Monday, October 27, 2008

Giving Thanks...Giving Back

Today I had a rare privilege. I was able to give back a little of the encouragement given to me as a child of eight. How well I recall standing in my little choir, softly singing along with my friends and wishing with all my heart I could sing like my teacher, Mrs. Matherly. Her eyes sparkled and her voice rang out with enthusiasm and joy. I wanted to be her; but I was shy and embarrassed. After class, she called me aside.

"Becky," she said in a kind but firm voice, "You have a beautiful voice but you need to sing out--sing like you mean it. I can barely hear you. God has given you a gift and you need to use it for His glory, honey." She continued to coax me throughout the years that she remained in our church, a church where my grandfather was the pastor.

This past Saturday, as I hurried to pack the car after a week-long stay with our daughter, Anne, in Augusta, my cell phone rang. I grabbed it on the last ring and waited to hear a friend or family member who wanted to know where I had been for a week and when I was coming home. Instead, I was amazed to hear the voice of a home-town friend I'd lost touch with for almost 40 years. "Becky," she said, "I got your number from your mother. Mrs. M. wanted me to try to find you. Stacey, her husband, died yesterday. Can you call her?"

I called her immediately and was amazed to hear the sad but same voice of my old teacher. Her grief was multiplied as she realized that she had no one to turn to for the funeral services--they had moved recently to be near her daughter because of her health conditions and those of her husband. They had no church connections in their new home which, amazingly, is only 20 minutes from my home. "I prayed for God to show me what to do," she told me with tears making her voice shake, "and suddenly, there was your face, like in a dream. Could you sing and maybe Joe preach?" she queried, her voice frail and full of sorrow and hope.

Her one request was that I sing Amazing Grace with a guitar since her husband loved guitar. "Of course," I promised with groundless confidence. Little did I realize that everyone I asked-- about ten people--would be in class or working today. One last hope appeared, four hours before the service. "Jonathan, could you possibly break away for an hour and meet me in Woodstock?" This gracious young man (whose mother's funeral Joe had preached three years ago) agreed and provided guitar accompaniment to the song that has brought so much comfort to so many through the years.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see...
--John Newton

As it turned out, Joe and I were two of many representatives of my hometown, his adopted hometown. He first came to Haysi, Virginia, in 1965, as my grandfather Anderson's summer assistant and, because of my grandfather's poor health, officiated that summer at two funerals. One was for my dad's father, M. Calvin Belcher. The other was for my school-mate, Joan Ratliffe's father. Mr. R.'s brother was at the funeral in Woodstock today and 43 years later, expressed his gratitude once more to my husband. The friend who called to find me in Augusta was also grateful--Joe had performed her wedding 40 years ago. Several others in attendance remembered him as a dinner guest in their homes or befriending them and their relatives in times of need. Everybody told me how much I looked like my mother which made me happy indeed.

How wonderful to be able to be used by God to comfort and encourage those who have been a part of our lives, influencing us in ways we were not fully aware of at the time during those formative years. The young seminary student who took part in the service today alongside Joe is the grand-nephew, not only of the deceased, but of one of Joe's favorite Bible teachers in college and grandson of a bold preacher of the Gospel in SW Virginia who influenced my husband as a young pastor. Just maybe one level of God's providential hand involved influencing this tender-hearted, zealous young seminarian even as his relatives influenced Joe at his age.

In God's providence, we were able to give back today a little of what we were given as young Christians. As I looked into those dear faces today, I thought,"Who am I helping to shape and encourage in my moment in history, by words of encouragement, smiles and gentle reproach?" I praise God for the opportunity to say, "Thank you" to those who have given to me. May God bless someone by my faithful witness as well and may He receive all the glory.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fear: It's Roots and Fruits

I walked into my daughter Anne's back yard yesterday and counted five tall pine trees that could possibly--who knows--drop loose limbs on the unsuspecting heads of my granddaughters. Will I lie awake during the next strong wind and quake at the thought? I hope not. But I will encourage a watchful eye and expert opinions on those trees from time to time. 
Fear can paralyze (so could a falling limb?) and, if left unchecked and unrepented of, will cripple faith like a cankor worm gnawing away at the inside of an apparently healthy tree. When the challenging winds blow, it's fall is certain. So is the life more motivated by fear than faith.

At a critical moment during WWII, FDR bolstered the flagging spirits of the Allied troops with a stirring speech from which this sentence is often quoted: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." For many, fear becomes a way of life, habituated to the point that it impels our behavior in areas that may surprise us if we dare explore our true motivations. Show me a bitter, whining woman and, without digging deeply at all, I will show you a woman filled with fear rather than faith. Listen to the domineering, spiteful husband and father and you will find a man mastered by his fears rather than his faith in a caring heavenly Father Who has a perfect plan for his life despite all that he perceives is going wrong. Look at Peter. When Peter kept his eyes on Jesus, the Lord of the winds and the waves, he walked on water! Imagine that! But when he looked at the waves and sensed his inability to save himself from impending doom, he sank beneath them. Only the strong hand of his Lord could pull him from the vortex of fear in which he was literally drowning. 

Have you ever been afraid, really afraid? Not just startled with momentary heart-thumping results, but the kind of deep-seated fear that is accompanied by dread and gut-wrenching anguish. Childish fears, fears that are ungrounded in reality, are fears easily overcome as we mature. Perhaps childhood fears that are left unattended nourish fears in us as adults. But maybe your fears are rooted in your failings or those of someone else. Perhaps you have learned to live above the surface of your worst fears, only allowing them into your conscious thinking during 'weak' moments. Whatever shape the monster assumes in your mind, all fear is born of the same 'mother.' William Gurnall, a great Puritan preacher, said, "We fear men so much because we fear God so little." What then is the remedy for our fears? In the Biblical sense, fear God.
Dr. George Robertson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia, reminded us last Sunday morning that adversity--situations that tend to engender a spirit of faithless fear--will peel back our layers and expose what really motivates us. We may be able to show ourselves full of faith until the storms hit; but our faith must be nourished by the means of grace God provides us -- consistent Bible study and sound preaching, the fellowship of the saints, earnest prayer, putting to death sin in our lives on a consistent, daily basis, prostrating our plans and thoughts before a holy God, consistently putting others before ourselves -- otherwise we will find ourselves weak and unable to withstand our natural and sinful fears.

Why is fear such a common factor in our failures? Perhaps because we find it easier to fear the unknown or the too well-known than to trust our lives and the lives and well-being of those we love to God's sovereign purposes. Humility is perhaps the most difficult virtue to obtain because pride is it's antithetical vice and we are all born with the cankor worm of pride ready to destroy us. 
The fruit of fear destroys us while the fruit of faith -- contentment, submission to our sovereign, loving God shown in us as women by a quiet and joyful spirit -- conquers fear and sets us free to live lives of gratitude, free from bitterness and anxiety. Fear God and all other fears will fade into unimportance as the peace that passes all understanding fills your heart and mind. 

Peace be unto you!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

All of Grace

Mid-October has already arrived and not a day too soon! I feel the release of tensions of every description when I look at the burnished leaves, feel the crunch of hickory nuts underfoot on my walk and breathe in the crisp, cleansing air.

October--August only crowns your place

of months significant in time and space;

for then it was my newborn cries rang shrill.

And yet, you argue, "Nay, October's still

the month to laud above your humble start."

I bow to you for he who won my heart

and reigns o'er it as king of all I do

was blessed to find beginnings then in you!

Happy birthday poem (impromptu and un-edited though it be) dedicated to my dear husband. More to come...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Grace Notes

Lo, the midnight hour has silently slipped past. Often have I wondered at the passage of time. I sit at the computer creating my first blog--a word I only heard for the first time about a year ago--wondering what my grandchildren will be doing when they are at the ripe old age of almost 60! I hope sleeping soundly in warm beds having enjoyed worship on the Sabbath Day past in a church blessed with Biblical preaching and the fellowship of many close friends. I pray they will have feasted on God's Word, communed with the saints around the table and gone to sleep with smiles of contentment on their lips after kissing a house filled to the brim with godly children goodnight. I pray that their neighbors and communities will all love the Lord so that it will be difficult to find someone to tell the good news of the Gospel to...I pray that grace will conquer sin, fear and wickedness in their generation. I know that day will come...I don't know when. God, make us faithful unto death...