A Month for Remembering

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
1 Corinthians 15:54b-55

Beware the Ides of April

Though Ides looks plural, it is, in fact, singular and means the middle of a given month. According to the ancient Roman calendar,  the Ides fell on the 15th of  March, May, July, and October, and the 13th of the other months.

I’m not superstitious, and I realize I’m taking liberties with one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s often-quoted lines. Still, I’ve become wary of the middle of April, those days between the 10th and 20th,  because they are dotted with significant anniversaries of loss, both personal and national:

  • Waco Massacre – April 19, 1993
  • Oklahoma City Bombing – April 19, 1995
  • Ray, my dearly-loved husband, passed away from a heart attack on April 19, 1997, at the age of 39.
  • Columbine – April 20, 1999
  • VA Tech Shooting – April 16, 2007
  • Marcia, a dear sister-in-law, died on April 12, 2014, after a fall at her farm.
  • Mom was diagnosed with pneumonia on April 17, 2019, and spent the next 24 days in the hospital. There were several times we thought we’d lose her.
  • Mom fell and broke her hip on April 20, 2021, Dad’s 90th birthday. She went Home ten days later.

A Melancholy Month

When the calendar page turns to the fourth month, a thin layer of melancholy settles over my soul, much like pine pollen coats the Georgia landscape. I’ll admit I had to look up the specific dates of the national tragedies, though I knew they all occurred in April. Not so with the personal losses. Those dates and their attendant memories are etched into my mind.

Ray’s death forever divided my life into two pieces, before and after. Each year I intentionally revisit our last days together, when I had no idea how few there were, and the first days without him, when I wondered how I’d ever go on.

This year, I’m doing the same with memories of Mom. Last April, medical appointments filled the calendar as I desperately sought help for Mom, whose health was precarious and becoming more so each day. Yet I didn’t realize I had less than a month left in this life with the one who had been my chief cheerleader and devoted prayer warrior my whole life. Unlike Ray’s final days, which were filled with typical family and work activities, Mom’s were plagued with pain and confusion, making the memories even more heartbreaking.

Purposely observing the passing of Ray and Mom, my two most ardent supporters, touches tender scars and re-opens the wounds. But it is a price I’m willing to pay as I honor the memory of these dear ones, gratefully recalling the love and blessings they poured into my life.

Hope Abounds

Despite the undercurrent of loss that runs through April reminiscences, my mood seldom remains somber for long. The beauty of springtime bursting forth all around me won’t allow it to.

I revel daily in the signs of new life, as leaves emerge on formerly bare branches, flowering shrubs look resplendent in their colorful array of blossoms, and perennials push their way out of the soil for another season of growth. And I delight in the increased activity around my bird feeders as my feathered friends form couples and begin raising their young.

Everywhere I look, I see reminders of resurrection hope.

Suffering Savior

Just as I intentionally think back about Ray’s (and now Mom’s) final days, each year as Easter approaches, I ponder Jesus’ last week. On Palm Sunday, we remember His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but over the next five days, the chants of adoration would be replaced by those of, “Crucify Him!” (John 12:12-13; John 19:15)

In His final week, our beloved Savior, the Spotless Lamb of God, would wash His disciples’ feet, be betrayed with a kiss, abandoned by His closest friends, arrested, beaten, mocked, and crucified. Writing those words, contemplating all it cost Him to save me, brings tears to my eyes as quickly as thoughts of losing Ray and Mom – tears of sorrow for my sins and all He endured on my behalf.

Grieving with Hope

But death doesn’t get the final say. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees He’ll have the last word.

Though it is right to mourn our sins with sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10), we can rejoice knowing His atoning sacrifice removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). They no longer define us because our identity is hidden in Christ, and we are robed in His righteousness.

Furthermore, Jesus’ victory over death enables us to grieve the passing of our loved ones with the hope of knowing the separation, though painful, is only temporary (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Jesus’ journey through the streets of Jerusalem, heralded by hosannas and palm branches, is but a shadow of His promised return. On that day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. The dwelling place of God will be with His people, and He will wipe away every tear. Death, mourning, and pain will be no more, for the former things will have passed away (Revelation 21:3-4).

Thank You, Lord, for the hope we have in You. Because You took our punishment upon Yourself and then rose in victory over death, we have the assurance our sins are pardoned, and we too will be resurrected to eternal life in Your presence. May we be ever mindful of this truth to comfort our hearts while we tarry in this world where the effects of sin and brokenness remain.

Perseverance Personified

Perseverance Personified

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

Set Backs

After growing up in Delaware, one of the things I like best about living in Georgia is the relatively mild winters dotted with spring-like interludes. But sometimes, early hints of spring stretch into several days of balmy temperatures, enough to coax plants out of their winter hibernation early. Inevitably, the temperatures return to a more normal range. Every few years, though, they plummet to well below freezing, jeopardizing new foliage, early flowers, and buds on the verge of opening.

Such was the case last month. I watched as tender green shoots and spring ephemerals began popping out, hoping the unseasonable highs wouldn’t give way to record-breaking cold. Nearly a week of days passed with temperatures in the 70s, well above average for March. Flower buds swelled, and some burst open, overcome by the welcoming warmth. The exuberant plants just couldn’t contain themselves!

Seeing the forecast for nighttime temps in the lower 20s, I strolled my property, took some photos, and whispered encouragement to the young sprouts, “Hunker down, guys, you can make it!”

After successive nights of such cold, I walked my garden again to assess the damage. Some of my plant friends survived unscathed, while others bore significant evidence of the relentless cold. New leaves, bright green a few days before, hung brown and limp from branches. The first courageous flowers, zapped by the deep freeze, bore the same appearance.

Persistence

I’ve watched my plants undergo various hardships over the years – drought, hail, temperature extremes, both high and low – and am inspired by their will to live. Their perseverance is one of the things I like best about gardening, the thing that makes it such a hope-filled endeavor.

Despite my sorrow at seeing their injuries, I expect most will persist and begin to flourish again when more typical spring weather settles in. Some have already started to produce new leaves to replace the brown, lifeless ones. Even those that won’t be able to bear flowers this year will have the hope of doing so next year.

I’ve learned that as long as the roots and crown of perennials haven’t been damaged, the plants will survive.

Our Example

Scripture likewise praises perseverance, telling us that our suffering produces endurance, which in turn produces character, which then yields hope (Romans 5:3-4). James even goes so far as to counsel us to count it all joy when we encounter trials of various kinds because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness (James 1:2-3).

Jesus is our ultimate example of perseverance. He knew from before the foundation of the world what it would cost Him to save God’s chosen ones. Still, He came, humbling Himself by taking on flesh, enduring the punishment and mistreatment due to us, and remaining obedient to the point of death on the cross.

Why? For the joy set before Him. And what was that joy? Spending eternity with us in the presence of His Father! Think about that, dear readers. Marvel and wonder at it! Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, endured far more than any of us will ever have to bear so we can be with Him forever. The writer of Hebrews urges us to consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that (we) may not grow weary or fainthearted. In (our) struggle against sin, (we) have not yet resisted to the point of shedding (our) blood (Hebrews 12:3-4).

Though we’ll never have to bear the weight of God’s wrath because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we will have troubles in this broken world, even times when we wonder how we’ll endure and if we’ll remain steadfast. But we’re never alone (John 16:33). Just like the plants whose outward appearance is alarming but whose roots are strong and healthy, those of us who are rooted and built up in Jesus will draw on His living water and bear much fruit for His glory despite setbacks, daunting conditions, and seasons of dormancy (Jeremiah 17:8). And one day, He’ll call us Home where we’ll flourish forever.

Thank You, Lord, for loving us unconditionally and sacrificially. You lived a sinless life yet became sin for us that we might be robed in Your righteousness, enduring unimaginable pain and separation from the Father so we’ll never have to (2 Corinthians 5:21). As we go through this Easter season, please help us take time to meditate on all it cost You to save us. May we follow Your example of perseverance so our faith roots grow strong and deep in the nourishing soil of Your presence.

The countdown

Each year as the anniversary of my husband Ray’s death approaches, I intentionally, day-by-day, review the details of our last week together. It’s my way of honoring his memory, of thanking God for the blessing of a godly husband and reminding myself not to take anything for granted, especially time with our loved ones.

I began my annual tradition yesterday. It included an impromptu stop at The Home Depot Woodstock (GA) where Ray worked as head of the indoor gardening department. Though I make frequent visits to The Home Depot closest to my house, I couldn’t remember the last time I was at that particular store, but I was in the area and paying a visit seemed a fitting part of my remembering. On April 13, 1997, I was driving back from Charlotte, NC with my elementary-aged daughters, Mary and Jessie. We’d spent the week of spring break with my parents. Ray was working his usual 1pm to 10pm Sunday shift. I called to let him know we made it home safely and again later to report on Tiger Woods’ first-of-several Masters wins, that one at the age of 21 and by a margin of 12 strokes, a record that still stands.

Funny how all those details coalesced in such a way that retrieving one allows me to retrieve them all.

The store was busy, as it no doubt was on Ray’s last Sunday there. I entered through the outdoor gardening section, and made my way to the space between it and the main store – Ray’s domain, indoor gardening. My breathing deepened and tears welled as I stepped through the door. I immediately sensed Ray’s presence as I gazed at the beautifully arrayed houseplants. My mind conjured up the now-gone potting desk, along with visions of previous visits over two decades ago when Ray walked me around his department enthusiastically pointing out changes he’d made. I could almost hear his laughter, feel his kindness as he patiently waited on customers and answered their questions. It was a worthwhile stop, a meaningful beginning to this year’s reminiscences.

Our final week was oh-so-normal, with the girls back to school and Ray and I working at our respective jobs. Then came Saturday evening. Ray’s sudden death shattered normal as we knew it and stole our dreams for the future.

Just as I deliberately call to mind the events of my last week with Ray, I purposefully remember Jesus’ last week – the triumphal entry on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday; His final Passover celebration with His disciples, washing their feet and instituting the Lord’s Supper; the fervent pleas in the Garden of Gethsemane; Judas’ betrayal; the mock trials, the scourging; the agony of the cross; His final words. Unlike me and my family, who proceeded through our week blissfully unaware of what lay ahead, Jesus knew exactly what He would endure, yet He set His face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).

Jesus tried to tell His disciples, but they couldn’t grasp the enormity of it all. They were still hoping for a more immediate kingdom and shared power (Matthew 20:20-21), so when the guards took Him away, they scattered, afraid for their own lives (Mark 14:50). Even Peter, self-avowed-loyal-to-the-end Peter, denied his Lord (Luke 22:54-62). And when Jesus died? Their hopes and plans died too (Luke 24:21a). Or so they thought.

But then Sunday came, with the best news EVER, news that restored hope, news that changed everything FOREVER: He is Risen! (Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke24:5-6)

Two men. Both demonstrated unconditional love, One in the most ultimate sense. Every so often the commemorative countdowns to the anniversaries of their deaths overlap, at least partially, as they do this year. And when they do, it softens the blow of one loss by magnifying the sacrificial benefits of the other. Because Jesus died and rose again, death doesn’t have the final say (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

IMG_0972Dear readers, as we enter Holy Week, I encourage you to read through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last week on earth. Meditate on His final teachings. Contemplate the single-mindedness of His actions on our behalf. Ponder His supplications in the High Priestly Prayer (John 17). And let us never forget what it cost Him to redeem us.