He keeps

Ah, January. You are almost over. It’s a hard month–so easy to fear the emotional memories of that January two years ago when things were getting so bleak.

So I remembered when I could and pushed away when I could not. I dreaded the cold, dark days, but I walked right into them. I have survived (mostly) and thrived (a little.) I continually spoke truth to my soul, and tucked in close under the shelter of the One who made January and me and all of my days.

The north wind blew, but I am safe. Always safe.

I’m learning so much about the keeping power of God. I had always thought that safety was a physical thing, a bodily protection. But it is so much more.

A kept soul. How I love the truth of that. No experience, no fear, not one thing in my past or future can remove me from the promises of a faithful God.

He keeps my soul.

That is the song I sing, through joy and blessing and the pleasure of His presence. Through disappointment and grief and unknown future.

No matter what, I am always safe. He keeps my soul.

The LORD will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul. Psalm 121:7

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass. I Thessalonians 5:22-24

 

 

 

 

 

The hand of God

In December of 1939, Great Britain was at war. Uncertainty and fear were daily companions as air-raid sirens pierced the air. King George IV was England’s reigning monarch, and on Christmas day he quoted from this poem as he comforted his people by acknowledging the true Sovereign and His control over the coming year.

We who know Him as Sovereign and Savior can trust Him as Ruler and Guide.

We can trust Him in all the unknown, in all of the darkness. We can peacefully place our hand in His.

The Gate of the Year by Minnie Louise Haskins

God Knows  

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention. 

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

Rising light

Every day, I want to write about the morning sky.

The gray slowly turning to color. The fading of the stars. The winter trees a pencil sketch against the rising light.

The sky has its own language, and it reaches me, a display of God’s eternal power and divine nature. (Romans 1:20)

The sky is always changing–a continual transformation. But it is the morning sky that stirs me most. A rhythm of majesty every day. A certainty of triumph no matter how dark the night.

We finally got our Christmas tree up, and I love the cheerful glow of light. During the day, it looks somewhat disheveled, its imperfections evident. But in the evening and early morning, it is a flawless instrument to display the twinkling lights.

In the darkness, it is magical.

A lifetime of happy memories swirls in my heart at Christmas–so many light-filled moments to cherish. Now mixed in there is this leavening, this sobering throb of pain. It is impossible to separate them–gratefulness for the rich blessing that surrounds me, and an awareness of aching loss.

Dark and light both present in my deepest place.

I think of Mary and Joseph and a small baby crying. A darkened stable filled with both wonder and doubt, both joy and fear. The God-child entering a blackened world because of love.

And a star shedding just enough light so the wise men can find their way.

Inside me a light arises, a soft glow of truth. A lifting, an acknowledging, a reckoning. Like candlelight and tree lights and starlight. Soft and gentle and flickering, bright against the darkest night. Enough to help me find my way.

It would not shine so brightly in the daylight.

The darkness is the perfect showcase for the rising light.

To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Luke 1:77-79

Light arises in the darkness for the upright. Psalm 112:4

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tuning of the heart

“Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise.”

The tuning of the heart–it is God’s work, but it is also mine. God works His will in me, and I am either soft and yielding or stubborn and hard.

My heart can be tuned to praise, but it is also true that praising God can tune my heart. It calls out in me the higher good, the nobler song.

It is, perhaps, the ultimate submission to praise God in the midst of personal trial.

There is a clarity in praise that scatters clouds, restores vision, and confirms faith.

On this Thanksgiving week, let your first thought be gratefulness. Let your first prayer be a whisper of praise. No matter what path you are walking now, find thankfulness.

Find God in every moment, in every bit of happy and in every bit of hard.

Praise will tune your heart.

Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him For the help of His presence. Psalm 42:5

But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. Psalm 71:14

Muted Color

We finally went to the ocean.

Two years ago, right before Marissa’s scheduled surgery, we had reserved and paid for a house right on the beach. She wanted to see the ocean again. But then a hurricane changed the plan, her surgery was canceled, and she moved on to radiation.

And then a change in all our plans. A change in direction, a change in perspective, a change in reality. A spiral ending in sorrow for us. Healing and joy for her.

Even now it is hard to think that my deepest heartache was her triumphant deliverance.

On the first morning at the beach house, my son and I met, unplanned and silent, in the hallway before dawn. We walked to the water’s edge in the moonlight and waited for the sun to rise. It was windy and warm, and we were witness to a quiet but stunning transformation of sky. The vibrant reds were astonishing, the beauty of the heavens spilling down around us, and we sat immobile–unable to catch it, hold it, grasp it. God’s glory seemed a tangible thing, and He was both very near and very far away.

The next morning we got everyone out of bed early to await the sunrise. We made coffee and set up cameras and waited expectantly on the shore. The sun rose, and it was lovely. But it was not what we were expecting. It was clouded and muted and subtle.

This was not the past, remembered beauty.

The Bible tells us it is good to go into the house of mourning. Deep things happen there–brokenness and the stirring of the soul. Wrestling and longing and a physical kind of hurting. Stretching, a dawning of understanding, and a painful healing. The kind of healing that changes who you are and who you long to be.

God’s glory settling down and seeping into all the dark places.

Once you have stepped in, it is hard to walk out. Sometimes I even wonder if we are meant to leave.

It is good to stay awhile. To let our eyes adjust to the dimmed light, the muting of all the colors. To see clearly gospel hope etched and illumined on every wall. To listen to all the murmuring sounds of the river of peace.

To be held gently by nail-scarred hands.

We look back on past, remembered bright colors, but they are muted–a watercolor version. We struggle with disappointment, but we trudge onward. We are in a darkened hallway, but we are waiting for and walking toward a stunning light, an unknown glory to come.

We are meant to enjoy this life’s beauty and all the good gifts our Father gives us here. But we are not despondent when the colors fade. We are beginning to love the watercolor rendition. We are learning to know the skill and the heart of the Painter.

The mourning house is refining us.

The mourning house is teaching us to long for more.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2

 

 

Another birthday

For Rissa

You would be 28 today.

I’m thinking back to the night you were born and the sweet, damp scent of you. I’m remembering your newness and the joy of meeting you and holding you and knowing you.

I remember those first moments of seeing you. The feeling that you had always been a part of my soul, the knowing that you always would be. The lingering weight of love settling over us as we slept at last, a blanket both heavy and warm.

I remember.

I was 28 when you were formed in me. When God knitted you together and wrote your story. I’m glad I didn’t know any of it. I’m happy for those years when life swirled in vibrant color, spinning us around and making us laugh.

I’m grateful for all the memories of you. They float in my heart like shiny rainbow bubbles, and I guard them so they do not pop. There is always this fear of forgetting details.

But you, Beanie, are part of me. I am not afraid of forgetting you.

We finally went to the ocean. Remember how we had to cancel our plan to go before your surgery because of the hurricane?

And last year we just didn’t have the will to go.

We saw dolphins and shrimp boats and seagulls. I watched every sunrise and every sunset, and I remembered. How you loved the sky and the beautiful things. Books and children. Laughter and friends. God.

How you embraced all the living you were given.

We remember. We love you. We miss you so much.

Happy birthday, Rissa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t quit

The days are getting shorter, the moon glowing on my evening walk and still there in the early morning. It’s been high and bright and beautiful.

A few touches of cool. A return to school and hurry and doing.

So much hurry ahead and my steps feel slow this year.

It all just circles ’round, doesn’t it?

It’s been a summer of good-byes. First my mama, and then four other funerals at my church. I’ve grieved with families on the anniversary of their own good-byes. I’m praying for some who are right now facing such hard, heavy battles.

My neighbor is living his last days. Around the clock visitors and lights on in the wee hours of the morning. He’ll never plant his lovely garden again or laugh at our dog’s antics or offer me a bag of okra. He’ll never wave at me again on my evening walks.

I am filled to the brim with good-bye.

One of the funerals I attended was for a 98-year-old man in our church. A dear man who lived his life honorably, with purpose and good humor. A man who knew his Bible and his God. One of his favorite ways to end a conversation was with the admonition, “Don’t quit.”

And I have been repeating those words.

Don’t quit.

My children are playing soccer again. The work is good for them–the training, the running, the teamwork. But there is one thing I really want them to learn.

Don’t quit.

When you are exhausted, when it feels like you cannot finish, when there is no way to win. When you are discouraged or disheartened. When you lose your desire to finish the task or even take the next step. When you are wronged and nothing seems fair. When you are dismally failing and so disappointed in yourself or in your teammates.

Don’t quit.

And God is kneading my heart, performing CPR on my soul.

He is meeting me here. Right here in this weariness.

He is whispering, “I am with you. I will help you. Don’t quit.”

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 1 Timothy 6:12

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.  Hebrews 12:1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pieces of grief

It still surprises me when I awaken to tears and strong waves of memory, the rhythm of grief catching me off-guard and vulnerable. Even the gentle waves sometimes knock you down when you’re unsteady, when the sand shifts just so beneath your feet.

My mother’s perfume bottle sits on my dresser, along with a small bottle of essential oils that belonged to Marissa. The perfume is a happy remembrance of my mom, pearls and dress-up and celebrations. But the oils remind me of a bald-headed beauty and a cancer-ridden body. They smell a little like sadness, a little like fear.

Both scents take me back if I want them to. If I let them.

The summer air has been thick with humidity, and even walks at dusk are heavy and still. Some nights I smell crushed roses and I’m not sure if the scent is joy or sadness. Is it a lover’s bouquet or a graveside farewell?

I just can’t tell sometimes.

But there have been cotton candy clouds at sunset, all pink and golden and billowy, the kind that make you catch your breath in wonder. And every night I come home to the richest kind of love and the fullness of so many blessings.

The pieces of grief are tangled up with bits of breathless joy. And I remember the One who is weaving it all together, who is making it good.

I worship this Creator of every kind of beauty, every precious gift, every trace of joy. And when the scent of roses makes me cry, I bow my head.

I worship still.

Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works. Psalm 104:1-2, 31

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Psalm 3:3

My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber. Psalm 121:2-3

 

 

 

 

 

When I come to die

Emmagene Alice Powell, November 12, 1921 – May 25, 2018

My mother is safely home.

I returned to her side only three days after leaving it. Although she was already surrounded by loving hearts and hands, it felt like important work that I needed to do. We camped out around her and spent many night hours singing and praying and saying good-bye when it seemed she would not take another breath.

Yet her final breath came mid-morning when we were wearily attempting to move into another day. She slipped away to the smell of coffee and toast and the sound of her daughters quietly chatting.

After weeks of suffering, a quiet exit. But I smile when I think of the glorious entrance on the other side.

Because of God’s grace.

I have witnessed the final breath of my father and my mother and my 26-year-old daughter. I am sobered and changed. My eyes are opened to eternity’s nearness, its reality.

A deathbed humbles us. It crushes any pretense of beauty or self-preservation. It teaches us that we are vulnerable and powerless.

Breath and life, a gift from God.

We all face death someday. We are all terminal. A final breath comes for all of us.

In that moment, it won’t matter what we own or what is in the bank. It won’t matter what we’ve accomplished or where we’ve been. Any beauty will have faded. It won’t  matter how kind we’ve been or what good we’ve done. There is not one thing we can do to ensure our entrance into paradise.

The only thing that will matter?

Our relationship with Jesus.

It’s not enough to know that He is real or that He is good. It is not enough to believe that heaven exists.

We must believe that He alone is the way. That He alone is truth and life. That He died and was buried and rose again. That if we call on Him and confess Him as Lord, He will save us. He will hold us securely forever.

There is a believing faith given to those who call on His name, to those who come. There is an eternal reward and a secure inheritance for those who are born again in Him, to those who become His children.

Faith may seem a foolish notion when we are young and healthy. We may resist its call, forge our self-reliant way. But we are made for eternity, made for God. Our deepest self becomes alive only in Him. Eventually we see overwhelming evidences of our rebellious hearts. Our disillusionment and weariness and fear are whispers of truth if we listen.

In living and in dying, we need a Savior.

On Saturday we buried the lifeless body of my sweet mother. But she was not there. She was already rejoicing with her Savior and all the saints.

When death came, it found her safe in Christ. She fell asleep in Him and awoke to the most glorious sunrise.

She awoke to the most glorious life.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.  Revelation 22:17

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. John 3:16-18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home

My sweet mama is dying.

Sometimes there is no poetry in a thing. It is just there–stark and naked and full of truth.

So many words but no rhyme at all.

I come to stay with her for two weeks. She talks of her own mama, gone over 40 years. In the night hours she reaches for things unseen, and words tumble around, senseless phrases called out in the dark. Memories and visions and fears all pressing in on her.

The rhythm changes everyday, and I marvel at the strength it takes to die. I had always thought the hardest part was the living.

But there is this valley to walk through. So dark and deep, and she keeps stumbling.

There is just nothing easy in dying, whether you’re 26 or 96.

I remind her what is on the other side.

We talk of heaven, and she can’t wait to be there. She asks me when the Lord will call her home, when her suffering will end. We talk of God and His sovereignty–how every breath is given by Him, the final one already written. How He will strengthen her and carry her to the very end.

It has been rich to be in this hospice time with her–a hovering place between life and death. Sips of cool water and loved ones gathered and night-time vigils. It’s a privilege to share in this suffering. Death, like birth, filled with such pain but with glimpses of glory.

And the hope of such glory to come. Enough to erase all the pain of this dying.

Today I am flying back home to my family for a few days, and I feel so torn between these two worlds. I say good-bye to my mama. I say all the words I know to say. I tell her not to wait for me–she will not be here much longer, but only God knows her time. Marissa seems very close in this place. When I hug her for the last time, it feels a little like I am touching both of them.

The sky is full of white clouds. There are times when I look out of the plane window and see the ground clearly and times when we are in the clouds and I see nothing at all. I know that once we get high enough, even the clouds will be clear.

My mama is almost high enough.

Soar gently, Mama.

Fly gently home.

Even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you. Isaiah 46:4