Bright yellow bursts are cropping up all over my yard. Dandelions. Some call them weeds, but I love them. I really do. Reminded of a memory from three years ago….
Happy squeals wafted through the open window. Glancing up, I studied the gleeful, boisterous play. Children climbed on jungle gyms. Some jumped rope. A fierce game of soccer was in full swing, and everywhere there was laughter and innocence. I put my head down on the desk, and contemplated crawling right under it. A tear fell, a wet circle on a stack of papers–“the new normal”.
Sorrow. I let it linger for several heartbeats.
“Pull it together Ami. They need you.”
I lifted my head, soaking up the commotion of recess once more, as if by watching I could trap a tiny part of their joy. How I longed for a return to the carefree.
Day after day I held it together for my Kinders, but melted into sobs on the way home. I’d had to return to work, however. I needed someone to need me.
I suppose I needed them as well.
Often I felt a small, warm hand slip inside mine as we walked down the hallway. Without looking I knew which child it was. He was unusually perceptive for his age, seeming to know just when I struggled the most. Comfort was intuitive.
My littles and I had also gotten to have many conversations about death. And Jesus. And Heaven. And grace. For all that, I was thankful. But some mornings it was a feat just to get out of bed.
Soon I left my quiet sanctuary and stepped into the spring sunshine to gather my gaggle of geese. Faces flushed from play, they fell in line like happy little goslings, fearlessly trusting.
“I picked some flowers for you Mrs. Atkins.”
He beamed, a handful of crushed dandelions stretched out in his chubby little fist. I knelt at his eye level. “They’re so beautiful. Thank you buddy! I love them.”
He threw the weight of himself at me in a the biggest hug a five year old could muster.
They were merely wilted weeds, a bunch of crushed dandelions. But they were more lovely than dozens of roses. Given of a pure heart, out of delight, he just wanted his teacher to smile.
And smile I did.
Thank you Lord for the small graces. Thank you for the rays of sunshine amid the clouds.
I imagine it’s something like giving to God. The treasures I present are little more than wilted flowers. He’s the God who owns everything. He doesn’t need my dandelions.
I bring my weaknesses, my tainted motives, my sin. I bring no merit of my own.
He brings His righteousness.
So He grins with delight at my feeble, childish offerings. To Him they’re supremely lovely because they are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. He delights because He looks at me and sees His Son.
When I remember that, I can’t help but want to bring Him all the flowers I can gather. I delight in Him. And as a result. obedience and love flow from the abundance I’ve received– identity, reconciliation, adoption, salvation, inheritance, restoration. And most importantly, I’ve been given Him.
And here’s the thing. I would have smiled at my little Kinder, even he had never brought me a thing. My love for him was not a result of his behavior.
How beautifully freeing.
My Father delights in me.
Placing the flowers in a prominent place on my desk, I smiled again. My Father delights in me. He gives grace for every moment. And sometimes grace is a bundle of wilted dandelions.
Now, this king was everything a good fairy tale wants. He was powerful, but also good. He was just, but also merciful. He was wise, faithful, and fiercely protective of his kingdom. And he loved his citizens, not as one aloof or stoic, but with passion and vehemence, as if they were sons and daughters.
One day the king called for his son.
“My son, and true heir, with whom I share all glory and dominion! My son, united with me in heart and purpose!” the king proclaimed at the sight of the prince, embracing him with delight.
But as the king stepped back, his eyes were fierce with righteous anger. Yet in a swirling, torrent of emotions, staggering sorrow etched his wrinkled brow and aged-lined face. His hands weighed heavily on the prince’s shoulders. And the prince, so radically connected to his father, knew the emotions as well.
“Oh my son,” The king was grave, “I must send you on a perilous mission, one so perilous it is such the world has never seen. Were there another way, I would have it so. But you alone can be the rescuer. You alone are anointed.”
His voice was still thick with grief and outrage, two sides of the same coin. “Your future bride has been deceived and stolen by our ancient foe! A dragon most formidable and full of rage and fury guards a tower that reaches heaven, a tower formed from impenetrable stone. In it he keeps her, captive.”
And the son felt the equal weight of wrath and agony. How could this possibly be?
“But there is more. What I ask is more than you know. To rescue the fairest, most lovely, most gentle, beauty in all the land is one thing. However, this is not your feat. Rather, your lady fair is not fair at all. She is crushed by her oppressor, lower than a slave. But she has no understanding– he’s beguiled her so. She thinks she’s free. Yet she is filthy, dressed in rags. Her heart is broken, torn apart by guilt and shame. She is blind. And lame. And her body is wracked with leprosy. She is utterly destitute. Day by day she sits in ashes,clothed in despair.”
“There is more. She hates you with malice so violent, so hostile, and so deeply rooted, it consumes her. My son, I send you to rescue one who is thoroughly unlovely. But she belongs to the kingdom, a citizen. I love the unlovely. And I want her back.” As he said the last, his hand clenched in an emphatic fist.
“My son, still there is more. Our ancient foe is no ordinary dragon, and you’ll not slay him by ordinary means. To defeat the master deceiver, you must become as the one you rescue. You must exchange your resplendent, spotless cloak for a threadbare rag saturated with the stench of human waste. You must put on her blindness. You must become lame. You must see your body wrapped in rotten, leprous flesh. You must wear her ashes and take her despair. And after all this, you will surely die. My dearest son, I love you more deeply than language can describe, but I love my citizens too. I love this wretch. Son will you lay aside your glory? Will you lay aside your fame and renown for a time?”
The prince weighed his father’s words in a balance. The father’s glory was his glory. The father’s kingdom, his kingdom, but his father asked a task almost incomprehensible.
Become a leper, unclean, cast out? Be blind? Be lame? Dress in filth? Die?
He returned his father’s gaze. He loved his father with loved that encompassed all, and he would do his father’s will.
Without hesitation, the son knelt, and presented his sword.
“Yes father, this thing you ask, I’ll do it willingly. I will go. I will redeem the unlovely one, taking her blindness, her leprosy, her ashes, her despair. I will wash her. I will bind her broken heart, and it will be whole. I will set her free. She’ll be liberated, no longer captive! I will clothe her with a beautiful crown and a splendid garments. No longer will she sit in ashes. I will give her the oil of joy. I will comfort her gently. I will provide for her needs. I will love her with unquenchable love. And yes, father, to defeat our ancient and formidable foe, I will die for her.”
“My son! Oh my marvelous son, how I delight in you! You will destroy the foe! You will crush his head. And you will rise and come again to me, bringing your bride with you. And she will be yours. And she will be beautiful because you will make her so.”
Now time will not suffice to tell you all, but the prince did embark. And the journey was exceedingly perilous. The cost was exceptionally high.
It was an extravagant rescue mission, such as the world had never seen. All came to pass just as the Father said.
All came to pass.
The son died.
Yet he did also rise.
And he returned to the king, bringing his bride with him.
The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me because the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of our God’s vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning and splendid clothes instead of despair, and they will be called righteous trees, planted by the LORD to glorify Him. Isaiah 61:1-3
Jon and I loved to spoil each other. We were lavish in our celebration of holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Well, I guess we had a tendency toward lavish all the time! We both loved surprises and loved planning meaningful ways to communicate love. And people would look us in amazement. We heard things like, “I have never seen someone so sappy, and in love with her husband…” “Wait till you’ve been married 20 years…” “You’ll never be able to keep it up. How can you top it next year if you start this big?” “If you keep writing mushy posts, I think I’m going to throw up.”—Thank you Pastor Jamie for that last one! You didn’t fool us though. We had your number.
But anyway, I find that I just want to talk and talk and talk about Jon, as if the words will permanently etch the memories on my heart, so that they may not be erased or grow dim in clarity. And yes, it is a blessing to think of all the cherished times. I don’t need to get over Jon. The cherished times remind me of just how much God has given… yes, still present tense, has given. They remind me of a love exponentially more lavish than Jon’s! So, here’s a glimpse at our lavish love, a window into some of my precious memories.
We had decided we weren’t going to tell each other “I love you,” until we knew we were going to marry. Believe me, I wanted to sometimes, but I wanted him to be first! One night we were on the phone around midnight, and I’m not sure what came over me, but I said, “I’m going to marry you.” We still had not said those three important words. On the other end he exclaimed, “What? Hold on! I’ll be right there!” Then he hung up. Ten minutes later Jon screeched into my driveway, burst out of his car, grabbed me and exclaimed, “I love you! I love you so much I can’t breathe!” And of course, I told him I loved him too.
On Jon’s first birthday we spent together I told him to take the day off, but I didn’t tell him anything else. I surprised him with a trip to the Georgia Aquarium, Coke Factory, a picnic in Olympic Park, and a Cubs game… all in one day! We were moving after we got married, so who knew when we’d make it back to Georgia. We had to get our money’s worth, as it were. Day trips continued to be some of our most fun and favorite quality time together. We spent days in cute little towns like Hendersonville, Pumpkintown, and Galena. We did Washington D.C. and Williamsburg when we were visiting my parents. And of course, when we moved to Illinois, Chicago was one of our favorites. We loved riding the train and Jon thoroughly enjoyed taking me to new parts of the city I hadn’t seen before. I got to go to Sears Tower (I guess it’s actually the Willis Tower now, but seriously who calls it that?), Navy Pier, Michigan Avenue, Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, where Jon had to take 537 pictures of a model train set (maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slightly), Wrigley where I had my first Chicago dog… We enjoyed life together.
In our first year of marriage we were pretty tight financially so we had to get creative. But it’s ok, lavish love doesn’t have to be expensive. For Valentine’s Day we literally scraped up the spare change from the console in our car and bought cake mix and pink frosting. We also made a deal that we each had to make home-made Valentines. It’s one of my favorite memories. On Jon’s birthday that year I made his favorite meal, pork and sauerkraut with mashed potatoes, set an elegant table, and put a couple hundred sticky notes all around our apartment telling him things I loved about him. Another birthday I wrapped up “round the clock gifts,” and even made him take them to work so he could continue to open one every hour.
The week before our first anniversary, Jon was in Chicago for job training. Boy did we look forward to our reunion! I “recreated” our honeymoon suite. I even hung a sign on the outside of our door with “Carolinian,” the name of the suite, written in delicate letters. Then I made a little scavenger hunt complete with hidden clues. Our apartment wasn’t very big, so he knew where I was hiding pretty quickly. But I made him figure out each riddle and follow each clue! And when he figured it out, the prize was, well… Moving on.
And of course, there were so many ways Jon lavished love on me too. Before our first Christmas Jon searched the internet for weeks to find an original boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia—not in chronological order, but in publication order, of course, because he knew my silly soapbox that they must be read the way C.S. Lewis wrote them… Yes. I proudly stand on that one. He was so excited to give me that gift. For our 2nd anniversary Jon planned a weekend trip to Lake Geneva, and he even called my principal at school to arrange for me to have “surprise days off.” On my 30th birthday Jon told me to take a half-day off of school. I received an email that morning that said, “Dear Mrs. Atkins. Your driver will be waiting outside promptly at 11:15. He will be holding a sign. Sincerely, J. Atkins Cab Co.” And so the adventure began.
Even in the Mundane
I could keep going, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you the lavish love on normal, mundane days. This was the extravagance that took the form of sacrificial giving and service. And Jon won hands down! He gave and gave and gave to me. On cold mornings he always went out and started my car and scraped away the ice. He usually made me eat the last m&m. Because he knew my love affair with popcorn, he’d always spend the extra money and buy it when we went to see a movie. We inherited an old vacuum from his parents that needed a lot of “umph” to actually get the floor clean. And every week he would vacuum because he said he didn’t want me to have to get all sweaty gross. It could have also just been his neat freak tendencies, but nonetheless he wanted to do it. Because I’m so NOT a morning person, he was my alarm clock. And even though he never was one to push “snooze,” he graciously gave me “five more minutes” (at least twice..hehe) every day.
I’m notorious for losing bobby pins. They show up everywhere, in the washing machine, in the car, in baskets, under the couch, on the end table, lurking in a corner… And at first this used to really bother my slightly ocd husband. I really tried hard to put them where they belong, but it was a losing battle. One day Jon picked up a bobby pin, and said “I suppose lovee that I’ve come to adore seeing your bobby pins. I think it would make me really sad if I stopped finding them everywhere.”
Jon was an end of the toothpaste squeezer married to a middle squeezer. A potential point of contention, of course, more so for him than me. But I think he just lovingly reset the toothpaste tube after I used it. These mundane things were extravagant in their own way. This was him loving his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. (Ephesians 5)
Button pushing was another form of Jon’s lavish love, for each new way he devised to “torture” me was evidence of playfulness and affection. Remember those little boys who tried to pull ponytails in kindergarten? Yep. You got it- Jonathan Andrew. And if he got the desired reaction, he would clap his hands and grin in a silly child-like manner. And I would take his chin in my hand and say, “Andrew, you are such a five year old boy.” With a smirk, the response was always, “No, I’m at least five and a half.”
His lavish love was also holding me and letting me cry sometimes. It was confronting my sin with truth. It was letting me hug him and not let go until I counted out loud to 30 (a totally arbitrary number). It was driving at night because he knew how much I hated it. It was stroking my hair as I laid my head in his lap. It was unconditional forgiveness. It was not holding a grudge. It was pointing me to Christ when I doubted or was discouraged. It was reminding me of the gospel frequently.
Among my precious memories, though is the realization that first holidays without him are quickly approaching, Easter, Jon’s birthday, and our anniversary. Small tangent, Valentine’s Day was actually the first holiday since Jon’s death, but the pain was still so blinding and raw at that point that every day was the same. But as these firsts draw near, I’ve already started feeling the depths that may be associated with them. So here are my thoughts. I suppose folks may have still considered us newlyweds with only 2 1/2 years under our belt. Perhaps we wouldn’t have stayed so lavish with one another over 50 years, who knows.— Call me a fool, but I’m not sure I really believe that! Life, children, responsibilities, whatever, could have subdued the romance at times in the future, but that is not the sole or always present mark of lavish love. And I recognize and understand that the enduring foundation of marriage is not romance. It was not our foundation. We loved loving one another, but our bedrock was Christ and the gospel. Marriage is a covenant that is a picture of Christ’s covenant with the church. It’s a covenant based on promises not performance, just like my relationship with God! Though romance would have had its ebbs and flows, I sure hope we would have remained lavish forever!!
Let me explain, our lavishness didn’t have to be expensive, and often it was not. But as I think of the love Christ has for His church, I’m overwhelmed by His extravagance! If our bedrock was Christ and the gospel, then our marriage was built on the most extravagant display of sacrificial love in all of eternity.
So let me unpack that one message again in a slightly different manner. Christ, fully God and fully man, was never created. He dwelt forever with the Father, and Holy Spirit. Don’t ask me to explain the Trinity! I can’t. But, three in one, God spoke the world into existence. Christ made all things, the stars, the planets, the universe… And before time He was exalted with all majesty, splendor and authority, and power. Yet He was personal. He walked in the garden in perfect fellowship with His creation. But man in the greatest betrayal chose to heed Satan’s lies, casting himself and all creation under the weight of sin. So marred and fractured by sin, man’s relationship to God was broken. The penalty for sin was costly–death, a fate that God never intended His beloved creation to experience. So mankind was utterly hopeless. He could not fulfill the perfect demands of God’s righteousness. But God in His mercy clothed Adam and Eve and covered their nakedness with a sacrifice, a substitute. And even there He foreshadowed that a perfect sacrifice would come. So God became man. Christ exalted and clothed in splendor, God Himself, humbled Himself and took upon the form of a servant (Philippians 2). On the cross, He was the perfect sacrifice. The once and complete atonement. He paid the high cost–death, so that we might live! He rose again, ever lives, and will come again. This is the true redemption story. And one day, even all creation will be restored. Creation. Fall. Redemption. Restoration. Does this not stir your heart? Isn’t this lavish? Isn’t this overflowing, abundant love that cannot be comprehended?
Jon and I desired our marriage to reflect Christ, and our lavishness toward another was one manifestation of that reflection. Our feeble attempts were but a glimpse of our Savior’s love. You see, lavishness doesn’t merely refer to romance. True lavish, extravagant love is sacrificial. It is meeting the needs of the one loved. It is seeking his best. Christ gave us that example. The power of the gospel was transforming us to be what He already said we were—like Him. So I will not feel guilty for lavish love. Our love was lavish because our God is lavish.
So here’s what I’m NOT saying. “Wow, look at us! We had a fantastic marriage! Don’t you wish your husband adored you this way?” Far from it!! We’re not the example. Don’t view my precious memories as the epitome. We did not have all our stuff together. And of course, we had our junk. We did not have it all figured out. We failed a lot.
But here’s the truth. Like the woman who broke her box of valuable ointment to anoint the feet of Jesus washing them with her hair, I want to love much because I have been loved much. I have been loved far more than I can comprehend. (Luke 7:36-50)
I wept a lot on Easter. But it was the reality of Christ’s conquering sin and death that gripped me in a way I’d never seen before. Because Jesus lives, so shall I. And so does Jon. Jesus “trampled death by death.” Can there be anything more extravagant than that?
I am abundantly blessed to have been loved so by a man. But I am infinitely more blessed to be loved this way by my Savior.
As the holidays approach, He’ll meet me each time and carry me with grace anew. This is lavish love.