Blessed Ties, Reprise

Dear Readers, I’ve got some exciting news – I’m working on my next book! Since most of my writing time will go toward that project, I’ll be sprucing up some previous posts to keep Back 2 the Garden going. They’ll be new for those of you who’ve found your way to the Garden more recently, and I’m hoping longtime followers will find the updated versions worth reading again. And, as you think of it, I would appreciate your prayers for my writing efforts.

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
Galatians 3:26

First Impressions

It’s customary to meet the family of your intended before making a lifetime commitment to each other. Ray had ample opportunity to interact with my parents in Delaware, but it took a 1,400-mile trek to South Dakota for me to get to know his kin.

The sixth of seven siblings, Ray was preceded by three sisters and two brothers. His youngest brother, Phil, completed the family. There were also 18 nieces and nephews at the time of my first visit in September 1982. Thus, we spent much of our flight going over relationships, with Ray patiently coaching me on who was married to who and the names and ages of their offspring.

Although I’m an only child, I’m no stranger to large families. My dad was one of ten, my mom one of eight, so I had plenty of aunts and uncles as well as 31 first cousins. Nonetheless, knowing Ray was seeking his family’s input before he asked me to marry him made me somewhat nervous.

I’m not sure what those fun-loving folks from the heartland thought of this serious, suburbanite introvert, but they welcomed me warmly. Furthermore, I must have garnered enough support since Ray proposed three months later, and a substantial Midwest contingent attended our wedding the following year. Ray and I exchanged vows one sweltering August evening as they and other relatives and friends watched. Thus I became “Patsy Kuipers,” an official member of the family.

Building Bonds

Years passed. We added two daughters to the tally of nieces and nephews, and we strived to return to Ray’s hometown every other year, keeping in touch via phone calls and cards in between.

Then came April 19, 1997. Barely 39 years old, Ray succumbed to a fatal heart attack, like his father 34 years before him. I trembled as I dialed my sister-in-law’s number, tasked with placing a call I didn’t want to make. I was relieved when her husband answered, confident he was strong enough to hear the unthinkable news, wise enough to know how to convey it to the unsuspecting kinfolk.

Once again, my Kuipers family made the journey eastward, first to Georgia for Ray’s funeral and then on to North Carolina for his burial. In our shared grief, we cried, laughed, and celebrated the life of the one we’d lost. We reminded each other that death is not the end for those who belong to Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

Mary, Jessie, and I resumed our every-other-year visits until cumulative life events kept us away for almost eight years. When we finally returned in 2014, our family unit had increased by three. What a delight to have son-in-law Justin, and grandchildren, Joshua and Lyla, with us for the long-awaited reunion.

Familiar Grounds

The summer of 2017 found Jessie and me back in the heartland. Ray’s hometown, Platte (population ~1,300), is a picturesque farming community. The surrounding land is flat, the roads straight, and the horizon seems to stretch forever. The vista is a swath of differently-hued greens and browns dotted with placid cows and classic red barns. As the crops sway in the ever-present breeze, it’s virtually impossible to keep from mentally humming “America the Beautiful.” 

Inevitably, when I mention I’m going to South Dakota to visit my Kuipers relatives, someone will comment, “How nice that you’ve kept in touch with Ray’s family.” I suppose some would view Ray’s death as having severed those ties. How wrong they would be!

As I traversed miles of open country on my most recent trip, I thought how familiar it all feels, how much I enjoy the traditions that have developed over the years, and treasure the relationships. My brothers and sisters-in-law connect me to Ray, while my children and grandchildren allow them to see glimpses of their brother.

Unbreakable Bond

Although much fun accompanies our visits (I laugh more in a week in Platte than I do in a month at home!), our times together are tinged with sadness for the ones no longer with us. My melancholy lingered after I returned home last time. Maybe it was the visit to South Dakota State, Ray’s alma mater, or watching brother-in-law Dave tenderly clean the grave marker of his beloved wife or standing by brother-in-law Phil’s grave for the first time since we attended his service.

But most likely, it was the photos from one of my early trips to Platte that nudged me over the edge. Ray and I were newlyweds, blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Grief that usually resides deep within my soul after 25 years without my partner spontaneously surfaced as I gazed at our youthful innocence through tear-filled eyes.

I lost Ray’s care and companionship when his earthly life ended, but I didn’t lose his family, my family. How thankful I am our shared history now spans 40 years. So many memories – times of laughter and tears, rejoicing and sorrow. Yet I am most grateful for the strong heritage of faith that exists in my family-by-marriage. Our shared belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord sustains us. It’s the real tie that binds us. The one that will last through eternity when we are reunited with our loved ones around His throne (John 6:40; John 10:28; Revelation 7:13-17).

I was so honored when the siblings invited me to stand in Ray’s place in this age-order photo taken in July 2014.

Dear Lord, thank You for the blessing of being Your children and the eternal bond we have with You and each other through Jesus, our elder Brother.

“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares.

When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.”[1]


[1] “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” John Fawcett, lyrics

Eating Apples – encore

I first published “Eating Apples” on October 25, 2015, the 50th anniversary of my beloved grandfather’s death. It remains one of my favorite posts because it’s about one of my favorite people. I’ve made several edits and added some scripture references, but the heart of the story – my grandfather’s legacy of faith and love – remains. Today I’m posting this revision in honor of the 132nd anniversary of his birth.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13

Cherished Memories

I don’t have many distinct memories of my grandfather since I was in first grade when he passed away. However, I cherish the recollections I do have. Details provided by my mom as she spoke lovingly of her father over the years complete my mental portrait of this kind and gentle man.  

Born July 31, 1890, James Alton Phillips was a short fellow, about
5’ 3”, who weighed 125 pounds, give or take a few. No doubt genetics played a part in his slight build, but a lifetime of hard work farming his land undoubtedly contributed to his wiry physique. My mom was the baby of her family, the youngest of eight siblings, and her father’s darling. He called her “Babe” and warmed her clothes by the fire for her before she went off to school on cold mornings.

Occasionally my grandmother, sterner in her demeanor, would delegate the task of disciplining a wayward child to my grandfather. He would take the offending party outside beyond her view and tell the child to cry out while he used the switch on some inanimate object instead of their legs.

As for me, I recall walking hand in hand with him to the small general store, stopping by the post office to check Box 73 for mail, and waiting for the train to come by so we could wave to the conductor and count the cars. But my favorite activity was eating apples with him. “PaPa,” as I called him, would sit me on his lap, produce an apple in one hand and a small knife in the other. He’d cut a slice for me, then a slice for himself. Back and forth the ritual would continue until we finished the tasty fruit. For as long as I can remember, I’ve eaten an apple almost every day. And when I do, I always think of my grandfather.

A Godly Man

“Mr. Jim,” as the people around town knew him, was a man of faith, a deacon in the tiny country church where he worshiped. He embodied the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). When he suffered a heart attack a few months before he died, the doctor told him he had to limit his physical activities. The doctor’s order was like a death sentence for a man who loved his garden and was used to being outside. He’d sit in the kitchen of the home he shared with my grandmother, his wife of 55 years, turn his gaze toward the little church, and comment he’d rather be in the cemetery than just sitting around.

Nearly 57 years ago, on October 25, 1965, God called PaPa Home. He had gone outside to check on some work a neighbor was doing for him, work he would much rather have done himself. In a fitting end to his earthly life, he died in his garden. I can still hear my mother’s anguished cry, “No, not Daddy!,” when she received the phone call telling her of his passing.

Abiding Love

Although our relationship was brief in terms of time, and nearly six decades have passed since we last shared an apple, PaPa’s love impacts me to this day. Years after his death, the large corporation I worked for sent me to a training course, one of many I attended during my career. But that one, a self-awareness workshop, was different. A team of psychologists facilitated it, and it was intense. One of our first exercises involved closing our eyes and imagining a safe place. I immediately envisioned myself in my grandfather’s lap, sharing an apple with him. The physical nourishment we’d partaken of paled when compared to the bonds of unconditional love and acceptance formed during our time together.

Today I’m privileged to be “Grammie” to three precious grandchildren. Sharing snacks, especially apples, is one of my favorite things to do with them. It connects me to them and them to my grandfather, who they’ve come to know by my loving accounts of my short yet precious time with him.

A Promised Reunion

I don’t get to visit the small graveyard where my grandparents and many other maternal relatives are laid to rest as often as I’d like. My husband Ray is resting there, too, near my sister, Mary Jeannette, who died in infancy. Last spring, Mom took her place between them, leaving a space for me.

When I worked, my job frequently took me to that area of North Carolina, and I’d visit the cemetery as often as possible. I would gaze at the tombstones, each representing someone I love and long to see again, pondering how glorious it will be when we all rise to new life, a life that will never end (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). For the love we share now is but a shadow of the Love that awaits when the Everlasting Arms reach out to embrace us and welcome us Home (1 Corinthians 13:4-13).

Until then, I’ll remain thankful for little rituals and rock-solid faith, lovingly shared, that can reach across the decades, blessing one generation after another.

O Lord, how great are the gifts of familial love and a heritage of faith! Please help us to be resolute in telling those coming along behind us about Your great love and faithfulness that they too may know the joy of belonging to Your family.

Of Mountaintops and Valleys

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Psalm 23:4

Hindsight

Hindsight provides a perspective we don’t have when we’re living the moment. Such has been the case as I’ve withstood weeks in the valley after reveling on the mountaintop of the My Focus Story experience.[1]

For roughly a month, from the days of filming to the release of the video and the resultant response, it was as if my heart was constantly singing. I praised God for giving me such a remarkable gift, a reminder that He never loses sight of me or any of His children.

Looking back, I realize the gift wasn’t merely for the 25th anniversary of my husband’s passing. No, the Lord knew I would need the bountiful blessings associated with that event to fortify me for what lay ahead.

Losses, Big and Small

Soon after the video debuted, my 91-year-old father announced it was time to sell the house he and Mom shared for the last 24 years of their nearly 70 years of marriage. Though I knew that day would come after Dad moved into assisted living earlier this year, I didn’t push the issue with him, knowing he’d already lost a lot in the past year. A broken hip led to the death of his beloved wife, and a stroke six months after that took away his freedom to drive and live on his own. We sold one of his cars and then the other.

His directive to get the house ready to put on the market came as both a relief and a stressor. Though necessary, it was a task I’d been dreading, one that felt like another step in disassembling my parents’ lives. My adult daughters came over to select items to keep, and friends provided practical help with packing and moving. Still, the daunting responsibility of going through everything fell squarely on my shoulders as an only child.

So I dutifully entered the valley, determined to carry out the process respectfully and in a way that would honor my parents and their life together. Days and nights ran together as I spent countless hours going through boxes and drawers and cabinets. Restful sleep eluded me. It seemed I was constantly sorting through stuff in my mind, whether awake or asleep.

And each day, my first thought upon waking was, “I have to go do it again.”

Sufficient Grace

My single-minded focus meant suspending the usual ebb and flow of my life. Instead of spending the customary two days each week with my grandchildren, I barely saw them. And other than mowing my tiny patch of grass to avoid letters from the HOA, I didn’t work in my garden for over a month. Things that generally counterbalance the stress in my life weren’t available to me, and there were moments when I didn’t think I would make it to the finish line, the date I agreed to turn things over to the company in charge of the estate sale.

But each morning, I countered the anxiety of those “Oh no!” thoughts with the reminder that God’s mercies are new every morning, and He would be faithful to see me through whatever the day brought (Lamentations 3:22-24).

Likewise, Mom’s life verse, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13), came to mind often as I imagined her encouraging me with one of her signature exhortations, “We can’t give up. We’ve got to hold onto our faith and keep going!” And oh, how I preached truth to myself throughout the lonely hours of sorting, reminding myself that God’s grace is sufficient and His power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Tears and Treasures

Going through all of Mom and Dad’s things generally delivered expected results, i.e., I found what I expected to find. But sometimes, my efforts yielded priceless treasures that elicited delighted exclamations – the tassel from Mom’s high school graduation cap, a photo of my grandfather in his field with his mules and plow,  the carriage for the baby doll Mom received for her tenth Christmas.

Other times my finds brought me to tears. Such was the case when I discovered my baby sister’s hospital bracelet and a tiny silver spoon from the funeral home that conducted her services barely eight months after she was born. Mom had drawers full of keepsakes from all stages of my life, but so very few from Mary Jeannette’s brief existence. I imagined her grief at losing her baby and across all the years since, as she wondered how her other daughter might have grown up.

Tears and treasures. Valleys and mountaintops. Such is life on this side of heaven. Regardless of what our days hold, we can rest in God’s promise never to leave or forsake us, knowing that He Who proclaims the end from the beginning will see the good work He began in us to completion (Deuteronomy 31:8; Isaiah 46:9-10; Philippians 1:6).

Dear Lord, no matter how bright our mountaintops or how dark our valleys, please help us never to lose sight of the fact that it is You Who goes before us, making a way, providing all we need, and accomplishing Your purposes in, through, and for us.

Post Script: The lyrics to the beloved hymn, Day by Day[2], are especially appropriate for the theme of this post. I hope they’ll give you added encouragement.

Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He, whose heart is kind beyond all measure,
Gives unto each day what He deems best,
Lovingly its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Every day the Lord Himself is near me,
With a special mercy for each hour;
All my cares He fain would bear and cheer me,
He whose name is Counsellor and Pow’r.
The protection of His child and treasure
Is a charge that on Himself He laid;
“As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure,”
This the pledge to me He made.

Help me then, in every tribulation,
So to trust Thy promises, O Lord,
That I lose not faith’s sweet consolation,
Offered me within Thy holy Word.
Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting,
E’er to take, as from a father’s hand,
One by one, the days, the moments fleeting,
Till with Christ the Lord I stand.


[1] Please see “Twenty-five Years” in Archives, April 2022 for a full recounting of the experience.

[2] Lyrics by Carolina Sandell Berg; translated by Andrew L. Skoog.

The Aroma of Christ

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

A Familiar Fragrance

I’ve begun the difficult task of going through my parents’ things in preparation to sell their house, the site of countless dinners, family gatherings, and celebrations over the past 25 years. Myriad emotions accompany my almost-daily visits, which I continued after Dad moved into assisted living so I could keep an eye on things. Some days I can complete my rounds and remain detached, while others find me in tears before I even exit my car.

I walked the property several days ago to ensure nothing was amiss outside. As I rounded the back corner of the house, a familiar fragrance wafted toward me. I stopped and turned toward the gardenia bush, so full of flowers that its branches bent beneath the load.

Memories of Mom and past summer evenings came flooding back. Many nights during gardenia season, I would arrive for dinner and be greeted with Mom’s cheerful, “Look what I got for us, Babe!”[1]

She would point toward a glass or vase holding multiple stems of the sweet-smelling flowers – some for her to keep and some for me to take home.

The Perfume of Selflessness

As the season waned and the blossoms became less plentiful, Mom always wanted to make sure I had some for my house, even if it meant only a sprig or two for her. Humble and with a servant’s heart, Mom exemplified Philippians 2 as she considered others’ needs before her own, even in things as small as sharing flowers.

Mom’s generosity included food of all kinds. She not only made dinner for me most nights, but she also encouraged me to take leftovers home or pick something from the fruits and vegetables she purchased in the summertime. She always wanted me to have the juiciest peach or the ripest tomato. I can hear her saying, “Not that one! It’s got a bad spot.” Or, “That’s not enough! Here, take another one.”

It became a joke between us, and I finally stopped trying to choose for myself. I’d laugh, hand Mom the bag, and say, “Why don’t you go ahead and pick for me?”

Remembering those exchanges, representative of Mom’s sweet spirit, makes me smile.

A Pleasing Aroma

One of our former pastors used to tell us, “When you see ‘therefore,’ you need to ask ‘What’s the therefore there for?”

In the case of the introductory verses above, “therefore” links the directive that follows to Paul’s description in the previous chapter regarding our status as new creatures in Christ (Ephesians 4:21-24). Paul gets specific with the requisite put-offs and put-ons associated with our old and new natures, respectively (Ephesians 4:25-32). He then delivers summary instructions: because of our new life in Christ, we’re to be imitators of God, to walk in love, and to live so our lives will be an aroma pleasing to Him, just as Jesus’ sacrificial life was.

As our pastor has taught through this portion of Ephesians, he’s repeatedly encouraged us to be conduits of God’s love and grace. Sadly, as we live between the now and not yet (eternally saved, yet still in the flesh), we sometimes slip into the extremes of self-righteousness or self-condemnation instead.

I know there are times when my scent is more off-putting than welcoming, more sweaty than sweet. But, praise God for the power of His Spirit at work in His children, transforming us more and more into the image of Christ and enabling us to spread His pleasing aroma.

A Lingering Fragrance

I cut a dozen stems off the gardenia and brought them home. I placed some in a vase upstairs and the rest in a container on my kitchen counter. Soon the lovely fragrance was drifting through my house, reminding me of Mom. The essence of her beautiful life lived for Christ remains in the lives and memories of those she touched with His love, just as the fragrance of the gardenia blossoms lingers in my home.  

May it be the same with ours.

Dear Lord, thank You for the sacrificial love of Jesus and the power of Your Spirit at work within us. Please help us embrace, embody, and express the love and grace You’ve shown us so that we might spread a fragrant aroma that is pleasing to You and attractive to others.


[1] Babe was my grandfather’s pet name for Mom, the youngest of his eight children. She frequently used it with me and my daughters.

Choosing Sides

“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua 24:14-15

Co-conspirators

Several years ago, I was seated at my daughter’s kitchen table. 5-year-old Lyla had barely finished saying the blessing over our PBJs and Goldfish when 8-year-old Joshua started whispering to 3-year-old Emma. I caught enough of his words to figure out the gist of what he was saying.

“Are you plotting against Lyla?” I asked.

“Hey! You’re not supposed to be listening!”

“It’s kind of hard not to overhear. I know I’m getting old, but my ears still work!”

Joshua scowled while Emma flashed an innocent “who me?” expression my way.

Usually, my grandchildren play well together. Everyone has a role in their imaginative scenarios, from setting up a petting zoo to running a bakery to fighting pretend foes. But sometimes, two will team up against the third, with Emma often being the one left out. No wonder she reveled at the turn of events.

Their behavior reminds me of my own childhood. I had several playmates on the street where I grew up. We’d go through cycles of acceptance and shunning, declaring life-long allegiance one day and then descending into angry silence over some perceived slight the next.

And don’t get me started on the agonies of middle school. Long before online bullying reared its ugly head, slam books were the epitome of teen-girl meanness.

Only Two Sides

Sometimes when two grandchildren are excluding the third, I ask them if they think their unkind behavior is pleasing God. One or both will cast their eyes downward and reply, “No, Grammie.”

“And if you’re not pleasing Him, who are you pleasing?”

I usually provide the answer, though they’ve become more astute regarding sin and evil and loving God (and parents) by being obedient (John 14:15).

Just like being a life-giver or life-taker are opposite sides of the same coin, pleasing God or pleasing Satan is like a spiritual toggle switch.[1] Satan is the father of lies, who came to steal, kill, and destroy (John 8:44). Masquerading as an angel of light, he is the purveyor of darkness and deceit. God is Light. In Him, there is no darkness (1 John 1:5). He only speaks the truth, and He is abounding in steadfast love.

God told Joshua the people would have to choose who they’d follow and whether or not they’d obey. Joshua boldly stated, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The people immediately pledged the same, but they couldn’t keep their vow, and neither can we.

Foreign Gods

You may read the introductory passage above and think, “I don’t worship idols.” I agree that it would be unlikely to find an altar with little carved images in the home of a professing Christian. However, when we consider an idol as anything that takes God’s rightful place in our hearts, we must admit our hearts are fickle, constantly putting other things above Him in our affections.

Even good things, like family and friends, can usurp God’s place. Sadly, I find Self and my desires and preferences seated on the throne of my heart far more frequently than I like to admit.

Unity in Christ

I wish I could say we outgrow our tendency to elevate ourselves by diminishing others by the time we reach adulthood. Instead, we often revert to an us-vs-them mentality when disagreements arise, forming coalitions and choosing sides. We seek the approval of men, longing to be included and accepted. In our striving to be right, we can become self-righteous, forgetting that we would stand condemned apart from God’s saving grace.

But this type of behavior among God’s children doesn’t bring Him glory.

On the night Judas betrayed Him, Jesus prayed for all His disciples, those with Him then and those who would believe based on their words. That includes us! And what did He pray? That we would know the love and unity enjoyed by the Trinity (John 17:20-26).

Even now, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, interceding for us (Romans 8:34)!

Choosing Wisely

Praise God that not only does Jesus pray for us but also that the Holy Spirit indwells us with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, giving us a new will to obey and enabling us to do so (Ephesians 1:19-20; Philippians 2:13).

Thus, when we’re tempted to take sides or give in to our own desires or think, “Surely this small trespass won’t count,” we need to remember there are only two sides – darkness and Light. As children of God, Scripture calls us to walk in the light as He is in the light (Ephesians 5:8-9). We’re to let our light so shine before a watching world that they, too, will want to join us in the Light of His love.

Dear Lord, how blessed we are to be called Your children. Thank You for bringing us out of darkness into Your marvelous light. Please help us to remember there are only two sides in the spiritual battle. May we choose to walk in the light, enabled by the Spirit, out of love and gratitude for all You’ve done for us.


[1] Please see the tab, “Give Life,” for more on life-giving and life-taking behaviors.

My Forever Cheerleaders

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.
Hebrews 12:1

Watching the Clock

For weeks after my 39-year-old husband Ray died suddenly of a heart attack at work, I dreaded Saturdays. I replayed the events of the fateful day when Ray passed away, becoming progressively tenser as 6 pm, the time of the heart attack, approached. I imagined what he went through, how his associates tried to help him until the EMTs arrived, and the wailing of the ambulance’s siren as they rushed him to the hospital. All the while, my young daughters and I were shopping, ignorant of the fact our lives had changed forever.

When Mom passed away last year, no such replays plagued me on subsequent Fridays. Though images of her tiny bruise-covered body and pain-racked countenance haunted me for several weeks, her peaceful passing surrounded by those closest to her was more of a comfort to me. Whereas Ray’s sudden death sent me into a state of shock, I’d begun to grieve Mom’s decline months before her death, and knowing she was pain-free and in the presence of Jesus was a relief, even though I missed her terribly.

Thus, when April 30th, the first anniversary of Mom’s Homegoing, arrived, I was caught off-guard by the flood of memories that accompanied it, memories as clear as if the events had happened last week, not last year. As soon as I woke up, the heaviness hit, and the tears soon followed. The morning progressed,  and I found myself watching the clock, tension building as the time of Mom’s final breath approached.

Last year’s sequence of events played out in my mind: I called her hospice nurse, who informed me Mom had rested well and was still dozing. The same nurse called an hour later, telling me Mom had taken a turn and we needed to come. Texts to my children and prayer warriors, a call to Dad. The tense drive. The hushed room where we gathered around our beloved to sing, pray, and whisper our goodbyes.

And then she was gone. Or was she?

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Twenty-five years ago, when I met with my pastor to plan Ray’s funeral, I asked, “Do you think Ray can see us? Not to see how sad we are, but how much we love him.”

His answer, paraphrased after all these years, went something like, “Scripture isn’t clear regarding how much our loved ones see, but God is sovereign over all and can allow them to know things if He chooses.”

I’ve held onto his answer and have even prayed for God to allow Ray to know about certain events if it’s His will to do so: my daughters’ graduations, my return to school to study horticulture, the births of my grandchildren, and sometimes a simple, “Please tell Ray I love him, Lord.”

Ray loved me so well for the years he was with me that I still feel his love. And so it is with Mom’s. I know I’ll carry her love with me for the rest of my life.[1]

In addition, there are times when I feel them very close to me. Such was the case in the days after I finished filming the video for Focus on the Family.[2] I longed to share the experience with Mom and Ray, the wonder, the excitement, and the misgivings. I dreamt about Ray two nights in a row, dreams that were like sweet visits, as I told him about the video. We were both so happy. And then, when the self-doubts set in – being filmed introduces a whole new level of vulnerability not associated with written words – I could sense Mom’s affirmations, her wholehearted support of my efforts, her joy.

I described these incidents to a dear friend and asked if she ever has similar instances with her departed husband. She smiled, nodded, and said, “Yes. Sometimes the veil is thin.”

Indeed it is. My two most ardent supporters haven’t left me. They’re part of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding me (Hebrews 12:1).

Glorious Reunion

Though there are many things we don’t know about heaven and our loved ones’ current state, there are others Scripture is quite clear about:

  • Believers who are absent from the body are present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
  • Jesus is preparing a place for us and will return to take us Home (John 14:2-3).
  • Our bodies will be raised imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:53-55).
  • We will dwell in His presence forever (Revelation 21:1-3).
  • There will be no more tears, death, mourning, or pain (Revelation 21:4).

As the clock continues to count down to Jesus’ return, let us comfort each other with the words of the Apostle Paul:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Dear Lord, as we recall all You did for us and await Your return, it is comforting to know that our departed loved ones are resting in Your presence. How sweet are the moments when You allow us to feel their nearness, and how dear the promise that we will one day be reunited in the new Jerusalem to live with You forever. Thank You for Your infinite, eternal love that unites us to You and each other.


[1] Please see “Legacy of Love,” Archives, July 31, 2020.

[2] Please see “Twenty-five Years,” April 19, 2022.

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)

Celebrate the Light

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

Traditions

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

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

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

Just Skip It

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

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

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

Not Celebrate?!

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

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

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

Grief Veteran

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

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

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

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

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

Pass it On

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

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


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

Abiding Love

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends . . . So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:7-8a; 13

Do They Remember?

Several months after Mom passed away, Dad asked a surprising question, “Do you think the little children remember Thelma?”

Puzzled, I replied, “Do you mean Joshua, Lyla, and Emma?”[1]

Dad nodded; a mix of sadness and resignation lined his face.

Confusion turned to disbelief. I assured him, “Of course they do! At least one of us mentions her every time we’re together, especially if snakes come up in our conversation!”

Despite my lighthearted attempt to console him by referring to Mom’s most despised critters, I understood Dad’s concern. Given their ages, my grandchildren won’t have many detailed memories of specific moments shared with Mom by the time they’re adults.

Then again, I know they’ll never forget her.

I Remember

How can I make such a bold statement? Because I know firsthand how unconditional love transcends the grave.

Though my dear maternal grandfather, PaPa,  died over 50 years ago when I was a couple of months shy of my seventh birthday, tears of love and longing well up when I think of him. My memories are few, but precious – sitting on his lap eating apple slices, walking hand-in-hand to the small general store, stopping at the post office, waving to the conductor and counting the cars as the train passed by his house.

I’ve eaten an apple almost every day for as long as I can remember and began sharing apple slices with my grandchildren as soon as they could chew them properly. I attribute both practices to the connection to my grandfather. I eat and share and think of him. I still feel the warmth of his love.

Photographs and Memories

Which memories might fill my grandchildren’s mental portfolio of recollections of time spent with Mom? In addition to her loathing of snakes, I expect they’ll recall her reading to them, as all three snuggled as close to Mama as possible to see the story illustrations. Then there was the ritual of standing next to their diminutive great-grandmother to see how much they needed to grow to catch up to her, something Joshua accomplished the last time they compared heights. Maybe there will even be memories of marathon Play-Doh sessions or coloring with her. And I hope they’ll remember making goodies with her a few days before her last Christmas.

I have photos and details to go along with all those experiences to help reinforce them in the minds of my grandchildren. And like me with my grandfather, an enduring sense of her love for them will bind those memories together. 

Legacy of Faith

Tucked amidst my memories of PaPa are those of attending Sunday school at the little country church where he served as a deacon. When Mom talked about her father, she often mentioned how much he loved God and that church and how he was there to serve and worship every time the doors were open.

Mom and PaPa were cut from the same cloth. Both small in stature, they had big, compassionate hearts and lived their lives based on their abiding faith in God, a faith they instilled in subsequent generations.  Mom brought some of her childhood Sunday school papers to show Joshua, Lyla, and Emma during one of our weekly visits. Seeing the four of them huddled close, looking at the decades-old leaflets that proclaimed timeless truths, is one of my most cherished memories.

When we held Mom’s funeral in that tiny church, I was able to show my grandchildren the very Sunday school classroom where she’d studied those lessons.

Cloud of Witnesses

During my husband’s graveside service, one of the pastors told then 10-year-old Mary and 7-year-old Jessie their lives would be forever blessed by having a godly father. Even though he was with us for a relatively short time, we continue to experience the impact of Ray’s unconditional love and steadfast faith nearly 25 years later.

Other loved ones people my heritage of faith: A great-aunt, poor by worldly standards, but exceedingly wealthy in grace and kindness. Aunts who didn’t think a visit was complete until they’d fed me, physically and spiritually. Grandmothers with well-worn Bibles and “Jesus Loves Me” on their lips. All of them have long since joined the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 12:1, but their influence lives on.

I’ve pondered these relationships, marveling how love can reach beyond death, undimmed by the passage of time. Though I cherish tangible reminders of departed loved ones, the lasting connections aren’t based on material gifts. They’re woven together from shared experiences undergirded by loving acceptance and encouragement.

Love grounded in faith and hope is the most valuable legacy we can bestow, far more significant than any earthly treasures we might bequeath. I suppose my thoughts frequently turn to those who loved me well because I want to love the way they loved, to pass on the legacy they left me.

The Father’s Love

The Father first loved us by sending His Son to die for us, the just for the unjust. Empowered by the Spirit, we are to love others as God has loved us (1 John 4:9-11). Jesus even said His followers’ love for each other should be notable, a distinguishing characteristic  (John 13:34-35).

And how blessed we are that nothing on earth or in heaven will ever be able to separate us from God’s love:  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 8:38-9).

What a glorious assurance!

Just as I recognize the importance of telling my grandchildren about the faithful loved ones who are no longer with us, I know telling them about the Father who loves them is even more important, with implications that will last for eternity (Psalm 78:1-8).

Dear Lord, thank You for Your infinite, eternal love. May we live in such a way that our love and faith are evident to a watching world, hallmarks of our relationship with You. And may we love others so well that the effects endure even after You’ve called us Home, connecting one generation to another until we’re reunited around Your throne.


[1] My grandchildren, who were 9, 7, and 5 when Mom died.

Who’s in Control?

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.
Proverbs 19:21

As We Age

My mom faced several significant physical challenges during the last decade of her life – an operation to repair her shattered right shoulder[1], a heart attack followed by emergency triple bypass surgery, and aspiration pneumonia that landed her in the hospital for 24 days. Each time, I wondered if we’d lose her, but each time, the Lord sustained her and returned her home to us.

Still, the relentless deterioration associated with aging continued as arthritis pain became a constant companion, and osteoporosis made falling a potentially life-threatening event. I escorted Mom to most of her medical appointments and heard many of her doctors reply to her list of symptoms with a statement beginning with, “As we age.” It was one of Mom’s least favorite phrases since it usually meant there wasn’t much to be done to improve the situation.

It was difficult enough for me to watch Mom’s physical decline, but a year or so ago, I started noticing some changes in her mental capacity. Her inability to balance her checkbook after a long career in banking and failure to successfully produce her delicious pound cake, a recipe she’d been making for 50 years, caused me great consternation. I tried to explain her mistakes away. I didn’t want to embarrass or alarm her, plus I couldn’t bear the thought of there coming a time when my dear mother and best friend didn’t know me, a fate several of my friends have experienced with their parents.

Running in Front of a Freight Train

Mom’s decline, which had been progressing slowly, picked up speed earlier this year, exacerbated by severe pain in her left leg. Dad and I took turns accompanying her to various appointments in search of a definitive cause and potential solution. A steroid shot, low-dose pain meds, massage therapy – nothing helped, at least not for long. There were even times when I fretted my well-meaning attempts to help added to Mom’s misery instead.

All the while, an ominous sense of foreboding formed on the edges of my mind and colored my thoughts. The uneasiness grew with each successive failure to procure help for Mom until one day I told my daughter, “I feel like I’m running in front of a freight train, and I hear it getting closer.”

I got an appointment for Mom with my longtime physician, confident she would help us pinpoint the source of Mom’s pain. A series of X-rays revealed compressed discs in Mom’s lower spine were causing sciatica, those shooting pains that nearly incapacitated her.

Finally, a definitive diagnosis! I made an appointment for Mom to see a pain specialist in hopes he could administer a nerve block or an epidural, anything to give her some relief and enable her to return to at least some of her usual activities.

Sidelined

Sciatica, coupled with the bone-on-bone condition in her right knee, led to her being confined to the main floor of the multi-story house she shared with my dad. Perfectly reasonable considering her age (89) and increasing fragility. But as Mom’s world became ever-smaller, her emotional and mental stability weakened as well.

I watched as my once-active, always-determined mother spent more and more time sitting. When I made my lunchtime phone call, she’d say, “I’m just finishing breakfast. It took me a while to get going this morning.” A similar report accompanied my evening visits, “I didn’t do much today. I just sat here.”

All the while, the sound of that freight train kept getting louder and louder. Mom was slipping away whether I was willing to acknowledge it or not.

Flattened

I kept the afternoon of April 20th, the day we were scheduled to see the pain specialist, in front of Mom. I held it up as a beacon of hope, trying to keep both of us motivated and focused on the long-hoped-for relief instead of the ever-growing pain and despair. But we never made it to the appointment.

Early on the morning of April 20th, Dad called to let me know he’d found Mom on the floor. She’d fallen and most likely broken her hip. At that moment, I knew the freight train had caught up. It flattened me and kept on going.

Yet it was then I also remembered what I had forgotten amidst the increasingly frantic flurry of attempts to help Mom – I wasn’t in control and never had been.

Sovereign Lord

In the truest sense, I hadn’t forgotten God is sovereign over all. I prayed fervently for wisdom for those of us trying to help Mom and for relief of her pain. However, as efforts continually fell short and her condition deteriorated, desperation overtook me. My mind worked overtime trying to figure out how to help Mom, and anxious, guilt-infused thoughts prevented restful sleep.

It was appropriate for me to persist in seeking help for Mom, but at some point, I crossed a line. I didn’t want to let Mom down. But, instead of casting my cares on God and finding peace, I picked up the burden, convinced the outcome depended entirely on my self-fueled efforts.

The timing of Mom’s fall, just a few hours before the appointment with the pain specialist, wasn’t lost on me. I humbly acknowledged God had a different plan, one that would prevail. In the days that followed, Jehoshaphat’s prayer became my mantra, “Lord, (I) don’t know what to do, but (my) eyes are fixed on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

The Lord faithfully went before me, directing and redirecting my steps over the last ten days of Mom’s life. But I’ll save that story for another time. The details of God’s goodness to us as He led Mom Home are deserving of a separate post.

O, Lord, how I thank You that You never meant for us to carry burdens too big for us. As our loving heavenly Father, You invite us to bring every care to You, that we might find peace that passes understanding. Please help us to remember You are sovereign over all, declaring the end from the beginning, always accomplishing Your purposes (Isaiah 46:10).


[1] An injury she sustained after falling off her bed while attempting to change a lightbulb in her ceiling fan!