Blessed ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:20-28

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

[3] Revelation 7

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

Putting down roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Psalm 139:16b

[4] Jeremiah 29:11-13

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] John 14:1-3

[7] Jeremiah 17:7-8

[8] 2 Corinthians 1:20-22

The new dress, take 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Romans 8:29

[4] Philippians 1:6

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

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

The new dress, take 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice I am:

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

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

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

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

[1] John 14:6

[2] Colossians 1:9-10

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

[4] Ephesians 3:14-19

The new dress

I hadn’t bought a dress in over six years! After all, I have a number of barely-worn frocks in my closet, leftovers from my former life in the corporate arena. Clothing acquisitions since my involuntary-but-oh-so-fulfilling retirement have been more casual and often suitable for gardening – think work boots, fishing shirts[1], wide-brimmed hats. Nonetheless, my thoughtful daughters provided motivation for me to deviate from my post-career-apparel shopping habits. The incentive came in the form of a gift card expressly intended for the purchase of a new dress for the Rose Garden Gala, the major fund raising event for the botanical garden where I volunteer.

Not only was I touched by Mary and Jessie’s kindness, I was genuinely excited about acquiring a new outfit. Armed with the gift card and a specific mental image of the preferred silhouette and fabric, I set off for the mall. Those who know me best are well-aware of the fact shopping doesn’t top my list of favorite pastimes. Aimlessly wandering through retail establishments is not my idea of entertainment. (Notable exception: strolling around plant nurseries!)

By the time I spent almost three hours trying on dresses I was frustrated and hungry. I’d also re-confirmed why I consider the phrase “shopping for fun” to be an oxymoron. However, I finally made it to Starbucks for refreshment triumphantly carrying not one, but three dresses, including the item I wore to the Gala. The night of the event found me buoyed by my perky new outfit as well as my daughters’ generosity.

Scripture doesn’t condemn dressing up, looking nice, applying make-up, but there are numerous passages that address inner and outer beauty from God’s perspective. For example:

  • Peter’s first epistle reminds us our beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. “Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”[2]
  • When Samuel was trying to discern who God had chosen to be Israel’s king, the Lord instructed him, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”[3]
  • Jesus decried the duplicity of the Jewish leaders exclaiming, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”[4]
  • Jesus emphasized the importance of our inner condition yet again when he stated, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”[5]
  • The phrase “good treasure” brings to mind Jesus’ teaching to store up our treasure in heaven where, unlike material treasure, it is safe for eternity.[6]

Even if a glance in the mirror didn’t confirm the veracity of Proverbs’ declaration that “beauty is fleeting”[7], 5-year-old Joshua’s occasional, “You’re really old, Grammie!” reminds me of the inevitability of the effects of aging. Compared to the smooth skin and lineless faces of his little sisters, my visage, etched with almost six decades of smiles, grimaces and furrowed brows must seem truly ancient to him. I was comforted by a passage in a book I’m currently reading. The author referred to the radiance promised those who look to the Lord, instead of dwelling on circumstances.[8] She went on to describe an “aunt who was still radiant in her nineties. If wrinkles can glow, hers did. Aunt Hazel had a way of making everyone feel like a special object of love.”[9]

IMG_3444 (2)I immediately thought of my own dear mother. Time has taken a toll on her physically, but her eyes are bright, her smile warm and inviting. Mom has always had an exceptional affinity for children.  The attraction is mutual and she’s forged a special friendship with 4-year-old Addie at church, as well as with a 7-year-old neighbor. But she befriends young and old alike with her kindness and encouragement. Mom speaks from the overflow of good treasure in her heart and I can only imagine how full her heavenly storehouse is as she’s laid up imperishable riches for years.

Beauty is fleeting, but as Proverbs goes on to say, “a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”[10] May we be women who live in reverent obedience to the Lord, cultivating an inner beauty that never fades away.

(Although written primarily for my female readers, I hope any men who read all the way to the end were able to glean a helpful spiritual nugget or two!)

[1] I could do a commercial for Columbia’s PFG shirts for women! SPF protection, light-weight, quick-dry fabric – not just for fishing, great for gardening too!

[2] 1 Peter 3:3-4

[3] 1 Samuel 16:7

[4] Matthew 3:27

[5] Matthew 34b-35, ESV

[6] Matthew 6:19-21

[7] Proverbs 31:30a

[8] Psalm 34:5

[9] Sara Ann Dubose, “Be Anxious for Nothing”, pg. 62, Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 2001, rev. 2015

[10] Proverbs 31:30b, note: “fear” in this case refers to reverence for and obedience to God, not “terror”.

Passalongs

Sharing plants is one of the many joys of being a gardener. The tradition is especially strong in the South. In fact, some varieties known as passalong plants aren’t readily available for purchase. Instead they’ve survived for decades by being passed along from one generation of horticulture enthusiasts to the next.

Although I don’t have anything particularly difficult to come by in my garden, I’m blessed to have numerous plants given to me by fellow plant lovers: hosta from an aunt who had the greenest of thumbs; a hydrangea grown from a cutting of a friend’s father’s plant; multiple trilliums dotting the woods, offspring of a lone rescue plant; mayapples, spurred violets, several varieties of ferns. The list would be quite extensive if I catalogued each leafy gift. And then there are all the treasured items Ray planted that continue to flourish some 20 years after his passing.

Tending these perennials and woodies, anticipating their return each year and watching them grow gives me a great deal of pleasure, pleasure which is multiplied by remembering the people and circumstances which led to them being in my garden. I also think of plants I’ve shared now growing in friends’ gardens and I smile.

As much as I relish exchanging plants, I recognize I’ve been entrusted with something much more precious to pass along: my faith. Although trusting God and acknowledging Jesus as Savior and Lord are gifts only God can give[1], He commissions us to tell others about his great love.[2] Our first responsibility is to our families. We’re advised to teach our children his commandments as we go about our daily lives[3] and to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.[4] But our mandate to reach others with the Good News doesn’t end there. We are to be light, living in such a way that we glorify our Father[5], always prepared to give an answer to those who wonder where our hope comes from. [6]

In fact, when we consistently live out our faith, God can use even the smallest details to reach others. I’m reminded of this when I recall a long-ago conversation with a business associate. I casually remarked I was glad our meeting had ended earlier than planned so I could make it to Bible study that evening. Several weeks later she asked if she could talk to me about my beliefs, having been encouraged to do so by my offhanded comment regarding Bible study.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul mentions different roles we might assume in others’ spiritual journeys. We may be called to sow seeds, to water,[7] to weed . . .

. . . Ok, I added the part about weeding, but I think its importance can be inferred from Jesus’ parable of the sower since the seeds that sprouted among the thorns were soon overcome by their weedy cohorts. Similarly, faith may be smothered by the worries of this life and become unfruitful [8], but I digress . . .

. . . In spite of the great privilege we have to labor in God’s fields, doing our part to ensure a plentiful harvest, Paul goes on to make it clear that God alone is the One who brings about growth.[9] Likewise, Jesus referred to himself as the true vine, his Father as the Gardener, and we, his followers, as the branches. As long as we abide in him we will produce much fruit, but apart from him we can do nothing.[10]

I cherish the passalong plants in my garden and the friends who gave them to me. Even more, I treasure those who’ve planted, watered and weeded my spiritual garden and the blessing of doing the same in the lives of my fellow sojourners. May we hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, considering how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds[11] as we make our way most assuredly back to the Garden, for He who promised is faithful.

[1] Ephesians 2:8-9

[2] Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15

[3] Deuteronomy 6:4-9

[4] Ephesians 6:4

[5] Matthew 5:

[6] 1 Peter 3:15-16

[7] 1 Corinthians 3:5-6a

[8] Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23; Mark 4:1-9, 14-20; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15

[9] 1 Corinthians 3:6b-7

[10] John 15:5

[11] Hebrews 10:23-24

‘Tis so sweet

Probably not the heading you’d expect for a reflection on two decades of widowhood . . . at least not until you complete the title of the cherished hymn, ’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus and recall its first verse: “’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, Just to take Him at His word, Just to rest upon His promise, Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” [1] As I’ve contemplated writing this memorial post, the refrain of that anthem has come to my mind repeatedly: “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er! Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[2]

This time 20 years ago I was in a daze, a protective state of shock. On some level I recognized the need to make decisions regarding my 39-year old husband’s services – visitation, funeral, burial. So many decisions brought about by his sudden death the night before. But more than anything I just felt numb. My thoughts churned. “How could he have gone to work and not come home? Surely he’ll drive up any minute now, won’t he?” My mind and emotions grappled with the surreal situation I found myself in.

It was a Sunday and my house was full as friends came and went all day. Many heard the news at church, where we would normally have spent our morning had the unthinkable not occurred. Visitors came bearing food and encouraged me to eat, but I had no appetite. All I wanted was to be with Ray, to somehow help him, to know he was ok. When I finally got to see him on Tuesday afternoon, the knot in my stomach began to relax. I know that sounds contradictory, but in viewing his lifeless body I knew he was beyond any help I could offer. Furthermore, I was comforted to know his spirit was with the Lord. He was much more than ok. He was Home.[3]

Decisions were made, relatives and out-of-town friends made arrangements to attend the services – visitation Wednesday evening, funeral Thursday morning, burial in North Carolina on Friday afternoon. I can recall the events of that week in vivid detail. The people who gathered around us; prayers so abundant and fervent I could feel them; numerous gestures of support. I remember and am thankful.055

The flurry of activity and visitors eventually subsided and my daughters, ages 10 and 7, and I were left to contend with reality. I don’t recollect how many nights passed before one or more of us didn’t cry ourselves to sleep, how long it was before my subconscious stopped expecting Ray to come home from work, or when a “new normal” finally took hold. The raw pain of loss eventually diminished, but the longing to talk to Ray, to have my wise and loving partner by my side remains to this day.

So much has happened since that warm week in April, the daily ins and outs of life plus birthdays, graduations, weddings and the arrival of grandchildren. These momentous occasions were bittersweet without Ray to share them, but there has been much joy nonetheless.

Because God has never forsaken us![4]

From the second we heard the devastating news in a tiny room at Kennestone hospital to this very moment, God has been a faithful defender of this widow and a Father to her fatherless girls.[5] As I’ve thought about what to write on this 20th anniversary, each hardship that came to mind was met with a “but God”. A few examples: He made it possible for my parents to move to Georgia to help me raise Mary and Jessie, provided friends who’ve faithfully prayed for us and offered other assistance as needed, and he allowed me to be gainfully employed all the years my daughters were dependent upon me and my income. In addition there are the over-and-above gifts, like getting to go back to school to study horticulture.

I’ve often said if there’d been a signup sheet entitled “Get to know God better by losing your Husband”, I wouldn’t have put my name on it. Yet God sovereignly saw fit to add the roles of widow and single parent to my resumé. I have no doubt I’ve come to know him far better than if I’d had my earthly husband and provider to depend on. And so I can say as Louisa M.R. Stead did in the last stanza of her hymn, “I’m so glad I learned to trust Him, Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend, And I know that He is with me, Will be with me to the end.”

God owes me nothing, including explanations. Although I don’t remember ever being angry with God, I have wondered on more than one occasion why he took Ray so young. I’d reason it made no sense because he was a kind, caring spouse, parent, friend. But God sending his perfect Son to die in my place doesn’t make sense either.[6] Moreover, it is ample proof of his infinite and unconditional love. Yet He constantly pours out reminders, blessings both big and small.

Although my girls and I bear the scars of losing a beloved father and husband all-too-soon (at least from a human perspective), the Lord has comforted us that we might comfort others.[7] He has bestowed upon us the oil of joy instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.[8] Some who’ve witnessed our journey comment on our strength. May they recognize that apart from the Lord we would have none.[9] We are a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor[10]. Truly all praise, glory and honor belong to him alone.

 

[1] Louisa M.R. Stead, lyrics; William J. Kirkpatrick, music, 1882

[2] Ibid

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:1-9

[4] Deuteronomy 31:6

[5] Psalm 68:5

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

[7] 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

[8] Isaiah 61:3a

[9] See, for example Psalm 46:1-3, Psalm 73:25-26 and Isaiah 40:28-31

[10] Isaiah 61:3b

He didn’t have to do it

I’d reconciled myself to the fact I probably wasn’t going to make it to The Pocket this year. Weather, friends’ schedules, my commitments – things weren’t aligning favorably and the window for making my annual trek was closing . . . but then came last Sunday.

It was a beautiful Sabbath day, perfect for a field trip. As I awaited the start of morning worship, I contemplated the brilliant blue sky, the backdrop visible through large windows behind the pulpit. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the wildflowers calling to me, beckoning me to return to the place I’ve come to refer to as “God’s Garden”. I knew I would be sorely disappointed if I didn’t go. And so, after service, I invited a friend to accompany me, scratched my plans for the afternoon and headed to a truly amazing place.

The Pocket at Pigeon Mountain, located in Walker County, Georgia, is home to a dazzling array of wildflowers.[1] When I first had the pleasure of visiting in the spring of 2013, one of my initial questions was, “Did someone plant all these flowers?” When I was informed the plants had sprung up and flourished there due to advantageous conditions, I was overwhelmed. To my believing heart, I recognized and embraced it as an incredible gift from a loving Father, the Almighty Creator. That sense of awe has accompanied every visit I’ve made since.

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, when I began to study horticulture I was astounded at the number of different kinds of plants that exist. So much variety and diversity! Consider, for example that there are approximately 600 species of oak trees and 250 species of camellias.[2] I suppose God could have created one kind of tree, a solitary selection of shrub, a single type of rose and left it at that. But he didn’t! I wonder if the vast array of plants (not to mention people, animals, insects . . .) isn’t at least partly a result of the sheer joy of creating and God’s desire to instill joy in us as we observe the complexity and beauty in the world around us.

IMG_3023To be sure, life in this world can be difficult.[3] From personal hardships to international conflict, we don’t have to look very far to find trouble. But we don’t have to look far to find evidence of God’s abiding love either. My heart sings when I’m at The Pocket, but it also soars when I find a returning trillium peeking out of the leaves in my woods, watch my granddaughter take her first tentative steps, or listen as a friend shares how God is working in her life.

Before the foundation of the world, God knew the choices we’d make, how we’d turn away from him. Nonetheless, he spoke this amazingly beautiful world into existence. He created men and women in his image and placed them in a perfect garden.[4] Yet Adam and Eve tried to usurp his rightful place[5], something their progeny have desired to do ever since.

Complete in himself and lacking nothing, God could have turned away from his ungrateful creatures. But he didn’t! Instead he sent his one and only Son to save us.[6] Jesus was pierced for our transgressions, his punishment brought us peace, his wounds healed us.[7] Therefore, we have the promise of abundant life now[8] and eternal life in his presence when he returns to restore all things.[9]

Until then, may we gratefully recognize the multitude of gifts surrounding us, ever thanking the Father for his lavish love.[10]

I hope you’ll enjoy this sampling of photos I took Sunday afternoon:

 

 

[1] For additional information on The Pocket, check out the US Wildflowers Journal site: http://journal.uswildflowers.com/spring-wildflowers-at-the-pocket-at-pigeon-mountain/

[2] Information on oaks from Wikipedia, on camellias from the American Camellia Society.

[3] John 16:33 – Jesus told us to expect trouble, but to take heart because he has overcome the world.

[4] Genesis 1:1-31

[5] Genesis 3:1-7

[6] John 3:16

[7] Isaiah 53:5

[8] John 10:10, Romans 5:17

[9] Revelation 21:1-5

[10] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

The impostor

I’ve killed my share of plants over the years . . . and I’ve cared for a few longer than I should have.

My garden is home to a beautiful stand of native columbines, offspring of plants my late husband started over 20 years ago. Like a number of other gardening tasks, ensuring the survival of the columbines was something I had to learn-by-doing after Ray passed away suddenly one warm April evening. As I cut back the spent flowers later that spring, I realized they were laden with seeds. Many spurted out when I cut the dried stems, dotting the ground and decorating my shirt. I decided to sprinkle more around for good measure. And sprinkle I did, shaking pod after pod of dried columbines.

Months passed. Raising two young daughters alone and trying to find my footing in a world turned upside down consumed much of my time and energy. But winter waned, warmer days returned and the garden beckoned me. A reconnaissance stroll yielded a number of finds – tiny plants emerging from their winter slumber. “Hmm”, I wondered. “What could all those leaves springing up in the front bed be?” Then I remembered scattering columbine seeds everywhere. It worked! I’ve continued the sprinkling tradition ever since and each year I’ve been blessed with a bumper crop.

IMG_2890

A young columbine on the left with a weedy wannabe on the right.

When I was first taking stock of the returning plants, I noticed some leaves that looked almost like columbine foliage with a similar growth habit. Not wanting to pull up desirable plants, I decided to let them develop until I was sure. Big mistake! By the time I realized they were weeds, they’d put down roots, matured and reproduced. The imposters return each spring alongside the columbines, hiding out, hoping I won’t spot them. But after almost two decades of observation and careful scrutiny, I’m able to readily detect the difference, even when the plants are still very small. I pluck them out before they have a chance to get established and take over valuable garden real estate.

 

Just like my early dealings with the weeds, it’s easy to let questionable behavior or dubious conduct gain a foothold. We rationalize, “Looks like a good thing. I’m not sure, but it won’t hurt to try it out, at least until I’m certain. I can redirect later if need be.” By the time we recognize the situation for what it is, it’s much more difficult to handle than if we’d been more spiritually discerning from the start. Unlike the weeds which really aren’t out to get me, we have an adversary bent on our destruction. Though he knows his ultimate defeat is certain[1], he prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may destroy.[2] He masquerades as an angel of light[3], tempting with promises that seem oh-so-reasonable, all while minimizing potential consequences.[4]

Fortunately, there is a way to resist him. We must draw near to God[5], making use of the mighty armor He provides for us.[6] As we think on his powerful word, described in Ephesians 6 as the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, our minds are transformed and we are enabled more and more to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.[7]

4-5-2015, Columbine 1As the colony of columbines has become more dominant over the years, there’s less room for the pesky intruders. Those that do appear don’t get to stay around very long since I can now easily identify them. Just as I’ve consistently sprinkled columbine seeds and studied the resulting plants’ appearance, let us liberally sow God’s truth in our lives and meditate on its teachings. In so doing, may we weed out temptations and lies before they have a chance to entice and entangle us.

 

[1] 1 Corinthians 15

[2] 1 Peter 5:8

[3] 2 Corinthians 11:14

[4] Genesis 3:1-5

[5] James 4:7-8

[6] Ephesians 6:10-17

[7] Romans 12:2

Dust moments

My mood was as gray as the rainy day. I thought I got up on the right side of the bed, but a series of small frustrations throughout the morning pushed me to the edge of tears more than once. I made my way to an afternoon appointment safely and was looking forward to a stop at Starbucks afterwards. Sadly, there would be no tea and pumpkin bread for me.

Nothing happened when I tried to start my car . . . absolutely nothing. There are so many things we do without really having to think about them – starting a car is one of them. But when no humming of the engine resulted from my mindless procedure, I began to look at each component of the process. Finding nothing wrong with my method and making note the lights were working indicating the problem most likely wasn’t a dead battery, I gave up and called the car dealer. A service advisor talked me through a few more attempts to start it, to no avail. I’d have to have it towed.

As I awaited the arrival of the tow truck, I did my best to stave off a full-blown pity party. I exhorted myself with truth: “It’s a car.” “It can be fixed or replaced.” “This isn’t what you planned, but you’re not in a hospital with a friend who’s undergoing her last-chance chemo treatment”, which is exactly where one of my dear sisters in Christ was at that very moment. [1]

The tenuous calm I’d talked myself into was short-lived. As the tow truck driver loaded my car, he told me he’d already picked up five of the same make and model that day. In describing what was most likely wrong, he went as far as to say, “Get it fixed and sell it.”

My mind was in turmoil. I like my car A LOT, even though it’s almost 8 years old. It’s sleek and fun to drive. I was hoping he might have been embellishing the situation a bit, but some Googling that evening confirmed a defect so prevalent one consumer group has been pressuring the car maker to issue a recall. So far they’d only extended the warranty on the faulty part to six years, which did me no good. Furthermore, the repair was a pricey one.

Still preaching truth to myself – “We’re not supposed to worry. Trust God for the details!”[2] – I went to bed praying I’d sleep through the night in spite of my troubled mind. Alas, I woke up around 3am and try as I might to pray myself back to sleep, I was still awake when my alarm went off at 6:30am. I listlessly made my way through my morning routine, wondering how I’d ever have the energy to care for my three grandchildren all day.

As I was preparing to walk out the door, my phone rang. My service advisor called to let me know my car was ready to go, repaired at no charge to me under a recently-issued recall. As I thanked him and hung up, I dissolved into tears of gratitude . . . and remorse. Once again I was praying, this time asking God to forgive me for worrying and trying to piece together solutions in the wee hours of the morning. And just as quickly, I felt my Father’s embrace and his sweet assurance that he knows I’m dust.

IMG_2930Psalm 103 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. Verses 13 and 14 are especially dear to me: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers we are dust.”[3] Even though I’ve walked with the Lord for over 40 years, I still have anxious times of hand wringing, speak words I later regret, behave in ways unbecoming a daughter of the King. I’ve come to refer to such episodes as my dust moments.

IMG_2929My devotional reading that night included these insights from James Packer: “There is unspeakable comfort in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love, and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love toward me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me.”[4]

As two tumultuous days drew to a close, my Father wanted to make sure I got the message: “Don’t be so hard on yourself. I know you are dust and I love you anyway. I always will.”

 

[1] Please see “Thrashing about, epilogue” (Archives, February 2016) for more thoughts on keeping things in perspective.

[2] Matthew 6:25-34

[3] NIV translation

[4] James Packer, “Your Father Loves You”, March 8th, Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 1986.