I see you!

The week before last was one of those “what next?” kind of weeks. A series of small-to-medium challenges plus an inconceivable event that led to bewildered contemplation one sleepless night, had me hunkered down, bracing for the next volley. Nonetheless, I was cautiously optimistic when Saturday of the oh-so-trying week dawned, reminding myself the Lord’s mercies never fail, that they’re new every morning. (Lamentations 3:21-24)

IMG_6080I was barely halfway down the stairs, looking forward to a day at home to do a few chores, maybe some writing and a little weeding, when I saw it. Instead of facing outward toward the sun like its fellow flowers, one beautiful blossom on the althea on my front porch was peeking in the left sidelight. A joyful, irrepressible exclamation escaped my lips, “Good morning, Lord! Thank You!!” I knew, without a doubt, Who was responsible for the perfectly-placed greeting.

Several years ago, my kids introduced me to American Ninja Warrior. The amazing athletic feats performed by the participants plus some equally-inspiring backstories combine to make the show a much-anticipated staple of my summertime TV-viewing. Often, as a contestant makes their way through the obstacles, drawing ever-nearer to the podium where the announcers stand, one of the hosts will yell, “I see you (insert name of ninja)!”

The Lord’s Saturday-morning salutation shouted, “I see you, Patsy!” (Psalm 34:15) It was a reminder that none of what transpired the previous week went unnoticed by the One who’s promised to never leave me or forsake me. (Deuteronomy 31:6-8) The image of that flower stayed with me throughout the day and I’ve recalled it a number of times since, always with a smile, because my loving Father reached out in such an intimate way. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to imagine Him smiling as well, watching as his delighted daughter gazed out the window, appreciatively acknowledging his floral gesture which found its mark like an impeccably-aimed arrow. (Matthew 7:11)

This, friends, is my 100th post. I expect a few long-time readers have noticed that I believe in acknowledging anniversaries and celebrating milestones, so I’ll also mention the 4th anniversary of the debut of “Back 2 the Garden”. My main objective in launching my blog with “Consider it pure joy” on July 1, 2014, was to glorify God and to encourage my readers by proclaiming His faithfulness. My objective, all these posts later, remains the same.

Thank you to all of you who’ve read and commented. You’ve come alongside me on this journey and you encourage me to keep writing. In fact, I’ve been considering compiling some of my posts into a devotional book and would appreciate your thoughts about doing so. I love books – you can hold them and highlight them and re-read them – but the idea of publishing one is a bit intimidating! Nonetheless, it is a dream I pray the Lord will allow me to realize.

In the meantime, I will endeavor to write engaging posts for this site, using simple stories and everyday examples to tell of God’s extraordinary goodness and grace.

O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. (Psalm 71:17-18)

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Longing for Egypt

A recent devotional reading directed me to one of several Old Testament instances of God’s chosen people grumbling against Moses and Aaron. But, ultimately, their protests were against the Lord himself. The particular passage in Exodus recounts how the Israelites complained about not having anything to eat. This, as you may recall, occurred soon after God’s gracious provision of water from a rock in response to their grievance regarding thirst. (Exodus 15:23-25) The grumbling escalated to the point that they lamented the fact they’d ever left Egypt. “If we had only died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”, they moaned. (Exodus 16:3)

To listen to their description, you’d think they’d been on an extended vacation. Had they so quickly forgotten God delivered them not from some idyllic existence, but from slavery?

IMG_6094 (2)Our pastor has been preaching through the book of Exodus. The events recorded in the second book of the Bible – the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments – have been part of my Biblical knowledge for as long as I can remember, dating back to my childhood Sunday school classes. Nevertheless, this ongoing sermon series has yielded a number of thought-provoking insights for now-grown-up me to ponder.

Consider for example: When the people initially cried out to God, they were seeking relief, not rescue. (Exodus 2:23) By then, they’d been in Egypt 400 years and had grown accustomed to that culture. It felt like home. In fact, they even worshiped Egyptian gods.[1] The Israelites were focused on their day-to-day existence, just hoping conditions would improve. But God took note of the darkness of their spiritual condition. He knew He had to not only get his people out of Egypt; He had to get Egypt out of them.[2]

God initiated their deliverance. Indeed, He initiates the deliverance of every one of his children.[3] For until He calls us, we remain dead in our trespasses, unable to save ourselves or to even realize our need of salvation. (Ephesians 2:1-9) Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf frees us from the penalty of sin – God’s wrath and eternal separation from Him – as well as sin’s ultimate pull and power as we navigate life in a world that’s no more our Home than Egypt was home to those God freed from Pharaoh.

Nonetheless, as long as we’re in the flesh, surrounded by worldly influences without and our own not-yet-perfected desires within, we will struggle to do what’s right. The Apostle Paul outlines the ongoing battle well in Romans 7:18-20. God and sin both promise us joy, peace, and happiness, but sin lies. And it fights back with a vengeance when we try to get free.[4]

It’s so easy for us to read the accounts in Exodus and think, “What was wrong with those people?” They saw God do mighty miracles on their behalf, they heard his voice (Exodus 19:9, 16-19), they ate food He rained down from heaven (Exodus 16:4-36), yet they grumbled and complained and even longed for Egypt. But, sadly, we are capable of the same amnesia, grumbling and self-deceit when it comes to forgetting our helpless, hopeless estate apart from God, how vulnerable we are to temptation.

God, in his mercy, provides a way out when we’re tempted. (1 Corinthians 10:13) Even so, there are times when we turn away from the offered escape, rationalizing some sort of exemption for ourselves, yet knowing there are no such exemptions. It is then that our loving Father disciplines us, allowing consequences of our actions to chasten us and draw us back to himself. (Hebrews 12:5-11) The Spirit contends within us, reminding us Who we belong to, who we are called to be. My own times of wandering have convinced me that unless I live a life that satisfies God, I will not live a life which satisfies myself.[5] Obeying, loving and glorifying Him are to be my primary purpose, now and forever.

Just like the Israelites, we’re apt to forget or downplay distasteful aspects of our past. A wise counselor recommended I record the hardships I endured during a difficult situation some years ago. She advised, “In time you’ll forget how bad it was. Write down specific events, so you can look back and be reminded of the reality.” And so I did. And many are the times I’ve read what I recorded. Psalm 40:1-3 became my refrain: I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.

O, Lord, throughout history, You’ve told your people to set up memorials, (Joshua 4:1-24), to observe days of remembrance, to recall your great mercies. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)[6] May we never forget how lost we were before You found us and may we ever praise You for your daily protection and provision as You faithfully lead us Home.

[1] “The God Who Knows”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, January 28, 2018.

[2] “Throwing Down the Gauntlet”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, February 25, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Throwing Down the Gauntlet, Part II”, sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant Church, March 11, 2018.

[5] Arthur Bennett, “The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions”, p. 161, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1975.

[6] The sacrament of Communion is one of our most important ways of remembering Jesus and his atoning sacrifice.

Never alone

Later this month, I’ll mark the 26th anniversary of my family’s move to Georgia. My tenure in the home my late husband Ray and I chose as our “raise-the-kids” house will then surpass by a decade my second-longest-term abode, the house I grew up in. Neighbors have come and gone over the years and I’ve watched several crops of children, including my own dear daughters, grow up. Currently, the homes around my cul-de-sac are filled with a pleasant mix of young families and empty-nesters.

IMG_6001I was working in my garden one recent afternoon, when my youngest neighbor, sweet-spirited Sadie, paid me a visit. We were chatting about flowers and butterflies and bumblebees when she suddenly asked, “Do you have a husband?” I replied, “I used to, but he’s already in heaven. He planted a lot of my trees. That’s why I love them so much.” As I watched, belatedly realizing I’d given a much-too-detailed reply to her simple question, her countenance was overshadowed by a pensive consternation. Nonetheless, before I had a chance to offer up something more appropriate, Sadie’s expression brightened once again as she assured me, “But you’re not alone! You have lots of people around you!” I immediately followed up with, “You’re right! I have such good neighbors.”

With this, we took turns naming all the folks who live around us. Sadie finished the list, “And Sophie!” Yes, the boisterous ball of fluffy white fur, canine companion to our newest neighbors, is an established part of the mix. With our conversation thus concluded, Sadie skipped happily across the street and up her driveway.

I’ve reflected on our exchange several times since. It was such a life-giving reminder of the blessing of community. Created in the image of our Triune God, we are meant to live in relationship with Him and others. Early on, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Although the Genesis account refers specifically to Adam’s need of a suitable helpmate (wife), it’s also clear the animals couldn’t provide the requisite companionship fellow human beings could.[1] People need people. We’re not meant to navigate life alone.

Sometimes it’s tempting to try, especially if you’re an introvert or an I-can-handle-this-myself type. Or maybe you figure everyone else is busy with their own responsibilities and you don’t want to be a bother. Or perhaps you’ve gotten your feelings hurt one time too many and decided to withdraw. (Please note: each of these scenarios has applied to me at some point in my life and most likely will again!) Whatever your rationale might be, Scripture is full of passages on the importance of relationships as well as how to treat each other. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves,[2] to consider others’ needs before our own,[3] to share and forgive and encourage.[4]

In addition to our biological families, those who belong to God are part of a spiritual family, with unique benefits and obligations. For example:

  • The Apostle Paul says believers form the Body of Christ on earth, with each having a specific role, just as the various parts of our physical bodies have a critical part in keeping us healthy and alive. We are called to use our gifts and abilities to benefit others and to refrain from comparing ourselves to our brothers and sisters whose gifts and abilities are different.[5]
  • We’ve been adopted into the very family of God and are being conformed more and more into the image of our elder Brother, Jesus, the firstborn Son.[6] We are assured of an eternal inheritance and an eternal Home.[7]
  • Though spending time with God individually is essential to our spiritual growth and transformation, Hebrews 10:24-25 clearly states the necessity of corporate worship: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
  • There are numerous passages encouraging believers to pray for one another. Such supplications can unite us, even when we’re unable to be together physically.[8] Furthermore, Scripture tells us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who’ve gone before us, persevering in the faith. [9]
  • We are blessed with the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and counsel us. [10] Apart from this divine Helper, we’d have no hope of pleasing God; with Him, our sanctification and, ultimately, our glorification, are ensured. [11]

Throughout most of my career, I traveled to visit customers. Early on, there were no cell phones, much less apps like “Find Friends”. Sometimes I’d be driving on a dark, lonely stretch of road when a stark realization would enter my thoughts: “No one in the whole world knows where I am right now.” But, just as quickly, a comforting reassurance followed: “God knows.” And so it is for all his children. We’re never out of his sight.[12]

Family and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, a loving Father, a selfless older Brother, the indwelling Spirit – sweet Sadie is so right. I’m not alone, ever!

 

[1] Genesis 2:18-23

[2] Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27

[3] Philippians 2:3-4

[4] Luke 6:27-38

[5] 1 Corinthians 12

[6] Ephesians 1:3-5, Romans 8:29

[7] 1 Peter 1:3-5, John 14:2-3

[8] See for example, Ephesians 6:18-19, Colossians 1:3-14, Colossians 4:2-4

[9] Hebrews 12:1-2. Note, this passage begins with “Therefore”, referring back to the long list of bygone saints who lived by faith.

[10] John 14:15-17, 25-26

[11] 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 2 Peter 1:3-11

[12] Psalm 33:18, Psalm 34:15

No fit pitchin’

I bet it’s happened to you. You’ll read a passage of Scripture, one you’ve scanned countless times before, and the Spirit will point out something you hadn’t noticed previously. Not surprising, since God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.[1]

Such was the case when I was asked to prepare a devotion on Philippians 4:11. I suppose I’d always focused on Paul’s ability to be content in whatever situation he found himself in, but this time, “I have learned” caught my attention. The fact Paul had to learn how to be content implies contentment isn’t a natural state for us.

If we have any doubt about that, we need look no further than our children. Even if I’d forgotten the clashes and complaints of my own dear, now-adult daughters, I spend time with my beloved grandchildren, ages 2, 4 and 6, on a regular basis. Just the other day, all three were howling over the same orange ball. Said item held no interest whatsoever until one chose to play with it, whereupon it became the only toy worth having. This, even though there were dozens of other options to choose from.

Likewise, protests can erupt over perceived parental partiality, different foods touching on the dinner plate and being asked to come inside on a pretty day. As they get older, our offspring often chafe under our rules. Stakes are higher as peer pressure sets in and they become more aware of status associated with material belongings.

To be sure, I’m not saying dissatisfaction is only an issue for the young. We know contentment is just as tenuous and elusive for adults, if not more so. Frequently, we  strive to  fulfill not only our own needs, desires and expectations, but also those of our significant others – spouses, parents, children, friends. Too often we seek fulfillment in circumstances, relationships, accomplishments and/or possessions. But circumstances change, sometimes quickly, possessions lose their luster as the next best thing comes along and relationships can be stressful, especially if we’re people pleasers.

If we think of contentment as a first cousin to joy and peace, which are fruits of the Spirit,[2] we begin to see it isn’t a result of externals at all, but a reflection of our internal state. Neither is contentment an emotion. In one of his sermons on Philippians, our pastor declared, “Contentment is a state of being, anchored firmly in the confidence that God is sovereignly working out the details of our lives, moment by moment from beginning to end.”[3] That’s why Paul could say he’d learned to be content in any and every situation – the reason for his hope and the guarantee of his well-being, both temporal and eternal, rested in One who never changes.[4]

IMG_5098Faced with the orange-ball debacle, I decided no one would get to play with it. This, of course, resulted in more sobbing and anguished pleas. Eventually my three charges turned their attention to other things and peace prevailed, at least for a while. Mustering all her 2-year-old earnestness, Emma confided something to me. A smile accompanied my comprehension of what I’d missed the first time when she repeated, “No fit pitchin’, Gammie.” “That’s right, Emma. We don’t pitch fits when we don’t get what we want!”

“No fit pitchin’”, a phrase I’ve used innumerable times over the years, first with my daughters and now with my grandchildren. As I thought about the rounds of peace-followed-by-protest we’d cycled through several times that day, I wondered if I try my Father’s patience as much as my little ones try mine. No doubt I do, though my fits take a different form. Regardless of our stage of life, we have times of grumbling, fear and doubt because we’re still in the flesh.[5] That’s one reason we need each other – to remind our fellow sojourners of God’s promises. Indeed, being able to recount more and more examples of God’s faithfulness in my life and the lives of my friends is one of the best benefits of getting older. And it’s a great antidote to fit pitchin’!

Lord, please help us to say with Paul, “I’ve learned in whatever situation I am to be content”, knowing that no matter how many changes or challenges we’re faced with, You never change. You are the same from beginning to end, the Alpha and the Omega,[6] and your promises are trustworthy and true.[7]

 

For further study

The fourth chapter of Philippians holds many clues to the building blocks of the contentment Paul attests to:

  • In verses 4 thru 7 we’re told to rejoice ALWAYS, not to be anxious, to pray with thankfulness, with the promise that in so doing, the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Thankfulness is a key component of contentment, as we recognize and acknowledge all God has already done for us.
  • In verses 8 and 9 Paul encourages his readers to think on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Once again with the attendant benefit, “the God of peace will be with you.” Similarly, 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ, while 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us to keep our eyes fixed not on what is seen, but what is unseen, for the former is passing away and the latter is eternal.
  • When Paul says he’s learned to be content in whatever situation he finds himself, we know his life as an apostle wasn’t an easy one (major understatement). His second letter to the Corinthians details many of the hardships he endured for the Gospel, including beatings, shipwrecks and lack of adequate food and shelter.[8]
  • Nonetheless, in Philippians 4:12 Paul goes on to say, “I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And in verse 13, a favorite of many Christians, Paul shares the “secret”: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Note his use of absolutes: every circumstance, all things.
  • Then finally in verse 19, the assurance that “God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Our loving heavenly Father, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and sent his precious Son to die for us has promised to meet all our needs.

 

[1] Hebrews 4:12

[2] Galatians 5:22-23

[3] Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant PCA, Dallas, GA, sermon “The Secret of Contentment, July, 17, 2016

[4] Hebrews 13:8

[5] Psalm 103:13-14

[6] Revelation 22:13

[7] Revelation 21:5

[8] 2 Corinthians 11:24-27

Remember Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:52-57

[4] Hebrews 10:23

[5] 1 Peter 1:3-5

[6] John 14:2-3

[7] Revelation 5:12

[8] Luke 22:19

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

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