Meditation 4: In Memoriam

Mary Frances Appling ("Bubby") 
October 28, 1919 - November 15, 2008

Just a few days ago--on Saturday, November 15, 2008--my dear friend, Mary Frances Appling ("Bubby"), passed away.  She was 89.  

Bubby and her daughter, Fran, opened a home daycare together in 1981. For 26 years, she labored alongside her daughter to care for and love the children in their daycare, as well as the children's families.  My own two children were among the many beneficiaries of Bubby's warmth and love, as were my wife and I.   

In August 2007, however, Bubby began to suffer from an illness that left her bedridden. Fortunately, Fran was able to provide her with in-home care.  So Bubby was able to continue doling out hugs and kisses to the daycare kids whenever they came to her bedside (which happened pretty frequently throughout the day--the kids always had something they wanted to share with or show Bubby).  

A few months after she became ill, I began visiting Bubby.  I wanted to encourage and minister to her.  I knew it wasn't easy for someone with so much life in her to be confined to a bed.  In the end, however, it was Bubby who often ended up ministering to me.  I would come to lift her spirits, but she would focus on trying to lift mine ("I don't want to talk about how I'm doin'," she'd say. "Let's talk about how you're doin'!").  I would come to help strengthen her faith, but she would build mine.  I would come to show her the love of Christ, but often would end up experiencing it myself at her bedside.  I would come to share Scripture with her, but she would often impart to me tremendous words of wisdom.  We had some wonderful, deep, and rich conversations.  In fact, my talks with Bubby were so enriching that, with her permission, I began taking notes on the precious pearls of wisdom she'd often share with me.  I eventually began to affectionately refer to them as "Bubby's Proverbs."  Here are some of my favorites . . . 


1.  God has a way of working things out one way or another.

2.  Kill 'em with kindness!

3.  Some of our smallest blessings end up being some of our biggest blessings.  And the funny thing about it is, you never know when they're coming.

4.  Let your conscience be your guide!

5.  It's a wonderful life, even with its ups and downs.

6.  There's some good in everyone, no matter how bad the person is.  You just have to look for it!

7.  Don't let any one person ever stop you from doing God's work.  Don't no one monkey stop the show!

8.  Be a good listener!

9.  Suck 'em in!  [Bubby's playful advice to me on how to grow a church]

10.  Don't start no rootin' and tootin', and there won't be no cuttin' and shootin'! [This was one of Bubby's favorites, a classic Bubbyism] . . . 

I am deeply thankful for the encouragement and the words of wisdom Bubby shared with me during my visits with her.  I will always cherish the times I had at her bedside.  But none will be as precious to me as the final moments we shared the day before she passed away.

When I walked into her room, she was incoherent, disoriented, and in a lot of pain.  I tried talking to her, but she didn't seem to be aware of my presence.  So, I began to pray:  I told the Lord that I knew Bubby's mind was disoriented, but that I also knew His Holy Spirit could minister directly to her spirit.  Then I began to read some passages of Scripture to Bubby, believing that even though her mind was not able to process what I was reading, her spirit could.  One of the Scriptures I read was Psalm 27:1:

The Lord is my light and my salvation--
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life--
of whom shall I be afraid?
A few minutes later, Bubby stopped mumbling incoherently and began praying in articulate sentences.  Her prayers were simple, but fervent: "Lord take me home," she said. "I'm ready! Oh Lord! Take me home."  Then, in the middle of her prayers, Bubby began to quote what I had read to her from Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation," she declared. 

My heart filled with joy as I realized the Lord had answered my prayer. Bubby still didn't seem to know I was there. But the Holy Spirit was ministering to her spirit.  And that was all that mattered!  I knew the Lord had heard her, and was preparing to call her home.  And call her home He did!  Early Saturday morning, this wonderful woman of God walked through heaven's gate. 

Today, Thursday, I attended Bubby's burial.  As her casket was transported to the grave site, I reflected on our Savior's beautiful promise, the fulfillment of which Bubby had experienced just a few days earlier: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live[.]" (John 11:25). 

I grieve Bubby's passing, and will miss her very much.  But I am glad that she no longer is confined to a bed--she now walks the streets of gold, and has seen her Savior face-to-face! I also rejoice in the wonderful truth that Bubby has not merely gone from ashes to ashes and dust to dust.  She is, even now, being transformed from glory to glory! "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 Corinthians 15:55).

Here's to you, Bubby!  I won't bid you farewell, because I know we'll meet again some day. As you once told me,"Every goodbye ain't gone!"  So, for now, I'll just say, "Congratulations, my dear friend, on a life well-loved and a race well-run! I love you!"



Meditation 3: Finding Strength in Our Weakness

"Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" (Judges 6:14).

The Lord spoke those inspiring and adrenalizing words to Gideon, when Israel was straining under the yoke of Midianite oppression. And thousands of years later, the Lord used those same words to encourage me to answer His call to enter full-time ministry. Throughout the last year or so, I often have returned to those words in moments of doubt, reminding myself that God only asks that I serve Him and follow Him with the "the strength [I] have."

Recently, however, I found myself on my knees in prayer, and wrestling with something other than doubt--weakness. As I had often done before, I recited to myself the Lord's words to Gideon: "Go in the strength you have[.]" This time, though, the words did not bring me the same comfort and encouragement they had in the past. Instead, they helped me to distill the burning questions that were on my heart: "Well, what if my strength is gone, Lord? What if I haven't the strength to "go" anymore? What if all I want to do is to follow Elijah into his desert cave, and wrap myself in an enervating cocoon of self-pity, discouragement, and despair?"

I wanted to continue obeying God's call to "go." But I felt as though I had reached the end of my strength, and could not "go" any further. I was in the seemingly impossible position of wanting to serve God, but lacking strength to do it. Have you ever reached that point in your walk with God? Maybe you are there right now! If so, I want to share with you a few Scriptures the Lord used to teach me how to keep 'going,' when my strength is gone.

The first Scripture is in 2 Corinthians 12. The Apostle Paul tells us how the Lord encouraged him when he felt sapped of his spiritual strength, and how he responded to that encouragement:

[God] said to me,"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Paul teaches us that when our strength is depleted, and our energy reserves are exhausted, we should rely on God's grace and power. His grace is more than sufficient to keep us going, and His power is perfected in our weakness and lack of strength. We are at our strongest in the Lord when we are at our weakest in ourselves!

The second Scripture I found instructive is in 2 Timothy 2:

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. . . . Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1,3).

Once again, Paul reminds us that the grace of Jesus Christ has the power to strengthen and sustain us. And then he instructs us to "endure hardship like a good soldier." In other words, we are encouraged to persevere! The enemy may intensify his assaults against us, pommeling our shield of faith with his flaming arrows. But we can resist his onslaught, and continue our forceful advance, by: (i) relying on the grace and power of Jesus Christ for our strength; and (ii) persevering through the enemy's attacks, like good soldiers.

The third Scripture I found encouraging was given to me by a member of my congregation a couple of Sundays ago:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9).

Speaking to the Galatian church, Paul tells them not to grow "weary in doing good," and reminds them not to give up. But he also gives them some more great advice on how to maintain their strength and persevere. Specifically, he tells them to look forward to what their labors will accomplish: a plentiful harvest for the glory of God. When we are weary and our strength is gone, we need to remember the great cause for which we labor, and the life God will produce when we die to ourselves.

Finally, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages in Isaiah:

Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:30-31).

It is natural for us to grow weary. But if we strengthen ourselves with the grace and power of Jesus Christ, if we arm ourselves with perseverance and endure hardship like good soldiers, and if we keep our eyes fixed on the promised fruit of our labor, then we will "gain new strength." We will "mount up with wings like eagles," we "will run and not get tired," and we "will walk and not become weary."

So, onward, Christian soldiers!


Meditation 2: Where were you?

A couple of Sundays ago, during a pre-Church Bible study for our future small group leaders, I was shown the above photograph. When I saw it, my emotions ping-ponged between shock and compassion, horror and conviction. This Pulitzer-winning image was captured by a photographer in 1993, during a famine in the Sudan. The child in the picture is struggling to make it to a food center, but is being stalked by a vulture that senses he is close to death. It is a horrible, heart-rending photograph, the graphic nature of which is so harsh that it almost seems surreal.

The truth, though, is that this is a synecdochical image that depicts the plight of millions of children whose cries we do not hear and whose suffering we do not see. How do we respond to something like this? It is tempting simply to shake our heads in sadness and go on with our sheltered and (seemingly) safe lives, or to throw our hands up in despair because we do not think there is anything we can do to meet the tremendous need or to stem the swelling tide of such suffering. But Scripture says otherwise!

The prophet Jeremiah witnessed similar horrors, after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Jeremiah saw Israel's children dying of starvation. And in the midst of his deep anguish, as vultures and other scavengers doubtless descended upon the city, Jeremiah encouraged the people of Jerusalem to pray for the dying children--to "pour out [their] heart[s] like water" before the Lord. He called upon them to:

Arise, cry out in the night,

as the watches of the night begin;

pour out your heart like water

in the presence of the Lord.

Lift up your hands to him

for the lives of your children,

who faint from hunger

at the head of every street.

(Lamentations 2:19)

I have to confess that I have not done much praying for those who are suffering--for those who, like the child in the photograph, are struggling to survive but are dying alone. Their plight seems so distant compared to my own immediate (and less important) needs. But Jeremiah's plea struck me today, as I thought about the child in that picture: "pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord . . . for the lives of [these] children, who faint from hunger[.]" It is a call to intercede in prayer on behalf of the "least of these," because, if we do not, who will? . . .

Today, as I looked at the picture of that little Sudanese boy, I could not help but wonder: Why was he alone? Where were the aid workers? Where were his parents? . . . And then I felt the gentle voice of the Lord ask me a far more important question: "Niki, where were you?"

Now, obviously, the Lord was not asking me why I was not in the Sudan, with this child, 15 years ago. It was a gentle but firm admonition that when I witness human suffering, my reaction should not be, "Where is so-and-so? And why isn't he or she doing something for this person?" Rather, my response should be, "Where am I? And what could I be doing right now to help this individual?" It also was a sobering reminder of a question that each of us may be asked some day, when we stand before the Father . . . "Where were you?"

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says that if we truly love Him, we will love them. If we really are His disciples, we will strive to meet the needs of those who are forgotten by the rest of the world--the poor, the oppressed, the unlovable, and the 'lepers' of our society. We not only will pray on their behalf, we also will act on their behalf. And then Jesus adds that whatever we do for those in need, we do for Him! Finally, He concludes this passage of Scripture by describing how He will rebuke those who claimed to be Christians but who were not, as evidenced by their failure to care for those in need. He will say to them:

"Depart from me . . . For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." (Matthew 25:41-43).

In other words, Jesus will ask them, "Where were you? . . . Where were you, when I was being stalked by a vulture, as I struggled to the nearest food center? Where were you, when I was homeless and lying naked in the gutter--rejected by the world? Where were you, when I was left to rot in prison--abandoned by society?" . . .

Where were you? . . .

My prayer is that, if the Lord asks me and you that question some day, we both will be able to answer Him, saying: "I was right there with you, Jesus. I was right there!"


Meditation 1: Finding A Dwelling Place

Dear Reader:

Thank you for stopping by to read the first of what I hope will be many entries to my blog entitled, Meditations. The Bible makes clear that in order for Christians to prosper and grow spiritually, and deepen their relationship with God, it is essential that they meditate on and obey God’s Word.

In Joshua 1:8, God says to Joshua:

“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”

And, in Psalm 1:1-3, King David echoes this truth in song. He writes:

1 Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, 

and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, 

which yields its fruit in season 

and whose leaf does not wither. 

Whatever he does prospers.

My desire is to share with you thoughts and reflections--meditations--on my studies of Scripture, and on my life and walk with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I pray that these meditations will give you and me hope; that they will deepen our relationship with (and understanding of) God; and that they will inspire, encourage, challenge, and convict us to obey God’s Word, as we run the race that He has set before us.

So, let me just jump right in . . .

Recently my faith has been challenged (even shaken in some ways) by a major difficulty the church I pastor (Mount Vernon Foursquare Fellowship (“MVFF”)) is facing. We’re a young church (my wife, Kelly, and I planted MVFF a little over a year and a half ago.) We started the church in our home, but we’re now at a point where we need to find a larger space to meet. The problem is that the schools we’ve considered trying to use on Sundays won’t work well for us, none of the community centers in our area will allow us to use their available spaces on Sundays, and the commercial properties that are open for leasing are incredibly expensive (at least $6,000/month for a 3,000 sq. ft. space, and that’s not including build-out costs).

As difficult as it is for me to admit, my heart has sometimes grumbled against God, wondering if He’s brought me this far only to fail as a pastor. My reaction has been much like the Israelites’ when Pharaoh freed them from slavery, but then decided to pursue them. They all cried out to God, and complained to Moses saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (Exodus 14:11). But Moses answered, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. . . . The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14).

I wish that had been my initial response to the challenge MVFF is facing right now. I wish I’d been able to simply “stand firm” in the knowledge that God will “fight for [us.]” Instead of standing firm, though, I’ve done a lot of whining, and a lot of waffling. The darkness of doubt and discouragement casts a long shadow, a shadow that we often easily allow to obscure the light of what we know to be true from God’s Word.

But God has been gracious and faithful, despite my doubt, discouragement, and grumbling. Instead of rebuking me, He has consistently reminded me of the promises in His Word, and that His hand is upon our nascent church. In the last few months, He has done things to remind me that He has not brought us to our own ‘Red Sea’ to drown; He’s brought us here to demonstrate to us His grace, love, and power by parting our ‘Red Sea, as He did for the Israelites thousands of years ago. He invites us simply to “stand firm” and “see the deliverance” He will bring us. (Exodus 14:13).

. . . Now I know that our need for a new building space is not as grave a matter as having thousands of armed and trained Egyptian soldiers barreling down on you. But it sure feels like it sometimes! . . .

Anyway, as I was saying, in the midst of all this, God has done some wonderful things to remind me that He is with us, and that He will provide for our needs. I’ll just share three of them:

First, about a month or so ago, a close friend of mine sent MVFF a very generous offering. I won’t state the amount. But suffice it to say that it was the largest single offering we’ve received from anyone thus far. And this friend has not even been to one of our church services yet! He simply gave his offering to MVFF, because he wanted to support what the Lord is doing in us and through us.

But I also believe the amount and the timing of His gift were prompted by the Holy Spirit, because we received it at a time when Kelly and I were beginning to really feel the weight of what moving into a new building would mean for our body. One of my concerns was that I did not want the bulk of the financial resources God had provided to be applied toward building costs. I wanted as much money as possible to be applied directly toward ministry. I did not want us to become a church that was so burdened by the financial demands a building can impose that it lost sight of its larger ministry mission. Of course, that is not to suggest that a building is not important for ministry purposes. My concern was simply that it is easy for a building to become an end in itself, because of its financial demands, rather than function as a means to an end.

At any rate, my friend’s offering was a wonderful reminder from the Lord that He is our provider, and that He will provide us with what we need for a building, without compromising the mission and vision He has given us as a church (which is to launch people into the areas of ministry to which God has called them--including planting other churches--and to care for the poor, the orphaned, and the captive).

Not long after MVFF received my friend’s financial gift, though, the Lord further challenged my faith--not to dishearten me, but to embolden me. . . .

A few weeks ago, my supervisor asked my wife and I if MVFF would be willing to support another church plant that is just a little younger than our own. The pastor and his wife are experienced and faithful ministers of the gospel, but are encountering the significant difficulties of church planting in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. My first thought was: “We have some money in savings, but we too are facing incredible financial challenges. A lot of that money will be spent, if or when we move into another building. Plus, we’re a young church ourselves. Would this really be a wise use of the resources God has provided us?”

My gut instinct was to recoil from creating any additional financial obligations for our church. I also remembered, however, that MVFF also has a vision for church multiplication, and for helping other church plants. So, I gave my supervisor a nice, diplomatic answer that is almost always a safe response in Christian circles: I said, “We’ll pray about it!”

Later, my wife and I discussed the matter. I suggested we consider giving the pastor between $1,000 and $2,000, spread out over five or six months. I thought that might be an amount our church could reasonably afford. Still, I felt I needed to pray about it more, because all of our financial resources are the Lord’s. And I certainly did not want to make an off-the-cuff executive decision, without first seeking God’s guidance.

So, about a week and a half later, I spent some time in prayer about what to give this pastor in need (if anything). I basically said, “Lord, all that we have is Yours. I don’t want to be careless with it. So, please tell me what we should give, if anything.” I had barely finished the prayer when I felt a strong sense that MVFF was not supposed to send this pastor $1,000 or $2,000, but $5,000. That was a sizable chunk of our church savings, and seemed to me (from a human standpoint) to be a rather reckless amount to give! But I believed the Lord had spoken to me. Just to be sure, though, I asked that God confirm with Kelly what I believed He had told me. So, when Kelly got home that day, I asked her to pray about what we should give the pastor in need, and to let me know if the Lord laid anything on her heart (I did not tell her what I believed the Lord had called us to give). After that, I did not raise the matter with her again.

Several days later, though, I received an e-mail from Kelly about the issue. This is what she wrote: “The number that sticks in my head - for no logical reason or anything else - is $5000.”

This was another wonderful reminder to me that God is very aware of our church’s financial situation and needs, and that He has not forgotten us! He has not turned His face away from us! Despite our small size, He already is fulfilling the vision He has given us for church multiplication.

God’s clear direction in this situation was an encouragement for me to “stand firm,” knowing that He would bless our offering to this other pastor, and would continue to provide for MVFF:

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:38).

The third, and final, story I’ll share is something that happened about a week or so ago. I was invited to share my testimony with a small group of people at a local restaurant. As I thought about what to share, and about how the Lord has continued to show me His faithfulness and love despite my doubt and grumbling, the passage Jeremiah 29:11 came to mind:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

That is such an amazing promise! As I meditated on it, and thought about how faithful and merciful God has been, my spirit was strengthened. I felt a deeper appreciation for that promise, and I clung to it! When I later shared my testimony with that small group, I made sure to repeat that promise several times during my talk. I wanted it to take seed in the hearts of those who were gathered, just as it had taken seed in my own.

At the end of my talk, a lady approached me and asked if my wife and I would be willing to be guests on a web-based show she produces and anchors. She said she has an audience of about one million listeners. I, of course, was honored by the invitation, and told her I would get back to her.

After praying about it, I began doing some research on her show. As I read a brief summary of the show, one statement in particular seemed to leap from the page: “[God] has a plan for each and every person’s life…. and that plan is good!”

Wow! The show’s stated purpose was to remind people of God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11, the very same passage on which I had based my testimony the night I had shared it with that woman and her colleagues.

This was yet another encouraging reminder that God’s hand continues to guide and direct me and MVFF.

Over the last few days, I have continued to struggle with some doubt and discouragement. But not nearly as much as before! The more I meditate on Jeremiah 29:11, and the more I reflect on these recent examples of God’s faithfulness, the more at peace and faith-filled I become. As I cling to the truth that God’s plan is to “prosper” me and MVFF, and to give us “hope and a future,” the darkness continues to recede. And I look forward to watching God part our Red Sea!