Prudent Pruning

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit (John 15:1-2).

Pruning requires skill and an understanding of the plant being pruned. Some plants bloom on old wood, others on new. Some require severe pruning to increase fruitfulness, while such treatment will stunt, disfigure, or kill others.

As much as I decry the practice of crape murder,[1] I recognize the need for proper pruning. Done correctly, it is an essential part of maintaining a specimen’s health and enhancing its aesthetic value. After some years of practice, I feel more confident when it comes time to trim my trees and shrubs, yet I still approach the task with a measure of trepidation. What if the results of my efforts look more like a bad haircut? Or I snip off next year’s buds? Or I accidentally remove the flowering branch instead of the dead one next to it because the shrub was so thick I didn’t have a clear view? Yep, I’ve found myself in those situations – more than once.

And I’ve learned to call for professional help when the job is too big or too complicated for me to handle.

The introductory verses above from the Gospel of John are familiar. Removing dead branches and those that aren’t bearing fruit seems reasonable—but pruning the fruitful ones to make them more fruitful? Increasing by taking away sounds counterintuitive until you understand the science behind the analogy. Without delving too deeply into the details, pruning stimulates plant growth at the point of the cut by removing growth-inhibiting hormones present in the tips of branches and stems.

So what might pruning look like in the spiritual realm given we’re to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, fruit that provides evidence of our faith?

  • Loss leads to empathy for others experiencing similar losses. I’ve often said before Ray died, I was genuinely sorry for those who lost a beloved spouse, but after losing him, I became intimately acquainted with the sorrow associated with such a blow. My sympathy became empathy, which in turn has allowed me to comfort others with the comfort I’ve received from the Lord (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
  • Trials produce patience and strengthen our faith as we wait on the Lord.  As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 3b-4). That’s a bountiful harvest of desirable traits! Furthermore, we can encourage others by stewarding our stories well, sharing examples of God’s love and faithfulness.
  • Discipline engenders repentance, which yields the fruit of righteousness and, later, humility. We recognize no one is righteous apart from Christ (Romans 3:10). We’re to take the log out of our own eye before dealing with the speck in others’, and to forgive as God has forgiven us (Matthew 7:3-5; Colossians 3:13).

How about you? Are there areas in your life where God has removed something or someone, resulting in an abundance of spiritual fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Proper pruning, even the most severe that leaves the plant looking like a shadow of its former self, doesn’t hurt the plant. Fortunately, we belong to the Master Vinedresser, not a weekend warrior wielding a chainsaw. He determines exactly where and how to make the required cuts to enable us to bear more fruit for Him. Sometimes the pruning is relentless, and the process is painful, but we can always trust Him. He knows us by name and loves us far more than we can imagine. He’s tenderly transforming us into who He created us to be. 

O Lord, trials, loss, discipline – the very thought makes us tremble. But we know we can trust You to bring joy from suffering, beauty from ashes, and life from death.


[1] A term used to describe the act of severely pruning crape myrtles, sometimes back to their main trunks.

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.

Count it all Joy

The following is an adaptation of the first post I published on Back 2 the Garden, July 1, 2014, with concluding comments pertinent to current events.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  (James 1:2-3)

February 1998. Ten months earlier, my beloved husband, Ray, died of a heart attack a few weeks after his 39th birthday. Even though I was a rational person who could recount the details surrounding his death, I maintained a protective mantle of denial. How could my engaging, energetic mate go to work one sunny spring Saturday and never return home to me and our two young daughters? The reality dripped into my soul bit by bit and oozed through the cracks in my shield, creating an underlying pool of sadness that crept over its banks and flooded many of my days.

Joy? Not so much.

In preparing for Ray’s funeral, I wrote a letter for one of the pastors to read during the service. Among other things, I stated he’d not only left a lasting legacy in the lives of our daughters, but also in the beauty of our garden. Ray had a horticulture degree and though he didn’t shun common plants, he preferred to plant unique specimens in our yard. He told me about the special plants he selected and patiently taught me their names. I helped weed, water, and mow, but left landscape planning to him.

Several of Ray’s horticulture colleagues paid a visit and walked the garden with me after he died. Listening to them exclaim over first one plant and then another confirmed yet again the garden was an exceptional part of his legacy.

It became equally evident I needed to learn how to take care of it otherwise it would only be a matter of time before weeds overtook everything, much like sorrow entwined my thoughts.

And so that February day found me outside, bundled against the late-winter chill. I stooped to pull back the blanket of leaves shrouding the planting beds, my heart as numb as my fingers. I longed for Ray to be there, kneeling beside me shoulder-to-shoulder, to remove those leaves. Occasional tears watered the patch of soil where I labored.

IMG_5217I placed one handful of leaves after another into the big brown yard debris bag. Then, Wait! What’s that? I detected flecks of green amidst the weathered leaf litter. Perennials Ray planted were beginning to emerge from the soil. Seeing those tiny-but-determined plants sparked hope within me. If they could make it through the cold, stark winter, maybe I would survive my season of darkness.

I didn’t know it then, but I experienced my first session of garden therapy that day. And I caught a glimpse of the joy that comes from persevering, one of many lessons the Lord had prepared for me in His outdoor classroom.

Over 20 springs have come and gone since that late-February day. Some were short, giving way to the heat of southern summers by mid- May. Others teased us with early warmth, followed by killing frost. This year, we’ve been blessed by a long period of pleasant weather – more sun than showers, moderate temperatures perfect for nudging plants from their winter slumber.

Oh how we need the reminders of life and light as we continue to shelter in place, separate from friends and relatives, unsure how long the restrictions will remain. COVID-19 brought an end to everyday life as we knew it just as surely as Ray’s heart attack forever shattered what was normal for me and my daughters.

I’ve spent many hours in my garden in the past month, weeding, praying, digging, praying some more. And I’ve found the peace I’ve come to count on when I’m surrounded by evidence of God’s sustaining power, His love poured out in and on creation.

The Apostle Paul joined James in extolling the beneficial results of hardship when he wrote to the Roman believers, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3b-5a).

Hope. Hope that doesn’t put us to shame because it’s grounded in a Person, the One who endured His own suffering, even to the point of death on the cross, for us, securing hope for eternity.

23-years ago Ray left for work on a sun-drenched day much like today and the Lord called him Home. From the moment I first heard the news of his death until today, God has shown Himself to be faithful. I know I can trust Him to work all things together for good, whether trials are personal or pervasive (Romans 8:28).

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).

Love Never Ends

February 14th. Valentine’s Day. One of several days throughout the year when I have to take myself in hand and preach truth to myself even more so than usual. Father’s Day, my late husband’s birthday, our would-be wedding anniversary, the day God called Ray Home. Difficult days when I’m tempted to question God’s goodness; to wonder why He wrote my beloved spouse’s too-soon-for-me departure into our story.

The sunshine streaming through my windows this morning provided a stark contrast to my mood. No card, no flowers, no warm embrace from my forever love. Everything in me wanted to ignore the holiday. Well, almost everything. Whispers of truth made their way through the silent, solitary morning moments, “You’re not alone. Reach out.”

I sent a few texts, their content more cheerful than my prevailing state of mind. Soon my phone began to ping notifying me of incoming replies, most bedecked with emoji hearts and hugs:

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you, my friend!”

“Happy Valentine’s Day to you as well! I am thankful today for friends and family! Love to you today!”

“’The Lord has appeared of old unto me, saying, ‘Yea, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you.’ Jeremiah 31:3 . . . Praying this will minister to you.”

Gratitude, love, the Word of the Lord – potent antidotes for sorrow, doubt, and self-pity. They provided the traction I needed to extricate myself from the emotional quagmire I was languishing in. Back on solid footing, I redirected my thoughts.

img_2626-1I’m thankful for the time Ray and I spent together. I’d rather have been married to him for 13 years than not at all. The last card he gave me was a Valentine card. Unlike other memorabilia tucked away in various boxes and file folders, it resides in a special spot on my bookshelf. Lost in my reverie, I retrieved it from its slot and reverently removed it from its well-worn envelope. After savoring the sentiments within, I placed it on the edge of my dining room table which also serves as my desk. There, alongside other tangible reminders of loved ones, it radiated a message of glowing encouragement.

When I first read the words some 23 years ago I asked Ray if he truly felt that way about me. I didn’t see much of myself in the card’s lofty ideals which reference the Proverbs 31 woman. He didn’t hesitate before confirming the message rang true. What a gift to be able to see someone’s potential in the Lord, wherever they may be in the life-long process of sanctification, and then graciously point it out to them.

God used Ray’s unconditional love to show His love for me throughout our marriage. What a blessing to read the words contained in that final card all these years later and hear Ray’s resounding affirmation.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

With my thoughts on a decidedly-positive trajectory, I pondered some things our pastor pointed out during last night’s study of the Westminster Confession of Faith: God is pleased to reveal Himself to us in His Word. He desires intimacy with His people. The Bible is a living document, God’s direct link with us. When we read our Bibles we should imagine God smiling at us because He loves us.

Isn’t that amazing?!!

And now here I sit, joyfully overwhelmed by God’s great love, with so many pertinent passages running through my mind, I don’t know how to end this post. Likewise, I don’t know how you’re feeling on this Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Maybe, like me, you’re yearning for a loved one who’s no longer with you. Then again, you may have a special date planned with your sweetie. Regardless, I pray the following Scriptures will cause your heart to rejoice as you remember the One who loves His children with a love that never ends (Psalm 100:5). To Him be all praise, honor, and glory!

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).

For I am convinced that 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8a, 13).

And the next time you’re feeling down or doubting God’s goodness, remember Martyn Lloyd- Jones admonition:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul, ‘Why are thou down cast? What business have you to be disquieted?’ You must turn on yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself, ‘Hope thou in God’ instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is and what God is and what God has done and what God has pledged Himself to do.”

 

The Last Enemy

The New Year had barely begun before death visited our family. Dad’s sister, my Aunt Ruby, passed peacefully into eternity on January 12th, eight days shy of her 94th birthday.  She impacted many during her long, full, productive life. Blindness plunged her into darkness some three years ago and, along with the normal effects of aging, shrank her world.  Thus, knowing she’d been released from the constraints of her frail, mortal body consoled our grieving hearts.079

Seeing Mom, Dad, and Dad’s sister, my Aunt Margie, together at Aunt Ruby’s funeral brought to mind a long-ago conversation with my late husband, Ray. We lamented the number of loved ones we were bound to lose in the years ahead. You see, Mom was one of eight siblings, Dad one of ten. Including spouses, I once had 30 aunts and uncles. Now two aunts remain and only three of the 18 brothers and sisters.

Two weeks after Aunt Ruby’s passing, the news of basketball great Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash reverberated around the world. I don’t follow the NBA, but I know Kobe possessed legendary talent and set a number of records during his 20-year career. Now retired, he died en route to a youth basketball tournament, accompanied by his 13-year-old daughter and seven others – parents, players, and the pilot. 055I grieved, not as a sports fan, but as a widow who knows what it’s like to bid your beloved husband goodbye on an ordinary day, never to see him alive again. Because Ray was called Home at age 39, long before most of the relatives whose loss we anticipated grieving together.

Then, less than a week later, while still vulnerable to unpredictable bouts of tears provoked by the losses described above, I received unthinkable news.  My cousin’s 5-year-old granddaughter died in a car accident on a slippery, snow-covered road in Illinois. As Grammie to 4, 6, and 8-year-old grandchildren of my own, I couldn’t let the scenario play out in my mind. Nonetheless, little Evie’s death colored my thoughts for days, as my anguished soul cried out, “Lord, this hurts so much! It’s not supposed to be this way!”

Indeed it isn’t. We weren’t meant to get sick or grow old much less die. But when Adam and Eve chose to disobey, death entered in. (Genesis 3:17-19) All creation has been groaning under the curse ever since, for the wages of sin is death. (Romans 8:19-23; Romans 6:23)

Grieving with Hope

Praise God, He didn’t leave us in that helpless, hopeless state! (John 3:16; Romans 5) So we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

No stranger to navigating sudden, profound loss, I strapped on my time-tested life preserver woven over the years from precious, promise-filled scriptures. Buffeted by waves of sorrow, I clung to hope that provides a sure anchor for my soul: death doesn’t get the final say. (Hebrews 6:19-20)

Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our own victory over death, the final enemy. For those who belong to Him, death isn’t the end. It’s a glorious beginning to eternity with Him.

At Ray’s funeral, one of the pastors read passage after passage outlining the assurances we have as believers. I offer several of them here. May they comfort our hearts when we experience the inevitable losses of this life, knowing Jesus has overcome all worldly tribulations. Even death.

(Jesus said) “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 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 14:1-3)

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 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. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:50-57)

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)

The Anchor Holds

I suppose I should have expected his arrival. But, distracted by other things, I didn’t notice his approach until it was too late to bolt the door and deny him entry. By the time I perceived his presence, he’d unpacked his bags and flung a cloak of melancholy over my heart.

And just who was this uninvited guest? Loneliness.

After spending a week at the beach with my family, my house, usually a welcome oasis of tranquility, felt silent and empty instead. Nonetheless, being home alone wasn’t the calling card I referred to above. I could have invited a grandchild over or texted one of my daughters. No, the profound loneliness sprang from knowing I couldn’t be with the one person I longed for most at that moment, my late husband Ray.

The Crucible of Life

As is often the case when I write or teach about scriptural principles and God’s promises, real life intervenes, compelling me to speak the truth I profess to myself, to apply the healing balm of assurance to my own woundedness.  Such was the case last Saturday morning as I sat at my kitchen table, with whispers of fall meandering through windows open to the breeze after summer finally loosened its stranglehold on metro Atlanta.

You see, a few days before I returned home, my podcast, “Loving Christ in the Midst of Loss”, aired on CDM’s enCourage[1] website and I posted a companion article, “Stewarding our Stories”, on my blog. I used both platforms to proclaim God’s faithfulness across the 22 years since Ray died suddenly at age 39 and accompanied my proclamation with the assurance we can trust God as He sovereignly writes even the most difficult chapters of our stories.

So the appearance of my uninvited guest should have come as no surprise. In addition, my defenses were down, weakened by responsibilities and issues set aside while I was on vacation, only to be prayerfully resumed and mulled over when I returned. Thus, I didn’t shoo my squatter away as quickly as I might have under different circumstances.

Rather, I embraced him. My mind wandered, taking my heart with it. I wished Ray was sitting at his place at the table, holding my hand, listening as I poured out my concerns, a scenario played out numerous times during our marriage. I thought about how pleasant it would be to work in the yard together on that first fall-like day. And I remembered a long-ago night when I crawled into bed tearful and exhausted, bemoaning how little time Ray and I had to do things together. Our daughters were tiny, one an infant, the other a toddler. The days were long and my to-dos unending. In his attempt to comfort me, Ray uttered words that have become increasingly poignant over the years, “They’ll grow up so fast and then we’ll have lots of time together.”

Oh, Ray. You were gone long before our nest emptied. The lots of time you promised didn’t come to be.

Grieving

Over two decades of widowhood have tempered the searing pain of loss. Body-racking sobs are rare, replaced by silent tears, the occasional overflow of a heart yearning for its missing piece. There’s a sigh deep in my soul, born of sorrow mingled with longing and acceptance.

Even though those who belong to God don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14), we still grieve, because death wasn’t part of God’s good plan. It’s part of the curse, a severe consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis 3:19b). Losing loved ones is painful and mourning our separation is a process, one that will continue until we’re reunited, as grief ebbs and flows. May we remember as much and be compassionate toward ourselves and others when the thorns of grief prick anew.

Never Forsaken

'Tis so SweetBut there is hope, dear reader, now and eternally. Having found comfort in the promises of the One who’s vowed to never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8), I dispatched my erstwhile visitor. Furthermore, I can reaffirm all I said in the podcast and wrote in my last post. The bottom is good.[2] The anchor holds (Hebrews 6:19). Victory is certain (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).

Faith refined by trials is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). And life-tested truth allows me to say with hymn writer Louisa M. R. Stead,

“’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His word,
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[3]

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, emphasis added.)

 

[1] CDM – Christian Discipleship Ministries is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America. The enCourage website features blog posts and podcasts aimed at “connecting the hearts of women to the hope of the Gospel.”

[2] Hopeful’s comment to Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, as they prepare to cross the river to get to their final destination, the Celestial City.

[3] ‘Tis So sweet to Trust in Jesus, text Louisa M.R. Stead, music, William J. Kirkpatrick.

Through the night

Mom didn’t sound quite like herself when I called to say I was on my way to pick her up for our weekly trip to daughter Mary’s house to spend the day with the children. When I arrived a few minutes later, one look was enough to confirm my suspicions. I’d like to say I took Mom directly to the emergency room, but knowing Mary had a full slate of work planned and praying Mom was just off to a slow start, I went to Mary’s instead.

Mom still wasn’t fully functioning by lunchtime and my concern had escalated to the point I texted Mary to come home. Mom, who isn’t a fan of doctors’ offices, much less hospitals, compliantly took my son-in-law’s arm[1] as he gently guided her into the passenger seat of my CR-V. I managed to remain calm during the 20-minute drive, reassuring Mom that I’d get her the help she needed. Nonetheless, when an attendant from the emergency department met us at the curb and, seeing Mom’s condition, whisked her into the building in a wheelchair, I couldn’t contain my barely-suppressed tears any longer.

Given her speech difficulties and wobblier-than-usual steps, I suspected a small stroke, but several hours and multiple tests later, the true culprit was identified: a severe case of pneumonia, resulting in critically-low oxygen saturation in Mom’s bloodstream. No wonder she couldn’t think clearly or walk without assistance! Any relief I felt over it not being a stroke was summarily eclipsed by the attending physician’s matter-of-fact statement that things often get worse, much worse, for elderly pneumonia patients before they get better, if they get better at all.

Having delivered the full-disclosure version of the diagnosis, the doctor strode out, leaving me to process his message. Thankfully, Mom didn’t hear or comprehend his dire declaration or take note of my obvious distress. But her nurse did. “I don’t know why doctors feel like they have to say things like that. We also see patients get better without declining first.”

My reply? “It’s all in God’s hands”, a mighty truth I’d cling to in the coming hours.

I reluctantly left Mom to the capable care of the medical team. As I trudged to the parking garage, I thought about another night, 22 years before, when I left that same emergency department, dazed, numb, knowing I’d never experience another day of life in this world with my beloved husband, Ray.[2] And I wondered if I’d spent my last with my dear mother.

Shortly before bedtime, my phone rang. The night-shift physician called to let me know Mom was stable and to confirm their intentions to move her to ICU as soon as a room became available. Then this: “I was told your mother wasn’t thinking clearly when she came in so I need you to confirm her stated DNR wishes.”[3]

Pause. Deep breath. “That’s correct. Mom’s consistently expressed her wishes regarding no life support or extraordinary measures to keep her alive. But please take good care of her so we won’t have to make that decision.”

Not a conversation conducive to sweet dreams. It, along with images of Mom when I left her, attached to multiple monitors, with a breathing mask strapped across her face, marched through my mind. Would she make it through the night, the next several days? Or would I be faced with planning another April funeral, tucking one more piece of my heart into a loved one’s grave?

I prayed fervently for Mom to recover and eventually be able to return home to us. Nonetheless, I knew if her earthly days were over, it would be ok. Every time a doubt or fear prodded me from my fitful sleep, Truth arose to quell it:

  • I know Who Mom belongs to. Whether in life or death, no one will be able to snatch her out of His hand. (John 10:28-29)
  • I thought about a quote I saw shortly before my Ray’s death: “Until it’s my time to go, nothing can take me. When it’s my time to go, nothing can keep me here.”
  • I pondered a proclamation one of our pastors made at Ray’s funeral: “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer, it is the most glorious beginning.”
  • I considered God’s love and faithfulness across the years since losing my life partner. I knew those same comforts would attend future losses. (Psalm 23)
  • I imagined Mom taking her place in our heavenly family circle, reunited with so many departed loved ones, now joyfully gathered in Jesus’ presence.
  • And I compiled a mental playlist of cherished hymns – Amazing Grace, Blessed Assurance, It is Well with My Soul – that further calmed my troubled mind.

The Spirit ministered to me throughout the night, battling my fears by reminding me of God’s promises and assuring me of His presence (Psalm 16:7-8; Zephaniah 3:17; Romans 8:26-27), just as Jesus said he would. (John 14:25-26)

We can’t foresee what any given day may hold for us and those we love, but nothing ever catches God by surprise (Isaiah 46:8-10). I don’t know what you may be going through, dear reader, but I pray you too will meditate on Truth. Consider, for example:

  • God has a plan for each of us. (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
  • All our days are written in His book before even one comes to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • He sees every tear. (Psalm 56:8)
  • He works all things together for good for those who love Him. (Romans 8:28)
  • He’ll never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
  • He’s conquered death. (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)
  • He’ll take us Home to be with Him forever. (John 14:1-3)

We have this hope as a sure and steadfast anchor for our souls. (Hebrews 6:19-20) And I will gladly testify that the anchor holds, even through the darkest night.

IMG_E1080

(To be continued.)

 

[1] Justin and Mom are buddies. He came home to help too.

[2] My husband, Ray, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 39 on April 19, 1997. Mom went into the hospital on April 17, 2019.

[3] “Do not resuscitate”

It’s all about Him

I had the privilege of attending the funeral of a dear saint who was suddenly called Home last week. The bold type on the front of the program proclaimed it would be a memorial and worship service in honor of her Lord and Savior.IMG_6739

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The focus wasn’t on the departed, though her faith, kindness and devotion to family and friends were certainly mentioned during the service. No, her family desired to give glory first and foremost to God, no doubt honoring the wishes of their loved one as well. They asked the pastor to preach the Gospel. And so he did, reminding each of us not only of our helpless estate apart from Christ, but also of our assurance of eternal life in God’s presence because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. (Romans 5) It was a message of hope in the midst of sorrow because it emphasized the sovereignty of our loving LORD.

I’ve been studying the book of Ruth in preparation to teach an upcoming Bible study. On the surface, Ruth certainly appears to be the main character. After all, the book’s named after her, right? Her mother-in-law, Naomi, and kinsman redeemer, Boaz, fill important supporting roles and the townspeople are there to provide occasional commentary.

But look again. God is the main character.

After losing her husband and both sons, Naomi acknowledges God was the one behind her bereavement, though she doesn’t appear to blame God or lose faith in Him. (Ruth 1:20-21) As the narrative progresses, we see how God goes before them to redeem Naomi’s brokenness and bring Ruth into His family. In fact, He orchestrated every detail of their redemption. And, wonder of wonders, Naomi, the woman who returned to her homeland empty, became King David’s great-great-grandmother. Talk about working all things together for good! (Romans 8:28)

Though each one of us navigates a unique set of circumstances throughout our lives, our stories are ultimately about God as well. It’s so easy for us to think in terms of “I”, “me”, “mine”, yet it’s really all about Him. Everything we have and are is His.

God:

  • Chose us before the foundation of the earth. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
  • Spoke the world into being. (Genesis 1)
  • Wrote every one of our days in His book before even one came to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • Provided His only Son for our salvation. (John 3:16)
  • Called us out of darkness. (John 8:12; John 12:46)
  • Is working to transform us more and more into Jesus’ likeness through the power of His Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
  • Is preparing a place for us. (John 14:1-3)
  • Will return to take us Home. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

Yes, it’s all of Him, from beginning to end.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so thankful it is. Even though I’m dust (Psalm103:13-14), and my best efforts are filthy rags (Isaiah 54:6), and I have no way of saving myself (Ephesians 2:8-9), I can be certain everything will be ok eventually and eternally. Because God is sovereign. (1 Timothy 6:15-16) He keeps His promises. (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 10:23) And nothing can ever separate us from His love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So even when death comes unexpectedly or circumstances take an unforeseen and unpleasant turn, we can be assured nothing catches God by surprise and no detail escapes His careful plan. We can trust Him to weave all our stories together in a beautiful, epic masterpiece whose end we can be certain of because He’s promised to return and take us to the Home He’s preparing even now.

Hope. Hope in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty. Hope because it’s all about Him.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

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.

Remember Me

Our final fortnight, one fateful day, the following week – each year when the wheel of time comes to rest on another April, I intentionally, tenderly open my drawer of memories and recall the happenings of the fourth month of 1997.[1] Even after 21 years, the details are clear, etched in my mind because of the life-changing impact of the central event.

Daughters, 10-year-old Mary and 7-year-old Jessie, and I spent Spring break week with my parents, returning home on April 13th. As we prepared to re-enter our worlds of work and school, we had no notion our remaining time with Ray, our beloved husband and father, would be so short.

I cherish the final evenings we spent at home, particularly the last time Ray and I walked the property together. He pointed out favorite plants and talked of future landscaping plans, some of which I’ve implemented over the years. Before we strolled our yard, we went for a walk in the neighborhood. Ray’s inability to reach the top of what we referred to as the “big hill” due to a shortness of breath was my first inkling anything might be wrong. Nonetheless, the next few days proceeded normally enough, until the moment that Saturday night when my young daughters and I heard the news that forever shattered normal as we knew it.

Anticipating an upcoming conference and another customer visit as I completed my biannual season of travel, I kept telling myself, “One more hard week, then I can put my suitcases away for a few months.” Oh how I wish I’d been able to keep those commitments! They would have been so easy to handle compared to what occurred instead, resulting in what is still the most difficult week of my life: calling family and friends to tell them of Ray’s fatal heart attack; planning and attending his services – visitation Wednesday evening, funeral Thursday morning, burial Friday afternoon in the cemetery of a tiny country church in North Carolina. The familiarity of boarding a plane and sleeping in a hotel would have been far preferable to the uncharted waters I was forced to navigate. I coped with one unthinkable decision at a time as my shock-shrouded mind struggled to process reality.

A torrent of regrets came rushing in. The girls and I were finishing lunch when Ray left for work. Why hadn’t I gotten up to hug him goodbye? Why didn’t I call him that afternoon to see how his day was going? Why wasn’t I kinder in general? Why was I such an awful wife? No time to say goodbye, no opportunity to apologize, no chance to say “I love you” one more time. The remorse and sorrow mingled, creating a bitter brew.

Over two decades have come and gone since, tempering both of those strong emotions. Although I still miss Ray every day and wish I could share my life with him, the raw, searing pain has diminished. I also have a more balanced view of our marriage. I know the measure of what we felt for each other wasn’t predicated on what did or didn’t happen during our last moments together. In fact, our love for each other and our daughters fueled my determination to finish what Ray and I had started, to honor his memory by raising our girls well. Furthermore, his love for me was unconditional. God used it to bless and change me. Its healing impact has endured. Talking about Ray – his character, his faith and, yes, even his foibles – comes naturally to me. I want others to know and remember him, because he’s too special to forget.

This week, I have the pleasure of vacationing in Delaware, visiting gardens and longtime friends, opening other memory-laden drawers in my mind. Not only did I grow up in this area, but Ray and I met, married and started our family here. Contrary to what you might expect, recollections of those early years together have been accompanied by deep joy and abiding thankfulness. Even though I would have chosen to spend many more seasons in wedlock than in widowhood, I praise God for blessing me with a godly husband at all and for our progeny which now includes three wonderful grandchildren.

During his Easter sermon,[2] our pastor reminded us that Jesus’ resurrection ensures not only eternal spiritual life for those who call on Him as Lord and Savior, but that our physical bodies will be raised – whole, incorruptible, no longer susceptible to the ravages of aging or sickness.[3]

055When I visit the cemetery where Ray is laid to rest, I usually sit on the coping surrounding my grandparents’ graves. There I contemplate what it will be like when Jesus returns. In addition to Ray and my much-loved Murve and Papa, my baby sister, several aunts and uncles and a pair of great-grandparents are sleeping there, awaiting the call to arise. We can be assured that glorious day will come to pass, because God keeps His promises.[4] He sent a Savior, who bore our sins and paid the debt we could never pay so that we could take on His righteousness and dwell in His Holy Presence forever. [5] Jesus is preparing a place. He’ll summon us Home.[6]

Each April when I mark another anniversary of Ray’s sudden death, I remind myself I’m another year closer to seeing his beautiful brown eyes again and hearing his happy laughter. I’ll finally get to give him the long-delayed hug. Our reunion is guaranteed by the priceless blood shed on our behalf by the One worthy of all glory, praise and honor,[7] the One too precious to forget.[8]

 

[1] Please see “In remembrance”, Archives, April 2015 for my explanation of “memory drawers”.

[2] “Why the Resurrection of Jesus Matters”, Pastor Ben Duncan, April 1, 2018, Grace Covenant Church.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:52-57

[4] Hebrews 10:23

[5] 1 Peter 1:3-5

[6] John 14:2-3

[7] Revelation 5:12

[8] Luke 22:19