Beauty of the soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty Regimen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The new dress

I hadn’t bought a dress in over six years! After all, I have a number of barely-worn frocks in my closet, leftovers from my former life in the corporate arena. Clothing acquisitions since my involuntary-but-oh-so-fulfilling retirement have been more casual and often suitable for gardening – think work boots, fishing shirts[1], wide-brimmed hats. Nonetheless, my thoughtful daughters provided motivation for me to deviate from my post-career-apparel shopping habits. The incentive came in the form of a gift card expressly intended for the purchase of a new dress for the Rose Garden Gala, the major fund raising event for the botanical garden where I volunteer.

Not only was I touched by Mary and Jessie’s kindness, I was genuinely excited about acquiring a new outfit. Armed with the gift card and a specific mental image of the preferred silhouette and fabric, I set off for the mall. Those who know me best are well-aware of the fact shopping doesn’t top my list of favorite pastimes. Aimlessly wandering through retail establishments is not my idea of entertainment. (Notable exception: strolling around plant nurseries!)

By the time I spent almost three hours trying on dresses I was frustrated and hungry. I’d also re-confirmed why I consider the phrase “shopping for fun” to be an oxymoron. However, I finally made it to Starbucks for refreshment triumphantly carrying not one, but three dresses, including the item I wore to the Gala. The night of the event found me buoyed by my perky new outfit as well as my daughters’ generosity.

Scripture doesn’t condemn dressing up, looking nice, applying make-up, but there are numerous passages that address inner and outer beauty from God’s perspective. For example:

  • Peter’s first epistle reminds us our beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. “Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”[2]
  • When Samuel was trying to discern who God had chosen to be Israel’s king, the Lord instructed him, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”[3]
  • Jesus decried the duplicity of the Jewish leaders exclaiming, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”[4]
  • Jesus emphasized the importance of our inner condition yet again when he stated, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”[5]
  • The phrase “good treasure” brings to mind Jesus’ teaching to store up our treasure in heaven where, unlike material treasure, it is safe for eternity.[6]

Even if a glance in the mirror didn’t confirm the veracity of Proverbs’ declaration that “beauty is fleeting”[7], 5-year-old Joshua’s occasional, “You’re really old, Grammie!” reminds me of the inevitability of the effects of aging. Compared to the smooth skin and lineless faces of his little sisters, my visage, etched with almost six decades of smiles, grimaces and furrowed brows must seem truly ancient to him. I was comforted by a passage in a book I’m currently reading. The author referred to the radiance promised those who look to the Lord, instead of dwelling on circumstances.[8] She went on to describe an “aunt who was still radiant in her nineties. If wrinkles can glow, hers did. Aunt Hazel had a way of making everyone feel like a special object of love.”[9]

IMG_3444 (2)I immediately thought of my own dear mother. Time has taken a toll on her physically, but her eyes are bright, her smile warm and inviting. Mom has always had an exceptional affinity for children.  The attraction is mutual and she’s forged a special friendship with 4-year-old Addie at church, as well as with a 7-year-old neighbor. But she befriends young and old alike with her kindness and encouragement. Mom speaks from the overflow of good treasure in her heart and I can only imagine how full her heavenly storehouse is as she’s laid up imperishable riches for years.

Beauty is fleeting, but as Proverbs goes on to say, “a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”[10] May we be women who live in reverent obedience to the Lord, cultivating an inner beauty that never fades away.

(Although written primarily for my female readers, I hope any men who read all the way to the end were able to glean a helpful spiritual nugget or two!)

[1] I could do a commercial for Columbia’s PFG shirts for women! SPF protection, light-weight, quick-dry fabric – not just for fishing, great for gardening too!

[2] 1 Peter 3:3-4

[3] 1 Samuel 16:7

[4] Matthew 3:27

[5] Matthew 34b-35, ESV

[6] Matthew 6:19-21

[7] Proverbs 31:30a

[8] Psalm 34:5

[9] Sara Ann Dubose, “Be Anxious for Nothing”, pg. 62, Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 2001, rev. 2015

[10] Proverbs 31:30b, note: “fear” in this case refers to reverence for and obedience to God, not “terror”.