Monday, February 29, 2016

Healing and God's Servants

Last weekend I came upon this essay, written around the time in 2001 when we decided the Lord was using my illness to bring us back to the United States to get the needed treatment. It encouraged me, so I prayerfully share it with you, despite its length. Grace and peace to you in Christ Jesus, crumbles.

Rosemary in bloom

As it has become increasingly evident that the illness I have developed in Thailand will not be resolved here, we (Allen and I) have engaged in several conversations in various contexts about God’s power to heal. We firmly believe that God still can and does heal supernaturally, even apart from medical means. Granted, that does not seem to be the norm, especially in America, but seems more common in developing countries where needy people have much less access to medical care.

Even so, He has not chosen to heal me of this illness at this time, with or without natural means as His instrument, and now that illness is bringing us home from the foreign mission field, probably permanently. Have we not prayed? Of course we have. We have also been supported in prayer by many believers in many nations and from all walks of life, ranging from our Thai maid to our elders in Texas to the archbishop of the Anglican province of Southeast Asia. Missionaries and church leaders have laid hands on me to pray for God’s healing touch, but the illness has marched on unphased and so far eluding conclusive diagnosis.

Have we not faith? Only the Lord knows our hearts, but in all sincerity we believe that He has given us faith for my healing, if that be His will.

Perhaps this is spiritual warfare, Satan’s attempt to interfere with God’s work in Asia by bringing us home? Quite possibly, since Satan was instrumental in both Job’s afflictions and Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Nonetheless, he cannot touch a hair on my head without my Daddy’s permission, and he must withdraw the moment God commands it. Moreover, he cannot hinder God’s work here simply by bringing us home; in fact, this experience serves to remind us as missionaries that we are dispensable. God accomplishes His purposes in spite of us, not because of us, and He certainly does not need us as instruments. Rather, He condescends to use such dust people as we are so that all the world may see that the great power must be His alone (2 Cor 4:7).

The implication in many of our conversations about the cause of my illness and the possibility of God’s supernatural healing has been that as a missionary, as a professional minister of the gospel, I should have more reason to expect that than the average rank-and-file believer. After all, I have to be healthy to do the job I’ve been given to do, right? Actually, the opposite seems to be true.

Looking beyond my own illness to the broader issue of God’s healing and His servants, it becomes apparent how often biblically and historically those who had been instruments of others’ healing did not experience the same healing power of God for their own illnesses. Elisha died from an illness he contracted, though God had used him for the healing of many. Paul received a “no,” in no uncertain terms, after 3 prayers for his own healing. Timothy had some sort of digestive problem demanding medicinal use of wine. Epaphroditus was sent home to the Philippians after a near-fatal illness at Paul’s side in ministry. Had these no faith, no favor with God? Yet they were all afflicted or even struck down by illness while in the throes of ministry. Even Christ on the cross faced taunts that, “He who saved others – Himself He cannot save!”

Historically, the record is no less auspicious: preachers Charles Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody, missionaries Amy Carmichael and Lilias Trotter, hymnwriters Fanny Crosby and George Matheson, all suffered from chronic illness or disability. And that hardly touches the tip of the iceberg. Francis Schaeffer fought through the pain of cancer for the last 5 years of his life and ministry. Indeed, as one considers the vast proportion of God’s vocational ministers under some trial of long-term illness, Teresa of Avila’s cry comes to mind: “If this is the way You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few!”

Why this special attention from God to give so very many of His most prominent servants (myself NOT included in that category!) a painful thorn to endure? Wouldn’t they, wouldn’t we, be more effective and productive in good health?

Not necessarily. But even if we grant that assumption, it overlooks that God’s work in us takes priority over His work through us. Primary in His purposes is to deal with pride in the human heart, the chief enemy to our intimacy with Him and the root of all other sins. Due to the undeserved and perhaps excessive lavishing of praise and applause on the ministers rather than the God who works through them, we ministry folks may have a heightened propensity to this sin compared to the rest of Adam’s seed (cp 2 Cor 12:7-10; Num 12). Even as insignificant as our little role as missionaries has been in the grand scheme of things, we receive constant bombardment with temptation and encouragement to believe that we ourselves are something. Thus, we find ourselves especially in need of the reminder that we are dust (humus in Latin, from which we get “humility”), wholly dependent on God’s inbreathing, indwelling Spirit. Illness serves as a constant lesson in the inadequacy of our natural human resources; a supernatural task requires supernatural power. God alone – not our strength, skill, or dedication – changes hearts.

Also, illness can serve as a means of guidance and redirection in ministry. Some sort of physical affliction brought Paul and the gospel to the Galatian churches. As previously mentioned, illness brought Epaphroditus home to his loved ones. Illness confined David to the palace in his last years and prompted the passing of the crown to Solomon even before David’s death. Illness served as the means of Amy Carmichael’s relocation from Japan to China to Ceylon to India and the Schaeffers’ move from Switzerland to Rochester, Minnesota, to establish a still-flourishing L’Abri branch there. Though Allen and I don’t yet know to what the Lord is redirecting us, we have no doubt that my illness and our move home evince His hand leading us not only away, but toward.

Furthermore, so many times we observe that physical affliction serves as a greater platform for ministry, not a hindrance, or opens the door to a new ministry otherwise improbable. Fanny Crosby’s or George Matheson’s hymns take on a new significance when we realize they were written from blindness and not a painless, thornless ignorance of suffering. Joni Eareckson Tada has been uniquely qualified for her ministry to people with disabilities through her own disability. Only a fellow-sufferer can truly share comfort first received for themselves with those in direst need without giving the impression of spouting empty platitudes a la Job’s friends. Closer to my own neck of the woods, a pair of dear friends in chronic pain and physical weakness constantly challenge me as living sermons on the reality of God’s rest, joy, and peace sufficient for all circumstances. God has evidently used pain to soften them and pare them down so that more of Him glows through.

This process is not automated or mechanical, however. Any trial acts as a refiner’s fire and brings all manner of dross up to the surface. Apart from God’s grace, however, the dross remains there, and the ill one can become entangled by bitterness, self-pity, selfishness, or even arrogance in wearing suffering as a medal of honor. But with God’s grace to remain open to His activity, that refining process purifies and purges, until the molten silver reflects His face.

Countless others have found themselves moved by illness or age out of “limelight” ministries into the ministry of secret prayer, difficult to overestimate in significance though often overlooked and unnoticed. And beyond even that ministry, there have been times when I have been so exhausted by illness that even prayer was beyond my strength. Learning simply to be before the Lord, my very self a prayer, and to let Him as my Shepherd cradle me in His arms, receiving nothing from me in return, is its own lesson, as well.

In summary, both my illness and the evidence of the great crowd of witnesses send the resounding testimony that God’s puzzling refusal of healing power to His ministers (in this life), though granted to many outside of vocational ministry, serves to advance His purposes and kingdom. As Elisabeth Elliot often says, “Let’s never forget that some of God’s greatest mercies are His refusals. He says no that He may, in some way we cannot imagine, say yes. All His ways with us are merciful. His meaning is always love.” What may appear or even be intended by Satan as a hindrance to God’s work in the world actually advances it! With the magnificence of divine irony, by pruning us of all illusion of our own assets and competence and often slowing our hectic pace to make us lie down in green pastures at His feet, He strips away the pride that obscures His glorious display of strength in us. Let us then say with Paul, “I delight in weaknesses, for when I am weak, HE is strong!”

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Medicine for Broken Hearts {Part 3}

He healeth those that are broken in heart
and giveth medicine to heal their sickness
(Ps 147:3, Prayer Book Version).

{Medicine for Broken Hearts, Part 1 and Part 2}

Our God heals brokenness in all its forms: physical sickness and suffering, mental anguish, social alienation, and desperation wrought by seemingly hopeless circumstances.

As considered in the previous post, the Lord may send healing to a broken spirit with a vivid reminder that He is the God who sees. Sometimes this reminder comes as the provision of the biggest, most desperate need in a life. Sometimes this reminder comes as a friend to walk alongside the broken one and offer hope, or at least presence, in the midst of sorrow.

On the other hand, God also administers the balm of solitude and solitary prayer, especially it seems in the unique depression of persecution and even betrayal. Many of David’s psalms flowed out of his times of flight through the desert or hiding in caves as Saul pursued him. The barren desolation of his surroundings reflected the landscape of his own soul and redirected his thirst toward God’s companionship in his solitude (cf. Ps 63:1). Jeremiah also – certainly no stranger to suffering – came to realize even in the midst of his lament, “The LORD is good to those whose hope is in Him, to the one who seeks Him. It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the LORD has laid it on him” (Lam 3:25-8, NIV).

Elijah, too, running from Jezebel’s death threat, was taken out into the wilderness (1 Ki 19). There the Lord again demonstrates His care for the whole person. To this hurting man, so depressed that he calls on God to take his life (before Jezebel can), the Lord gives sleep, simple physical rest, and wholesome nourishment delivered by the angel of Yahweh Himself. Only then, after ministering to the needs of his body, does God seek him out, hear his complaint without criticism, and appear to him personally with exactly the gently presence he needed at that moment. As if a vision of God weren’t enough, the Lord goes further to give Elijah a fresh sense of purpose and a new commission for ministry.

Job illustrates a different facet of this same provision, that fresh vision of God. Bereft of the children he prized, bankrupt of all earthly wealth, broken in body, and surrounded by a bitter wife and supercilious friends, he grieves with the loneliness of one surrounded by people but void of compassion. Again, God hears his complaint out in patience. Finally, He breaks into Job’s misery and reveals Himself. Unlike His manifestation to Elijah, however, here God speaks in a thunderous voice out of the storm. Like Elijah, Job needed a vision of God to heal his sickness, but he needed to see God’s sovereign power and unerring wisdom even in the midst of calamity. “You are God, and I am not,” was the salve for his wound, healed even before the restoration of his wealth, family, and health.

In fact, if the Lord does have a universal, one-size-fits-all panacea for broken hearts, it is a fresh vision of Himself, some aspect of His character which we have not yet internalized but which exactly suits that moment’s need. His very name is “I AM THAT I AM,” and that name is His promise that he Himself is all we need. It hardly seems coincidence that both Job and Naomi in their deepest pain call him Shaddai, the All-Sufficient God, as adequate for our soul’s need as a mother’s breast (shad, in Hebrew) is for her infant.

While God rarely grants such a personal, visible appearance to us (even in Bible times the exception rather than the rule), He has given us the substance of such a vision in the Bible, particularly in the portrait of Christ found there. Hebrews tells us Jesus was made like us, His brothers, in every way except sin. Because He Himself knows our suffering by experience, He is just the tenaciously loyal and compassionate friend a broken heart needs (Heb 2:17-18).

Am I hurting physically? He suffered death by crucifixion. Am I ashamed and scorned? Anyone who died on a cross was reckoned cursed by God; even the thief dying on His left mocked Him. Am I grieving? Jesus grieved for the pain of His loved ones, weeping alone in Gethsemane, tenderly entrusting His mother to His beloved disciple as He died. Am I mourning for loved ones who do not know the Lord and don’t even seem to care? He wept over unbelieving Jerusalem, and He loves our loved ones far more than we do. His grief is with us for them. Am I lonely, persecuted, desolated? He was continually misunderstood even by His family and closest friends. In the end, He was delivered to His enemies by one of those friends—with a kiss of betrayal, for the price of a common slave. Even His own Father forsook Him in that hour of darkness when He bore our sin. No other loneliness can compare with that. Whatever pain I’m feeling, however excruciating it may be, He knows.

When our deepest need is just that, simply someone who knows, who understands our pain from having been there himself, someone who will stay with us in the pain and suffer with us patiently, we need look no further than Jesus. “He healeth those that are broken in heart and giveth medicine – is Himself the medicine – to heal their sickness.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Medicine for Broken Hearts {Part 2}

{Part 1 here:}

He healeth those that are broken in heart
and giveth medicine to heal their sickness
(Ps 147:3, Prayer Book Version).

Our God can, will, and does heal the whole person, the broken heart that often accompanies a broken body. Furthermore, He knows and heals the heart broken by grief and bereavement though the body remain strong.

For Hannah and Hagar, the first grieving for lack of a child and the second for lack of provision for the child already given, He comes to them as El Roi, the God who sees and answers prayer. Only He knows the cries of both hearts, and He meets both needs as only He can (1 Sam 1:1-2:11; Gen 16). To both He offers hope and a promise for the future.

To the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17) also, Jesus is the God who sees. For our benefit, Luke explains that she is not only a widow but has just lost her only son, her sole remaining means of support in a culture where a woman’s welfare depended on her male relatives. Jesus sees this woman walking behind the coffin, without any explanation needed. But seeing her tears and knowing the untold story of this coffin, His heart goes out to her. With true compassion, He awakens the boy from the sleep of death and restores him to his mother. The good news spreads throughout the land: “GOD has come to help the people!” He has come, and He remains: Immanuel, God with us.

Faced with a similar plight, Naomi’s grief over the loss of husband and sons in a foreign land has turned to bitter hopelessness. “Even if I thought there was still hope for me… (Ruth 1:12), she sets out on her empty journey home. She arrives nearly unrecognizable by the ravages grief and long absence have wrought, full only of words of God’s hand against her in affliction and misfortune.

What medicine will heal this broken heart? A friend loyal even to death, willing to leave everything familiar to stick by this porcupine. A friend young enough to keep hoping and work hard to provide for their physical needs. Widows without any other source of food could harvest remnants of grain from the corners of the fields, but such a task demands physical and emotional stamina this aged woman worn down by sorrow would not have had. Such a friend is the rarest treasure; one in a lifetime is great wealth; yet God had woven such a one into Naomi’s life even before the tragedy, in her daughter-in-law Ruth.

Despite Naomi’s urgings to turn back and leave her to her dismal fate, Ruth vows with the solemnest of vows never to forsake her even to the bitter end. She leaves all to follow Naomi (and her God) to Judah. Once there she seeks work at least to bring them food. Here again God provides the impossible. He leads her straight to the field of the one man in all the town in a position to provide for their long-term material security. Beyond that, when this man Boaz takes Ruth as his wife, the child begotten becomes Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer—reckoned as her own son—and guarantee of sustenance in her old age.

Truly such a gift of a loyal friend in our darkest hour is “better than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). Thankfully, God does not stint on such gifts when they are the proper medicine. He brought Elisha to Elijah and Timothy to Paul in their need. He gave Jeremiah a sympathetic helper in the foreigner Ebed-Melech to deliver him with utmost gentleness from death in a miry pit, and a faithful co-worker in his amanuensis Baruch (though not without rough times, too). He gave the faithful lads in the Daniel story to each other as encouragement to hold to the truth in an incredibly hostile environment. And He still gives such gifts today, as He has for me more than once, bringing a friend who stubbornly refused to stop loving me at my unloveliest. Thanks be to God for His ability to weave such healing relationships together so that the right balm is available at the right time! “He healeth those that are broken in heart and giveth medicine to heal their sickness” (Ps 147:3, Prayer Book Version).

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Medicine for Broken Hearts {Part 1}

He healeth those that are broken in heart
and giveth medicine to heal their sickness
(Ps 147:3, Prayer Book Version).

What kind of medicine heals a broken heart? A broken body, in many cases, can be diagnosed conclusively and treated accordingly by a trained physician. But a broken heart? This proves much more elusive; we may escape into fantasy or try to fill our hearts by filling our flesh (or our schedules). Psychology alone can only patch up the problem, often masking its spiritual core. True medicine comes from God alone and uniquely fits each heart.

Broken hearts are as diverse as their possessors. Only the God who wove us each together in our mothers’ wombs proves a Physician great enough to give the medicine to heal them. He Himself knows the pain of a broken heart, having experienced it with and for us in the person of Christ. Moreover, He knows our sickness. Before we even tell Him what’s wrong (or even if we don’t know ourselves), He knows our sickness and what medicine we need. (What a contrast with human physicians’ dependence on the patient at least to communicate why they’re consulting a doctor; they expect something more than, “It hurts. I don’t know where and can’t say how, but something’s not right.”) With God, though, we have only to come in our pain, wordless and tearful though we may be. He knows, and when He heals us He heals the whole person, body and soul alike.

Even physical illness afflicts the heart as well as body. Jesus’ healing ministry demonstrates and responds to this. While certain patterns recur, His healings are marvelously diverse as He treats individuals with full understanding and respect for their personal needs.

Consider, for example, the leper Mark presents as one of the first healing miracles in his gospel account (Mk 1:40-5). A leper’s suffering in Israel, like an AIDS or Ebola patient today, was as much psychosocial as physical. Outcasts, lepers lived outside the camp, ostracized not only from normal community interaction but also from the religious life of Israel. More than just “ill” or “contagious,” they were “unclean,” perhaps the most shameful label that could be given in that culture. The law prescribed the following behavior for lepers: “As for the diseased person who has the infection, his garments must be torn, the hair of his head must be unbound, he must cover his mustache, and he must call out 'Unclean! Unclean!' The whole time he has the infection he will be continually unclean. He must live in isolation, and his place of residence must be outside the camp” (Lev 13:45-6, NET).

Thus, in this miracle the leper approaches Jesus not requesting healing per se, but to be “made clean,” those words bearing the full meaning of social and ritual reinstatement, freedom from the shame and loneliness he had borne for the duration of his illness. Notice he doesn’t even dare ask outright at all, but comes as a beggar: “If You are willing, You can. . . .” Jesus responds in kind, with full understanding of the man’s import. He reaches out and touches this man, this unclean man, who perhaps had been so long untouchable that he had forgotten the feel of a gentle hand, though he would never cease yearning for it. Jesus’ other miracles leave no doubt that He could heal with a mere word, even if the patient was far away. But this man He touches, because that was the medicine to heal his shame and loneliness.

Even human touch holds tremendous power to comfort. My memory of the first touch – a hand on my shoulder – after the news of my maternal grandmother’s death when I was away at college remains vivid even after 25 years have elapsed. In a later time of brokenness, one of God’s greatest healing gifts was a job caring for an infant, spending hours each day with this tiny, dependent life in my arms. The comfort of Jesus’ own divine-human touch exceeds my comprehension! May we be generous with each other in sharing His love this way.

Similarly, consider the woman suffering from a hemorrhage (Mk 5:25-34), like leprosy an isolating, shameful, “unclean” sort of illness for an Israelite (Lev 15:25-30). Even today any woman knows the embarrassment of gynecological medical problems as opposed to others. In Palestine, though, the stigma was far greater and the fact of illness more public, as the woman carried a moral obligation to protect others from contamination from touching her bed or seat. Therefore, ashamed, this woman approaches Jesus in the anonymity of a crowd, afraid of yet one more disappointment. After 12 years of illness, penniless from doctors who only exacerbated her condition, Jesus was truly her last hope. If she came openly He might turn her away with a rebuke, and that would be too much to bear. So she creeps up behind Him and touches just the edge of His cloak.

Healed physically from that moment even in secrecy, she cannot remain anonymous with Jesus. To the dismay of His disciples, He seeks out this lamb – even now shaking with fear – and publicly reinstates her to the community. “Go in peace,” shalom in the Hebrew tongue, wholeness and freedom from the fear and shame which so long had bound her.

Our God can, will, and does heal the whole person, the broken heart as well as the broken body. In the Gospels, we see multiple instances of Jesus removing not only the sickness or oppression but also the social alienation it causes. “He healeth the broken in heart, and giveth medicine to heal their sickness.”

Administrative note: E-mail subscribers, if you couldn't see yesterday's video, you may view it on the Web at "A New Leash on Life."

Monday, February 22, 2016

"New Leash on Life"

Because sometimes you just need a good laugh... Praying the Lord gives you a joyful heart today, friends.

"A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones."

Proverbs 17:22, ESV

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Spade of Trouble and the Reservoir of Comfort

"For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us,
so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ."
—2 Corinthians 1:5.

"THERE is a blessed proportion.
The Ruler of Providence bears a pair of scales—
in this side He puts His people's trials,
and in that He puts their consolations.
When the scale of trial is nearly empty,
you will always find the scale of consolation in nearly the same condition;
and when the scale of trials is full,
you will find the scale of consolation just as heavy.
When the black clouds gather most,
the light is the more brightly revealed to us.
When the night lowers and the tempest is coming on,
the Heavenly Captain is always closest to His crew.
It is a blessed thing, that when we are most cast down,
then it is that we are most lifted up by the consolations of the Spirit.
One reason is, because trials make more room for consolation.
Great hearts can only be made by great troubles.
The spade of trouble digs the reservoir of comfort deeper,
and makes more room for consolation.
God comes into our heart
—He finds it full—
He begins to break our comforts and to make it empty;
then there is more room for grace.
The humbler a man lies, the more comfort he will always have,
because he will be more fitted to receive it.
Another reason why we are often most happy in our troubles, is this—
then we have the closest dealings with God.
When the barn is full, man can live without God:
when the purse is bursting with gold, we try to do without so much prayer.
But once take our gourds away, and we want our God;
once cleanse the idols out of the house, then we are compelled to honour Jehovah.
"Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord."
There is no cry so good as that which comes from the bottom of the mountains;
no prayer half so hearty as that which comes up from the depths of the soul,
through deep trials and afflictions.
Hence they bring us to God, and we are happier;
for nearness to God is happiness.
Come, troubled believer, fret not over your heavy troubles,
for they are the heralds of weighty mercies."

~C. H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Morning of 12 February (formatting mine)