A little bit of heaven

The first time I visited The Pocket at Pigeon Mountain it was unseasonably cold. All I remember are snow flurries swirling through the crisp air while I huddled close to my fellow wildflower enthusiasts in an attempt to avoid the brunt of the biting wind. I can’t even tell you if anything was blooming. cropped-016.jpgTwo weeks later I returned to find the slopes bedecked with such a vast array of wildflowers I could barely take it in. I asked my companion if someone had planted the wondrous variety. “No”, he explained. “The soils and conditions here are such that it developed naturally.” From that moment on, I’ve thought of The Pocket as “God’s Garden”, a little bit of heaven on earth, where the Creator’s ingenuity is on magnificent display.

I’ve written previously about what has become a highly-anticipated annual pilgrimage to this outdoor mecca, where a reverent awe settles upon me each time I visit.[1] Last week was no different. Sunlight filtered through the leafy canopy as a gentle breeze wafted about. The gurgling brook and chirping birds provided background music as I retraced familiar pathways, stopping repeatedly to admire God’s handiwork. What a joy to behold the complexity and beauty, fIMG_3106 (2)rom the tiniest of flowers to massive tree trunks toppled long ago, the latter now moss-covered works of art. All tucked away, far from the traffic zipping by heedlessly on the interstate, waiting to be discovered, pondered and appreciated.

It may sound presumptuous, but I’ve designated a small section of my wooded backyard a mini-Pocket. I’m gradually introducing some of the native plants found in that special place to my own suburban property – trilliums, wood poppies, Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, Solomon’s plume. Though it is but a shadow of the original, it nonetheless allows me to experience the same sense of wonder each spring as the plants reawaken, each uniquely exquisite. IMG_3050I stroll the woods almost daily in the early months of the year, gently moving leaves, searching for signs of life. I sense God’s peace and presence as I meander and I pray that my joyful exclamations of delight upon finding the treasures He’s brought through another winter reach his ears as songs of praise and thanksgiving.

As I was contemplating my attempts to recreate some semblance of The Pocket, the Lord’s Prayer[2] came to my mind, specifically the lines, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” At times we may think of this request in terms of Jesus’ second coming when all things will be made new and God’s kingdom will indeed be established forever. But Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God when He came the first time, saving us from our sins, buying our pardon with his precious blood, [3] gaining victory over death,[4] all that we might live and reign with Him in the new, forever kingdom. But in the meantime, He sent the Holy Spirit to comfort and counsel us, to conform us more and more to His image.[5] We are to be salt and light.[6] We are to bear witness, to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us.[7] We are called to take up our crosses, to follow Jesus and to love like He did.[8] We are to bring a little bit of heaven into the lives of those who come our way, be it for a moment or a lifetime.

Our finite minds can’t comprehend what it will be like to be in God’s presence. Even the most beautiful day here will seem dingy when compared to the radiant light emanating from his throne. But I’m so thankful He gives us glimpses of how amazing it will be. In blue skies and breezes. In flowers and friends. In love that will last forever. Though now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.[9]

It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, proclaiming your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night, to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp. For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord; I sing for joy at what your hands have done. How great are your works, Lord, how profound your thoughts![10]

 

 

[1] Please see “He didn’t have to do it”, Archives, April 2017.

[2] Matthew 6:9-13

[3] John 1:29

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:54-57

[5] John 14:26

[6] Matthew 5:13-16

[7] 1 Peter 3:15

[8] Luke 9:23; John 13:35

[9] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[10] Psalm 92:1-5

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Have you seen Jesus?

I caught a glimpse of Jesus. It happened in our local hospital, where Mom spent several nights while various tests were run in an attempt to discover the cause of her dizziness. Thankfully all results were normal. Upon receiving the good news of her imminent release, I went to check on Mom’s discharge papers. When I returned to her room moments later, the chair she’d been sitting in was empty. Her back was to me as she stood by the other patient’s bed and she had no idea I was observing her kind ministrations. Jesus’ love emanated from my tiny mother as she stood beside her roommate’s bed, gently holding the hand of a woman she’d just met the day before. Verbal communication was limited by a language barrier. Nonetheless, Mom’s spoken, “I love you”, was underscored with such tenderness, there could be no mistaking her message of encouragement and care.

I’ve thought about that brief encounter numerous times since it occurred nearly three weeks ago. So many lessons, so many reminders. The following may be a bit more stream-of-consciousness than usual, but I pray you’ll glean some points worth pondering.

On their inaugural album, Christian contemporary band, Casting Crowns, challenged, “But if we are the body, why aren’t His arms reaching? Why aren’t His hands healing? Why aren’t His words teaching? And if we are the body, why aren’t His feet going? Why is His love not showing them there is a way?”[1] Their lyrics remind me of the parable of the sheep and goats wherein Jesus made it clear that in caring for practical needs of the least among us, we are caring for Him.[2] Likewise, James emphasized that faith without works is dead.[3]

In the Acts 4 recounting of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, “when (the people) saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”[4] Peter, the disciple who was so afraid of being associated with Jesus on the night He was betrayed that he denied Him three times, courageous? Yes, that very same man, forgiven and restored by Jesus, empowered by the promised Holy Spirit, was notably, distinctly different. As believers, we too have been forgiven, restored and empowered. May we be conformed more and more to the image of Jesus, that others might readily take note of our association with Him.

In the lesson of the vine and the branches, Jesus promised we’ll bear good fruit as long as we abide in Him. But apart from Him, we wither and are useless.[5] Furthermore, Jesus taught that each tree is recognized by its fruit. Likewise, we bring forth fruit based on what’s stored in our hearts.[6] Thus, the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control[7] – must set us apart in an increasingly self-focused world.

IMG_5428Of all the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, love reigns supreme.[8] We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves[9]; to love our brothers and sisters in Christ[10]; even to love our enemies.[11] In fact, love is to be the hallmark of those who belong to Jesus.[12]

I usually read each of my blog posts to Mom. I most likely won’t read this one. It would embarrass her. Her love and concern for others are such an innate part of who she is – a senior saint who bears much fruit for her Savior after many years of abiding in him. Accolades for those qualities would be discomfiting. And rightly so, since Jesus taught us not to perform our righteous deeds to impress others, but to please our Father, who sees all.[13] Furthermore, we’re called to work as if we’re working for the Lord, not men, knowing He is ultimately the One we serve.[14]

Although God is faithfully sanctifying us, perfection will remain elusive until Jesus returns to make all things new. Even the very best of us sin and fall short of the glory of God. How grateful I am for the spotless Lamb who took our iniquities upon Himself and paid the debt we owed so that even now, when the Father gazes at us, He sees the righteousness of his beloved Son.[15]

Dear Father, thank you for loving us so much You sent your only Son to die for us, that we might live with You forever.[16] Please help us to display Jesus’ attributes more and more, loving and serving others in such a way that they may taste and see that You are good.[17]

[1] “If We are the Body” from “Casting Crowns” by Casting Crowns, July 2003.

[2] Matthew 25: 31-46.

[3] James 2:14-17.

[4] Acts 4:13.

[5] John 15:1-6.

[6] Luke 6:43-45.

[7] Galatians 5:22.

[8] 1 Corinthians 13:1-7, 13.

[9] Matthew 22:34-40

[10] Numerous references, including John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 John 4:11.

[11] Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36.

[12] John 13:35.

[13] Matthew 6:1-18.

[14] Colossians 3:23-24.

[15] Romans 3:21-26.

[16] John 3:16.

[17] Psalm 34:8a.

All I’ll ever need

If it’s true that confession is good for the soul, I’ll feel better after I write this. On the other hand, I may just embarrass myself by publicly airing yet another dust moment.[1] Regardless, I pray the following will encourage at least a few of my fellow dusty sojourners.

I was sleeping soundly when my alarm chimed at 5:15am last Saturday morning. After getting a mere five hours of sleep, it would have been understandable if I’d silenced the pesky dinging and snuggled deeper under the covers. Instead, I drug my groggy self out of the warm cocoon. After performing a few minor ablutions, I pulled on several layers of clothes, packed some snacks and ventured out into the dark. I was intent on arriving at daughter Mary’s house by 6am, in time to accompany her to a half-marathon she’d been training for.

As I drove through the pre-dawn stillness, my anticipation intensified. Mary and I see each other several times a week, but are usually surrounded by three little people vying for our attention and so rarely get to enjoy one-on-one time. Not only would the 3-hour round trip give us time to visit, but getting to cheer her on in such an important race would be special in itself. I’ve been attending her races since middle school and our early-morning trek was reminiscent of oh-so-many drives to cross country events and track meets.

The sun rose on a beautiful morning. We made it to the race site at Berry College in time for Mary to easily collect her packet. But I hadn’t eaten breakfast. And I have hypoglycemia. I thought I could drop her off, pick up a breakfast sandwich somewhere and be back in time to cheer her at the start. Nope! Not only was the race location several miles from any fast-food emporiums, but traffic flow had been changed to one-way to accommodate the influx of participants. As I computed these details and realized I’d miss the start even if I could find an alternate way to exit the campus, I opted to eat one of my snacks to stabilize my blood sugar.IMG_7884

It worked! I was able to stroll to the start line with Mary and shout, “Go Mary! You can do this!”, and the like, as she jogged past with the rest of the jostling mass.

She was barely out of sight when my inner whiny-voice began to complain, “Now what am I going to do about breakfast? I wanted to be here for Mary, but I’m going to have to go in search of something to eat.” I even added some version of “Why, Lord?” to my grumbling, as if He’d somehow let me down. As this discouraging mental monologue continued, I spied a number of tents behind the start/finish line. Maybe one would be selling heartier breakfast fare as a fund raiser? I approached the only one that looked promising, the one displaying “Refreshments” on its front flap. I quickly realized the tables were laden with post-race alimentation for the contestants. Thinking the young women staffing the booth might be Berry students, I asked if there was any place on campus to buy food. My assumption was wrong and they weren’t familiar with any possible eateries within walking distance, however, they kindly invited me to choose something from their bounty of bagels and fruit. I thanked them, but confided I was hoping to find some eggs. Upon hearing my plight, one of the young ladies handed me an egg-and-sausage biscuit, probably from the stash meant for the workers. “Feel free to take a bottle of water too,” she added.

In that moment, I’m not sure which was greater, my gratitude or my remorse. I thanked them profusely, then immediately turned my attention to acknowledging the One who ultimately provided that needed nourishment. My gratitude was intertwined with apologies for doubting and a plea for forgiveness, a petition God gently assured me He’d heard as I engaged in prolonged self-castigation.[2]

It’s so easy to read Biblical accounts of the Israelites’ grumblings against God as they wandered in the desert and think, “What was wrong with those people? How could they so easily forget the wonders they’d seen as God delivered them from the Egyptians?”[3] And then God uses my own hangry moments to remind me how easily “O ye of little faith” can become “O me of little faith”, when I allow myriad examples of faithful provision to be overshadowed by immediate circumstances.

In one of my earliest posts,[4] I recounted the epiphany I had one evening while restocking the toilet paper in my daughters’ bathroom closet. In realizing they didn’t have to worry about procuring food and household essentials because I did that for them, it occurred to me that God does the same for me. Everything I’ll ever need is already in his possession and He’ll make it available when I need it. From salvation to sustenance, He’ll not withhold any good thing from those He loves.[5]

I’d looked forward to a great day with Mary. It was more than I asked or imagined[6], as my loving Father used a sausage-and-egg biscuit to remind me, yet again, that He’s always watching over me and knows my every need.[7]

 

 

[1] Psalm 103:13-14 is one of my favorite passages: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers we are dust.” For more on this, please see “Dust moments” in Archives, March 2017.

[2] 1 John 1:9

[3] See, for example Exodus 16:2-3 and Exodus 17:2-3.

[4] Please see, “Thoughts on Romans 8:32”, Archives, August 2014.

[5] Romans 8:32

[6] Ephesians 3:20

[7] Matthew 7:7-11

Whatever you do

The church I attend recently initiated several outreach ministries. I chose to join the Welcome Team since I want to help visitors feel at home and encourage them to return. At our first meeting, I agreed to lead the team as I generally enjoy dealing with details and organizing activities. Unfortunately, I also have the tendency to feel overwhelmed when faced with too many tasks at once. Pressure isn’t my friend so it wasn’t terribly unexpected when I started waking up in the wee hours thinking about all the things we needed to do to establish this new ministry.

Praise the Lord for reining me in with words of wisdom from my spiritual mother, Susan Hunt.

Susan approached me the week after our kick-off meeting to describe Word-driven  vs. task-driven ministries, i.e. why are we doing what we do? If it’s merely to check off a number of items on a prescribed list instead of seeking our purpose in God’s Word, we’ll soon burn out. I needed that brief, thought-provoking conversation to reboot my efforts. Yep, I’d sent out to-do-list, task-oriented emails to the team, making sure everyone was copied and all details were covered, but we hadn’t laid the foundation: Why were we even concerned about welcoming visitors? And how about warmly receiving those who already belong to our body of believers?

Not surprisingly, Scripture contains numerous passages addressing these subjects:

  • God repeatedly commanded the Israelites to be kind to the sojourners among them, remembering that they too had been aliens in Egypt.[1] The basis for these admonitions was reiterated by Jesus when he instructed his followers to treat others the way they themselves would like to be treated.[2]
  • The Gospel itself is welcoming. Once we were separated from Christ, strangers to the covenants of promise. But now in Christ Jesus we have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . So we are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.[3]
  • Jesus commends those who welcome strangers as having welcomed Him personally.[4]
  • Believers are encouraged to meet together regularly to encourage one another and to stir up one another to love and good works.[5]
  • In his letter to believers in Rome, Paul writes, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.[6]

There it is! See it? Our overarching purpose in all things is to glorify God.[7] Furthermore, Jesus declared that obedience to his commands is one of the best ways to demonstrate our love for God,[8] a statement affirmed by the Apostle John in his first epistle.[9]

Several months ago, my 4-year-old granddaughter, Lyla, went to church with me. I was delighted to have her along, but, being an introvert like her grandmother, she was reticent to enter her age-appropriate Sunday school class full of strangers. I gently pried her off my leg and walked across the hall to my class, praying her angst would be short-lived. My petitions were answered, as they often are, beyond what I could have imagined.[10] Not only was Lyla smiling as we headed into the sanctuary, but she gladly joined the gaggle of children surrounding our pastor when it came time for his weekly moment-of-prayer with them. IMG_4644As I watched, the reason for her change in demeanor became obvious. One of the slightly-older girls had taken Lyla under her wing. She welcomed her into the circle and draped her arm around her shoulders as they bowed their heads.

That image will stay with me. Such a beautiful example of welcoming a stranger, of doing unto others. Lord, may we be faithful to do likewise, remembering that whatever we do for the least of these, we do unto You.[11]

[1] See for example, Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19.

[2] Matthew 7:12.

[3] Ephesians 2:12-13, 19

[4] Matthew 25:35b

[5] Hebrews 10:24-25

[6] Romans 15:5-7

[7] 1 Corinthians 10:31

[8] John 14:23-24

[9] 1 John 2:3-6

[10] Ephesians 3:20

[11] Matthew 25:40

A well-lived life

I had another theme in mind for last week’s post, but what follows begged to be written. In fact, I attempted to comply on what would have been my dear husband’s 60th birthday since it wasn’t possible to regale him with a surprise party as I would have preferred. Instead, I opened the drawer of memories surrounding our life together and tenderly extracted a few to savor. I asked others to share their recollections. By the end of the day, my efforts to celebrate Ray’s life brought about an unanticipated consequence. I was overwhelmed with sorrow, having been reminded of all I lost on a warm spring evening nearly 21 years ago, when Ray died a few weeks after his 39th birthday.

In the ensuing days, I’ve regained a more balanced perspective and can unequivocally say with Alfred Lord Tennyson, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’” Thus, I’m finally ready to record my reminiscences.

Ray entered the world in a small South Dakota farming community on February 6, 1958, the sixth of seven siblings. From what I’ve been told, he was a good kid who didn’t give his mom[1] or his teachers any trouble. IMG_5139He loved animals and even thought about going to veterinary school, though I, somewhat selfishly, am glad he chose horticulture instead. Not only did his decision eventually lead him to study in Delaware, where our paths crossed, but it contributed significantly to my own passion for plants years later.

We met at a church-sponsored singles group, attending for the first time on the same night. I watched as Ray interacted with other attendees throughout the fellowship time, listening with interest to their various tales. When we finally had a chance to talk, his kindness and warmth were evident. IMG_3593After several months of persistent pursuit by this handsome young man, I was won over by his gift of a single red rose on my birthday in December and we began dating in earnest.[2] With the blessing of our families and friends, we became engaged shortly before my next birthday and were wed the following August.

I struggled in those early months as we adjusted to married life. As an only child and an introvert, I wasn’t accustomed to sharing space with anyone else on a full-time basis. Nevertheless, Ray patiently accepted my shortcomings and God in his goodness gradually knit us together as one.[3]

We purchased a townhouse in 1984, welcomed our first daughter in 1986, and moved to a single-family home shortly after the birth of our second daughter in 1989. IMG_4123Ever-supportive, Ray was all-in when it came to our relocation to Georgia in 1992, a move precipitated by my employer. We were partners, working demanding jobs and raising our girls, teaming up to tackle the to-dos required to keep our household running. Until April 19, 1997 when it all came to an end.

Or did it? At Ray’s funeral, one of our pastors said he hadn’t accomplished anything that brought him great fame or world renown. Not many of us do. But, as Rev. Allen went on to say, Ray was a godly man, who consistently lived his faith, who could be counted on by those who depended on him. As they shared their recollections last week, friends from Ray’s grade-school years through his adulthood recalled the same qualities – kindness, a warm smile, a gentle soul, an unforgettable laugh. A well-lived life affects others for good, no matter the size of our sphere of influence.

I am forever grateful for the gift of Ray’s presence in my life. I wish it had been so much longer, but I’ve come to realize it is a gift with lasting significance, one that has begotten many other gifts. Our wonderful daughters top the list. IMG_1652Sure, I might have married someone else and even had two girls. But they wouldn’t be Mary with Ray’s beautiful brown eyes, or Jessie with his sense of humor. Furthermore, Ray’s unconditional love changed how I viewed myself, his steadying influence kept me grounded in truth and his death caused me to depend on God like never before. They still do.

Ray was a kind, godly, gentle man whose life displayed the fruits of the Spirit.[4] But he wasn’t perfect. Scripture makes it clear only One has lived a sinless life. Moreover, He did it on our behalf, so that we might partake of his righteousness and be reconciled to God.[5] Ray believed that. I believe that. Thus I look forward to being reunited some sweet day. In fact, I hope Ray and I will get to work and worship side by side in God’s perfect garden.055

Lord, thank you for your many good gifts, including love and relationships and precious people like Ray. May we be life-givers as he was, impacting others for good and pointing them to Jesus[6], the greatest gift of all.

 

 

 

[1] Ray was only 5 years old when his father passed away suddenly of a heart attack shortly before his 41st birthday.

[2] For more on our courtship, see “A single red rose” in Archives, December 2014.

[3] Genesis 2:18-24

[4] Galatians 5:22-23

[5] Romans 5:1-11

[6] 1 John 3:18

Perseverance

We’ve had a rough winter here in metro Atlanta. Ten inches of snow in December, another 2-inch “dusting” in January plus a week-long string of high temperatures in the 30’s and lows in the teens and 20’s. We also awoke to single-digit wind chill readings on multiple occasions. Brrr!! I realize some of you may be perusing this from places where you experience long winters accompanied by plenty of snow and frigid temps every year. Thirty-seven degrees would feel like a welcome heat wave. But, after 25 years, this Delaware-transplant has more than acclimated to milder winters and is ready for the beginning of another Southern Spring!

IMG_0420After several days of near-average weather, a cold front blew in late yesterday, resulting in another brisker-than-usual day today. Nonetheless the sky was that brilliant blue that beckons me outside so I bundled up and went for a stroll through my neighborhood, praising God for the warm sun and glorious cerulean canopy. When I returned home, I just had to walk the property. Even though we’ve had an extra-cold couple of months, I wanted to see what signs of life I might be ableIMG_5078 to find. I wasn’t disappointed. My witch hazel is in full bloom, buds are ready to open any day on a number of Lenten roses and foliage of early daffodils has poked up through the soil.

These sightings brought a smile to my face, but what I found when I carefully moved the leaves back from the locations of some spring ephemerals elicited squeals of delight. Yes, if anyone had been close IMG_5133enough, they would have overheard several exclamations of, “Oh, yay! Thanks, Lord!!”, as I discovered the tiniest evidence of returning trilliums and trout lilies, their miniscule leaves barely protruding above the soil. I gently replaced their leafy blanket, buoyed by the anticipation of seeing them in all their glory in a few weeks.

And I was reminded of another late-winter day nearly 20 years ago when my heart was anything but light. I’d ventured out to start clearing the leaves from the planting beds, a task my husband would normally have performed. But, as I was gradually coming to accept, that and so many of his previous responsibilities shifted to me after a heart attack felled him suddenly a mere two months after his 39th birthday the year before. Grief and reality intermingled and permeated my soul. Nonetheless, just like today, when I moved the leaves, I saw tiny perennials popping up – plants that Ray had acquired and cared for. Seeing them gave me hope. If those tiny plants could survive the cold, dark winter, maybe I would survive mine as well.[1]

I’ve benefitted from many hours of garden therapy since, as God has used numerous aspects of his remarkable creation to encourage, teach and minister to me. Spending time with Him in my yard is indeed one of my most cherished pastimes.

Furthermore, plants’ perseverance through less-than-favorable circumstances is, for me, one of their most endearing characteristics, reminding me of my mom’s oft-uttered admonition, “We can’t give up! We have to hold onto our faith.” The Apostle James goes a step further when he instructs us to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds, because we know that the testing of our faith produces perseverance.[2]   I don’t know about you, but I rarely ever (ok, make that never) pray to be tested and I still say I wouldn’t have volunteered to be widowed at age 38. Nonetheless, I am certain I know God – his love, his faithfulness, his character – more intimately because He sovereignly incorporated that event into my story.

James says we must let perseverance finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. And Paul assures us we’re not striving alone as He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.[3] Each of us has our own unique set of difficulties, our own winters to endure, but He who watches over the birds of the air and the flowers of the field cares infinitely more for his children.[4]

The garden may appear lifeless these days, but the plants are merely awaiting their time to burst forth, reminding us of our resurrected Savior and his promise to return to set all things right and to dwell among his people forever.[5]

Oh, Lord, how we look forward to your promised return.[6] Please help us to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer as we await the glorious day of your coming.[7]

[1] I wrote my first blog post about this experience. Please see “Consider it pure joy” in Archives, July 2014.

[2] James 1:2-3

[3] Philippians 1:6

[4] Matthew 6:25-34

[5] Revelation 21:1-5

[6] John 14:1-3

[7] Romans 12:12

Tradition!

(This is the final post in my reflections-on-a-different-December trilogy.)

Do you hear it? The opening strains of “Fiddler on the Roof”, that is. I do almost every time I come across the word “tradition”. Like the townspeople in the critically-acclaimed musical, my family cherishes our traditions. In fact, we make good-natured fun of ourselves by saying once we’ve done something two years in a row, it acquires tradition status. Nonetheless, we’ve had to accept that there are times when circumstances intervene and beloved customs must be modified or set aside completely.

My husband’s sudden death when our daughters were still in elementary school ushered in significant changes to our Christmas celebrations. Years later, eldest-daughter Mary’s marriage brought about another shift in the flow of holiday events, as did the births of her children. Not only were there in-laws to visit, but she and husband Justin sought to develop their own blend of old and new traditions, as Ray and I had decades earlier.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is our oft-uttered proclamation, “Being together is the best gift.” Reiterated on a variety of gift-giving, tradition-laden, special occasions, there are times when its veracity is confirmed by prevailing events. Such was the case this past December as Mom spent an unscheduled six-day stay in the hospital, a detour which included back surgery. Her unforeseen hospitalization brought about a number of deviations to not only our daily schedules, but also to some pre-holiday plans. Nonetheless, Mom was released in time to attend great-granddaughter Lyla’s birthday party on the 23rd and all subsequent Christmas festivities. Having her home, pain-free, truly was better than anything to be found in a brightly-wrapped box.

As I contemplated the various vicissitudes visited upon us in December, I was repeatedly reminded that everything that genuinely matters hadn’t changed at all. Indeed, most of the traditions I hold dear are special because of the people associated with them. The love, laughter, and, sometimes, tears shared as we create memories that bind us together are priceless. Those ties encompass ones who have been called Home, sustain those of us temporarily left behind and are the stuff of family lore for our youngest, providing a foundation for their own celebrations.

Yes, some of the memories now associated with the twelfth month of 2017 are different, but if you look beneath the surface, you’ll find the similarities to so many of our traditions – our love for each other manifested in our commitment to be together, to celebrate when we can and to navigate uncertain waters together. All of which is a blessing, bestowed by the Giver of every good gift.[1]

Furthermore, we love because He first loved us[2], by sending his Son[3], as a tiny, helpless baby who grew into a man, lived a sinless life and died a horrific death on our behalf.[4] All so we could be with God FOREVER.[5] Good news, amazing news, the news we’re commanded to teach our children[6] and share to the ends of the earth.[7]

Even though some may say we’re too quick to initiate traditions and declare special occasions, every day is celebration-worthy when viewed in the light of God’s goodness.

Oh Father, how we thank you for the gift of your Son. Please help us to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge[8], for comprehending who we are in Him changes everything.

 

[1] James 1:17

[2] 1 John 4:19

[3] John 3:16

[4] Isaiah 53:5-6

[5] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[6] Deuteronomy 4:9; Psalm 34:11

[7] Matthew 28:18-19

[8] Ephesians 3:18-19

Perfect timing

(This is the second in my reflections-on-a-different-December series.)

“Mom and Dad” appeared on the screen as my phone rang out its cheerful tune. But when I answered, I heard an uncharacteristically uncheerful voice. Mom was in so much discomfort I could scarcely understand her. Even so, I ascertained an ambulance, summoned by my dad when her ongoing back pain became intolerable, was on the way to ferry her to the hospital.

Emergency room staff assessed Mom’s situation and administered essentially-ineffective pain meds. She reluctantly agreed to be admitted so doctors could manage her pain more successfully while determining its exact cause. Little did we know when they transported her to a semi-private room several hours later that the overnight stay would stretch into six.

Mom is a people person so we were somewhat confounded by her less-than-thrilled opinion of her roommate; however, we presumed her response was influenced by her pain and the medications being used to alleviate it. In spite of her standoffish demeanor toward the patient sharing her room, Mom was her sweet self with the nurses and captivated them with her gentle spirit and radiant smile.

An MRI performed in the wee hours of the morning confirmed the results of an earlier CAT scan – Mom had a fractured vertebra. No wonder she was in agony! Fortunately, there was a procedure (kyphoplasty), which could be performed to stabilize the vertebra, thereby significantly reducing the pain. It was scheduled for Monday, three days hence.

My daily routine disappeared, dinners at my parents’ table being replaced by take-out consumed at the foot of Mom’s hospital bed. We laughed and talked and I read aloud the numerous Facebook messages friends and family posted for her each day. And I noticed a comradery gradually developing between Mom and her fellow patient, Gail[1].

Hopeful anticipation of the next day’s surgery colored our Sunday evening visit. I became alarmed, however, when Mom admitted she didn’t know who would perform the procedure and that no one from the referring orthopedics practice had been in to see her. A rather animated conversation with the head nurse, followed by her perusal of copious notes accrued since Mom’s arrival failed to deliver the assurance I sought. I convinced Mom not to undergo the kyphoplasty until our concerns were addressed. Gail concurred. By then, she and Mom had become each other’s advocates.

Misgivings commenced even before I reached my car, my mood as dark as the cold night. They persisted as I prepared for bed and dogged my restless sleep. Had I counseled Mom correctly or caused a needless delay?

The head nurse called the next morning with news she’d discovered a referral from the attending orthopedist, amidst the massive accumulation of notes on Mom’s chart. My sense of having meddled escalated, as I contacted the physician’s assistant in hopes of rescheduling. Her dispassionate explanation that we couldn’t reclaim the now-lost slot on the anesthesiologist’s calendar caused my recriminations to explode into full-fledged self-flagellation. “Just great! Now look what you’ve done, subjecting your mother to another day of pain, another day in the hospital!! Why did you have to interfere?”

Within seconds, other, kinder, thoughts entered my mind, as the Spirit began whispering truth to my troubled soul.[2] “Looks like you’re focusing on the storm instead of the One who can calm the wind and waves. Have you forgotten I’m in control?”[3] I gratefully embraced the assurance and, thinking more calmly, recalled the PA’s comment that the interventional radiology teams rotated shifts throughout the week. Could it be the Tuesday team was better-suited to care for Mom? Regardless, I knew God hadn’t lost sight of my precious mother.[4]

When I arrived for my Monday evening visit, Mom and Gail told me about the pain-filled night they’d both endured. I was standing by Gail’s bed while she delineated the details. As her tears escalated to sobs, I realized Mom, defying orders to stay in bed, was making her way ever-so-carefully to her new friend’s side with no thought of her own throbbing back.

“Mom! Be careful!!”

“I’m alright. Gail needs a hug!”

The soul-soothing voice returned. “See, your mother’s right where she’s supposed to be.”

IMG_4962Mom’s procedure the following day went flawlessly. By the time she was out of recovery, the horrific pain was gone. When I appeared the subsequent afternoon to take her home, she and Gail had exchanged their hospital gowns for real clothes and the newly-minted pals were discharged within the same hour.

There are times when God gives us no insight into what He’s doing; after all, He owes us no explanation.[5] But there are instances when He graciously gives us glimpses of what He’s accomplishing. I treasure those moments of insight. I tuck them away to shore up my faith and dispel my doubts when the path isn’t as clear and I have no clue why things are unfolding as they are.

Lord, please help us to trust your perfect plan[6] and your impeccable timing[7], for your ways and your thoughts are so much higher than ours.[8] Your steadfast love never ceases. Your mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness![9]

[1] Name has been changed.

[2] John 14:26

[3] Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:36-40; Luke 8:22-25

[4] Psalm 33:18; Psalm 34:15

[5] Job confessed as much after God reminded him of all He’s capable of. See Job 42:1-6 and chapters 38-41, respectively.

[6] Isaiah 25:1; Jeremiah 29:11

[7] Romans 5:6; 2 Peter 3:9

[8] Isaiah 55:8-9

[9] Lamentations 3:22-23

Good stewards*

Happy New Year, Readers! As I alluded to in my last post, “The best-laid plans”, December served up some surprises that weren’t wrapped and bowed. This is the first in a series of devotions reflecting on important truths brought to mind while navigating those unexpected circumstances. I pray these humble illustrations will bless you as well.

I checked the forecast before I went to bed. A mere dusting of snow was predicted for our area and the weatherman appeared confident as he stated, “Nothing to worry about.” Ever since experiencing Snowmageddon in January 2014[2], residents of metro-Atlanta join in collective hand-wringing at the thought of snow, so the prediction was  reassuring.

But it was so wrong! I awoke the next morning to a world already cloaked in white, as more fluffy flakes floated earthward. I made a hurried trip to the grocery store and returned home before the onslaught of school buses started ferrying hastily-dismissed pupils back to their neighborhoods. Safely ensconced in my warm home, with plenty of supplies, I settled in to witness the rare event unfolding outside. A line of near-freezing cold from the North made acquaintance with plenty of moisture from the South over our swath of Georgia, resulting in perfect conditions for an abundance of snow.

My initial delight gradually turned to concern as I beheld trees bending ever-closer to the ground, their branches succumbing to the weight of their heavy blanket. IMG_4857As many of you’ve discerned, I love plants and do my best to care for the ones on my small suburban property. Thus, when the precipitation slowed to a halt mid-afternoon, I bundled up and ventured outside. Armed with an old broom, I began to gently poke, nudge and sweep snow from trees and bushes. Limbs of azaleas and camellias, dogwoods and maples reached skyward again once they were freed from their frosty burden. I labored for nearly an hour before retreating inside, satisfied that I’d done what I could to help my plant friends, at least the ones within my reach.

And then it started to snow again. The flakes’ persistent descent proceeded throughout the evening and into the night, sometimes fast and abundant, sometimes unhurried and sparse. IMG_4852Darkness enshrouded our neighborhood. I peered frequently out my front windows, checking on trees that were once again drooping perilously. The serenity of the streetlight-illuminated scene belied the danger posed by the mounting accumulation. As I gazed in dismay, I saw a large branch of one of my favorite conifers give way, bending slowly toward the street as a horse might lower its head into a feeding trough.

I eventually gave up my vigil and crawled into bed, hoping, praying that more would be spared than damaged.

Precipitation had ceased by the time I made my way downstairs the following day, but the sky was steely. IMG_4856I hastened to measure the accumulation before it was disturbed by frolicking children. Almost 10 inches adorned my yard, an amount unheard of since the Blizzard of ’93. With a sinking heart, I made note that many of my trees and shrubs were still pitifully bent, the branch of the juniper indeed irreparably broken, along with three others on the same specimen.

The gray scene soon gave way to a glistening wonderland. Clouds dissipated, revealing a IMG_4866brilliant blue sky and sunshine that skipped across the now-sparkling blanket of white. As I watched, the benevolent rays and a gentle breeze began to free the trees from their frozen constraints, accomplishing much more than I could with my broom. Snow fell in flurries and chunks. Limbs commenced to thaw and unfurl.

I smiled sheepishly, acknowledging that the Lord is fully capable of caring for his creation, acceding, yet again, that I am a steward, He is the Owner. Every plant, bird, blade of grass is his. Nevertheless, He has entrusted each of us with gifts and resources to use for his glory, and has placed folks in our sphere of influence that we might minister to them in various ways.[3] Even though God doesn’t need our help, He not only graciously allows and enables us to take part in caring for our world and each other, He commands us to do so.[4]

It’s weighty enough to be good stewards of the material resources God has consigned to us, much less the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the people who share our lives, especially our children and grandchildren. What if I mess it up? What if my best efforts fall short? Our peace and assurance come from remembering He is God and we are not. He alone is able to replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.[5] And, as a wise friend told me when my firstborn was still an infant, God loves our children even more than we do, because ultimately they belong to Him. Precious truth for this once-young mom as well as her now-three-decades-older self.

Lord, please help us to have a proper view of our place and our efforts.[6] May we be faithful stewards of that which you’ve entrusted to us, but let us never forget You are Sovereign over the outcome. Grant us your peace as we trust You in all things.[7]

Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service, you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already.
(C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

[1] * Steward: A person who acts as the surrogate of another, especially by managing property, financial affairs, an estate, etc. (Dictionary.com)

[2] January 28, 2014. A combination of snow and ice created gridlock on area roads, stranded thousands of motorists and resulted in numerous schoolchildren spending the night at school or on buses. Metro-Atlanta finally started to thaw out several days later.

[3] 1 Peter 4:7-11

[4] Genesis 1:28; Matthew 28:18-20; Galatians 6:1-3

[5] Ezekiel 36:26-27

[6] Romans 12:3

[7] Philippians 4:6-7

The best-laid plans

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)

I had a holiday-to-do plan for December. Oh, it wasn’t written down, but I’d roughly sketched it out in my mind and penciled in some dates on the calendar – yes, I prefer a paper calendar with pretty graphics to a digital one. I’d even outlined several seasonally-topical blog posts, optimistically hoping to find time to write amidst the extra busyness that descends upon the twelfth month.

And then reality intervened.

IMG_4815Two major events – a 10-inch snowfall and my mom’s unexpected hospitalization, including back surgery – took precedence, disrupting daily activities as well as special plans and traditions. One day melded into another as the countdown to Christmas continued unabated. Although the unforeseen circumstances derailed one or two highly-anticipated events, there were still special moments to be savored. Furthermore, the detours gifted me with time to reflect, to re-prioritize, to remember who’s in control.

It’s not wrong to make plans. In fact, Scripture encourages us to do so. It’s important to prepare, to count the cost[1], and to listen to wise counsel[2], but we delude ourselves if we believe we have the final say. Scripture is unwavering in its proclamations of God’s sovereignty. Regardless of our notions, his will prevails.[3] Nonetheless, those of us who belong to the King have nothing to fear. Not only does He assure us his plans for us are beneficial,[4] He promises to work all things together for our good[5] and to never leave or forsake us.[6]

The Lord blesses us with varying gifts and abilities,[7] He knit us together in unique ways,[8] and He’s prepared work for us to do.[9] All that we might glorify Him.[10] My desire when I started Back 2 the Garden in the summer of 2014 was to tell of God’s faithfulness, thereby offering hope and reassurance to those who read my stories. Many of you have been with me from the beginning. Some have started visiting more recently. I appreciate each one of you. Your comments and presence encourage me to keep writing. Thank you!

Lord willing, I’ll be able to write those posts I drew up a month ago plus a few featuring lessons learned as I navigated the ever-changing circumstances leading up to Christmas.  For now though, as we enter this new year, each with our own plans, hopes and dreams, may we endeavor to seek first the Lord’s will, trust his promises and rest in his assurances.

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! (Psalm 105:1-3)

[1] Luke 14:28-32.

[2] Multiple Proverbs, including 11:14 and 20:18, declare the importance of wise counsel.

[3] Proverbs 16:9, 19:21

[4] Jeremiah 29:11

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] Deuteronomy 31:8; Hebrews 13:5b

[7] 1 Corinthians 12

[8] Psalm 139:13

[9] Ephesians 2:10

[10] 1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:23