Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A prayer in the wilderness

Stem Cell Transplant2 011 It was 4:00 in the morning, January 2, 2007. A week earlier I had received a bone-marrow transplant to treat the leukemia that I had been diagnosed with in mid-2002. My throat felt like it was on fire. And the pain spread from there to my ears. It was excruciating. I felt as if I would lose my mind. Then unexplainably, my teeth started chattering uncontrollably. I was surprised by this because I did not have a fever and I wasn't cold. I wrapped my head with a blanket, hoping that the heat would provide some comfort from the unrelenting, throbbing pain.

As I hunched on the chair beside my hospital bed, I thought back to stories that I had read from Richard Wurmbrand. I seemed to recall of how extreme pain could bring about such chattering of teeth as the body responds in shock to the horror that it is enduring.

Huddling there alone in the middle of the night in Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, I managed to find a ray of comfort in the knowledge the agony I was experiencing was perhaps in magnitude, if not in nature, similar to that suffered by the persecuted during dark early mornings of torturous pain. The pain remained, but I was reminded that the God of Richard Wurmbrand was my God too. And I cried out to Him, trusting in His grace.

In the early 1990’s my family and I spent almost a year living in eastern Ukraine. This was just following the collapse of communism and life was hard for the people of the former Soviet Union. For many, it still is. Disappointment is a daily reality and pessimism is an art form.

One day our language teacher came to our home and told us of a discussion she had overheard while waiting for the bus. It seems one elderly man asked another how he was doing. The second man thought for a moment and replied, “Well, worse than yesterday but not as bad as tomorrow.”

Facing a seemingly hopeless situation, it’s hard not to feel that way sometimes. The present is nothing much to talk about but at least it’s not as bad as tomorrow promises to be, if the past is any indication. At times like that, the future is hidden in a thick fog of uncertainty and past events give us little confidence that things will get better. Loved ones tell us to look up but we don’t need hope that might disappear like a vapour. Simplistic answers, while well meaning, seem to mock the seriousness of our situation.

In 2 Samuel 15-16, we find David facing a time in his life when he was undergoing emotions like these. Like many of ours, David’s family life was not ideal. His troubles began with his son, Amnon, and then with Absalom. At the end of his life it was his son, Adonijah. Conflict and betrayal seemed to permeate the house of this man whom God said was a man after his own heart. But his sons…they were another matter.

The best answer I can come up with for why David had such troubles comes from the prophet Nathan’s words to him in 2 Samuel 12. Nathan declares, in the name of the Lord, that the sword would never depart from David’s house because of his act of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. He had destroyed a home and now God would never allow David’s home to be one of peace.

It doesn’t seem particularly fair, does it? Especially in this day and age when many seem to believe that all one needs do is confess one’s sin and then he/she can carry on as though there are no consequences for one’s decisions. But David’s life is evidence to the contrary.

God WILL forgive us each and every time that we confess our sins. This is true. But the consequences of our sins can follow us for the rest of our lives. And this God does not promise to release us from.

And so it was with David. And in 2 Samuel 15 -16, we find him in the wilderness of Judah, a hot desolate spot. He is not on vacation, heading south for a little sun. Rather, he is running for his life. And in hot pursuit is one of his sons, Absalom.

Absalom had a special place in David’s heart. He was many things that a father would want in a son. But after a number of unfortunate events with mistakes made on both sides, we find David fleeing for his life from his own son. Absalom had seized the throne and sent out troops to hunt down his own father.

Betrayed by his son and many of his dearest friends and advisors, David flees into the wilderness with a group of loyal followers, where he regroups and plans.

And prays.

Psalm 63 records the prayer of a heartbroken father. A father who has no idea where to turn and whom he can trust. And so he turns to the only secure place he knows. He turns to God.

Lord, My Desire (verses 1-4)

wildernessDavid begins by looking around at the wilderness to which he has fled, far from the comforts of his home, and he cries out,

O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

“Oh, God, I need you” is how we might summarize his cry, “My soul is like this wilderness. I feel dry. I feel empty. Oh Lord, turn to me. I need You.

“I remember how it was when I was still in Jerusalem. I saw You in Your sanctuary and beheld Your power and Your glory. Lord, because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You.

“I will praise You as long as I live, and in Your name I will lift up my hands (verse 4).”

In the midst of his emptiness, rather than doubting his relationship with God and forsaking his worship of Him, David knows that this is the time to run into God’s presence. “I will turn to You in my time of need because I know who You are. You are my desire. I will earnestly seek you. I am dependent upon You. You are the only one I can turn to.”

Witnessing the faith and courage of persecuted Christians around the world prepared me to face cancer. Does that surprise you? The day I was diagnosed with cancer, as I lay in bed that night, my thoughts took me to the young people whom I had met in Ethiopia, men and women who lived in abject poverty because of their decision to follow Jesus. I had heard them share how Jesus meant everything to them and how they needed nothing else but Him. Their lives and testimonies had touched me so deeply. And I said to God, “Lord, if they can trust You, so can I. I will not deny You through this!”

I held onto to that throughout the wilderness years that followed when I had no idea what God had in mind for my life. I had decided that I would trust the God of the persecuted. If He loved them and could keep them faithful to Himself through their affliction, this same God could hold me to Himself as well.

Throughout the scripture, we find that there was something about the wilderness that reminded God’s people of their need for God and their dependence upon Him. Our “wilderness” experiences, our times of sorrow and insecurity, ought to do the same.

But for many of us, our wilderness experiences become times when we doubt and seek for other solutions. In Jeremiah 2:12, we find the Lord making this observation about His people, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

Water in the wilderness is life. In my travels to Sudan over the years, I’ve come face to face with this reality. If you lose your water in Sudan, you’ll probably lose your life. This was a real concern for us when, during one trip, rebel soldiers began to steal our water bottles. They want to use them to make home brewed alcohol.

If we had been trapped in the wilderness of Sudan, we could not have turned to these soldiers and asked for the alcohol to keep us alive. Quite apart from whether Christians should drink alcohol, this foul stuff would have dehydrated us at the very time when we needed moisture to replace what the heat and sun was sucking out of us. Just drinking liquids wasn’t enough. It had to be the right kind of liquids.

You can look elsewhere to try to find the solutions to your problems. You can try to fill the ache in your heart by drinking what the world promises will satisfy. But it’s home brew. And at the very time you need it, it’ll let you down.

When you’re in the wilderness is not the time to doubt God’s goodness and turn to other places to fill your thirst. It’s tempting, but it’s a cheat. We need to turn to Him with the same earnestness of the Psalmist; “Lord, You are my desire. I need You. I earnestly seek You.”

Will you say that to God today? Even if it’s with a heavy and desperate heart, will you acknowledge your dependency upon Him, crying out, “God, You’re my only chance. I acknowledge that and I seek You today.”

Lord, My Delight (verses 5-8)

In verse 5 of Psalm 63, we find the hope of the psalmist expressed as he prays, “My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.”

“Lord, You are my delight,” he says. “In my time of need, You are everything I need.”

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

He clings to God in his time of need and he finds security there.

There is security in knowing that once you have committed a situation to God, it is no longer in your hands. As a songwriter said, “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.”

David learned early in his life that the safest place to leave one’s problems was in God’s hands.

The apostle Paul learned the same thing when he wrote in Philippians 4:4-7:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In everything, Paul says, “present your requests to God. Tell Him your needs, your heartbreaks, your fears, your hurts.”

Does that mean that your problems will disappear or that your circumstances will immediately improve? You already know the answer to that, don’t you?

Sadly, even in the situation facing David at this time did not result in the reconciliation with his son that I’m sure he so earnestly desired. His son was murdered in cold blood as he fled the battlefield.

But when you turn to God in the midst of your situation, you can have the confidence that comes from clinging to God, knowing that you are being upheld by His right hand. You have the assurance of knowing that He is there with you in the midst of the pain and His strength can be yours in the midst of weakness.

Sometimes, He will deliver you, change your situation and lift you out. At other times, He chooses to give you the wisdom, the grace, and the strength to go through the situation.

One is not necessarily better than the other or more of an answer to prayer. Nor is it a matter of accepting second-best. It is the assurance of knowing that whatever comes into your life, it must first of all pass through the sovereign hands of God. It is an expression of His grace being demonstrated in the way He chooses to work in your life.

There is security in knowing that God is working on your behalf, even when it might not immediately feel like it. Cling to that knowledge. Don’t let it go. “God, You are my delight. I am satisfied with You. You are all that I need.”

Lord, My Defense (verses 9-11)

In verses 9-11, David’s mind turns to those whom he knows are pursuing him, those who have been sent by his son to destroy him and he says,

They who seek my life will be destroyed;
they will go down to the depths of the earth.
They will be given over to the sword
and become food for jackals.
But the king will rejoice in God;
all who swear by God's name will praise him,
while the mouths of liars will be silenced.

Perhaps in that last phrase, David was thinking of his most trusted advisor, Ahithophel, who turned his back on David and joined in Absalom’s rebellion. There are few things more devastating than betrayal by a close friend.

William Tyndale holds the distinction of being the first man to ever print the New Testament in the English language. Convinced of the need for God’s people to read the Word of God in their own language, Tyndale translated the New Testament and the first five books of the Old Testament into English, despite having to flee to Germany due to threats on his life. It was in Germany that the first English scriptures were printed in two sizes; one large and one small. Like Bible smugglers today, he reasoned that he might be able to hide the smaller ones better. Stashed in barrels covered with cloth and articles for sale, in bales of cloth, in sacks of flour, and in a number of other ways, Tyndale’s Bibles were smuggled across the English Channel from Europe. For years he had to hide from the agents of the English king and clergy who were determined to kill him. Then in 1535, while living in Antwerp, Holland, he met a fellow Englishman named Henry Phillips who presented himself to Tyndale as being sympathetic to his cause. Unknown to Tyndale, however, Phillips was plotting with the emperor's magistrates to arrest him. Over a period of time, he gained Tyndale’s trust and friendship.

tyndale1aOne day Phillips invited Tyndale out to dinner. But Phillips had set a trap for him.  Upon leaving his residence, Phillips identified Tyndale to a group of soldiers who had been waiting for them. He was arrested and after a sixteen month imprisonment, an ecclesiastical panel convicted Tyndale of heresy and turned him over to the secular authority. In October, 1536 William Tyndale was executed, being first strangled and then burned at the stake. As he died, his last words were, "Lord, open the king of England's eyes."

Within two years his prayer was answered as The Great Bible, an English Bible based upon his work, was approved by the king and all churches were obligated to provide copies of it to their congregants.

When David learned about his friend’s betrayal, he too prayed: “"O LORD, please turn Ahithophel's counsel into foolishness" (2 Samuel 15:31).

Like Tyndale’s prayer, David’s prayer was answered but not quite as David might have expected. Rather, Ahithophel gave Absalom some great advice, advice that would surely have destroyed David, had Absalom listened to it. But instead, Absalom ignored it and David was saved as a result.

The mouth of the liar WAS silenced…no one would listen to him.

God can do the most amazing things in the process of leading His people through the wilderness experiences of their lives. He can bring victory out of apparent defeat, and turn disadvantage into strength.

There is one catch; will we trust Him to do His work in His own way? Will we find confidence in the face of uncertainty, insecurity, helplessness and discouragement, not in psyching ourselves up or thinking positive thoughts, but looking reality square in the eye and confessing that God is in control?

  • When we feel weak we can count on His strength.
  • When we feel uncertain, we can count on His guidance.
  • When we feel alone, we can count on His presence.

The wilderness can become a place of worship, as we declare our desire, our satisfaction, and our confidence in our God, praying with the psalmist,

“Lord, You are my desire. I earnestly seek You because I need You.”
“Lord, You are my delight. I know that You are everything I need.”
“Lord, You are my defence. I am safe with You. I can trust You.”


Lorraine said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful post. It fits well with some of the material I am reading/listening to currently on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a book of John Piper's: Don't Waste Your Life.

I will pray for you in your own wilderness, and thank you again for helping me to understand better a bit more about the theology of suffering.

In His Service,

Bene said...

I lost a brother to what you are dying from.

I didn't know he existed, the family was desperate to find us (we share a father) and found us a month after Larry died. He was in his early 20's.

I was so angry at secrets, so angry we siblings were not given the opportunity to test for match, angry we were not given a chance to possible offer life.

What happened that night in the hospital? Was the teeth chattering from the pain?
Did staff help you, have medication and comfort to ease your physical anguish?

I'm praying for you, and for those you leave behind.
We've not met, and probably wouldn't agree on anything politically.:^) Some secondary theology we don't share.
Doesn't matter, I see Jesus in your writing every day and I'm grateful I've found your blogs and I thank you for what you've shared and taught through them.

You are my brother, your time grows short, your work almost done, and I grieve you being taken home so soon.

Bene D