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.

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).

Six Years

Dear Readers,

I’ve journaled since I was a teen, filling numerous notebooks with descriptions of family vacations and special occasions. The lined pages also contain plenty of what I came to call “written therapy sessions”. But it wasn’t until I read “A Heart Set Free”[1] that I realized those sessions had a scriptural counterpart.  The characteristic pattern of the Psalms of Lament described by author Christina Fox closely resembles the one I frequently follow in times of emotional upheaval. I begin by describing the sad state of affairs leading up to that particular journal entry, follow with ruminations on how to address it, and intersperse petitions to God to help me sort it out. As I write, I remind myself of His character, add Bible verses, and hearken back to other times He’s been faithful. By the time I reach the end, I feel better. Writing doesn’t change my circumstances, but it does change my perspective.

img_3562I launched Back 2 the Garden six years ago today with “Consider It Pure Joy”. (July 2014 Archives) My venture into the world of blogging was fueled by a desire to use my God-given writing ability to tell whoever would read my words of His great love and faithfulness. I wanted to encourage others with the promises and assurances God has brought to my mind as I’ve dealt with challenges stemming from widowhood, job loss, family illnesses, the deaths of beloved friends and family members, and world events.

This is my 166th post. Some of you have been faithful readers from the very first one. Thank you for your comments and support over the years! Some of you have found your way here more recently. Thank you for joining me in the Garden. To all of you, I pray my posts will always honor God and help you find hope in Him, whatever your specific circumstances.

And remember my goal of publishing a book based on my blog posts? It’s finally making its way from dream to reality. More on that later this year.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll come Back 2 the Garden often and find life-giving words to point you to the One who loves us more than we can imagine.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  Ephesians 3:14-19

[1] Christina Fox, A Heart Set Free, A Journey to Hope Through the Psalms of Lament, Christian Focus Publications, 2016.

Let’s All Sing

If you’ve ever visited Disneyland or Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I bet those three words caused an image to pop into your head, accompanied by the rest of the stanza, “ . . . like the birdies do, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet.”[1]  You may even be humming the tune sung by the inhabitants of the Enchanted Tiki Room, where “the birds sing words and the flowers croon”. [2]

The cheerful ditty has come to my mind repeatedly the past couple of months because of a mockingbird who’s taken up residence in my crape myrtle. The canopy of the majestic tree reaches across much of the front of my house and above the roofline, shading the windows of my bedroom and providing a proper perch for the mockingbird to serenade me. I often hear it singing soon after I awake, prompting me to think, “That bird sure sounds happy!” And then, “I can rejoice and be exceeding glad too because God has allowed me to wake up to another day.” (Psalm 118:24)

But sometimes we burrow under the covers instead, our enthusiasm stifled by the demands and uncertainties looming in the hours ahead. There have been plenty of the latter the past 3 months, right? Even so, Scripture is full of assurances:

  • God’s mercies never fail. They are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:21-23)
  • Jesus acknowledged we’d have troubles in this world, but went on to say, “Take heart. I’ve overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
  • If God cares for the birds who sing so sweetly, He’ll surely take care of us, His beloved children. (Matthew 10:29-31)

As I’ve navigated the challenges of the past weeks, I’ve been comforted by these and other promises in the form of lyrics from beloved hymns. Before long, I’m whistling the tune and then singing complete verses aloud. Great is Thy Faithfulness, It is Well with my Soul, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Be Thou My Vision, and our family anthem, Amazing Grace.  Such is the power of music to encourage and edify.

And to connect.

Musical Ties

My mom grew up attending a tiny Presbyterian church in rural North Carolina. Some 8 decades later, when the first few strains of a hymn familiar since childhood emanate from the piano at our current church, she smiles, leans over, and whispers, “That’s a Gulf song!” I nod and return her smile as we fondly recall the white wooden structure and the loved ones buried in its cemetery, links in our heritage of faith.

When my now-adult daughters were little, my husband Ray and I used Amazing Grace as a lullaby. Though their dad died when they were in elementary school, leaving them with few memories of their godly father, they clearly remember him singing them to sleep with that classic hymn.

img_3559When my grandchildren were born, I continued the tradition their grandfather and I began with their mother, soothing them to sleep with Amazing Grace, planting seeds of faith from their earliest days. Six-year-old granddaughter Lyla is prone to humming as she works on a craft project or tackles one of her small household chores. I believe it’s an overflow of her happy heart. Occasionally she’ll sigh, “I’ve got this song stuck in my head!”

Frequently the song on replay is a hymn. Because she and her siblings are being brought up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

How wonderful to have God’s Word sewn into our hearts with threads of music, binding us to Him and to generations of fellow believers!

Let All Creation Sing

Hearing the shouts of praise and adoration as Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, the Pharisees, indignant and no doubt jealous, said, “’Teacher rebuke your disciples.’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40)

The psalmist shares similar sentiments: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 96:1-4)

Indeed creation does praise the Creator in myriad ways. Yet we who’ve been the recipients of God’s great love and mercy are best-equipped to articulate all He’s done for us. So let us sing with joyful abandon like the mockingbird outside my window, proclaiming His goodness and faithfulness, as we rejoice in the gift of each new day.

 

[1] “Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing” was written in 1932 by a team of songwriters lead by English composer Tolchard Evans.

[2] Songwriters: Richard M. Sherman / Robert B. Sherman, “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company

Pink Pearl

I appreciate the convenience technology affords us, especially in these times of social distancing, but there are some things I refuse to let go of. I’ll take a printed book instead of an e-version any day, still subscribe to the local newspaper, and prefer a pretty paper calendar over one connected to my email. In fact, I have some traditions associated with the latter.

I start each year by writing birthdays and anniversaries on the pristine pages. These milestones are recorded in ink. All other entries are penciled in as they come up –– things to look forward to, savor, and then look back on.

I suppose my habit of writing changeable events in pencil began shortly after my career did.  (I didn’t have a computer, much less an iPhone back in 1980!) I soon discovered there are many moving pieces to corporate life and that meetings were apt to change as were travel plans, so pencil it was. Forty years later, I’m still penciling in items subject to change.

Cancellations Here, There, and Everywhere

I never would have imagined all the times I’d reach for my trusty Pink Pearl eraser the past several weeks. One by one, activities came off my calendar –  appointments of various kinds, lunch with friends,  5k races, garden tours, even Grammie days[1] – disappearing into so much eraser stubble. The avalanche of cancellations gradually turned into a trickle, sparking tentative hope the few remaining events, further in the future, could be salvaged.

Alas, the cancellations continue. A calendar entry marking a much-anticipated family reunion in South Dakota became the latest to succumb to my eraser, another casualty of unknowns surrounding the trajectory of COVID-19.

I recognize my situation is being played out repeatedly, as individuals and families the world over cancel or postpone activities, some long-awaited like weddings and graduations, others traditions looked forward to from year to year. So. Many. Disappointments.

Permanent Ink

Like many of you, I’ve been taking advantage of online sermons to fill the gap created by the suspension of in-person worship services.  In one such sermon, “From Grumbling to Joy”, Pastor Chris Hodge talked about how quickly we complain when our plans are disrupted or when things are taken away from us. He went on to point out that believers can rejoice, even in suffering, because God has made provision for us in Jesus’ sacrifice and is sustaining us in all our troubles. Too often our joy rests in Jesus plus something or someone else. But the Gospel should be our everything, our joy complete in Jesus.

And then this statement, which I’ve revisited many times since: “No matter how many things are taken away from you, no one can take Jesus and what He’s done for you away.” [2]

What a blessed assurance! God chose me to be His daughter before the foundation of the world. Jesus’ precious blood erased my sins from God’s record and from His memory (Psalm 130:3-4; Psalm 103:11-12, Isaiah 43:25. Furthermore, His atoning sacrifice ensures my name is written in the Book of Life in permanent ink (Revelation 3:5).

Dear Readers, I pray you, too, will find reason to rejoice as we fix our eyes not on our ever-changing circumstances, but on never-changing heavenly realities (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Heavenly Father, this life holds many uncertainties and disappointments even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic. Thank You for the certain provision You’ve made for us in Jesus, the promise that no one will ever snatch us out of Your hand, and the assurance of eternal life in Your presence (John 10:27-29).

[1] My grandchildren and I refer to the days I spend with them each week, usually Mondays and Wednesdays, as “Grammie days”.

[2] “From Grumbling to Joy”, Pastor Chris Hodge, King’s Cross Church, on-line sermon, April 26, 2020.