Saturday, February 22, 2014

Home Again

Photo by Tim Evanson 2013

The memorial service for Lorraine, my mother-in-law, was truly a blessing. Even though we had agreed it should be a celebration of her life, and a time of rejoicing over her homegoing to Heaven, I think it is only natural to experience some dread over this type of service. It adds finality to our loved one’s passing; it makes us sad that we will miss them; and it evokes regret about missed opportunities. For those who are unsaved, it raises doubts and questions about their eternal destiny, and all of us may wonder about the legacy we will leave for all those whose lives we touched.

But the Holy Spirit moved so gracefully through this service, just as He did to reassure us when she entered the hospital for the last time, and even in the events surrounding her passing. A sudden worsening in her condition was the needed alarm to gather all her family, and she appeared to be able to recognize and understand us even though she could not speak. When she finally slipped peacefully into her last hours of sleep, we all returned to our homes, which was a blessing in that our last memory of her would not be of her dying breath.

It was 2AM and I lay awake, yet I was calmed by remembering the passage “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). Suddenly a visible jolt went through my sleeping husband’s body, and within moments the phone rang, which I knew immediately was the hospital calling to let us know she had passed. I shouted Richard’s name for him to answer it, and as he bolted from the bed and ran to the phone, he tripped on the scatter rug, slammed into the closet doorway with his shoulder, cut up and bruised his arm and hand, ripped the curtains from the closet, and wrenched his back and neck!

Not funny at the time, but he has recovered fully, praise God! Earlier that afternoon, he and his sister Kathy had been reminiscing and chuckling over a fall he had when they were children. Apparently they were watching a violinist on the Lawrence Welk show, and Richard ran upstairs to get a junky violin he had rescued from the trash. In his excitement to accompany the maestro, he skidded and fell – right on top of the violin, smashing it to bits!

So it looked like Lorraine, with her “quirky sense of humor,” as Kathy’s son described it at the service, had the last laugh as she played one last prank on Richard!

The call was in fact what I had feared, and as we consoled one another with hugs, Richard quoted out loud the same Scripture that had been silently on my heart: “absent from the body, present with the Lord.”

The next day we learned that after Richard called Kathy to tell her know the news, she and her husband went into their living room to sit for a while. Earlier that night, she had brought an IPod and headphones to the hospital so that Lorraine could listen to her favorite John Denver music, including “Home Again.” When they left, Kathy shut off the IPod and brought it home in her purse.

As Kathy and her husband sat talking about Lorraine’s passing, suddenly they heard faint, tinny music and realized that the IPod in Kathy’s purse had mysteriously begun playing “No Regrets,” even though they had not even touched the purse!

Preparations for the service could have been a real ordeal, especially since nothing had been planned in advance. But the funeral director, who was literally around the corner from our home and church, turned out to be a real Godsend, treating us like his own family. Planning her life celebration became a peaceful time of reflecting on what a blessing she was, and on the hope Christians have in knowing we are not really saying “Goodbye” to our loved ones who trusted Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-57; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

We felt bathed in love and prayers from both our churches – the one we had recently left and the one we have now joined. Our new church prepared a loving, bountiful and delicious home-cooked meal in their Fellowship Hall after the service. Lorraine would have loved this, as she delighted in feeding family, friends, unexpected visitors, neighborhood children, and even staff at the assisted living facility where she spent her last years.

Equally fitting was that the date of her passing was February 14, Valentine’s Day -- how perfect for a woman who generously gave out love, candy and handwritten notes to those she held dear, and even to those she had just recently met! And such a blessed reminder of God’s great love for us!

The associate pastor from our former church led the memorial service, as he knew her personally and had been the one to lead her to the Lord five years ago, when she was 85 years young! What an encouraging reminder that we should never give up on praying for our loved ones who do not yet know Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Hebrews 4:16), as He will answer those prayers with His perfect will and perfect timing. If we are faithful to pray, sow the seed, and water, He will give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-8).

At the service, her family, friends and pastor spoke of her generous spirit, good humor despite many hardships, and her love for music. Kathy’s son Philip played and sang “Home Again,” while our son accompanied him on guitar.

The pastor acknowledged that his role was to offer comfort, yet he had no source of comfort in his own strength. Our only Comfort is God Himself, the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), Who gives us the peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Jesus told us not to be troubled, for He has gone to His Father’s house to prepare a place for us, so that we may be with Him always in Heaven (John 14:1-3).

So what about Lorraine, the pastor asked. Is she in Heaven? I don’t know, he admitted to deafening silence, for only God knows the hearts (Psalm 44:21; Luke 16:15 Acts 15:8). We are all sinners (Romans 3:10,23) deserving eternal death in hell (Romans 6:23), yet God in His infinite love gave His only Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die, taking on our punishment so that all who trust in His death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) will not die, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

She is not in Heaven because she was a good person, even though she worked selflessly to provide for her family and to fill their lives with love and laughter. All our own righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), unacceptable to Holy God, but Jesus Christ has appeased His holy wrath by suffering in our place (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10. Now when God looks at born-again believers (John 3:3-8), He no longer sees our sins, but only the perfect righteousness of His Son.

She is not in Heaven because she was religious, even though being raised in the Catholic Church, she was in the habit of praying her rosaries and taking communion. The high priests and Pharisees of Jesus’ day made a great show of their religion, praying out loud in the public square, wearing their religious garb, and tithing, but their hearts were far from Christ, and they did not even recognize Him as the promised Messiah (Matthew 23).

She is not in Heaven because of her academic knowledge of Scripture, or because of her belief that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet. In fact, she did not read her Bible or listen to preaching, because her eyesight and hearing failed in her later years, and she was distracted by pain and labored breathing.

There are many who have an intellectual understanding of Jesus but who do not know Him as their Lord and Savior, and unless they have a personal relationship with Him in their heart, they will not be in Heaven (Matthew 15:8; Mark 7:6). Satan himself knows Scripture better than any born-again Bible scholar, and he knows it is all true (James 2:19), yet he is unsaved because his pride keeps him from worshipping God (Isaiah 14:12-20).

I don’t think it is a “coincidence” that the Scripture we chose for Lorraine’s memorial book, video and leaflets were the same verses highlighted by the pastor in His message:

John 14:1 Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

John 3:16  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 11:25 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: 26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

So is Lorraine in Heaven? Only God knows the hearts. But we believe and have hope that her profession of faith reflected her genuine belief in and submission to Christ as the only Way (John 14:6) to Heaven, and that He has brought her “Home Again.” 

© 2014 Laurie Collett
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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Faith Revealed

Photo by Tuxyso 2013

As my husband and I set off to Las Vegas to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, we were excited yet a little apprehensive. We had been invited to perform a Theatre Arts solo exhibition at a ballroom dance celebration, and were planning to dance our Christian ministry piece, “Transformed,” which uses the imagery of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly as a metaphor for salvation to eternal life (Romans 12:2). In our dance ministry, we often perform to largely unsaved audiences in secular settings. Yet we had never performed at the ballroom of a Las Vegas casino, so we prayed especially fervently that our message would be well received.

Added to that was the usual struggle of trying to tie up loose ends before we left home for a week, praying that our businesses would run smoothly and especially that our loved ones would be healthy and safe. Our son was suffering with a bad cold that kept him out of work for a few days and prevented us from getting together before we left. My husband’s mother, over 90 years old, had many chronic medical conditions that had caused her to be in and out of the hospital.

As our anniversary was in January, we were in the peak of snow and ice storms and bad weather, and numerous flights had been cancelled or delayed within days before our scheduled departure. It even crossed my mind that we might not make it to Vegas in time for our performance!

But as we left Tampa in unusually brisk 30 degree weather, we were relieved to be dressed in our long coats and even more blessed to have safe, on-time flights and arrival, so our fears were unfounded (1 John 4:18). Although the weather in Las Vegas had been chilly the week before, we were blessed with mild, sunny weather for most of our stay.

The gentleman who had invited us to perform, whom we had only met on one occasion several years ago, could not have been a more gracious host, treating us to many meals and driving us around to see many sights that would not have been possible without a car.

We saw David Copperfield’s show and were astounded by one illusion in which he blindfolded a woman from the audience and had her wander under a canopy of 100 ribbons, each tied to a different word provided by 100 other audience members. Another audience member started and stopped a recording of music whenever she wanted to, and when she stopped, the blindfolded woman stopped and reached up with her hand to grab the nearest word. Of all the words (some proper names, some common objects, and some emotions) she could have selected, she chose the word “FAITH!”

Well, that in itself would have been enough for me, as I was encouraged by this gentle reminder that all we need is to have faith (Matthew 17:20; 21:21), trusting and obeying God whether or not we see His hand at work. But David Copperfield’s illusion had just begun, and he asked the audience to raise our hands high in the air. As we had entered the theatre, we had been given white paper bracelets printed in black with “David Copperfield.” But now as we raised our hands high, black light shone on our bracelets to reveal the word “FAITH” appearing in fluorescent letters on each outstretched wrist!

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), and without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6). But this got me thinking that every now and then, perhaps more often than we even notice, God gives us little glimpses of faith revealed (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:23). We do not need signs (Matthew 16:4) to know that God loves us and is working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). Still, I believe that He paints loving pictures to encourage and calm us, just as a parent might tuck a thoughtful note in their child’s lunch box to remind them how much they are loved.

Praise God for His faithfulness (Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 89:8; Isaiah 25:1; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 10:13)! This was manifest to us when all aspects of our performance came together beautifully, despite jet lag, lack of recent rehearsal, and what I thought might be a stomach flu and migraine I experienced that morning. We danced to a full house and very appreciative audience, and God allowed us to testify to His goodness and power of salvation, not only through our dance but verbally as well. Our prayer is that hearts were softened to Him as seed was planted (Matthew 13:3-32).

We had many exciting outings planned for the remainder of our trip, including seeing several Cirque de Soleil shows and walking around the magnificently decorated hotel lobbies. It is almost like walking around the world, as you can see replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Venetian canals, and the Coliseum all in the same day! But lest you think otherwise, we do not drink, smoke or gamble, and I joked that our stay may have set a record for the longest vacation in Las Vegas without a penny spent in a casino!

Our faith would be tested yet again, as one morning as we were traveling to see the Hoover Dam, Richard got a phone call from his sister. His mother had just been readmitted to the hospital for low blood sugar and pneumonia, but his sister reassured us that she would handle things and that we should not cut our trip short.

Naturally we were concerned, but as I gazed out the window at the blue, cloudless sky, I was blessed to see a perfect, white cross, perhaps left by two intersecting jet trails. Yet there was no fading off of the lines at their ends, and the arms of the cross were in exact proportion and right angled to the upright beam. Without Christ’s finished work on the cross to pay for our sins, and His resurrection to eternal life, which conquered the curse of sin and death, there would be no physical or spiritual healing (John 11:25-26; Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). 

He is the Great Physician, and we can trust Him to rid our bodies of the curse of sin (Psalm 147:3), whether through His design for recuperation and disease-fighting He has programmed into us (Psalm 139:14; Hosea 6:1), or through taking us to Himself where we feel no pain, sickness, or suffering (Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 7:17; 21:4).

The third reminder of faith revealed was at the Grand Canyon, at Eagle Point where the rock formation resembles the outstretched wings of a giant eagle. This of course brought to mind Isaiah 40:31, which has always been a special verse for us in our dance ministry: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

As we left this breathtaking view I was surprised to see a small rainbow from the bus window. These always remind me of God’s faithfulness to keep His promises (Genesis 9:12-17), and yet this one was extraordinary, not for its size or beauty, but because it was there at all! We were told it hadn’t rained for weeks; there were no clouds in the sky; and typically it only rains briefly on 10 days out of the year in Las Vegas, for a total annual rainfall of less than 2 inches. Truly a dry and thirsty land (Psalm 63:1), thirsty not only for rain but for the Living Water of Jesus Christ (Song of Solomon 4:15; John 4:10-11; Revelation 7:17), and yet God gave us a rainbow!

On the last day of our vacation, we were in fact treated to a 5-minute rain shower, followed by one of the largest, most brilliant rainbows I have ever seen, particularly resplendent as it stretched out over the blue and purple mountains outside the city. As we admired it, we reflected on God’s grace in arranging all details of our journey to make it a much-needed time of refreshing and renewal of our vows to one another, to our ministries, and to Him.

He saw us safely home to Tampa, and thankfully we traveled not on the day of, but on the day immediately following, massive delays and cancellations due to severe weather in Atlanta, and our flights were safe and only 30 minutes late. Richard’s mother was stable, and we were able to spend quality time with her in her last days, as He ultimately brought her safely home to Himself yesterday morning, Valentine’s Day. Once again a beautiful reminder of His perfect love, so great that He gave His only Son so that whosoever trusts in Him will never die, but will enjoy eternal life! (John 3:16)
Richard’s mother was saved very late in life, and it is our prayer that her memorial service will lead others to know Him. May we all continue to witness to and pray for those who do not yet know Christ, no matter how old or set in their ways, as nothing is impossible for Him!  (Matthew 19:26) May we not grow weary of doing His work, for if we persist, we will see the harvest in His perfect timing! (Galatians 6:9)

© 2014 Laurie Collett
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