The Good Guy wins

IMG_3893Ask six-year-old Joshua which show he’d like to watch and chances are he’ll reply with an exuberant, “Wild Kratts, please!” Each episode of the animated wildlife series features a different animal or two as cartoon versions of real-life brothers, Chris and Martin Kratt teach viewers about various critters. To keep things extra-interesting, the ever-dedicated siblings are usually tasked with keeping a particular episode’s subjects safe from one of several regularly-guest-starring scoundrels.

Earlier this week, three-year-old Lyla and I were coloring at the kitchen table, all-the-while keeping an eye on the Wild Kratts adventure unfolding before Joshua. I was bemoaning the fact Gourmand, a villainous chef with an affinity for cooking small animals, had trapped several baby ferrets and was about to turn them into some kind of stew. Lyla calmly consoled me, “Don’t worry, Grammie. The good guys always win.” I was immediately reminded of similar situations when I was not much older than my grandchildren. While watching some show or other with my dad, I’d become anxious as ne’er-do-wells got the upper hand, only to hear Dad’s confident, “They’ll get their comeuppance before it’s over!”

Oh how we need reassurance that happy endings aren’t just the stuff of fairy tales and cartoon heroes. From crushing headlines of unthinkable carnage to personal struggles and infirmities, it too-often appears malevolence has the upper hand and is refusing to let go. Despite events and circumstances to the contrary, God remains firmly in control, ruling over all the earth[1] and constraining evil.[2] Furthermore, He promises to work all things together for good for those who love him,[3] even the most horrific and difficult things we face, things our finite minds and fragile hearts can’t begin to comprehend. We can trust him to do so because He sent his only Son to die for us, the Just for the unjust – the supreme example of transforming immense evil into eternal good.[4]

Jesus won a resounding victory over death[5], our most heinous enemy. And, in taking our punishment upon himself,[6] He ensured all who believe in him for salvation will be victorious as well.[7] Jesus’ sacrificial death is the definitive assurance of God’s love; our Father’s guarantee that the good guys will win in the end and the bad guys will get their comeuppance.

I’ve been reading “Be Still, My Soul, Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering”, a compilation of essays on the problem of pain by various authors. These passages from R.C. Sproul’s contribution, “Is There Such a Thing as Senseless Tragedy?” are especially meaningful this week:

“The word ‘tragedy’ presupposes some kind of order or purpose in the world. If the world has purpose and order, then all that occurs in it is meaningful in some respect. The idea of a ‘senseless tragedy’ represents a worldview that is completely incompatible with Christian thought. It assumes that something happens without purpose or without meaning. If God is God and if he is a God of providence, if he is truly sovereign, then nothing ever happens that is ultimately senseless.”[8]

“(Romans 8:28) is not merely a biblical expression of comfort for those who suffer affliction. It is far more than that. It is a radical credo for the Christian worldview. It represents the absolute triumph of divine purpose over all alleged acts of chaos. It erases ‘misfortune’ from the vocabulary of the Christian. God, in his providence has the power and the will to work all things together for good for his people. This does not mean that everything that happens to us is, in itself, good. Really bad things do happen to us. But they are only proximately bad; they are never ultimately bad. That is, they are bad only in the short (proximate) term, never in the long term. Because of the triumph of God’s goodness in all things, he is able to bring good for us out of the bad. He turns our tragedies into supreme blessings.”[9]

Lord, your ways are not our ways, your thoughts so much higher than ours.[10] Grant that we may we see with eyes of faith, trusting your unconditional, unending love for us; remembering that all of your promises are “Yes” in Jesus.[11] For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all.[12]

[1] Psalm 47:7-8

[2] See for example Job 1:12 and 2:6, where God puts limits on how Satan may torment Job.

[3] Romans 8:28

[4] Romans 5:6-8

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:54-57

[6] Isaiah 53:4-6

[7] John 3:16; Ephesians 2:4-9

[8] R.C. Sproul, “Be Still, My Soul, Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering”, Wheaton, IL; Nancy Guthrie/Crossway, 2010; pp. 43-44.

[9] Ibid, p. 47

[10] Isaiah 55:8-9

[11] 2 Corinthians 1:20

[12] 2 Corinthians 4:17; Revelation 21:1-7

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Through the storm

Unlike tornados that pop up with little advance notice, potential hurricanes can be tracked from their inception as tropical waves off the coast of Africa. Meteorologists keep watch, naming, categorizing and modeling them. And, when conditions merit it, they issue warnings so people in their paths can prepare.

Such was the case last week. As Irma plowed her way through the Caribbean, it became evident her interaction with the tiny islands wouldn’t slow her down. Not only was Irma expected to wreak havoc in Florida, but she was big enough and strong enough to elicit a tropical storm warning for metro Atlanta, several hundred miles north of the point of initial landfall. My Friday-night grocery trek proved more challenging than usual. Lines snaked around the gas pumps outside; inside, the aisles teemed with apprehensive shoppers. Nonetheless, I was able to get all the essentials on my list – except bottled water – and headed home to hunker down.

Like a moth drawn to a flame, I checked the forecast frequently over the weekend, fretfully wondering when we’d feel the brunt of the storm. Finally the models zeroed in on late-afternoon Monday. Sunday evening found me bringing potted plants into the garage, securing outdoor furniture and pondering how many of the trees on my property might still be standing Tuesday. Even though I trust God to work all things together for good[1], I couldn’t completely rid myself of an undercurrent of anxiety. I went to sleep praying for protection for all in the storm’s path.

I awoke Monday, still praying, something I would continue throughout the day.[2] A gentle rain pattered on the roof. An occasional breeze-nudged branch tapped the house. And then I heard them. My bird friends arrived for breakfast as usual. A quick glance at the weather prognostications – no high winds predicted until later in the day – gave me confidence to hang the larger of the two feeders for a few hours. I barely closed the door to the deck before my feathered companions flocked to their meal. Soon I perceived the characteristic call of the woodpecker and returned the suet, his favorite treat, to its hanger.

All day the rain fell, steady showers repeatedly giving way to insistent downpours, as Irma’s blustery remains coursed through our area. In spite of the less-than-favorable conditions, the birds continued to flit from branch to feeder to tree trunk, seemingly oblivious to the circumstances.

I returned repeatedly to the window that overlooks my woods. I suppose I was hoping to somehow will the trees to keep standing with my frequent and fervent gazes, all the while petitioning the only One with the power to keep them upright. As I watched the green canopy sway in the ever-increasing gusts and beheld the unperturbed behavior of the birds, calm pervaded my spirit. The scene before me embodied one of Jesus’ most precious lessons: our Father, who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, will surely sustain his children. Those who trust in Him need not worry about tomorrow.[3]

Many of the storms in our lives aren’t meteorological in nature. They have nothing to do with barometric pressure or wind speed. Broken relationships, unexpected health issues, the death of a loved one. These and other tempests enter our lives, often unexpectedly. Yet nothing ever catches God by surprise and his promise to never leave us or forsake us[4] is certain regardless of the source of the upheaval.

Notwithstanding his assurances, there are times when we concentrate on the storm instead of the One who the wind and rain obey.[5] We’re in good company. Jesus’ disciples feared for their lives when a fierce windstorm descended on the lake they were crossing, even though their Master was asleep in the boat with them.[6] Likewise, Peter’s confident water-walk turned into fearful flailing as his focus shifted from his steadfast Lord to his tenuous circumstances.[7] On both occasions Jesus chided their lack of faith, but He didn’t hesitate to calm the storm-tossed lake or to rescue Peter with an outstretched hand.

IMG_4319The Lord deals with us in much the same way, remembering we are dust, frail creatures who sometimes lose sight of Him amidst our storms. As our compassionate Father, He often sends personally-prepared reassurances of his watchful care. On the day Irma blew through, my reminder came via the unruffled presence of the birds as they fed contentedly. When I strolled my woods several days later, I discovered another special gift. Nestled safely at the base of a towering oak bloomed a tiny cyclamen, unfazed by events earlier in the week.

The One who provides for the sparrows and the lilies graciously sustains us. He bids us to cast our care on Him that we might not be shaken.[8] In confident obedience, may we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, trusting Him to take care of all our tomorrows.[9]

 

[1] Romans 8:28

[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

[3] Matthew 6:25-34

[4] Deuteronomy 31:8; Hebrews 13:5

[5] Luke 8:25

[6] Luke 8:22-24

[7] Matthew 14:22-33

[8] Psalm 55:22

[9] Matthew 6:34

An audience of One

IMG_0024 (2)Mom says she could always tell when I saw her in the audience at one or another of my elementary school concerts. A smile would spread across my face and I would relax, knowing my biggest fan was there. And so it was with my daughters and now my grandchildren. Indeed, wise directors of lower-school productions allow a few minutes before commencing for their performers to connect with those who’ve come to watch. Exchanging waves and grins makes for a cheerful beginning all around.

Truth be told, Mom is still my biggest cheerleader and encourager, the one I can always count on to be in my corner. From her fervent prayers to her interest in every post on this blog, her support is unwavering. I hope my daughters feel that same constancy of care from me.

We never outgrow our need for unconditional love or the assurance we’re accepted, short-comings and all. It’s a rare person who’s immune to the opinions of others, especially those we’re in contact with most. We prefer to be viewed positively by our neighbors, work colleagues, fellow church-goers, classmates and friends. Yet, given our fallen natures, opportunities to reject others and be rejected abound from our earliest years. Childish name-calling and shunning give way in later years to backbiting and various forms of adult exclusion.

We were made for relationship with God and each other. Our innate desire to connect and be well-received may lead us astray or cause us to hide parts of ourselves. Rejection hurts. Misunderstandings wound. If only I could explain – my tribulations, my perspective, my hopes – maybe then they’d comprehend.

No one can fully understand another. At times even our own hearts deceive us.[1] Yet there is One who knows me even better than I know myself. The One who knit me together in Mom’s womb, who wrote each of my days in his book before any came to be, who never loses sight of me.[2] Not only does He know me intimately, He purposed to save me by sending his Son to die for me – the epitome of unconditional love.[3]

Isaiah 53 describes the suffering Savior as “despised and rejected”.[4] Not only did those closest to him misunderstand his mission, hoping for an earthly kingdom, they abandoned him in his darkest hours, first by falling asleep, then by fleeing.[5] Truly, He understands our sorrows.

I recently came across the phrase “audience of one”, as in “Jesus, the One and only, Savior and Lord.” It resonated deeply with me. Even though I would like others’ approval and affirmation, his “well done” is not only sufficient, but supreme.[6] In fact, pleasing the Lord above all others is so important, the Apostle Paul includes reminders in several of his letters. Whether eating, working or serving, whatever we do is to be done for his glory.[7]

When plagued with self-doubt or troubled with a nameless sense of disquiet, I often pray David’s prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”[8] Though we may be pummeled by differing opinions and challenged by clamoring voices, we have the assurance that his sheep hear his voice.[9] He will show us the way[10] and lead us on level ground.[11]

As we journey forth, precious are those who come alongside to encourage, support and cheer us on, for they give us a glimpse of God’s unconditional love. I am immensely grateful for the life-givers He’s placed along my path. They are among his greatest blessings.

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage (our) hearts and strengthen (us) in every good deed and word.”[12]

[1] Jeremiah 17:9

[2] Psalm 139:1-18

[3] Romans 5:6-8

[4] Isaiah 53:3

[5] Matthew 26:36-56

[6] Galatians 1:10

[7] See, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:13; Colossians 3:17,23; Ephesians 6:7-8

[8] Psalm 139:23-24

[9] John 10:2-5

[10] Isaiah 30:21

[11] Psalm 143:10

[12] 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

He reigns!

Last week was a trying one personally, nationally and internationally. Too much stress, too much fear, too much shouting. Keeping our eyes fixed on what is above becomes particularly difficult when we’re surrounded by circumstances beyond our control that threaten to overwhelm us. Yet not only are we commanded to fix our eyes on the unseen, we’re told our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.[1] Furthermore, we’re advised to cast all our anxiety on God because He cares for us.[2] In addition, the Apostle Paul’s exhortations to the Philippians (and us) include a directive to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy[3].

As I sought to follow Paul’s advice, I returned to my garden as soon as other responsibilities allowed. Bees buzzed busily in and out of flowers, filling up their pollen pouches. IMG_4178A spikey orange and black gulf fritillary caterpillar munched methodically on a passionflower bud while butterflies flitted around the vine ready to lay the next generation of eggs. Japanese anemone and wood asters displayed the first of their late-summer blooms. Peace began to return to my soul. The One who spoke everything into existence created me in his image.[4] Moreover, He sustains all He’s made[5] and not even a sparrow falls to the ground outside his care.[6]

The next day’s lessons at church brought further encouragement as I was reminded God remains on the throne, no matter what earthly rulers may plan, plot or scheme.[7]

Then yesterday brought with it the solar eclipse. For various reasons, I opted not to travel to an area of totality. Even so, it was plenty-fascinating to watch as the moon crept over the face of the sun. First it took a nibble out of the upper right quadrant, next it reduced the glowing orb to a crescent and finally it eclipsed 97% of its surface from my and daughter Mary’s sight. We marveled at how much light remained in spite of the near-totality of the coverage. IMG_4196I’ve since contemplated the statement in Revelation regarding the new order of things. “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.”[8] How awesome and powerful is our God who will replace the sun with his own glory!

And today I’m writing this post, hoping to encourage you, dear readers[9], while further shoring up my own foundation of truth. One of my favorite quotes is attributable to Welsh pastor, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul, ‘Why are thou downcast? What business do you have to be disquieted?’ You must turn on yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself, ‘Hope thou in God’, instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is and what God is and what God has done and what God has pledged Himself to do.”

In addition to the passages already cited and with Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ admonition in mind, I offer the following for further reflection:

The Lord God is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. (Revelation 1:8, Revelation 22:13)

God does not lie or change his mind. He keeps his promises. (Numbers 23:19)

God loved us so much He sent his only Son to die for us that we might not perish in our sins, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

We’ll have trouble in this world. Jesus said as much, but we have the assurance He has overcome the world (John 16:33) and that God is working all things together for good for those who love Him. (Romans 8:28)

Jesus is preparing a place for us and will return to gather his own. (John 14:1-3)

God has promised a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more weeping, the wolf will lie down with the lamb and there will be no more destruction. (Isaiah 65:17-28)

Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39); no one can snatch us out of his hand. (John 10:27-29)

As we await Jesus’ return, may we abide in hope, encouraging ourselves and each other with the truth of his everlasting word.[10] For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.[11]

[1] 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

[2] 1 Peter 5:7

[3] Philippians 4:8

[4] Genesis 1:27

[5] Matthew 6:25-34

[6] Matthew 10:28-31

[7] Psalm 2

[8] Revelation 22:5a

[9] 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13

[10] Isaiah 40:8

[11] 2 Corinthians 1:20

The lie

I’m no longer surprised when a sense of melancholy descends on my soul each April. As dependable as the spring flowers, it ushers in a time of purposeful remembrance. I intentionally recollect details of Ray’s final days and those immediately following his much-too-soon-for-me passing. I honor his memory and allow myself to mourn the loss.

But sometimes sorrow associated with lesser losses catches me off-guard. Such was the case recently. After feeling out-of-sorts for a day or two for no pin-pointable reason other than being relegated to inside activities while my hand continued its post-op recovery, I was enlightened by a Facebook memory. In the original post I quoted Sir Walter Scott: “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” And then I knew – it was the anniversary of a lie. Though not the first or last in the series, it was the most blatant and dealt a blow so severe that a valued friendship would eventually unravel completely.

Forgiveness is commanded.[1] Even so, reconciliation isn’t always possible or advisable, much less guaranteed. And so, realizing the source of my sadness, I grieved what might have been had truth-telling held more sway.

As with most parents, I endeavored to instill in my daughters the importance of honesty. (A task I’m now repeating with my grandchildren.) Nonetheless, lying is part of testing the boundaries for many children. This is especially true when imagined consequences associated with a truthful answer are deemed too much to bear. One of my most gratifying mom-moments came when daughter Mary told her younger sister Jessie, “Don’t lie to Mom. You don’t want to lose her trust.” To go from me accepting everything at face value to questioning and verifying was a fate Mary wanted to save her sibling from, having experienced the increased scrutiny firsthand.

IMG_3359Indeed, trust is a precious commodity and the foundation of any successful relationship, be it business or personal. Once broken it requires much time and faithfulness to repair, restore, rebuild, if it ever happens at all.

The very first lie, the one that changed everything, occurred early in the scriptural recounting of human history. God had graciously given Adam and Eve the fruit from all the trees in the garden for food with one exception: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”[2] Then along came Satan, the father of lies.[3] After engaging Eve in a doubt-producing conversation regarding what God commanded, he brazenly contradicted the Almighty: “You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Eve ate. Adam ate. Their eyes were opened. They were ashamed and they hid.[4]

And still we try to hide from God and each other.

God could have left them to fend for themselves in their pitiful leafy garments, but He knew all along his creatures were dust.[5] In his infinite and eternal love, He’d already planned a way back.[6] A way to repair, restore and rebuild our relationship with Him for all time. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”[7]

As long as we’re in the world, we’ll struggle with sin and temptation.[8] Sometimes we’ll embellish the details, tell a half-truth or flat-out lie. But by the power of the Spirit, we’re being conformed more and more to the image of the Son[9] and He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.[10] On that glorious day there will be no more hiding for we will be welcomed into his presence clothed in radiant robes of righteousness.[11]

[1] Matthew 6:14-15; Colossians 3:13

[2] Genesis 2:17

[3] John 8:44

[4] Genesis 3:1-10

[5] Psalm 103:14

[6] Genesis 3:15

[7] John 1:14

[8] Romans 7:14-25

[9] Romans 8:29

[10] Philippians 1:6

[11] Revelation 7:9-17

Rest

The weather in metro-Hotlanta isn’t supposed to be this nice on the last day of July. Don’t get me wrong, a break from the seemingly-incessant heat and humidity of the past couple of months is a welcome relief. But it’s certainly not helping my post-surgery frame of mind. Even though an operation to relieve carpal tunnel and trigger thumb wasn’t optional, a steroid injection in May gave me some flexibility in scheduling. Thus I chose July 25th, the heart of summertime. I reasoned the customarily-oppressive weather conditions would soften the blow of not playing in the dirt while I focused on recovering in time for the fall gardening season.

Yet here I am, a mere six days after being anesthetized, cut on and sutured, clamoring toIMG_3952 be outside pulling weeds and swinging my mattock on this glorious afternoon. Although a passing glance at the back of my hand belies last week’s trauma, a quick flip of the wrist reveals a palm more befitting the Bride of Frankenstein. Black stitches protrude from my bruised, slightly swollen flesh like tiny whiskers, while the surgical road map sketched out by my doctor, though fading, is still visible.

I reach instinctively. My hand quickly reminds me it’s not ready to lift or grip or even hug. And so I rest.

In spite of my whining, I am thankful to be on this side of the surgery, thankful to have awakened from the anesthesia[1], thankful to be home. The windows are open for the first time in weeks, allowing me to savor the breeze. From my vantage point at the kitchen table, I’m entertained by numerous birds of varying kinds – daughter Jessie refers to them as my twitter following – as they flit from feeder to deck to branch, some with hungry fledglings in tow. As I sit and reflect, my body is hard at work healing, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.[2]

Making time to rest is challenging for wired-to-work me. I’m a list-making, check-it-off, don’t-slow-down sort. Yes, I’m like Martha by nature, but am called to become more like Mary. Commended by Jesus for having chosen the better part, she sat at his feet and drank in his teaching instead of bustling about with her sister.[3]

Be still and know that I am God.[4]

Taste and see that the Lord is good.[5]

“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!”[6]

God ordained rest. He who needed no rest, set us an example from the very beginning, when everything was still “good”.[7] Then, at the appointed time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.[8] Fully God, yet fully man, Jesus knew hunger and thirst and fatigue. He, too, set us an example, affirming man does not live by bread alone[9]; promising living water[10]; taking time to be alone with His Father.[11]

When I had carpal tunnel surgery on my right hand two years ago, Mom told me multiple times a day, “Don’t hurt your hand!” My reply, “I’ll take care of my hand, otherwise I’ll only be hurting myself.” This now-humorous litany is repeating itself. Being a doer herself and having undergone several surgeries, Mom knows how difficult it is to endure forced rest.

Lord willing, I’ll be off the disabled list soon, back to the garden in time to accomplish my fall-season objectives.[12] But when my health is restored, may I remember rest is not optional, especially when it comes to my spiritual well-being. If I don’t take time to seek His face[13], to listen for His still, small voice[14], I’ll only be hurting myself.

The One who lived a sinless life on our behalf that we might live with Him forever[15] bids, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”[16]

Rest for our souls . . . the very best rest of all.

 

[1] I do NOT like to be put to sleep and my first thought upon regaining consciousness is usually something along the lines of, “Thanks, Lord, I’m still here!”

[2] Psalm 139:14

[3] For the full recounting of the sisters’ story, see Luke 10:38-42

[4] Psalm 46:10

[5] Psalm 34:8

[6] Mark 9:7

[7] Genesis 2:2-3

[8] John 1:14

[9] Matthew 4:4

[10] John 4:1-26 records the story of Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman by the well.

[11] Luke 5:16

[12] James 4:13-15

[13] Psalm 27:8; Psalm 105:4

[14] 1 Kings 19:10-13 tells of Elijah’s encounter with the LORD.

[15] Romans 5:1-11

[16] Matthew 11:28-30

Blessed ties

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

The sixth of seven siblings, Ray was preceded by three sisters and two brothers. Youngest brother, Phil, completed the family. In addition, there were 18 nieces and nephews at the time of my first visit in September 1982, hence much of our flight was spent going over relationships. Ray patiently coached me on who was married to who as well as names and ages of their offspring.

Although I’m an only child, I’m no stranger to big families. My dad was one of ten, my mom one of eight, so I had plenty of aunts and uncles as well as 31 first cousins. Nonetheless, knowing Ray was seeking his family’s input before he asked me to marry him made me somewhat nervous. IMG_3900I’m not sure what those fun-loving folks from the heartland thought of this serious, urbane introvert, but they welcomed me warmly. Furthermore I must have garnered enough support since Ray proposed three months later and a substantial Midwest contingent attended our wedding the following year. Ray and I exchanged vows one sweltering August evening as they and other relatives and friends watched. Thus I became “Patsy Kuipers”, an official member of the family.

Years passed. We added two daughters to the tally of nieces and nephews and we strived to return to Ray’s hometown every other year, keeping in touch via phone calls and cards in between. And then came April 19, 1997. I trembled as I dialed my sister-in-law’s number, tasked with placing a call I didn’t want to make. I was relieved when her husband answered, confident he was strong enough to hear the unthinkable news, wise enough to know how to convey it to the unsuspecting kinfolk: Barely 39 years old, Ray had succumbed to a fatal heart attack, like his father 34 years before him.

Once again my Kuipers family made the journey eastward, first to Georgia for Ray’s funeral, then onward to North Carolina for his burial. In our shared grief, we cried, we laughed, we celebrated the life of the one we’d lost. We reminded each other that death is not the end for those who belong to Jesus.[1]

Mary, Jessie and I resumed our every-other-year visits until cumulative life events kept 7-7-2014, Justin and Joshuaus away for almost eight years. When we finally returned in 2014, our family unit had increased by three. What a delight to have son-in-law, Justin, and grandchildren, Joshua and Lyla, with us for the long-awaited reunion.

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

7-7-2014, Family by the family signInevitably, when I mention I’m going to South Dakota to visit my Kuipers relatives, someone will comment, “How nice that you’ve kept in touch with Ray’s family.” I suppose some would view Ray’s death as having severed those ties. How wrong they would be! As I traversed miles of open country on this most recent trip, I thought how familiar it all feels, how much I enjoy the traditions that have developed over the years and treasure the relationships. My brothers and sisters-in-law connect me to Ray, while my children and grandchildren allow them to see glimpses of their brother.

Although much levity accompanies our visits (I laugh more in a week in Platte than I do in a month at home!), our visits are tinged with sadness for the ones no longer with us. My melancholy has lingered this time. Maybe it was the visit to South Dakota State, Ray’s alma mater, or watching brother-in-law, Dave, tenderly clean the grave marker of his beloved wife or standing by Phil’s grave for the first time since we attended his service. But most likely it was the photos from one of my early trips to Platte that nudged me over the edge. Ray and I were newlyweds, blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Grief that normally resides deep within my soul after 20 years without my partner spontaneously surfaced as I gazed at our youthful innocence through tear-filled eyes.

I lost Ray’s care and companionship when his earthly life ended, but I didn’t lose his family, my family. How thankful I am our shared history will soon span 35 years. So many memories – times of laughter and tears, rejoicing and sorrow. Yet I am most grateful for the strong heritage of faith that exists in my family-by-marriage. Our shared belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord sustains us. It’s the real tie that binds us. The one that will last through eternity[2] when we are reunited with our loved ones around His throne.[3]

IMG_3720“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

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

When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain; But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.”[4]

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:20-28

[2] John 6:40; John 10:28

[3] Revelation 7

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

Putting down roots

The morning of June 29, 1992 found me seated in a conference room at a law office. Ray, next to me at the large, polished-to-a-shine table, remained his usual calm self. But the cumulative stress leading up to that moment overflowed as tears streamed from my eyes. No, we weren’t on the brink of divorce . . . it was time to settle on our house in Georgia.

Ray and I spent our first few months of marriage in a two-bedroom apartment, long enough to know we’d prefer to put the rent money toward a mortgage instead. The image of Ray sitting at his drawing board/desk, pencil in hand calculating and re-calculating budget scenarios makes me smile as I recall his diligence. After one such number-crunching session, he announced, “It will be tight, but I think we can do it.” Our options were limited by our rather meager finances, but we purchased a brand new townhouse, attached to one other unit which housed another young couple.

It was a perfect first home, plenty-roomy inside with a small yard for Ray to display his landscaping skills. When daughter Mary came along a couple of years later, the open floorplan allowed her to explore under our watchful eyes. However, when I became pregnant with our second daughter, Jessie, we decided to look for a larger, single-family home where we could put down roots and raise our family. What a nightmare! Houses in our preferred area were out of our price range, while those within our financial boundaries were far-removed from our desired location. Add the heat and humidity of a Delaware summer and the hormonal fluctuations of pregnancy – not a pretty picture.

Then one Sunday afternoon, Ray went to the showing of a 20-year-old house a few blocks from our townhouse. Hot, tired and generally miserable, I stayed home. Upon his return, Ray declared, “You need to see it! I think this could be the one.” And so it was. We moved into our “raise- the-kids” house the day before Thanksgiving 1989.

IMG_3645When you buy an older home, you expect to replace some things, both decorative and functional. Our first order of business: removing the shiny, 1960’s-era wallpaper in the kitchen – the glare was distracting! Eventually, we progressed to more substantial changes. We replaced the roof and added vinyl siding and double-paned, tilt-in-to-clean windows. These latter upgrades came only after several discussions with my management regarding a potential transfer to Georgia. The possibility of such a move had been bandied about by our business leaders off and on for months since it would put us closer to our carpet-industry customers. Assured we would be staying in Delaware, we proceeded with the renovations . . .

A little over a year after the last window was hung, the last shingle hammered into place, there we were in that law-office conference room to make settlement on our second-attempt, raise-the-kids house a thousand miles away from the first one. Yes, God does have a sense of humor, or, as one old saying puts it: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Scripture makes it clear his plans are the ones that prevail.[1]

IMG_3646Before the legal proceedings and endless paper-signing began, someone ventured to inquire about my emotional state: “Are you ok?” I wailed in reply, “My belongings are on a moving van somewhere between here and Delaware; my daughters are in Charlotte with my parents; my brand new carpet has Georgia-clay footprints all over it. No! I’m not alright!!” I felt uprooted, the pieces of my life scattered.

But I wasn’t. And they weren’t. My roots were deeply and firmly planted in the One who held each piece and every detail in his firm grasp.[2]

So much has transpired over the past quarter-century. My Georgia home was indeed our raise-the-kids house, but I did much of the raising on my own after Ray’s death not quite five years after the move. Sometimes I wonder what our lives would have been like had we stayed in Delaware, even if Ray might still be alive. Yet I know all his days were written in God’s book before even one came to be.[3] And I think of relationships and experiences woven into my life because God’s good plan[4] brought us to Georgia – friendships formed, lives touched, losses endured – as He’s worked all things together for good.[5]

Even after all the years of living in the South, my accent is indiscernible, prompting people to ask where I’m from. My well-practiced reply?: “I was born in North Carolina, grew up in Delaware and moved to Georgia in ’92, but I consider North Carolina to be home since several generations of my family have lived there.” Yes, that’s an accurate recounting of where I’ve put down roots during my earthly sojourn. But I know my forever-Home awaits, where Jesus is preparing a place for me.[6]

Until then, I will remain securely rooted in the One who sustains me,[7] for in Him all God’s promises are “Yes” and “Amen”.[8]

 

[1] Proverbs 16:9, James 4:13-15

[2] Colossians 2:7, John 10:27-29

[3] Psalm 139:16b

[4] Jeremiah 29:11-13

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] John 14:1-3

[7] Jeremiah 17:7-8

[8] 2 Corinthians 1:20-22

The new dress, take 3

Who would have thought you could get so much spiritual mileage out of a gift card? Yet here I am with one final, albeit shorter, meditation based on my daughter-funded dress- shopping experience.

As recounted in the first installment of this trilogy, I had a specific image in mind – cut and fabric – when I set off for the mall in search of a new frock for the Rose Garden Gala. After perusing the selection at several retail establishments and finding nothing resembling the hoped-for design, I reluctantly accepted I’d have to compromise. I tried on multiple dresses, comparing each to my imagined ideal. I eventually selected one for the Gala and was quite content wearing it to the event, even though it wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned buying.

I’m thankful no compromise is necessary when it comes to my image in Christ. As discussed in “take 2”, when God looks at me, He sees the righteousness of his perfect Son even though I continue to struggle with sin and temptation and will until I’m called Home.[1] Through the work of the Spirit, I’m being transformed,[2] conformed more and more to the likeness of Christ.[3]

And so it is for all who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. We have the assurance that He who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of his return[4] when we gather around the throne. There, clothed in our spotless garments, we will praise and worship him forever.[5]

In closing, I offer one of my favorite passages from The Valley of Vision:

“I have no robe to bring to cover my sins,
no loom to weave my own righteousness;
I am always standing clothed in filthy garments,
and by grace am always receiving change of raiment,
for thou dost always justify the ungodly;

I am always going into the far country,
and always returning home as a prodigal,
always saying, Father, forgive me,
and thou art always bringing forth the best robe.

Every morning let me wear it,
every evening return in it,
go out to the day’s work in it,
be married in it,
be wound in death in it,
stand before the great white throne in it,
enter heaven in it shining as the sun.

Grant me never to lose sight of
the exceeding sinfulness of sin,
the exceeding righteousness of salvation,
the exceeding glory of Christ,
the exceeding beauty of holiness,
the exceeding wonder of grace.”[6]

[1] See Romans 7:14-24 for Paul’s description of wrestling with sin.

[2] Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18

[3] Romans 8:29

[4] Philippians 1:6

[5] Revelation 3:4-5; Revelation 7:9-19; Revelation 22:14

[6] Bennett, Arthur,The Valley of Vision, A collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, Edinburgh, 1975, The Banner of Truth Trust.

The new dress, take 2

I remember the moment even if I can’t recall the exact date . . . the moment when I realized I truly wasn’t good enough.

A number of childhood experiences – an inconsistent relationship with my dad; often being described as “smart”, but rarely “pretty”; enduring a pudgy pre-adolescence during which classmates called me names – planted seeds of doubt deep inside. I was unaware of their presence. Focusing instead on navigating my teen and college years, I attempted to fit in and find acceptance. But by the time I reached young adulthood, the vines had grown into tangled masses, their tendrils wrapped tightly around my heart. I kept people at arm’s length, even those in my inner circle, fearful that if they really knew me they’d reject me.

I was married, a young mother of two precious daughters, when the Master Gardener said, “Enough!” As is often the case, the Lord chose a surprising method to begin my reclamation: a secular self-awareness workshop my then-manager encouraged me to take, paid for by my employer. The psychologist-led sessions were intense. Through the various exercises and discussions I came to recognize the subconscious message underlying my beliefs. In spite of my academic and career accomplishments, my loving family and a group of caring friends, I felt I wasn’t good enough to be loved or accepted.

Just as the restoration of an overgrown garden requires time and tenderness, there were many weeds of doubt to be removed before the seeds of understanding and truth could thrive. I turned to a counselor and pastor for assistance. The weeks passed and progress was made. The moment alluded to above, a bona fide epiphany, occurred as I was driving home from a counseling session. The reality flooded my being: “In myself, I’m not good enough, but in Christ I’m perfect!”

I’d been baptized and professed my faith some 17 years earlier. I trusted Christ alone for my salvation[1] and, with the Spirit’s help, tried to walk in a manner worthy of my calling.[2]  Nonetheless, the gloriously-freeing realization that God sees Jesus’ perfection when He looks at me became heart-not-head knowledge that day and continues to serve as a reliable rebuttal when the old misgivings resurface.

Like seeds that remain dormant until the right conditions are present, concerns regarding my unworthiness reemerge from time to time. I expect they will as long as I’m in the flesh. Like Paul’s thorn, those consternations draw me closer to God, making me ever-dependent on his strength and assurances.[3]

Because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice I am:

  • A child of the King. (John 1:12-13; Romans 8:16; 1 John 3:1)
  • A co-heir with Christ. (Romans 8:17)
  • Robed in his righteousness, without spot or blemish. (Colossians 1:22)
  • Forgiven. (Psalm 103:11-14; Isaiah 1:18; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:13-14)
  • Welcomed into my Father’s presence. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
  • Watched over. (Psalm 33:18; Psalm 34:15)
  • Provided for. (Matthew 6:25-34)
  • Promised an eternal dwelling place. (John 14:1-3)
  • Strengthened by the Spirit. (Romans 8:11; Ephesians 3:16; Philippians 2:13)
  • Irrevocably loved and accepted. (10:27-29)

By now you may be wondering about the title of this post, but I promise there’s a connection to my last one. As noted therein, my generous daughters gave me a gift card so I could buy an outfit for the Rose Garden Gala. Getting dressed up for a special occasion is an infrequent treat. I felt a bit like a princess as I left my house . . . then, unexpectedly, a joyful thought manifested itself: I am a princess, a beloved daughter of the King! What a contrast to my thought patterns before I attended that workshop and subsequently entered counseling 25 years ago. It’s been a long, sometimes arduous, but most-decidedly-fruitful journey since. The faithful Gardener continues to prune and till, removing pesky vines and noxious weeds before they gain purchase in the soil of my soul. The seeds of truth now flourish and his tender ministrations remind me who I am.

My prayer, fellow believers, is the same as Paul’s desire for the Ephesians: “may (we) have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that (we) may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”[4] For once we have even a glimpse of Jesus’ sacrificial, unconditional, eternal love for us our perspective is forever changed.

We may not look like much in the world’s eyes, but in our Father’s eyes, we’re perfect.

[1] John 14:6

[2] Colossians 1:9-10

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

[4] Ephesians 3:14-19