Perfect timing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom! Be careful!!”

“I’m alright. Gail needs a hug!”

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

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

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

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

[1] Name has been changed.

[2] John 14:26

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Isaiah 55:8-9

[9] Lamentations 3:22-23

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Good stewards*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] 1 Peter 4:7-11

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

[5] Ezekiel 36:26-27

[6] Romans 12:3

[7] Philippians 4:6-7

The best-laid plans

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

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

And then reality intervened.

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Luke 14:28-32.

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

[3] Proverbs 16:9, 19:21

[4] Jeremiah 29:11

[5] Romans 8:28

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

[7] 1 Corinthians 12

[8] Psalm 139:13

[9] Ephesians 2:10

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

Happy nappy!

My 21-month-old granddaughter, Emma, loves to mother her baby dolls. She strolls and feeds them, tucks them in and sings “rock-a-baby”. Her tender ministrations warm my heart.

Earlier this week, I arrived at daughter Mary’s house for the first of my twice-weekly visits. Six-year-old Joshua greeted me with exuberant orders to “look at the tree, Grammie!” And what a tree it was! As my gaze followed Joshua’s outstretched arm, I beheld a magnificent, half-decorated Fraser fir, so wide it nearly filled the front room. Emma’s happy babbles joined Joshua’s continuing dialog about the tree as I made my way through the house. IMG_4789I tread gingerly, careful not to step on any of the favorite, kid-friendly (read: “unbreakable”) Christmas decorations scattered about on the playroom floor. Among those recently freed from their storage boxes: the Peanuts gang – Charlie Brown carrying his spindly tree, Linus hugging his blanket, Sally holding her outrageous letter to Santa; a stuffed, chartreuse Grinch with his menacing scowl; and the Fisher-Price nativity, whose plastic figurines are perfectly proportioned for tiny hands.

After the initial excited exclamations over the newly-appeared Christmas décor, Joshua, Emma and I settled into our morning routine, awaiting the appointed time to pick up 3-year-old Lyla from pre-school. As I was preparing lunch, I overheard Emma say, “happy nappy”, a phrase we use instead of “sweet dreams” when tucking the children in for naptime. Upon hearing her cheerful refrain, I surmised she was playing with the nativity.

IMG_4788“Emma, are you telling Baby Jesus ‘happy nappy’?” My query was met with her inimitable, “Yes”.[1] Moments later, she gently transported the miniature baby-in-the-manger to the play kitchen where she prepared a snack for him. As I looked on, misty-eyed, God graciously used Emma’s simple gestures to remind me of profound truths:

“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)

“ . . . Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

“The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:15-16)

“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 4:15-16)

Jesus, the beloved Son, the second person of the Trinity, came to earth as a tiny, helpless baby who needed naps and food and the care of his parents. Our finite minds can’t fully comprehend this astounding truth. Nonetheless, may we never forget that because of God’s great love for us, He sent us the most amazing, precious, priceless gift ever given, the gift we needed most: a Savior.[2]

 

[1] “Yes” was one of Emma’s first words. Her charming, emphatic pronunciation makes it one of her most endearing.

[2] John 3:16

Do-overs

Fall is the best time for planting most trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Soil remains relatively warm even as ambient temperatures drop, allowing for root development as top growth slows. I’ve been judiciously purchasing specimens to fill in some gaps in my landscape, eagerly awaiting the optimal time to plant new leafy friends and to transplant a few old ones. Given the size of some of the items to be installed and the ever-deteriorating condition of my hands, I arranged for some professional assistance and happily anticipated the appointed day, which happened to be yesterday.

I awoke early, excited to finally get underway; however, as I bustled about making breakfast, a familiar “ding” alerted me to a text message. Sadly, my landscaping project could not proceed as planned due to a key helper’s illness. My disappointment was somewhat assuaged by knowing this change of plans would allow the other partner to attend her sons’ Thanksgiving programs without the added stress of traveling back and forth to oversee my project. Little did I know God had other, more important plans for me as well.

I texted my daughter, Mary to ascertain how 21-month-old Emma was doing. She’d fallen victim to some un-diagnosable, rash-causing virus the day before and was covered in red splotches when I last saw her. Mary replied that Emma’s runny nose was considerably worse and they wouldn’t be able to attend 3-year-old Lyla’s Thanksgiving feast. She then inquired if I might be able to go instead. I  responded affirmatively and quickly shifted my attention from playing in the dirt to surprising my beloved granddaughter.

As I made my way to Lyla’s pre-school, circumstances surrounding another feast came to mind. Many years have come and gone since that fateful day, blurring the details, but I distinctly remember the nature of the faux pas, long filed under “Regrettable Mom Moments”. Somehow Ray and I got our signals crossed or misunderstood the parameters of the event and neither of us went to Mary’s kindergarten Thanksgiving meal. She was the only one in her class without a parent or grandparent present. Although the hurt we inflicted on our dear daughter was unintentional, I felt miserable for disappointing her. Even now the memory brings tears to my eyes.

But yesterday, when He allowed me to be there for Lyla, God graciously gave me a do-over. His gift and the realization He too remembered my long-ago remorse made sharing Lyla’s experience that much sweeter, the past regret less painful.

Several Old Testament passages refer to God as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.[1] From Adam and Eve to the chosen people of Israel to those of us who call on his precious name in these end times – we’ve all been wayward[2] and given God plenty of reasons to turn his back on us. But He will never forget[3] or forsake[4] his children. In fact, He sent his only Son to save us from our sins[5], to be our righteousness[6], for He knows we are dust[7] and can never stand in his holy presence on our own merit.

God disciplines those He loves.[8] He forgives and restores us when we repent.[9] And by the power of his Spirit, He is transforming us more and more into the likeness of our Savior[10], enabling us to produce good fruit when we abide in him.[11] Finally, when the old order of things has passed away, He’ll wipe away every tear and dwell among his people forever.[12]

As we enter into this Advent season, may we rejoice anew at the extravagant gift we’ve been given. Our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace[13] knows us intimately. He humbled himself, took on flesh, lived a perfect life and died on a cross[14], the Sacrifice to end all sacrifices. No do-overs required. [15]

 

[1] See for example, Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15; Psalm 103:8

[2] Isaiah 53:6

[3] Isaiah 49:15

[4] Deuteronomy 31:8

[5] John 3:16

[6] Romans 5:17

[7] Psalm 103:13-14

[8] Hebrews 12:5-11

[9] 1 John 1:9

[10] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[11] John 15:5

[12] Revelation 21:3-4

[13] Isaiah 9:6

[14] Philippians 2:5-11

[15] Hebrews 10:1-18

A most glorious beginning

As chronicled in an earlier post , death has visited my family often in October. (See “The gift of remembrance” in Archives, October 2014)  Three of my four grandparents, a beloved aunt, a cherished uncle – all six passed away during the tenth month of different years.

This fall finds us bereaved once again, as son-in-law Justin’s grandfather completed his earthly sojourn two weeks ago. His memorial service was a celebration of a life well-lived, a race faithfully run, a servant safely Home.[1] As Justin and his brother and cousin shared memories of their grandfather, it was clear he made a lasting, positive impact on their lives.

Though their memories won’t be as clear or numerous, “Papa” touched the lives of the next generation as well. Since his great-grandfather’s passing, Joshua has comforted himself and others with truth: “He’s not sick anymore. He’s in heaven!”; “In heaven, guess what? You can’t die again! Papa is there waiting for us!”; and, possibly my favorite, “Papa doesn’t have to pray anymore. He can just walk right up and talk to Jesus!”

 

 

 

IMG_4547Oh the beauty and simplicity of child-like faith, the kind of faith Jesus commended[2], the kind we’re told to pass on to our offspring.[3] It’s apparent Papa followed that mandate, modeling a godly walk for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Indeed, it is the greatest legacy any of us can bestow, the greatest joy to know our children are walking in the truth.[4]

Nonetheless, we grieve our loss when a loved one is called Home. Though we’re assured the separation is temporary, their departure leaves a silence, an empty spot, that only their voice, their presence can fill. Someone asked me recently if I would wish Ray back. I hesitated. I know the spiritually-correct answer. How could I be so selfish as to ask him to return from Paradise?[5] Yet, I think back over all we’ve experienced and endured without him over the past 20 years and, in my frail humanity, I wish, oh-so-much, that he’d been here – to watch his daughters grow into amazing young women, to play with his grandchildren, to tend our garden with me.

The One who records our tears on his scroll[6] understands. Moments before He called Lazarus from the tomb, even knowing his Father would hear his plea to raise his friend, Jesus wept.[7] Being full of compassion, He shared the sisters’ sorrow and He shares ours.

But unlike our human friends who come alongside us with sincere condolences and ministrations in our times of need, Jesus can also meet our deepest need, the need to be reconciled to God. Our Savior took our sins upon himself and paid our penalty so we may joyfully proclaim[8], “Death is not the end, beloved. For the believer it is the most glorious beginning!”[9]

As you might imagine, whenever I attend a funeral or memorial service, I think back to Ray’s services. My ability to hold my emotions in check varies. I did reasonably well last week until the final song, “Twelfth of Never”, requested by Justin’s grandmother. While strains of the Johnny Mathis classic filled the church, tears trickled, then streamed from my eyes as I was reminded love never dies.[10]

 

IMG_1102

During Ray’s graveside service, one of the pastors told Mary and Jessie their lives would be blessed by having had a godly father even though he was with them for a relatively short time. I’m thankful Ray loved us so well that we continue to feel his love, thankful for his saving faith that guarantees we’ll see him again.[11]

I recently read a thought-provoking statement: “We are all under sentence of death; we are all terminal cases.”[12] Sometimes death comes quickly, unexpectedly, as with Ray’s passing. At other times it’s preceded by a long, arduous illness. IMG_1539Regardless of its manner, it is a certainty.[13] The author went on to say, “For the believer, the time of death becomes far less daunting a factor when seen in the light of eternity. Although death remains a formidable opponent, it is, from another perspective, the portal through which we pass to consummated life. We pass through death, and death dies. And the more a Christian lives in the consciousness of God’s presence here, the easier it is to anticipate the unqualified delight that will be experienced in God’s presence there.”[14] A most glorious beginning indeed!

Papa

Lord, we are like a mist.[15] Please teach us to number our days aright[16], knowing You wrote them all in your book before even one came to be.[17] Help us to fix our eyes on things above[18], to store up an imperishable treasure.[19] And may we leave a legacy of love and faith like the steadfast witnesses who have gone before us.[20]

[1] 2 Timothy 4:7-8

[2] Jesus welcoming the children is recounted in three of the four gospels: Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17.

[3] Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Deuteronomy 11:18-19.

[4] 3 John 3-5

[5] Psalm 16:11; 2 Corinthians 5:1-6

[6] Psalm 56:8

[7] John 11:1-43

[8] Isaiah 53:4-6

[9] Rev. Todd Allen made this statement during Ray’s funeral service, April 24, 1997. I’ve thought of it many times since.

[10] 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

[11] John 3:16; John 11:25-27

[12] D.A. Carson, “Be Still, My Soul, Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering”, Wheaton, IL; Nancy Guthrie/Crossway, 2010; p 117.

[13] Romans 5:12

[14] D.A. Carson, Ibid

[15] James 4:13-15

[16] Psalm 90:12

[17] Psalm 139:16

[18] 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

[19] Matthew 6:19-21

[20] Hebrews 11; Hebrews 12:1-3

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

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