Little did I know when Bethany wrote her colorful article on Garden Art in the June issue of Across the Fence (publication of the Master Gardeners of Allen County, Indiana, of which I am Editor) that I would soon receive an unexpected gift of my own!
About 5 years ago I decided to send a letter to the owner of my childhood home. There was a unique piece of garden art in the backyard placed there over a dozen years ago by my now deceased Mom. Is it still there? If it is and you find that you no longer want it, would you kindly let me know? I didn’t hear anything and never drove by the house during that time to see if it was still there, visible from the street. Life went on until I got a surprise phone call on Friday, June 5, 2020.
I found your letter in the back of a bathroom cabinet when I was remodeling a few months ago. I have the metal piece sitting outside against the house in the backyard if you want it. I figured it would be meaningful to someone. Give me a call if you do . . .
I was in shock! Holy cow! Mark J had removed the garden gate from the garden “hill” on the side of the house, concrete and all, and had it neatly secured with pavers against the red bricks of the old house. I talked to my husband (always up for a driving adventure), thought about it overnight. And then I got really excited! I called Mark on Saturday and said YES! We’ll come get it!
My childhood home is in Warren, Michigan. I had moved away in 1983 after college to the Chicagoland area then again north of Fort Wayne in 2007. Favorite plants made the journey here as well. But I never would have expected that this prized possession of the original garden master in my life would come home too. I called my brother right away and had some fun reminiscing about our garden projects with our mother over the years. I sent him photos of the garden gate on Saturday when Mark forwarded them to me. Plans were coming together to drive up to Michigan on Sunday to pick up our new found treasure and have a quick visit with my brother and his family as well.
The visit never happened. Or at least not yet. Twenty-six minutes before Mike would have received the photos that I sent by text, he went into a medical crisis that would end his life. He never saw the photos. We did not drive to Michigan that weekend. I never saw my brother alive again . . .
The meaningfulness of this experience and simple piece of garden art is now greater than ever before. Mike made his gateway to heaven the very day after our Mom’s garden gate came back into our lives. When this time of mourning has passed, my beloved and I will make our way to Michigan for a Memorial Service and retrieval of a memorable artifact from my personal heritage. It’s a little thing in the scheme of life yet I’ll bet that I’m not the only one out there with meaningful touch points in his or her garden beds that reflect your own stories as well.
The passing of John Sr. brought sorrow as I considered the impact this man had on my life. And I was not alone. Everyone knew John’s love for his family and friends, the Lord, Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of believers united by our faith. It wasn’t until I started to describe three key scenes in my past where his care was palpable to me that I started to grieve the passing of this faithful servant of the Lord. Surely the heavenly hosts are celebrating your coming home sir . . .
My connection to John Sr. was initially tainted by the critical viewpoint of my former spouse. I suppose it’s easy to criticize someone else for faults that the two of you may share? Years later this appeared to be the case. So when I ran into John Sr. just 3 weeks after my former spouse left me, I was not prepared for this gentleman’s reaction to the news. He asked how Craig was doing and I was speechless for a moment: did he not know what had happened? I guess not. I had to tell him. John Sr’s face fell as I shared the devastation that was just beginning to unfold in my life; John Sr. looked at me as if someone had punched him in the gut right there in the store! He could barely speak, mumbled a few condolences, and shuffled away obviously affected by my story. In the moment I was stunned as well. Why was he walking away when I had just shared my heart with my elder brother in Christ? Much later I supposed it was a type of grief reaction. Not long afterwards, I experienced the most important message from our encounter that day: my brother in Christ loved me as his sister in Christ, like a father I did not have at the time. He was hurting for me, hurting for the fall from grace of our brother in Christ. I also learned that day just how profoundly adultery affects many others in the body of Christ in addition to the spouse.
John Sr. didn’t live anymore in the town of that grocery store where I had encountered him. I would not see him again until a few months later when visiting with his daughter who had become a good friend of mine. Deb and I had traveled from the Chicago suburbs where we lived to her parents’ home in the Wisconsin countryside. A neighbor and fellow member of our church (where we had all met) came along for what was to be a fun time of fellowship, food, and relaxation. Their youngest son played classical guitar to everyone’s delight and John Sr. told amazing stories of missionaries they knew, places they had been, and so on. We were one big family for the weekend! That is, until nighttime came.
The Y family always had a menagerie of sofas with hide-a-beds, cots, and blankets to accommodate everyone. Me and my neighbor, Ardie, made our beds in the living room while the family tucked themselves to sleep in their respective bedrooms throughout the modest home. But I could not sleep. Instead of feeling full from the lively fellowship and activities of the visit, I was filled with grief and sorrow from the tremendous losses in progress in my life back home. I lain in the dark with tears streaming down my face like a crack in a retaining wall holding back an avalanche of tears. Finally I could not hold it in anymore. Everyone was asleep in the dark starry night whilst I was coming unglued! I gathered myself as best as I could and walked out into the cool blackness that received me outside. The tears and whimpers gushed easily then uncontrollably. “Would they ever stop?” I wondered.
Before long I could hear some wrestling of the folks inside the house. A light went on in one of the bedrooms, illuminating the front porch where I was holding myself up against a wall. Arlene and John Sr. were up! Despite my best efforts to weep quietly, they had heard me and came to comfort me. John Sr. muttered again with the same type of sorrow I had seen in the grocery store. Arlene wrapped her warm, motherly arms around me and brought me inside to sit on a handmade bench with her for as long as I needed. He got me a blanket. She stayed with me until the tears flowed no more. Eventually I spoke a little while she simply listened. What a gift she gave me that night! No one said much about it all the next morning. Somehow they just all understood the pain I was going through. They did the best thing that they could do to help me through that traumatic time in my life: they just loved on me like one of their own.
John Sr. and Arlene were the best at loving on people, a model we know comes from the love who is embodied in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. That love is as pure as it is convicting with the truth of His Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The two of them shared scripture often and how the Lord had led them through their lives, how He too may encourage and lead your in your days as well. I experienced this witness in an unexpected way about 3 years later. The Lord had begun the process of restoration in my life and brought me a wonderful man of God named Steve. We were engaged that September and I wanted to visit the important places and people of my life before moving to Indiana to marry him. I brought Steve to meet John Sr. and Arlene, this time without my friend Deb, their daughter. I wanted them to see my happiness and thank them for being an important part of it coming to fruition.
We had a wonderful visit. After Steve and I returned to Illinois from that long weekend, and after Steve had already gone on home to Indiana, I got a call from John Sr. He didn’t waste any time chatting about our visit and got right to the point: check yourself and the truth of God’s Word, the Bible, before you take this step in marrying Steve. I was a bit taken aback by him questioning things but heeded his advice. The next few weeks were filled with prayer, scripture reading, pastoral counselling, and looking honestly with Steve at our Biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. All counsel pointed to a blessing for us so we proceeded to get married by the end of the year. The counsel of John Sr. was a necessary part of our preparation that brought clarity that would be needed when others would pass judgement on our union. We have complete confidence and peace that we made a God-honoring decision to be together forever.
I have often quoted Mark Twain at key times in my life who said that the un-examined life is not worth living. Indeed we can find rich value and meaning by taking a closer look at our lives within the context of God’s plans for our lives, ways He gifts each of us, orchestration of events, our limitations, and the stuff that He crafts for each of us as we live out our days on this fallen earth in which we dwell. If we are honest then our search for meaning will lead us to the Creator: the person of Jesus Christ. If we heed the call to recognize our sinful nature, receive His gift of salvation and redemption then choose to grow in knowledge and character of our Lord, then the transformation of our lives will shine for all the world to see. We will become a witness for His transforming power, His love, His grace, His mercy, His goodness. And a life seasoned by the love of Christ, never tainted by the trials we all endure, can become a life well-lived, well-loved for the glory of the Lord. This is who John Sr. was. This is the legacy that he has left for those who got to know him, were ministered to by his love and care, who witnessed his walk with the Lord every day of his life.
Well done John Sr: faithful servant of the Lord! Well done! May God be the glory for the faithful witness of my brother in Christ. May He also bless your beloved bride Arlene, until she joins you one day in the presence of our Lord. Thank you for bringing me into your spiritual family through the faith that we share. You have made a difference! JJ