Emmanuel, God with us

This has been one of those weeks. You know, the kind dotted with numerous reminders things aren’t the way they’re meant to be. I’m not even talking about national or global events. No, just in my little corner of the world, the consequences of the Fall have been abundantly evident. From broken relationships to childish misbehavior to my own selfishness. Add in the effects of my precious parents’ aging, as well as mine – my IMG_E0161hands have made it clear they’re not happy with the repeated gripping and lifting required to set up my beloved Dickens Village – and the final enemy, death, which paid an unexpected visit to one of our church families. The weight has grown heavy indeed.

I suppose the world was every bit as dark, with sin and sorrow pressing in all around, when God sent His one and only Son, the Light of the world, full of grace and truth to that lowly manger in Bethlehem. The most precious gift ever given came packaged as a tiny baby, grew to be a man who lived a sinless life and took our sins upon Himself, that we might have hope now and eternal life in God’s very presence.

So, dear friends, whether you, too, have had one of those weeks or if you simply need to step back from the busyness of the season and refocus on the reason for our celebrations, I offer these passages, some of my very favorites. May they speak peace into our lives as we reflect on the coming of God’s promised Messiah and look forward to His equally-certain return.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone . . . For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. (Lamentations 3:21-25)

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

O, Lord, thank You for your great love and faithfulness, the assurance that every one of your promises finds its Yes in Jesus. (2 Corinthians 1:20) Please help us to never lose heart, remembering that the afflictions of this world are light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory You have prepared for us. (2 Corinthians 4:16-17) May we ever praise You for your incomparable gift of Life, not only at Christmastime, but throughout the year, with joyful, grateful hearts.

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Thanks, Mom!

Her children rise up and call her blessed.
Proverbs 31:28a

Ok, you probably think I’ve gotten my holidays mixed up. No, I know it’s not Mother’s Day. But it is the season of Thanksgiving and today is my dear mom’s 87th birthday. Thus, I want to thank God for the blessing of a godly mother as well as celebrate this very special woman by documenting some of the nuggets of wisdom she’s shared with me for as long as I can remember.

People will let you down, but God never will. Mom and I have been through numerous trials together in the nearly-60 years since she gave birth to me. Lies, disappointments, job loss, broken relationships, deaths. Through it all, Mom has taught me to depend on the One who says He’ll never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6); who faithfully keeps His promises (Hebrews 10:23) and speaks only truth. (Hebrews 6:18) We will have troubles in this world, but Jesus has overcome the world. We can find peace in Him. (John 16:33)

When faced with a list of tasks, do whatever’s bothering you the most first and get it behind you. When I feel overwhelmed, which is more often than I like to admit, Mom encourages me with this time-tested advice bestowed upon her by one of her grade-school teachers. Though it may not have been inspired by scripture originally, there’s certainly a Biblical tie-in. Usually when my to-do list becomes over-loaded, it’s filled with chores associated with temporal concerns. Cooking, cleaning, weeding, mulching, paying bills and the like are necessary. But Jesus makes it clear we’re to seek eternal things first, trusting Him to provide all we need (Matthew 6:25-33) and spending time at His feet to learn of Him. (Luke 10:38-42)

We can’t change anyone else, much as we’d like to sometimes. We can only give an account of ourselves. My reply when Mom tells me this? “You’re right. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in line!” Once again, there’s Biblical truth in Mom’s statement. As part of His magnificent Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against judging others, especially since we have sin in our own lives to deal with. (Matthew 7:1-5) Praise God for giving us His Spirit, which is at work in us to bring about the transformation we’re incapable of accomplishing on our own. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) Furthermore, we’re called to pray for others, but only He can soften hardened hearts. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

We can’t give up. We’ve got to hold on to our faith and keep going. Throughout her life, Mom’s faced challenges that may have led some to quit or become bitter. In the last decade alone, she:

  • shattered the bones in her right shoulder, an injury that required surgery to install a plate and multiple screws and left her with limited range of motion in that arm.
  • suffered a heart attack that led to the discovery of three severely-blocked arteries resulting in emergency open-heart surgery.
  • fractured a vertebra in her back and had a procedure known as kyphoplasty to repair it.

Mom endures daily pain due to the ravages of arthritis that have led to enlarged joints in her fingers and cartilage deterioration in her now-bone-on-bone right knee. Yet she rarely mentions her constant aches. Instead, she clings to God’s mercies which are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24) and encourages those in her inner circle to do the same. Though she’s never declared a favorite verse, I expect Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, would be a front-runner.

That’s a Gulf song. Granted, this statement isn’t advice, but I include it because it alludes to my heritage of faith. Mom grew up in the tiny town of Gulf, NC, where she attended a small Presbyterian church established in the 1800’s. When the strains of a familiar hymn from her childhood begin to play at our current church, Mom’s face brightens and one of us will usually lean toward the other and whisper, “That’s a Gulf song.” I don’t know how many generations my heritage of faith encompasses, but I know there are at least two behind me and two in front. I pray that legacy of faith will be passed continually from generation to generation until Christ returns. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

IMG_4723Though petite in stature, Mom’s my biggest cheerleader and most dependable defender. We all need someone who’s unconditionally, unreservedly in our corner. I’m so thankful Mom’s in mine. She’s my rock because she consistently points me to the Rock and reminds me His everlasting arms are securely holding all who belong to Him in an eternal embrace. (Deuteronomy 33:26-27a) O LORD, please help me to do the same for my precious children and grandchildren. Thank You for the priceless blessing of a godly mother!

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

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)

Becoming fluent

The church I attend recently began a small-group discipleship ministry for our women. As part of getting to know each other better, the leader of my group asked us to share a little-known fact about ourselves. I decided to tell the group about living in Argentina in the early-1970’s. The usual questions regarding life in a foreign country followed, accompanied by my well-practiced answers. Being so far away from family and friends at a time when communication was limited to snail mail was decidedly difficult, but the opportunity to experience a different culture and learn a second language was priceless.

Our 2-year stay abroad resulted from my dad accepting a temporary transfer to work for the Argentine subsidiary of his U.S. employer. Thus, part of the pre-move preparations involved my parents’ 2-week, company-paid attendance at a local Berlitz total-immersion language school. It was a stressful, morning-to-night grind, no English allowed.

Unlike my beleaguered parents, I began my language studies once we landed in Argentina. I was enrolled in an American school where I had classes in English in the morning and classes in Spanish in the afternoon. That, plus daily interaction with native speakers in our community, provided an excellent learning environment. Nonetheless, my parents hired a tutor to help me with the intricacies of sentence structure and verb tenses.

IMG_6898Just as I benefitted greatly from learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, Christians thrive best when we’re part of God’s visible church. Scripture is clear that each of us has an important, God-ordained place in His body (1Corinthians 12:12-30) and that we should not neglect meeting together. (Hebrews 10:24-25) Furthermore, God’s family is composed of members of varying ages, abilities and spiritual maturities, just like biological families. We are called to do life together in compassionate covenant communities, where we rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and come alongside each other to teach, support and encourage according to the gifts we’ve been given. (Romans 12:3-21)

In addition, we have a responsibility to tell the younger generations of the mighty deeds of the Lord and to instruct them in His ways. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Psalm 145:10-13) Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s directions to Titus are clear regarding the role older women are to play in tutoring the younger women, teaching them the finer points of Biblical womanhood through both word and action. (Titus 2:3-5)

I don’t remember how long it took, but one day, to my amazement, I realized I could speak and respond in Spanish without a conscious translation step. The second language had become second-nature.

And so it is with our spiritual transformation. Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf, we’re no longer slaves to sin. Instead, we’ve become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6) Through the Spirit’s power at work within us, we’re able to discern what is right and true, something we could never do when we were dead in our trespasses. Furthermore, as our sanctification progresses, Christ’s light shines ever-brighter in us and we produce spiritual fruit. (Matthew 5:14-15; Galatians 5:22-23) More and more, our renewed nature becomes second-nature as we seek to please God and abide in Him. (John 15:5)

Nonetheless, aspects of our old selves will persist until God calls us Home, as Paul so eloquently describes in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 7:15-20) And so we press on to become fluent in God’s ways, by studying His Word, praying and joining with fellow believers to worship Him and stir one another to love and good works.

Even now, over four decades later and without daily use, I’m apt to spontaneously sprinkle Spanish sentences into conversations with my grandchildren. They’ve become used to these linguistic detours and know an immediate translation-repetition-translation mini-lesson is sure to follow. Yes, I can speak Spanish, though far from flawlessly – I still can’t roll my Rs and I mix up verb tenses – but I enjoy the language and sharing it with my grandchildren.

How much more I savor sharing our Savior with them. I’m far from perfect when it comes to fluency in my Christian walk as well. But I pray I’ll always be faithful to spontaneously sprinkle His ways and words into our conversations as I point them to the only perfect One who loves them even more than I do and encourage them to take their places in His family. May His nature become increasingly second-nature for us all.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

Bucket-fillers

Most Mondays and Wednesdays find me at daughter Mary’s house. As 1pm draws nigh, I start herding 7-year-old Joshua and 2-year-old Emma toward the car so we can pick almost-5-year-old Lyla up from pre-school. Depending on the number of distraction-produced detours they take, the process can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Likewise, the drive to school and back may be filled with enthusiastic commentary on the scenes passing by or with shrieks of “Grammie, tell (insert sibling’s name) not to look at/touch/talk to me!!!” Yes, the trek to retrieve Lyla from school and return home safely is often the most stressful part of my day.

But a couple of Mondays ago, the events surrounding our mid-day trip were decidedly pleasant. As soon as Lyla and her teacher exited the building, Joshua, exclaimed, “Lyla’s got the bucket! She’s kid of the day!!” And so she was.

As Lyla climbed aboard and buckled up for the ride home, we all started talking excitedly. Congratulatory remarks blended with curious queries regarding the contents of her bucket. Several pieces of candy, a stencil, a super-cool, light-up pen, a certificate declaring her kid-of-the-day and two books resided inside.

IMG_6750Joshua read the books to us after lunch. They were all about how we fill or empty each other’s imaginary buckets by being kind or being mean. Furthermore, the books pointed out we’re doing one or the other all the time. The narrative went on to say that by filling up others’ buckets, we’re filling up our own as well since being helpful, obedient and thoughtful makes situations better for everyone involved. Bucket-fillers, buoyed by the results of their good deeds, are much happier than bucket-dumpers, whose actions contribute to continued strife.

As I listened to Joshua’s expressive reading, I smiled knowing I was hearing a child-friendly version of one of my most cherished spiritual principles: our calling to glorify God by being life-giving helpers. This concept was introduced to me over two decades ago by Susan Hunt, my dear friend and spiritual mother.

In the beginning, when God spoke everything into existence, He declared it all good, with one exception. In Genesis 2:18, God states, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” The helper was so perfect, Adam stated, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23)

Her name (Woman) acknowledged her equal status before God, having been created in God’s image just as Adam was, though her function was different. Lest we think women’s helper position is somehow inferior, we need only look at other uses of the Hebrew word ezer (translated “helper”) in the Old Testament. It is frequently used to describe attributes of God Himself: Defender (Exodus 18:4), Protector (Psalm 33:20), Comforter (Psalm 86:17), Deliverer (Psalm 70:5), Champion of the poor and oppressed (Psalm 72:12-14).[1] These are strong, necessary, life-giving roles.

But sin intervened. As Susan explains:

“When the man and woman sinned, Woman lost her ability to be a true helper. At this point of hopelessness, God gave hope. He promised that the woman’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Adam affirmed and celebrated his belief in this promise by renaming her. ‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living’ (Genesis 3:30). Eve means ‘life-giver’. Because of her rebellion the woman became a life-taker, but because of the promise of life she became a ‘life-giver’. This is more than biological. Woman’s redemptive calling is to be a life-giver in every relationship and circumstance.”[2] (Emphasis mine.)

Left to ourselves, we would be utterly incapable of carrying out our calling. But, praise God, He didn’t leave it up to us. Because of Jesus’ promise-fulfilling sacrifice on our behalf, we’ve been given hearts of flesh that want to please our Lord and Savior and the power of His indwelling Spirit to help us accomplish His purposes. (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Ephesians 1:19-20)

Though being life-givers is part of women’s distinctive design, all believers are called to love and serve others well, as evidenced by:

  • God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, which Jesus confirmed as being second only to the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:28-31)
  • Jesus’ instruction to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, a concept so basic and essential that we refer to it as “The Golden Rule”. (Matthew 7:12)
  • Jesus’ reminder that when we care for the needy among us, we’re caring for Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • Paul’s teaching that we should consider other’s needs before our own, following Jesus’ example of humility. (Philippians 2:3-8)
  • James’ warning that faith without works is dead. In fact, true faith will result in action – good fruit produced from being intimately and securely attached to the Life-giving Vine. (James 2:14-17; John 15:4-5)

As sojourners longing for Home, we may be tempted to despair when we look at current events. Most of us don’t have the influence or following to bring about change on a grand scale. But we belong to the One who is Sovereign over all things. (Psalm 2) He’s assigned us a place (Acts 17:24-26) and calls us to be life-givers in the midst of our unique situations – in our families, our communities, our churches. From brief exchanges with fellow shoppers in a check-out line all the way to decades-long relationships with cherished friends and family members, we are called to be life-givers in every relationship and circumstance.

Lyla is a sweet-natured child, a blessing to all in her small sphere of influence. She earned her kid-of-the-day title by collecting five “warm fuzzies”, each representing an act of kindness toward her teacher or classmates. May we be equally faithful to fill others’ buckets with hope and truth as we point them to the ultimate Giver of Life. (John 1:1-5; John 10:10-11)

 

[1] J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, (Wheaton, IL; Crossway Books, 2006), pp. 34-35

[2] Ibid, p. 34

Eating apples (reprise)

I first published “Eating apples” on October 25, 2015, the 50th anniversary of my beloved grandfather’s death. It remains one of my favorite posts. I’ve made several edits and added some scripture references, but the heart of the story – my grandfather’s legacy of faith and love – remains.

I don’t have many distinct memories of my grandfather since I was in first grade when he passed away. However, I cherish the recollections I do have. Details provided by my mom as she’s spoken lovingly of her father over the years complete my mental portrait of this kind and gentle man.

Born July 31, 1890, James Alton Phillips was a short fellow, about 5’ 3”, who weighed in at 125 pounds, give or take a few. No doubt genetics played a part in his slight build, but a lifetime of hard work farming his land surely contributed to his wiry physique. 029My mom was the baby of her family, the youngest of eight siblings and her father’s darling. He called her “Babe” and warmed her clothes by the fire for her before she went off to school on cold mornings. Occasionally my grandmother, a bit more stern in her demeanor, would delegate the task of disciplining a wayward child to my grandfather. He would take the offending party outside beyond her view and tell the child to cry out while he used the switch on some inanimate object instead of their legs.

As for me, I recall walking hand in hand with him to the small general store, stopping by the post office to check Box 73 for mail, and waiting for the train to come by so we could wave to the conductor and count the cars. But my favorite activity was eating apples with him. “Papa” as I called him, would sit me on his lap, produce an apple in one hand and his pocket knife in the other. He’d cut a slice for me, then a slice for himself. Back and forth the ritual would continue until the tasty fruit had been consumed. For as long as I can remember, I’ve eaten an apple almost every day. And when I do, I always think of my grandfather.

IMG_6759“Mr. Jim”, as the people around town knew him, was a man of faith, a deacon in the tiny country church where he worshiped. He embodied the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) When he suffered a heart attack a few months before he died, the doctor told him he had to limit his physical activities. For a man who loved his garden and was used to being outside, it was like a death sentence. He’d sit in the kitchen of the home he shared with my grandmother, his wife of 55 years, turn his gaze toward the little church and comment he’d rather be in the cemetery than just sitting around.

Fifty-three years ago today, on October 25, 1965, he was called Home. He had gone outside to check on some work being done for him, work he would much rather have done himself. In a fitting end to his earthly life, he died in his garden. I can still hear my mother’s anguished cry, “No, not Daddy!”, when she received the phone call telling her of his passing.

Although our relationship was brief in terms of time, Papa’s love impacts me to this day. Years after his death, the large corporation I worked for sent me to a training course, one of many I attended during my career. But this one, a self-awareness workshop, was different. It was facilitated by a team of psychologists and it was intense. One of our first exercises involved closing our eyes and imagining a safe place. I immediately envisioned myself in my grandfather’s lap, sharing an apple with him. The physical nourishment we’d partaken of paled by comparison to the bonds of unconditional love and acceptance that were formed.

Today I’m privileged to be “Grammie” to three precious grandchildren. Sharing snacks, especially apples, is one of my favorite things to do with them. It connects me to them and them to my grandfather.

It’s been much too long since I last visited the small graveyard where my grandparents and a number of other maternal relatives are laid to rest. My husband is resting there too, alongside my sister who died in infancy. But when I worked, my job frequently took me to that area of North Carolina and I’d visit the cemetery as often as I could. As I gazed at the tombstones, each representing someone I love and miss, I’d think about how glorious it will be when we all rise to new life, a life that will never end. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) For the love we share now is but a shadow of the Love that awaits when the Everlasting Arms reach out to embrace us and welcome us Home. (1 Corinthians 13:4-13)

Until then, I’ll remain thankful for little rituals and rock-solid faith, lovingly shared, that can reach across the decades, blessing one generation after another.

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

 

 

 

It’s all about Him

I had the privilege of attending the funeral of a dear saint who was suddenly called Home last week. The bold type on the front of the program proclaimed it would be a memorial and worship service in honor of her Lord and Savior.IMG_6739

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The focus wasn’t on the departed, though her faith, kindness and devotion to family and friends were certainly mentioned during the service. No, her family desired to give glory first and foremost to God, no doubt honoring the wishes of their loved one as well. They asked the pastor to preach the Gospel. And so he did, reminding each of us not only of our helpless estate apart from Christ, but also of our assurance of eternal life in God’s presence because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. (Romans 5) It was a message of hope in the midst of sorrow because it emphasized the sovereignty of our loving LORD.

I’ve been studying the book of Ruth in preparation to teach an upcoming Bible study. On the surface, Ruth certainly appears to be the main character. After all, the book’s named after her, right? Her mother-in-law, Naomi, and kinsman redeemer, Boaz, fill important supporting roles and the townspeople are there to provide occasional commentary.

But look again. God is the main character.

After losing her husband and both sons, Naomi acknowledges God was the one behind her bereavement, though she doesn’t appear to blame God or lose faith in Him. (Ruth 1:20-21) As the narrative progresses, we see how God goes before them to redeem Naomi’s brokenness and bring Ruth into His family. In fact, He orchestrated every detail of their redemption. And, wonder of wonders, Naomi, the woman who returned to her homeland empty, became King David’s great-great-grandmother. Talk about working all things together for good! (Romans 8:28)

Though each one of us navigates a unique set of circumstances throughout our lives, our stories are ultimately about God as well. It’s so easy for us to think in terms of “I”, “me”, “mine”, yet it’s really all about Him. Everything we have and are is His.

God:

  • Chose us before the foundation of the earth. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
  • Spoke the world into being. (Genesis 1)
  • Wrote every one of our days in His book before even one came to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • Provided His only Son for our salvation. (John 3:16)
  • Called us out of darkness. (John 8:12; John 12:46)
  • Is working to transform us more and more into Jesus’ likeness through the power of His Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
  • Is preparing a place for us. (John 14:1-3)
  • Will return to take us Home. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

Yes, it’s all of Him, from beginning to end.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so thankful it is. Even though I’m dust (Psalm103:13-14), and my best efforts are filthy rags (Isaiah 54:6), and I have no way of saving myself (Ephesians 2:8-9), I can be certain everything will be ok eventually and eternally. Because God is sovereign. (1 Timothy 6:15-16) He keeps His promises. (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 10:23) And nothing can ever separate us from His love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So even when death comes unexpectedly or circumstances take an unforeseen and unpleasant turn, we can be assured nothing catches God by surprise and no detail escapes His careful plan. We can trust Him to weave all our stories together in a beautiful, epic masterpiece whose end we can be certain of because He’s promised to return and take us to the Home He’s preparing even now.

Hope. Hope in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty. Hope because it’s all about Him.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Make note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Exfoliation

Throughout most of the years I worked for a large corporation, I held the role of colorist. As such, I developed, named and presented new carpet color options to our customers. After all the time spent honing my skills at work, I was thrilled when given the chance to choose all the interior and exterior colors as our home was being built in Georgia.

My late husband’s specialty was horticulture, a no-less creative endeavor. Little did I know how challenging I’d made his plant selection assignment when I picked a terra cotta color scheme for the bricks and shutters, especially when it came to picking the must-have southern plant on our list – a crape myrtle.

Nonetheless, being a skilled horticulturalist, Ray made an excellent choice. Unlike other cultivars whose pink or purple flowers would have offended my color sensibilities as they clashed with our cinnamon-colored exterior, the creamy-white blossoms of the now-stately Natchez create a harmoniously-floriferous cascade each summer. But the brilliance of Ray’s choice is most apparent in the fall. For it is then that the annual process of exfoliation occurs.

IMG_6558As summer wanes, cracks begin to appear in the bark along the mighty trunk, signaling the coming changes. Soon, the cracks turn into fissures as the old skin lifts away from the tree, before finally letting go completely, falling to the ground in long, jagged shards. To the uninitiated observer, this series of events may be unsettling. How could such a shedding of bark possibly be good for the plant? Yet that very act allows the trunk to increase its girth and grow stronger. Best of all, it reveals the most magnificent cinnamon-colored covering. Ray saw the potential in the sapling he planted so long ago. He knew what it could become.

There are several concepts that I consider to be spiritual touchstones. One such idea is that of putting off and putting on. In His analogy of an unclean spirit leaving a man only to return to its neat but empty former abode, Jesus made it clear it’s not enough to make a show of getting rid of sinful thoughts and behavior. (Matthew 12:43-45) Instead, our repentance must be true, the kind that produces fruit in keeping with our profession of faith, as we put on right-thinking and conduct pleasing to God.

The Apostle Paul affirms this teaching in his letter to the Romans, where he encourages his readers not to conform to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:2) And in his letter to the Ephesians, he goes even further. After admonishing them to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24), Paul goes on to provide specific examples of behavior to put off as well as corresponding replacements:

  • Put away falsehood and speak truth. (vs. 25)
  • Let the thief no longer steal, but perform honest labor. (vs. 28)
  • Do not use unwholesome language, but that which benefits and builds up those who listen. (vs.29)
  • Put away all bitterness, wrath, anger and every form of malice. Be kind to one another, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. (vs. 31-32)

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, God already sees His righteousness when He looks at us (2 Corinthians 5:21), but there is much refining left to be done. We are not yet holy as He is Holy, nor will our makeover be complete until He returns. Nonetheless, the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us with the same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead. (Ephesians 1:18-20)

At times our refinement is painful, as bits of our old nature are stripped away. Our Savior suffered much. (Isaiah 53:3-6) How better to know Him than to endure loss, sorrow, and persecution as He did? (Romans 8:17) Such challenges may cause outside observers or even believers themselves to question God’s methods, but we can trust the One who made us to have a good and perfect plan and to work all things together for good. (Jeremiah 29:11; Romans 8:28)

Yes, just as Ray knew what the crape myrtle could become, given sufficient time and proper care, God knows who He created us to be. (Ephesians 2:10) Furthermore, He’s promised to complete the work He’s begun in us (Ephesians 1:6) and to never leave or forsake us at any point in the process. (Deuteronomy 31:8) The Helper will be with us to remind us of His promises, to empower us to do His will and to persevere to the end. (John 14:16-17, 26) On that glorious day, our transformation will be complete and all vestiges of our former selves will be gone. We will gather around the throne, our new selves robed in white, to forever praise our Redeemer King. (Revelation 7:9-17)

Royalty

I’m captivated by British history, probably because it’s part of my history. The lineage of all four of my grandparents can be traced back to the isles across the Atlantic, at least in part. And who doesn’t enjoy a fairy tale romance? Thus, like millions of others around the globe, I delightedly followed the updates surrounding the engagement and nuptials of Prince Harry and his American sweetheart, Meghan Markle, earlier this year. So many traditions, so much pomp, as a real-life princess wed her prince charming.

Of the many details to savor and contemplate, one has continued to resonate with me. Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gift to Meghan was a new title, signifying her acceptance into the royal family. In historical parlance, Meghan is a commoner, without the usual pedigree that accompanies, and in the past was required of, royal brides. Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Sussex, will now receive the honor due her new role, not because of her worthiness, but due to her relationship to the reigning monarch and the dignity pertaining to the position. The queen’s approval supersedes Meghan’s past and serves to silence the nay-sayers.

And so it is for those of us who’ve been chosen by the King. Scripture is clear that we’re commoners, unable to gain access to the throne on our own merits. (Ephesians 2:1-9) In fact, left to ourselves, we wouldn’t even seek an audience with the Lord. (Isaiah 64:6-7b) But, wonder of wonders, He chose us before the foundation of the world to be adopted into His family, because He loves us! (Ephesians 1:3-8a) Not only does God see us a chosen race, a royal priesthood and a people for His own possession (1 Peter 2:9), He calls us His children (Romans 8:15-17; 1 John 3:1) Furthermore, because of our Elder Brother’s atoning sacrifice, we now have access to the throne of grace. (Matthew 27:50-51; Hebrews 4:14-16)

Just as there was much discussion regarding Meghan’s non-aristocratic lineage and the fact she’d been married before, the tiniest details of her behavior have been scrutinized. From posture to if or how she crosses her legs while seated to her facial expressions while chatting with Queen Elizabeth – everything has been evaluated versus standards expected of members of the royal family. Meghan’s actions will provide evidence of her understanding and respect of the position bestowed upon her. Her conduct may enhance or tarnish the reputation of the monarch who welcomed her.

Although many years have passed, I well-remember a colleague’s comment that he wouldn’t put a fish sticker on the back bumper of his car because there were times his driving habits didn’t befit a Christ-follower. Those of us listening chuckled, but shifted uneasily in our seats, recognizing ourselves in his statement. As members of God’s family, we are also His representatives. In fact, the third commandment, “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God”, whose interpretation is too-often limited to not using God’s name in a profane way, addresses God’s concern about how He’s represented by those who bear His name.[1]

We are called to honor our Father and His name by:

  • Bearing an ever-increasing resemblance to Jesus. (Romans 8:29)
  • Loving each other so well that our love becomes a family hallmark. (John 13:34-35)
  • Obeying Him to show our love for Him and our gratitude for His undeserved favor. (John 14:23-24; 1 John 2:4-6)

Putting off our old ways and becoming transformed to fit our new personas is challenging. (Romans 7:21-25; Romans 12:2) Fortunately for Meghan, she has a sister-in-law who’s already been in the royal spotlight for several years and appears willing to teach her the finer points of being a duchess. In his letter to Titus, the Apostle Paul made it clear that women who are further along in their spiritual journeys are to do the same for their younger sisters in the faith, instructing them through reverent behavior and sound teaching. (Titus 2:3-5)

As I was double-checking Meghan’s official title, I came across an interesting factoid. Only women born into the royal family may use “princess” before their names.[2] Not so in God’s family. There are no divisions or distinctions among Abraham’s spiritual offspring. (Romans 10:11-13; Galatians 3:27-29)

IMG_6265I enjoy coloring with my young granddaughters. A recent art session found me recreating myself and my daughters on the page. When I saw the title of the book the page was pulled from, I smiled. “Picture me a Princess”. Why, yes, I will! Because God calls me His child, I am a princess, a daughter of the King!

Sisters, may we recognize and embrace our identity in Christ and may we spur one another on to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:23-25) that we might represent Him well before a watching world.

 

[1] Sermon, Pastor Ben Duncan, “Loving the Lord with All Your Might: The First Table of the Law”, June 17, 2018.

[2] I suppose popular culture overrode that mandate when it came to “Princess Di”.

New box, old post

The door of my aging mailbox refused to stay closed. After several episodes of retrieving its damp contents, I knew it was time to replace it. Upon inspection, the wooden post appeared to be sturdy, despite its slight tilt, which dates back to its initial installation and has been a source of irritation ever since. Being a frugal sort who adheres to the philosophy “waste not, want not”, I decided to replace the box and make do with the leaning post.

I made my way to Home Depot, determined to leave with only a standard-size mailbox and no new plants. I resisted the temptation to stroll through the garden department, went directly to the aisle where the mailboxes are located, paid for the one I selected and returned home.[1] Upon removing the old box, I realized the wooden board it had been attached to was warped and the holes that accommodated the screws were compromised. Not to be thwarted, I decided to use longer screws in an attempt to secure the new box to its perch.

After I attached it, I stood back to admire my handiwork. The sight of the shiny new box contorted into place atop its aged roost was disappointing to say the least. The effect was similar to viewing photos of me and my granddaughters. Just as their unlined faces make mine look more wrinkled by comparison, the post appeared so much older once topped with the gleaming mailbox. And, while I’m ratting on myself, I may as well admit that it took exceptional effort to open and close the door because of the box’s forced mis-alignment. Nonetheless, I decided to live with it.

From the moment I took the initial step back and beheld the disparity between old and new, as well as multiple times since, I’ve been reminded of Jesus’ parable warning against mixing old and new. His examples of using a new patch on an old garment and putting new wine into old wineskins appear in three of the four Gospels, underscoring the importance of His admonition.[2] As recorded in Matthew, after replying to some disciples of John the Baptist regarding fasting, Jesus went on to say, “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)

The parable was most likely directed at the ever-judgmental Pharisees hovering nearby. Over the centuries since Moses received the Ten Commandments, the religious legalists had tacked on more and more requirements and drifted further and further away from the Spirit of the Law. Jesus reserved some of His harshest criticism for the spiritually-blind leaders who misled those who looked to them for guidance. (Matthew 23:1-36)

Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and to establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) as so beautifully foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. Nonetheless, some of the early believers thought they had to add their formerly-mandated works of righteousness to Jesus’ all-sufficient sacrifice. The Apostle Paul made it clear that was unnecessary, for them and for us. (Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:8-9) Likewise, we are told to put off our old selves, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds and to put on our new selves. (Ephesians 4:20-24) In addition, we are called to walk as children of light, having nothing to do with darkness. (2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:8)

IMG_6600The incongruence between the old post and new mailbox continued to grate on me, so I gave in and contacted the HOA-approved mailbox supplier. He came to rectify the situation yesterday. Even though I returned home after dark last night, I breathed a sigh of relief when the new post-new mailbox ensemble appeared in the light of the street lamp. Ahh, the incompatibility was gone.

Oh that we would be similarly perturbed by inconsistencies between the faith we profess and our actions. May we never think we can simply patch our old natures with a dab or two of Christ’s righteousness or live in twilight on the edge of darkness when we’re called to a life of light. And may we long for Christ’s return when the old will pass away completely, all will be made new and our struggles against darkness will cease forever. (Revelation 21:1-5; Revelation 21:21-27)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

 

[1] Long-time readers will recognize the self-control this required of plant-loving me!

[2] See Matthew 9:16-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-39.