A New Soul in Heaven

There is a new soul standing in the LORD’s presence, as of a few hours ago. My beautiful Grandmother is home. What brings heartache and tears to us is the best thing that could ever happen to a human being, to be ushered into Heaven and to see the LORD face to face. To be healed of pain. To be unbroken. To be renewed, fully. The infirmity of old age, gone. The fears of life, gone. The effects of sin and the battle against sin, gone. Conflict, gone. Uncertainty, gone. Grief, gone. The hope of Salvation, fully realized.

It is desperately hard to watch someone you love slowly deteriorate. It is hard to watch the process of a slow death that spans days and weeks. It is hard to see the physical body become more broken, until what remains is just a shadow of the person I knew as a child and young adult, the mind becoming confused, independence wholly lost. But now that Grandma is gone, I can more clearly remember her as she was a few years ago, in the prime of her old age, a vibrant, feisty, quiet woman and lover of the LORD, particular and orderly, who also loved to laugh and loved her family very much. I can remember her letters she sent when we still lived in Illinois, that always included crossword puzzles specifically picked for each grandchild, letters written in her graceful but spidery handwriting.

Grandma was a lover of beauty. God gifted her eyes to see beauty, and her home always reflected that. She kept an immaculate house, with simple and lovely furnishings, beautiful items picked up on her travels with my Grandfather, family heirlooms, cut flowers from her expansive garden, and the aromas from her kitchen. She opened her home graciously, to family, Bible studies, missionaries, friends, always the perfect hostess, and every meal was followed by a chipper, “Come again!” and a spunky smile.IMG_0250esmallOne of her greatest joys was flowers, and as she became less able to see them in person, unable to visit her cherished garden, she became the greatest supporter of my photography, and I could always count on sweet times with her, showing her my latest flower pictures, or recycling old ones just for fun as her memory grew more forgiving and the pictures were all always new. She would exclaim and admire over the color, the variety, and I was amazed by how eagerly she recognized these old friends even as other things became less clear.

She loved singing hymns, and whenever we sang as a family, she followed along and sang with us. The truths of those old hymns continued to resonate with her as she grew older, her faith becoming clearer, as this world became more dim. And as her inhibitions and reserve grew less, evidence of her faith became more visible.

All her life, she trusted Christ as her Savior. Seeing her at the end of her life, while sad, was encouraging. Her faith never wavered and the peace she had even as her body was deteriorating was a testament to the reality of her hope. Dad read Scripture with her every evening when he and Mom tucked her in to bed, and up until maybe a week ago, she could quote Psalm 23 right along with my Dad while he read it.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever. ~Psalm 23

What a gift, and what evidence of her Salvation, that what stayed with her to the end was her knowledge of her Savior.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. ~ 2 Corinthians 4: 16-18

Grandma had this hope.

As my pastor has explained again and again, Biblical hope isn’t an “I hope so” hope, but a confident expectation. A confident expectation. Grandma knew where she was going when she died. If Heaven is the next step, the final step, what do we have to fear in this life, even death, even deterioration, even entirely losing one’s independence to the effects of old age? What are a few years of infirmity and pain, or a few months, or a few days, compared with the weight of the glory of eternity with Christ?

The Bible makes very clear that this earth is not our home. All of us have a limited number of days on this earth. And when our count of days comes to an end, those who love the LORD will find themselves ushered from this life into Heaven, to a more glorious, pleasant, joyful existence than anything our finite human brains can imagine. We will be ushered home.

Home. To earthly minds hungering for safety, belonging, security, love, peace, family, contentment, joy, relief of pain, things that can only be temporarily satisfied here on earth, if satisfied at all, that word may be bittersweet, or strike the heart with longing. But our Heavenly home and the One who resides there will satisfy us completely. Every longing will fall away. One of my favorite Scripture passages is from the book of Revelation, and it brings tears to my eyes, now in a different way:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:1‭-‬4

We ache for her, the ones left behind for now, but I’m so glad she is now without pain, or sorrow, or fear, any of the effects of this fallen world we live in. She is the privileged one, to be with the LORD, to have her hope satisfied and realized. I can see Grandma now, surrounded by such beauty only hinted at in the beauty she loved so much on this earth. God has wiped away her tears, but the tears of ecstatic joy I’m sure have abounded  and are flowing freely, if there are tears of joy in Heaven. There must be. Tears mingled with laughter. And Grandpa is there, and her brother, and her parents, all rejoicing in the presence of their King, in a home where the peace and joy won’t fade and the hymns won’t cease.

Home. What a beautiful word. And what a glorious reunion there will one day be.

Let It Ring in Your Hearts

Today is New Year’s Eve. Christmas was 6 days ago. Every year, Christmas approaches with much anticipation. And every year it leaves with a sigh, ho-hum, and back we go to finish out the year. In truth, we’re probably glad when Christmas is over and done with. Sure, it was fun, we have some sweet family memories, less money in our checking account, a gift or two we were probably excited to receive, and it is just time to get on with what remains of the year.

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What a loss. What a loss that we don’t carry with us for the rest of the year, or the whole year, the joy and excitement and awe of the Christmas season. Or is it because we fail to see and experience the joy and excitement and awe that Christmas should bring?

I’m not sure how to properly express the magnitude of all the Christmas means. I suppose I can’t express all, but when I think about our simplistic ways of talking about Christmas, it strikes me how far we miss the mark in understanding, or at least expressing understanding of, any of what Christmas means. Now, I’m not saying we don’t truly understand the implications, if we sit down and think about it, as much as our human minds can understand something so vast, but I wonder if our cute and heartwarming expressions of Christmas, and all the fun we try to cram into the season, affect our reverence and awe. I say “I wonder” more as a way to be tactful. Because in all honesty, I know it does. I know that the cuteness and sweetness and heart-warming-ness can leave our thoughts regarding Christmas devoid of holy reverence, devoid of a true appreciation for what it meant for the God of the Universe to enter into time and space as a man, with the end goal of being the Lamb of Sacrifice to pardon His people for all eternity, with the end end goal of coming back in glory at an unknown-to-us date and time, when He will once again enter into time and space to catch up His people to Himself, perfectly restored spiritually and physically, wiping out sin and evil altogether, and to finally – finally! – bring about a new Kingdom on earth where human beings enjoy perfect fellowship with God and each other. Wow.

We talk about Christmas as a celebration of “Jesus’s birthday,” as if it is simply some heavenly party. Such an understatement. This isn’t just a celestial birthday party. This is a miracle so vast even the angels were awed by it. A Heavenly army joined together to announce the birth of Christ to the frightened shepherds – what glory!
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)

How much more glorious is the Child they announced! For the whole host of Heaven to come together, it took more than cuteness and sweetness and warm feelings. This story of Salvation, according to Peter, was something “into which the angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:12) Think about that. Angels – beings who spend their existence in the presence of God Almighty, in the presence of the Godhead, of the entire Trinity together, who witnessed all of the Old Testament and everything leading up to and anticipating God’s descension to us – they were in awe and celebrated. This was a Story they watched unfold with great eagerness. That should be instructive to us.

I think about all the sweet Christmas songs and Christmas characters we want to relate to. Then I think of the innkeeper, a person not even mentioned, but who must have existed. Someone had to show the expectant mother the less than ideal place she was to give birth. Someone had to say, “There isn’t room.” Someone whose only role in the Christmas story is to turn away the earthly parents of the Living God, a man who was so close to the miracle of the Birth of Christ and apparently missed it altogether. We are so close to the Christmas story at Christmas time. And yet we can let the day go by and miss the true Story, or forget about it as soon as December 26th rolls around.

Heaven forbid that characterize us, especially at this time of the year.

Christmas marks a new era of human history, something the secular textbooks acknowledge, even though they’ve changed B.C. and A.D. to other words excluding Christ. They can’t get away from that turning point in history. The centuries and millennia leading up to Christ’s birth were centuries and millennia of distance from God, in a sense. God in His holiness spoke through prophets, and the Holy of Holies in His temple could only be entered by one priest, the High Priest, on one appointed day per year, to offer atonement for his own sins and the sins of the whole nation of Israel. There was a barrier of sacrifices and requirements and holiness and laws, past which there was no hope of approaching God perfectly whole. The Law was meant to bring light to sin, to demonstrate God’s standard and how unreachable it is for fallen mankind. God in His holiness was showing His holiness to a people who, though saved by faith, were bound by an unkeepable Law.

But our celebration of Christmas remembers the dawning of a new era in human history. Christ’s birth marks the era of God’s nearness to humanity. Immanuel. God with us. Christ came, not as a spirit, but as a human person, tangible, visible. He came as the fulfillment of all the prophesies concerning Him, and He came as a prophet, but a prophet the likes of which this world had never seen. He came as the Greater David, a Shepherd-King of the lineage of David, the shepherd-king of Israel, but far surpassing David. He came as the Greater Moses, a Leader who would lead His People out of darkness into the light of God’s eternal kingdom, far surpassing Moses’s temporary deliverance of the Israelites from their Egyptian slavemasters. Jesus came as the Second Adam, the Father of a new family of Heavenly proportions and Heavenly lineage, to restore that fellowship with God that Adam through his sin had lost. Jesus came as the Greater Aaron, a High Priest able to approach God freely, not only once a year, but at all times, to make intersession on our behalf. Jesus came as the Greatest Sacrifice, fulfilling all the centuries of sacrificed lambs and bulls and doves, satisfying with a single act the needed sacrifice to atone for our Cosmic Treason, our innate rebellion against the God and Creator of the Universe.

The Christmas story isn’t just a story of God’s love and redemptive plan to save His people, or a story of His mercy and compassion. The Christmas story – the plan of redemption – is necessary because of mankind’s radical sin, because of our rebellion against our Creator.

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

The story of the birth in a stable is one piece of the story of judgement, and how God must act to satisfy justice, because He is righteous and good. But because He is loving, He came as a willing substitution to pay the price for our fallenness, our sin, our Cosmic Treason. The birth in the stable isn’t just the mercy part of the story. This is about a fallenness of humanity so profound that it required a miracle as crazy and appalling as a good, righteous, perfect, glorious God to step into our broken world and save us by His own initiative, His own perfect sacrifice. Because it should be appalling. Our need for God should break us, humble us, cause us to love Him even more for the love and patience He has shown to us. This is God willingly coming to willingly die to satisfy the need for payment for sin, thirty-three years after the miraculous birth in Bethlehem, and to satisfy our greatest need, which is to be reconciled to our Heavenly Father.

Why all of this? Because He loves us. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) Demonstrating His love to us so radically is so immensely glorifying to Him, we can’t even come close to comprehending it. So yes, this is a story of love. But this isn’t a heartwarming story of love. This is a soul-shaking, earth-shattering, sin-destroying, history-making, life-giving love. And to limit the story in our hearts and minds to being another quip on a greeting card does a severe injustice to the Story of all stories, and robs us of the joy of awe.

How appropriate that we celebrate Christmas in the darkest, coldest time of the year, right before the New Year. How poignant. Don’t let the New Year come and go without wrestling with the magnitude of the Christmas season. The joy of this season should be ours the entire year, if we are in Christ and a member of His family, forgiven and regenerated. The joy of this season should strike us to the heart. Our sweet manger scenes and cute decorations of little feathered-winged baby angels and heartwarming Christmas flicks don’t even come close to communicating the magnitude of the earthquake that shook the world when God entered into time and space in the form of a tiny, vulnerable, helpless infant, a story that climaxed in a bloody Man hanging on a Cross, an instrument of torture, bearing the sins of the world on His shoulders, God the Son separated from fellowship with God the Father. This isn’t a story meant to make us feel warm and pleasant and comfortable. This is a story meant to shake us to the core by this radical demonstration of God’s mercy in response to required justice. This is a story meant to change us.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is from Revelation 21. It always brings a lump to my throat.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

The former things. Sin and death and rebellion, sorrow, pain, loss, worry, fear. All of that, conquered and defeated. God Himself wiping our tears from our eyes. What an image. How about that as the Glory we see in the Manger at Christmastime! Let that ring in your hearts as you ring in the New Year!

Summer 2018 | In Hindsight

Fall is officially here. October is officially here. I can’t believe how fast this summer flew by. And everyone says that. Sometimes I wonder if there is a time warp or something. It’s kind of fun looking back over the pictures I took this summer, a lot of which I never culled, edited, or shared, and remembering what a great summer it was, easily the best summer I’ve had since we moved here. IMG_8853eIMG_8925eIMG_8830eIt was a summer spent outside, spent sweating and working hard and getting sunburned and sore and hiking and reveling in the delight of family and friendships and new adventures. It was a summer of change and newness, starting with getting certified as a Type II Wildland Firefighter at the end of the spring, taking shifts at the fire station, learning about plants and greenhouse care while working at Dakota Greens, exploring new places in the Hills. We enjoyed a litter of growing kittens, unusual quantities of rainfall, massive numbers of wildflowers, and a greenness of the landscape that persisted all summer long. We enjoyed a few family outings, which are rare these days due to Grandma’s poor health, and Sarah and I enjoyed a drive out in the Medicine Mountain area, and found fireweed on Odakota Mountain. I spent some lovely time with the friends God has blessed me with, hiking and exploring and sharing life together.IMG_2928eIMG_8899eIMG_8915eGreenhouse work was a source of joy this summer – early mornings weeding and maintaining the gardens at Prairie Berry Winery, hot days sweating in the greenhouse, cool and rainy days cozy in the greenhouse, days watering and caring for plants, watching flowers bloom and bring a rainbow of colors.IMG_5797IMG_6683eIMG_7128IMG_6678IMG_6823IMG_6808IMG_6664IMG_6804As wonderful as the summer was, it definitely had its share of struggles. I tend to struggle with feelings of depression and overwhelm, and I’m in a place in my life where loneliness is a very real thing, and I have to remind myself that God IS good, and He DOES love me and have a plan for my life. I have to remind myself of that, and often forget to. That’s when I start getting depressed and discouraged.IMG_7885eIMG_8792eeRarely do I get out my camera or work on blog posts when I’m feeling down – Depression tends to shut off both of those things. And years ago I decided I didn’t want to journal my negative feelings, but only the encouraging things. I’ve had people question me on that, since the negative IS a part of life. Very valid, absolutely. God uses what we perceive as negative experiences to sharpen us, to refine us, to make us more like Jesus, and those things are worth remembering. But for someone who has no trouble in general remembering the negative, I don’t need any help with that, or any assistance in going back and reliving my discouraged feelings! I’d rather document the joy.IMG_7821eAnd there is a Biblical principle in this:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. ~Philippians 4:8

Now the flip side of what I just said is that I could and should proactively choose, in the midst of feeling discouraged, to do those things that remind me of God’s goodness and the joy of life, but sometimes that’s exactly what the struggle is, and exactly where I fail. But the Christian life is about growth, and I hope I am growing in that area.IMG_8882eBut what I love about photography is that what I remember through the photography are the things that delighted me. I don’t remember what overwhelmed me, and I don’t remember why I was struggling or even if I was struggling. I don’t even remember how hot and sweaty and tired I was when I took certain photos, and I like being hot and sweaty and tired. I just remember the delight, the friendships, the beauty. How wonderful. My photography generally springs from joy or results in joy, and that is what I see reflected in the pictures when I look back over them.IMG_0230eSo enjoy these little glimpses into my joy-filled summer, as I enjoy sharing them and reliving them myself. So much beauty, so much peace, so many new things, so many blessings.IMG_8900eIMG_0211eSo long, summer. Howdy, autumn. The year is wearing on, and winter is just around the corner. A wonderful time of year.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

Meet Cinders

Okay, there’s another cat in the family…Actually, there are three, since Kashka had another litter of kittens back in April and somehow we ended up keeping all three. I have to say, it has been a delight. And Anna further delighted me by gifting me one of that litter. Ember was the first, a year and a half ago, and then this little adorable devil kitten was gifted to me just a few weeks ago or so. I almost refused her, but she snagged my affections pretty hard.
IMG_2903eOf all the cats we have had, this one thrives on physical affection the most. We’ve never had a cat that would cuddle (and I mean cuddle) and submit to being held for a half hour or more at a time. I love it. She is terribly affectionate, purrs like a motorboat when I so much as look at her, attacks me while I sleep (one of her not so nice characteristics), and literally has climbed our walls. She’s hilarious.

I’m not generally an advocate for cat collars, unless, of course, they’re town cats and tend to be “about town” cats. However, we now have three black cats (Kashka isn’t very creative with the colors of kittens she has), and two of them are virtually identical, except one is a boy and Cinders is a girl. It is a little awkward to have to “check” each time I want to identify one from the other. Thence, the collar. Makes it a lot easier.

As a teenager, I would occasionally joke about one day being the crazy cat lady (I’ve always loved cats), always attaching it to a hypothetical future day when I was “old and single”, old at that time being 30. I never really thought it would happen since I was allergic to cats at that time, and I really didn’t think I’d still be single that far in the future. It was just something funny I’d say to get a reaction or something, when I was 16 or so and 30 seemed a loooong ways away. Well, I’m no longer allergic (to our cats, at any rate), and I’m “pushing 30”, as a dear relative reminded me more than a year ago. So I think I can say I’ve reached the status of crazy cat lady, especially when I wake up in the morning with two cats in my twin sized bed with me. It makes me smile.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: God was so good to bless us with animals. So much was wrecked after Adam and Eve and their sin destroyed the purity and perfection of Creation. But God in His goodness has left so much beauty and joy and delight to cause us to wonder and marvel and praise Him. Little tastes of Eden.

 

Joyful Girl

One of the things I love most about Sarah is her joy. She is blessed by physical beauty, yes, but Sarah’s joy is a bright and infectious energy that just bubbles and sparkles. She has her down days, like the rest of us, but more than most she has a native delight and sense of optimism. Sometimes we tease her for her endless optimism (think Jane from Pride and Prejudice), but it really shouldn’t be made fun of – As a Christian, optimism should be a given. As redeemed children of God, saved by the blood of Christ, we have absolutely no excuse for anything but optimism! IMG_3363Sarah is blessed with a delightful sense of humor – What a gift. Life is often difficult and frustrating, but the gift of humor is a beautiful thing. Often does our time spent together involve reveling in the joy of laughter and humor, laughing at ourselves and at one another, laughing at humorous or awkward experiences we’ve had, laughing until we cry and are breathless with giggling. IMG_3325If you’ve never been blessed by the sound of her laugh, I’m sorry for you. Some people attempt to exercise self-control when they laugh, which really is kind of a bummer. Laughter isn’t supposed to be something that is constrained or put through a filter. That strips all the fun out of it! And there is nothing more fun or infectious than Sarah’s laugh when she’s not thinking about it – It really comes from the heart, or straight from her funny bone.
IMG_3240And behind her joyful and often publicly quiet exterior, there is a heart of gold. I receive so much encouragement from our conversations, as we delve into life’s issues and struggles. She is endlessly encouraging. Her spiritual maturity is beyond her years. She has the wisdom to be able to take struggles in stride, the creativity to think outside the box, the faith to be unconventional, and the humility to think nothing of it.
IMG_3222I’m so blessed by my sisters. Every once in awhile, when Sarah is performing her rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” I wonder what it would be like to be an only child, but overall, having sisters is a wonderful thing. A gift from God.

Laura Elizabeth

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Remington

IMG_5182.1lowrezUntil I look at my photography back at home, I’m never sure exactly how any of it turned out. And when I take my camera and start snapping pictures, I’m never entirely in control of what will be captured through the lens. I may have one idea in mind, but what the camera ends up seeing, or what I see when I look more closely at the subject, might take creativity a different direction altogether. The spontaneity of photography is part of what I find interesting and compelling.

IMG_5157.lowrezOn this unseasonably mild December day, I had to run into Hermosa to make a mail run, and on my way back, Dixie’s horses were standing in our pasture close to the highway. One of them is a beautiful paint gelding named Remington, and with the Black Hills as a backdrop, and scrubby golden grasses in the foreground, I thought a beautiful picture was in order. I pulled over and jumped out of my truck, grabbed my camera, and climbed over the drooping barbed wire fence. I figured on spending a little while poking around in the grass getting pictures of flower heads and then getting close enough to the horses to frame a nice picture. I’d never played with these horses before, and assumed they’d be shy.

IMG_5192.1lowrezNo sooner had I knelt in the grass to take a picture of some dried flower tops, Remington was headed eagerly towards me. Apparently the little pony, Dove, isn’t enough of a horse to qualify as a friend for Remington, since the other horse died a few months ago. For the next twenty minutes, Remington wouldn’t let me get far enough away from him to take a good picture. Whenever I knelt down in the grass to get pictures of grasses and things, he came right up next to me and nosed me in the back, or sniffed my head, or just got in my face. He seemed to want to know what I found so interesting, so close to the ground. I looked up once and he was staring right in my eyes, just watching me. If I walked off, he’d follow right behind me. If I stopped, he’d stop with me and wait contentedly. I feel a little sorry for Dove, but Remington just wanted a friend!

Sometimes photography yields things other than photographs.

Laura Elizabeth