Thursday, May 5, 2016

Mommy's Gardenias and Almost Discarded People

"Should we schedule the funeral right now?"  My startled response to Chuck's question lasted only a few seconds.  He had just bought me a large gardenia tree for Mother's Day.  Gardenias are one of my favorite flowers. Their beauty and scent are comfort food for my soul because of my mother.
I can't remember a time when my mother did not have a gardenia bush in the sunniest window of the house. No matter how small the gardenia started out, once it entered her home, it grew to need a huge tub.  As a mother of seven children, I'm pretty certain Mommy didn't baby them.  I'm also pretty sure she didn't spend money on fancy plant fertilizers or bug sprays. Yet somehow, they thrived under her care.  Perhaps it was the summer vacation plants experienced when my father planted them in the yard each spring in a bright sunny corner, where no one had to remember to water them. But they didn't all stay healthy all the time!  One year a tub ended up in a damp, dark basement because, well, it looked like a pot of dirt filled with dead sticks.  The gardenia bush was dead. That spring my father pulled up the tub into the sunshine because he saw a few green leaves trying to break out.  By the end of the summer, that gardenia bush was in full bloom.  When we asked my mother how this resurrection took place, she responded, "Every time I was in the cellar, I just threw water on it whenever I passed it by, hoping maybe there was still some life left." 

The scent of gardenias takes me back to those childhood days and more times than I can remember, I have succombed to the temptation to give one a home.  But alas, Chuck was right.  My success with gardenias was zero. This time, I was determined to succeed.  But oh my, Chuck's question wasn't too far off the truth. This poor plant.  It has gone through haircuts that left only the main stem in place - causing Chuck to shake his head in dismay and ask, "Can we throw it out, now?"  And then the black sooty stuff and the little bugs......the year the leaves turned yellow and  the many, many buds that fell off just before bursting open.  But bury it,throw it out? No way.  My mother's history with gardenias gave me hope - there's still some life left in this stick!

Today I began to see that Mommy's care of her gardenias and especially her strategy for bringing back to life that dead looking gardenia is a glimpse into the way she handled "discarded people."  My siblings and I often smile and shake our heads in wonder at the broken people who found their way into her heart and home.  How she cared for them by finding a "sunny window" where they could feel the warmth of God's love or maybe threw some water on them as she passed by - drops of life-giving attention....not much, but just enough to communicate, "You're important to me."  She wasn't your stereotypical mushy, gushy, lovey type of spiritual mother that I sometimes think we try to emulate. She had her own style and it worked.  I don't even think she had to try - she just was herself. When my friendship with a particular girl cooled, the girl kept stopping by - not to see me but to talk to my mother. There Mommy sat in her sunny kitchen, swinging her leg, listening, listening, listening.....but it wasn't just teenage girls.  Somehow she engaged people and entered into their lives.  My father recently told me about a young pastor who often stopped by when my mother suffered congestive heart failure.  I said how nice it was for him to shepherd her as a shut in.  My father chuckled and said, "He wasn't coming to be her pastor.  He was coming to be mentored by her.  She counseled him and encouraged him.  They were real friends."  Flash - a picture of this then young man, sitting at her kitchen table, talking, laughing, and leaving refreshed and energized for God's calling.  What was her secret magnet that caused a busy young pastor to sit at her feet every week?  Whenever Chuck faced a huge obstacle in ministry or life, he relished time with my mother.  When he faced a painful ministry crisis, she regularly sent him handwritten scriptures, encouraging him to resist the urge to fight back or defend himself. My family is filled with men, young and old alike, who highly regarded her wisdom.  Perhaps one of her secrets is that she respected my husband and all of her sons-in-law and her sons.  And they knew it.

Perhaps that's why they enjoyed not only her wisdom but her ability to find laughter even in hard places.

But back to my gardening. I'm happy to report that my gardenia tree has never looked healthier.  This morning I discovered one of the most beautiful, largest gardenias I've ever seen.

The scent took me back to our old kitchen once more where I saw Daddy pulling that big tub up the steps of our old, dark, dank basement and heard him ask,"El, look.  There's a few green leaves.  What do you want me to do with this?"  And my mother instructing him to take it out back into the warm sunshine where she could easily throw water on it when she stepped outside to hang up the tubs and tubs of wet clothes.   And suddenly vignettes of "her broken people," sitting at her kitchen table, chattering away and the young pastor, visiting under the guise of shepherding her but really coming for help and hope from an older woman flashed across my mind.    And then I flash forward to how much I miss seeing that leg swinging back and forth while I chattered on and on, confident I had her full attention and that she was fully engaged in my concerns and suddenly I realize - I was one of those "broken people." Just time with her was like a drink of cool water that would help heal the broken places in my life or help me process a difficult relationship or know the next step to take in raising our children.  Oh how I miss her.  The treasure of this lone gardenia, bursting forth  from the only bud on my large gardenia bush, today of all days, her birthday, turns my thankful heart toward God, thankful for all those mothering moments that continue to help shape me into the woman I am today.  What was her secret?  What was the magnet?  Living Water, sprinkled as she walked by or listened, listened, listened, listened. when a thirsty soul stopped by, under the guise of encouraging her.

How I long to know when to throw that Living Water on others as I pass them by or they stop by, just to chat..  Happy Birthday, Mommy.  We miss you.
In His grip,

PS I wrote this post a few years ago on my mother's birthday, August 8. I share it again in honor of my mother on Mother's Day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Widow's Journey - There is Purpose and Hope

About 700,000 women are widowed in the United States every year. Losing a spouse is considered one of life’s most devastating events. 
FREE Resource: A Widow's Journey - There is Purpose and Hope 
Many widows share that the loneliest time of the day is the dinner hour, when they sit at a table by themselves after many years of sharing that evening meal with their husband. In this interview, a woman who has experienced extraordinary loss in her lifetime, Carolyn Fredericks, shares her own grief journey after the death of her husband. This transparent interview will encourage widows and their families, that there is hope and purpose after the loss of a beloved husband. Carolyn not only gives us a glimpse into her own struggles but gives practical ways to face those lonely moments. She answers such questions as:

What about anger at your spouse, God, people who seem to forget you?
What about dating?
What if your spouse dies and you have unresolved conflict?
What if you learn something devastating about your spouse after his or her death?
What have you done to make something good come from the death of your husband?
And much more.

I asked two widows to review this interview before we launched it. Both responded that Carolyn is right on in her perspective and they are eager to share it with their families and other widows.

If you are a widow, we know you will find help and hope in this conversation. If you know a widow who is struggling, let her know that she can find help and hope by letting Carolyn come alongside of her through this interview. MARKINC Ministries is so grateful for Carolyn's willingness to allow God to use her life journey to offer help and hope to others.

In His grip,

FREE Resource

A Widow's Journey - There is Purpose and Hope - Finding Purpose

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Grow Up, Not Old - God Must Have Smiled

I was 18 years old and  thought I was in love.  My boyfriend was deployed to Germany and when he came home in December he wanted us to get married.  I would return to Germany with him.  I announced my plans to my father (I chose this moment carefully - my mother was away on a retreat).  Instead of putting his foot down and telling me absolutely not, he calmly asked what I intended to do about my two year scholarship to Goldey Beacom Junior College.  With confidence, I responded: "I will attend until December and then tell them I don't need it any more."  Daddy smiled his little smile
There is that Smile, even in Old Age!
and said, "Sharon, when you applied for and won this scholarship, your acceptance of it implies that you plan to graduate.  If now you do not plan to graduate, you are lying to the National Secretary's Association.  They gave you the scholarship because they believe in your integrity, not just your skills.  You don't just lie with words, you lie with behavior. If you don't plan to graduate, you need to give it back to them so they can give it someone else."  Then he told me about how he and my mother eloped (during World War II and everyone knew they were eloping) and how being a military couple affected their lives.  One thing led to another and soon Daddy was talking about how severe financial problems forced him to move us to Newark, Delaware.  He said, "You know, at the time, everything looked like a disaster.  But if we had not moved here, we wouldn't have found the church and you kids might not have met other words, God had a plan for us.  He always has a plan."

The next week, I announced to my parents I wasn't getting married and moving to Germany. The romance was over.  I attended Goldey Beacom as planned.  That following December, the month I would have been married (at 18 years of age) I met my future husband, Chuck, the last night I was waitressing at a  local restaurant.

Tell the Next Generation
God always has a plan.  The older I grow, the more I see how God uses disappointments and hard places in life - He's not surprised by any of them.  In the middle of the hard places God sends treasures, to turn our hearts toward Him, to remind us that He knows us and calls us by name (Isaiah 45:2-3). That's one reason I encourage women to journal, to keep a record, not just for herself, but for those who come after her, as a means to tell the story of God's grace again and again.  The writer of Psalm 78 declares, I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from of old - things we have heard and known, things our fathers have told us.  We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation  the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he had done.
Showing the Next Generation the Priceless Legacy of Family

The older I grow, the more I want to tell the next generation of "things hidden from old....the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done." The Apostle Paul, writing from a prison cell, tells Timothy that "the time has come for my departure" and in the next few verses Paul repeatedly declares the "praiseworthy deeds of the Lord."  He's writing from a prison cell, but over and over again, Paul reminds Timothy of the history of God's gracious care of Paul and that Paul confidently awaits the Lord's rescue from every evil attack. He's writing from a  prison cell but he was free! As we age, we may feel as though our bodies are prison cells, limiting us from doing what we wish or may have always done. Take a page from Paul's last words, recognize that there is still more to do, tell His story in your life to the next generation.

Speaking of keeping a record of God's presence, this journal entry took me back to the summer of 2004, when stress took up residence in our home, but God's grace clearly over rode all of it. Perhaps something in this record will encourage a reader to "trust and obey," trusting God has a plan.  And encourage you to "tell your story" of God's faithfulness, even when life was hard.

God Must Have Smiled

Done - in the mail.  Every writing deadline met. The final chapter of Treasures in Darkness is on its way to the publisher.
Only by God's grace and mercy and enabling could this happen.I  'm a little brain dead...but there is a book titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  I think that about sums it up!  I've been writing this book for over three years but the real beginning was the night Mark died in 1993. 

Earlier this year I worked out a writing schedule, taking into consideration the expected early arrival of Heidi and Greg’s twins, and all the family/church needs. And  God must have smiled. 

Some writers work for at least an hour every day on their projects.  I typically will not write unless I know I have large chunks of time because once I get in the zone, I don't like interruptions and it takes me too long to prime the pump again. So I planned accordingly.  God must have smiled.

Our family planned, too. Before the expected late summer arrival of the twins, Melanie planned extensive, painful surgery for the end of June with the assurance that she would be able to help hold the twins when they were born by the end of July. God must have smiled.

Dan and Laura and baby Emma moved in, expecting their new house to be completed by mid-July.  And I smiled!  And so did God.

We expected Heidi to go on full bed rest in late May.  The doctor sent her to bed much earlier and our grandchildren began to see our house as their second home. 
Sweet Bedtime Rituals
My office became a bedroom for two of them.....large chunks of early morning writing time were wiped out by their presence......and God must have smiled.   

I tried to write during nap times and in between visits and would leave the computer wondering what in the world I had written - couldn't remember any of it.  And I know God smiled.

In spite of all the ups and downs of the summer, I met every writing deadline. Then the relatives came! Chuck’s nieces and two small children arrived for a vacation.  Our household increased once more. Every space filled with loved ones.

We expected Heidi to be in the hospital, maybe in July for a little while, instead, her doctors sent her to the hospital with preterm labor the end of June, the labor didn't stop.....and on July 7, I received the phone call while I was getting a perm.  Three stylists hurriedly pulled the curlers from my hair so I could rush to the hospital where our little twinnies were making an early appearance.  My heart raced and tears streamed as I pressed on the gas and pleaded with the Lord, "You are our Rock, Rest, Rescue and Refuge, Lord (Psalm 62)!  Our family needs you to be all of these to us right now."  Fear for the babies and our daughter filled my heart and scripture was the only defense I could trust.  And God must have smiled.
So, so tiny.

We welcomed Nathan and Abigail into our world.  
They were tiny.  So tiny.  And we all smiled and tried not to be afraid.

Melanie’s surgery was far more invasive and debilitating than she expected. LIttle grandson Markie moved in with us for a while. I had to accept that I could not help her but God more than provided for her needs through Grandmom Brenda who made their home hers.  Melanie was bed ridden when the twins were born and and very upset that she couldn't help out.   

 Writing, you ask?  A few minutes here, a few minutes there. Grandchildren were a permanent fixture at our house....trips to the hospital to hold our little twinnies were the norm.  And God must have smiled. 
The Best - Rocking the Babies

Heidi came home.....the babies would be home in a few weeks. Chuck and I planned a golf day as a break in the responsibilities.  While stretching his legs, Chuck dislocated his hip and was in terrible pain.....Required an ambulance ride to the emergency room....put back into place but lots of tenderness and discomfort.....

God may have smiled.  But I didn't.  And neither did Chuck!

Then Abby Lynn got very sick with a life threatening infection....Forty eight hours of intense fear, unknowns, what if’s, the need to create stability for the other grandchildren…..responsibilities......and fear of losing our sweet little Abby Lynn.  
Granddad letting little Abby know she is loved.

And then the relatives came. Chuck’s nephew arrived for a week of vacation….When we told him his bed would be a sofa and reminded him of the chaos, he said, "I just want to be with you and family - I'm not coming to be entertained."  Family.  Ahh..

The crisis passed - good news about Abby but her road to recovery would be hard and long, both babies are so frail, so tiny, we now know anything can happen quickly. Vigilance intensified. None of us were smiling.

 I tried to write in between all of this.

What Did I Learn?
I'm getting tired just listing this stuff!  Any teaching moments along the way?  God had a plan. Psalm 62 became my mantra.  God is my Rock, Rescue, Rest, Refuge.  You, oh God, taught me to take a deep breath with each new stressful event and choose to believe,  You ARE my Rock, Rescue, Rest, Refuge.  I don't need to hope you would be those things.  I could believe that You already are.

Progress - Good Progress!
God smiles when we make our plans because He has a better one.  Laura and I began to understand why their house wasn’t ready.  They would have been moving in the middle of July but instead we acted as a tag team taking care of grandchildren and house responsibilities.   I needed Laura in our home.  I needed all of them.  Precious time with the grandchildren, hugs and stories and bedtime rituals, that feeling when you go to bed and everyone is home, safe and sound.  
My True Love!  Thankful for God's Plan!
Stabilizing moments of joy in the middle of difficult emotional struggles.

God knew I could not emotionally handle writing this book by spending large chunks of time on it.  So He graciously arranged for me to write it in the middle of lots of distractions, urgent needs that required my attention.  He supplied the physical and emotional energy to face each day.  He taught me that the miracle of the loaves and the fishes still happens today. It's in serving and obeying, even when it's hard and long, that God often answers the cries of our heart and meets our needs.  As I studied my journals for Treasures in Darkness I was often overwhelmed by the written record of God's intimate love for me.  My journals of the past ten years shouted that God is here right now, right in this room with me.  I wouldn't have remembered that in the midst of this summer if I hadn't been steeped in the writing project.

Many times I had to force myself to stop crying so that I could keep writing.  Some people questioned why I put myself through this.  I believe it's God's calling and it's for the sake of someone who needs to know He is faithful and can be trusted.  God reminded me that when He calls, He enables, He equips.  Little is much when God is in it.

This may sound strange but I had a hard time putting the manuscript in the mail. It's so personal.  But my friend, Oswald Chambers said something profound in My Utmost for His Highest, November 1 and it helped me send the manuscript on its way:

A Thoroughfare for the World
There is no such thing as a private life - "a world within the world" - for a man or woman who is brought into fellowship with Jesus Christ's sufferings.  God breaks up the private life of His saints, and makes it a thoroughfare for the world on the one hand and for Himself on the other.  
Our Twinnies - Healthy and Happy!
No human being can stand that unless he is identified with Jesus Christ.  We are not sanctified for ourselves, we are called into the fellowship of the Gospel, and things happen which have nothing to do with us, God is getting us into fellowship with Himself.  Let Him have His way, if you do not, instead of being of the slightest use to God in His Redemptive work in the world, you will be a hindrance and a clog.
    The first thing God does with us is to get us based on rugged reality until we do not care what becomes of us individually as long as He gets His way for the purpose of His Redemption.  Why shouldn't we go through heartbreaks?  Through those doorways God is opening up ways of fellowship with His Son. Most of us fall and collapse at the first grip of pain; we sit down on the threshold of God's purpose and die away of self-pity, and all so called Christian sympathy will aid is to our death bed. BUT GOD WILL NOT.  He comes with the grip of the pierced hand of His Son, and says -"Enter into fellowship with Me; arise and shine." 
If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.  My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers, November 1

Unfortunately, my heart is too sinful to thank God for breaking my heart, but I am thankful that He promises to redeem our pain.  And God smiles.

In His grip,

Friday, February 26, 2016

Prepare for Old Age When You are Growing Up, Grow Up, Not Old, Part 4a

"I was upstairs when I heard footsteps on the steps.  I live alone so I knew something was not right.  I peaked around the wall and saw a young man creeping up the staircase.  I stood at the top of the steps and yelled, 'What are you doing?  Get out of my house!'  Startled, he yelled back, 'Give me your pocketbook!  I want your money!'  I had just come back from the store and my pocketbook was in my hands.  I looked down at it, back at him and started running down the steps toward him, yelling, 'Get out of my house!  Who do you think you are?'  I screamed and repeatedly hit him with my pocketbook, pushing him down the steps.  He covered his head with his hands, turned and stumbled down the staircase, yelling, 'Lady, you're crazy!  You're crazy!  I'm going, I'm going!'  I didn't stop hitting him until I slammed the door behind him."

The first I saw this tiny, elderly woman was in the choir of our new church,
Logan United Methodist, located in a changing community in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The District Superintendent had told Chuck that this church had a strong music program.  That first Sunday, we watched as five little old ladies stood in the choir loft and sang an anthem, accompanied by an accomplished organist on an enormous pipe organ.  We realized that the organ and organist was the strong music program.  About thirty-five people sat in the huge, old sanctuary.  My young husband, newly graduated from seminary, went home, put his face in his hands and cried, realizing the work ahead was more than anything we could have imagined.

I loved the old three story parsonage that we called home and I loved piling our two babies, 18 month old Heidi and six month old Chuckie, into a big carriage and pushing them to the store, the library or just to explore the neighborhood.  On a whim that day, I stopped by this woman's home.  She welcomed me in and then told me of her excitement the day before.
I was twenty-four years old and my eyes grew bigger and bigger as she painted a picture of her battle with the intruder.  I tried to imagine this very tiny old lady smacking a big teenager with her huge purse.  I asked, "Weren't you terrified?  Why didn't you just throw him your purse?"

She responded, "Sharon, I'm over ninety years old.  I've lived in this house by myself for over fifteen years.  My husband and son are long gone.  I have no living relatives.  My childhood friends are gone. I'm the last one. Every morning I ask the Lord, 'Is this the day?  Can I go Home today?'  I don't know why He hasn't taken me Home yet.  But I'm ready to go.  I have no fear of anything anyone could do to me.  And besides that, he made me mad!  How dare he try to rob me!"

I remembered this long ago moment as I considered Paul's last words to Timothy "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith...." 2 Timothy 4:6-7

Paul does not speak of dying in this passage.  He talks about "departing."  He used the same concept when he told the Philippians that he had a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better than being here. Paul's theology shines through in these words.  He is in prison, but he eagerly anticipates leaving this cell, being escorted by his God into Heaven.  He will soon pull up stakes and move on.

I Want to Go Home!
My little old lady friend wanted to go Home, desperately.  I was so young, it was hard for me to understand her longing. She asked her Lord every day if this could be the day.  For reasons she didn't understand, He said not yet.  And so, without knowing I was her student, she taught me how to grow up as she continued to live her life, singing in the choir, attending church activities, encouraging the new young pastor, praying for her church and pastor, walking to the store every day, welcoming naive young women like me into her life. She eagerly anticipated that moment when Jesus would come to walk her Home.  Like Paul, she was lonely (....everyone deserted me....2 Timothy 4:16b). She was lonely for her family and lifelong friends.  But like Paul, she was not afraid of death and she was not alone.  So what if a young man tried to rob her?  She reacted, trusting the outcome to her Lord.

I wanted to be just like her when I was old.  She was not a bitter, old lady, complaining about how no one came to see her or how useless she was. Now that I am closer to that season (remember, she was over 90 and I'm just 68) I realize her trust did come easily.
A lifetime of experiencing God's presence and choosing to grow in grace prepared her for this last chapter.  She chose trust and obedience.  And in those last days of her life, her response to what could have been a prison, impacted a young woman just starting out. I cannot remember her name, but I anticipate time with her in Heaven.

Paul declares, The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.  To him be glory for ever and ever.  (2 Timothy 4:18).  Paul knew he was facing beheading at the hands of Nero.  And yet, he sees even that possibility as the Lord rescuing him.  Paul's eternal perspective freed him from worrying about circumstances he could not control.  Review Paul's life and you could not conclude that he trusted God because his days were prosperous and easy.  Before Christ saved him, maybe.  But after meeting Jesus on that Damascus Road and embracing Him as Lord, Paul's life was anything but peaceful and protected.  No easy believism here. Paul's growth in grace cultivated an inner peace and surrender to God's perfect love and plans for him.   Paul declares that at my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength....2 Timothy 4:16-17.  Jesus was so real to Paul, that he felt him right next to him when no one else was there.  And he fully expected that same presence in this prison cell.

Breaking Down Prison Walls
Paul was waiting to depart, but until that day came, he had work to do.  He's mentoring Timothy, teaching him how to be a pastor, how to walk by faith.  He asks for his cloak - perhaps the cold cell was making his old bones even more achy and painful, we don't know because he doesn't complain. He also tells Timothy to bring my scrolls, especially the parchments.  Paul was old but he was still learning and eager to read and grow in the knowledge of his Lord.  He instructs Timothy to bring Mark with him because he is helpful to me in my ministry.  What ministry could Paul possibly have from a prison cell? Elderly Paul still wants to do but is not hesitant to ask for help to accomplish the tasks.  Can you imagine the mentoring that took place between Paul and Mark in those last days? And I love how Paul seems to be processing his life and sharing his conclusions with Timothy - we'll take a look at his self observations another time.
Rembrandt, Apostle Paul
Prepare for Old Age While Growing Up
The best time to prepare for growing old is while we are growing up.  Whether we are fifteen or fifty-five or eighty-five, as long as there is breath, we have the privilege of growing in grace as a means to prepare for those prison experiences.  And we will all have prison experiences. We see Paul in this prison cell as a godly man we want to emulate.  But don't be fooled, Paul struggled with fear so much that One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision:  'Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.  For I am with you.....(Acts 18:9 - 10).  He had feet of clay, he struggled in his faith walk.  Paul is the one who declared to the Philippians,  that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion. Paul brought a lot of baggage into his Christian life - but at the end of his life, he was confident that God was keeping this promise. I think that when Paul concludes that he fought the good fight, part of the battle he is remembering was the sweetness and relief he experienced when receiving and embracing the grace of God to cover those sinful choices and moments when he didn't trust or obey.  We get to see the end of the story, the man who sees Jesus next to him, but the very human Paul learned trust in his God, the same way all of us do. Daily circumstances confronted him with a choice, minute by minute. The same choice confronts me again and again. Will I choose to believe God's promise of His presence and control or not?  Will I trust and obey?

Whenever I can, I encourage young women to "grow up" while they are growing up, to allow God's sandpaper, the circumstances of life, to sand off the rough edges and reveal the character of Jesus.  It's hard, isn't it? But every hard moment is an opportunity to grow in grace when we are young because the older we get, the less energy we have to deal with our snarky, self-centered selves. I think old age magnifies our character, so we better not think that we'll wait until we're elderly to become sweet little old ladies.  If we're sour and bitter now, it's likely we'll be even more sour and bitter then. Every little choice to soak in sound doctrine and apply scripture to our every day lives prepares us to trust God with the prisons that aging might bring and instead of feeling trapped, to anticipate our departure with readiness rather than dread.

In His grip and growing up with you,

Friday, February 5, 2016

From Worry to Watching, Again

The phone call left me breathless. I knew God had just given me a glimpse of Him working behind the scenes in the life of a friend's child, a child for whom I regularly pleaded for the Lord to remember as His covenant child. A child raised by believing parents, a child pushing against the borders, a child rejecting a superficial faith. That one phone call comforted me, as though God was saying, "I've got this. Trust me." If I had not been praying, pleading for God's mercy, I might have missed this treasure, I might not have been watching for His touch, His presence. That moment reminded me of this post I shared a few years ago. A challenge to move from worry to watching. 

From Worry to Watching
Carol and I were tired but excited as we landed in  Japan for a week of speaking as well as counseling military wives, missionaries and Japanese women.  Our hostess, an older woman, exuded warmth, encouragement and most of all, Jesus. Before we began the first women's retreat, she gave us a tour of the simple but lovely missionary house, nestled in the side of a mountain.  The more time we spent with this woman, the more Carol and I knew we were on holy ground.  When she invited us to hike up the mountain, assuring me that I would be fine in spite of the soft cast on my healing broken leg, we eagerly piled into her old car, excited to soak up every minute of this strange land. We walked along a narrow pathway up the mountain, listening carefully as she pointed out altars and explained the meaning of some of the idols.

A Japanese Altar
She described the spiritual darkness of the Japanese people who regularly made this trek for the purpose of praying to their idols.  Her words and obvious passion for displaying Jesus in this spiritually dark land struck deep in to our souls and framed our view of the military harbor below. She said she often came here to pray over the city, imagining Jesus overlooking Jerusalem and crying out, , "Oh Jerusalem, often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing...."  We joined hands and prayed for the upcoming seminars, for each woman who would attend and for the harbor city below, pleading for the Holy Spirit to open hearts and minds to the Savior, to our Redeemer.  We felt the presence of Jesus.  Our journey back down the mountain was a little more somber as we considered the opportunities and privilege of sharing Jesus with needy women, knowing we would never forget those moments on sacred ground.  But our adventure was not over.  
Our elderly hostess kept up a stream of conversation, describing some of the women we would soon meet.  As she inserted the key in the car ignition, she continued talking, but suddenly Carol and I realized she wasn't talking to us.  She seemed a little flustered and was talking to Jesus, asking Him  how to get home.  She could not remember the way.  Carol and I looked at each other, more than a little unsettled.  This was before cell phones and GPS aps. We had no idea of where we were or even where we were going and we didn't know the language.
Our hostess started driving, talking nonstop to Jesus, asking Him which way she should turn, interrupting her conversation with Him to ask if we remembered this building or that garden or that sign.......
Well, no.......  
I admit, when our hostess first started asking Jesus how to get home, I was a little unnerved.  Actually, I was a LOT unnerved! What in the world had we gotten ourselves in to?  I was not in control, I could offer no assistance.  I had to sit back and wait for Jesus to lead us through a foreign land to our home.  And He didn't disappoint!

As our time in Japan unfolded, Carol and I recognized we were in the presence of a woman who truly saw Jesus as ever present, ever interested in every detail of her life and ever reliable.  Our conversations included Him.  She acted out what we said we believed - Jesus will never leave us, not ever.  We wanted to be just like her when we grew up!

Her life exemplified the call of Paul to the Philippians, "Don't fret or worry.  Instead of worrying, pray.  Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.  Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. -Phil 4:6

From Worry to Watching
I love how author Paul Miller captures this truth in his book, A Praying Life:  "When you stop trying to control your life and instead allow your anxieties and problems to bring you to God in prayer, you shift from worry to watching. You watch God weave his patterns in the story of your life. Instead of trying to be out front, designing your life, you realize you are inside God’s drama. As you wait, you begin to see him work, and your life begins to sparkle with wonder. 
You are learning to trust again.” 

There was no pretense in our hostess, She was the real deal.  If we praised her for her intimacy with Jesus, she looked at us as though she had no idea to what we were referring.  Truly, being in her presence was to be in the presence of our Savior.  This was a gospel-driven woman, a woman who grasped the redemption of Jesus and knew it was about more than salvation.  His redemption transformed her in a way she could not keep to herself even if she had tried.  His presence was clear.

Her inclusion of Jesus in every conversation and decision emanated from a response to the gospel - she was a genuine bond slave by choice, gladly looking for the next way she could declare His goodness to others.

I've thought of her over the years, when like a cat with a mouse, I worry a problem into an obsession, trying to control the behavior of others.    Sadly at those times, I've missed the joy of seeing God exchange my worry for watching. Sometimes in those worrying seasons God flashes up the memory of her in that car, clearly flustered, calling out to Jesus, as though He was sitting right next to her, because He was. The memory is a little nudge that encourages me to remember, Jesus is in the car with me, the kitchen, the office, the conversation with the grands, the meeting with a wounded woman, my marriage. He is the ever present help, the rescuer, the comfort, the wisdom I need.  

And when I accept this nudge to remember, as a call to pray, I experience the treasure of watching Him unfold plans that are so much better than mine and I learn once more that watching is much more restful and sparkling than worrying - any day.

I need to watch more.

In His grip,

Monday, January 18, 2016

And the Beat Goes On

May 11, 1977, our youngest child, Mark Nathan Betters, was born. Who knew that in that very year, God was preparing a treasure to give us in our personal darkness thirty-eight years later? Mark was the baby we weren't supposed to have. After the birth of our son, Daniel, my doctor warned Chuck that any more pregnancies could endanger my life and with great concern, urged him to make sure I didn't get pregnant again. Nine months later, I exclaimed to my doctor, "How can I be pregnant?" Slowly shaking her head, she responded, "You're not the Virgin Mary. I think you know how you got pregnant!" 
There was no discussion about what to do about this pregnancy. I was pregnant and delighted, trusting that the Lord had a bigger plan than we could imagine. This was my easiest pregnancy and recovery after a C-section. Mark was a sweet, compliant baby, easily fitting in with our other three children and busy lives. Sixteen years later, three of our children were well on their way into adulthood.Within a two week span we celebrated Heidi's upcoming marriage to Greg, son Chuck's college graduation and son Dan's high school graduation. And Chuck and I looked forward to focusing our full attention on son Mark's last two years of high school. He was an athlete and we knew our social lives would revolve around his activities and we were glad. 
Instead, on July 6, 1993, our youngest child, Mark, and his friend, Kelly, died in a car accident ten minutes after they left our home.
I share my grief journey in my book, Treasures in Darkness, a Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart.
You would think that over twenty-two years later, we would be accustomed to living without our precious son. And yes, we have found that "new level of normal" and God has given us incredible treasures in the darkness just as He promises in Isaiah 45:2-3:

I will give you treasures in the darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you will know I am the Lord your God, the One Who calls you by name.

But still...I miss Mark. And wonder what our life would be like if he were still here.

That's why I'm grateful that over twenty-two years later,  in the very private dark abyss of grief, God still surprises us with a love tap, a love note, that reminds me that He knows every tear and even saves them a bottle. He sees me when I hear the faint whistle of the train of grief approaching. He watches as I step into a private space, take a deep breath, wipe my fleeting tears, and then move back into a family gathering, with a joyful smile, and choice to engage in the alternating raucous laughter and quiet conversations. And in the middle of it all, at the most unexpected moment, He sends me a treasure and He whispers secrets in my ears, each one designed to help turn my heart toward Him, to remind me that He calls me by name, and that He is the Lord my God. This year, He sent that surprise package He started preparing for us, way back in 1977.

The week before Mark's death, Mark found and bought his dream drum set. A gorgeous white and silver used set, owned by a former drummer whose wife wanted to transform his music room into a nursery. The set included every drumming instrument a drummer could want and more. Mark couldn't stop grinning as his Dad and he carried the drums down into the basement. Mark spent hours setting up the drums and we still have nail pops in our ceiling that seemed to keep time with the pounding those drums took as Mark made them his own. The night of his death, Mark, his friends and brother practiced in our basement for an upcoming concert. Mark loved the drums and they loved him. That's why during our first Christmas without Mark, we received numerous Drummer Boy ornaments and The Little Drummer Boy became our Christmas song. 
Over the years, precious friends have given us Drummer Boy momentoes. Every Christmas, hanging those ornaments on our tree moves me to tears of thanks for those who have loved us in this special way. Treasures in the darkness that helped turn my heart toward Him.
That's why it's hard to believe we did not know that the very year Mark was born, 1977, Hallmark's annual Christmas Collectible tree ornament was a drummer boy. 

I love everything about this sweet drummer boy, from his black boots to his brown hair and most of all that our son's wife, Laura, found it for me. God gives treasures in the darkness, designed to turn my heart toward Him and to remind me of His character, that He is the Lord my God, the One Who calls me by name. And though Hallmark designers had no clue the Lord was directing their steps in 1977 so that a broken hearted mother would be comforted by their design, I have no trouble believing the Lord had me in mind!

But that ornament isn't the only special Drummer Boy ornament I received this year. Last week a package marked fragile arrived. The return address was damaged a little so I could only see it was sent by Karen from Middletown, Delaware. The enclosed two page,hand written letter was signed, Your sister in Christ, Karen. I wish I knew how to reach Karen from Middletown! She shared in her letter that she found my book, Treasures in Darkness, at Goodwill. As she read it, she noticed similarities between her family and ours. Her 21-year-old brother died in a motorcycle accident in the 1970's. Her family was profoundly changed by the loss of her brother. Her mother died of breast cancer and ten years later, on the same date and in the same hospital room, her father died of a heart attack. I hope that someone who knows Karen from Middletown, will help me connect personally with her!

But that's not the end of the story. She also shared, "In your book you mentioned collecting Drummer Boy tree ornaments because Mark played the drums. I came across this recently and bought it for you -from Goodwill). Enclosed in the box was a Drummer Boy Christmas ornament music box, that plays The Little Drummer Boy.

Even the sticker, "Fragile, Handle with Care" spoke volumes to me. Each treasure reminds me that God has equipped me for this pathway. It's not the one I would choose. But in some strange, supernatural way, these unexpected gifts take me closer to Him and help me take the next step in this pathway that He has designed for me. Though my life is full of joy and purpose, I desperately miss Mark. I am eager to see him, to know what he's been up to these past twenty-two years. I have a feeling that playing his drums for Jesus has been a part of Mark's eternal life. And while I'm waiting for that reunion, I hope I get to meet Karen from Middletown!
In His grip,

P.S. Are you struggling with seeing those "treasures in the darkness?" You might find something helpful in our  Free Grief Resources

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How Can This Be......? Journey to Christmas

How can this be - that our son and his friend died in this car accident?  How can this be that I haven't talked to Mark or seen him or touched him or ruffled his hair or heard his laugh in a week, a month, a year?  Ten years?  Over twenty years? 
How can this be...?

Perhaps you have asked this question when your husband announced he didn't love you any more, or your daughter declared her independence from your faith, or your mother suddenly died, or you lost your job.

Sometimes it's a rhetorical question - we don't really expect an answer.  Other times, we can barely whisper the words or perhaps cannot scream them any louder.  HOW CAN THIS BE....????

Mary, the teenager chosen by God to bear His Son, asked this very same question after the angel announced her pending pregnancy to her. How can this be since I am a virgin?

The angel's explanation creates more questions:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is gong to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.

Can you imagine her confused face, possibly her, "Huh?!!"

Ok, so, Angel, or whomever you are, I have no clue what you're talking about. Can you tell me anything else?

Remember, this account is from an eyewitness.  The only human eyewitness is Mary.  There may have been more to the conversation, but this is what Mary told Luke.  And this account is what God wants us to think through. 

Accepting the angel's explanation required faith.  Supernatural, undefinable, inexplicable faith.

I believe that's true about most of God's answers to the question, "How can this be....?" Especially when it's asked in the context of great loss or dramatic, traumatic upside down changes in our lives.

Mary is not the first one to ask this question.  Throughout Old Testament history  we hear the people of old respond to God's totally unexpected plans designed just for them as part of His promise to provide a Messiah, with similar questions.  Sometimes He gives a partial explanation as in Mary's case, most times very little direction except, "Fear not, I will go with you." When we review their lives, we must conclude that only by faithful surrender to His instructions and embracing the promise of His Presence could these normal people live such super-normal lives.

In my own grief journey, when I wrestled with this question, "How can this be....?!!"  Sometimes whispering, sometimes wailing, there came a point when I had to accept, to surrender to God's response.  "Fear not, Sharon, I will go with you.  Fear not, I am with you."  God's Word repeatedly challenges me to soak in that promise and to open my hands to receive whatever treasures God has designed to help turn my heart toward Him while taking tiny steps in a terrifying, abysmally dark place. And the only way to take those steps is for me to focus on what I do know about God's purposes and character - not on what I do not know. 

Mary's stunning response to the angel's words:

I am the handmaiden of the Lord.  May it be to me as you have said.

When I read these words our first Christmas after Mark's death, I was desperate to understand how Mary could surrender to God's mysterious plans when doing so meant embracing the unknown. What was her secret?  How could she so graciously bow to such a dramatic turn of events? I longed to be able to make the same declaration.

My search took me full circle, back to the beginning of this story. I concluded that  Mary surrendered to God's plans because she trusted the initial promise of the angel:

Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.

Isn't that the mother promise of God?  God's people, those who are highly favored - that's everyone who knows Him personally, are highly favored because of His Presence. And when He repeatedly instructs His troubled children with this simple declaration, "Do not be afraid, I will go with you!" He wants us to trust that His Presence in enough.  That His Presence equips and enables us to walk by faith on the pathway He has marked out for each of His children.  Mary's surrender flowed from her choice to focus on what she knew about God.  Luke gives us a glimpse into her personal knowledge of Him when he records her song, known as the Magnificat, in Luke 2:46 - 56.  She chose to trust what she knew about God's character.

In our own grief journey, Chuck has often responded to my now rhetorical cries, "How can this be?" with, "If God explained why, would it be enough?  Would you as Mark's mother, agree that losing your son was OK because God revealed His super plan?  Maybe that's one reason God doesn't explain.  Because no answer would satisfy our human hearts.  We are finite.  He is infinite."

At a particularly difficult moment when nothing I did stopped the tears or longing for our son, Chuck handed me a pink envelope.  Inside the envelope was a hand written note from a long distance friend.  On the opening flap she had written these words:

God Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support.  I will not, I will not, I will not in any way or degree leave you helpless nor forsake you nor let you down, relax my hold on you.  Assuredly not!  Hebrews 13:5, Amplified

I read the words, tears streaming down my cheeks, knowing this note was a "treasure in the darkness."  A love note from God, written in response by my friend to His nudge.  For reasons that don't make human sense, the promise of His Presence broke the physical ache in my chest for a few hours and I felt almost normal.  What was it about that note? I knew that through Jesus and embracing Him as my personal Savior, that God was keeping His promise.  These words reminded me of that mother promise - a strong exhortation to remember, "Sharon, I am with you.  Let that be enough for now."

Throughout scripture, God responds to the fear and confusion of His people with words similar to the angel's exhortation to Mary:
Fear not, for I am with you.  I will go with you. And that is all you need to know for now.

My friend, Mary, surrendered to that promise, not knowing, not really knowing, what she was surrendering to, except that God's Presence would guide and equip her for whatever came her way.

Mary doesn't tell us about her sleepless nights, unending tears, difficult days.  We can only imagine.  Perhaps she doesn't share those moments because in her mind, they were unimportant.  What was important was for her to demonstrate how we, too, can experience hope and help when circumstances beyond our control turn our worlds upside down.

I am the handmaiden of the Lord.  May it be to me as you have said.

As I finish up this post, I am thinking of that one woman who might stumble across my words, desperately  looking for something, anything, to help her get through the next 48 hours.  And I wish we could just sit and share our journeys.  The beauty of the Internet is that we kind of can do that.  If you're that woman, I invite you to check out the Free Grief ResourcesGrief  on my blog or my book, Treasures in Darkness, A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart. Or, listen to an interview with me about Treasures in Darkness. As you listen, make yourself comfortable and imagine that we're sitting at your kitchen table chatting.  In this interview, I share some of the journey I include in my book.

I pray that today you will experience the greatest Christmas gift, His Presence. And if you are that broken woman and God uses these words to help turn your heart toward Him, I would love to hear from you.

In His grip,
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