Beyond the Garden

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A garden offers up its secrets generously, whispering renewal in scent, color, fruit and loam. A quiet garden, when listened to carefully, teems with stems stretching, buds unfurling, roots reaching deep; a symphony of life discerned below the surface of hearing. When I walk in a garden, some primal echo of perfection and innocence resonates within me.

“The Eternal God planted a garden in the east in Eden—a place of utter delight—and placed the man whom He had sculpted there.”(Genesis 2:8 The Voice)

In the song of soughing breezes in tall aspens, Eden beckons.
Cool grass beneath bare feet marks a path to Paradise.
The very breath of Heaven sighs from sweet roses.

In a garden I begin to remember a place of utter delight. And just when that ancient memory stirs within, death overshadows. I see the weeds, smell the decay, know the serpent of sin hides beneath the leaves, waiting to deceive. In the cool of the day God walks in the garden of my soul, calling, “where are you?” Naked and ashamed, I have permitted perfection to be marred. But not beyond hope. Because there was another garden.

“At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.” (John 19:41 NIV)

In the shadow of the hill on which Christ was crucified grew a garden belonging to a rich man in whose own tomb the body of Jesus was laid. From the stark, sun-baked heights of Golgotha, Jesus was brought down to the cool, clean air of a garden grove. By law He should have been given a grave with criminals outside the city. Instead He was returned to a garden, much like the place where the ancestors of those who crucified Him were created.

The kernel of his dead body was pressed into the tomb, like a single seed into dark soil. For days it laid buried. Then a supernatural germination occurred; a transformation of earthly body to glorified. Life shed the husk of death, bursting forth like a fresh green shoot. And because of the death and resurrection of this sacred Seed, many will live to know perfection in eternity.

“Because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:19)

In a garden, the cycle of life/death/life speaks to me of deeper truths. When the earth appears lifeless in frozen midwinter I remember the garden in summer, alive with flowers, trees and birds, and know I have been given the sure promise of new life with Christ. Someday the dead shell of my body will be laid in the ground, but my spirit will thrive forever in a place of perpetual bloom. Paradise found because of a singular Person given in perfect sacrifice.

Between His Shoulders

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Atop my bookshelf stands a small wood carving of Jesus as a shepherd, with a staff in his hand and a lamb across his shoulders. It is primitive and roughly carved, yet I contemplate it often because I sometimes see myself as that lamb in need of care.

It is a reminder of the countless times Jesus has carried me when I’ve been too weak and wayward to take my next step, when He lifted me up and draped me across His shoulders, rescuing me from outer circumstances or inner failures I could not escape myself. More than that, it is a vivid picture of His love being a place of protection and rest.

“Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in Him, for He shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between His shoulders.” (Deut. 33:12 NIV)
Before the patriarch Moses died, he pronounced this blessing over the tribe of Benjamin, along with blessings for the other tribes of Israel. The temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, would be located in Benjamin’s territory, surrounded by the protection of shouldering hills. Benjamin is spoken of as a beloved tribe, enjoying intimate communion with the Lord.

This verse also reminds me of the shepherd, Jesus, portrayed often in the New Testament. In Luke 15 Jesus uses a parable about a lost sheep to convey the lengths He will go to seek a lost sinner. In the parable, when the shepherd finds his lost sheep, “he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.” A lamb carried on the shoulders of a strong shepherd or God’s temple secure in the folds of shouldering hills; quite different perspectives, yet vividly depicting the protective, caring heart of the Good Shepherd of my soul.

Not only do I see myself, a child of God, secure and shielded on His shoulders, I also draw comfort from being “the beloved of the Lord” and “the one the Lord loves.” Like a warm blanket, these words wrap around my heart with the everlasting, perfect love only God can provide. What more selfless act of love is there than that of Jesus’ sacrifice on my behalf?  “I came to give life with joy and abundance. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep in His care.” (John 10:10-11 The Voice)

There is a rest like no other found in the care of the Good Shepherd. The image of resting between His shoulders gives me such a sense of peace and safety. I can rest calmly there, even in the midst of trials and chaos, because I know what it is to experience that peace which passes all understanding, coming from His indwelling Holy Spirit. In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller writes, “Our Shepherd knows best when He leads us through the dark valleys with Himself. He knows where we can find strength, and sustenance and gentle grazing despite every threat of disaster about us.”

My rough little carving represents the safest, most loving place I can be, resting between the shoulders of the Shepherd of my soul.

The Christmas Garden

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This third original Christmas story is close to my heart because I have entertained a few “angels unawares”, especially this time of year. I hope you enjoy it, dear readers, and will be ready for your own angels when they turn up. 

 

Nella reached the end of the street before she remembered the shopping list still stuck on her refrigerator. She sighed wearily, turning back to face the chill wind and driving snow. Another fifteen minutes of precious time and energy wasted because of her forgetfulness. She contemplated calling a cab but knew she couldn’t afford it and buy groceries too. Her pension check just didn’t stretch like it used to. She pulled her hat down over her ears and trudged back the way she had come.

Snow on the overgrown hedge next to Nella’s back door fell down the neck of the lean youth as he stepped through into her yard. He shivered, glancing nervously over his shoulder before cautiously approaching the door. He figured this would be the easiest house to break into on the street because the old place obviously hadn’t been touched in years and the lock would likely pop without difficulty from its rotted wood frame. John had never broken in anywhere before but he had seen enough TV shows to figure out a few things first. He sure hoped the long, chilly wait behind the hedge would be worth his while. He pulled a flattened piece of pipe from under his jacket and began to pry at the door.

The tears freezing on Nella’s cheeks weren’t just from the cold. She tried to stay cheerful but sometimes she just missed Arthur so much. Especially in small ways, like how he used to be ready with the door open as she came up the walk with the grocery cart. Now as she fumbled with her keys and the cart, she felt like throwing it over the railing and forgetting about shopping. But the cat needed food, and she couldn’t do without her evening tea, particularly on Christmas Eve. She turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.

A silver picture frame slipped from John’s fingers at the sound of Nella‘s key in the lock, its glass shattering on the hardwood floor. He froze beside the dresser, his heart pounding fiercely.

“Sammy, are you up on the dresser again, you naughty cat?”
The old lady’s shuffling footsteps came closer, but John had no place to hide. He should have bolted when he had a chance, when the old lady let out a startled cry at the shock of seeing him in her bedroom, but he didn’t. He stood there shaking, not knowing what to do, just knowing he’d blown it again. They stared at each other for a long moment;  John seeing a small round woman bundled in an old-fashioned winter coat and hat, her hand to her mouth, and her eyes wide behind thick glasses. Nella thought later that she should have run for it too, but something made her stand her ground. His long lank hair, his thin awkward shoulders; he really was just a boy, and suddenly she wasn’t afraid anymore.

“Can I help you, young man?”
“No….no…I mean, I needed some money, see, and…”
“Well, as you can see,” Nella said, gesturing around the sparsely furnished room, “I don’t have a lot to spare.”
She scrutinized him closely.
“What do you need money so badly for, that you would rob an old lady on Christmas Eve?” In spite of his fear, John took a defensive stance and replied in as manly a voice as he could muster, “I just need it, is all. You gonna call the cops?”
“I probably ought to, but maybe we should have a little talk first.”

Nella unbuttoned her coat and took off her hat, forgetting all about her shopping trip. A stillness in her spirit made her act contrary to what was logical, but she had learned to listen to that quiet inner prompting she knew to be from God. She turned her back on him and walked down the hall to take off her boots. She could get a blow to the back of her head at any second, but somehow she knew he wouldn’t do that.

John found himself stepping over broken glass to follow the old lady down the hall. He could still make a break for it if he needed to, but it seemed to make sense to hear what she had to say. Besides, it was warmer in here than outside where he had spent the last few days. Then he stopped in wonder where the hall opened into a small living room. It was a bower, an abundant garden of flowered furnishings, draperies and ornaments, a surprising contrast to the austere bedroom. Slightly shabby, yet clean and carefully arranged, the room spoke of past seasons, tea served on wicker tables, bird song through an open window. It even held a faint scent of crushed rose petals. The walls were lined with framed pictures of blossoms and botanical prints.

“Take off your shoes, young man,” Nella ordered before he walked on the faded oriental carpet. He obeyed, wondering how the little old lady had achieved an upper hand in this situation.

“Now, before we go any further, have you had anything to eat in the last while? I have a nice little meat pie I can heat up in just a minute.”
John stared at her. “Why are you doing this? I broke into your house to steal from you….you don’t know me….I could be dangerous. Aren’t you afraid?”
Nella tilted her head as if listening for a moment, then smiled gently.
“A book I like to read says, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so you may be entertaining angels unawares.”
“Ha! You need to clean your glasses, lady! I am no angel. In fact, I’m heading in the other direction.” He flinched when she patted his arm.
“Come now, young man. As long as you’re still breathing, God hasn’t given up on you. Now how about that meat pie?”, and she bustled off to the kitchen, leaving him to stare after her. He stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, trying to recover some of the bravado it took to break into this place. Instead, he felt himself succumbing to the peace of this modest home

His artist’s eye took in the carefully arranged groupings of photos and prints on the walls. Close-ups of perfect, velvety rosebuds wet with dew, stately irises, blowsy peonies. The botanical prints looked to be originals. He studied the water color details of root systems and rhizomes, each signed in the corner by “A. Stuart”.

“Those were done by my late husband, Arthur,” Nella said, setting a full plate down on the dining table. “You see, Arthur was an invalid and couldn’t get out much, so the back yard and this house became his world. So I made him a garden, and he made me….these.” She smiled fondly at the photos and prints.
“They’re good,” John said frankly.

Nella studied him for a moment, noticing a sensitive mouth beneath his scruffy days-old beard and an intelligent brow above shadowed eyes. She guessed this Christmas stranger was more than just a common thief. He sat obediently at her table, consuming the meat pie and warm rolls with absorption born of two days without food. She occupied herself in the kitchen, opening a can of tuna for hungry Sammy and fixing herself a cup of hot water and lemon. She moved aside the little nativity scene on the table and joined him.

“That’s right, it’s Christmas Eve, isn’t it?” he said, watching her tenderly handle the tiny figurines.
“Why aren’t you home with your family on such a night?” Nella asked. He shrugged.
“They wouldn’t want me there. I don’t fit in to their uppity neighborhood anymore. I’m an embarrassment to them since I decided to follow my Muse.” His smirk held more pain than amusement.
“And what would that be?”
“I want to be an installation artist.”
“Is that where someone drapes a bridge in orange fabric and calls it art?”, she asked. He was impressed she knew what he was talking about.
“Yeah, only it doesn’t pay very well, as you can see. My last job in a pizza joint fell through two weeks ago and I’ve been on the streets since then.”
“Does resorting to robbing elderly women and possibly ending up in jail fit in with your future dreams?”, she asked sternly.

“Not really.” He ducked his head for a moment, then looked her squarely in the eye. “I’m sorry, ma’am. You’ve been very kind, though I don’t know why.”

He got up from the table, turned to go, then heard her say softly, “Because I see you through the eyes of another artist. My husband was an artist. He would look past the weeds and brown leaves in my garden and see the beautiful lines of a simple daisy or daffodil, then capture them like this.” She looked thoughtfully at the flowers framed on her wall.
“But Jesus Christ is the original installation artist. He can take a common bag of bones like me or you, look past the flaws and brokenness, and clothe us in forgiveness and grace, and suddenly we’re not common anymore. Like a bridge draped in orange fabric, we’re changed into something beautiful, something new. That book I like to read says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
She smiled warmly up at him.
“You wait here a moment, young man, and I’ll be right back.” She returned a few minutes later with her arms full of clothing.

“These were my husband’s. I think they’ll fit you and I have no need of them anymore.” She held out a warm winter coat, a sweater, hat and gloves.
“When you wear these I want you to think about Jesus, who was actually God draped in flesh. He can help you become the best installation artist you can be, if you let Him transform you first.”
John put the clothes on, then Nella pressed a few folded bills into his hand.
“No, I can’t take this.” He tried to give the money back but she gently eased him to the door.
“Maybe there’s enough there to buy bus fare back to your family. You could be the best present they get this Christmas.”
At the end of the walk he looked back. The light behind flowered curtains blurred into a warm orange glow through his tears.

Nella gasped in wonder when she looked out her kitchen window Christmas morning. Her overgrown garden, long neglected since Arthur’s passing, was transformed into a sparkling paradise in the pure winter sunlight. Trees were draped in swaths of silvery paper and crowned with foil stars and moons. Prisms of coloured glass suspended from branches twisted gently, sending rainbow glints like diamonds across the snow. Tissue paper birds like open-winged doves fluttered on the shrubbery. She rubbed her eyes and looked again to see if what she saw was real, then she saw some writing in the snow, scrolled beautifully in silver painted script.
“Thank you, dear kind lady. From John, a new creation.”

Soaring into the Light

Canada Geese Flying at Sunrise

After days of glowering clouds and rain, the sun finally breaks through, beaming on the wet upturned face of a grateful world. I drive to work beside the crescent lake where hundreds of Canada geese find sanctuary before their winter journey south. I love this stretch of road with water, trees and sky offering a new vista each time I pass by, especially when the geese are in residence. Night shadows linger over their sleepy forms floating on the lake this almost winter morning. Then with a flurry of wings on water, an arrow of geese arises, angling sharply skyward. Reaching the treetops, they break through gloom, their dusky forms instantly aglow with golden morning sunlight. Gilded wings flashing rhythmically, graceful necks outstretched, they form a phalanx across the blue-washed sky, and I am smitten.

I remember how that felt for me, flying out of the shadows into light. Set free to soar, breaking loose from a mud-mired existence up into the stratosphere of God’s love. I relive that burst into freedom in the moment by the lake and my heart sings with joy all over. It lingers with me as I go about my work tasks, until I take time to read a passage in a translation of the bible which speaks to my heart.

“Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God. This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator; His speech shaped the entire cosmos. Immersed in the practice of creating, all things that exist were birthed in Him. His breath filled all things with a living, breathing light — a light that thrives in the depths of darkness, blazes through murky bottoms. It cannot and will not be quenched.”
~ John 1:1-5 The Voice

“His breath filled all things with a living, breathing light.” I read this several times with the fresh image in my mind of birds in flight aflame in morning sunglow. God gives me these epiphanous moments as gifts drawing me back to Him. I have been walking in His love for a long time, so He well knows I need an occasional jolt with a glimpse of His glory. The living, breathing light He has imbued in all He has made speaks to me of His light gifted to me the moment I first knew Him as my savior. Not only a lessening of darkness in my spirit but a lightening of the burden of sin He lifted from me.

Is it any wonder Christ is so often described as light? He has made us to respond to light, to thrive on light, to require light as much as we need air. How much brighter His light shines when compared to the darkness of this sin-soaked world. He Himself said, “I am the light that shines through the cosmos; if you walk with Me, you will thrive in the nourishing light that gives light and will not know darkness.” ~ John 8:12

With His light I can find my way. He reveals all that I need to see to make it in this life. It could be that the geese took flight this morning because they were in search of food, but I like to think they were soaring into the light because it drew them upward. I too want to continually soar aloft where His living, breathing light cannot be quenched, where His love is the self-perpetuating glow warming all the world.

We Will Remember Them

img_1229They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Englishman Laurence Binyon wrote his well-known poem, “For the Fallen”, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Sitting on the cliffs of Cornwall, gazing across to France where the British army had suffered heavy casualties on the Western Front, he composed the poem to honour his fallen countrymen. The third and fourth stanzas are quoted often as a universal tribute for fallen servicemen and women.

Receiving little recognition, an ongoing battle rages between the worldwide family of Christ and those who oppose and persecute its members. Recently Perfecto, a dedicated church elder from a village in the Philippines, was brutally murdered by two Muslim men as he rested in a hammock outside his house. Perfecto’s 12 year old daughter witnessed the shooting. She and her younger brother lost their only parent as their mother left the family years ago.* Perfecto’s murder is only one among many occurring in countries restricted and hostile to Christians. As well, large numbers of believers are being tortured, imprisoned and persecuted for their faith. Will we remember them?

When the apostle Paul wrote the book of Hebrews, the early Christians were already suffering persecution for their belief in Christ. “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
(Heb. 13:3 NIV) Calling upon the compassion exemplified by Christ, Paul exhorts believers to identify with their persecuted brothers and sisters and do what they can to comfort and help them. The most accessible and effective defense for such intense spiritual warfare is the weapon of prayer which can be wielded from anywhere by any believer. In Ephesians 6. Paul uses the parts of a soldier’s armour to illustrate the list of defenses needed for spiritual warfare. He instructs them to pray “in the Spirit, on all occasions” and to “be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” (Eph. 6:18)

How can we best honour and remember those of the army of Christ who have given their lives for their faith? By vigilantly praying for those who are presently being persecuted around the world because of their love for Jesus, asking Him to equip and protect them with the His spiritual armour. “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

* story from Voice of the Martyrs http://www.persecution.com

 

In the Wake of the Storm

img_2323At some point that evening I went from being exhilarated by the fierce summer storm raging outside, to fleeing in fear to the only windowless room in our home. I huddled with my husband in the dark while the wind roared and shook the house as if it were too close to a speeding freight train. Finally sensing a lessening in the storm’s clamor, we cautiously crept out to witness the utter chaos left in the wake of its violent tantrums. Broken tree limbs and debris littered the lawn, but worse was the uprooted cottonwood tree stretched like a slain giant across our crumpled fence into the yard behind, barely missing the neighbor’s house.

In the following days as we cleaned up the wreckage from the storm, I mourned the loss of the cottonwood tree. On hot summer days we used to rest in our lawn chairs under its cool shade, lulled by the lyric rustle of its leaves in the breeze. It had been a green sanctuary to myriads of birds which we enjoyed watching splash in our nearby birdbath. Our grandchildren once climbed the lower branches, safe in its woody embrace. Now an ugly stump was all that remained, and empty space where once a friendly giant stood.

My husband took a more pragmatic view of the loss of the tree. He saw how its absence allowed more sunlight to reach his vegetable garden, especially the rows closest to the fence which always did poorly for lack of light. We observed carrots and parsnips gradually flourish with more sunlight to strengthen them.

In her book, “Roots & Sky”, author Christie Purifoy writes, “God does not erase our losses, those empty places in our lives, but He does something almost more miraculous. He fills the loss with a sign of His presence.” Losing a tree cannot compare to losing a loved one, or a marriage or a part of who you are, but for me it was a picture of how loss opens up room for a new work of God.

There was a time in my life when I lost everything I had ever feared losing; my marriage, financial security, health and family unity. In the midst of these devastating losses, I could not imagine a future when all would be made new, even better than before. But God could. “His mighty power at work within us is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of.” (Eph. 3:20 TLB)

God takes loss and turns it into abundance. In the ashes of my pain, I discovered the abundance of God’s love, His perfect character and His always faithful promises. When life left me hollowed out, He filled the space with His own presence. As I discovered, this is God’s specialty, giving beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. (Isa. 61:3 NKJV)

In the equation of loss becoming abundance, He uniquely illustrates for each of us His supreme renewal project, the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24 NIV) He was speaking of Himself as the Seed, abused, crucified, buried in a dark tomb. Then the Seed came bursting forth alive, His resurrection beginning a great harvest of souls for God’s kingdom. Death gave way to life. Decay became deliverance.

A mighty tree once stood in my yard where now there is just a weathered stump. However new light floods a healthy garden where many seeds now flourish in abundance. In our memory’s landscape, the scar of a loss does not need to be a place of pain forever. It may be remembered, even mourned, but more significantly, it is a landmark telling where God met us and how He brought restoration and renewal out of the darkest places of our world.

Valerie Ronald and scriptordeus 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Valerie Ronald and scriptordeus with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Legacy of a Teacup

IMG_2404-001She cradles the delicate porcelain teacup in her hand before placing it on a saucer in the china cabinet. Someday my daughter will inherit this set of heirloom china, so I tell her the story of how it came to be in our family. The fine Austrian dinner set was purchased by her great-great grandparents in 1923 to make a favorable impression on a suitor who was courting their eldest daughter. Preston Sharpe married Mabel Stevenson, my great aunt. I remember the stately old house they lived in, with a formal garden lush with roses Preston cultivated himself. He named a soft pink hybrid after his Mabel, as it reminded him of the old-fashioned roses trailing across the china she treasured. This tale is recorded in my grandmother’s beautiful script on sepia-toned paper tucked inside the elegant teapot. Perhaps the true heirloom is this story, a branch of the tree which is our family, green with love, rooted in rich relationships, sending out shoots now blossoming in the lovely face of my daughter.

How do I craft an heirloom to pass on to my children and their children, a legacy fashioned from what I value the most? What comes to mind are not physical treasures but the treasures of my heart and spirit, pebbles of wisdom collected on my long walk with God. If I could package these treasures to give into their hands, I could breathe a sigh of relief when the transfer is made. But that is not how this particular legacy is handed down. No, it is lived out minute by minute, word by word, spun in multi-colored strands of dark and light, communicated with hands and tears and long talks into the night, recorded in letters and looks and words unspoken.

“I will teach you hidden lessons from our past — stories we have heard and known,
stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children;
we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about His power and His mighty wonders.” (Psalm 78:2-4 NLT)

Trails of brokenness and hardship thread across my past like the cracks in a shattered teacup glued back together. These are a crucial part of my legacy because they tell how I learned of brokenness being the way to wholeness, weakness required to find strength and an empty heart leaving room for the fullness of God. I cannot imagine the grind and sweat of my battles to be for nothing. The cracks are not so much evidence of breakage but pathways carved out, leading to the truth. Most of all, I want to pour out the precious contents of this glued-together teacup. Christ glued me back together, healed and redeemed me, so I could be filled with the water of His Spirit — sweet, thirst-quenching love, overflowing like a reviving drink.

With every sip of tea from my heirloom china teacup, I remember the legacy of my ancestors. Theirs was not a perfect history but it is a part of my history and I am thankful for the good they left me. Author Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

May my legacy, dear ones to follow, be that you feel God’s love through me, poured out in a thousand different ways from this broken teacup.

 © Valerie Ronald and scriptordeus 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Valerie Ronald and scriptordeus with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.