The Anchor Holds

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

And just who was this uninvited guest? Loneliness.

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

The Crucible of Life

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

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

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

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

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

Grieving

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

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

Never Forsaken

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

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

“’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His word,
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[3]

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

 

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

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

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

It’s all about Him

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

Read that again. Let it sink in.

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

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

But look again. God is the main character.

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

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

God:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ring

So many unpleasant, unfamiliar decisions accompany the sudden death of a beloved spouse. The first few days after Ray’s passing found me shrouded in a protective state of semi-shock, barely able to think, yet having to make one difficult choice after another – dates, places and times of visitation, funeral, burial and the details of each. My mind would churn and churn and finally spit out an answer, only to go numb again until being summoned for another round of decisions.

The initial weeks of incredulity passed and the realization Ray wasn’t coming back sank deeper into my soul leaving me with new, every-bit-as difficult questions: How long should I keep his clothes? What should I do with his other things? Is there a proper time to stop wearing my wedding ring?

Every time I dreamt about Ray after giving away his clothes, I would apologize profusely, “I’m so sorry I gave your clothes away! I didn’t think you were coming back.”

Ray was never angry in those nighttime encounters. Instead, he calmly assured me, “It’s ok. I don’t need them anymore!”

Over and over, slight variations of the dream plagued my restless nights, until they and the deep-seated angst that spawned them finally subsided.

But what to do about my wedding ring?[1] I took it off about six months after Ray died, didn’t like the look or feel of my naked finger, put it back on, then went through the sequence again. When I sought to retrieve my ring from its place in my jewelry cabinet the second time, there was only an empty slot where it should have been. I closed the drawer and re-opened it more slowly, hoping, praying the ring would reappear. The repeated action, accompanied by a rising sense of panic, yielded the same result. The vacant spot glared accusingly as regret overtook me. Why, oh why had I ever taken my ring off to begin with?

The knot in my stomach grew as I tried to piece together what happened to my ring. I’d only taken it off a few days earlier. No one other than immediate family had been in my house since. A sickening realization seized me: someone had paid a visit – an HVAC technician. I hadn’t monitored his visit the day before, instead trusting him to service my furnaces and leave my things alone. How could I have been so naïve?

I called the HVAC company to report my suspicions and trailed the next tech around like a puppy on a leash as he confirmed the other guy hadn’t done the service. He’d spent the time pilfering my ring and a few other items and pawned them before I even knew they were missing.[2] He’d also been stealing from his employer; a fact discovered when they took possession of his company-issued van and inspected its contents.

I was heart-broken at losing my wedding and engagement rings, such an important part of my history with Ray. The business owner agreed to pay to have them replaced so I searched through my records, found the original receipts, including diamond and band descriptions, and called the jewelry store in Delaware. They still carried bands by that jewelry designer and they had a diamond of similar size and quality in stock. A week or so later, I received my new rings, soldered together and engraved “RNK to PLT, 8-5-83” just like the first ones.

IMG_6445I gazed in wonder at the rings and bittersweet tears filled my eyes. Gratitude for having my precious rings restored as close as possible to the originals mingled with sorrow. It took a little time and money, but I was able to replace my rings. Yet I knew if I sold all my belongings and scraped together every cent of the proceeds, I couldn’t ever pay anyone enough to get Ray back. One day, I will go to him. But he will never return to me. (2 Samuel 12:23)

Reverend Bob Auffarth pastored the church we attended in Delaware. On more than one occasion Pastor Auffarth commented, “I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul”, as he reminded us of the temporal nature of material possessions. His words took on new meaning the evening of April 19, 1997. My young daughters and I hurried to Kennestone Hospital, clinging to hope that Ray was alive. Instead, we received the unimaginable news he’d suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack. After making a few phone calls and gathering my wits as best I could, we readied ourselves to leave the hospital, our world forever changed. The patient care representative handed me a small plastic bag containing Ray’s wallet, watch and a few coins. Pastor Auffarth’s words came rushing back to me. Ray hadn’t taken even a penny with him.

Scripture is clear on the kind of treasure we’re to store up – the kind that can’t be stolen, the kind that will last for an eternity in heaven, the kind no U-Haul is capable of carrying. (Matthew 6:19-21) Knowing that Ray stored up much heavenly treasure during his brief life comforted me as I clutched the tiny bag in my trembling hands. He was a kind, gentle, godly man, who quietly served others and lived out his faith.

May we do likewise, using our gifts and abilities to benefit others and glorify God. All we have and are has been entrusted to us (1 Chronicles 29:14) One day we’ll be called upon to give an account of our stewardship (Mathew 25:14-30) and the nature of the treasure we’ve laid up will be revealed. (Romans 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

 

[1] My wedding band and engagement ring were soldered together so the pattern on the bands would be aligned correctly. So, even though I refer to the missing “ring”, both rings were stolen.

[2] This information came out during the police investigation.

Milestones and memories

1-10-5-67-5-35

Self-picked numbers on a Powerball ticket? Nope! Those numbers relate to early-August marital milestones:

  • 8-1-2008 – Ten years ago, daughter Mary and her high school sweetheart, Justin, tied the knot outdoors on a muggy summer evening. At the reception which followed, over 300 family members and friends joyfully celebrated the union of two young people they had watched grow up.
  • 8-5-1951 – My parents said their vows before a South Carolina Justice of the Peace since Dad’s brief leave from the Air Force wouldn’t accommodate the church ceremony Mom hoped for. Their now-67 years together are a true testament to the power of prayer and perseverance.
  • 8-5-1983 – Ray and I married on Mom and Dad’s 32nd wedding anniversary in a stuffy, air-conditionless sanctuary filled with wilting attendees, some of whom still refer to our ceremony as the hottest wedding EVER. For the past week, I’ve been reminiscing, yearning to celebrate a 35th anniversary with my long-departed spouse.

I’d always dreamed of a spring wedding. But when I met my prince charming, he hailed from South Dakota farm country and spring is planting season. Someone suggested August as the best month for our mid-western relatives to travel. The 5th fell on a Friday that year, so it seemed like a great idea to get married on my parents’ anniversary, making the event doubly-special.

IMG_638125 years later, Mary and Justin chose to wed in the warmest month of the year too, but by then, there was no dad to walk Mary down the aisle. Instead, she bravely trod the runner-clad distance herself, since no one could take the place of the man who first captured her little-girl heart. I linked arms with her to walk the last few steps to the altar, then gave her away, without reservation, to a young man I knew her dad would not only approve of, but would have been good friends with. A single red rose[1] and an empty chair next to mine served to remind all in attendance of the one we carried in our hearts.

There are no days when thoughts of Ray don’t inhabit my mind, not a single one when I don’t long to talk to him. But there are some seasons when the thoughts are more numerous, the recollections bittersweet. April, the month of his passing, and August, laden with anniversaries of all those family nuptials, bring with them so many memories. My reminiscences are occasionally punctuated with, “Why, Lord?” The question escapes my soul not in a shake-my-fist manner as you might imagine, but like a deep, lonely sigh. From my finite human perspective, having Ray with us all these years seems like a better storyline. Surely we would have benefitted greatly from the presence of a godly, loving husband and father and now, grandfather, right?

I distinctly remember the point in my grieving process when I had to wrestle with the fact Ray’s death was no accident. Accepting God’s sovereignty was a critically important crossroads in my faith journey. I knew God hadn’t glanced away only to turn back and be surprised to see Ray in the throes of a fatal heart attack. No, God never lost sight of Ray. (Psalm 34:15) Each one of my beloved husband’s days was written in God’s book before even one came to be. (Psalm 139:16)

Within hours of Ray’s passing, I posed a question to one of our pastors, “Do you think Ray can see us? Not to see how sad we are, but to know how much we love him?”

Pastor Allen replied kindly, carefully, “Scripture isn’t clear on what the departed know, but God can make known to them whatever He sees fit.”

I’ve often prayed God would let Ray discern how much I love him, to know there’s a place in my heart only he can fill and to see the lasting, positive impact of his unconditional love on my life. And on the many momentous days we’ve experienced without him – high school and college graduations, weddings, the births of three precious grandchildren – I’ve pleaded, “Lord, please help Ray to see. This is his legacy too.”

Yes, my heart aches when I envision how things could have been. Yet I know my story would be so different if Ray had been with me all these years. I most likely wouldn’t have gone back to school to study horticulture. I may not have started this blog. And I’m certain I wouldn’t comprehend the love and faithfulness of my Father as intimately, had I not been depending on Him instead of my earthly husband. (Psalm 68:5)

God writes our stories in such a way that we’ll be conformed more and more to the likeness of Jesus, fitted for eternal life with Him. (Romans 8:28-30) And how better to know our Savior than to partake of God’s sustaining grace through times of hardship and sorrow, to die to self-will and accept God’s plan as best. (Matthew 26:36-39) It’s not all about happiness in the here-and-now, but it does have a delightful ending and a promise of eternal peace and joy in His presence. (Psalm 16:11)

IMG_6379My grandchildren are getting old enough to understand the man by my side in the wedding photo on Mary’s wall is their grandpa in heaven. My heart leapt yesterday when 2-year-old Emma mentioned Grandpa Kuipers for the first time. I love telling them about Ray, sharing his love for God and people and plants and assuring them they’ll get to meet him one day.

As I’ve thought about my would-be 35th anniversary and 13-year marriage, a line kept skipping through my mind: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” And so I smile, because Ray and I did happen. I praise God for blessing me with a godly husband, whose love and influence continue to this day and who I’ll surely see again. Our marriage was so short, but, in light of eternity, our temporary separation will be as well. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

[1] Please see, “A single red rose” in Archives, December 2014, to understand the significance of this floral choice.

Remember Me

Our final fortnight, one fateful day, the following week – each year when the wheel of time comes to rest on another April, I intentionally, tenderly open my drawer of memories and recall the happenings of the fourth month of 1997.[1] Even after 21 years, the details are clear, etched in my mind because of the life-changing impact of the central event.

Daughters, 10-year-old Mary and 7-year-old Jessie, and I spent Spring break week with my parents, returning home on April 13th. As we prepared to re-enter our worlds of work and school, we had no notion our remaining time with Ray, our beloved husband and father, would be so short.

I cherish the final evenings we spent at home, particularly the last time Ray and I walked the property together. He pointed out favorite plants and talked of future landscaping plans, some of which I’ve implemented over the years. Before we strolled our yard, we went for a walk in the neighborhood. Ray’s inability to reach the top of what we referred to as the “big hill” due to a shortness of breath was my first inkling anything might be wrong. Nonetheless, the next few days proceeded normally enough, until the moment that Saturday night when my young daughters and I heard the news that forever shattered normal as we knew it.

Anticipating an upcoming conference and another customer visit as I completed my biannual season of travel, I kept telling myself, “One more hard week, then I can put my suitcases away for a few months.” Oh how I wish I’d been able to keep those commitments! They would have been so easy to handle compared to what occurred instead, resulting in what is still the most difficult week of my life: calling family and friends to tell them of Ray’s fatal heart attack; planning and attending his services – visitation Wednesday evening, funeral Thursday morning, burial Friday afternoon in the cemetery of a tiny country church in North Carolina. The familiarity of boarding a plane and sleeping in a hotel would have been far preferable to the uncharted waters I was forced to navigate. I coped with one unthinkable decision at a time as my shock-shrouded mind struggled to process reality.

A torrent of regrets came rushing in. The girls and I were finishing lunch when Ray left for work. Why hadn’t I gotten up to hug him goodbye? Why didn’t I call him that afternoon to see how his day was going? Why wasn’t I kinder in general? Why was I such an awful wife? No time to say goodbye, no opportunity to apologize, no chance to say “I love you” one more time. The remorse and sorrow mingled, creating a bitter brew.

Over two decades have come and gone since, tempering both of those strong emotions. Although I still miss Ray every day and wish I could share my life with him, the raw, searing pain has diminished. I also have a more balanced view of our marriage. I know the measure of what we felt for each other wasn’t predicated on what did or didn’t happen during our last moments together. In fact, our love for each other and our daughters fueled my determination to finish what Ray and I had started, to honor his memory by raising our girls well. Furthermore, his love for me was unconditional. God used it to bless and change me. Its healing impact has endured. Talking about Ray – his character, his faith and, yes, even his foibles – comes naturally to me. I want others to know and remember him, because he’s too special to forget.

This week, I have the pleasure of vacationing in Delaware, visiting gardens and longtime friends, opening other memory-laden drawers in my mind. Not only did I grow up in this area, but Ray and I met, married and started our family here. Contrary to what you might expect, recollections of those early years together have been accompanied by deep joy and abiding thankfulness. Even though I would have chosen to spend many more seasons in wedlock than in widowhood, I praise God for blessing me with a godly husband at all and for our progeny which now includes three wonderful grandchildren.

During his Easter sermon,[2] our pastor reminded us that Jesus’ resurrection ensures not only eternal spiritual life for those who call on Him as Lord and Savior, but that our physical bodies will be raised – whole, incorruptible, no longer susceptible to the ravages of aging or sickness.[3]

055When I visit the cemetery where Ray is laid to rest, I usually sit on the coping surrounding my grandparents’ graves. There I contemplate what it will be like when Jesus returns. In addition to Ray and my much-loved Murve and Papa, my baby sister, several aunts and uncles and a pair of great-grandparents are sleeping there, awaiting the call to arise. We can be assured that glorious day will come to pass, because God keeps His promises.[4] He sent a Savior, who bore our sins and paid the debt we could never pay so that we could take on His righteousness and dwell in His Holy Presence forever. [5] Jesus is preparing a place. He’ll summon us Home.[6]

Each April when I mark another anniversary of Ray’s sudden death, I remind myself I’m another year closer to seeing his beautiful brown eyes again and hearing his happy laughter. I’ll finally get to give him the long-delayed hug. Our reunion is guaranteed by the priceless blood shed on our behalf by the One worthy of all glory, praise and honor,[7] the One too precious to forget.[8]

 

[1] Please see “In remembrance”, Archives, April 2015 for my explanation of “memory drawers”.

[2] “Why the Resurrection of Jesus Matters”, Pastor Ben Duncan, April 1, 2018, Grace Covenant Church.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:52-57

[4] Hebrews 10:23

[5] 1 Peter 1:3-5

[6] John 14:2-3

[7] Revelation 5:12

[8] Luke 22:19

A well-lived life

I had another theme in mind for last week’s post, but what follows begged to be written. In fact, I attempted to comply on what would have been my dear husband’s 60th birthday since it wasn’t possible to regale him with a surprise party as I would have preferred. Instead, I opened the drawer of memories surrounding our life together and tenderly extracted a few to savor. I asked others to share their recollections. By the end of the day, my efforts to celebrate Ray’s life brought about an unanticipated consequence. I was overwhelmed with sorrow, having been reminded of all I lost on a warm spring evening nearly 21 years ago, when Ray died a few weeks after his 39th birthday.

In the ensuing days, I’ve regained a more balanced perspective and can unequivocally say with Alfred Lord Tennyson, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’” Thus, I’m finally ready to record my reminiscences.

Ray entered the world in a small South Dakota farming community on February 6, 1958, the sixth of seven siblings. From what I’ve been told, he was a good kid who didn’t give his mom[1] or his teachers any trouble. IMG_5139He loved animals and even thought about going to veterinary school, though I, somewhat selfishly, am glad he chose horticulture instead. Not only did his decision eventually lead him to study in Delaware, where our paths crossed, but it contributed significantly to my own passion for plants years later.

We met at a church-sponsored singles group, attending for the first time on the same night. I watched as Ray interacted with other attendees throughout the fellowship time, listening with interest to their various tales. When we finally had a chance to talk, his kindness and warmth were evident. IMG_3593After several months of persistent pursuit by this handsome young man, I was won over by his gift of a single red rose on my birthday in December and we began dating in earnest.[2] With the blessing of our families and friends, we became engaged shortly before my next birthday and were wed the following August.

I struggled in those early months as we adjusted to married life. As an only child and an introvert, I wasn’t accustomed to sharing space with anyone else on a full-time basis. Nevertheless, Ray patiently accepted my shortcomings and God in his goodness gradually knit us together as one.[3]

We purchased a townhouse in 1984, welcomed our first daughter in 1986, and moved to a single-family home shortly after the birth of our second daughter in 1989. IMG_4123Ever-supportive, Ray was all-in when it came to our relocation to Georgia in 1992, a move precipitated by my employer. We were partners, working demanding jobs and raising our girls, teaming up to tackle the to-dos required to keep our household running. Until April 19, 1997 when it all came to an end.

Or did it? At Ray’s funeral, one of our pastors said he hadn’t accomplished anything that brought him great fame or world renown. Not many of us do. But, as Rev. Allen went on to say, Ray was a godly man, who consistently lived his faith, who could be counted on by those who depended on him. As they shared their recollections last week, friends from Ray’s grade-school years through his adulthood recalled the same qualities – kindness, a warm smile, a gentle soul, an unforgettable laugh. A well-lived life affects others for good, no matter the size of our sphere of influence.

I am forever grateful for the gift of Ray’s presence in my life. I wish it had been so much longer, but I’ve come to realize it is a gift with lasting significance, one that has begotten many other gifts. Our wonderful daughters top the list. IMG_1652Sure, I might have married someone else and even had two girls. But they wouldn’t be Mary with Ray’s beautiful brown eyes, or Jessie with his sense of humor. Furthermore, Ray’s unconditional love changed how I viewed myself, his steadying influence kept me grounded in truth and his death caused me to depend on God like never before. They still do.

Ray was a kind, godly, gentle man whose life displayed the fruits of the Spirit.[4] But he wasn’t perfect. Scripture makes it clear only One has lived a sinless life. Moreover, He did it on our behalf, so that we might partake of his righteousness and be reconciled to God.[5] Ray believed that. I believe that. Thus I look forward to being reunited some sweet day. In fact, I hope Ray and I will get to work and worship side by side in God’s perfect garden.055

Lord, thank you for your many good gifts, including love and relationships and precious people like Ray. May we be life-givers as he was, impacting others for good and pointing them to Jesus[6], the greatest gift of all.

 

 

 

[1] Ray was only 5 years old when his father passed away suddenly of a heart attack shortly before his 41st birthday.

[2] For more on our courtship, see “A single red rose” in Archives, December 2014.

[3] Genesis 2:18-24

[4] Galatians 5:22-23

[5] Romans 5:1-11

[6] 1 John 3:18

Perseverance

We’ve had a rough winter here in metro Atlanta. Ten inches of snow in December, another 2-inch “dusting” in January plus a week-long string of high temperatures in the 30’s and lows in the teens and 20’s. We also awoke to single-digit wind chill readings on multiple occasions. Brrr!! I realize some of you may be perusing this from places where you experience long winters accompanied by plenty of snow and frigid temps every year. Thirty-seven degrees would feel like a welcome heat wave. But, after 25 years, this Delaware-transplant has more than acclimated to milder winters and is ready for the beginning of another Southern Spring!

IMG_0420After several days of near-average weather, a cold front blew in late yesterday, resulting in another brisker-than-usual day today. Nonetheless the sky was that brilliant blue that beckons me outside so I bundled up and went for a stroll through my neighborhood, praising God for the warm sun and glorious cerulean canopy. When I returned home, I just had to walk the property. Even though we’ve had an extra-cold couple of months, I wanted to see what signs of life I might be ableIMG_5078 to find. I wasn’t disappointed. My witch hazel is in full bloom, buds are ready to open any day on a number of Lenten roses and foliage of early daffodils has poked up through the soil.

These sightings brought a smile to my face, but what I found when I carefully moved the leaves back from the locations of some spring ephemerals elicited squeals of delight. Yes, if anyone had been close IMG_5133enough, they would have overheard several exclamations of, “Oh, yay! Thanks, Lord!!”, as I discovered the tiniest evidence of returning trilliums and trout lilies, their miniscule leaves barely protruding above the soil. I gently replaced their leafy blanket, buoyed by the anticipation of seeing them in all their glory in a few weeks.

And I was reminded of another late-winter day nearly 20 years ago when my heart was anything but light. I’d ventured out to start clearing the leaves from the planting beds, a task my husband would normally have performed. But, as I was gradually coming to accept, that and so many of his previous responsibilities shifted to me after a heart attack felled him suddenly a mere two months after his 39th birthday the year before. Grief and reality intermingled and permeated my soul. Nonetheless, just like today, when I moved the leaves, I saw tiny perennials popping up – plants that Ray had acquired and cared for. Seeing them gave me hope. If those tiny plants could survive the cold, dark winter, maybe I would survive mine as well.[1]

I’ve benefitted from many hours of garden therapy since, as God has used numerous aspects of his remarkable creation to encourage, teach and minister to me. Spending time with Him in my yard is indeed one of my most cherished pastimes.

Furthermore, plants’ perseverance through less-than-favorable circumstances is, for me, one of their most endearing characteristics, reminding me of my mom’s oft-uttered admonition, “We can’t give up! We have to hold onto our faith.” The Apostle James goes a step further when he instructs us to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds, because we know that the testing of our faith produces perseverance.[2]   I don’t know about you, but I rarely ever (ok, make that never) pray to be tested and I still say I wouldn’t have volunteered to be widowed at age 38. Nonetheless, I am certain I know God – his love, his faithfulness, his character – more intimately because He sovereignly incorporated that event into my story.

James says we must let perseverance finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. And Paul assures us we’re not striving alone as He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.[3] Each of us has our own unique set of difficulties, our own winters to endure, but He who watches over the birds of the air and the flowers of the field cares infinitely more for his children.[4]

The garden may appear lifeless these days, but the plants are merely awaiting their time to burst forth, reminding us of our resurrected Savior and his promise to return to set all things right and to dwell among his people forever.[5]

Oh, Lord, how we look forward to your promised return.[6] Please help us to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer as we await the glorious day of your coming.[7]

[1] I wrote my first blog post about this experience. Please see “Consider it pure joy” in Archives, July 2014.

[2] James 1:2-3

[3] Philippians 1:6

[4] Matthew 6:25-34

[5] Revelation 21:1-5

[6] John 14:1-3

[7] Romans 12:12

A most glorious beginning

As chronicled in an earlier post , death has visited my family often in October. (See “The gift of remembrance” in Archives, October 2014)  Three of my four grandparents, a beloved aunt, a cherished uncle – all six passed away during the tenth month of different years.

This fall finds us bereaved once again, as son-in-law Justin’s grandfather completed his earthly sojourn two weeks ago. His memorial service was a celebration of a life well-lived, a race faithfully run, a servant safely Home.[1] As Justin and his brother and cousin shared memories of their grandfather, it was clear he made a lasting, positive impact on their lives.

Though their memories won’t be as clear or numerous, “Papa” touched the lives of the next generation as well. Since his great-grandfather’s passing, Joshua has comforted himself and others with truth: “He’s not sick anymore. He’s in heaven!”; “In heaven, guess what? You can’t die again! Papa is there waiting for us!”; and, possibly my favorite, “Papa doesn’t have to pray anymore. He can just walk right up and talk to Jesus!”

 

 

 

IMG_4547Oh the beauty and simplicity of child-like faith, the kind of faith Jesus commended[2], the kind we’re told to pass on to our offspring.[3] It’s apparent Papa followed that mandate, modeling a godly walk for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Indeed, it is the greatest legacy any of us can bestow, the greatest joy to know our children are walking in the truth.[4]

Nonetheless, we grieve our loss when a loved one is called Home. Though we’re assured the separation is temporary, their departure leaves a silence, an empty spot, that only their voice, their presence can fill. Someone asked me recently if I would wish Ray back. I hesitated. I know the spiritually-correct answer. How could I be so selfish as to ask him to return from Paradise?[5] Yet, I think back over all we’ve experienced and endured without him over the past 20 years and, in my frail humanity, I wish, oh-so-much, that he’d been here – to watch his daughters grow into amazing young women, to play with his grandchildren, to tend our garden with me.

The One who records our tears on his scroll[6] understands. Moments before He called Lazarus from the tomb, even knowing his Father would hear his plea to raise his friend, Jesus wept.[7] Being full of compassion, He shared the sisters’ sorrow and He shares ours.

But unlike our human friends who come alongside us with sincere condolences and ministrations in our times of need, Jesus can also meet our deepest need, the need to be reconciled to God. Our Savior took our sins upon himself and paid our penalty so we may joyfully proclaim[8], “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer it is the most glorious beginning!”[9]

As you might imagine, whenever I attend a funeral or memorial service, I think back to Ray’s services. My ability to hold my emotions in check varies. I did reasonably well last week until the final song, “Twelfth of Never”, requested by Justin’s grandmother. While strains of the Johnny Mathis classic filled the church, tears trickled, then streamed from my eyes as I was reminded love never dies.[10]

 

IMG_1102

During Ray’s graveside service, one of the pastors told Mary and Jessie their lives would be blessed by having had a godly father even though he was with them for a relatively short time. I’m thankful Ray loved us so well that we continue to feel his love, thankful for his saving faith that guarantees we’ll see him again.[11]

I recently read a thought-provoking statement: “We are all under sentence of death; we are all terminal cases.”[12] Sometimes death comes quickly, unexpectedly, as with Ray’s passing. At other times it’s preceded by a long, arduous illness. IMG_1539Regardless of its manner, it is a certainty.[13] The author went on to say, “For the believer, the time of death becomes far less daunting a factor when seen in the light of eternity. Although death remains a formidable opponent, it is, from another perspective, the portal through which we pass to consummated life. We pass through death, and death dies. And the more a Christian lives in the consciousness of God’s presence here, the easier it is to anticipate the unqualified delight that will be experienced in God’s presence there.”[14] A most glorious beginning indeed!

Papa

Lord, we are like a mist.[15] Please teach us to number our days aright[16], knowing You wrote them all in your book before even one came to be.[17] Help us to fix our eyes on things above[18], to store up an imperishable treasure.[19] And may we leave a legacy of love and faith like the steadfast witnesses who have gone before us.[20]

[1] 2 Timothy 4:7-8

[2] Jesus welcoming the children is recounted in three of the four gospels: Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17.

[3] Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Deuteronomy 11:18-19.

[4] 3 John 3-5

[5] Psalm 16:11; 2 Corinthians 5:1-6

[6] Psalm 56:8

[7] John 11:1-43

[8] Isaiah 53:4-6

[9] Rev. Todd Allen made this statement during Ray’s funeral service, April 24, 1997. I’ve thought of it many times since.

[10] 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

[11] John 3:16; John 11:25-27

[12] D.A. Carson, “Be Still, My Soul, Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering”, Wheaton, IL; Nancy Guthrie/Crossway, 2010; p 117.

[13] Romans 5:12

[14] D.A. Carson, Ibid

[15] James 4:13-15

[16] Psalm 90:12

[17] Psalm 139:16

[18] 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

[19] Matthew 6:19-21

[20] Hebrews 11; Hebrews 12:1-3

‘Tis so sweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because God has never forsaken us![4]

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Ibid

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:1-9

[4] Deuteronomy 31:6

[5] Psalm 68:5

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

[7] 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

[8] Isaiah 61:3a

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

[10] Isaiah 61:3b

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