A Month for Remembering

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

Beware the Ides of April

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

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

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

A Melancholy Month

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

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

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

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

Hope Abounds

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

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

Everywhere I look, I see reminders of resurrection hope.

Suffering Savior

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

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

Grieving with Hope

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

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

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

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

Perseverance Personified

Perseverance Personified

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

Set Backs

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

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

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

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

Persistence

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

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

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

Our Example

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

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

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

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

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

Hide and Seek, Reprise

 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
1 John 4:18-20

Let’s Hide!

One of the earliest and most endearing games we play with babies involves disappearing behind our hands only to reappear moments later, smiling and exclaiming, “peek-a-boo!” We repeat the sequence of movements multiple times, rewarded by baby’s surprised chuckles.

Before long, infants turn into mobile toddlers, able to participate in the hiding aspect of the game. Hide-and-seek became my grandchildren’s oft-requested favorite, complete with random-number counting and much laughter while scurrying to find the perfect hiding spot. Shrieks were just as likely to accompany finding as being found.

Sometimes the hiding wasn’t all that effective. For instance, even though a blanket would cover most of a tiny body, a foot might remain visible. Or, try as I might, I couldn’t fully wedge myself between the wall and the recliner when the little people were hunting me.

And then there were times when I wandered around, pretend-seeking the hidden one, musing, “Hmm, I wonder where (insert grandchild’s name) is?” The confident, she-can’t-find-me laughter that followed allowed me to zero in like a honey bee to its hive. More laughter, then, “Let’s hide again, Grammie!”

Child’s Play?

The first recorded episode of hide-and-seek was no child’s game. It was unplanned, and it certainly wasn’t accompanied by laughter unless it was the nervous kind borne of embarrassment. Genesis 3 recounts the story of the Fall. Satan, disguised as a serpent, engaged Eve in a doubt-God’s-goodness conversation – surely it wasn’t proper for God to withhold something as delightful as the forbidden fruit? Sadly, it didn’t take much to convince Eve of her right to partake. She ate and then shared the bounty with Adam (verses 1-6).

Oh, their eyes were opened, just like Satan promised. But instead of reveling in their newfound enlightenment, they were overcome with shame as they realized they were naked (verse 7a). Knowing God would soon arrive for His daily garden stroll, they hastily covered themselves with leafy loincloths and hid (verses 7b-8).

Guilt or Shame?

We’ve been hiding from God and each other ever since, haven’t we? Afraid if people knew our shortcomings and the secret sins that plague us, they’d turn away.

Guilt is a helpful, God-given poke to our conscience, convicting us of specific wrongdoing, leading us to confess, repent, seek forgiveness, and be restored to fellowship with God and others. By contrast, shame condemns, whispering some variation of, “You’re bad, and you always will be,” to our weary souls. Despite our best efforts, we just can’t rid ourselves of that sense of not measuring up, the vague feeling of not fitting in or meeting expectations.

So we cover up and keep our distance, as we strive to maintain an acceptable facade at all times, even, or maybe especially, at church where it seems like everyone else has it all together. We hide in our respective caves, safe but so alone.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Even though we usually don’t want to be found out, we do want to be found.

Praise God for coming to the garden in the cool of that fateful day, like He always had before. He sought His wayward children, even though He already knew of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the extreme pain it would cause their offspring, and the price He Himself would pay to redeem them (John 3:16). He came bearing a perfect plan and the promise of better garments. The seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent so all of God’s children could be robed in the righteousness of His beloved Son (Genesis 3:15).

Jesus, the Good Shepherd who came to seek the lost (Luke 19:10). The unblemished Lamb, slain for us (John 1:29). The Risen Savior who bids us come that we might find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:29). He knows the very worst about us, but calls us from darkness into light (Isaiah 9:2, John 1:5), to be cleansed by His precious blood that He might present us spotless before God (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Jesus is the safest of safe places for the children of God (John 3:17; Romans 8:1).

Becoming a Safe Place

Scripture is clear that we are to be conformed to the likeness of our elder brother (Romans 8:29), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). So how can we become safe places for fellow, flawed sojourners, afraid to come out of their caves? Scripture instructs us to:

  • Practice humility, considering others’ needs, hurts, and heartaches before our own (Philippians 2:3-4). Each one of us is dealing with things known only to God (Psalm 139:1-3, 23-24).
  • Judge not, remembering all we’ve been forgiven (Matthew 7:1-5; Luke 6:37-38). Though our sins may differ from those of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re all sinners saved by grace (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23).
  • Be willing to become vulnerable, stewarding our own stories well as we share examples of God’s goodness, faithfulness, even discipline, across the years we’ve walked with Him (Psalm 78).

May we live in such a way that it’s safer, indeed more desirable, for those tempted to hide to come out of their caves, into the light of the One who will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3).

Dear Lord, as Your chosen people, holy and dearly loved, please help us clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with and forgiving each other as You’ve forgiven us. And, by the power of Your Spirit, help us put on love, which binds all these virtues together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

Too Good to Be True

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:7-8

Intriguing Email

I casually scrolled through email while my daughter, Jessie, got ready for our special post-Biltmore-tour dinner. One particular subject line made me pause before opening the note attached to it: “You won! Time to claim your prize.” Curious and cautiously optimistic, I clicked on the message.

The email wasn’t sent by a bogus prince from a remote overseas country. No, it was from the sweepstakes fulfillment company employed by Starbucks®. Even though I’d been playing their Summer Game, garnering entries by purchasing my usual tea and treats, and even though the graphics looked exactly like the ones featured on the sweepstakes emails, I was skeptical. I reread the note from top to bottom, including all the fine print, before showing it to Jessie.

“Do you think this is real?”

“It looks real, Mom, but I think you should call Starbucks® to be sure.”

We went to dinner, splurged on our selections, and mused over my potential win.  The next day, as Jessie chauffeured me back to Georgia, I called Starbucks’ customer service. After a lengthy hold, a transfer to a different department, and another brief wait, the cheerful associate on the other end of the line confirmed the win and congratulated me on my good fortune.

Misgivings

The email stated I had three days to respond or I would forfeit the prize.  That night, after returning home, I determined to set aside my lingering doubts and fill in the affidavit of eligibility.  Despite the earlier confirmation received directly from the Starbucks® agent, my confidence withered when it came time to divulge my tax info.  With the knot in my stomach growing tighter by the moment, I filled in my social security number, having discerned (via a Google search) that it was a legitimate request so my winnings could be reported to the IRS.

I hit send on the finished documentation and prayed I hadn’t fallen for a perfectly executed scam. A few days later, I received an email confirming my eligibility and informing me that my winnings would be posted to my Starbucks® account in approximately two months.  I felt more confident but still only shared the good news with Jessie, my parents and my older daughter, Mary. I wanted to limit future humiliation if this ultimately proved to be a sham.

The rhythm of everyday activities and responsibilities intervened, and I mostly forgot about the promised stars. When I did think of my winnings, I half expected not to receive them. But then, on the designated day, I pulled my phone out to check my account balance, and there they were, thousands upon thousands of stars, deposited as promised.[1]

No Boasting

You may be wondering if I created a celebratory Facebook post or messaged all my friends with the exciting news. Nope. I still didn’t tell anyone – until now. Even though my win was undeniably real, I didn’t want to appear like I was boasting since I hadn’t done anything exceptional to deserve the prize. I simply bought tea and pumpkin bread and treated Mom to her beloved frappuccinos, as usual, while the sweepstakes was going on.

Nonetheless, my love of a good analogy has overcome my reluctance to share about my prize, and I hope by now you’ve surmised where I’m going with this tale.

As believers, we have something far more valuable than stars that can be redeemed for beverages and tasty treats. Yet, we’re tentative about telling others for fear they’ll scoff at our too-good-to-be-true message:  God loved us so much He sent His only Son to die for us so we can live with Him forever (John 3:16). From a human perspective, it makes no sense that a righteous man would die for the unrighteous, His very enemies.

But from the first book of the Bible (Genesis 3:15) to the last (Revelation 21:1-4), God promised to redeem a people for Himself and dwell with them throughout eternity. No fine print to read. No scams to fear. We can always count on our covenant-keeping God, who is Faithful and True (Revelation 19:11).

And just like I had nothing to boast about in winning the sweepstakes, Scripture makes it clear we have no room to boast about our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith which is itself a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). But unlike my hesitancy to share the news of my winnings, we’re commanded to tell others about God’s plan of salvation (Matthew 28:19-20), encouraging them to heed His voice and acknowledge their need (Hebrews 3:7-8), while giving Him all the glory (Jude 1:24-25).

True After All

Occasionally a barista will notice the extraordinary number of stars in my account when I ask them to “please use stars for the whole order.” Their look of amazement is usually followed by, “I’ve never seen that many stars!”

I humbly reply, “I won the Summer Stars Sweepstake! I’ve never won anything big before. I could hardly believe it!”

“Wow! I’ve wondered if anyone ever really wins those games!”

We share a smile before I move on, happy to know that sometimes news that seems too good to be true is real after all.

Dear Lord, as we joyfully celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death, help us to endeavor to share the good news of the gospel with others, unafraid of their potential skepticism. May our lives underscore the truth of our message and point them to You.


[1] For those of you unfamiliar with the Starbucks® rewards program, you can use stars to purchase menu items and merchandise.

The Fall

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.
Genesis 3:7a

Ouch!

The fateful morning began as usual. I fed the birds, started my own breakfast, then strolled out to get the newspaper. Whenever I traverse the driveway, be it on foot or in my car, I scan the flower beds on either side, checking for any new plant developments.

058As is often the case, I spotted a lovely sight – the freezing overnight temperature had left the ornamental cabbage encased in frost. Seeing them glistening in the sunlight, I knew I had to get a photo! I hurried inside to retrieve my phone and returned to capture the image.

Although I’d walked the same stretch just minutes before with nary a stumble, the second time around, I stepped on an unseen rock, turned my ankle, and crashed onto the cold concrete. My phone clattered to the ground next to me, leaving me to wonder which of us had suffered the most damage.

 I was stunned, but my embarrassment superseded my shock, and I got up quickly lest anyone should spot me, prostrate on the driveway.

My right knee complained mightily, and the palms of my hands stung from their encounter with the concrete. Still focused on my goal, though, I winced as I hobbled over to the mailbox bed, took the photo, and limped back into the house.

And then it hit – nausea and light-headedness washed over me. I had to sit down to avoid passing out. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten up so quickly. Perhaps it would have been better to lay there for a moment, to absorb the shock, even if it meant being seen. After all, I’m confident my neighbors would have come to my rescue had they observed my plight, and I could have used a steadying hand and some sympathy.

Dire Consequences

My right hand was swollen and discolored, and both knees sported bruises for days after my tumble. As I contemplated how quickly I went from upright to prone, my thoughts turned to THE fall. You know, the one described in Genesis 3.

Unlike my situation, Adam and Eve had been warned. God set a clear boundary when He told them they could eat of all the trees in the garden except for one – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17). But the serpent was crafty, and the fruit was a delight to the eyes. Eve ate and then offered the fruit to Adam, who readily joined her.

In a moment, everything changed for them and all who would come after them. Sin entered in, opening the door to death. Undoubtedly Adam and Eve’s abrupt fall was as stunning and disorienting as mine. They plummeted from their privileged position, no longer able to enjoy sweet, unhindered fellowship with God. Instead, their eyes were opened to their nakedness, and when they heard the sound of God walking in the garden, they hid, much as I scrambled up from the pavement, lest anyone see me.

But, we can’t hide from God (Psalm 139:1-16).

A Plan and a Promise

God wasn’t surprised by Adam and Eve’s disobedience. He came to the garden as usual and drew them out of hiding. When they blame-shifted their way through a confession, He declared the penalties they and their progeny would incur. However, God directed His initial comments to Satan. The curse He pronounced on the serpent held the promise of a Savior for His wayward children.

Before the foundation of the world, Father and Son purposed to save those chosen in Him, a people for themselves, a treasured possession (Ephesians 1:3-6; Revelation 13:8). It would cost the Son His life to redeem the fallen, those stumbling around, their steps hindered by sin. As He breathed His last, hanging on the cross, Jesus uttered, “It is finished!” (John 19:30)  The curtain in the Temple was torn in two, signifying the removal of the barrier between God and His people. Our relationship thus restored, we can once again enjoy intimate fellowship with God.

Jesus’ atoning death makes it possible for us to approach the throne of grace to receive mercy in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16). Furthermore, when Jesus arose on the third day, He secured victory over death, our ultimate enemy.

Securely Held

102There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with my behavior the morning I tripped on the driveway. Still, there are times when I’ve intentionally chosen a path strewn with rocks and pebbles, much to my detriment. Eventually, I lose my footing. Yet, it’s then I’m oh-so-thankful I can’t hide from my loving Father who disciplines and restores me. Though I stumble, I won’t be cast headlong (Psalm 37:24). The Lord has promised to help and strengthen me, to hold me up with His right hand (Isaiah 41:10).

A snippet of lyrics from Rich Mullins’ song, “If I Stand,” has been playing in my mind as I’ve been writing. It makes a fitting prayer to end this post:

(Lord), if I stand let me stand on the promise
That you will pull me through
And if I can’t let me fall on the grace
That first brought me to You[1]

[1] “If I Stand”, Rich Mullins, Steve Cudworth; Universal Music, 1988.

A Single Red Rose, Remix

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10

An Iconic Flower

Red roses and romantic love have been linked for centuries. “The red rose began its illustrious symbolic history in Greek and Roman iconography, where it was tied to Aphrodite, or Venus, the goddess of love . . . Throughout its long, storied history, the red rose still reigns as the ultimate symbol of passionate affection.”[1]

Like many of you, I  have been touched by the beauty of red roses. In fact, one played a role in changing the course of my life. If that sounds like hyperbole, read on for the rest of the story.

A Broken Heart

When I was in my early twenties, I met a handsome young man and promptly fell head-over-heels for him. Thus smitten, I had no trouble convincing myself he was “the one.” Some months later, it became evident he wasn’t. He stated his desire to return to his college sweetheart, who he’d never completely gotten over, thereby crushing my happily-ever-after dreams.

But God has a plan for our lives and is always going before us. One week to the day after receiving the hurtful news from Mr. Not-the-one-after-all, I met Ray, another handsome young man, who I’d come to know and love, at a church singles group.

At subsequent gatherings, I noted Ray was thoughtful and kind, a godly young man who cared about others. He also had a stubborn streak. His tenacity came in handy since it took no small effort on his part to break through the fog of despondency that settled around me after the painful breakup. As summer turned into fall, I continued to decline Ray’s invitations, seeing him instead at activities sponsored by the singles group.

I commented to my mom, “I’m not sure why Ray keeps asking me out.” Her reply, “He’s obviously found someone he likes and isn’t going to give up easily!”

I’m forever thankful he didn’t give up.

A Breakthrough

108The singles group held their Christmas dinner on my birthday that year. After the banquet, Ray presented me with a single red rose. Somehow his gesture broke through my defenses and opened my heart to the possibility of loving again. Founded on friendship and undergirded by faith and shared values, our relationship blossomed.

Paying homage to that initial flower, I carried a red rose with a sprig of baby’s breath and some greenery when Ray and I got married two years later; this despite the florist’s protestations that the bridesmaids’ bouquets cost more than mine. Over the years that followed, Ray often gave me a single red rose for my birthday, our anniversary, and other special occasions, hearkening back to the first one and what it meant to us.

010The last birthday Ray spent with me was no different. When I came home from work that night, he had adorned the kitchen with roses – miniature pink ones for our daughters and a dozen yellow ones for me. And, amidst those beauties, a single red one. Ray also gave me an exquisite pin – a delicate red rose on a gold stem. I still marvel at this gift in light of the fact he died precisely four months later. Ray didn’t know he wouldn’t be around to purchase single red roses on birthdays yet to come, but God did. I believe He somehow nudged Ray to give me the pin I now wear each year on my birthday.

Love Never Ends

When Ray died, I took a single red rose to the funeral home and asked the funeral director to place it in his hands for me. It seemed a fitting close to our tradition, at least for now. Sometimes I think about what it will be like when I finally get to see Ray again. Might he have that rose in his hands, ready to give it back to me? After all, nothing’s impossible for God. Yet rose or no rose, I’m confident the longed-for reunion will take place. Ray and I will spend eternity together worshipping and praising our great Redeemer because God didn’t give up on His people. He loved us so much, He sent His only Son to die for us, that we might live with Him forever (John 3:16).

What a blessing to know that nothing can separate us from the love of God – neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (Romans 8:38-39).

I sometimes buy a single red rose for myself “from Ray” on special occasions, and I gratefully remember the gift of unconditional love that persists beyond the grave (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a).

Dear Lord, thank You for loving us so much that You sent Jesus to die for us. We can’t fully fathom the height, depth, breadth, and width of Your great love, Lord, but we are grateful for the glimpses You give us in our relationships with others who love us unconditionally.

[1] https://www.proplants.com/blog/history-and-meaning-behind-red-roses, ProFlowers Blog, “History and Meaning Behind Red Roses”, January 18, 2017.

Good Gifts

My friend could scarcely contain her excitement as she said, “Be sure to see me after church. I have something for you. It has your name written all over it!”

083Her statement piqued my curiosity and nudged a long-ago, gift-related memory from the recesses of my mind. The recollection tempered my enthusiasm as I wondered which traits I’d projected to inspire this perfect gift. Much to my relief, the beautiful bookends my friend joyfully presented after the worship service reflected my love of gardening and reading.

080So what about the memory? Two small, resin snapping turtles, a Mother’s Day gift from my then-elementary-aged daughters. Snapping turtles! To this day, some 25 years later, my daughters declare they thought the scary critters were cute. Cute?! Maybe it was my late husband’s barely-suppressed grin or my insecurities as a busy, often-tired mom, but no amount of explaining could convince me the turtles weren’t a commentary on my character flaws.

God’s Gifts

God is the supreme gift-giver. There’s no hiding our selves or our sins from Him. We deserve condemnation from One so holy, yet from the beginning He determined to give us the gift we needed most – salvation. As soon as Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit their eyes were opened to the reality of their condition. They tried to hide, just as we do. But God came to the garden as usual and promised the seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3).

Jesus fulfilled that promise by living a life of perfect obedience, taking our sins upon himself, enduring God’s wrath on the cross, dying, and being raised again to eternal life (Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

In addition, Jesus promised his distraught disciples He wouldn’t leave them as orphans. He’d send a Helper (John 14:18, 25-26). The Holy Spirit came bearing specially-selected gifts. He empowers us to accomplish the good works prepared for us, not for personal glory, but for the building up of the body of believers to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 12).

Reflecting His Goodness

But there’s more. As we abide in Christ, we’ll produce good fruit in keeping with our salvation – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control – which in turn reflects His goodness to others (Galatians 5:22-23a).

A dear friend gave me just such a gift when she asked if she could walk my garden with me. She knows, as most of you longtime readers do, that my garden is a refuge, a place of peaceful times with the Lord. Restrictions associated with COVID-19 have kept me home much more than usual the past two months. I’ve spent many happy hours trimming, weeding, and planting. Nonetheless, there are unsightly patches dotting my 1/3 acre, where weeds abound or poison ivy is winding its way around tree trunks.

Even so, my friend commented repeatedly on how beautiful it was and that she could see I’d worked hard to make it so. Reflecting on our stroll later, I realized this is exactly what she’s done across the years of our friendship. As one of my closest confidants, she’s seen me entangled in vines sprung from seeds I should never have sown and has prayerfully cheered me on as I sought to remove briars impeding my spiritual journey. She’s reminded me who I am in Christ and has never made me feel less than beautiful, even when I struggled to see beyond the weeds.

Isn’t that what God does? As long as we’re in the flesh we’ll battle our sin nature, but when God looks at us, He sees us robed in the perfect righteousness of His Son. What an amazing gift! Furthermore, we don’t battle alone. Not only is the power of the Spirit at work within us, conforming us more and more to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), but God also graciously provides fellow believers to come alongside us on our journey.

Perhaps it’s time for me to accept my daughters’ explanation of their long-ago gift. Maybe they did look past the menacing mouths of those tiny turtles and saw the cuteness of their size, just like they looked past my moments of fatigue and impatience and saw my heart full of love for them.

O Lord, please help us to love others well and to reflect your goodness to those who we come in contact with that they might long to know Jesus, the greatest gift ever given.

Don’t Cry!

12-20-2013, Hi, Grammie 1I suppose I should begin with a confession: I’m an equal-opportunity crier. My eyes are just as likely to well up in moments of joy as in sorrow – while reading sweet sentiments in Hallmark cards, watching heartbreaking news stories, attending weddings or funerals, even when leading Bible study as the magnitude of God’s grace and mercy floods over me. Yes, from a barely-there trickle to gut-wrenching sobs, I’ve shed my share of tears and expect to shed plenty more.

A quick search on Google reveals three different types of tears. Basal tears keep our eyes lubricated, while reflex tears pop up in response to irritants like slicing onions or having a pesky gnat flit into your eye. And then there are psychic tears, those associated with our emotions, distinct from the other two in that they contain stress hormones.[1] No wonder we often feel better after shedding them. They’re like an overflow valve for the soul.

Even so, our attempts to comfort others are often accompanied by, “Don’t cry!”

The Bible has much to say about tears and the circumstances surrounding them. Consider for example:

  • Loss of a loved one by separation or death
    • David grieved the loss of his closer-than-a-brother friend, Jonathan, first from necessary distancing and then by death (1 Samuel 20:41; 2 Samuel 1:12).
    • Mary and Martha bemoaned Lazarus’ death. Seeing their bereavement, Jesus wept too, even though He knew his Father would hear his prayer to raise him. Jesus had compassion on the sisters in their time of loss and He has compassion on us as well (John 11:31-35).
    • Jesus’ followers were bereft and befuddled after His death in spite of the many times He’d told them what was to come (Luke 18:31-34; 36:13-49).
  • Disappointments of various sorts
    • Esau wept over the loss of his birthright, when he realized how his brother had tricked their father (Genesis 27:30-38).
    • Hannah’s unfulfilled desire for a child, exacerbated by her rival’s provocation and her husband’s lack of understanding, led to her fervent, tear-stained prayer for relief (1 Samuel 1:1-10)
  • Sorrow for sin
    • Three of the four Gospels recount Peter’s tear-punctuated dismay when Jesus’ statement that he’d betray Him came to pass (Matthew 26:75; Mark 14:72; Luke 22:62).
    • James says we should be wretched and mourn and weep over our transgressions, humbly drawing near to God for forgiveness and restoration (James 4:8-10).
  • Worship and Gratitude
    • The penitent woman who wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with ointment was motivated by her love for her Savior.
  • Joyous reunion
    • Though bitterness marked their estrangement and Jacob feared the worst from Esau, the brothers’ reunion was accompanied by joyful tears (Genesis 33:4).
    • I’m taking some liberty here because none of the translations I consulted mention crying, but I’ve got to believe the prodigal son’s compassionate father had tears of elation streaming down his face as he ran to greet his returning son (Luke 15:20).

Even though these passages and others make it clear psychic tears are part of our God-given emotions, we’re quick to admonish, “Don’t cry!” Could it be others’ tears make us uncomfortable or tearful ourselves? Or worse, might we believe God’s children aren’t supposed to cry because we know the end of the story?

Mournful tears have dotted my days this past month. They sneak up on me as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic breaks through my carefully-constructed mantle of Truth. Woven together from precious promises and reliable assurances found in Scripture it protects me from despair and hopelessness.[2] Nonetheless, people are hurting on a worldwide scale for myriad reasons. Closer to home, I miss seeing my children and grandchildren, worshiping in person with my covenant family. And so tears flow as I grieve the loss and brokenness.

The women who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion no doubt wailed at the sight of their beloved son, teacher, friend, bloodied and beaten, being nailed to a Roman cross. The innocent One, put to death for the sins of others. Isaiah 53 is one of my most cherished passages, but also one which I can rarely get through without tears. Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Despised. Rejected. Wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. My transgressions. My iniquities.

We are so blessed to live on this side of the Resurrection. No matter how dark the days or how great the losses, we know Jesus’ atoning sacrifice ensures our own resurrection and eternal security. Furthermore, as we go through difficulties in this life, we know He is seated at the right hand of God, interceding for us. Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:31-39).

The One who keeps track of every tear (Psalm 56:8) has promised to return, to usher in a new heaven and a new earth, to wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:1-4). Until then, may we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, unafraid of our tears.

O Lord, how I thank You that You hear our cries for help. Though weeping may last through the night, joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30). You have shown your great mercy in sending Jesus to die for our sins and will turn our mourning into gladness. For we know this momentary affliction is preparing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). May we sing your praise forever!

 

[1] “What are the three different types of tears found in our eyes?”, http://www.sharecare.com

[2] Please see previous posts, “It is Well” and “Pollen Season”.

Hide and seek

11-5-2012, Peek-a-boo 5Surely one of the earliest and most endearing games we play with babies involves disappearing behind our hands only to reappear moments later, smiling and exclaiming, “peek-a-boo!” We repeat the sequence of movements multiple times, rewarded with baby’s surprised chuckles.

11-5-2012, Peek-a-boo 6Before long, infants turn into mobile toddlers, able to participate in the hiding aspect of the game. In fact, hide-and-seek becomes an oft-requested favorite, complete with random-number counting and much laughter while scurrying to find the perfect hiding spot. Shrieks are just as likely to accompany finding as being found.

IMG_1258Sometimes the hiding isn’t all that effective. For instance, even though most of the tiny body is covered up, a foot may remain visible. Or, try as I might, I can’t fully wedge myself between the wall and the recliner when the little people are hunting me.

And then there are times when I wander around, pretend-seeking the hidden one, musing, “Hmm, I wonder where (insert grandchild’s name) is?” The confident, she-can’t-find-me laughter that follows allows me to zero in like a honey bee to its hive. More laughter ensues, along with, “Let’s hide again, Grammie!”

Child’s play?

The first recorded episode of hide-and-seek was no child’s game. It wasn’t planned and it certainly wasn’t accompanied by laughter, unless it was the nervous kind borne of embarrassment. Genesis 3 recounts the story of the Fall. Satan, disguised as a serpent, engaged Eve in a doubt-God’s-goodness conversation – surely it wasn’t proper for God to withhold something as wonderful as the forbidden fruit? Sadly, it didn’t take much to convince Eve of her right to partake. She ate and then shared some of the bounty with Adam. (verses 1-6).

Oh, their eyes were opened, just like Satan promised. But instead of delighting in their newfound enlightenment, they were overcome with shame as they realized they were naked (verse 7a). Knowing God would soon arrive for His daily garden stroll, they hastily covered themselves with leafy loincloths and hid (verses 7b-8).

Shame or guilt?

We’ve been hiding from God and each other ever since, haven’t we? Afraid if people knew our short-comings and the secret sins that plague us, they’d turn away.

Guilt is a helpful, God-given poke to our conscience convicting us of a specific wrongdoing, leading us to confess, repent, seek forgiveness and be restored. By contrast, shame condemns, whispering some variation of, “You’re bad and you always will be”, to our weary souls. Like Georgia-clay stains on white socks, we just can’t rid ourselves of that sense of not measuring up, the vague feeling of not fitting in or meeting expectations.

So we cover up and keep our distance, as we strive to maintain an acceptable facade at all times, even, or maybe especially, at church where it seems like everyone else has it all together. We hide in our respective caves, safe, but so alone.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Even though we usually don’t want to be found out, we do want to be found.

Praise God for coming to the garden in the cool of that fateful day, just like He always had before. This, even though He already knew of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the great pain it would cause their offspring and the price He Himself would pay to redeem them (John 3:16). He came bearing a perfect plan and the promise of better garments. The seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent so all of God’s children could be robed in the righteousness of His beloved Son (verse 15).

Jesus. The Good Shepherd who came to seek the lost (Luke 19:10). The unblemished Lamb, slain for us (John 1:29). The Risen Savior who bids us come that we might find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:29). He knows the very worst about us, but calls us from darkness into light (Isaiah 9:2, John 1:5), to be cleansed by His precious blood that He might present us spotless before God (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Jesus is the safest of safe places for the children of God (John 3:17; Romans 8:1).

Becoming a safe place

Scripture is clear that we are to be conformed to the likeness of our elder brother (Romans 8:29), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). So how can we become safe places for fellow, flawed sojourners, afraid to come out of their caves? Scripture entreats us to:

  • Practice humility, considering others’ needs, hurts and heartaches before our own (Philippians 2:3-4). Each one of us is dealing with things known only to God (Psalm 139:1-3, 23-24).
  • Judge not, remembering all we’ve been forgiven (Matthew 7:1-5; Luke 6:37-38). Though our sins may differ from those of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re all sinners saved by grace (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23).
  • Be willing to become vulnerable, stewarding our own stories well as we share examples of God’s goodness, faithfulness, even discipline across the years we’ve walked with Him (Psalm 78).

May we live in such a way that it’s safer, indeed more desirable, for others to come out of their caves, into the Light of the One who will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3).

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

 

Death benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

He is Risen!

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

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

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

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

  • Peace with God – “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1 (See also Luke 2:14; Romans 15:13)
  • Forgiveness – “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43 (See also, Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:13-14)
  • God’s abiding presence now – “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b (See also Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • and forever – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Revelation 21:1-3
  • An eternal home – “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14:2-3
  • An imperishable body – “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 (See 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 for the full description of the change to come.)
  • An eternal inheritance – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” 1 Peter 1:3-5

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

 

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