Twenty-five Years

My heart is overflowing with praise of my Lord, my soul is full of joy in God my Saviour. For he has deigned to notice me, his humble servant.
Luke 1:46b-48a (Phillips)

April 19, 2022 – 25 years since my beloved husband left for work one beautiful spring Saturday, had a fatal heart attack at age 39, and never returned home.

Some of you know me personally, others only from reading my blog. Either way, I’m sure you’ve noticed my intentionality in looking back when special days roll around. Months ago, even before I started penciling things in on my 2022 calendar, I began pondering how I would observe this momentous anniversary.

But, as is often the case, the Lord was far ahead of me, with a plan so astonishing that I couldn’t have imagined it, much less asked for it (Ephesians 3:20).

An Intriguing Email

Last October, I was scrolling through my inbox when this subject line grabbed my attention: “Video Request – Focus on the Family.” Intrigued, I opened the email and began to read.

The writer introduced himself as a video producer and described the project he was working on, a series of brief videos to be released this year. Each would feature a family who’d been impacted by the Focus on the Family ministry.

I kept reading, barely able to grasp the words. I love telling others about God’s goodness and faithfulness – that’s why I started this blog – but who was I to be in a video for a major ministry? Not that I questioned the email’s authenticity, but I couldn’t fathom receiving such an opportunity, and the thought humbled me.

The embedded quote from a letter I’d written to Focus several years ago dispelled any lingering doubts about mistaken identity. In it, I recounted a phone call I made soon after Ray died and the kind, affirming remark by the Focus counselor who took my call. In describing my loss, I told her I felt like a part of me was missing. Her reply still resonates with me 25 years later: “During the years you and your husband were married, you became one. Part of you is missing.”

I forwarded the email to my daughters with the message, “This goes into the category, ‘you never know what to expect on any given day!’”

A Change of Plans

Despite my initial disbelief, I responded the next day, thanking Tim, the producer, for considering my story and requesting additional information regarding timing and logistics. Several emails and a phone call or two later, we agreed Tim would come to Georgia to film on November 19th and 20th.

But life intervened. My dad’s stroke in late October and additional commitments for Tim led us to agree to postpone filming until after the holidays.

God’s timing is perfect – always. Even though I can find something beautiful in my garden any time of the year, late November would have found it in decline, going to sleep for the winter. Springtime, however, is the time of rebirth and new life, when the exuberance of Creation shouts praises to the Creator. It’s a season of personal loss, yet one that pours hope into my heart.

Images to Treasure

I’ve written before about my figurative chest of drawers where I tenderly tuck memories to savor again in the future.[1] This experience gave me a whole drawer full to cherish, some bittersweet, but each one a treasure:

  • The women in my Bible study gathering around me to pray several days before the taping.
  • Gathering mementos from Ray’s life – family photos, his wedding ring, neatly-folded Home Depot shirts – to be used in the video.
  • Working with Tim, a young man who would fit right in with my kids[2], with the mutual goal of producing a God-honoring video to bless others.
  • The joy of including my grandchildren, Joshua, Lyla, and Emma. Though Ray hasn’t met them yet, they’re as much a part of his legacy as my daughters and the beautiful garden he left for me to tend.

Over and Above

For the first few days after taping, I kept replaying the events in my mind, scarcely able to find words to describe what they meant to me.

Though the experience was a gift in itself, God was far from finished. When we agreed to film in November, I hoped Focus would release the video in April to coincide with the anniversary of Ray’s passing. I set that hope aside when we delayed to the end of March, recognizing that editing and production usually take 3-4 months. Three weeks seemed impossible.

Several days after Tim returned to Colorado, I received a text from him asking which day Ray passed, followed by another in response to mine saying he would try to get the video ready by April 19. Then, a mere six days after we finished shooting, Tim texted, “I have the first version of the video done! Do you want to see it? I’m shocked at how fast it came together. Felt like the Lord carrying it.”

Tim’s text confirmed what I already sensed. Nothing is impossible for God, and my loving Heavenly Father was orchestrating a most remarkable gift for me. I could finally articulate why the experience had left me speechless. I was overwhelmed by the reality that God never lost sight of me. He’d remembered the date, kept track of my tears (Psalm 56:8), and counted the years right along with me. Knowing how important it is for me to recall His favor and tell others of His steadfast love, He set up an unforgettable memorial stone to commemorate this 25th anniversary, one that will stand for future generations of my family (Joshua 4:1-7).

Unimaginable

Hours after Ray died, I penned the following in my journal, “This is the worst day of my life up to this point. Ray, my dear, dear husband and friend, died tonight. Even as I write it, I don’t believe it. It will probably take time for the numbness to wear off, but when it does, Lord, please enfold Mary, Jessie, and me in your love. I don’t understand this and I can’t even begin to imagine what my life will be like without him.”

I knew the joy of eternity awaited me, but as ensuing days found one, two, or all three of us in tears at bedtime, I wondered if I’d ever find joy again in this life. Later journal entries documented my concerns about being alone after Mary and Jessie grew up and went on with their adult lives.

But just as I couldn’t imagine life without Ray, I couldn’t imagine the abundant blessings God had in store for me. Good gifts of His presence, provision, and protection, of family, friends, and flowers.

Beauty From Ashes

I’m an equal-opportunity crier. I cry as easily over happy events as sad ones. Thus, I asked several friends to pray that I wouldn’t sniffle my way through the video interview. With a couple of minor exceptions, I managed to hold it together.

Nonetheless, when I finished watching the video for the first time, I wept. Tim captured the sorrow of what I lost, but my tears flowed because he also portrayed the beauty the Lord has exchanged for my ashes. My fears of being alone were unfounded. Not only has the Lord kept His promise never to leave or forsake me, but He’s also filled my life with people to love and be loved by and given me a foretaste of heaven in my garden.

I don’t deserve any of His good gifts, yet He pours them out on me, as He does all His children. He lavishes His love on us, leaving no doubt He sees us individually and intimately. Having already given us the greatest gift in Jesus, we have no reason to think He’ll withhold any lesser benevolence (Romans 8:32).

Though losing Ray remains the single most significant loss in my life, there have been other hardships and sorrows over the past 25 years, and I know there will most likely be more before the Lord calls me Home. But I’ve learned to trust Him in ways I never would have if I hadn’t experienced those difficulties. The Lord has repeatedly done far more than I could ask or imagine, including the opportunity to share my testimony of His goodness to a much broader audience than I ever expected. I pray this video will bring much glory to Him and point others to the life and hope found in Jesus.  

You may watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqpDpuwCGUE


[1] Please see “In Remembrance,” Archives, April 25, 2015.

[2] Daughters Mary and Jessie, and son-in-law, Justin.

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.

Age-old Assurances for a New Year

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
Lamentations 3:21-24

Downcast

It’s a rainy afternoon in Georgia, and my mood matches the scene outside my window. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used the last few days of December to reflect on the year just past and plan for the one ahead. But a week of isolation due to a positive Covid test may have given me too much time for my yearend ruminations.

Recent celebrations hammered home the resounding headline for 2021: Mom’s gone. The New Year won’t change that or bring her back.

And, already looming on the horizon, more significant changes for our family, the details and what-ifs of which are disconcerting. Plus, there will no doubt be challenges currently known only to God.

Fighting for Joy

As you may have gleaned from my last couple of posts, though, I’ve been valiantly fighting for joy throughout this first holiday season without Mom by counseling my heart with truth. This post is no different, so I’ll let Scripture do the talking for a while:

  • Deuteronomy 31:8: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
  • John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
  • Romans 8:28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
  • 2 Corinthians 4:17: This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
  • James 1:2-4: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Proven O’er and O’er

Scripture is the inspired word of God and to be trusted regardless of our feelings or circumstances; however, one of the things I like best about growing older is I have more and more real-life examples of God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness to recall. As the lyrics to ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus say, “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!”[1]

There will be challenges this year, but the Lord has never left or forsaken me, and He never will. In fact, He uses the hard things to draw me closer to Him, to grow my faith, and to comfort and encourage me so that I might comfort and encourage others with the same comfort and encouragement I’ve received (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

And, just as there are unknown difficulties ahead, there will be joy and blessing beyond what I can ask or imagine because God does work all things together for good for His beloved children.

Encourage One Another

I don’t know how you’re feeling today, dear reader. Maybe you’re entering the new year buoyed by fun family gatherings, having enjoyed all your favorite foods and traditions. Then again, you may be like me, fighting for joy, having engaged in those traditions without a loved one, and facing more changes in the near future.  

Regardless of our circumstances, we can take heart in knowing we belong to the One who never changes (Hebrews 13:8). Our loving Heavenly Father is always working out His purposes according to His good and perfect plans and will see them through to completion, when Jesus returns to set all things right. Therefore, let us encourage our own hearts and one another with all we know to be true as we await His promised return.

Dear Lord, thank You that we can come to You with our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, knowing that You are a compassionate Father who remembers we are dust. Your mercies are new every morning, and your grace is sufficient for each day. Thank You that we’ll never face life alone because You are with us, now and forever.

P.S. Since I started this post some three hours ago, the rain has stopped, and the sun has peeked out a time or two, providing the amen to my thoughts.


[1] Louisa M. R. Stead

Celebrate the Light

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5

Traditions

I’m a Christmas baby, born on December 19th. Mom and Dad brought me home on Christmas Eve, and Dad hung a bootie up as my first stocking. Despite my birthday falling within a week of Christmas, Mom made sure I had a birthday celebration each year, complete with cake and presents. Some years we invited friends over for a party, while other times, Dad took us out to dinner at a nice restaurant. And each year, my gifts included a pretty dress from Mom.

Christmas traditions were equally dear and included shopping, preparing dozens of goodie boxes to share with friends, decorating, and attending Christmas cantatas and worship services.

As the years passed, I married and started a family, so we tweaked and added to our traditions. We joked that our holiday season begins with daughter Mary’s late-October birthday and continues into November with Mom’s birthday and Thanksgiving.  Granddaughter Lyla’s birthday is the day after mine, then Christmas. We finally wrap up our celebrations on New Year’s Day. Different foods and festivities accompany each occasion, as do plenty of reminiscences and lots of photo-taking.

Just Skip It

Several weeks ago, I began to contemplate this year’s holiday season. Unlike most years when joyful anticipation colors my feelings, I thought, “I wish I could fast-forward past the holidays.”

You see, for the first time in my life, Mom won’t be with me to celebrate. Granted, we curtailed our goodie-making some years ago, and Mom’s ability to fully participate in shopping, wrapping, and sending out Christmas cards had declined the last few years. However, her smile still shone brightly, and her joy at being together was infectious.

Pondering Mom’s absence on my birthday and Christmas morning weighed heavy on my heart.

Not Celebrate?!

Those dismal thoughts didn’t have a chance to put down roots, though. Almost as quickly as they came, another took their place, “What do you mean, not celebrate?! How would that honor her memory, much less the One whose birth we’re celebrating?”

Last week’s sermon[1] further dispelled the notion of merely going through the motions this December. After acknowledging that not everyone experiences hope and joy during the holidays, Pastor Donovan reminded us of the following:

  • Biblical hope isn’t maybe-things-will-work-out wishful thinking, but the confident expectation that God will act according to His purpose, plan, and promises.
  • Advent is a season of celebrating God choosing to come near, to save us. (What a gift!) We must:
    • Gratefully acknowledge and receive the gift. Don’t take it for granted or think, “I’ve heard the Christmas story so many times.” Never stop marveling at the fact the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!
    • Actively cultivate hope by remembering God’s past faithfulness to look forward with assurance. God is worthy of our joy, expectation, and trust. He will fulfill all His promises.
    • Communicate that hope to the hopeless. Celebrate what is and what’s coming. Don’t complain about what (or who) no longer is.
    • We’re to be agents of hope by sharing and celebrating the Light of the World.

Grief Veteran

Shortly after Mom passed away, a friend described me as a grief veteran. It was her way of encouraging me, of acknowledging the path wouldn’t be easy, but it would be passable. Having been widowed at age 38, knowing what it’s like to miss a loved one across over two decades of holidays yet find joy in celebrating and remembering, I knew she was right.

This Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote is one of my favorites regarding grief:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love . . . it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain . . . the dearer and richer the memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

Each year when I set up the Dickens Village my late husband Ray started for me or purchase poinsettias in memory of the last Christmas he worked at Home Depot, tears of sorrow and joy mingle together. Sorrow that he’s no longer here to help me set up the village or see how much it’s grown, but such joy and gratitude for the love and years we shared. As Bonhoeffer observed, the memories are a precious gift in themselves.

It is the same with Mom. I cherish all the years we had to laugh, love, and celebrate in so many ways. Though she’s no longer physically present, I know she’ll always be with me.

Pass it On

I’m blessed to have three grandchildren to create and share traditions with. But I’m most excited to share the true meaning of Christmas as we celebrate the Light that came into the world. All the love and joy bound up in our celebrations is a reflection of God’s great love and an outpouring of thanksgiving for the blessings we have in Christ. Because He came as a tiny baby, lived a sinless life, and died on our behalf, death doesn’t have the final say. The circle of love is unbroken. And one day, we’ll be reunited around His throne to praise His name together forever.

Heavenly Father, thank You for sending Your Son, the Light of the World, to bring everlasting hope to this dark world. Regardless of the source of darkness – sin, grief, illness, loss – we have the confidence that the darkness will never overcome the Light. Please help us not to hide our light under a basket, but place it on a pedestal for all to see, ever ready to share the reason for our hope.


[1] “Advent: Having Hope and God With Us in This World,” Pastor David Donovan, Grace Covenant Church, November 27, 2021.

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.

Eulogy For a Godly Mother

Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Proverbs 31:28-30

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Dear Family and Friends,

I’ve mentally written and rewritten this eulogy many times over the past few days. After all, how can you sum up the blessing of having a godly mother in a few minutes and several hundred words? But, as I look out on those of you gathered before me, I know many of you have your own sweet recollections of Mom, and so I hope my comments will help us reminisce together and maybe provide some other images for you to add to your collection.

Tell Them Hello

I was looking forward to bringing Mom back to church with me after she received her Covid vaccinations. Although that occurred several months ago, she was experiencing such pain in her left leg due to sciatica that she couldn’t sit still long enough to attend service. She recently lamented, “This is the longest I’ve ever been away from church in my life.”

She missed her church family so much. But she was here in spirit and, each week when she knew I’d be at church, she’d say, “Tell them all hello for me, and I really appreciate their prayers. That’s what’s getting me through.”

During her year away from Grace, many of you reached out to her via cards, phone calls, and visits. And when you did, it was usually the first thing she’d mention when I’d see her.

“Guess who called me today?”

“I got a nice card. I left it on the counter for you to see.”

“So and so came to see me.”

And a little over a month ago, “A group from church stopped by to sing to me!”

So, “Hello!” from Mom and “Thank you!” from both of us for being here today and for loving her so well to the very end.

Mom’s Mottos

I bet I’m not the only one who has some of their mother’s sayings deeply ingrained in their beings. I want to share a few of what I call “Mom’s Mottos,” most of which were grounded in Scripture.

People will let you down, but God never will. Mom saw me through numerous trials during the 60-plus years we were together. Lies, disappointments, job loss, broken relationships, deaths. Through it all, Mom taught me to depend on the One who says He’ll never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6), who faithfully keeps His promises (Hebrews 10:23), and speaks only truth. (Hebrews 6:18) We will have troubles in this world, but Jesus has overcome the world. We can find peace in Him. (John 16:33)

We can’t change anyone else, much as we’d like to sometimes. We can only give an account of ourselves. My reply when Mom would say this? “You’re right. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in line!” As part of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against judging others, especially since we have sin in our own lives to deal with (Matthew 7:1-5). Praise God for giving us His Spirit, which is at work in us to transform us more and more into the image of Christ, a transformation we’re incapable of accomplishing on our own  (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

We can’t give up. We’ve got to hold on to our faith. Throughout her life, Mom faced challenges that may have led some to quit or become bitter. In the last decade alone, she:

  • shattered the bones in her right shoulder, an injury that required surgery to install a plate and multiple screws, and left her with limited range of motion in that arm.
  • suffered a heart attack that led to the discovery of three severely blocked arteries resulting in emergency open-heart surgery.
  • fractured a vertebra in her back and had a procedure known as kyphoplasty to repair it.
  • spent a combined 24 days in the hospital and rehab recovering from pneumonia.
  • endured daily pain associated with the ravages of arthritis.

Yet Mom rarely mentioned her constant aches. Instead, she clung to God’s mercies which are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24), and encouraged those in her inner circle to do the same, often quoting her favorite verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Her final struggle was no different. I watched her battle valiantly to stay with us, her tiny body so fragile and racked with pain and her mind often overwhelmed by imaginings, some pleasant, others troubling.  As I marveled at her tenacity, I remembered the Apostle Paul’s debate in his letter to the Philippians. He knew it would be best for him personally to depart and be with the Lord, but he preferred to remain in the flesh to benefit his children in the faith (Philippians 1:21-24).

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There’s nothing so bad it couldn’t be worse. My grandmother passed this saying to Mom, and we’ve quoted it to each other many times over the years. It’s been an undercurrent in my thoughts the past couple of weeks. Last year when the pandemic struck, I prayed none of us would end up in the hospital, isolated from loved ones. God graciously answered that prayer. Mom did end up in the hospital, but by then, the stringent visitation protocols were no longer in place. There wasn’t a single day we weren’t able to be with her. And what a blessing to be able to gather today to celebrate her life.

Even so, some may look at the situation and think, “But she died! How could it be worse?” No, for those who die in Christ, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). I always recall Rev. Todd Allen’s declaration at Ray’s funeral, “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer,  it is the most glorious beginning.”

The Little Moments

Any of you who know me well know I’m a proponent of savoring the little moments in life. I believe God showers us with good gifts, but we need to be intentional to see and appreciate them. Mom’s final days with us were no different as God provided memorable moments to add to our treasury of good memories.

Two days before Mom broke her hip, Dad left a message for me while I was at church. He asked me to come straight away to help him with Mom, who’d been experiencing some hallucinations. When I arrived, I found her calm and asked if she’d like to spend the afternoon at my house. Typically she would have said, “No, that’s ok. I know you have things to do. I’ll stay here.” Instead, she accepted my invitation. We spent several hours in my sunlit kitchen that afternoon, her reading and me working on my computer. We chatted about the birds, the beautiful day, and the pretty plants growing in my garden.

A couple of times, she said, “Are you sure I can’t help you with something?”

“No, I’m good, thanks!”

“Ok, well, just go ahead with what you need to do. I’m fine.”

One of the things I was working on was a project for our Women’s Ministry Committee, E-ncouragement Through Song, where we’ve been sharing our favorite hymns several times a week. I asked Mom for her favorite, fully expecting Amazing Grace, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, or the like. Instead, she mentioned a song I don’t ever remember hearing, The Land Where We’ll Never Grow Old. I pulled it up on my computer. As the first few notes played, I asked, “Is this it, Mom?” She smiled, nodded, and started to hum along.

As I listened to the lyrics, I understood why she selected it. Even though Mom aged with grace and flourished into old age, with her spirit growing ever more beautiful, she didn’t like the toll the years had taken on her body. She missed driving and working in the yard and, in the last days, even being able to clean her house.

Given all that’s transpired since, I know that afternoon was a beautiful gift, several hours of sweet normalcy with my dear Mom before her earthly life started unraveling at a frantic pace.

Even after she broke her hip and had few lucid periods, there were precious moments to deposit into my memory bank – times when we prayed together, declared our love and appreciation for each other and for God’s many blessings, and professed our assurance that eternity in a land where we’ll never grow old awaits. 

Mom’s final moment was perhaps the most precious of all. Gathered around her bedside, we watched as she took her last breath and slipped peacefully away from us into the presence of Jesus. God mercifully answered our prayers to heal her by calling her Home, where she’s now free from all pain and suffering.

Now What?

I keep thinking I’m going to break down from the weight of this tremendous loss, and I suppose the time will come when grief overwhelms me. I stand before you today, not in my strength, but by the power of the Spirit, the same strength that Mom depended on. I know from losing Ray that it’s often the little things that get to me, not the big events I know to prepare for. Going to get my hair cut without Mom, waiting in line at Starbucks, lunchtimes when I reach for my phone, then remember I can’t call her anymore.

But I also know how blessed I’ve been to have her godly influence for 62 years. Mom will always be with me. She lavished so much love and care and wisdom on me that my heart will be filled to overflowing for the rest of my life. I’ll hear her voice encouraging me and be inspired by her sayings and example. Likewise, my children and grandchildren will benefit from their time with her as she’s shown them the same unconditional love and acceptance she’s always shown me.

I invite you to join me in honoring Mom’s memory by embodying some of her characteristics, which she in turn modeled after Jesus – her love for God and others, her welcoming smile, her steadfast faith.  May we grieve her passing well, not as those without hope, but as those who have an unwavering assurance in Jesus’ promise to return (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). We look forward to the fulfillment of John’s prophecy, recorded in Revelation:

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)

Our Refuge

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

Like Dominoes

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

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

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

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

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

Here Come Those Tears Again

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

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

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

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

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

Re-gaining Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crying Out

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

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

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

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

He is Risen!

He is Risen indeed!!

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

 

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

The Baby in the Manger

Setting up my Dickens Village is one of my most beloved Christmas traditions. My late husband, Ray, gave me the first pieces in 1989 and added to it each year until he passed away in 1997. I’ve continued to do the same, until now, 31 years later, the village has spread to three rooms of my house. Setting it up requires many hours across multiple days, but it’s a labor of love, one I look forward to every November. [1]

As you might imagine, I’ve developed a system over the years to make constructing the vast display more manageable. I usually begin in my small living room, which houses the fewest pieces, to build momentum. Inevitably, tears punctuate the initial opening of boxes as I think about Ray, both how thankful I am that he started the village for me and how much I wish he were here to see how much it’s grown.

035The living room holds not only some of my oldest Dickens pieces but also a Precious Moments nativity. It, too, is a long-ago gift from Ray that elicits tears. But the tears that well up as I carefully place the pieces – various animals, a shepherd boy, Mary and Joseph, wise men, and angels  – around the tiny figurine of the baby in the manger spring from wonder and amazement. And deep-seated gratitude.

Think about it. Jesus’ suffering didn’t begin when He was arrested or mocked, beaten, and nailed to the cross. It commenced when He willingly left His Father’s side, took on flesh, and proceeded to endure all the temptations and brokenness of this life during His earthly sojourn. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords came to earth to save us, to give us the gift of eternal life, a priceless gift we could never earn or buy for ourselves.

Just like it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite Dickens piece, I can’t pick a best-loved  Bible passage, but verses from the first chapter of John are near the top of the list:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-5, 14

My heart fills with joy when I read that beautiful description of our Savior. The assertion that the darkness has not overcome the light gives me peace.  The world was a dark place when Jesus was born. There is darkness now, and there will be until He returns. Sometimes shadows are personal, resulting from private grief or suffering; sometimes, they’re widespread, like the pandemic we’ve endured this year. Regardless of the source of darkness, God assures us that the Light of the World will outshine it, providing eternal hope for His children.

I pray you’ll join me in meditating on this glorious promise this Advent season.

O, Lord, how I thank You for sending the priceless gift of Your only begotten Son, the Light of the World, to redeem us. We have the assurance that no matter how dark things might seem, the darkness will never overcome the Light of Jesus. May that be our hope now and in the coming year.

[1] If you’d like to read more about my Dickens Village please see “It’s All in the Details” in the November 2016 Archives.

A Book Is Born

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Dear Readers,

It is with great joy that I announce my first book, Be Still, Quiet Moments With God in My Garden, went live on Amazon this morning. I want to write something profound about the process and journey of getting to this point, but I’m feeling so overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude that God has allowed me to fulfill this dream that I can’t get the words to line up in my mind or on the page. There’s just a happy jumble of thoughts and emotions tumbling around in my heart as tears of amazement well up repeatedly and blur my vision.

So, for now, I’ll share the author’s note from the book and say a sincere, “Thank you!” to all of you who’ve read my blog posts, encouraged me to keep writing, and prayed for me as I labored over Be Still. I pray the Lord will use my stories and my efforts for His glory.

Blessings to you and yours as we enter into this Advent season.

Author’s Note

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Matthew 11:28-29

Scattered. A word I often use to describe my thoughts, my activities, and my days. Numerous distractions and responsibilities vie for attention. They scramble my mind and weary my soul. But there’s a place I can turn to for solace, a place where I spend some of my sweetest times with the Lord – my garden. There I’m reminded of the first garden and the promise of a new, redeemed garden. I see Jesus’ parables come to life as I observe the flowers and birds, the seasons and soils. My spirit soars as I behold God’s tremendous power, yet is quieted by the assurance that the One who cares for all creation also cares for me.

Several years ago, the lessons I’ve learned in my garden met up with my love of writing, and I began a blog, Back 2 the Garden (patsykuipers.com). I longed to share what God had been teaching me and to tell others of His great love and faithfulness.

As my portfolio of stories grew, so did the dream to compile them into a book, something that will be around for my children and grandchildren even after my blog and I are not.  Five years in the making, Be Still is the fulfillment of that dream.

I’ve arranged the 35 devotional readings in Be Still in five categories, with distinct yet intertwined themes:

  • Glimpses of Glory – evidence of God’s love all around us
  • The Benevolent Gardener – God’s protection and provision
  • Planted Together – principles for life-giving relationships
  • Cultivating Holiness – disciplines of spiritual growth
  • Transformation – God’s work of sanctification

Each entry begins with a passage from the Bible and ends with a brief prayer. In between, you’ll find the timeless truths of Scripture wrapped in simple stories. I pray they will encourage you to slow down and open your eyes to the wonders all around us, to be still and draw near to God.

The Way the World Works

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).

Gulf fritillary butterflies depend on passionflower for survival. The vigorous vine, native to the southeastern United States, is the only food source for their caterpillars. As part of my efforts to create a pollinator oasis in my suburban neighborhood, I planted a passionflower vine by my mailbox. It took a couple of years to become established, but by the third year, it was flourishing – plenty of foliage for the caterpillars to devour and lots of lovely flowers for me to enjoy.

Except I couldn’t find any caterpillars.

I examined the vine every morning when I went out to collect the newspaper and every evening when I checked for mail. No caterpillars. Then one day, I saw a tiny caterpillar in the clutches of a wasp. What did I do? I turned to Google, of course! “Do wasps eat caterpillars?” Unfortunately, they do.

I kept up my twice-daily vigil, hoping there would eventually be enough caterpillars to satisfy the wasps and still leave some to make it through their life cycle. Days passed with only an occasional sighting. Then I realized there was an army of ants busily traversing the sprawling vines. Back to Google. “Do ants eat caterpillars?” Yes, they do. By this time, my anticipation at getting to watch wave after wave of caterpillars reach maturity on my vine had given way to despair since I doubted it would be possible to get rid of the ants without negatively impacting the caterpillars.

Grandson Joshua, five-years-old at the time, encouraged me to find the ant mound and deal with the pesky marauders at their source. I was somewhat surprised he didn’t say, “That’s the way the world works, Grammie,” as he often does when I mourn the fact some predator has taken down its prey. Being an avid fan of “Wild Kratts,” Joshua is incredibly knowledgeable about a multitude of creatures.  He takes the food chain in stride, knowing some animals get eaten by other animals as God provides for all of his creation.

Yet the world isn’t working the way God originally intended, particularly when it comes to death. Some time ago, I was reading the first chapter of Genesis, a passage I’ve read countless times, when I noticed something. Take a look at verses 29 and 30: Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.  And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” (Emphasis added.)  Do you see it too? In the beginning, when God created everything and it was all good, there was no death, not even animals eating each other.

Death entered in only after the fall, the penalty for disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17). I wonder what Adam and Eve thought when they saw the blood of the innocent animal God killed to provide garments of skin to cover their nakedness. What horror they must have felt when Cain killed Abel. The shedding of blood became commonplace. Sadly, that’s the way the world works now.

But the spotless Lamb of God came to save and restore by shedding His own precious blood. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. With it, we have the assurance that someday all things will be set right again. The world will work once more as its Creator initially intended. Speaking of Jesus’ return, the prophet Isaiah said,

 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness
the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea”(Isaiah 11:5-9)
(Emphasis added.)

Jesus’ promised return is certain. We can wait confidently and expectantly for the day when death is swallowed up in victory. And while we wait, God graciously sustains his creation.

My daily caterpillar search eventually yielded the results I’d been hoping for – a dozen or so voracious nibblers of various sizes. More followed as several generations consumed the vine. I suppose it’s a small thing in the overall scheme of life. But I see it as a gift from the One who knows how much I delight in hosting the Gulf fritillaries and their offspring each year.

O Lord, how I look forward to the day of Jesus’ return when the world will finally work as You’ve intended from the beginning. No more tears, no more death, no more harm on all Your holy mountain.