Does God Hear?

The morning after Ann’s surgery our hematologist and his nurse DeeDee came into our hospital room to discuss the initial inferences from Ann’s diagnostic surgery. The preliminary pathology report indicated that Ann had stage IV melanoma—with a certainty of ninety percent.

We were crushed. I fought to maintain composure and tried to focus attention on what the doctor was saying. It’s funny sometimes the things that run through your mind in difficult moments. All I could hear was a recent conversation with Tom, a co-worker, whose wife had stage IV melanoma. Doctors had recently told them that Jackie only had three months.

Three months? Could Ann really be dead in a few months?

DeeDee, a Christian oncology nurse, whom we had already grown to love through the various appointments, must have sensed both our shock and the Holy Spirit. She stayed behind to comfort us after the doctor gave his report.

She asserted that “God is the God of the ten percent” and that he can override any statistic. She then confidently prayed for God to override the nearly certain diagnosis.

I was amazed by her faith. DeeDee had surely seen, as an oncology nurse, countless lives ravaged by cancer. She had to have a firm grasp on reality. Yet she also knew God. And she knew God was bigger than a pathology report, bigger than cancer itself. So she prayed.

I was encouraged by her prayer. But to be honest, I was a bit skeptical. God can do miracles, but he usually doesn’t. And miracles usu-ally happen overseas on the mission field, not here. And I certainly had no basis to expect that God would do a miracle for us.

What Are Your Symptoms?
Four days later we went to a different oncologist, since Ann most likely had melanoma, in order to receive the official diagnosis and to understand options for treatment. Several friends, Pastor Charles, and our oldest son, Paul, accompanied us to the doctor’s office, visiting with us while we waited and praying for us while we met with the oncologist. My friend, Jim, whose wife, Laurie, had just completed chemotherapy for breast cancer, was there to help ask questions and take notes.

The oncologist abruptly began the appointment with a shocking ques¬tion, asking, “What are your symptoms?”

Ann’s spleen was full of cancer and you ask, “What are your symptoms?” What the heck?

He went on to explain that the pathologist had been unable to determine the type of cancer that had overtaken Ann’s spleen. But he was certain that it was not melanoma. One hundred percent certain.

I was stunned and humbled. God had indeed answered DeeDee’s impossible prayer. God was certainly “The God of the ten percent.”

He Hears
It would be impossible to overstate the impact that this answer had on my faith and on my relationship with the Father. Though I never had a guarantee that God would deliver Ann from cancer, I can honestly say that I never again doubted that he heard our prayers.

Even after Ann’s death, when I literally wondered if God even existed, I still had every confidence that God had paid attention to our prayers. The heavens hadn’t been shut; it’s just that God’s answer was an emphatic, “No!”


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Broken-Hearted

Ann had another doctor’s appointment soon after we returned from our escape in Colorado. The hematologist recommended diagnostic surgery, because Ann’s spleen was still enlarged. A surgeon would remove the spleen in an attempt to discover the underlying cause, perhaps the residual effect of an infection.

Ann’s surgery was July 27th, 2006, and Baylor’s waiting room was full of our friends and family. Her surgery went well, but the surgeon slugged us with the report that her spleen was full of cancer. The next morning the oncologist crushed us with the preliminary diagnosis, stage IV mela¬noma.

That’s heart-breaking news for two reasons. First, melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer, and if it has spread to other organs, then it is generally not curable. Second, a staging of “IV” is the most severe assess¬ment of the cancer’s progression and indicated that Ann’s cancer had spread significantly.

Shock
What does a wife and mother do when she learns that what she had feared most is now her reality, that she does have cancer?

I think the news of that preliminary diagnosis sent Ann into some kind of shock. She didn’t show any emotion for several days. She didn’t cry when our kids came into her hospital room after hearing the news. She didn’t cry when friends came to visit. She didn’t cry when she saw me weeping in the hospi¬tal chair next to her bed.

What does a man say to his wife who just learned that her life could end within a year? Without adequate words and nowhere else to turn, I opened up my Bible to Psalm 1 and began reading. I read aloud through the psalms while Ann lay silently in her hospital bed with her eyes closed.

Silent Sobbing
After the initial shock subsided, Ann’s emotions began to pour out. More than anything, she wanted to live so that she could continue being a wife to me and a mom to our four kids. This desire so overwhelmed her that she was compelled her to ask God to deliver her from cancer. Those emotions were so strong that she often laid on the bedroom floor, weep¬ing and pleading with God for her life.

“In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:10).

Ann prayed because of a gut-wrenching, throbbing pain in her soul. She sobbed a flood of tears. She urgently begged the Lord for her life. The longing was so intense that her pleading was often silent, even though her mouth moved as tears flowed down her cheeks.

“As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard” (1 Samuel 1:12-13).

Just as Eli observed Hannah’s prayers, so I observed Ann’s. But unlike Eli, I concluded that the intensity of her burden was from the Lord and not from a cheap bottle of wine (1 Sam. 1:14). Was it possible that this “desire of her heart” was placed there by her Father so that he could answer her prayer? It was for Hannah, when she prayed for Samuel. It was for Ann, when she prayed for our Hannah.

A Pool of Tears
What does a man do when he finds out his wife has a potentially incurable cancer? I cried. A lot.

I had to return to work after Ann got out of the hospital. I cried my way through traffic to the office each day, as I listened to “Praise You in This Storm” again and again. The lyrics became my prayer.

I was sure by now
God you would have reached down
And wiped our tears away,
Stepped in and saved the day.

But once again, I say “Amen,”
And it’s still raining.

Late July evenings in Dallas are still way too hot for a guy with a heart condition to go jogging around the neighborhood, so I swam laps at the neighborhood pool several evenings a week. This gave me a chance to strengthen my heart and to release some stress and grief.

I screamed and cried as I swam.


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Praise You in This Storm

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Our family traveled to Colorado again that July for our annual hiking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. We always enjoyed fleeing the concrete and congestion of Dallas to enjoy the majesty of the mountains, while hiking our legs off.

Our custom was to spend at least an evening mulling around the fun shops in the picturesque town of Estes Park. I wasn’t into shopping that night and was worn out from hiking, so I opted to head back to the minivan ahead of everyone else. I turned on the stereo while waiting for the gang and listened to “Praise You in This Storm,” a song that Paul had just introduced to Ann earlier on the trip.

I’ll praise You in this storm.
And I will lift my hands,
For You are who You are,
No matter where I am.

Every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand.
You never left my side.

And though my heart is torn,
I will praise You in this storm.

I wept as I heard these words for the first time. It’s funny what goes through your head in certain moments. I remember thinking something like,

“Wow! What an awesome song.
It totally describes what we have already been through.
More than eight years of seminary.
Next my heart attack.
Then Ann’s mysterious illness.

Wow! It’s been tough.
I’m so glad it’s all behind us.”


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The Storm Strikes

About this same time Ann started to feel poorly, quickly becoming full after eating only few bites. Eventually, she made an appointment with the family doctor, who examined her and then promptly referred her to a hematologist at Baylor hospital in downtown Dallas.

The next morning, as we somewhat hesitantly got out of our mini-van, Ann fearfully asked, “What am I doing here?” At the top of building, which had an address that matched our hematologist’s, was a sign that read, “Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center.” What the heck?

Over the next several months, Ann went to various doctors and had numerous tests as we tried to discover what was wrong. Doctors were able to determine that her spleen was enlarged, which explained why Ann didn’t have an appetite, but they couldn’t uncover a cause. Thankfully, they did rule out leukemia and lymphoma.

Each appointment brought fear, uncertainty and discouragement, with a bit of relief sometimes mixed in. Ann’s constant concern was, “What if I have cancer?”

Index Cards
What does one do when he or she is being suffocated by a valid fear of an uncertain future? Ann’s response was to turn to her Father through his Word. I believe that it was during this initial uncertainty that Ann began to write out encouraging Bible verses on 3 x 5 index cards. She took these cards with her to the doctor’s appointments and would flip through them as she waited. Here are a few of her cards:

  • “The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him” (Nahum 1:7).
  • “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
  • “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
  • “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken…Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:5-6, 8).
  • “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed” (Psalm 57:1).


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A Broken Heart

Seminary was such a long haul that Ann felt a big celebration was in order now that it was finally over. She threw a party at our close friends’ house the Sunday evening after graduation. Friends, neighbors and family gathered in Jim and Laurie’s backyard to help us celebrate the culmination of my “crazy idea.”

I must have partied a bit too hard, perhaps too many trips to the chocolate fountain, because I suffered a mild heart attack late that night. A few days later the cardiologist inserted two stents into my forty-four-year-old heart. He inserted a third one a few weeks later.

The discouragement and depression, resentment and anger that followed were intense. I had always been relatively active, was only a bit overweight and my total cholesterol was only 185.

What the heck?

Rehab
I was embarrassed by my youthfulness at the cardiac rehab center. Most of the other patients had decades on me. What am I doing here?

I was angered when we celebrated Paul’s high school graduation a few weeks later at the Cheesecake Factory. There was nothing particularly “heart-healthy” on the menu—certainly not the Snicker’s cheesecake. Would I ever enjoy life again?

I was absolutely overwhelmed by work. I had just started a new consulting job and needed to learn a new software product. But my confidence was shattered and my energy and drive had dissipated. Finding the courage to go to work was difficult. My bank of vacation hours was al¬ready depleted, so additional time off was not an option. How could I go on?

There was a high point sometime in early July. The cardio nurses finally gave me permission to jog around the indoor track at the Tom Landry Fitness Center, wired up, of course, to monitor my heart as I exercised. My face almost started to hurt as I slowly jogged a few laps… since my grin stretched from ear to ear. It didn’t matter that a turtle could have lapped me that afternoon. I was ecstatic that I could simply jog again.

Things were definitely looking up.


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A Couch Potato

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I finally graduated from seminary after only eight and a half years of study and just before they kicked me out for taking too long. We had intention¬ally chosen to trek slowly through the coursework in order to keep our marriage healthy and to maintain a fairly normal life for our kids.

The last couple years of seminary were especially grueling and we just had to gut it out to make it to the end. The price of endurance was emo¬tional and physical exhaustion.

What were our long term ministry plans? Our dream was to minister together in Asia, perhaps in Mongolia or China, where I hoped to teach at a Bible college or seminary. However, the current timing would be difficult due to the age of our kids and the desire to further my study of the Old Testament.

Therefore, my immediate goal was to become a coach potato. I hoped to have ample unhurried time with Ann and the kids, to catch up on watching a bunch of movies and to just chill. Then, after a year or two, when our batteries were recharged, I would begin to pursue a Ph.D.

We were full of hope at what God would do through us together.


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The Finish Line

We knew that seminary would be a strenuous marathon and we willingly accepted the challenge because of the significance of the prize. The intense study of the Bible would better equip us to teach his Word, hope¬fully to pastors in Asia who had less access to biblical tools and re-sources.

We were able to survive the grind and exhaustion of the last years of school precisely because we could see the finish line. Each class, each book and each paper completed took us a step closer to the finish.

The occasion finally came when I only had one assignment left. I had gotten up early to study, as I usually did on Saturday mornings, and this time had biscuits and gravy at Braum’s. As Ann often did, she “stalked” me that morning and joined me for a bit where I was studying. Of course she recorded that special occasion with a couple of pictures, as she often did.

How Long?
What would you do if you signed up to run a marathon, and then when you finally reached the finish line, discovered that you would be required to complete a biathlon, and quite possibly a triathlon? And that the dis-tance to the second finish line was indeterminable? And that second finish line might literally be death? And if death, then a third, painful race with grief would follow?

How would you prepare for such a race? How could you?


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Does Prayer Make a Difference?

God had a plan and that plan was set in motion by Hannah’s impassioned prayer for a son. Hannah didn’t submissively pray, “Help me be content with my barrenness.” She didn’t simply ask for a child, whether boy or girl. She specifically asked God to give her a baby boy.

When Eli sobered up to what was happening, he encouraged Hannah with these words (1:17):

“Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant the request [i.e. “the thing asked for”] that you have asked of him” (NET, emphasis and explanation mine).

Eli didn’t chide her for making an unreasonable request. He didn’t say, “If it is God’s will…” He confirmed Hannah’s brokenhearted prayer by saying, “May God say ‘Yes!’ to your request for a son.”

When Hannah conceived and gave birth to a baby boy, she confirmed the reason for her newfound fertility with these words (1:20):

“Because I have asked him of the LORD” (NASB, emphasis mine).

When Hannah weaned Samuel and gave him to Eli, she reminded the priest of her vow (1:27):

“I prayed for this boy, and the LORD has given me the request [i.e. “the thing asked for”] that I asked of him” (NET, emphasis and explanation mine).

In typical Hebrew fashion, the storyteller repeats specific words to make his point clear. And what was his point in this story? Samuel was given to Hannah, who then gave him to Eli, because Hannah had asked God for a son.

What Difference?
prayer made all the difference in the world to Hannah, and it made all the difference in her world. Even more significantly, her prayer made all the difference in Israel’s national history.

As heretical as it may sound, I believe that if Hannah had not prayed, Samuel would not have been born.

Now, I do believe that God is sovereign and that he has a specific purpose for giving us life. Of course I agree with Jeremiah that God’s plan for us is formed before we are even conceived. But I also believe that God responds to prayer and that certain things do happen because we pray and that certain things do not happen because we do not pray.

This position makes us uncomfortable because we assume—in the Western world—that two conflicting beliefs cannot both be true at the same time. It must be either one or the other. As a former anal retentive accountant I prefer everything to be neatly lined up as either a debit or a credit. However, if we are honest with the scriptural evidence we must leave this unreconciled. God is sovereign and yet prayer impacts history. It is a mystery.

This position also causes us discomfort because of the significant responsibility it places squarely on our shoulders. If prayer really plays a part in bringing God’s plan to fruition, then perhaps we ought to pray more passionately for his kingdom to come and his will to be done in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

What a Difference!
Likewise, I believe that prayer absolutely made a difference in our Hannah’s life. If Ann had not prayed from her desperate, broken heart, then we would not have a girl named Hannah (and a boy named Matt).

Sometime after God said, “Yes!” to Ann’s asking, she framed one of Hannah’s baby pictures with these words written underneath:

“I prayed for this child,
and the LORD has granted me
what I asked of him” (1 Samuel 1:27).


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All the Difference in the World

Where did Hannah’s heart-cry come from? On the surface it was her circumstances that spurred the passionate prayer. Peninnah purposely provoked Hannah in order to irritate her (1:6). She relentlessly taunted Hannah until she was so broken that she wouldn’t eat and could only weep (1:7). Why would the Lord allow Hannah to suffer such harassment? Wasn’t it enough to be childless, especially in ancient Israel?

Listen to Hannah’s silent prayer and hear her motivation:

“O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me… (1:11a)”

Hannah is miserable and she wants God to deliver her from the mis¬ery. In fact Hannah is so miserable that she would do anything for a son. Eavesdrop as she continues to pray:

“…and not forget your servant, but will give her a son
then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” (1:11b).

In desperation Hannah bartered with God for a son.

Selfish and Unspiritual
Was it selfish for Hannah to ache to be a mom? Shouldn’t she just accept God’s will?

Was it unspiritual for Hannah to barter for deliverance from her misery? Shouldn’t she just rejoice in her trials?

Hannah is not at all unspiritual, nor is she selfish. In fact, if we analyze the characters in this narrative, we find that Hannah is a literary “type,” and as such she is an example for us to emulate. She
is broken-hearted and she honestly prays from that brokenness.

Why then, does God allow these heart-breaking circumstances to invade Hannah’s life? Is it because he doesn’t care? Or because he’s una¬ble to change the situation? Or because he doesn’t see them coming? If God really does have a plan, how could this be part of it?

If we take a close look at Hannah’s vow, we discover that it is distinctive. Most vows promise something like this,

“If you do so-and-so, then I will do such-and-such.”

But Hannah promises,

“If you give me such-and-such, then I will give you back such-and-such.”

Hannah was so desperate for a son that she solemnly promised to give her yet-to-be-given son back to God, so that he could serve God all his life in a special capacity as a Nazirite. The overpowering implication of this vow is that Hannah would not keep her longed-for son. She would send him to live with Eli the priest after she stopped nursing him as a toddler (1:24).

God’s Plan
Why then, did God permit Hannah to be childless (1:5-6) and allow Peninnah to harass her? Because he wanted Samuel to be born. And because he wanted Samuel to be set apart for a special mission—-to be the next judge/deliverer of Israel. God had a plan, not only for Hannah, but also for her yet-to-be-given son, Samuel.

God allowed circumstances to break Hannah’s heart:

  • so that Hannah would fervently pray for a son,
  • so that he could give Samuel to Hannah,
  • so that Hannah would give Samuel back to God
  • so that Samuel could accomplish a special purpose for God.

We might never be able to make sense of our suffering. I know that I don’t ever expect to understand the purpose of Ann’s death. In fact there is nothing in this life that can justify it or compensate for it. But I can endure suffering because I know there is some sense in it all, even if I never learn in this life what that sense is.

God does have a plan. And that fact makes all the difference in the world.


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Why Do We Pray?

The narrator continues Hannah’s story by describing a specific pilgrimage to Shiloh one year. Hannah, shattered by the pain and sick of the taunting, poured out her broken heart before the Lord. In typical Hebrew fashion the storyteller paints a vivid picture with this simple sentence (1:10):

“In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD.”
Let’s chew on those words a bit:

  • Bitterness of soul. Not a mild desire, but a gut-wrenching, throbbing pain in the depths of her soul.
  • Wept much. Not an occasional tear, but a sobbing, wailing flood.
  • Prayed to the LORD. Not passive resignation, but urgent pleading and begging.

The narrator continues his portrait (1:12-13):

“As she kept on praying to the LORD…
Hannah was praying in her heart,
and her lips were moving
but her voice was not heard.”

It wasn’t a quick, half-hearted prayer. She didn’t worry about finding the proper words. She didn’t seek a formula to guarantee her answer. She didn’t lazily parrot a memorized prayer.

She prayed from her heart and in her heart. She simply and honestly bared her soul to the Lord.

Where’d It Come From?
Where did this type of heart-felt prayer come from?

Eli, the priest at Shiloh, studied Hannah from his rocking chair on the porch of the Lord’s house. As a pastor with great sensitivity, he was keenly aware of the Spirit’s stirrings and was deeply empathetic for those in his flock. So, he compassionately encouraged Hannah with these words (1:14):

“How long will you keep on getting drunk?
Get rid of your wine!”

Can you feel what those words did to Hannah’s broken heart?

Imagine that you are so broken by your circumstances that you’re incapable of even verbalizing your prayer. Perhaps there’s been an accident and your child is in the ICU. You’re out of options and without any hope, so you decide to go downstairs to the chapel to beg for God’s intervention. After a bit the hospital’s chaplain comes in. He quickly sizes up the situation and blurts, “Get out of my chapel, you drunken slut!”

The irony of Eli’s insensitive accusation is that Hannah had just vowed that, if God would give her a son, she would give him back to the Lord as a Nazirite. In ancient Israel a Nazirite was a person who made a voluntary vow to abstain from these three things for a specified period of time:

  • No haircuts.
  • No contact with a dead body. Not even if your father or mother dies.
  • No wine or strong drink. Nothing from the grape vine, including grapes, raisins, skin or seeds. Not even grape juice.

Hannah had just vowed in prayer—on behalf of her yet-to-be-given son—that he would never even take a sip of Welch’s grape juice, let alone enjoy a glass of wine or a cold beer. Not just for a specified period of time, but for his entire life. And Eli accused her of being drunk.

Where It Came From
Where did Hannah’s heart-felt prayer come from?
She shouldn’t have had to, but Hannah graciously explained her behavior to that priest. She replied to his taunt with this further description of her pain (1:15-16):

“Not so, my lord…I am a woman who is deeply troubled.
I have not been drinking wine or beer;
I was pouring out my soul to the LORD.
Do not take your servant for a wicked woman;
I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”

Unlike Eli, Ann understood Hannah’s pain and found validation and comfort in her story.

Joann also would understand Hannah’s pain. Her husband, Kyle, and I graduated from seminary together, after which they returned to Indiana to help pastor a church. They had been trying to have children for a number of years but couldn’t get pregnant. They then chose to adopt a baby from inner city Chicago. We met them at Cheddar’s about a year after graduation when they returned to Dallas for a visit. I still can see Joann’s tears as she recounted how they lost their baby after the birth-mother opted out of the agreement. Unable to have children and now unsuccessful at adopting. Through her tears she lamented, “I just want to be a mom.”

Any woman who has ached for a child would understand Hannah. Like Marilyn, who miscarried her first baby when Ann was pregnant with Paul, our first baby. Like my friend and co-worker Diane who miscar¬ried more than a dozen babies and is still childless. Or Mary Sue, whose son was killed by cancer, leav¬ing his young wife a widow and his young children fatherless. Or Frank and Jeannine, whose son was killed in Iraq the day before he was scheduled to come home.

Why did Hannah, Ann, Joann and these other women passionately pray? Because they wanted to become a mom to a new baby or because they wanted to continue being a mom to the child they already had.

Our Heart’s Cry
Why did they pray? Because each woman listened to the cry of her heart and then cried out to her Father.
Ignatius, who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1540, wrote various guidelines to teach the Jesuit missionaries how to pray. One remarkable guideline was, “Ask God our Lord for what [you] want and desire.”

Jesus confirms the guideline with these words,

“If you remain in me
And my words remain in you,
Ask whatever you wish,
And it will be given to you” (John 15:7, emphasis mine).

If you read the rest of my story, you’ll know that I am not saying—and cannot say—that God answers all legitimate prayers.

But what I am saying is this: don’t ever discount the cry of your heart. God may be working in your heart, through your circumstances, to bring about his sovereign plan.


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