Who’s in Control?

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.
Proverbs 19:21

As We Age

My mom faced several significant physical challenges during the last decade of her life – an operation to repair her shattered right shoulder[1], a heart attack followed by emergency triple bypass surgery, and aspiration pneumonia that landed her in the hospital for 24 days. Each time, I wondered if we’d lose her, but each time, the Lord sustained her and returned her home to us.

Still, the relentless deterioration associated with aging continued as arthritis pain became a constant companion, and osteoporosis made falling a potentially life-threatening event. I escorted Mom to most of her medical appointments and heard many of her doctors reply to her list of symptoms with a statement beginning with, “As we age.” It was one of Mom’s least favorite phrases since it usually meant there wasn’t much to be done to improve the situation.

It was difficult enough for me to watch Mom’s physical decline, but a year or so ago, I started noticing some changes in her mental capacity. Her inability to balance her checkbook after a long career in banking and failure to successfully produce her delicious pound cake, a recipe she’d been making for 50 years, caused me great consternation. I tried to explain her mistakes away. I didn’t want to embarrass or alarm her, plus I couldn’t bear the thought of there coming a time when my dear mother and best friend didn’t know me, a fate several of my friends have experienced with their parents.

Running in Front of a Freight Train

Mom’s decline, which had been progressing slowly, picked up speed earlier this year, exacerbated by severe pain in her left leg. Dad and I took turns accompanying her to various appointments in search of a definitive cause and potential solution. A steroid shot, low-dose pain meds, massage therapy – nothing helped, at least not for long. There were even times when I fretted my well-meaning attempts to help added to Mom’s misery instead.

All the while, an ominous sense of foreboding formed on the edges of my mind and colored my thoughts. The uneasiness grew with each successive failure to procure help for Mom until one day I told my daughter, “I feel like I’m running in front of a freight train, and I hear it getting closer.”

I got an appointment for Mom with my longtime physician, confident she would help us pinpoint the source of Mom’s pain. A series of X-rays revealed compressed discs in Mom’s lower spine were causing sciatica, those shooting pains that nearly incapacitated her.

Finally, a definitive diagnosis! I made an appointment for Mom to see a pain specialist in hopes he could administer a nerve block or an epidural, anything to give her some relief and enable her to return to at least some of her usual activities.

Sidelined

Sciatica, coupled with the bone-on-bone condition in her right knee, led to her being confined to the main floor of the multi-story house she shared with my dad. Perfectly reasonable considering her age (89) and increasing fragility. But as Mom’s world became ever-smaller, her emotional and mental stability weakened as well.

I watched as my once-active, always-determined mother spent more and more time sitting. When I made my lunchtime phone call, she’d say, “I’m just finishing breakfast. It took me a while to get going this morning.” A similar report accompanied my evening visits, “I didn’t do much today. I just sat here.”

All the while, the sound of that freight train kept getting louder and louder. Mom was slipping away whether I was willing to acknowledge it or not.

Flattened

I kept the afternoon of April 20th, the day we were scheduled to see the pain specialist, in front of Mom. I held it up as a beacon of hope, trying to keep both of us motivated and focused on the long-hoped-for relief instead of the ever-growing pain and despair. But we never made it to the appointment.

Early on the morning of April 20th, Dad called to let me know he’d found Mom on the floor. She’d fallen and most likely broken her hip. At that moment, I knew the freight train had caught up. It flattened me and kept on going.

Yet it was then I also remembered what I had forgotten amidst the increasingly frantic flurry of attempts to help Mom – I wasn’t in control and never had been.

Sovereign Lord

In the truest sense, I hadn’t forgotten God is sovereign over all. I prayed fervently for wisdom for those of us trying to help Mom and for relief of her pain. However, as efforts continually fell short and her condition deteriorated, desperation overtook me. My mind worked overtime trying to figure out how to help Mom, and anxious, guilt-infused thoughts prevented restful sleep.

It was appropriate for me to persist in seeking help for Mom, but at some point, I crossed a line. I didn’t want to let Mom down. But, instead of casting my cares on God and finding peace, I picked up the burden, convinced the outcome depended entirely on my self-fueled efforts.

The timing of Mom’s fall, just a few hours before the appointment with the pain specialist, wasn’t lost on me. I humbly acknowledged God had a different plan, one that would prevail. In the days that followed, Jehoshaphat’s prayer became my mantra, “Lord, (I) don’t know what to do, but (my) eyes are fixed on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

The Lord faithfully went before me, directing and redirecting my steps over the last ten days of Mom’s life. But I’ll save that story for another time. The details of God’s goodness to us as He led Mom Home are deserving of a separate post.

O, Lord, how I thank You that You never meant for us to carry burdens too big for us. As our loving heavenly Father, You invite us to bring every care to You, that we might find peace that passes understanding. Please help us to remember You are sovereign over all, declaring the end from the beginning, always accomplishing Your purposes (Isaiah 46:10).


[1] An injury she sustained after falling off her bed while attempting to change a lightbulb in her ceiling fan!

Longing for Home

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Hebrews 11:15-16

A Devastating Blow

I watched as the EMTs carried Mom, cradled in her bedsheet, to the waiting ambulance. Though it appeared one of my worst fears, a fall-induced broken hip, had come to pass, I prayed Mom would somehow be able to recover and return home.

Several hours later,  x-rays confirmed our initial suspicions. I texted my kids[1] and called my dad to relay the daunting news along with the doctors’ recommendation that Mom have surgery to repair her hip. We debated surgery due to Mom’s overall fragile state, but there was no discussion necessary when it came to our ultimate goal: to bring Mom home, whatever it took.

Not only did Mom make it through the surgery, but her surgeon said she did well, and the rod he placed in her hip would be sturdy enough to support her when she was ready to stand up. All good news. Thank You, Lord!

Sadly, Mom’s mental state offset the positive report regarding her physical status. She was confused and disoriented. We prayed those symptoms were the after-effects of anesthesia and would soon wear off. Though her thinking remained muddled, Mom made it clear to anyone who’d listen that she wanted to go home – the sooner, the better.

Preparations

Physical and occupational therapy began the day after surgery as we looked forward to Mom getting strong enough to be discharged. We arranged to have the necessary equipment delivered and contracted with an in-home healthcare agency to provide 24/7 care.

I was present for the equipment delivery and watched as the technician set everything up. All the while, a knot in my stomach drew tighter and tighter. I half-listened while he explained how each piece of equipment worked, fearing the knot would tighten to the point of cutting off my breath.  Left alone to survey the place prepared for Mom, a sense of despair welled up within me. I knew Mom wanted to come home, but not like this, not to be bedridden.

Even before she broke her hip, a severe case of sciatica had limited her mobility and activities. She spent her last weeks at home sitting, resting her leg, no doubt torturous for someone used to being so active. Seeing her frustration at being sidelined, I was reminded of the story she recounted of her beloved father, a farmer who cherished being outside. After he had a heart attack, his doctor told him he couldn’t work in his garden anymore. As Mom told it, PaPa would sit in the kitchen of the home he shared with my grandmother, gazing out the window toward the little church where he was a lifelong member. “I’d rather be up there in the cemetery than sitting here doing nothing,” he’d lament.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Mom hadn’t had similar thoughts. Even though the little church was 400 miles away, I knew she could see it just as clearly in her mind’s eye as my grandfather could sitting at his kitchen window all those years ago.

God’s Plan

Long days in the hospital passed with no perceptible improvement. Still, we doggedly pursued keeping our promise to Mom to bring her home. With the specter of long-term disability looming menacingly, we turned our attention to procuring in-home hospice to supplement the 24/7 caregiver.

When I told the hospice coordinator about Mom’s oft-expressed plea to go home, she asked if I knew what she meant by “home.” Though I never questioned her desire to be back at home with Dad, I pondered Audrey’s question. Could it be, after days of suffering, Mom had begun to long for her heavenly Home?

Audrey suggested moving Mom to a hospice facility for a few days to address her pain more effectively. We agreed, still intending to bring her home. But God had other plans. Barely 24 hours after she arrived at Tranquility, the Lord called Mom to Himself.

As sad as I was not to be able to keep my promise to Mom, I rejoiced, knowing God was fully capable of keeping His (John 14:2-3). Though we had prepared a place for Mom, the one He had waiting offered ultimate healing and the joy of being in His presence (Jude 24).

A Promise Kept

Some years ago, when we discussed last wishes,  Mom told me she wanted her body brought back to the country church where she grew up. That was a promise I could keep. On May 7th, we gathered in the dearly-loved sanctuary. We sat on decades-old wooden pews, Mom’s flower-bedecked casket in front of us, as my son-in-law led her service. We couldn’t take her back to her home in Georgia, but we brought her back to her heart’s home, where she first knew the love of family and the love of her Savior.

After the service, several of my cousins serving as pallbearers carried Mom’s earthly remains to their final resting place – for now. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).

As I stood by her grave, peace overcame my sorrow, a peace I’ve felt each time I visit that cemetery and observe the gravemarkers of other departed relatives, including my baby sister and dear husband, Ray. I imagine the day of Jesus’ return described in 1 Thessalonians when we’ll all rise together. He’ll welcome us into our forever Home, the one we’re truly longing for (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Dear Lord, how I thank You for the assurance of eternal life in Your presence, a promise secured by the precious blood of Jesus shed on our behalf. I look forward to the Home where there will be no more death or mourning, or crying, or pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4).


[1] “My kids” = adult daughters, Mary and Jessie, and Mary’s husband Justin.

Ten Years

The Backstory

January 26, 2021, marked the tenth anniversary of the end of my 30-year career. My last day wasn’t preceded by a countdown of crossed-out calendar days, nor was it observed with a celebratory send-off. No, my long tenure sputtered to a conclusion when my department eliminated my job and, according to my boss, there was no other work for me.

Our HR manager filled me in on benefits and legal details before requesting I leave as unobtrusively as possible after turning in my computer, building pass, and company credit card. I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone except the sympathetic IT associate who took possession of those items. Though all aspects of being terminated were tough, being deprived of the opportunity to bid farewell to longtime customers and colleagues broke my heart.

If you’re unfamiliar with the rest of this story, you may be thinking I was consumed by bitterness over the demise of my position. But longtime readers know that though some may have meant the events of that day for evil, God surely meant them for good. So much so, that this is one of the mega-milestones I intentionally ponder each year, recounting how God works all things together for good, even the most painful ones. [1]

Praying, Weeping, and Rejoicing

My work life began to derail when I was assigned to a new manager who restructured our roles. Bereft of most of my previous responsibilities, I went from days full of meaningful work to wondering how I would make it to lunch, much less fill eight hours. I became angry and confused.

But knowing God is sovereign over every detail, I began to pray. Was the Lord allowing the challenges to mount up so I’d resign, or was it to build character, an opportunity to be a life-giver despite my circumstances (Romans 5:3-4)?

I confided in several friends, asking them to join me in praying I would know what to do and that my actions and attitudes would be pleasing to God. As the day of my performance review drew near, I felt sure my employment status was about to change. The Lord graciously prepared me to hear the definitive answer to those prayers for direction.  My first thought, “This is real!” was quickly followed by, “Thank you, Lord, for such a clear answer.”

As news of my departure made the rounds, friends, colleagues, and customers expressed both condolences and congratulations. They were weeping with me over the abrupt end to my career and rejoicing with me over future possibilities (Romans 12:15). Many have continued to pray, weep, and rejoice with me as my post-corporate life evolved, making the journey that much sweeter.

Daily Bread

In the waning months of my corporate life, I ran and re-ran financial scenarios, wondering if I had enough in savings to retire. Should I try to work for a few more months? Years? Would I be able to pay my bills? What if a medical emergency came up?

Though I gleaned no precise answers to my questions, the Lord reminded me of His sufficiency. He has determined the number of my days (Psalm 139:16) and knows what I need before I ask (Matthew 6:8). By the time I lost my job, I’d been a widow for over 13 years. I had seen God’s faithfulness in providing for my daughters and me, personal proof of Jesus’ declaration that if God provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, He’ll most certainly provide for His children (Matthew 6:25-33).

I thankfully rejoice in His provision and trust His promise to carry me the rest of my earthly life (Isaiah 46:4).

Immeasurably More

The day after I lost my job, I posted this 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!”

img_0495Even so, I couldn’t have imagined all God had in store for me. Two days after losing my job, I began the process of enrolling in the horticulture program at a local community college. Six months later, Joshua, my first grandchild, was born. Not only was he my study buddy, but, accompanied by my mom and my daughter Mary, he also attended my graduation ceremony the following year when I realized my dream of acquiring an Environmental Horticulture diploma.

105Granddaughters, Lyla and Emma, joined our family. I’m blessed to spend two days a week with them and big-brother Joshua. Earning my diploma and becoming a grandmother are bountiful blessings, but God has woven so much more into the past ten years. I volunteer at a local botanical garden, serve on our Women’s Ministry Committee, and am available to help my aging parents. I started this blog and published my first book.

I joyfully testify to God’s ability to do far more than all we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

Spiritual Amnesia

Even though the Lord’s mercies are new every morning and those of us who’ve walked with Him across many years have a treasure trove of examples of His faithfulness, when faced with adversity, we can sometimes forget His goodness. Thus God tells us to be intentional about remembering, calling to mind all we know about His character and recounting all He’s done for us, so spiritual amnesia doesn’t set in (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Someone on a podcast I listen to declared, “God’s never forsaken me, and today won’t be the first day He does.” I’ve since adopted her statement and remind myself when concerns begin to poke holes in the edges of my peace. If that doesn’t quiet my anxious thoughts, though, I hit play on the highlight reel of God’s goodness across ten years of “early retirement,” 23 years of widowhood, and a lifetime of Fatherly care (Psalm 9:1-2; Psalm 143:5).

How about you? Which scenes would you put on your Jesus-loves-me highlight reel?

Dear Lord, my heart swells with gratitude for all the ways You care for us. From friends who prayerfully and compassionately share our journey to daily provisions and over-and-above blessings, You pour out grace upon grace. Please help us to remember and rejoice.

[1] Please see “Purposeful Pondering” in Archives January 2019.

Through the Waters

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
 For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Isaiah 43:1-3a

Hello, dear readers.  I know you’re not used to hearing from me this frequently, but I need to remind myself of a few things as this challenging year draws to a close, and I thought you might need a reminder as well.

Bad News

After months of staying out of the crosshairs of Covid-19, my daughter and son-in-law contracted the disease last week, sending me into self-quarantine and separation from my elderly parents. I’m thankful their cases have been mild and that none of the rest of us have developed symptoms so far.

But then, within the space of an hour yesterday, I received news that:

  • More members of the church I attend tested positive for Covid-19, while others had possibly been exposed to the virus, at church and elsewhere.
  • Cases of Covid-19 had popped up at the rehab facility where my friend’s mother is receiving care.
  • A longtime friend had been diagnosed with cancer.

I barely had time to process one communication before another reached me. The coronavirus isn’t a distant threat anymore. It’s affecting people in my everyday circles. And old enemies, like cancer, are still very much present.

As I mulled over the morning’s messages, a ditty from the old TV show Hee Haw came to mind. In Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me, the comedians proclaimed, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” I tweaked the refrain: “If it weren’t for bad news, I’d have no news at all.” Unlike the minstrels of the catchy tune, I found no humor in the situations facing my friends and family. Concern for them furrowed my brow and troubled my thoughts.

Shifting Focus

I needed a spiritual pep talk, an attitude adjustment, a change of perspective. The shift began when a Facebook memory reminded me that yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of Mom’s emergency triple bypass surgery. I pondered the events of that day, how a catheterization two days after her heart attack revealed three life-threatening blockages. The images are still fresh all these years later: the nurses on either end of Mom’s bed who wouldn’t meet my gaze as we waited for the doctor to tell me the devastating news; the haste to prepare Mom for surgery; how our eyes locked lovingly for what I wondered might be the last time as they took her back to the operating room and the doors closed behind her.

Those ruminations led me to contemplate another health scare last spring at the same hospital after Mom developed a severe case of pneumonia. Late that night, when I left her with the emergency department’s capable caregivers, she was attached to all sorts of contraptions to help her breathe.  Once again, I parted company, not knowing if she’d be alive the next time I saw her.[1]

But she was. And she still is, blessing my life and that of many others, thanks be to God!

Sometimes the unexpected plot twists don’t end the way we would hope, though. On the evening of April 19, 1997, I received a phone call informing me my 39-year-old husband had been transported to the hospital by ambulance. My mind raced as I drove. Clenching the steering wheel, I prayed I’d find him alive. But I didn’t. Unbeknownst to me, we’d said our last goodbye hours earlier when he’d left for work.

Gains and losses. We can trust God to work them all together for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

The Best News

This time last year, as we were getting ready to bid farewell to 2019 and welcome 2020, we had no idea what lay ahead – a pandemic, social unrest, political discord, personal challenges and triumphs of various sorts. The truth is, we don’t know what the next hour holds, much less the coming year. But, unlike my edited version of the old Hee Haw song, there is good news, the most excellent news: we belong to the One who does know, the One who ordains the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10). And He’s promised never to leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8). That’s what we just celebrated last week – Immanuel, God with us.

I’ll close with two quotes I came across recently. I pray they’ll encourage you as they do me. As we enter a new year, may we endeavor to remind ourselves and each other daily of God’s steadfast love.

“God’s grace is sufficient, and his grace is specific. When it’s time to age, he gives aging grace. When it’s time to suffer, he gives suffering grace. When it was (my husband) Gene’s time to die, the Lord gave dying grace. And now he is giving me grieving grace.” Susan Hunt [2]

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’” Minnie Louise Haskins[3]

Dear Lord, what a blessing to know that no matter how deep the waters or how hot the fiery trials we may face, we have nothing to fear because You’ve promised to be with us. Please help us to turn to You each day for the grace to meet our needs, knowing Your mercies are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness!

[1] You can read about both of these experiences in more detail and find more encouraging verses in “Through the Night” and “Encourage One Another” in the May 2019 archives.

[2] Sharon W. Betters & Susan Hunt, Aging With Grace, Flourishing In An Anti-Aging Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 26.

[3] From Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem, God Knows, aka The Gate of the Year, written in 1908.

Pollen Season

I first noticed the yellow dusting atop my dark-blue CR-V. Then it appeared on my black mailbox. Yesterday I found it sprinkled across everything from leaves to walkway to my water bottle. What might the stealthy invader be? Pine pollen!

I usually grimace when I detect the initial signs of yellowness that descends on our area each spring, knowing what lies ahead. Depending on rainfall or lack thereof, the layer of pollen can become so thick tire tracks materialize on driveways and footprints on sidewalks. Some years I watch incredulously as windblown clouds drift off pines, destined to coat everything in their path. Nothing is immune from the intruder.

But this year the opening salvo made me smile. Because it reminded me God is keeping the covenant promise He made to Noah, his offspring, and every living creature. “While earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)

img_2910Last week, when I wrote “It is Well”, I figured everything that was going to suspend operations and activities had done so. Wrong! Notices of closings and cancellations continued to mount up, though at a slower pace. I found myself turning repeatedly to the passages I included in that post, truth to combat fear and quell anxious thoughts.

362I’ve also been outside more, strolling through my neighborhood, working in my garden. I’ve seen sidewalks chalked with cheerful messages. Encouraging posts fill my Facebook feed. And earlier today I joined my neighbors for a hymn sing as we gathered, socially-distanced, outside our piano-playing neighbor’s home. God is working difficult circumstances for good.  He always does. (Romans 8:28)

173In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, spring is here, full of hope and visible reminders of God’s goodness. I’ll let photos, scripture passages, and hymn lyrics do the talking for the rest of this post – my offering of praise to the One who lovingly sustains us, my contribution to the thread of encouragement weaving its way through social media.

248“Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son; Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor, Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown. Fair are the meadows, Fairer still the woodlands, Robed in the blooming garb of spring: Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, Who makes the woeful heart to sing.”[1]

342Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28a-29)

The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:10)

047Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11)

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. (Psalm 57:1)

265“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider all the words They hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy pow’r  throughout the universe displayed. When thro’ the woods and forest glades I wander And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze. Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee: How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”[2]

351I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving . . . Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. (Psalm 69:30, 34)

The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. (Psalm 89:11)

042“This is my Father’s world, And to my listening ears All nature sings, and round me rings The music of the spheres. This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas – His hands the wonders wrought. This is my Father’s world, The birds their carols raise, The morning light, the lily white, Declare their Maker’s praise. This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair; In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.”[3]

4-10-2014, The Pocket 5For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. (Psalm 92:4)

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)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever . . . for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. (Psalm 73:25-26; 28)

[1] “Fairest Lord Jesus”, anonymous German Hymn, stanzas 1 and 2.

[2] “How Great Thou Art”, stanzas 1 and 2 and chorus; Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

[3] “This is My Father’s World”, stanzas 1 and 2; Maltbie D. Babcock.

It is Well

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

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

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

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

A different perspective

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome Home

Two years ago our church leaders decided it would be good to form a Welcome Team to greet visitors and members alike on Sunday mornings. I wasn’t surprised to see Gene Hunt’s name on the list of volunteers for the new team. Gene, a longtime pastor, was retired by then. Nonetheless, I clearly recall how he visited me and my husband, Ray, soon after we first attended Midway Presbyterian Church, where he served as assistant pastor, in July 1992. From that early encounter and across the ensuing years I came to know Gene as a natural when it came to welcoming others – genuine, warm, and caring.

Thus it also came as no surprise that Gene would be in the narthex greeting people even on Sundays when he wasn’t officially assigned to the task. Those of us within hearing range would smile when we heard him heartily exclaim, “Hey, this was great! Let’s do it again sometime. How about next Sunday?”, as he shook hands with visitors after morning worship.

240Gene entered his heavenly Home last month. I had the privilege of attending his memorial service. The sanctuary of our small church overflowed as several hundred people from all stages of Gene’s life gathered to celebrate by worshiping the One he faithfully served, for we do not grieve as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Even so, tears mingled with laughter as various speakers shared reminiscences about our beloved brother because death does bring about a time of separation until Jesus’ promised return. I blotted at intermittent tears until one of my fellow congregants described a heavenly scene where Gene was greeting others, complete with the signature phrase I described above. That did it – my tears escaped and spilled down my cheeks. I sorely sensed the void Gene’s passing would leave on Sunday mornings.

One of Gene’s grandsons spoke next. His comments included a recounting of his grandfather’s testimony – how he’d been born into a non-Christian family, to parents who made no effort to take him to church. But after Gene’s dad died, God providentially placed his family in a neighborhood where he became friends with a little boy whose family was greatly involved in the life of the local Presbyterian church. Sonny would drag Gene along because he didn’t want to go alone. In Gene’s words, “I was enfolded into this community of believers and moved among them as if I belonged. It never occurred to me that I was an outsider. It all seemed perfectly natural and normal. Now I see that it was supernatural. It was the Gospel of grace being lived out in daily life.”[1]

I’d heard Gene’s testimony before, but it wasn’t until that moment I clearly recognized the connection between the tag-along boy, loved and accepted by a long-ago church family, and the man I was blessed to know, who genuinely loved others and welcomed them as he’d been welcomed. He never forgot what it meant to be included even though he “had no resources to contribute to the church.”[2]

Sound familiar? This storyline should resonate with every believer: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Furthermore, the Gospel itself is welcoming. Once we were separated from Christ, strangers to the covenants of promise. But now in Christ Jesus we have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . So we are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:12-13, 19)

I was one of the greeters last Sunday. After the worship service, a couple of folks asked if I’d had a chance to talk to our visitors (yes, briefly). Then one of us began to recite Gene’s phrase and the three of us finished in unison, “Let’s do it again. How about next Sunday?”, agreeing we need to add his words to our exit lines. We shared a laugh, warm with the memory of the man who showed us how to love others as we’ve been loved.

I expect God assigned Gene to the varsity greeting team as soon as he arrived on the other side. I like to imagine the day I’ll get to see him again, welcoming me with a big smile and another of his classic phrases, “Ain’t God good?!” Oh yes, Gene, so very good! I pray He will enable me to serve Him and others joyfully as you did, from the overflow of a grateful heart.

 

[1] Susan Hunt, “Your Home A Place of Grace”, (Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books, 2000) pp. 26-27

[2] Ibid, p. 27

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.