In My Father's Garden

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” —John 15:1

When the cold, winter winds finally give way to the gentle warmth of spring, you’ll find me in my flower garden. I clean out my perennial beds, haul out all the garden chatskies, give the emerging plants a healthy dose of fertilizer, and then I wait for the show to begin. I’ve seen it all before. Every year, the garden explodes with fragrance and color, but I never find it ordinary. In fact, I can’t stop looking at it. I’m always in awe that something so beautiful emerges from dirt that just a few weeks before was frozen and bare.

The French impressionist Claude Monet said, “Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” I understand. I’m passionate about color, too. I’m obsessed with planting bulbs in just the right spots to create the best color combinations. The bright colors of a spring garden energize me. I find joy in a sea of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils, and I relish the blossoms of yellow forsythia, purple lilacs, and shell pink magnolias. The torment comes when the vivid petals fall from the stems, and I can’t do anything to stop it. To soothe my disappointment, I plant pots filled with orange zinnias, bright blue lobelia, cherry-red petunias, and yellow marigolds. I hang baskets of impatiens in shady spots and plant gerbera daisies. For good measure, I sow sunflower seeds along the old, wood fence. Then, I stand back and admire my work, assured that I will have colorful blooms until the first autumn frost.

As the days grow long, my summer garden takes center stage. The tendrils of clematis and morning glory vines wind around trellises and trees. Rose buds unfurl, filling the air with spicy perfume. Daylilies grow into thick, round clumps, their foliage spilling to the earth like water from a fountain.

My gardening tasks turn to weeding and deadheading. As I kneel on the ground, combing the dirt with my garden rake, I notice the finely textured fronds of threadleaf coreopsis, the shiny green leaves of a miniature holly bush, and the large, ribbed foliage of blue-green hostas. When I look more closely, I discover Scotch moss and wooly thyme creeping among the garden stones, and I find tiny buds on the sedum plants that grow beneath the Hinoki false cypress. My mind drifts toward God. I think about the Garden of Eden, and I imagine God, the Great Creator, choosing the colors, placing each plant in the spot most pleasing to His eyes. How beautiful it must have been! God stood back and admired His creation, and He was pleased. The Bible tells us so in Genesis 1:31, “(He) saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” In other words, it was perfect. As my thoughts return to my own garden, I realize that the flowers and foliage I see are just a dim reflection of Eden.

Eden was beautiful beyond compare, but we are even lovelier to the Creator. He made us in His own image as His best work. If we let Him, He will be the gardener of our souls. He will pluck out any weeds that have taken root and create a new garden within us, one that won’t die at the first autumn frost and one filled with vibrant blooms from now until eternity.

I believe that gardening connects us with the heart of God. As we plant, prune, weed, and fertilize, we can imagine Him tending to us in a similar way, sowing the seeds of His kingdom and providing us with all that we need to make them grow.

At the front of my perennial bed is one of my favorite things. It’s a small, iron garden plaque that belonged to my mother. On the black background etched in white are the words:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God's heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.

Whether you garden or not, take a few minutes to reflect on the wonders of Eden. Allow God to become the gardener of your soul. When you reap what He sows, you will be blessed with new hope and everlasting life.

Heavenly Father, I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. Draw me near to your heart. Create in me a new work. Sow the seeds of your kingdom within me, and allow them to grow.

After You Have Done Everything, Stand

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
—Ephesians 6:13

I loaded my car with a flat of geraniums, a watering can, trowel, and gardening gloves. I closed the hatchback. Then I slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. Reluctantly, I backed out of my driveway. The last thing I wanted to do that morning was plant flowers on a dozen graves. I hoped that I wouldn’t have a lot of trimming to do, or cleanup. I’d brought with me the necessary supplies, just in case, but I dreaded the thought of extra work. Before long, I drove into the cemetery, past the ancient black iron gates, and along the narrow, tree-lined roads. I rolled down the window and let the warm, spring air come inside bringing with it the sounds of birds singing in the trees. I was the only person there. It was early and a weekday, so most people were at work, or still sipping their morning coffee.

Grandma and Grandpa’s graves were first on my list. I parked the car by the roadside, opened the hatchback, and hauled my supplies between the rows of headstones until I came to my grandfather’s. “Henry W. Ellsworth, 1st Infantry Division, WWI.” The stone was dirty, and grass was growing where I needed to plant. Unwillingly, I went back to my car for the extra things that I’d hoped I wouldn’t need.

I knelt at Grandpa’s grave and began scrubbing the headstone and pulling at the encroaching sod, fretting to myself about how long it was taking and thinking about everything else I had to do that day. I barely noticed an elderly gentleman wearing a veteran’s cap, carrying a fist full of small American flags. He walked among the rows of headstones, carefully reading the inscriptions and placing a flag on the graves of the veterans. He stood silently for a few seconds before moving from one grave to the next. Eventually, he came to my row. I hoped that he wouldn’t be chatty and take up a lot of my time. We were the only two people there, after all, and I’d heard my share of war stories. I had things to do. I decided to look busy and say a polite hello when he got to my grandfather’s plot. That’s all – just "hello."

The man approached me with a somber look on his face. “Good morning,” he offered, dryly.

“Good morning,” I replied, looking up at him and forcing a smile.

The old man bent down and placed a flag in the metal holder near my grandfather’s headstone. He straightened up, took one step backward, snapped his open right hand to his forehead, and saluted. Then, he bowed his head briefly and whispered, “Rest well, my friend.” At that moment, I realized that the man had been doing this at every veteran’s grave. Tears burned in my eyes as I watched this stranger honor my grandfather – a man he never knew; a man who had been dead for fifty years. I managed to get out the words, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, young lady,” he responded.

He walked on. I didn’t let him get far before calling to him, “Sir!” He stopped and turned in my direction. “Thank you for serving our country.” He nodded politely, then went about the task of placing flags on the graves.

I reached down and wiped the last bit of dirt from Grandpa’s headstone. I had barely known my grandfather, he died when I was two, but now I could imagine him as a young man, going off to war, leaving his wife and children at home. I know that when he returned, times were hard for him and his young family, but through it all Grandpa had stood his ground and done everything that he could do. He provided for his family with strength, courage and love, and when he passed away, at the age of 64, he had served his country and his family well.

I went on planting the graves all the while thinking of my family members who are with God. Each veteran had served his country and then returned to face life’s challenges. I thought of my great-grandfather who had been a Union soldier in the Civil War; my great-uncle, a veteran of the Spanish American War; my Uncle Dick who served in WWII; and my cousin’s husband, Brian, a decorated Vietnam veteran who died just two years ago. Before Memorial Day, a flag had been placed on each of their graves, and I wondered if the person who put it there took time to salute and softly whisper a prayer.

Deuteronomy 31:6 says: 
”Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.” None of the soldiers in my family looked forward to the fight. Some were required to commit acts that haunted them for the rest of their lives. But, they courageously did what their country asked of them. Because of their Christian heritage, I’m almost certain that they carried pocket Bibles with them in the field and always kept God in their hearts. They did everything as best they could, then they stood strong, believing in God's goodness and love.

The Lord was with these men when they went to war. The Lord graciously returned all of them to our family. He gave them courage, as husbands and fathers, to stand against life’s challenges, and when they had done all that they could do, God was there to guide them Home.

The Lord was with me as I planted at the cemetery that day. Through the act of an elderly veteran placing flags on the graves, He reminded me not to complain about honoring the dead, but instead to be grateful for them, especially for those who loved not only their families, but their country.

Kind Heavenly Father, On this Memorial Day, instill in us gratefulness for our family members who have served and are serving in the military.

Regular or Decaf?

"Yet a time is coming and has now come when
the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,
for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.— John 4:22-24

Ah, the coffee bean, one of God’s most amazing creations. Who can resist the nutty, earthy, comforting aroma of roasted coffee beans? Grind them, add hot water, and a soothing, steamy scent fills the air signaling a brand new day.

Do you know that coffee beans were God’s little secret until goats discovered them way back in the Ninth Century? At least, that’s what one legend tells us. A goatherd named Kaldi noticed his herd acting strangely. The goats were munching large, cherry-red berries from a stand of shrubs and prancing around with merry euphoria. Baffled by the goats’ bizarre behavior, Kaldi plucked a few of the berries himself and tasted them. Of course, he experienced a caffeine buzz similar to the goats’. Kaldi was excited to share his secret, and he told a monk at a local monastery. The monk used the berries to brew a drink, hoping that it would help him to stay awake longer to pray. Voila, coffee was born! Before long, the whole world was drinking “bean broth” and experimenting with new ways to brew it.

© National Geographic

Thank God for coffee. I can’t imagine living without it. For a good, long while, plain old ordinary coffee, brewed black and strong, was my passion. Then I discovered flavored coffees. I was very happy with my hazelnut, vanilla, and caramel coffees until my passion progressed to lattes, cappuccinos, and mochas. That’s where I stand today. Give me a Black Forest Mocha from Wilson’s Coffee and Tea, and I’m in the equivalent of Heaven. Yes, I’ve become a coffee snob.

Recently, I took my love of coffee to a new level. I bought a French press coffee pot that brews coffee somewhat the way professional coffee tasters (cuppers) brew theirs. Coarsely ground coffee goes directly into the pot. Boiling water is poured over it. Then it steeps for about four minutes. Finally, a circular screen is pressed down trapping the grounds at the bottom of the pot. The result is a wonderful, strong, aromatic cup of coffee. Add a little flavored syrup and some frothed milk, and the cappuccinos I make at home rival a barista’s. I stop there. Unlike professional cuppers, I do not slurp the coffee forcefully while inhaling, nor do I perform fake chewing and swallowing to get a better idea of the coffee’s aftertaste. I do, however, appreciate the Coffee Tasters’ Flavor Wheel, which includes some great words for describing the distinct flavors of coffee.

One of my most enjoyable summer activities is to take a cup of iced coffee to the beach and write there. Instead of making iced coffee at home, I buy it at a nearby fast food restaurant. I always get the biggest size, because I want it to last as long as the battery in my laptop.

So it was, one June morning, that I headed for the beach with the computer and a huge cup of iced coffee. Eager to leave the drive-thru and get to my writing, I’d hastily shoved the plastic cup into the cup holder between the front seats. As I drove to the beach, the coffee smelled even more wonderful than usual. I could hardly wait to taste it. I held off, though, saving that first sip for the moment I opened up my laptop and pressed the “on” button. I hurried to the beach and pulled into my favorite parking spot, away from all human activity but still overlooking the sandy beach and the water. I parked the car, rolled down the windows, flipped open the laptop, and pressed the "on" button. Then I reached for my cup of coffee and was horrified to find that it was empty! There was nothing left but ice. Until then, everything had been going so well. I hadn’t a care in the world, and I certainly hadn’t noticed that the cup was leaking. By the time I’d discovered it, my eagerly anticipated iced coffee had trickled out, filled the cup holder, and soaked the passenger seat. Reluctantly, I shut the laptop and rushed home to clean up the mess.

As I got busy with the wet-dry vac, I complained silently about my situation. I had planned a pleasant morning filled with writing and coffee, and there I was in my garage scrubbing the car seat. The word “worship” came into my mind. Worship! I’m busy God. I want to get back to the beach and enjoy myself. Worship? Can’t you see that I have a mess here to clean up?

“How many times have I cleaned up your messes?” God said. “And I never complained. Worship.”

When things are going wrong, when we’re struggling or in a crisis, we readily worship God. We sing praises and tell Him how great He is and wait for Him to act in our favor. It’s when things are going well that we often forget to worship. We praise God and thank Him in church on Sunday, and the rest of the week we go about our ways, too eager to enjoy ourselves than to notice that our praises have trickled away, just like my delicious coffee had leaked out of its cup.

God humbled me on that morning. I’m still passionate about coffee, but now I try to remember to be even more passionate about Him. In Psalm 34:1, David writes, “I will praise the Lord at all times. I will constantly speak His praises.” I think of that verse whenever I notice my love for coffee, writing, or any other pastime getting in the way of my gratitude. With just an ordinary cup of coffee, God had given me a glimpse into my heart and shown me room for improvement.

Dear God, Don’t ever allow me to forget that you desire my worship and praise, every day, all day long.

Sweet Vidalias

''In the multitude of my thoughts within me,
thy comforts delight my soul." —Psalm 94:19

When I was little, I always looked forward to Friday nights. That was the night we saw Aunt Mary and Uncle Nick at the Star Restaurant on Interstate 94. Nick and Mary weren't my real aunt and uncle; they were the restaurant's owners and family friends. Both were born in the Salonika Plain in Greece near the Aegean Sea. They'd come to the United States as young adults and opened their small restaurant near the Interstate. By the time we found them, Nick and Mary were well into middle age. We were regulars at the restaurant, and on those Friday nights, when Mom, Dad, and I sat in our red, vinyl-upholstered booth, Nick and Mary sat with us. They told stories about the "old country," about how beautiful it was and how hard it was to leave when they moved to America.

Along with the stories, there was always delicious food. At Easter time, Nick and Mary gave us hard-boiled eggs dyed a deep blood red, and they served us succulent roasted lamb. Other times, there were new dishes to try: soupa avgolemono, dolmathes, souvlakia, and the only one I could pronounce, moussaka. Mary was as proud of her cooking as Nick was of always finding the freshest produce. We teased him about it. Not one Friday night went by without a trip downstairs to the cooler. Inside that cold, little room were scores of boxes filled with fruits and vegetables. Nick explained to us where they came from, how they were grown, and why they were fresh.

It was Nick who introduced us to Vidalia onions, the world's sweetest onion and the state vegetable of Georgia. Nick said that when he discovered Vidalias, it changed the way that Mary cooked. The infamous Star Burger was topped with a thick slice of roasted Vidalia; Mary's cheese omelet came with a side of Vidalia hash brown potatoes; The Every-Friday-Dinner-Special was tender calf’s liver, slightly pink, smothered in strings of sweet Vidalias. Finding new uses for the onions was Nick's passion. "These onions, they make you feel good," he said in broken English as we stood near the cooler. He picked up a large Vidalia onion and studied it adoringly. "Ordinary ones, they make you cry. This one, it brings you comfort.” Nick was right. The Vidalias did bring me comfort, but not until many years later.

In the spring of 1999, Mother was dying. She lay in a hospital bed in a coma. Her illness had been short, and I was reeling from how suddenly our lives had gone from normal to chaos. When I sat at her bedside, I thought of the Friday nights that we’d spent at the Star Restaurant, and I remembered Nick’s passion for Vidalia onions. What an odd memory at such a somber time! That memory led to another. I thought of a special mother-daughter conversation that Mom and I'd had in the kitchen while she was making dinner. She was cooking with Vidalia onions, probably because chopping them didn’t make her cry, but more likely because Nick gave them to us by the bagful. As we’d sat there talking, the kitchen had filled with the warm, comforting scent of roasting Vidalia onions. When I remembered that smell, I was reminded of something else: times when I was little and sick with a fever. Mom would often stop whatever she was doing and come to feel my forehead. If she had been chopping Vidalia onions, there was something special about her touch. The coolness of her gentle hand on my face and the sweet smell of Vidalia onions was comforting. As I sat there at Mom's bedside remembering, I rested my hand on her forehead. It was the last time that I saw my mother smile. Those unusual memories in my time of need were no accident. God had used them to allow us to connect one last time.

God is the Great Comforter. He finds just the right ways to dry our tears. When I remember my mother’s gentle hands against my feverish forehead, I think of God’s hands. I imagine each person on this earth as a grain of the finest sand in the palms of His hands, yet He never allows us to slip through His fingers. His hands are vast and strong, but always sensitive to our needs. When I imagine the greatness of God, Nick’s words take on a new meaning: "Ordinary ones, they make you cry. This One, it brings you comfort.” There’s nothing ordinary about our Heavenly Father. In every way, and always, He is extraordinary.

Dear Lord: Thank you for comforting me and for always being with me in my times of need.

Night Trains

"Pray for each other so that you may be healed.
The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" —James 5:16

The house I grew up in was a big, white Victorian. When I was a little girl, what I liked most about the house was its front porch with its turned columns and gingerbread fretwork. The floor was painted a shiny gray, and the floorboards squeaked when I walked on them. At one end, an old green porch swing hung from the ceiling on heavy chains. When I sat on it, my feet were high above the floor, and to swing I had to rock my body back and forth. I spent many summer hours in that swing, often late in the evening when darkness came and sounds were fresh and new.

I loved the night sounds. Unlike many children, I wasn't afraid of them. Instead, in the solitude of darkness, I found them comforting. Chirping crickets, a mournful foghorn, the roar of a motorcycle, even the soft footsteps of a neighbor walking by was like music to my ears.

Trains made my favorite night sounds. The tracks were a half-mile from our house, and the sounds drifted loud and clear to where I sat on the porch. I made a game out of listening. When I heard a train whistle in the distance, I tried to guess where it was. I listened to the blasts of the air horn as the engine approached each crossing—two long, one short, one long. When the train arrived in my neighborhood, I savored the sounds of its cars rushing by and its wheels, metal against metal, grinding hard on the rails. Sometimes, if the wind was just right, the ground seemed to rumble from the speed and weight of the train, and I could feel its vibrations as I sat on the swing.

I became very good at discerning the sounds of freight trains and passenger trains. The freights traveled slower. Their whistles howled in intervals as they slogged up the line working their load. I could almost fall asleep listening to freight trains. They were comforting, predictable, and safe. Passenger trains had the opposite affect. They woke up my senses as they raced along the rails. Their shrill whistles sounded an alarm: Get out of my way! I have someplace to go. The whistles blew endlessly, and the crossings flew by quickly. As passenger trains charged through my neighborhood, they took command of the night. Then, as fast as they came they were gone.

As I sat there in the swing, I imagined the people in the trains. In the freight train, the engineer wore blue-and-white pinstripe overalls. The engine cab window was open, and his shaggy hair blew to one side as the night breeze rushed inside. Dozens of cars separated him from the caboose where the one I called Caboose Man slept sitting in a captain's chair with his feet up on a worn, wooden desk. In the passenger train, the engineer wore a crisp, blue uniform. His engine hauled silver cars with people in suits, and when the conductor walked up the aisles he steadied himself by the seatbacks. Under his blue cap, he sported a short, regulation haircut, and pinned to his coat was a plastic nametag. I could almost hear him call out the stops: "Zion! Kenosha! Racine! Mil-wau-kee!" Then the trains rushed away, taking with them my childish imagination, and I returned to the swing on the quiet, front porch.

I still like listening to night trains. I hear them as I lay in bed, and they carry me back to the porch swing and the comfortable all-is-well feeling that I used to know. Sometimes, I pray for the people on board. In the quiet darkness, I pray for the engineer and the brakeman on the freight train and for transients riding in boxcars. I pray for the travelers in passenger trains and also their families. I pray for the safety and well being of everyone on board and, above all, for those who don’t know Jesus. Sometimes the Lord leads me to pray for a traveler who is lonely or battling an illness or struggling with an insurmountable problem. I’ve learned to recognize God’s nudging. At His command, I pray until the train sounds fade into the night.

It has occurred to me as I listen to the trains that we know so few of our fellow travelers here on Earth, yet God is able to connect us through prayer. He took my childhood fascination with train sounds and turned my thoughts to the people on board. That experience, many years ago, is the foundation on which I build my prayers today. With childlike simplicity, I still imagine the people on the trains, and I lift them up to my Heavenly Father who knows and provides for their needs.

As we go through life, it is important to understand that God sees us all as one earthly family. The world is filled with strangers, yet He asks us to remember that we are His family in Christ. He may use us in an active sense to help one another, or He may use us as prayer partners to help with specific needs. Just as He loves us, God asks that we love one another through prayer. Listen then. Listen for His voice in whatever you do. Even in the most unlikely place and time, near a lonely stretch of railroad tracks in the hollow of night, God might ask you to pray.

Dear God:

Make me aware of the needs of others that I might lift them up in prayer.

©2009 by Jean Fischer
All rights reserved

I'm proud to be a contributing author to the following series of humorous devotionals.
And check out my "Kid's Bible Dictionary" and pre-teen mysteries, also from Barbour.

See all the books in the Camp Club Girls series.

See all the books in the Camp Club Girls series.
Click on the picture.
I am the author of these books, but I have not been compensated for mentioning them on this blog or linking them to the seller's website. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

By Max Lucado, Published by Thomas Nelson
Max Lucado has a unique way with words, and his children's book Hermie A Common Caterpillar is no exception. With simple text and bright, watercolor illustrations, the story of Hermie unfolds.

Hermie wonders why he looks and feels so common. Whenever he asks God why, God simply answers, "I'm not finished with you yet." Then, one day, Hermie feels very tired. He gets into his cozy, leafy bed, and he sleeps. And while Hermie sleeps a transformation takes place. When he wakes up, Hermie discovers that God has done something grand. You can guess what it is. Every caterpillar that lives to adulthood knows the end of the story.

Parents, please share this book and its powerful message with your children. We are all special because God loves us, and He has a unique purpose for our lives. Whenever we slump into feeling ordinary, we know that we have hope because . . .God isn't finished with us yet!

*Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

©text on this blog copyrighted 2012 by Jean Fischer unless otherwise credited. You may link to the blog, but please don't reprint the text without my permission.

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