Saturday, October 23, 2010

Crying by the Waters of the Jabbok

When my nephew was two he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, cancer of the nerves. It is a childhood cancer that overtakes almost all who get it. For two years my sister and her husband did everything they could to give Andrew the best care, the latest treatments, and still as "normal" a childhood as possible. On the day of the initial diagnosis my brother-in-law began a daily blog that eventually attracted thousands of readers. All over the world countless people began to pray specifically for Andrew, his family, and his recovery. For awhile it appeared that he was going to escape the clutches of the cancer, almost like a miracle, but one day, a few months later, the cancer began to grow again and this time it was unstoppable. Four-year-old Andrew died in his mother's arms as he reached out his small arms and mumbled, "Jesus, Jesus..." 

Earlier that same year my four-year-old son accidentally hit his head on a swivel chair. What was thought to be just a bang on the noggin turned out to be much more serious. After a few hours of noisy fussiness, Jacob was taken to an emergency room where a CAT scan revealed that the artery in his brain had torn. Blood was pooling under his skull and the pressure was growing. Separated from my son and my wife by two thousand miles (they were in the Chicago area visiting her family while I remained at our home in Portland, Oregon), I received a frantic phone call from my wife. Jacob would have to be flown from that hospital to another one so that he could undergo emergency surgery. The doctor at the first hospital didn't have the skill to do this particular surgery. Another surgeon would have to be found.

As my wife put our son on a helicopter, I quickly contacted our pastor and several colleagues and asked them to pray for Jacob. I spent a restless night traveling from Portland to Rockford, Illinois, all the while not knowing if I would ever see my son again in this life.

Initially, his prognosis was not good. He had been in surgery for three hours. Afterwards the neurosurgeon warned my wife that because so much blood had pooled on Jacob's brain, he might not ever wake up again. His brain might begin to shut down his vital organs. If he did wake up, he likely would not be able to speak again or use half of his body. His mental abilities would surely be severely impaired. And yet, when I showed up as a wreck the next morning, there was my son, sitting up in his PICU bed, head bandaged with what looked like a white turban, a smile on his little face. "Hi, Dad. I'm glad you were able to make it...." When we later prayed, he wanted to say the Lord's Prayer himself, since he had been learning it. He got a little muddled on the fourth petition, or at least I think he did: "...And give us this day our daily breath..." We all broke down and cried tears of joyful relief.

A few days later we met the neurosurgeon who told us he was stumped. Happily so. He couldn't really understand why there were no apparent side-effects from the injury. None. When the flight nurse came into the room a day later she was incredulous. "Is this the same boy that I cared for last week? I can't believe it!" She later asked me if I believed in miracles. I told her that I did. "Well, this looks to me like a miracle. When I prepped your son in the helicopter I was really afraid that he was not going to make it. Some kids who have been in even better condition have not made it into the operating room. God surely answered our prayers here..."

Yes, I believe God hears our prayers and responds to them in God's own ways. God invites us to pray to him and promises to hear us. We also know that what we pray for is not necessarily what God will allow to happen. As one of America's greatest theologians has correctly put the matter, when he commented on the outcome of prayer (and this just a few weeks before his own untimely death), "The Almighty has His own purposes." Why the prayers for Andrew did not issue forth in a miracle like that which apparently happened to Jacob is beyond the ken of mere mortals. While God is not totally incomprehensible, the Almighty has his own purposes that are not always apparent.

I thought about these events again last Saturday afternoon after I received news that a young pastor for whom I had sometimes filled-in had died the night before. Thirty-eight-year-old Pastor Palmer had preached at a funeral on Friday, complained about chest pains throughout the morning and early afternoon, went to a hospital for several hours of tests, all of which turned out inconclusive, returned home with acid-reflux medicine, passed out on his living room floor, was rushed to another hospital where he was again put through a battery of tests and then a CAT scan, which revealed that his aorta was torn. His wife and several close friends prayed for him as he went into surgery in the very early hours of Saturday morning. Less than an hour later the surgeon returned, "We did everything we could, but the aorta had been bleeding for just too long. I'm sorry."

I got the phone call because Pastor Palmer's congregation needed a pastor for the next morning's services. I agreed to serve in this emergency situation. It wasn't easy. While many in the congregation had heard that their pastor had died the day before, not everyone had learned this sad news. When I made the somber announcement at the start of each of the two divine services, there were gasps throughout the nave. Several people, including a pregnant woman, had to leave to collect themselves.

The basis for my hastily-prepared sermon was the appointed Old Testament reading for the day, Genesis 32:22-31. While Pastor Palmer had been doing his Jacob-like wrestling on Friday, now his widow (who was sitting in the front pew at the early service) and their three children (ages seven, five, and two) will be doing their wrestling with God and themselves--and with those of us who will continue to minister to them in the coming days and weeks and months.

How quickly life can change and thrust one into a kind of wilderness. Last Sunday morning there were a lot of bewildered faces at Immanuel. There was not a dry eye at the altar rail where two elders and I distributed the Lord's Supper. All, it seemed, were clinging to the Lord's promises, even as they felt themselves in a kind of wilderness. Bewildered. In unfamiliar surroundings, out in the region of the Jabbok, so to speak, wrestling with God. "Why?" "Why now?" "How do we move on?" "What will happen next?" Like Job in the Old Testament, people in such circumstances want to have answers, but so much remains an inscrutable mystery. God has his reasons that reason knows not. The counsels of the Lord are not our counsels. So often we remain in the dark, groping for some kind of light, some kind of understanding.

Most of my preaching focused on Christ who joins us in the wilderness. Only his light is sufficient for a darkness like what was experienced last weekend. And that light is sufficient in face of the inscrutable, mysterious will of God.

Jacob wrestled with the mysterious man by the waters of the Jabbok and wrestled until he forced a blessing from this person that he later identified as God. This encounter by the waters of the Jabbok would forever mark Jacob. For the rest of his life he would be called "Israel," he who wrestled with God--and prevailed.

All of us who gathered last Sunday sought to force a blessing from God. It came in the remembrance of our baptism, in the celebration of the eucharist, perhaps in the feeble words of the unprepared preacher, in the final benediction and the hymns. In each of these ways the story of Jacob's wrestling became paradigmatic for what was really taking place in the pews and hallways and hearts of the gathered people. Is it not the case that we too are marked anew, given a new identity, given a blessing in our baptism that even death itself cannot destroy? We know that that blessing has not come without pain and suffering--the pain and suffering and death of Jesus our Lord. It is not a cheap blessing, but one that cost the life of Jesus himself. Through baptism, we have been connected to Christ. His blessing has been given to us. We can hold on to it, even and especially when we find ourselves like the widow of the gospel reading, crying out to God in a situation of bewilderment and confusion. And our Lord responds to us, "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them."

In Jesus Christ, the true God breaks into our wildernesses. In the one who cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, God joins those whom darkness swallows. There is no place that any one of us could ever end up, no depth to which we might ever sink, but that even there, he is Lord for us. Even there, Jesus says, “Come to me all of you who are struggling and I will give you rest.”  "There is nothing so deep that God is not deeper still" (Corrie ten Boom). In whatever wrestling we do in this life, we don't do it alone. God loves you for Christ's sake and will never let you go.

I'd appreciate your prayers in the coming months since, in addition to my regular academic responsibilities at Valparaiso University, I will be serving as a temporary vacancy pastor to the people of Immanuel. They are grieving, but grieving as people with hope.

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