m dust (Psalm103:13-14), and my best efforts are filthy rags (Isaiah 54:6), and I have no way of saving myself (Ephesians 2:8-9), I can be certain everything will be ok eventually and eternally. Because God is sovereign. (1 Timothy 6:15-16) He keeps His promises. (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 10:23) And nothing can ever separate us from His love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So even when death comes unexpectedly or circumstances take an unforeseen and unpleasant turn, we can be assured nothing catches God by surprise and no detail escapes His careful plan. We can trust Him to weave all our stories together in a beautiful, epic masterpiece whose end we can be certain of because He’s promised to return and take us to the Home He’s preparing even now.

Hope. Hope in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty. Hope because it’s all about Him.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but 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, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

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