Berry Blessed

Today is the 82nd birthday of a guy I’ve known for a large part of my life. Duke, as he is known by his family and friends, is my father-in-law. Many would say that Duke is a unique character, and with good reason. You might see him in the small Fayette County village, where he was born and raised, working in his vegetable garden where his specialties are beets, potatoes and corn or he could be found sitting on his front porch snoring with a gun magazine or a book (he’s an avid reader of a variety of subjects) in hand. Often though, he can be seen taking walks – a walking stick in his hand, a gun on his hip, a newspaper-wrapped bottle of drinking water, a package of chewing tobacco in his shirt pocket, and a metal bucket attached to a strap over his shoulder during berry season. Come rain or shine or snow, each Sunday morning Duke can be seen in his dress clothes making the short walk (which he had done for many years with his beloved Margaret) to and from the little white United Methodist Church where he worships.

It might be surprising for some to learn how much Duke and I have in common. We both enjoy stomping about in the woods and fields. We both like walking and exploring in the mountains, canning vegetables from the garden, and picking wild raspberries and blackberries. We grew up with decades between us, but both spent our childhoods berry picking. It was an activity passed on to me by my dad “Turtle.” In my youth, we picked for hours at a time during berry season, sometimes gathering berries by the gallons. Dad’s health has declined in recent years, so he no longer ventures out for berry picking. I’m thankful though that the love for berry picking was passed on to me and my husband Scott, then to our 2 sons, and now even on to our young granddaughters. 

Last week, Scott and I had set a little time aside and made plans with Duke to drive to the mountains for some berry picking. Just before the time arrived to leave, Scott, whose job involves being on call, was needed to go back out to work. It’s nothing new for us, just a part of life for those in the telecommunications field. Not wanting to miss another day of gathering berries needed for making homemade jam, I decided that I would still go, even if alone. After making a quick call to Duke, I had a berry picking partner, so off we went to the mountains! Over the years, I’m sure we’ve picked berries together dozens of times. And here we were still at it, an 82 year old with his not-so-young-anymore daughter-in-law. Hours later, we emerged from the weeds and the jagger bushes with several buckets full of plump, juicy, shiny, sweet blackberries! 

Our family is blessed, “berry blessed,” that today we’ll gather for Bud’s pizza and wings to celebrate another birthday together with the man all of his grandchildren call “Pap Duke.” When I open our jars of blackberry jam in the months ahead, it will be a reminder of these hot summer days spent together wiping the sweat from our brows and tramping down the weeds while filling our blackberry buckets. It will be another reminder of the blessings and the beauty of God’s marvelous creation and of His goodness to us.

HOPE NUGGET: Because he has his heart set on me,I will deliver him; I will protect him because he knows my name. When he calls out to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble. I will rescue him and give him honor. I will satisfy him with a long life and show him my salvation.  [Psalm 91: 14-16]

A Fresh Start With A New Heart

I remember that day vividly, nearly two and a half years ago. That morning, while getting ready for work, my sister-in-law Amy called to say that it looked like today would be the day. A day that our family had been anticipating for months. Her 18 year old son, our nephew Matthew, would undergo lengthy heart transplant surgery at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. There was no way of knowing for sure if the surgery would actually take place that day, or if so at what time. Being that the hospital was only about an hour drive away, I got ready and left for work.

On the day of Matthew’s birth, we had gathered at a local hospital, excited about meeting the newest addition to our family. There was no reason to think that there would be any problems; we fully expected a healthy baby to be delivered. Within a short while after birth, we were told that Matthew was having trouble breathing and that a heart problem was detected. It would be necessary to transfer him to Children’s of Pittsburgh where determinations could be made of his condition and where he would receive more specialized care. 

Matthew at 1 month old with cousins Nick & Simon
(Matthew usually has a much more pleasant personality than shown in this picture!)

The devastating news came soon: Matthew had been born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The left side of his heart was underdeveloped. The diagnosis came with 3 options for my husband’s brother and his wife. 1 – they could choose to not intervene at all which would mean Matthew would not survive. 2 – they could choose to do a heart transplant. 3 – they could choose to have Matthew undergo a series of surgical procedures over several years which would allow his life to be extended, hopefully at least into his teens. The third option was recommended by doctors and chosen by Matthew’s parents.

There we were, 18 years later. Matthew certainly had his share of struggles by then, but had a happy and fulfilling life. Even though his heart was filled with love and joy, it had become too weak to support and sustain his life. There would not be much more time ahead for him without a heart transplant. While at work later that day, I got the word that Matthew was being prepped for surgery. The day we had hoped and prayed for was finally here. Matthew’s hospital room slowly filled with a few friends and close family. There was joking, nervous laughter, some hidden tears (both of joy and concern), prayers, hugs and see-you-after-the-surgery goodbyes. Matthew waved as he was wheeled down the hallway and the rest of us headed to the waiting room where we’d be together until late in the evening. Hours later and much to everyone’s relief, the phone call to Matthew’s parents came informing them that the surgery was a success. The new heart was beating strongly inside Matthew’s chest. 

Matthew with one of his biggest supporters – his brother Andrew (ages 10 & 5)

Ezekiel was a prophet to the Jewish people for at least twenty-two years and lived among the Jewish exiles in Babylon. A large portion of Ezekiel’s message to the Jews communicated judgment due to their continued rebellion against God [Ezekiel 1-32]. Despite their disobedience to Him, God offered them a wonderful gift with a message of hope through Ezekiel: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” [Ezekiel 36:26]. God’s desire was to restore Israel physically and spiritually. Physical restoration would occur with Israel returning to its own land as a nation. Spiritual restoration would occur through His Spirit as God transformed them and empowered them to do His will. He gave them a fresh start with a new heart.

Matthew was given a fresh start. God answered our prayers by means of a generous heart donor and a talented and dedicated medical team who provided him with physical restoration. Without the transplant, Matthew could very well not be with us today. A new heart was required to sustain his life. You and I may never be in need of a heart transplant, but the Bible makes it clear that we are all, even more importantly, in need of spiritual restoration. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23]. Like the rebellious Jews who received God’s message through Ezekiel and like the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time who didn’t incline their ears to hear from God, our hearts are evil and stubborn and disobedient [Jeremiah 7:24]. Walking in our own counsel is not the remedy; only God can give a fresh start with a new heart. The requirement is to turn to Christ, to put our Hope and Trust in Him. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

HOPE NUGGET: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” [2 Corinthians 5:17].

The Lady in the Window

It’s funny how the brain works and how suddenly out of nowhere, a random thought occurs or a memory which was buried deep within suddenly resurfaces. This coming June will be 10 years since my dad’s mom, my Grandma Alice, passed away. She was 90 years old when she was found sitting at the window of her kitchen. Grandma had spent many hours at that window, a window positioned in such a way that a comfortable chair next to it allowed for a view of the church next door, the railroad trestle, the homes of several neighbors, including a granddaughter and her family, and the main road which ran through the small town.

From early childhood, I remember countless times when visiting Grandma that we’d find her relaxing in her chair at the window. Often during visits, we would sit around the kitchen table while Grandma sat in her usual window seat. Some of my strongest memories of Grandma are of her in that seat or of the visits on warm summer evenings when we’d gather on the large front porch. We’d spend hours out there – Grandma usually on one of the gliders, while other family members sat on porch chairs or gliders or on the wooden ledge at the top of the porch’s wall around its perimeter. The wooden ledge was a favorite spot of mine, but reserved only for the older grandchildren and adults. Sitting there came with a warning to be careful and not fall off to the ground 7 feet below. I’d often sit with my back leaning against one of the porch posts with my legs stretched out and resting on the ledge. From that front porch, we’d talk to neighbors across the road or wave at passersby in their cars or on motorcycles as they honked their horns. It was a carefree time. 

Graduation day with Grandma Alice in her yard (June 4, 1982)

In Grandma’s aging years, she had become forgetful and would sometimes be confused in her thinking. During one of our visits, we had a conversation about that kitchen window and the chair where she sat. Grandma remarked that she enjoyed sitting at the window and waving at neighbors or to those in vehicles as they passed by. I know for sure that she did because anytime that we passed by her house without stopping to visit, we’d make sure to slow down enough to catch a glimpse of her at the window, to look for her wave, and to wave at her. I waved at Grandma in that window dozens upon dozens of times throughout my life. As our conversation proceeded, Grandma, as serious as could be, went on to tell us that she needed to be at that window, for if she wasn’t at the window, then the people wouldn’t wave at her. There’s no doubt that Grandma was convinced of that.

Our family still chuckles over Grandma’s declaration every time it’s retold. And yes, it is true. My Grandma Alice, The Lady in the Window, took her last breath while sitting in her chair at the window. On her final day at the window, my dad, who faithfully visited her every day, made the short drive from his house to see his Ma. On that early summer evening, as he approached the side porch of the house and looked toward the window, he noticed that she was still, and that she hadn’t waved. I’ve wondered different times about who the final person was that she waved to and who the final person was that she saw wave to her. 

Grandma waited and she watched. She was ready at that window every day. I know that Grandma was always ready to wave to her neighbors and even to strangers who would pass by. I don’t know if on that last day, she expected Jesus to call upon her. She believed in Him. She claimed Him as Savior. She had sat in the pews of that small church learning about the Gospel of Christ. But, did she expect to see Him that day? Did He wave to her or did He gesture for her to go with Him? I trust that she was ready to meet Him on that day.

Grandma Alice, Christmas 1994, age 74

Are we waiting and watching for Jesus? Are we ready for Him? Are we dressed for service with our lamps burning? When He knocks, will we open the door? Have you opened the door of your heart to Him?

HOPE NUGGET: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes…..You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” [Luke 12: 35, 36, 37a, 40]

With Wings as Eagles

“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.” These words from Isaiah 40:31 were the last words that I spoke to my mother-in-law on July 30, 2011. Her husband, 5 sons, 4 daughters-in-law and grandchildren had gathered around her hospital bed to say final goodbyes. One by one, we took turns at her bedside to express our love and “see-you-later” to her. As I stood there, already grieving what I knew would be a great loss, the verse from Isaiah played over and over in my mind. I had asked God to give me words that would comfort Margaret. She was a woman of faith. A woman who passed on a heritage of faith to her children and through them to her grandchildren. 

Mom and Dad Huff and their boys

Why am I writing a blog post about her today? It’s not the anniversary of her entry into heaven. It’s not her birthday. She came to mind today, I believe, because this is the first day of November, Thanksgiving month. The month which is associated with thankfulness. I’m thankful for Margaret. Thankful that we had so many years with her. I’m thankful for the influence of faith that she had on her family, the greatest gift that she could have left for us. My husband has said more than once that he would not want to disappoint his mom. I’m certain that the desire to honor his God-fearing (and God-loving) mother influenced his decisions and kept him on the “straight and narrow.” I’m also certain that her influence affected his own decision to follow and serve Christ.

A joyous memory: the trip to Niagara Falls

Our family hasn’t been the same since that day when God welcomed her into His presence for eternity. In spite of the hole left in our family and in spite of our continued grief, we will joyfully celebrate this 9th Thanksgiving without her. We will celebrate, knowing that she is with her Father in Heaven, with her Savior Jesus. How do we know where she is? Through hope. The hope of Christ in God’s promise to those whose faith is placed in Him. The hope that she had in knowing that she was redeemed by the one who died for her so that she would have eternal life. It is the same hope on which I hang my hat as well.

My favorite photo of Margaret, a spunky redhead

HOPE NUGGET: Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. [John 5:24]

A Song of Thanks

Do you ever wake up singing in the morning? One day last week, I did. It wasn’t something that happened consciously, so I can’t take credit for it. It wasn’t even a day that I was especially excited about or necessarily looking forward to. That particular day meant that summer break for me had officially ended. The realization had come that we would not be together again as a family with our kids and granddaughters until Christmas break. It meant that once again I’d need to set my alarm clock and head back to my job with an inservice meeting in the morning. It was a bummer. All of it. “Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul….” I wasn’t singing when I lay down in bed the night before. Instead, I had been feeling sad because the summer months had passed by so quickly and I was anxious about the start of another school year.

God has a way of changing our outlook. He has a way of turning our sadness and our anxieties into joy. Sometimes He does so in unexpected and surprising ways, even when we’ve set our minds to looking at our situations negatively. Sometimes He needs to remind us of where our focus should be. Sometimes He uses a song to do that. “Thank you Lord for saving my soul. Thank you Lord for making me whole. Thank you Lord for giving to me, Thy great salvation so rich and free.”

It’s an older chorus which we used to sing years ago, a song which I usually don’t sing and which never even really comes to mind. But on that day last week, it came out of nowhere. It came as a reminder that I should be dwelling on all of the reasons to be thankful, especially of being thankful for God’s great salvation. When you wake up singing a song with that kind of meaning, your perspective changes. It just has to. And it changes the entire course of your day. And of the days that follow… Thank you, Lord.

HOPE NUGGET: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. [1 Peter 1: 3-4a]

Stirring up a Hornet’s Nest

My first time picking blackberries with my granddaughters ended with an experience that I’ll never forget. The sun was bright in the hot afternoon last Saturday here in southwestern Pennsylvania. We were prepared with our supply of sunscreen, water bottles, bicycles, wagon and berry buckets and headed out onto the trail. 

We had previously scouted out some good patches of berries near one of the trail’s access points which we knew would be easy to reach while pulling the wagon with little girls. With plans to host a family birthday party picnic the next day, our goal was to pick 3 quarts of berries which we’d use to prepare a special and refreshing fruit drink that our family enjoys. 

For each 12 ounce can of Sprite or 7UP, add 1/2 cup of blackberry mixture & ice

We arrived at our spot and stepped off the trail down into the weeds and brush where the berry bushes were growing. With 4 adults picking, it shouldn’t take long for us to gather the needed amount of berries. We had finished picking in the first patch and had moved on to the second. Fortunately, the girls had already tired by this point, so were back up on the bike trail with their mom and uncle and away from the berry bushes. Their dad (my son) and I were pushing on to finish gathering the remaining berries from this final patch of the day.

In order to reach the berries which are farther back on the bushes, it’s necessary to step blindly into the weeds and brush, not fully knowing what’s beneath. After years of berry picking, we’re used to dealing with sometimes difficult conditions and often come away with various bug bites and scratches from the sharp thorns. This time though would be different than usual. I took one step, then another, then another until I felt the first stinging pain on my elbow. I thought that it must have been one big mean fly to hurt so much and swatted at it while telling my son that I had just gotten bit.

Meanwhile, whatever had just bit me, was now buzzing and circling at my face and zooming in over and over. Before I knew it, there were more “flies,” which I would soon realize were hornets. They were swarming now and aggressively attacking, and as I was instinctively backing away from them and getting more stings, I heard the voice of my son telling me to get out of there and to start running. If it wasn’t for him being closeby and swatting the bees away from my back and legs and arms, I would have likely ended up with more stings than the five I received.

Just some interesting information about the differences (**steroids)

It was a pretty painful experience. One which I’d never had before that day. Three days later, I was still feeling the pain and effects of the stings. In the hours that followed, I thought of how sin operates in our lives. How we take one step in towards it, not realizing what’s below our feet or what’s ahead in the next move we make. How with each step forward, we gain confidence when nothing bad occurs. It seems safe enough. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the stings begin, one after the other, ferocious and painful, until we succumb to them or run from them, sometimes needing the hand of a friend to pull us away or to fight for us.

Years ago, while teaching a middle school Sunday School class, one of the kids shared a saying with me that I’ve never forgotten: “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” The biblical definition for sin is: rebellion against God or transgression of the law of God. Sin hurts. It is painful. It has consequences, sometimes terrible consequences. Don’t stay in it. Run from it. As fast as you can. Turn to God in repentance. He is waiting for you.

HOPE NUGGET: O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath! For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off. Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long. But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth. I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes. But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me, who boast against me when my foot slips!” For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me. I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully. Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good. Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation! [Psalm 38]

God’s Glowsticks

Yesterday started out in a quite unusual way. I was privileged at being invited to meet a newly discovered family member, not something which I’ve ever before experienced! This young man and his wife had traveled from several states away and were taking the time to meet and get to know family that until recently didn’t even know they had. On my way to meet them, a bit of nervousness set in. Would conversation be easy or would it be awkward? Would I know the right things to say to help them feel comfortable and accepted or would I blow it by being a goofball? Immediately upon entering the room where we’d spend the next hour looking at family pictures and sharing family history, I knew that our visit together would be good. This young couple was friendly and greeted me with warm smiles. It was as though they had always been family. Well, in a sense they had been. An unexpected gift from God, blessings to our family. Blessings that, without God’s intervention, would have remained unknown.

Last night as I settled into my spot on the back porch and pondered the day’s happenings, the final rays of the sun setting in the west were steadily replaced by fireflies (lightning bugs, as we refer to them here in southwestern Pennsylvania). God’s little glowsticks are always welcomed as they come out to visit on warm summer evenings. The sights and sounds of an early July summer evening in our small town are predictable and typical. All varieties of fireworks can be heard and seen coming from every direction, some faint in the distance and others as close as the backyards of nearby neighbors.

Fireworks, snap pops, glowsticks. There’s just something special about them that capture my attention. The sounds. The colors. The lights. They’re mesmerizing. An assortment of glowsticks can usually be found in our home, ready to be put to use. As a child, glowsticks weren’t available on the market, but I was fascinated by the natural glowsticks that God provided so would capture them and place them in a jar with a lid poked full of breathing holes. I would stare at those little creatures which provided hours of entertainment as they showed off alternating their display of lights.

It was a day that had overflowed with blessings, glowsticks from God. Special people and special moments that brighten your day, evidences of God’s handiwork in this world. What ended as a typical day in the first week of July had certainly not begun in typical fashion. A young man and his wife who, much like those lightning bugs, drew me in with their warmth and glow. Blessings. Blessings of light and of life. God’s glowsticks.

Hope nugget: 

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights… (James 1:17)