Enlightened Eyes

I’d opened my Bible study lesson but hadn’t silenced my phone yet. It dinged three times in rapid succession alerting me to incoming text messages, most likely of the group variety.

043My curiosity piqued, I had to look. After all, I hadn’t officially settled into my quiet time. The glance confirmed my hunch. Daughter Jessie sent a photo to me and her older sister, Mary, with the comment, “Fun game! Let me know when you spot it.”

Mary replied without hesitation, “Cool!!!”

I stared at the up-close photo of a tree trunk, admiring the bark, but had to enlarge the image before I found the hidden critter and exclaimed, “That guy is super camouflaged!”

Jessie conceded, “I totally wouldn’t have seen the moth except he was sitting right below a trail blaze (blue rectangles painted around the trail so you can keep track of it) and I had looked up at the blaze just by chance.”

Our pleasant text conversation came to an end and I turned my attention back to the lesson before me, astounded to read, “Unless a power beyond us opens our eyes, we will blindly walk right past the infinite magnificence of God’s treasure. We take for granted the glorious truth in Christ: we are God’s beloved children.” (1)

Talk about an immediate spiritual application of Jessie’s trail blaze experience!

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians, proclaims, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).

Paul then goes on to recount those blessings. In Christ we are:

  • Chosen by God before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him (vs. 4).
  • Predestined for adoption to himself (vs. 5).
  • Redeemed (vs. 7)
  • Forgiven (vs. 7)
  • Made recipients of the riches of God’s grace, lavished upon us (vs. 7-8)
  • Given wisdom and insight to understand God’s plan of redemption (vs. 9-10)
  • Made heirs (vs. 11-12)
  • Sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our inheritance (vs. 13-14)

Paul prays for the eyes of their hearts to be enlightened that they may know the hope to which they’ve been called, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of His power toward those who believe – precisely the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (vs. 18-19a).

Fueled by that kind of power, you’d think we’d be better at living out the reality of all the blessings heaped upon us.  But too often our spiritual sight is clouded by immediate demands, our ears filled with voices clamoring for our attention. The temporal hides the eternal as effectively as the moth’s disguise allowed it to blend into the bark.

Jesus frequently taught in parables, many of which had a connection to plants – sowing, reaping, seasons, soils. When his disciples asked why He used such stories, He replied, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given . . .  Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.’ . . .  But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (Matthew 13:11, 14, 16)

Blessed indeed! Jesus came not just to restore sight and hearing to those physically blind and deaf, but to open our spiritual eyes and ears to His message and the evidence of His love all around us. And, when Jesus ascended to heaven, He didn’t leave us as orphans. The Father sent the promised Helper to be our trail blaze (John 14:16-17, 26).

Even so, we must be intentional about seeing and hearing.

Interludes spent in my garden allow me to be still in God’s presence, to deliberately look and listen. Time after time, Jesus’ parables come to life as I dig and prune, weed and water. I stroll my property in search of treasures I imagine God’s tucked lovingly here and there for me to find. Years of practicing these purposeful walks have honed my sight, enabling me to recognize even barely-there plants as they emerge from the soil. How much more should I seek to know the things of God, to perceive the guidance of His Spirit, and to hear His still, quiet voice by becoming intimately acquainted with the treasures found in His Word?

O Lord, how I thank you for lavishing your spiritual blessings upon your chosen ones and for enlightening the eyes of our hearts to understand the magnitude of those blessings. Please help us to be ever-attentive to the leading of your Spirit.

 

(1) Lisa Tarplee,”Hinged, Vitally Connected to Christ and His Church, Women’s Bible Study on Ephesians”, Week 2, CDM Discipleship Ministries, 2020, p. 31.

Soil Amendments

When we moved from Delaware to Georgia 28 years ago, we had the opportunity to start from the ground up. We chose our lot, chose a house plan, chose a builder. Though most of the construction communication occurred long-distance, business trips provided opportunities for me to stop by the construction site periodically during the months leading up to our relocation.

After years of working as a colorist and carpet stylist for a large corporation, I enthusiastically put my job experience into practice. I selected all the finishes for the house – from bricks to shingles, wall colors to carpet – and amassed a burgeoning file of paint chips and swatches. My late husband, Ray, was equally excited about using his horticulture training in designing our landscape. His task proved to be much more challenging than mine.

For starters, most of the top soil had been scraped away by bulldozers cruising back and forth grading the site.  Compacted Georgia clay – think terra cotta pottery – remained in its place. I watched as Ray struggled to dig holes in the hardened ground, thinking he might as well have been chipping away at the concrete driveway.

Next, there was the appalling, but then-legal practice of burying construction debris on the property. Among our stranger discoveries – the lid to a 5-gallon paint bucket and a caulking gun containing a half-empty caulk canister.

051And then there were rocks to deal with, some too big to dig up, others temporary yet annoying obstacles. The distinct clank of the shovel hitting their unyielding surfaces accompanied Ray’s efforts to install carefully-chosen plants.

053Born and raised in South Dakota farm country, Ray was accustomed to soil so rich it’s nearly black. When we lived in Delaware we would occasionally get a load of mushroom compost to top dress the yard – smelly, but effective when it came to adding nutrients to the soil. These experiences plus his horticulture degree informed Ray there would be no shortcut when it came to improving the hardpan he’d been left with. Thus he began the tedious process of amending the clay by tilling in top soil and compost.

But was it ever worth it!

Now, almost 30 years later, the soil is dark, easy to dig, and full of busy earthworms, a sure sign of health. When I cultivate those beds, my thoughts often drift to the early days when Ray was challenged by the conditions he’d been dealt. Nonetheless, he persevered, patiently applying the principles he knew would yield the longed-for results.

By now, I bet some of you are thinking about Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. Recounted in three of the four Gospels[1], Jesus described different kinds of soil and compared them to one’s ability to accept and sustain the seed of Gospel truth.

Certainly, there are parallels to the various soils within the saga I’ve described, however, I want to focus on the good soil that yielded a bountiful harvest. Though Jesus’ parable begins with sowing, other passages introduce the idea of preparing the heart to receive Truth (Ezekiel 36:26). After our stony hearts are replaced with hearts of flesh, the Master Gardener sends the Spirit to tend the now-receptive plot.

Though the heart exchange is a once-and-done event, the tending will continue until we’re called Home. With the Spirit’s help, we’re to amend our softened hearts with the Word, working it ever-deeper into our lives. Then our roots will have room to grow and we’ll be like the trees planted by streams of water described in Jeremiah 17:8 – unafraid of drought, consistently bearing fruit.

And there will no doubt be rocks and debris to be removed as we dig deeper into our souls, stumbling blocks to our spiritual growth. Here too, we can depend on the Spirit to empower our efforts as He conforms us to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29)

When I went back to school to study horticulture, I gained a whole new appreciation for soil. Structure, drainage, nutrient-holding capacity – all are important in determining what kind of life it can sustain.

How about you? Are you amending the soil of your soul with the life-giving, life-sustaining Word of God?

 

[1] Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23; Mark 4:3-8, 14-20; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15.

 

Good Gifts

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

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

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

God’s Gifts

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

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

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

Reflecting His Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sibling Rivalry

In my post, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” (see Archives, December 2019), I shared some thoughts from the devotion I presented at our women’s Christmas brunch. In writing that piece, I focused primarily on the good tidings of God’s promise to be with us: “I will be your God; you will be my people; I will dwell among you.”  Today I turn my attention to the other half of the message I delivered to the women in attendance.

Scripture is full of precious promises of God’s presence. Yet too often the noise and busyness of the world drown out the tidings of comfort and joy associated with God’s assurances. Or Satan tempts us to doubt. “Where’s God now?” he taunts. “Did He really say He wouldn’t leave you? Ever??”

Though His presence is sufficient, God didn’t intend for us to go it alone. Created in His image, we’re relational beings. Having been adopted into His family, we have spiritual brothers and sisters to remind us of truth, to testify to His faithfulness, and to be His hands and feet as we minister to one another.

045My baby sister barely reached 8 months of age, hence I grew up an only child with no sibling rivalry and no one to bicker with. But I saw plenty of both as I raised my daughters and now witness more of the same as I spend time with my grandchildren.

“Mine!”

“Me first!!”

“I was playing with that!!!”

Sound familiar?

Sadly, similar rivalries and bickering occur in the family of God. Remember the mother who asked Jesus if her sons could be seated next to Him in heaven, one on His left, the other on His right? Talk about a bold request! (Matthew 20:20-28) Then there were the disciples Jesus caught arguing about who would be the greatest. (Luke 22:24-27) Our presumptions may be more subtle, but they’re there, remnants of our sinful nature that won’t be fully eradicated until we’re called Home.

In the instances cited, Jesus made it clear the world’s definition of greatness didn’t apply to His disciples. Instead of exalting themselves, they were to follow His example by humbly serving others.

But God’s directives regarding His children’s interactions don’t stop there.  Scripture contains numerous passages expressing God’s will for our dealings with one another. Consider this one from Colossians:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

With our elder Brother as our example, we’re told to forgive one another, to be compassionate and kind, and most importantly, to love one another. In fact, Jesus commanded us to love one another so well that it sets us apart. If we do, it will make others notice (John 13:34-35). Even better, it may make them long to be part of God’s family.

During a recent visit, one of the missionaries our church supports described such a scenario. He became acquainted with a shopkeeper in the country where he and his wife serve and invited him to church. The shopkeeper accepted his invitation because he knew him to be a “nice” person. Even so, he was unprepared to meet a church full of “nice” people.  Wonderment at the tangible difference he observed provided an opportunity for the missionary to explain the why behind the behavior.

I put “nice” in quotes because as believers we know apart from Christ, even our best deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We’re utterly incapable of conducting ourselves according to the Lord’s commands. But, praise God, His promise to be with us includes sending the Holy Spirit to remind us of Jesus’ teachings, to help us want to obey, and to enable us to do so (John 14:16, 26; Philippians 2:13), albeit imperfectly until we’re ushered into heaven.

044My sister’s death left an empty spot, a life-long yearning to have been able to grow up and grow old with her. In spite of my daughters’ and grandchildren’s childhood squabbling, they’re family, forever part of each other. And so it is in God’s family as He knits our hearts and lives together in love.

O, Lord, thank You for not only promising to never leave us or forsake us, but for also giving us each other, brothers and sisters in Christ. Please help us to follow our elder Brother’s example of putting others’ interests before our own, setting aside all rivalries and jealousy, loving and forgiving as He loves and forgives us. In so doing, may we draw others to You, ever ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

 

Heavenly Hugs

Several weeks ago, I received the following text from a dear sister in Christ, “Praying that the Lord will refresh you by His Word and Spirit today . . . some heavenly hugs to remind you of His presence . . . some quiet moments.”

Prompted by her knowledge that I was dealing with some weighty matters, the text itself felt like one of the hugs she wished for me. Oh the blessing of friends who take note of our concerns and reach out to encourage us!

I texted my thanks and mentioned I hoped to spend time in my garden, the backdrop to some of my sweetest moments with the Lord, later that day. Being outside often feels like a big Fatherly bear hug, one that melts my stress and recalibrates my perspective. But those of you who are longtime readers know I frequently find special treasures when I’m working in my yard. Gifts I imagine the Lord tucking tenderly here and there for me to discover and delight over.

Attired in my yard clothes – faded jeans, PFG shirt, well-worn work boots, and a wide-brimmed hat – I headed outside in search of solace. The reel mower whirred as I pushed it around and around what I refer to as my “keyhole of grass”. (I’m NOT a proponent of giant swaths of perfectly-manicured turf, but I’ll save that soapbox for another post.) The sun warmed my back and the tension in my shoulders subsided. Bees and butterflies visited one bright blossom after another. The fresh air worked its usual magic and nudged my cares aside, at least for a while.

I’d been outside for a couple of hours when I remembered my friend’s message, her prayer for heavenly hugs. Although I’d been reveling in the beauty of the afternoon, grateful to be playing in the dirt, I hadn’t come across anything specific that prompted an exclamation of, “That’s it! That’s today’s treasure, a heavenly hug.”

It’s ok, I thought. The whole afternoon’s been a blessing.

125My time outside was drawing to a close when I pulled up a spent summer annual, revealing a spindly bit of passionflower vine with a solitary gulf fritillary caterpillar munching intently on a bedraggled leaf. My heart soared! I’d been hugged.

I suppose most folks wouldn’t have paid much attention to the tiny orange visitor arrayed with black, predator-discouraging spikes. Yet as I gazed at him, I received a reminder of two important truths:

God’s provision. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is the only food source for gulf fritillary caterpillars. For several years I intentionally planted the vine by my mailbox, enjoying wave after wave of caterpillars until all the leaves were consumed and only bare stems remained. My summer reveries came to an end though when I realized neighbors’ mosquito treatments killed the caterpillars. I pulled up the vine, unwilling to create a death trap for my annual visitors. Sprigs of the vine continue to emerge from roots left in the ground. I sadly and dutifully pull them up too. The one the caterpillar was feeding on escaped my notice, hidden under another plant. But an egg-laying butterfly found it amidst all the other plants on my property. Isn’t that amazing?! And if God provides for butterflies and caterpillars and birds and lilies, we can be sure He’ll provide for His beloved children (Matthew 6:25-33).

Perseverance. By the time I discovered the miniature passionflower vine with its voracious visitor, we’d endured several weeks of drought accompanied by way-above-average temperatures. Although the plant’s leaves bore faded splotches, it had survived the unfavorable conditions and was available to host the egg that became the caterpillar. Endurance is an essential aspect of our walk with the Lord. Hardships, challenges, droughts of various kinds – we’re told to expect them. But great blessings, from godly character to eternal life, come with perseverance (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:12). The indwelling Spirit enables us to persevere until the day of Jesus’ return when God will complete the good work He began in us (Philippians 1:6).

At times we need reminders, don’t we? The world can be so loud and demanding, muffling God’s still, quiet voice. But He’s always with us, just as He promised, and sometimes He sends perfectly-packaged heavenly hugs to reassure us. Our Father knows each of us by name. He never loses sight of us. And He loves us so much more than we can fathom.

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:13-20)

 

Taming the Tongue

Within the past week, I’ve been on the receiving end of several disconcerting remarks. One was an expletive hurled by a stranger, who’d been momentarily inconvenienced by the position of my car as I exited a friend’s neighborhood. I allowed the vitriol to roll off, knowing the problem belonged entirely to the other person, at least since he hadn’t used a gun to express his disdain. In the safe solitude of my car, I shook my head and said aloud, “Wow, so much anger in the world! I can’t wait for You to come back, Lord!”

So much antagonism. Incivility. Yelling. As if force somehow validates your point. I rarely watch the news anymore because it makes it more difficult to adhere to the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Very little in the nightly recounting of events falls into any of those categories.

But two of the recent hurtful comments were merely insensitive, tossed out carelessly, without thought as to their potential impact. Maybe they were meant in jest, but, malicious or not, they landed right on top of some already-felt insecurities. Consequently, those two statements stuck. I had a hard time dislodging them because they fit my internal monologue too well.

Undoubtedly, there are times when I’m the one guilty of life-taking language, sometimes unintentional, sometimes uttered in a moment of irritation with intent to quiet the source of my aggravation. I’m guessing those of you reading this have been both giver and receiver of verbal wounds as well.

IMG_1597My ruminations on the power of our words brought to mind the scene in “Bambi”[1] where Thumper comments on newborn Bambi’s wobbly attempts to walk. The bunny’s mother intervenes with a firm reminder:

“Thumper.”

“Yes, Mama?”

“What did your father tell you this morning?”

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Good, concise advice for everyone, young or old.

Scripture has much to say regarding our speech. Consider for example:

  • A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. (Proverbs 15:1-2)
  • The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. (Proverbs 15:28)
  • The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)
  • Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (Ephesians 4:29-31)
  • But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:8-10)
  • Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
  • And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:6-12)

That last passage is particularly sobering, isn’t it? Taming our tongue is impossible for us, but nothing is impossible for God (Mark 10:27). We’ll continue to struggle with fleshly tendencies, including careless words and, at times, unwholesome speech, until we’re called Home (Romans 7:18). Nonetheless, the Spirit is sanctifying us, conforming us more and more to the likeness of the Son (Romans 8:29).

We are offspring of the King, called to be life-givers[2] in word and deed, children of light in a dark world (Ephesians 5:8-10; Philippians 2:14-16). As we practice being slow to speak, may we pause and ask ourselves if what we’re about to say is kind, true and necessary. Better yet, would we want someone to say it to or about us? After all, the Golden Rule is a simple, yet profound summation of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12), the perfect bridle to tame our wayward tongues.

 

[1] Walt Disney Studios’ animated classic debuted in 1942.

[2] For more on life-giving/life-taking behaviors, please click on the “Give Life” tab on the top banner or check out “Bucket-fillers” in the November 2018 archives.

Beauty of the soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty Regimen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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(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”

No Unnecessary Parts

Soon after I turned 50, I began noticing a disconcerting trend whenever I mentioned an ailment to my doctor or dentist. Time after time, they prefaced their replies with, “As we age”, and then went on to explain my symptoms were to be expected given my advancing years. (Insert eye roll.)

Well, here I am, having completed another decade with its attendant wear and tear and I’m starting to believe them. But, being my mother’s daughter, I refuse to go down easily or give up my favorite pastimes, even though most of them – gardening, writing[1], needlework – take a toll on my hands and arms. Then, when my hands and arms get tired, other parts try to compensate, particularly my neck and back. They in turn grow weary from assisting in addition to carrying their own loads.

It’s getting easier and easier for me to relate to the Apostle Paul’s assertion that all parts of the body are necessary and the body performs best when each part is functioning as God designed it to. (1 Corinthians 12) Of course, Paul was using that superb analogy to describe how beautifully God equipped His children with varying gifts and graces to build up the church, the body of believers. And, just as I’m increasingly aware of the veracity of my doctor’s statements, serving as Coordinator of our Women’s Ministry Committee is teaching me how appropriate Paul’s comparison is.

IMG_E0722The committee was in transition late last year when I was asked to join. The remaining members were dedicated to the ministry and each other, but tired from trying to do it all, especially when the assigned tasks didn’t fit their gifts. Fortunately, our pastor asked long-time women’s ministry leader and member of our church, Susan Hunt, to mentor us. With Susan’s guidance, and using the five foundational principles outlined in Women’s Ministry in the Local Church[2], we restructured the committee around several areas of service: Compassion, Community, Elder/Deacon Support and Bible Study, with a Coordinator to guide, support and disciple the ministry leaders.[3]

As the time approached to allocate the various roles, each woman on the committee prayerfully considered her giftedness as well as the gifts of her sisters in light of the positions we needed to fill. We prayed for God’s guidance and we prayed for a spirit of unity and harmony when we assigned leaders to the ministry areas.

Nonetheless, we were concerned about the possibility of more than one woman thinking she was best-suited to a given ministry, while another ministry remained unclaimed. We also wanted to avoid the feeling of a hierarchy, where one role was deemed more or less valuable than another. The previously-referenced 12th chapter of 1st Corinthians makes it abundantly clear that there are many different gifts, all valuable and bestowed by God as He sees fit, for the building up of the church. Paul affirms the same in Romans 12:3-8:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

O, us of little faith! As we went ministry by ministry the morning we met, each woman respectfully requested her role, with her sisters gladly affirming the fit. We were relieved. We were energized. And we were so grateful God had graciously gone before us, pre-assembling our team based on the needs of our congregation and how He’s gifted us.

In my 30-year corporate career, the best managers were the ones who matched the talents and abilities of their workers to the available tasks, resulting in a happier and more productive team. I’ve already seen a similar outcome since we apportioned the assignments. Within days of our planning meeting, ministry leaders started sending e-mails to each other, unprompted by me, as the women embraced their responsibilities and enthusiastically shared ideas with other committee members.

Several days before our first event, a Ladies’ Winter Tea, I awoke with a start one morning thinking, “What about the food? I don’t know what we’re serving!” My heart returned to its normal cadence as I reminded myself, “I don’t have to know. Roseann and her team have it covered.” And did they ever! The food was plentiful and delicious, the tables beautifully decorated. The women were joyfully using their gifts to glorify God and bless those in attendance.

We shared the new ministry structure with the women at the tea and encouraged them to consider their God-given gifts and where they can best use them to glorify Him and build up his body. Our prayer is that all of our women will become involved with one or more of the ministry areas this year.

In addition to special events, we have Bible studies and small discipleship groups. We are thankful for the positive momentum since restructuring the committee, however, this is the time we need to stay focused on God’s glory, not self-glory and self-congratulation. We must remember our confidence is in Christ alone, leaving no room for boasting in any aspect of our lives. Only then can we be life-giving leaders who reflect God’s goodness to those we seek to serve.

How about you? Are you doing your part to keep the Body strong?

Lord, You have graciously given each of us gifts and graces, abilities to be used for your glory and for the building up of your church. Please help us to gladly take on our roles, neither coveting the gifts of others nor being prideful about our own, for all we have and are, both spiritual and material, comes from You. (1 Chronicles 29:10-13; Ephesians 2:8-10; James 1:17)

 

[1] Including pen, typing and texting!

[2] Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2006.

[3] Discipleship is part of each ministry leader’s role, as she disciples women serving in her area.

Considering Others

IMG_5752Almost-3-year-old granddaughter Emma was napping peacefully when my daughter Mary arrived home with 7-year-old Joshua in tow. As he headed upstairs to change out of his school clothes, Mary and I both admonished him to be quiet so he wouldn’t wake his sleeping sister. Joshua clumped up the stairs and Mary followed up with a sternly whispered, “Joshua! Quiet!!” But, after a long day at school, Joshua was ready for some sibling interaction. By the time he reached the second floor, he was singing and then, right outside Emma’s door, he let out a spirited whoop. Mary and I barely had time to groan before he called out, “Emma’s awake!” (Really?!)

Attempting to find some humor in the situation, I quipped, “If she’d slept through all of that, one of us would have to go up and check her pulse.” Mary was not amused.

IMG_6716From his earliest days, Joshua has enjoyed company and his philosophy is if he’s awake, someone else should be awake to talk to or play with. Unfortunately, there are times when the person on the receiving end of his cheerful, “Wakey, wakey!”, isn’t ready to wake up, much less engage in a conversation. For now, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not being malicious, just thoughtless. But I hope he’ll soon learn to be more considerate and put his sisters’[1] need for sleep ahead of his longing for a playmate.

Soon after the events described above, several of my own actions caused me to think back to that afternoon and reflect on how easy it is for us to make decisions based on our own desires, regardless of our age. In fact, thinking of ourselves and our well-being comes naturally. Sometimes no one is inconvenienced or bothered. Then again, our acts may puzzle, annoy or even hurt others, as we tread all over their feelings and wishes, whether carelessly or deliberately.

Each time God pricked my conscience about my innocent-to-me, yet self-focused choices, the Spirit quickly reminded me of Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2:3-8:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

As children of the King (Romans 8:16-17), we’re called to a higher standard than simply not harming others on purpose. We’re to consider their interests, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40), to serve as Jesus served (Mark 10:42-45), and, ultimately, to die more and more to self so the image of our Savior becomes increasingly apparent in us. (Luke 9:23-24)

I recently came across a story from the life of Helen Roseveare, a missionary doctor who went to Africa in 1953. After watching her lose her temper with a patient, her spiritual mentor, Pastor Ndugu, pointed out, “I, the capital I in our lives, Self, is the great enemy . . . the trouble with you is that we can see so much Helen that we cannot see Jesus.”[2]

Ouch! I know there are many times when people see way too much Patsy and not enough Jesus, times when I’m self-absorbed and oblivious of others. But I’m so thankful my Father always sees Jesus when He looks at me (Romans 5:17-18) and is patiently transforming me until the day when my robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10a) will be a perfect fit. Indeed, He faithfully uses everything, from the antics of my boisterous and dearly-loved grandson to the depth and riches of his everlasting Word (Isaiah 40:8) to complete the good work He began in me. (Philippians 1:6)

 

[1] 5-year-old Lyla is another favorite target of Joshua’s wake-up tactics.

[2] Karen Hodge & Susan Hunt, “Transformed, Life-taker to life-giver”, (Ross-shire Scotland, Christian Focus Publications, 2016), p. 105. Story originally appeared in “Faithful Women & Their Extraordinary God” by Noel Piper (Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books, 2005), pp. 158-160.