Following our move to Western Pennsylvania two weeks ago, my wife had to leave my side three days later to go be with her dad, sisters, and our daughter as they cared for her mother, Lieschen Hoeksema. Having recently been diagnosed with ALS, her health was failing quickly. On Sunday, June 23, she passed into glory with her family by her side. This Thursday we remembered her at a memorial service in Muskegon, Michigan. Below is the meditation that I shared.
For our Scriptural meditation, I would like to draw your attention to three verses from the eighty-fourth psalm. Psalm 84:5-7 reads as follows:
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,in whose heart are the highways to Zion.As they go through the Valley of Bacathey make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.They go from strength to strength;each one appears before God in Zion.
Wood and water. Wood and water. As we remember Lieschen this morning, a devoted daughter to Hans & Suze Helling; a loving wife to Ron for nearly 58 years; a wonderful mother of four daughters; a caring grandmother to a dozen grandchildren who called her “HooHoo” for the happy call she gave when she entered into the room; an encouraging friend to so many; and, most importantly, a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, these two words come to mind. Wood and water. Please meditate on this theme with me for a few minutes.
Psalm 84 reminds us that this life is a journey, a pilgrimage. We are not here permanently, but are traveling to a final destination. You can see that as you think of one’s life. Lieschen’s early footsteps led her to be a butcher’s daughter and a nursing student here in Muskegon. Then later, as a doctor’s wife by Ron’s side, she went to such places as England; Coldwater, Michigan; back here to Muskegon; and then, in her last months, to Grand Rapids. Yet when you think of Lieschen’s journey, it is hard not to think of her and Dad living in that beautiful spot out on Scenic Drive along Lake Michigan. How they cultivated that place so well! And how they cultivated others there so well. It was a place of wood and water. You can see both on the picture from their home found on the front of the bulletin (Note: This is the picture above).
However, the true journey of which the psalmist speaks is not just a geographical but a spiritual one, where we see whether in one’s heart there is a highway, a road, leading him or her to Zion, to heaven. For this psalm makes us answer the question, “Where are we ultimately headed?” You can answer this question by looking at one’s heart inclinations. How did Lieschen’s life answer that question for her? It is clear there was a highway to Zion built there.
Mom & Dad’s home there on Scenic Drive in wood and by water was our family’s refuge and vacation spot. Where else but at Papa and HooHoo’s home could we find such beauty and love? When I would go down in the morning to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, Mom would always have been up for some time. Nearly every time she would mention the quiet reverie she had enjoyed that morning as she read Scripture and prayed, all the while looking out on the woods around her. She would speak with wonder in her voice of how the sun shone through the trees or just the sheer glory of the forest. Lieschen was a woman who loved beauty, be it God’s created order, the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, a piece of artwork, or, as you hear today, the music of her grandchildren. She appreciated and brought out the beauty in others.
This appreciation for beauty, I believe, came from her meditative love on the Triune God, the Lord of all beauty and glory. The psalmist says elsewhere he wanted one thing, to be in God’s house to behold the beauty of the Lord, and Lieschen shared this desire. Birds usually nest in trees, but in the first verses of Psalm 84, the writer pictures them nesting in God’s temple when he exclaims, “How lovely are Your dwelling places, O LORD of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. The bird also has found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even Your altars, O LORD of hosts, My King and my God. How blessed are those who dwell in Your house! They are ever praising You.” Lieschen loved reading James Boice’s commentaries on the Psalms for her devotions. Her copies are filled with notes and underlining. Boice, commenting on this psalm, explains how the swallow is a restless bird, “winging its way from point to point from the earliest glimmer of dawn to after sunset.” Sounds a bit like Lieschen! But in her copy of Boice these are the words she underlined, “(The swallow nesting in God’s house) is a picture of the soul apart from God then in God, when at last it comes to rest in Him.” Her heart was at rest in the Lord of all beauty and glory.
We always knew this about her, but it is when people are going through trial and suffering when who they really are is seen most clearly. Mom, like that swallow, was such an active person! She was always up early working, cooking, cleaning; always busy with her hands sewing, quilting, doing needle work on something for someone, even up to her last days; always enjoying outings with grandchildren – even rollerblading gracefully around the driveway with them into her seventies! So when the disease of ALS began overtaking her body, first unidentified then later realized, it was hard to watch it strip her of her ability to use her body to serve others like she always had done. So how was it that even as she was unable to be active, and became more and more dependent on Papa, she never stopped delighting in life? How was it in those last weeks when you came to encourage her, you were the one who left refreshed? How did her radiance and beauty of spirit continue even to the end?
The psalmist says, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs.” What is Baca? In Genesis we read that during Jacob’s journeys, when Deborah, the nurse of Rebekah, died, she was buried under a tree named Allon-bacuth. It means “oak of weeping.” Wood and water. Bacuth is derived from the same word as Baca here. With Lieschen, we have gone through the valley of weeping in seeing what disease does to a loved one. We have journeyed through the valley of the shadow of death as we have lost her. Tears have fallen as a result. But Lieschen made that valley a place of springs, of refreshment to others. How?
Lieschen revealed her secret when, facing the impact of this disease on her body, she wrote these words that she entitled “Winter and Spring” that came from her meditations as she looked out her window earlier this year:
As the winter was here I looked at the dormant trees and wondered, “What do they do all winter?” Then it came to me – they go inward and get ready for spring. I said to myself, “I can do that too.”First, I thanked God for all His blessings to me for all the good things in my life, for memories, all my friends and family. That took a long time to give thanks and be reflective. Then I began to think of my shortcomings and wish I had done things differently, and then I put them on God’s table. As I saw the buds forming on the trees it came to me: my winter reflection had done me well.I have a few difficulties in my body but God’s grace and love continues to make me give thanks. As the green in nature progressed I saw God’s bounty and beauty, and counted my own along with nature’s. My latest diagnosis was met with grace and promise, and did not defeat us. God’s answers are always larger than our prayers!
Friends, Deborah’s Oak of Weeping was found in a place that had another name. It was also called Bethel, the house of God. So it is that Lieschen’s true dwelling place was not in the Valley of Baca but in Christ. In her heart was a highway to heaven. Even as her bodily strength declined, she went from strength to strength, getting ready for spring as she knew Christ and looked forward to appearing before God and seeing Him. The bitterness of disease and death cannot take away the sweetness and beauty that Christ gives. In his devotional Through Baca’s Vale, Philpot writes, “Every pilgrim will appear before God in Zion! Blessed end! Sweet accomplishment of the pilgrim’s hopes, desires, and expectations! The crowning blessing of all that God has to bestow!” She is seeing her beautiful Savior right now, before whom all these earthly things of beauty pale.
I must now say to each of you, friends, that your journey through this world is really about wood and water. You must see that, left to yourself, there is no escaping the awful effects that sin and death have brought to this world– disease, pain, separation from God, broken relationships with people. That is why God sent His Son to hang as a curse on a tree, on a wooden cross, in order to remove the sentence of eternal death from us and to turn our direction in this life’s journey heavenward toward God. Have you believed on Christ to give you that highway to God in heaven? Indeed, Christ is that highway, for He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one can come to the Father except through Me.” Remember, the Father did not leave His Son upon that tree nor in the grave, but raised Him in power and glory. That resurrection power was what we witnessed active in Lieschen until the end, for His Spirit is given to all who believe in Him. As Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Come believing in the One who can make even your barren places sweet pools.
For many, many years, a beautiful, framed woodcarving hung in Ron and Lieschen’s home. It had been handed down to them from her side of the family. For many decades ago, after Lieschen’s grandmother had gone through a tragic accident, her daughter had this carving done for her as she was healing. On this lovely piece the German words “Alle meine quellen sind in Dir” were engraved. They are words from Psalm 87, which translated say, “All my springs are in You.” That message carved on wood telling of a source of living water was the testimony of Lieschen’s grandmother. By the grace of God, it became the testimony of Lieschen as well.
How I pray that it will be the testimony of her children, grandchildren, family and all here today, all touched by her life. May the name of the Lord be praised. Amen.