Misunderstanding Mysterious

oak

John 11:6 So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.

I write this sitting in the shade of the old oak outside of our small town.

It started as a cough. But the cough went on for days. My brother had been living with us for some time and had always been the most active and healthiest in our family. He had won many races, climbed mountains, was an avid outdoorsman and so it seemed strange that, of all people, he was this ill. He was opposed to going to the doctor so we finally reached out to a friend, a family physician who was kind enough to pay us a visit. Unfortunately, doc was bewildered and couldn’t put his finger on a diagnosis. He said the symptomology was complex. We knew that much. Continuous spiking fever, abdominal pain, swelling in his feet and his hair was falling out like a dog sheds in the heat.

On his birthday, he was bedridden and still refusing to see a specialist when we gathered for a somber dinner in the dining room. Sis had prepared a special meal in his honor, veal with steamed vegetables and had brought from the cellar a bottle of our best red wine. Two of our nephews, their grandmother and a couple of close friends had joined us. It was a very special dinner. Or at least it started that way.

It seemed mom was more distressed than anyone else at the table. She would ring her hands more than she would cut her meat, bowing her head and shaking it in apparent disbelief.

“What Grandma?” asked one of my nephews.

“I just can’t believe he’s so sick. We must continue to pray for him. I’m so afraid we’ll lose him soon. Please keep praying for him.” Her voice shook.

“We pray every day for him, mama. Don’t be so distraught. Enjoy your dinner, and give God thanks. I believe He’s going to heal my brother.”

She glanced up, her eyes filled with doubt and uncertainty, “He’s just so sick and it seems like he gets worse every day. Why would God allow this?”

“That’s enough Grandma!” My nephew could hardly stand it. He was certain God would never do this, nor allow such an illness to befall his dad.

Still lamenting, “But honey, don’t you feel like you should ask God ‘why’? It’s been days now and your father is unable to move and can barely speak. Oh, why would God allow it?”

“Enough!” He slammed his fist down on the table toppling my glass of wine and nearly the candle that my sister had lit in hopes of a peaceful evening. “I’m not going to listen to this! Here me. God would not allow even one day of sickness to come upon papa. I beg you grandma, quit asking these faithless questions.”

She returned to a bowed position, her veal cool and untouched as she muttered prayers no one could hear but God. I felt led to pray with her. As I grabbed her hand, she reached out to her other side and my sister took hold and then our nephews and friends. Then I prayed.

“God, we have faith today for healing in my brother’s body. Sickness be gone. Swelling be gone. Pain be gone. We believe for a healing now.”

The grip at my hands increased as the intensity of the prayer escalated.

“We know you would never allow anything bad to happen to him. You are good and good all the time and Your love for him is unfailing and Your power without limit. Heal him now for his sake, for our sake and for Your glory!”

A moan came from his bedroom. I couldn’t help but think that God was in his room at His bedside performing a miraculous work. Our hands were still locked as I quickly assessed the eyes of all those at the table. I could see in each a mix of bewilderment and hope as another moan came from the bedroom. Abruptly, we jumped up from the table, causing my sister to steady the candle once more. We raced to his bedroom door. The seven of us gathered quickly around his bed. And then we heard it. His last breath. It was like the last bit of wind pushed through a valley after a passing storm and the eerie silence that followed seemed to swallow us all. It swallowed the room. It was the silence of death that even seemed to swallow reality. We were in disbelief. No goodbyes. No smile creased his face as he passed. His eyes never opened at the last moment to communicate his love. We weren’t even holding his hand when it happened. He was gone.

“No!” It was one word with a weight that collapsed my mother over the bed and the body of her only son. Mourning had come.

Burying my brother was the hardest thing I had ever been through. No less painful than the loss of my sibling was witnessing the pain in my mother. Dad had passed just a year ago and now her son. I wondered if it would not be the end of her.

It seemed strange that just a few days later, the sun bright behind a blue sky, the calla lilies in bloom and the birds alive full of flight and sound. It was as if nature cared not. I sat displaced from it all when my sister came bounding up the porch steps, short of breath from a sprint, she said, “The master is coming!”

“Did you speak with Him?”

“Yes. Yes” She tried to catch her breath.

“Well, tell me! What happened?”

“I told Him that if He had been here, brother would not have died. Then He told me that everyone who lives and believes in Him will never die. It doesn’t make any sense to me because brother believed, but he is dead. You should go talk to Him.”

“I will. But do you know where He was when brother was sick? We had sent word to Him several days ago about the illness.”

“I wondered the same so I asked one of the men who was with Him and he said that He knew brother was ill but that when He found out, He made a decision to wait for two more days anyway.”

My heart sunk. I couldn’t help but go back to that moment at the dinner table when my mother had cried the question, “Why would God allow this?” Anger stirred in my heart against such insensitivity. But I wondered if my sister had been told the truth. Had He really waited intentionally? Had He allowed my brother to remain sick and in pain to his end? The questions motivated me to find Him and ask.

I could see the cloud of dirt lifting from the road before I could make out the crowd. My sister was right. The Healer was coming.

“Too late” I thought, still perplexed by actions that seemed so clear but ones I couldn’t understand. “How could He have allowed my brother’s sickness to go on?”

The question pressed its way from silent thought to my lips, “How? How? How?” It seemed I barely muttered it three times before I had reached the outskirts of town and when I looked up, there He was. The Healer stood in front of me with eyes filled with grace and tenderness but with a transcending power that brought me to my knees. The crowd around Him was silent watching intently as if they knew He had come for this very conversation.

“Why my Lord? Why did you wait? If you had come, he would not have died. He was so sick the last few days and you knew it! You knew it and you decided not to come! How my Lord could you have allowed it to go on? Why did you allow him to die?!”

The anguish that I had suppressed the last few days welled up like a fist inside my stomach and wrenched me to the ground, my face in the dirt, I wailed in bitterness. Through my gasps of pain, I heard Him ask, “Where did they bury him?”

And then they left. Hope dashed, heart in despair, soul languishing, and my body in the dirt, they just left. The last in the crowd to leave looked back at me with great sympathy and said, “Dear woman, arise. Maybe God has allowed this to happen for a reason.”

The anger stirred up in me from such a notion ended my sobbing and I crawled my way to the side of the road, took off my satchel from around my shoulders and leaned against the bark of an old oak tree.

The Healer has just left me. There’s a part of me that feels good about it. I’m not sure I want to be near Him anymore. My brother is dead and I write this sitting in the shade of the old oak outside of our small town.

The wanted unwanted

unwanted

2 Samuel 19:14 So he won over all the men of Judah, and they sent word to the king: “Come back, you and all your servants.”

There’s something special about being chosen. Young, I was scrawny and awkward and rarely chosen for anything. The anxiety of standing among my peers being picked for a backyard football match and then it turning into sadness as the crowd dwindled to me and some other kid (the two remaining “disappointments”) took its toll on me. It was kind of a cyclic problem. Not only did no one expect much out of me in the game, but I didn’t care much to see the captain glorified in a win after wishing I wasn’t a part of his team. Oh, sure. He picked me. He had to. There was no one else left.  But he didn’t choose me.

There’s a difference between being chosen and simply being picked as the end result of a mathematical must.

Too many times people enter into a religious commitment as part of some formula of faith, mere words regurgitated after swallowing the pulpiteer’s instruction. There might even be real conviction and commitment backing it and that “Christian walk” that follows for some time. But if the repentant sinner makes his decision based only on the truth that he must choose righteousness or perish, he’ll miss the joy and the power that comes from being chosen.

David “won over all the men of Judah” because he chose them.  Most all of Israel had betrayed David during the uprising led by Absalom. They had rebelled against the king. After Absalom’s defeat and Israel realized its precarious position, they began to talk about the only thing that made sense; restoring David as king to His throne.

Too often, that’s the way it is with a new conversion to Christianity. One makes a decision to put Christ on the throne of His heart because it’s the only thing that makes sense. There’s no other choice for life eternal. Although true, there must be more to it, or we’ll end up like Israel did in the next chapter (20:2) “So all the men of Israel deserted David and followed Sheba son of Bichri…”
Simply put, they rebelled in part because they weren’t chosen. I’m not talking about predestined election. I’m talking about a captain who wants you on his team.

I remember standing with those other kids, my heart racing with hope to be chosen but in contrast to the reality of precedent that had been firmly set. I can only imagine what it would have felt like to be chosen first.

With what effort might I have played then? How would I have felt about my captain when it looked like we were losing? To the end of the game, I would have been loyal to such a one, a captain who wanted me on his team.

When the unwanted are wanted, the unlovable are loved and the undeserving are esteemed worthy, a loyal army is formed.

Chapter 20:2 continues “…but the men of Judah…remained loyal to their king.”

Why? David chose them. When they weren’t even thinking about the next step in restoring David, he said “Come back.” He reached out to them.  He wanted them.

I pray we operate in life from the truth that a fruitful commitment to Christ is not powered by our choice for Him, but His choice for us; and not first by our surrender, but His.

Forest of Affliction

forest

2 Samuel 18:8 The battle spread over the entire region, and that day the forest claimed more people than the sword.

(The tide has turned. Absalom has taken the advice of David’s spy, Hushai, and David has trapped Absalom’s army in a forest that becomes more of a detriment to them than the weaponry of David’s men.)

Over the years, I’ve seen many addicts fall from their pinnacle of sobriety to a valley of despair. Full of self-loathing, they wander off onto the streets again fully understanding they’ve returned to that place of bondage volitionally but in disbelief none the less.  Over those years, I’ve also had opportunity to question a few of those folks, “What happened? How did you fall?” Most shake their bowed heads in shame as they recall the trial or difficulty that led them to drink again or take up the needle. And usually, that trial or difficulty is no stranger.  The pressure or situation that triggers that person’s relapse is usually one with which he or she is very familiar.

We all go through tribulation. Jesus was clear about that. There is no option and it should be no surprise. Really, the only option is how we deal with it. The Bible is clear that we should rejoice in our affliction. But how? Remember that perseverance through tribulation or affliction produces character and character, hope (Rom 5:3-4). When you persevere through the tribulation and find your way out of the forest of affliction, then the next time you find yourself there, rather than flailing, failing and falling, you rejoice because you have hope of victory.

David had been in that forest more than once.  Pursued by King Saul and the Israelite army, David had taken refuge in the wilderness of Ziph and the forest of Hareth. It may have been the greatest tribulation of David’s life, yet he persevered. He became familiar with the forest, literally in Hebrew, “a dense tangled wood.” He became familiar with it, no longer afraid in it, and one might surmise he understood it.

And in this chapter and verse, it becomes the place of victory for him.

Oh! That our own forests of affliction would be places of victory for us! That when we come into the hardship, the pressure, the tension, we don’t succumb to it, but persevere through it knowing we, too, can become familiar with it, no longer afraid in it and in fact, can use it.

David did. It was in the forest, a place where his enemy had once driven him in affliction, that he now defeats his enemy. “..that day, the forest claimed more people than the sword.”

May God help us to rejoice in the midst of difficulty and not for a moment entertain the notion that it be the place of our defeat, but instead that it be our enemy who falls in that forest of affliction.

Prayerful Expectation

eyes open

2 Samuel 17:14 Since the LORD had decreed that Ahithophel’s good advice be undermined in order to bring about Absalom’s ruin, Absalom and all the men of Israel said, “The advice of Hushai the Archite is better than Ahithophel’s advice.”

As a child, I had pretty high expectations at Christmas. I knew my parents loved me and I knew they loved to gift me. So, like many kids, on the big morning at the crack of dawn (or before) I would sneak into the living room and do the obvious; look under the tree. Can you imagine doing anything else? What strange kid would ask his parents for that special bike, that semi-automatic Nerf gun or some other novel item and then awake on Christmas morning only to hang out in his bedroom and play with his old Lego set? Never happens. Every kid does the same thing. First thing, he looks under the tree.

In 2 Samuel 15, although it wasn’t exactly like Christmas, God certainly gave David want he wanted.  In verse 31, Scripture says David pleaded with the Lord, “Please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness!” Ahithophel was David’s top advisor and had betrayed David, defecting to Absalom.  And God heard his plea and as it reads in 2 Sam 17:14, He “decreed” it so.

Dad delivered exactly what David wanted.

It reminds me of the words of Christ concerning God’s love for us, “What father among you, if his son asks for an fish, will give him a snake? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”  So what would make us think that God doesn’t want to answer our prayers, bless us and gift us? Many of us support this common sense, but few are actually “looking under the tree” after they ask. We ask for help, healing, intervention, a miracle, or a gift and then often move on through our day to day trials without keeping our eyes open for that which we’ve pleaded.

It’s like that kid on Christmas morning who sits in his room instead of looking under the tree. It’s as if we pray for help and then close our eyes to the possibility of His supernatural intervention.

David prayed with his eyes open.

Immediately after he pleaded with the Lord to confuse the counsel of Ahithophel, David watched with expectation for his Father to deliver the request. In the next verse, 1 Sam 15:32, David meets Hushai the Archite and considers that he might be the answer to the prayer. So David sends him to Absalom to counter the advisement of Ahithophel.

It was the turning point for David and his men. The people and Absalom listened to Hushai’s advice rather than Ahithophel’s just like David had pleaded and God had decreed. I believe Hushai could have given any advice that day and no matter how militarily unsound it may have been, they would have listened to him because God had decreed it.

But Hushai did need to be there.

Had David prayed on the Mt. of Olives that day, but then kept his eyes closed, he would have missed the gift. He would have considered Hushai a mere patriot sympathetic to his plight and invited him along on the journey of defeat. But David prayed and kept his eyes open, seeing Hushai as the supernatural answer to his prayer.

We should do the same. How many times have I prayed for something and then passed right by the very answer because my eyes were closed to expectation of His real intervention?! Today, when I pray for my family, for my ministry, for health, for finances, I’m going to model David and keep my eyes open for the gift.