The countdown

Each year as the anniversary of my husband Ray’s death approaches, I intentionally, day-by-day, review the details of our last week together. It’s my way of honoring his memory, of thanking God for the blessing of a godly husband and reminding myself not to take anything for granted, especially time with our loved ones.

I began my annual tradition yesterday. It included an impromptu stop at The Home Depot Woodstock (GA) where Ray worked as head of the indoor gardening department. Though I make frequent visits to The Home Depot closest to my house, I couldn’t remember the last time I was at that particular store, but I was in the area and paying a visit seemed a fitting part of my remembering. On April 13, 1997, I was driving back from Charlotte, NC with my elementary-aged daughters, Mary and Jessie. We’d spent the week of spring break with my parents. Ray was working his usual 1pm to 10pm Sunday shift. I called to let him know we made it home safely and again later to report on Tiger Woods’ first-of-several Masters wins, that one at the age of 21 and by a margin of 12 strokes, a record that still stands.

Funny how all those details coalesced in such a way that retrieving one allows me to retrieve them all.

The store was busy, as it no doubt was on Ray’s last Sunday there. I entered through the outdoor gardening section, and made my way to the space between it and the main store – Ray’s domain, indoor gardening. My breathing deepened and tears welled as I stepped through the door. I immediately sensed Ray’s presence as I gazed at the beautifully arrayed houseplants. My mind conjured up the now-gone potting desk, along with visions of previous visits over two decades ago when Ray walked me around his department enthusiastically pointing out changes he’d made. I could almost hear his laughter, feel his kindness as he patiently waited on customers and answered their questions. It was a worthwhile stop, a meaningful beginning to this year’s reminiscences.

Our final week was oh-so-normal, with the girls back to school and Ray and I working at our respective jobs. Then came Saturday evening. Ray’s sudden death shattered normal as we knew it and stole our dreams for the future.

Just as I deliberately call to mind the events of my last week with Ray, I purposefully remember Jesus’ last week – the triumphal entry on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday; His final Passover celebration with His disciples, washing their feet and instituting the Lord’s Supper; the fervent pleas in the Garden of Gethsemane; Judas’ betrayal; the mock trials, the scourging; the agony of the cross; His final words. Unlike me and my family, who proceeded through our week blissfully unaware of what lay ahead, Jesus knew exactly what He would endure, yet He set His face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).

Jesus tried to tell His disciples, but they couldn’t grasp the enormity of it all. They were still hoping for a more immediate kingdom and shared power (Matthew 20:20-21), so when the guards took Him away, they scattered, afraid for their own lives (Mark 14:50). Even Peter, self-avowed-loyal-to-the-end Peter, denied his Lord (Luke 22:54-62). And when Jesus died? Their hopes and plans died too (Luke 24:21a). Or so they thought.

But then Sunday came, with the best news EVER, news that restored hope, news that changed everything FOREVER: He is Risen! (Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke24:5-6)

Two men. Both demonstrated unconditional love, One in the most ultimate sense. Every so often the commemorative countdowns to the anniversaries of their deaths overlap, at least partially, as they do this year. And when they do, it softens the blow of one loss by magnifying the sacrificial benefits of the other. Because Jesus died and rose again, death doesn’t have the final say (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

IMG_0972Dear readers, as we enter Holy Week, I encourage you to read through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last week on earth. Meditate on His final teachings. Contemplate the single-mindedness of His actions on our behalf. Ponder His supplications in the High Priestly Prayer (John 17). And let us never forget what it cost Him to redeem us.

Purposeful Pondering

There are a number of days and seasons throughout the year when I intentionally open my figurative chest of memories, select the appropriate box and carefully remove the lid so I can inspect the contents. Sometimes the momentous events which trigger my reflections were joyfully anticipated, like the births of my daughters and grandchildren. But others, like the sudden death of my husband, came without warning and brought deep sorrow and bewilderment. Irrespective of the emotions associated with the initial event, I choose to remember. Because time offers perspective. And anniversaries provide opportunities to reflect on God’s goodness.

Eight years ago today, I awoke to my first day of unemployment in over three decades. Although not completely unexpected, the news the day before that I was no longer needed because my job was being eliminated left me numb and disoriented. I recognized those feelings, milder versions of the shock I felt after my husband’s unexpected death.

Unlike the previous afternoon when the slate sky matched the tenor of the windowless conference room where I received my termination notice, the morning was drenched in brilliant sunlight. In spite of my surreal circumstances, I held onto hope every bit as bright as the sunshine streaming through my windows. In fact, I posted the following status on Facebook:

“30+ years of continuous employment came to a halt yesterday when my job was eliminated. God obviously has something else for me to do. I can’t wait to see what it is!”

Even though I was uncertain how being unemployed would affect my life, I rested in the certainty that my life was exactly where it had been before I lost my job – secure in the hands of the One who declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10), who has a plan for good and not harm (Jeremiah 29:11). The previous day’s events did not surprise Him or catch Him off-guard.

I reminded myself of another windowless room where I and my elementary-aged daughters were told the unthinkable – that our beloved husband and father had succumbed to a fatal heart attack – and I recalled God’s provision across the 13 ½-intervening years. He’d graciously allowed me to work as long as my daughters depended on me for support. Single parent, sole provider, but underneath were the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27) of the One who’s promised to never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8)

img_0495Even so, I couldn’t have imagined all God had in store for me. A mere two days after losing my job, I contacted the admissions office at the local community college to inquire about enrolling in their horticulture program. Six months later, my first grandchild was born. Joshua was my study buddy, as I strolled him around the neighborhood while practicing my new-found plant identification skills. He, along with my mom and daughter Mary were present at my graduation ceremony the following year. Yes, 18 months after losing my job, I fulfilled my dream of acquiring an Environmental Horticulture diploma. God is truly able to do far more than all we ask or think. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Two more grandchildren, Lyla and Emma, have joined our family. I’m blessed to spend a couple of days a week with them and big-brother Joshua. I volunteer at a local botanical garden. I started this blog. I’m available to help my aging parents. I’m a member of our Women’s Ministry Committee. Engaging in these activities would be impossible if I was still working in my cubicle, making carpet samples and visiting customers. For a time, that was my work, but now God has other work for me to do. (Ephesians 2:10) And I am grateful for both seasons of my life.

I don’t know what you may be going through, dear reader. Maybe your life is relatively free of difficulties, but we know troubles of various kinds will come. Jesus said as much. However, He also told us not to fear because He would be with us to the end. (John 16:33; Matthew 28:20b) So let us call to mind the good He’s already done for us, in full assurance that His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. And may we be diligent in telling our children and their children of His great faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-24)

When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:1-7)

 

Eating apples (reprise)

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. 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.

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’s spoken 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 in at 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 surely contributed to his wiry physique. 029My 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, a bit more stern 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 his pocket knife in the other. He’d cut a slice for me, then a slice for himself. Back and forth the ritual would continue until the tasty fruit had been consumed. 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.

IMG_6759“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, 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. For a man who loved his garden and was used to being outside, it was like a death sentence. 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.

Fifty-three years ago today, on October 25, 1965, he was called Home. He had gone outside to check on some work being done 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.

Although our relationship was brief in terms of time, 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 this one, a self-awareness workshop, was different. It was facilitated by a team of psychologists 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 by comparison to the bonds of unconditional love and acceptance that were formed.

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.

It’s been much too long since I last visited the small graveyard where my grandparents and a number of other maternal relatives are laid to rest. My husband is resting there too, alongside my sister who died in infancy. But when I worked, my job frequently took me to that area of North Carolina and I’d visit the cemetery as often as I could. As I gazed at the tombstones, each representing someone I love and miss, I’d think about 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.

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)

 

 

 

Make note

The Lord has been faithful to provide for me and my family in so many ways across the years. In fact, a desire to encourage others by sharing some examples of His goodness is what led me to begin blogging. I promised to write this particular post for some friends in various stages of buying and selling homes, but I pray the over-arching message of God going before us will resonate with many of you.

As I open up my mental portfolio containing instances of God’s providence, the file marked “Real Estate Transactions” stands out because it encompasses events that still give me amazement-induced goose bumps when I recall the specifics all these years later.

Several months after my late husband Ray and I got married, we began to contemplate the possibility of purchasing our first home. The image of him sitting at his drawing board/desk, his silhouette illuminated by a clamp-on light as he calculated and re-calculated the numbers, is etched in my memory. After several such assessments, we decided to purchase a townhouse attached to one other unit. We had three bedrooms on the top floor, an open floor plan on the main level and a full basement which we partially finished – plenty of room even after our daughter Mary was born two years later.

But when I became pregnant with daughter Jessie, Ray and I decided to start looking for a single family home to accommodate our growing family. Unfortunately, the houses we could afford weren’t within our desired distance to work and those in our preferred areas were priced beyond our budget. We looked and looked, our hopes repeatedly dashed. It was a hot, humid summer in Delaware and I was eight months pregnant, with all the attendant hormonal upheaval. So, when Ray excitedly told me about an open house at an older home in the same neighborhood as our townhome, I suggested he check it out while I treated my hot, tired, grumpy self to a nap.

Ray returned from the open house, his spirits still high, and announced, “You really need to see this one! It could be our house.” Several days later, I accompanied him on his return visit. I, too, liked what I saw. Coached by our realtor, we made an offer slightly under the asking price, only to be outbid. Once again deflated by dejection, we surmised it wasn’t the one after all.

Several weeks and more disappointing house-shopping jaunts later, the owners called to let us know the deal had fallen through and their house was back on the market. After thorough consideration of our options, Ray and I decided their house actually was the one.

Having finally concluded the search phase of our mission, we asked fellow members of our Sunday school class to pray our townhouse would sell. A young couple came up to us after class and said they’d be interested in looking at it. They did just that a few days after Jessie’s birth[1] and, without ever putting up a for sale sign, we secured buyers.

5-29-2015, 108 DewaltThe house on Dewalt Road was to be our long-term, raise-the-kids residence, but DuPont decided to move my entire work group to Georgia so we could be closer to our customers in the carpet industry. Once again we were faced with selling a house, this time one filled with toys and accessories parents of toddlers are used to stepping over and around. I dreaded the process of keeping the house picked up and ready to show at any moment. After Ray and I signed a contract with our realtor the day before I left for a weeklong business trip to California, I told them, “Ok, you two. I want you to find a buyer before I get back.” (Cue laughter.) But God graciously provided a young family, much like our own, who could no doubt imagine their own children’s toys strewn across the playroom and parked in the yard. They were ready to make an offer by the time I returned home.

Fast forward five years to when the unthinkable happened. My beloved 39-year-old husband went to work one beautiful spring day, suffered a fatal heart attack and didn’t make it back to what has indeed been my long-term, raise-the-kids residence. My parents were living in Charlotte at the time and had been considering a move since my dad was recently-retired. What a blessing when they chose to move to Georgia to help me with the logistics and challenges associated with being a single mother. They had an offer on their house within a few days of putting it on the market. And, when my mom told the owners of the house they bought in Georgia the reason for their move, the woman replied, “Our house was under contract several months ago, but the deal fell through. Now I know why. God was saving it for you.”

I realize your real estate history probably differs from mine. Maybe you’ve endured weeks without showings and multiple price cuts during stagnant markets. But, as I hope you can see, this recounting isn’t about houses at all. It’s about remembering God’s faithfulness. About recording instances of His provision and sharing them to encourage yourself and fellow believers when times get tough. (Psalm 63:1-8) About speaking truth to yourself: “Just look what He’s done! He’s never forsaken me and I know He never will.” (Deuteronomy 31:8; Psalm 9:10; Psalm 37:25)

Your list of examples will be as unique as you are. But, even if you’re a brand new believer, you have instances to look back on, including the fact He called you out of darkness and welcomed you into His family. (Matthew 4:16; John 8:12; Ephesians 1:3-14) And the longer we walk with Him, the more extensive and varied our personal inventories become, as He does exceedingly more than all we can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20)

May we be ever-faithful to recall and recount the Lord’s goodness.

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. (Psalm 9:1-2)

 

[1] We’d originally planned for them to come over earlier, “unless I went into labor”, which I did on the previously-scheduled date.