Help Is on the Way

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.
1 Thessalonians 4:16

A Faithful Friend

It took several months after my husband’s fatal heart attack before I was ready to hear the specifics of his final hours. But, when I was, one of his closest colleagues shared those details with me.

After describing Ray’s busy afternoon helping customers with plants and garden supplies at The Home Depot, Barbara went on to recount how she was one of those waiting in line to perform CPR prior to the EMTs’ arrival. Though she didn’t get to do so, she was unwilling to leave her friend’s side and asked if she could ride to the hospital in the ambulance with Ray. When the paramedics denied that request, Barbara followed close behind in her own vehicle as the ambulance’s siren wailed, clearing a path through traffic.  

I think of Ray and that ambulance ride almost every time I hear a siren. And when I do, I say a brief prayer that the Lord will be with the emergency personnel and those who will receive their aid.

Another Day, Another Siren

On the morning of April 20, 2021, 24 years and a day after Ray’s sudden death, I stood on my parents’ driveway awaiting the arrival of the fire department EMTs. I knew from previous calls to 911 that they’d be the first on the scene. Having already let my adult children know Mom had fallen and most likely broken her hip, I texted, “Paramedics are on their way. I hear the sirens.”

The firetruck pulled up by the curb, its siren silenced upon entering the neighborhood. Struggling to contain my tears, I led the three solemn men into the house. Two knelt beside Mom, comforting her and assessing her condition, while the third asked Dad and me a series of questions regarding her medical history and the circumstances surrounding her fall.

Soon a second siren signaled the approach of the ambulance. The crew conferred with those already tending to Mom and took over her care once apprised of the situation. I expect the image of them carrying her out of the house, cradled in her pink sheet, pain and resignation lining her face, will stay with me the rest of my life.

I felt so helpless as the paramedics loaded Mom, closed the doors, and drove away. Yet even in my despair, I knew I wasn’t alone, and neither was Mom.

Faithful God

The Bible, God’s infallible Word, is one continuous story of God keeping His promise to be with His chosen people. The sweet communion Adam and Eve enjoyed with God was broken when they disobeyed His command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:1-10). But their disobedience didn’t catch God by surprise. Before the foundation of the world, the Father and Son covenanted to save a people for themselves, even though it would cost the precious blood of the perfect Son (Ephesians 1:3-10).

Hundreds of years passed from the time of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 until the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In those intervening years, God sent angels and prophets with messages to affirm His promise.

And then, in the fullness of time, Jesus, Son of God, yet fully man, was born in Bethlehem. An angel brought the good news of great joy to shepherds tending their flocks by night (Luke 2:1-12). Help had arrived in the form of a tiny baby Who would live a sinless life, take our infirmities upon Himself, and pay the penalty we owed (Isaiah 53:5-6). 

The message of hope resounded through the heavens. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)

The Promised Helper

Jesus dwelt among us for a while, full of grace and truth, but He didn’t come to stay, at least not yet. His disciples were distraught at the thought of life without Him, but He promised to be with us always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20b). He even went so far as to say it was better for Him to depart so the Holy Spirit could come (John 16:7). Indeed, the promised Helper dwells within every child of God, reminding us of His promises and directives and empowering us to persevere (John 14:25-26).

And when trials beset us, and we don’t even know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26-27).

A Trumpet Call

God is not a man that He can lie. He is trustworthy and faithful (Numbers 23:19). All of His promises find their yes and amen in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). Though God has already fulfilled many of His promises, ultimate consummation awaits. A day is coming when the mighty trumpet of God will herald Jesus’ return.

Unlike Jesus’ first coming, barely noticed by the world, His second will be impossible to ignore as He assumes His earthly, eternal reign. Every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). Our rescue will be complete. Death will be swallowed up in victory once and for all, and the dwelling place of God will be with man (Revelation 21:1-4).

Until then, we will face hardships, but we can take heart, Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33). The darkness has not quenched the Light, and it never will.

O Lord, how I look forward to the day of Jesus’ return when You will make all things new, and death will be no more. I thank You that while we wait, confident in all your promises, we’re never alone as Your indwelling Spirit guides, helps, and comforts us.

Inside Job

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
1Peter 3:3-4

A Reasonable Request

As longtime readers of my blog know, I have a number of treasured plants on my small suburban property, many of which were planted by my late husband, Ray. Although it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite, my beautiful crape myrtle ranks high on the list. This isn’t the first post inspired by the beloved plant and probably won’t be the last.[1]

The stately ‘Natchez’[2] was a mere toddler when Ray planted it over 25 years ago. It now reaches the roofline of my two-story house, and its canopy is almost as wide as the tree is tall. My neighbors have been patient with branches that grew over the property line, only to drop tiny white blossoms on their driveway each summer. But, alas, they received a letter from our HOA about a related matter, which led them to kindly request that I have the offending limbs removed.

As one who’s known far and wide for my annual late-winter plea, “No crape murder!”, I could feel panic rising within me upon hearing my neighbor’s request.  I calmly assured him I would take care of it, but my thoughts were churning. Who could I trust to do the necessary work without maiming my beautiful tree? I had to find someone who would respect the tree and understand its intrinsic value. I needed an arborist.

Professional Help

I called a reputable company whose client list includes the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The first thing their associate said as he exited his vehicle and strode toward me boosted my confidence. Surveying the array of plants in my front garden, he declared approvingly, “I can see you don’t have a typical neighborhood property.” When he proceeded to call one of my unique specimen plants by its proper name, I knew I’d contacted the right people.

Even though our subsequent conversations further allayed my fears, an undercurrent of anxiety developed as pruning day approached. The 3-person crew arrived promptly at 8 a.m. My cheerful greeting belied the angst I was feeling, but it was evident the young man carrying the chain saw had been briefed not only on the work to be done but also on the tree’s significance.

I went inside, leaving the arborist and his helpers to their work. Even though they labored for nearly three hours, I resisted the urge to go back outside. I occasionally peeked out windows instead to check on their progress. I prayed for their safety – and that I’d still recognize my tree when they were finished.

I finally ventured out, preparing myself for whatever I might encounter. The sight of my tree left me speechless. It was gorgeous. I imagined the majestic tree, relieved of its extra weight and ragged branches, sighing in relief, much as I did after my first post-Covid-shutdown haircut.

As I stood next to the sturdy trunk, gazing up into the magnificent canopy, I realized much of the work had taken place on the inside. Before the pruning, anyone viewing the crape myrtle from the street would have seen its lush, flower-laden canopy. But what they couldn’t see were the dead branches, crossed limbs, and water shoots[3], which were neither attractive nor beneficial.

In the Master’s Hands

As frequently happens when I’m working in my garden, the Lord brought to mind a spiritual connection – in this case, the type of beauty we’re called to cultivate. It’s right to care for our bodies and be good stewards of our physical selves. Yet we often spend an excessive amount of time and money making sure our outsides are beautiful while neglecting the seat of true beauty, our hearts.

Sometimes we’re blind to the ugliness within. Then again, we recognize it and attempt to cover it up. Or,  we may apply pitiful bandaids to our deep heart wounds, seeking to heal ourselves in ways that are temporary at best or harmful at worst. But, just as the crape myrtle outgrew me long ago, making it impossible for me to do the necessary pruning, there’s no way for us to cultivate the beauty of the soul that’s precious in the Lord’s sight without the sanctifying power of the Spirit.

Praise God for blessing believers with that very power! First, the Spirit enlightens the eyes of our hearts that we might see aright (Ephesians 1:16-18). Then the same power that raised Jesus from the dead continues to work in us (Ephesians 1:19-20) to will and do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Though our outer selves decline with age, our inner selves are renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16), becoming increasingly beautiful as we are transformed more and more into the image of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Though the transformation process may be rigorous at times and require significant pruning (John 15:1-2), we can trust the One Who loves us more than we can comprehend (Ephesians 3:18-19). He knows what it will take to bring out the beauty He already sees in us and will be faithful to finish what He’s begun (Philippians 1:6).

Dear Lord, thank You for the gift of Your Spirit at work within us to create imperishable beauty. May that beauty be evident in quiet, gentle spirits that bless others and draw them to You.  


[1] I included several as devotions in my book, Be Still, Quiet Moments With God in My Garden. See for example, “Prudent Pruning” (Archives, October 2020), “Exfoliation – Reprise” (Archives, September 2020), and “Bearing All Things” (Archives, February 2017).

[2] Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Natchez’

[3] Water sprouts or water shoots are shoots that arise from the trunk of a tree or from branches that are several years old, from latent buds.

Our Refuge

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Psalm 61:1-3

Like Dominoes

This time last year, we were at the beginning of what we thought would be a couple of weeks of quarantine. Surely if we all stayed home and kept our germs to ourselves, we’d be back to normal by Easter, right? In light of all that’s transpired since, those notions seem so naïve now.

Like most life-changing events, the early days of the pandemic etched images into my memory – bare grocery store shelves, cheerful drawings and encouraging messages chalked onto sidewalks, empty streets in place of rush-hour traffic. But one of my first Covid-related recollections is my dad’s statement that the ACC had canceled the rest of their basketball tournament and that the NCAA basketball championship would likely meet the same fate.  Incredulous, I pooh-poohed the thought. “What? No way they won’t have March Madness!”

But there was no March Madness 2020. And once the cancellations began, they just kept coming, like a legion of perfectly arranged dominoes, falling one after another, until we didn’t know what to expect next. Easter came and went with no return to normalcy. It was the saddest day of the entire time of isolation for me because I couldn’t go to church and repeatedly exchange the cherished greeting, “He is Risen!”  “He is Risen indeed!” I texted the first phrase to friends and family. Many replied with the second. But it wasn’t the same as sitting together in worship, rejoicing over our Savior’s resurrection victory.

As days turned into weeks, it became evident there would be no quick and easy fix, that some aspects of what we considered normal might not return at all. It didn’t take much to make me cry. Not deep, heaving sobs, but drops of sorrow welling up and spilling over. And then my daughter sent an article, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” It put words to my tears and our collective sense of loss.

Naming it didn’t make it all better, but it was affirming and helped me understand the underlying sense of angst I felt.

Here Come Those Tears Again

I’m thankful for the pieces of my life that have gradually returned over the ensuing months  – hug-filled time with my grandchildren, fully-stocked grocery shelves, in-person worship.

Even so, I’m dealing with feelings similar to those associated with the early, uncertain days of the pandemic when we didn’t know what to expect next but surmised it most likely wouldn’t be good news.  This time, the circumstances are personal, not global.

My dad and I have spent the past few weeks taking Mom to various appointments in an attempt to help her find relief for excruciating pain in her left leg. One doctor diagnosed it as bursitis, another sciatica, while my massage therapist confirmed Mom’s muscles on that side are tight from her lower back to her foot. No wonder she’s in pain! Shots, pain meds, and massage have given her little relief. She needs to rest her leg and give it time to heal.

Even at 89-years-old, rest isn’t in Mom’s vocabulary. Her motto? “I’d rather wear out than rust out.” At 85 pounds, plagued with arthritis and osteoporosis, she’s just about fulfilled her objective. Her will is strong, but her little body is failing, and her mind isn’t as sharp as it once was.

After restless nights and days punctuated by frustration and tears, I finally realized the discomfort I’m feeling is grief, just like last year. Even if Mom’s leg gets better and she can resume some of her normal activities, she’ll never return to the vigor of her younger days. The years have taken their toll, and the relentless march of aging will continue to its ultimate conclusion as it will for all of us unless Jesus returns first.

Re-gaining Perspective

Just like last year, proper identification of my emotional state hasn’t made it all better, but it has allowed me to begin to deal with the actual source of my distress. When I woke up yesterday morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. Uncertain what the day would hold, yet expecting my daily phone call to Mom would convey news of more pain for this one who I dearly love, I preferred to stay curled up under my covers.

Despite my depressive feelings, I recited the Serenity Prayer and reminded myself God knew every detail of the hours to come. Moreover, He would give me the grace and strength I needed to face the day, going before me, walking beside me, carrying me if need be (Lamentations 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 12:9).

I came downstairs to find the first day of Spring awash with sunshine. The birds descended on the feeders as soon as I placed them on the hooks and returned inside. I perused my woodland garden and observed signs of life returning everywhere I looked. My spirits lifted as I continued reminding myself of the truth I’ve written about many times – the One who cares for the sparrows and the lilies cares for me (Matthew 6:25-33).

After breakfast, I reached out to a friend and, later, to one of my cousins, both of whom have walked the path I’m trodding now. They faithfully and lovingly cared for their mothers, even as they navigated their sorrow at watching them decline bit by bit. I received their empathy as a heaven-sent gift (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

One of my daughters stopped by. Her loving presence and genuine concern as we sat outside, catching up, warmed my heart as the afternoon sun warmed my body and dealt another blow to the lies I’d been feeling a few days ago – that I was alone in all of this.

If there was ever any doubt about our need for fellowship and friendship, the separations we’ve endured since the beginning of the pandemic have made it abundantly clear God created us for community. I’m thankful for those He’s placed in my life who want to know how I’m truly doing, who will come alongside me during hard times.

Crying Out

The Lord is abounding in steadfast love toward His children. His only begotten Son knows the hardships and heartaches that come with living as a finite being in a world wracked with the effects of sin, because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). God hears our cries, counts our tears, and bids us draw near to the throne of grace, where Jesus is seated, interceding for us (Psalm 56:8; Hebrews 4:16; Romans 8:34).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve repeatedly prayed, “Lord, I don’t know how to help Mom. Please show me what to do. Please take the pain away.” I will continue to cry out to Him –  for wisdom for me and relief for Mom – but I will also be praying for the ability to accept His will for her, knowing He’ll give her strength as He always has.[1]

As I watch Mom suffer, I grieve, but not as those who have no hope. I belong to the One who conquered death. So does she. Even if healing doesn’t come in this life, health and wholeness are guaranteed in the life to come, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Lord willing, I’ll be in church on Easter Sunday, celebrating  Jesus’ victory over death.

He is Risen!

He is Risen indeed!!

O Lord, how I thank You that You are our Refuge, an ever-present help in times of trouble, a strong tower against all our enemies, be they doubts or infirmities or death itself. Please help us come alongside each other as You come alongside us, to encourage and remind and point each other to You, the Rock that is higher than we are.

 

[1] Mom’s life verse is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Count it all Joy

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

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

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

Joy? Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.