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.

Longing for Home

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

A Devastating Blow

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

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

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

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

Preparations

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

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

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

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

God’s Plan

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

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

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

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

A Promise Kept

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

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

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

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


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

Tell Them Hello

“Those whom you laid in the grave with many tears are in good keeping: you will yet see them again with joy. Believe it, think it, rest on it. It is all true.”
J.C. Ryle

“Tell them hello for me” was one of Mom’s signature sayings. Depending on who “them” referred to, she might also tack on, “and that I love them.” I delivered her message countless times over the years. Sometimes when Mom and I would muse about being reunited with our departed loved ones, we’d extend the request to the other side. One of us would say, “If you get there first, tell them hello for me.” And I would often add, “Please give Ray a big hug!”

A Wondrous Vision

As I recounted in “Either Way, It Hurts,”[1] we didn’t have many coherent conversations with Mom after the surgery to repair her broken hip. Hallucinations hounded her. She repeatedly referred to her nurses by my daughters’ names and mistook my son-in-law for one of her late brothers-in-law. One of her sweeter scenarios found us taking care of a baby. Though she referenced playing peek-a-boo with great-granddaughter Emma, I couldn’t help but wonder if the infant she was tending wasn’t my little sister, who died almost 60 years ago.

Nearly-constant fidgeting accompanied Mom’s imaginings, so I spent most of my visits standing at her bedside. I held her hands and stroked her head and arms in an attempt to calm her mind and body. Sometimes I played hymns on my phone or sang. I recited scripture and prayed.

One afternoon, as I was trying to soothe her, Mom’s gaze shifted to something beyond me. She became quiet and smiled several times as a look of joy and wonder transformed her countenance. I asked her what she saw.

Instead of responding to me, she marveled, “Well, is that Ray?”

Another big smile. Mom turned her eyes slightly as if surveying a room and exclaimed, “There you all are! Do you remember me? It’s been a long time!”

I thought the Lord was going to call Mom Home, but the moments of calm passed, replaced all-too-soon by agitation that would continue to plague Mom’s final days.

Reassurance

Though I spent numerous hours at the hospital, I didn’t have the emotional or physical stamina to be there 24/7. My daughters and son-in-law took turns visiting and soothing, but still, there were times when no family members were with Mom, only her dedicated caregivers. I fretted she might be alone if the Lord did call her Home.

The palliative care doctor attempted to alleviate my concerns. “Don’t feel guilty if you’re not here when your mother passes. I’ve seen instances where family members have kept bedside vigils for hours, step out of the room for a few minutes, and find their loved one is gone when they return.”

I consoled myself with Dr. Gordon’s words, knowing friends who’d experienced the sequence of events she described. I also knew God would never leave or forsake Mom in this life or the next.

But then He graciously gave me the gift of witnessing that brief respite, filled with wonder and joy and recognition, which buoyed my hope that Mom would be surrounded by loved ones even if we weren’t there.

A Greater Gift

My concerns were unfounded, as they often are. In His exceeding kindness, God made it possible for all of us – Dad, daughters Mary and Jessie, son-in-law Justin, our pastor, and me – to be with Mom in her final hour on this earth.

By the time we arrived, Mom was drawing ever-closer to her heavenly rest. Her breathing was shallow, and she didn’t respond to our expressions of love or our whispered prayers and hushed goodbyes. Nonetheless, I prayed God would enable her to know we were there.

I began to sing our family anthem, “Amazing Grace,”[2]  fully expecting my voice to falter before I got to the second stanza. Instead, it grew steadier, as a strength not my own carried me to the very last word of the final verse. By then, Mom had drawn her last breath and peacefully entered into the presence of Jesus. I imagined my voice blending with a heavenly chorus as Mom’s faith became sight (1 Corinthians 13:12).

I also imagined loved ones there to greet her. Then, much like her gaze focused beyond me the afternoon she initially saw them, I fancied her being captivated by her first glimpse of Jesus, His arms open wide to receive her, another saint safely Home (John 10:27-29).

And I like to think she gave Ray that hug.

Lord, there are many things we don’t know about heaven, but Your Word assures us that we’ll be with You and all those who belong to You (Revelation 21:3) in a place of unimaginable beauty and blessings (Psalm 16:11). Our faith will become sight as we behold Jesus and see that all of Your promises are indeed yes in Him (2 Corinthians 1:20).


[1] Please see Archives, May 2021.

[2] Please see “Let’s All Sing,” Archives, June 2020.

Walking Mom Home

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Thelma Thomas November 24, 1931 – April 30, 2021

“I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job (of writing) . . . It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” Stephen King

Dear Readers,

It may surprise you to see a Stephen King quote at the top of my post instead of a passage of Scripture, but it’s most appropriate given the events of the past month. Perhaps you’ve noticed I haven’t written for a while. My thoughts and efforts have focused on walking with my beloved mother on the last leg of her journey Home. My flesh grew tired and my brain foggy as I accompanied her. But what a blessing and privilege to do so!

As I sat by her bedside, the Lord allowed her to teach me some final lessons, which I look forward to sharing with you in the coming weeks when I get Back 2 the Garden. Indeed, as Stephen King intimated, life, with all its joys and sorrows, provides the fodder for our stories. For believers that means opportunities to testify to God’s great faithfulness and amazing grace through all of life, from first breath to last.

For now, though, there are services to be planned and held in honor of this precious soul who fought the good fight, finished her race, and kept the faith. May all we say and do in those services glorify Jesus, our Lord and Savior, Who Mom always depended on for her strength.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Garden Stories

I’m a member of the “Play in the Dirt Club”, a frequent-shopper program at a local nursery. I adopted their phrase years ago to describe my gardening ventures. Weeding, mowing, mulching, planting – I love playing in the dirt!

To use one of Mom’s old expressions, I suppose I come by it honest. My grandfathers supported their families by farming in central North Carolina. My grandmothers canned, preserved, or froze the excess fruits of their husbands’ labors, those not consumed or shared right after harvesting.

Memories of summertime Sunday dinners around their tables are vibrant even though decades have passed since I last sat elbow-to-elbow with relatives of multiple generations: plates of juicy red tomato slices and steaming corn on the cob; bowls full of fried okra, green beans, and lima beans; freshly-made biscuits and gravy. Laughter seasoned the conversation as family stories mingled with good-natured ribbing.

Other recollections are equally vivid – flowers edging the fields; straw hats perched on hooks by the door, ready to be grasped on the way out to the garden; a metal dipper hung on a nail above the back-porch sink for a refreshing sip of water upon returning to the house.

In My Genes?

My mom was one of eight siblings, my dad one of ten. They, along with most of my aunts and uncles, gardened. Their efforts ranged from plots to grow a few vegetables to a commercial tomato farm, from fruit trees to flower-filled beds surrounding suburban homes.

179Multiple members of my generation love tending plants, as do a number of our children and grandchildren. Recognizing our shared passion, I smile when cousins post pictures of their gardens, sometimes with young offspring sampling produce fresh from the vine.042

My gardening efforts are aimed at ornamentals since I don’t have a spot sunny enough to grow veggies. Nonetheless, the delight I feel in caring for my flowers and shrubs is enhanced by the connection to generations of loved ones.

Sometimes I muse that gardening is in my genes.

In the Beginning

Maybe that notion isn’t so far-fetched, at least when you consider where God placed our very first ancestors – in an idyllic garden, where all sorts of plants thrived, and God strolled in the cool of the evening. He entrusted them with the responsibility of maintaining the garden and gave them all the plants as food, save one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8, 15-17).

One exception amidst abundance we can’t imagine, yet Adam and Eve didn’t obey. Satan cunningly twisted God’s command and Eve ate, believing his lie that God was withholding something pleasant and necessary. She offered Adam a bite and he ate. In a moment, everything changed (Genesis 3:1-7).

But God came to the garden, as always, even though He knew of their disobedience. He drew them out of their hiding place. In the midst of declaring the penalties they’d incur, He planted a kernel of hope, a promise they could count on. One day the Seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent, dealing death itself a fatal blow. (Genesis 3:8-19).

Centuries passed and the time came for God to send His beloved Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Jesus left His place at the Father’s right hand and dwelt among us for a while (John 1:1-5, 14). On the night of His betrayal, He retreated with His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. With sorrow weighing heavily on His soul, He fervently prayed that the cup might pass from Him (Matthew 26:36-44). But it was the Father’s will to crush Him for our sake (Isaiah 53:10).

Jesus remained perfectly obedient to His Father’s will, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8). There was a new tomb in the garden near the place of  Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:41). Joseph of Arimathea placed His body in that tomb, but death couldn’t hold Him there. On the third day, God raised Him by the power of the Spirit. According to the Apostle John, the resurrected Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden. In her grief, she even mistook Him for the gardener (John 20:14-16).

The New Earth

So many momentous garden moments in His-story, with more to come. Jesus promised to return. When He does, heaven and earth will pass away, making way for the new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with His people forever (Revelation 21:1-4). Creation will be redeemed right along with the children of God (Romans 8:19-22).

One continuous story from beginning to end. Could it be the sweet connections woven through generations of gardeners in my family are rooted in echoes of Eden? Our hearts harbor a deep-seated longing for perfect communion with God in a world unmarred by sin. No more thistles and thorns. No more pain or tears or death.

As we wait for Jesus’ return, God gifts us with hints of heaven, in blue skies and gentle breezes, in fruits and flowers and fresh-from-the-field vegetables, in gatherings with friends and family around food-laden tables. Let us give thanks, remembering even the most splendid day here is a mere shadow of the beauty that awaits in the restored garden (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The Last Enemy

The New Year had barely begun before death visited our family. Dad’s sister, my Aunt Ruby, passed peacefully into eternity on January 12th, eight days shy of her 94th birthday.  She impacted many during her long, full, productive life. Blindness plunged her into darkness some three years ago and, along with the normal effects of aging, shrank her world.  Thus, knowing she’d been released from the constraints of her frail, mortal body consoled our grieving hearts.079

Seeing Mom, Dad, and Dad’s sister, my Aunt Margie, together at Aunt Ruby’s funeral brought to mind a long-ago conversation with my late husband, Ray. We lamented the number of loved ones we were bound to lose in the years ahead. You see, Mom was one of eight siblings, Dad one of ten. Including spouses, I once had 30 aunts and uncles. Now two aunts remain and only three of the 18 brothers and sisters.

Two weeks after Aunt Ruby’s passing, the news of basketball great Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash reverberated around the world. I don’t follow the NBA, but I know Kobe possessed legendary talent and set a number of records during his 20-year career. Now retired, he died en route to a youth basketball tournament, accompanied by his 13-year-old daughter and seven others – parents, players, and the pilot. 055I grieved, not as a sports fan, but as a widow who knows what it’s like to bid your beloved husband goodbye on an ordinary day, never to see him alive again. Because Ray was called Home at age 39, long before most of the relatives whose loss we anticipated grieving together.

Then, less than a week later, while still vulnerable to unpredictable bouts of tears provoked by the losses described above, I received unthinkable news.  My cousin’s 5-year-old granddaughter died in a car accident on a slippery, snow-covered road in Illinois. As Grammie to 4, 6, and 8-year-old grandchildren of my own, I couldn’t let the scenario play out in my mind. Nonetheless, little Evie’s death colored my thoughts for days, as my anguished soul cried out, “Lord, this hurts so much! It’s not supposed to be this way!”

Indeed it isn’t. We weren’t meant to get sick or grow old much less die. But when Adam and Eve chose to disobey, death entered in. (Genesis 3:17-19) All creation has been groaning under the curse ever since, for the wages of sin is death. (Romans 8:19-23; Romans 6:23)

Grieving with Hope

Praise God, He didn’t leave us in that helpless, hopeless state! (John 3:16; Romans 5) So we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

No stranger to navigating sudden, profound loss, I strapped on my time-tested life preserver woven over the years from precious, promise-filled scriptures. Buffeted by waves of sorrow, I clung to hope that provides a sure anchor for my soul: death doesn’t get the final say. (Hebrews 6:19-20)

Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our own victory over death, the final enemy. For those who belong to Him, death isn’t the end. It’s a glorious beginning to eternity with Him.

At Ray’s funeral, one of the pastors read passage after passage outlining the assurances we have as believers. I offer several of them here. May they comfort our hearts when we experience the inevitable losses of this life, knowing Jesus has overcome all worldly tribulations. Even death.

(Jesus said) “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”  (John 14:1-3)

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:50-57)

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)

Welcome Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Ibid, p. 27

Beauty of the soul

(This is the 4th and final post inspired by my mom’s recent hospitalization.)

The mid-April morning began normally enough as I went to pick Mom up for our weekly Wednesday date with our (great)grandchildren. But when I arrived at her house, Mom’s unsteady gait and inability to hold up her side of the conversation alarmed me. A sense of foreboding lapped at the edges of my mind, like small waves at the beach, precursors to the one that will knock you off your feet. Was the abnormal behavior just a slow start to her morning or a sign of something more serious?

Several hours later, with no improvement in Mom’s physical or cognitive abilities, I took her to the emergency department at our local hospital. It was serious, very serious. In fact, 24 days would come and go before she was well enough to return home. Yet even in those first few hours in the ED, weak and wheezing with every breath, Mom was thanking her caregivers and trying to joke with them in spite of the breathing mask strapped securely across her face.

It didn’t take long for Mom to enchant the nurses on her assigned floor once she moved to the room prepared for her; this, in spite of her precarious physical condition. By the second day, they were telling me what a delight she was, as they and Mom bantered back and forth about one or the other taking her home with them. Some stopped by to chat on days when Mom wasn’t officially their patient – to visit, to make sure she was ok and to bask in the radiance of her smile.

IMG_1081The same story played out at the rehab facility, as Mom became an instant favorite with the staff. When the long-awaited day arrived for me to collect her and bring her home, it took the better part of an hour for all the goodbyes to be said. Mom wanted to thank everyone who’d helped her. They in turn didn’t want to miss giving Miz Thelma a farewell hug and wishing her the best.

Though her tiny frame weighed a mere 85 pounds and her flesh was bruised from multiple needle sticks during the course of her treatment, Mom’s smile shone like the sun that warmed the early-May morning.

Beauty Regimen

I recently came across the following statement: “Old age strips the body of its glamour to emphasize the beauty of the soul.”

The aging process is inexorable. It’s difficult to experience our own declining capabilities, often heart-breaking to watch in elderly friends and relatives. Because it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Death wasn’t part of God’s very good creation. Then man chose to disobey, ushering in all the pain and suffering that accompany us as we progress toward our eventual demise (Genesis 3). There’s no effective surgery or exotic cream or miraculous supplement, no fountain of youth to drink from to ward off the ravages of time.

But, praise God, that’s not the end of the story. Those who belong to Him will receive new bodies when Jesus returns, bodies that won’t grow old or die, suited for our eternal souls. (1 Corinthians 15:50-56) In the meantime, we’re being transformed more and more into the likeness of our elder Brother (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18), as the Holy Spirit expertly applies a variety of refining products to enhance the beauty of our souls:

  • The Word of God, living and active (Hebrew 4:12); the source of spiritual sustenance (Matthew 4:4; John 6:32-35).
  • Instruction and encouragement from fellow believers (Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:24-25)
  • Gifts and graces to be used for the building up of the church (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
  • Wisdom wrought from living as a Christ-follower across many years (Job 12:12-13; Isaiah 46:4).
  • The sandpaper of suffering to abrade the callouses of sin – pride, arrogance, anger, bitterness, resentment – and promote the growth of Christ-like characteristics (Romans 5:3-5; Philippians 3:8-10; James 1:2-4).

Jesus’ teaching regarding storing up treasure was clear – we’re to focus on heavenly treasure, the kind no one can steal, that rust and moth can’t destroy. (Matthew 6:19-21) The same imperative applies to the kind of beauty we’re called to cultivate, the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:3-4).

I’ve been blessed to both witness and receive the overflow of goodness from Mom’s heart for six decades so I wasn’t surprised by the mutual affection that developed between her and her caregivers. Even so, her life-giving example never becomes ordinary or loses its luster. Though her nearly-90 years of life have taken a toll on her body, her smile endures as her most defining feature, evidence of the light and love of her Savior burning ever-brighter as she nears Home.

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (Proverbs 31:30)

Through the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_E1080

(To be continued.)

 

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

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

[3] “Do not resuscitate”

Death benefits

(Note: If you haven’t read my last post, “The countdown”, I invite you to do so now since this one is a sequel of sorts.)

I’ve been known to gasp over a post-Christmas credit card bill or cringe when writing my annual property tax check, but this may have been a first – tears filled my eyes as I gazed at a deposit to my account. The deposit was present because my husband no longer is.

After dealing with the aftermath of Ray’s sudden death – notifying family and friends, planning and attending his visitation, funeral and burial services, traveling back and forth to North Carolina – grief clouded my thinking and slowed my body. Not yet able to fully grasp the finality of the situation, I moved through my days moment-by-moment, piecing thoughts and decisions together, struggling to complete a puzzle missing an essential piece.

My parents’ presence not only comforted me, but their clearer minds filled in some of the gaps in my own thinking. And so, some 10 days after Ray’s passing, at my dad’s urging, we made our way to the Social Security office. I recorded the following in my journal:

“Gathered things to take to meeting with Social Security after I took Mary and Jessie to school – marriage license, passports, M&J’s birth certificates – happy bits of my life, now gathered for a very unhappy purpose.”

Nonetheless, thankfulness and relief washed over me when I heard my minor daughters qualified to receive monthly benefits, based on their dad’s earnings, until their 18th birthdays. I received a small, one-time widow’s stipend along with the news that I would be eligible to collect Ray’s benefits when I reached age 60, at least if I hadn’t remarried by then. Remarrying seemed highly improbable. Like a swan, I felt I mated once, for life. Regardless, my 60th birthday loomed 22 years in the future, a distant speck on a 21st-century calendar, so I filed that bit of information in the far reaches of my mind.

IMG_E1025I dedicated myself to raising my daughters, completed a 30-year career at a large corporation, went back to school to study horticulture, became “Grammie” to three precious little ones. All the while, the calendar pages kept turning with increasing velocity until that distant speck became an entry, “me – 60!!” Once again, I gathered important documents and made my way to the Social Security office. Thoughts of the former trip accompanied me, as did so many similar emotions, which became barely-contained tears as I resolutely recounted my story to the kind agent who entered my claim.

Several months later, on the promised date, the first deposit appeared, eliciting the aforementioned tears. Ray’s benefits, based on his years of diligent work, were credited to my account.

* * * * *

He is Risen!

As usual, that glorious truth entered my mind as soon as I awoke on Easter morning. It appeared all creation joined in the celebration, as brilliant sunlight illuminated the spring-green of new leaves and birds twittered happily amongst the tree branches. The 2019 calculation[1] placed what I’ve long deemed the best day of the entire year almost in the middle of my annual remembrance of my husband’s sudden death in 1997. I intentionally recall the events of the last week I spent with Ray and the first one I spent without him.

As I’ve often done across the years, I signed up to provide a flower arrangement for IMG_E0999church in memory of my beloved husband. In view of the timing of Resurrection Sunday, this year’s floral offering was also given to the praise and glory of our Risen Savior.

From my usual vantage point in the sanctuary, my gaze shifted intermittently from the cloudless cerulean sky to the arrangement I lovingly prepared the night before and then back to our pastor. My heart feasted on the message of hope he proclaimed as I dabbed at occasional tears, some shed in sorrow for a husband gone much too soon, others borne of gratitude for the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior that ensures I’ll see Ray again.

Indeed, Jesus’ sinless life, atoning death and subsequent resurrection guarantee numerous benefits for those who belong to Him. Consider, for example:

  • Peace with God – “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1 (See also Luke 2:14; Romans 15:13)
  • Forgiveness – “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43 (See also, Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:13-14)
  • God’s abiding presence now – “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b (See also Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • and forever – “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.” Revelation 21:1-3
  • An eternal home – “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14:2-3
  • An imperishable body – “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 (See 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 for the full description of the change to come.)
  • An eternal inheritance – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” 1 Peter 1:3-5

I’m grateful to receive Ray’s Social Security payments. They connect me to him and remind me of his love and care while he was with me. But each month, when I see that deposit on my statement, it will also remind me of the One who is my ultimate and eternal Provider, the Giver of all good gifts (James 1:17), who didn’t spare His only Son, but gave Him up for us all (Romans 8:32) to secure death benefits of the most enduring kind.

 

[1] According to timeanddate.com, “Easter falls on the first Sunday after the Full Moon date, based on mathematical calculations, that falls on or after March 21. If the Full Moon is on a Sunday, Easter is celebrated on the following Sunday.”