A Tale of Three Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Heavenly Hugs

Several weeks ago, I received the following text from a dear sister in Christ, “Praying that the Lord will refresh you by His Word and Spirit today . . . some heavenly hugs to remind you of His presence . . . some quiet moments.”

Prompted by her knowledge that I was dealing with some weighty matters, the text itself felt like one of the hugs she wished for me. Oh the blessing of friends who take note of our concerns and reach out to encourage us!

I texted my thanks and mentioned I hoped to spend time in my garden, the backdrop to some of my sweetest moments with the Lord, later that day. Being outside often feels like a big Fatherly bear hug, one that melts my stress and recalibrates my perspective. But those of you who are longtime readers know I frequently find special treasures when I’m working in my yard. Gifts I imagine the Lord tucking tenderly here and there for me to discover and delight over.

Attired in my yard clothes – faded jeans, PFG shirt, well-worn work boots, and a wide-brimmed hat – I headed outside in search of solace. The reel mower whirred as I pushed it around and around what I refer to as my “keyhole of grass”. (I’m NOT a proponent of giant swaths of perfectly-manicured turf, but I’ll save that soapbox for another post.) The sun warmed my back and the tension in my shoulders subsided. Bees and butterflies visited one bright blossom after another. The fresh air worked its usual magic and nudged my cares aside, at least for a while.

I’d been outside for a couple of hours when I remembered my friend’s message, her prayer for heavenly hugs. Although I’d been reveling in the beauty of the afternoon, grateful to be playing in the dirt, I hadn’t come across anything specific that prompted an exclamation of, “That’s it! That’s today’s treasure, a heavenly hug.”

It’s ok, I thought. The whole afternoon’s been a blessing.

125My time outside was drawing to a close when I pulled up a spent summer annual, revealing a spindly bit of passionflower vine with a solitary gulf fritillary caterpillar munching intently on a bedraggled leaf. My heart soared! I’d been hugged.

I suppose most folks wouldn’t have paid much attention to the tiny orange visitor arrayed with black, predator-discouraging spikes. Yet as I gazed at him, I received a reminder of two important truths:

God’s provision. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is the only food source for gulf fritillary caterpillars. For several years I intentionally planted the vine by my mailbox, enjoying wave after wave of caterpillars until all the leaves were consumed and only bare stems remained. My summer reveries came to an end though when I realized neighbors’ mosquito treatments killed the caterpillars. I pulled up the vine, unwilling to create a death trap for my annual visitors. Sprigs of the vine continue to emerge from roots left in the ground. I sadly and dutifully pull them up too. The one the caterpillar was feeding on escaped my notice, hidden under another plant. But an egg-laying butterfly found it amidst all the other plants on my property. Isn’t that amazing?! And if God provides for butterflies and caterpillars and birds and lilies, we can be sure He’ll provide for His beloved children (Matthew 6:25-33).

Perseverance. By the time I discovered the miniature passionflower vine with its voracious visitor, we’d endured several weeks of drought accompanied by way-above-average temperatures. Although the plant’s leaves bore faded splotches, it had survived the unfavorable conditions and was available to host the egg that became the caterpillar. Endurance is an essential aspect of our walk with the Lord. Hardships, challenges, droughts of various kinds – we’re told to expect them. But great blessings, from godly character to eternal life, come with perseverance (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:12). The indwelling Spirit enables us to persevere until the day of Jesus’ return when God will complete the good work He began in us (Philippians 1:6).

At times we need reminders, don’t we? The world can be so loud and demanding, muffling God’s still, quiet voice. But He’s always with us, just as He promised, and sometimes He sends perfectly-packaged heavenly hugs to reassure us. Our Father knows each of us by name. He never loses sight of us. And He loves us so much more than we can fathom.

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:13-20)

 

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).

A nestful of hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Spring is coming!

When I awoke this morning an almost-forgotten sight greeted me: sunshine! Yes, after a rain-filled week that felt more like a month and led one of my cousins to report his mildew was growing mildew, bright, beautiful sunlight streamed through my windows. My heart rejoiced and “Thank You, Lord!” escaped my lips.

A short time later, I took my usual seat at church. From there, I had a perfect vantage point to gaze at the brilliant blue sky, framed by the large window behind the pulpit. As we sang “Before the Throne of God Above”, I watched, misty-eyed, while wispy, breeze-borne clouds meandered by. The scene before me underscored the greatness of the One we praised in song.

Despite numerous indoor chores looming over me, I scampered outside as soon as I finished lunch. My weary soul longed for a dose of garden therapy. A scavenger hunt ensued. I gently nudged aside leaves to see if any plant friends had managed to puncture the soil and emerge from their winter rest. I inhaled the sweet aroma wafting from the paperbush. My gaze lingered on artful displays of moss. Each discovery buoyed my spirits. Spring is coming! The tiny sprouts sense it. The birds taking turns at my feeders know it.

There are times when we experience storms in our lives, seasons when it feels like the rain won’t ever go away. But, just like the sun is shining brightly above the clouds and the plants are nestled under their leafy blankets ready to burst forth, God is with us. Even when circumstances cloud our spiritual vision, even when we’re buffeted by doubts. Because He promised to be with us forever. (Deuteronomy 31:8; Matthew 28:20) And He always keeps His promises. (Joshua 21:45; 2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

Furthermore, He’s pledged to return, to take us to the Home He’s preparing for us (John 14:1-3), a Home where there will be no more death or tears or pain. (Revelation 21:4) Until then, He’s left countless reminders of His love and goodness, as exemplified below. May the photos from my afternoon stroll give you a sense of the hope and joy I felt as I ambled through my garden, warmed by the Son.

“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 Savior God to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”[1]

 

 

 

[1] “How Great Thou Art” (2nd stanza), Text and Music, Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

Come to Me

I well-remember the exhaustion I felt as a mother of two pre-school daughters, working full-time for a large corporation. There were numerous occasions when I wouldn’t even hear my night-owl husband, Ray, gently close our bedroom door as he crept out after we’d said our prayers. I could have been featured on a sleep clinic commercial, along with the old adage, “asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow.”

A few fleeting years later, emotional weariness joined my physical fatigue. My beloved spouse died unexpectedly, felled by a fatal heart attack weeks after his 39th birthday. Suddenly left alone to parent my daughters (7 and 10 years old at the time), I clung to God for daily strength. Above all else, I prayed for wisdom. And I repeatedly petitioned Him to let me live long enough to raise my girls. Unbearable thoughts of them being orphaned fueled my pleas.*

Nonetheless, some nights found me too worn-out to formulate a coherent prayer. In the brief moments between crawling under the covers and drifting off to sleep, I counted on the Spirit’s knowing my unspoken needs and interceding for me with groans too deep for words. (Romans 8:26-27) Furthermore, I imagined myself in my Father’s lap, wrapped in His loving arms. “Please, Lord, just hold me. I’m so tired.”

Though I’m often reminded this world is not my home, I’ve been acutely aware of the ever-present brokenness in my not-Home in recent days – from malfunctioning printer technology to discord in cherished relationships, from self-doubt to minor frustrations to major misunderstandings. I’ve grieved my own short-comings and been disappointed by those of others. Day after day, my heart has cried out to the Lord for relief and restoration, longing for peace and beauty and the promised perfecting of all things.

Jesus bids us come. All who are weary and burdened. He promises us rest. Not just any rest, but rest for our souls. (Matthew 11:28-29) Our gentle Savior took on flesh and walked this world. (John 1:14) He knows how difficult it is, how fear and anxiety and hopelessness can produce tired, troubled souls. Not only does He invite us to take His yoke upon us and learn of Him, but He:

  • Promises to never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • Invites us to cast our cares on Him because He cares for us. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
  • Tells us not to be anxious, but to bring our prayers and petitions to Him. (Philippians 4:6-7)
  • Advises us not to worry about what we will eat or drink or wear. (Matthew 6:25-34)
  • Instructs us to fear not. Though we will have troubles in this world, He has overcome the world. (John 16:33)
  • Reminds us He is preparing a place for us and will return to take us Home. (John 14:2-3)

Throughout these difficult days, I’ve felt God’s comforting presence. His tender ministrations have manifested themselves in ways as varied as my heartaches:

  • A blog post from a fellow writer which provided encouragement to keep writing and bolstered my diminished confidence.
  • A phone call from my daughter who listened patiently to my sob-punctuated litany of sorrows which burst forth upon hearing her concerned, “Are you ok, Mom?”
  • Lunch with a long-time spiritual sister whose wisdom and calm presence I cherish, one who helps me regain a proper perspective.
  • An extended phone conversation with my other daughter, who I see at least twice weekly but rarely have time to chat with because of the three little ones clamoring for our attention.

And then there was Saturday, beautiful, soul-satisfying Saturday, spent in my garden. When I went out to water my thirsty plants, God bestowed upon me a tiny glimpse of the way it will be in His Garden. As sunlight filtered through the floriferous branches of my 7-27-2013, My beautiful crape myrtlecrape myrtle, sights and sounds of early-morning re-awakening greeted me. Two glistening gold finches balanced atop gently-swaying stalks of verbena, expertly extracting the tasty seed. All kinds of busy pollinators buzzed in and out of colorful blossoms. A bejeweled hummingbird hovered near the lantana. Butterflies zig-zagged lazily in the breeze. Birds chirped and frolicked in the sprinkler spray. My heart exulted.IMG_6301

One day the children of God will be revealed. The groaning will stop and all things will be made new. (Romans 8:18-21; Revelation 21:4)) Until then, may our world-weary souls find rest in Him and may we have eyes to see and ears to hear the evidence of His lavish love all around us. (Matthew 7:11; James 1:17)

 

*God not only graciously granted that prayer, but I’m now Grammie to three precious grandchildren.

All I’ll ever need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

[2] 1 John 1:9

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

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

[5] Romans 8:32

[6] Ephesians 3:20

[7] Matthew 7:7-11

Through the storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Romans 8:28

[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

[3] Matthew 6:25-34

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

[5] Luke 8:25

[6] Luke 8:22-24

[7] Matthew 14:22-33

[8] Psalm 55:22

[9] Matthew 6:34

Surprise!

Another April 19th was drawing to a close. Like all the others since my husband Ray’s sudden death in 1997, it had been a day of remembrance, tinged with sorrow and joy. Each year those seemingly contradictory emotions mingle together as I grieve the loss of a godly, gone-too-soon partner and father, yet rejoice in the assurance I’ll see him again.

My adult daughters and I often text in the evenings, checking in with each other, comparing notes on the day’s activities. As bedtime approached the night of the 19th, Jessie texted, “Check out Sports Center. I think I might be on a Kiss Cam clip from the Hawks game.” Mary and I texted back excitedly that we’d be sure to watch. It was close to midnight so I set my DVR and went to bed. When I checked my phone the next morning, the flurry of texting between the sisters had continued as the video quickly went viral on the internet. Jessie, dubbed “Pizza Girl” by her newly-adoring fans, became an overnight sensation with Twitter posts proclaiming her a “national treasure” and “the hero we need now”. Her Facebook page nearly crashed as friends, including many from grade school and college, posted comments and congratulations. By the end of the week, the clip had appeared on The Today Show, had been picked up by countless internet news and entertainment sites, and had received nearly 2 million views on YouTube.

By now you may be thinking something along the lines of, “I don’t need to read a mother’s blog post wherein she brags about her daughter becoming an internet phenomenon.” But please keep reading. You see, Jessie isn’t really the main protagonist . . . her loving Heavenly Father is . . .

Two weeks before the Kiss Cam video appeared, Jessie and I met for lunch at Panera. When we sat down to eat, Jessie happily proclaimed, “I had two free items on my card, Mom. I needed a win today!” Little did we know, that was just a warm up.

God knows how to give good gifts to his children, ones that are tailor-made for them. Furthermore, his timing is perfect. April 19th will always be a hard day for our family as we mourn our loss and wonder what life might have been like had Ray been with us across all the years he’s been gone. Now, however, there’s a footnote to that day – “Pizza Girl” was introduced to the world and the fun and delight her antics brought to so many will be forever tied to April 19th.

But wait, there’s more. Jessie’s sense of humor has been evident since her earliest days. Her comedic timing is enviable as she entertains family, friends and community theater audiences. And where did her sense of humor come from? Her dad. I can still see them stretched out together on Saturday mornings, watching cartoons and laughing. Yes, I like to think Ray was chuckling right along with everyone else as Jessie devoured those pizza slices, completely overshadowing the couple smooching in front of her.

From something as small as two free Panera items to things as over-the-top as instant internet fame, we can count on our Father to reach out to us with gifts so personal and well-timed they leave no doubt He knows us intimately. May we have eyes that perceive those gifts, hearts that embrace the Giver and lips that sing his praise as we tell others of his amazing love.

A different kind of grief

“19 years on the 19th”. That phrase has been echoing in my mind for the past several weeks as yet another anniversary of my husband’s sudden death approached. Shortly after lunch 19 years ago today I told Ray goodbye for the last time . . .

In 1997 the 19th fell on a Saturday. It was a beautiful, warm day, much like today. Life was proceeding normally – Ray left for his job at The Home Depot, I and my young daughters (ages 10 and 7 at the time) went shopping for summer attire. Mary, Jessie and I returned home around 7pm. We weren’t in the house 10 minutes when the phone rang. Chris, a patient care specialist from Kennestone Hospital was calling to tell me Ray had been brought to the emergency room from work and I needed to get there as soon as possible. No other details. It wasn’t until we were in a private room at the hospital that I got the devastating, life-changing news.

After a few questions about Ray’s health, Chris said a doctor would be in to talk to me. I pleaded, “Can’t you at least tell me if he’s alive?” For a moment she just looked at me. I asked more urgently, “Is he alive?” And then came the awful reply, “No, honey, he isn’t.” That scene, her words and the gasp of disbelief that simultaneously escaped me and my little girls will be forever etched in my mind.

But oh how God has comforted, upheld and sustained us across all the years since that fateful night. Over and over again He’s proved himself as a protector of this widow and a Father to my fatherless girls. [1]

Our pastor recently began a sermon series on Philippians. The past two weeks he’s reminded us that Biblically-based joy is not dependent on circumstances. It’s grounded in the assurances of God regarding the past, present and future found in His Word. Our faith won’t exempt us from hardship. Believers will face trials and troubles of various kinds. Jesus told us as much, but He didn’t stop there. He encouraged us to take heart because He’s overcome the world. [2]

We know the end of the story. Even now He’s preparing a place for us.[3] So we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. [4] There will be times when we’re hurt and disappointed, times when we may cry out, “Why, Lord?”, but we won’t be alone for He’s promised to never leave us.[5] In our humanity we’ll experience a full range of emotions associated with the events of our lives – Jesus, fully man, wept over Lazarus’ death even though being fully God, He knew He’d raise him – yet the Truth will allow us to not be controlled by our feelings.

Soon after hearing Chris’s answer, it was as if a giant door slammed shut in my mind. Looking back, I realize I couldn’t have taken in the enormity of it all at one time without crumbling. Instead, the Lord provided a protective, albeit primarily subconscious, bubble of denial and disbelief. It allowed the reality of Ray’s death to drip into my soul bit by bit over weeks and months as I was ready to accept it. In the days immediately after, I was in a state of shock, yet the Lord enabled me to make difficult decisions regarding the visitation, service and Ray’s final resting place. Most amazing, He gave me the strength to speak for a few minutes at the end of his funeral. I’ll close this post with the sentiments I expressed when concluding my remarks that day.

None of us knows when the last goodbye will be said. Keep current in your relationships. Tell your family you love them. Thank your friends. Hug people who are dear to you. Let them know you care. And let us leave today rejoicing because we know Ray is in the presence of God. I believe he’s planting flowers right now and I look forward to joining him in God’s garden one day.

055

 

[1] Psalm 68:5

[2] John 16:33

[3] John 14:2-3

[4] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

[5] Deuteronomy 31:6, 8