Holding on to hope

Alain Emerson spoke at the Sligo Summer Conference on Wednesday evening to share his story of pain and hope!  Here VOX magazine summarizes some of the main points of what he said…  A full podcast will be available later from www.newwineireland.org.

My story is a story of hope but I want to be honest tonight about the pain!

Proverb 13:12 says, Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

In the kingdom of God, every single story finds meaning.  If I say everybody gets healed, then the reality doesn’t match up.  But if I say nobody gets healed, then the reality doesn’t match that either.

When I was 22, I was young and idealistic, thinking I was going to conquer the world.  I met a girl called Lindsay and she got into my head.  I started to praying about it and met with her and we started to date, fell in love and we got married when I was 25 and she was 21.

The year after we got married we decided to take a team to Uganda and went to a Fields of Life project.  We had 40 people in that team.  We built accommodation for teachers and our hearts entwined with the project.

When we got back from Uganda, Lindsay started to get a sore head.  Doctors couldn’t get to the bottom of it.  They did a scan and we were called upstairs and we sat in front of a consultant.  He said, “There’s a growth here and we are going to have to operate.”  We later found out that the “growth” was a brain tumour.

I watched Lindsay wheeled away to have brain surgery.  She recovered pretty well but they only got 95%. We were told, " Go and have kids, fulfill your dreams."

But coming up to Christmas she began to deteriorate.  She had two seizures.  The tumour had grown again.  She had more surgery and she started six weeks of chemo and six weeks of radiotherapy.

At 26, I found myself caring for a bedridden wife who was 22 and she couldn’t do anything, I had to wash her and care for her in every way.  All her hair fell out and yet I found myself loving her more than I had ever loved her.

In this time, I felt that God was speaking to me about Ireland.  In places of desperation, the voice of the Lord is so clear.

I continued to pray for her and read her Psalms.  I was crying out to God to heal her. I was saying, “God, all it takes is a breath.”  But after days of praying and fasting and weeping then one day I said, “I have nothing more to give.  Everything I do doesn’t seem to be working.  All I’ve got left is to give her into your hands but I’m still fighting for her.”  It was the tension of Gethsemane… I want your will but I don’t want your will.

A week later at 6.30am on a Sunday morning I watched Lindsay take her last breath and I could not believe it.  I was thrust into the most intense pain you could ever imagine.  I thought I was going to die.  It tore me up inside.

It was a season of “tears in your ears”… lying in bed at night with tears running down my face and into my ears.  The ache was so deep. I didn’t want this to be my story. I was 27 and a widower.

What do you need in the dark night of your soul?

The permission to be honest

Things of this magnitude cannot be pushed down.  Pain that is not transformed will be transmitted.  It starts with the permission to be honest.  I knew if I wasn’t honest, I was going to grow old and cynical. The only way to deal with our darkness is to face it and to walk right through it.

I felt such anger and a sense of injustice.  It was difficult to tell God how I felt.  I found comfort in the Psalms when I started to be honest. Suffering is the sign that your heart is still beating… you are still alive.

Allow the honesty to be a prayer

My prayer life became very different.  Eugene Peterson says, “It is better to pray badly than not at all.”  I found help in some of the contemplative traditions of the church and allowed their words to be my prayer.  Sometimes in the dark, when I felt so lonely, I would just lie and pray in tongues because I did not know what else to pray.

God was present in my suffering

Nobody really understands but God does and God can because He is present in our suffering.  One of the most frustrating things in the world is talking to someone and knowing that they are not present (e.g. checking their phone or eyes wandering to something else).  When somebody is fully focused and present with you it is an incredible gift.  God suffers with us. He is not abstract in our pain.  He walks with us in it. Jesus bore our grief and carried our sorrows.  He knows what it is like to feel the pain and suffering that we feel.  

Often in our pain we revert to masochistic views of God, which reinforce His sovereignty but never in a way that connects with the fragile nature in our hearts.

The Bible tells me that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  While Jesus experienced an extreme form of isolation and forsakenness on the cross, if we think the Father was not present at the cross, then we are mistaken.  The Father’s heart was never more broken.

To our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak.  When we look at Jesus, the Lamb of God, in heaven, we are going to see a man in all His glory but we’re also going to see the nail marks in His hands and feet.  He is the wounded healer.  He walks with us in our pain.

We talk about Good Friday and Easter Sunday… We can rush the resurrection but some of us are living in “Saturday”.

Sometimes you just have to choose to believe, when you don’t feel like it. 

It is called faith.  Raw faith has to kick in.  Psalm 73: 25 - 26, “Whom have I in heaven but you?" You need to choose to believe. 

Believe in the character of God and seek to recognise it

This happened to me after days and months of journeying through it.  Even though I still had questions, I said, “Help me to see you in this.”  Slowly, I began to see things from a grace perspective.  All my feelings of disappointment and anger began to change.  My life was woven into the life of a girl who died at 22… and I loved her… and cared for her… and she knew she was not alone through all of that.  God had given me the incredible privilege of knowing Him in the fellowship of His sufferings.

I learnt to embrace the mystery

I still had questions.  I still don’t know why it was better for Lindsey to go.  Let your heart be the primary place of connection with God, not your head.  Embrace the mystery. 

The resurrection means that the worse thing is never the last thing!

Hang on and embrace the mystery of God. Remember that through all of this, the rest of your life does not have to be second best.  God is well able to transform what is going on inside you and fulfil his plans through you.  He takes our pain and He makes something beautiful out of it.  Suffering transforms us into the people God intends us to be.

I don’t like to think that God plans these things but He does allow them.  In this world, you will have troubles.  We don’t seek suffering but it will come.

A light to the nations

When Lindsay was sick, my mum had a verse for her.  The verse where the children of Israel would be a “light to the nations”. We were praying that her healing would be a light to the nations and when she died, we thought we’d got it wrong.

Then some friends decided to build a school in Uganda in Lindsay’s memory.  I went out that Christmas and I stood on a hill in Uganda and looked over the beautiful countryside and imagined a secondary school for those children.  I thought, "Lindsay will be a light for the nations".  Over the last four or five years we’ve raised 250,000 and now around 200 kids are going to the school.

Wrestling with God

One of my favourite things as a child was wrestling with my Dad.  It was a weird, different kind of intimacy but it was close. After we had fought and wrestled, we would lie in each others arms for a while. 

When we give God the deepest pain of our lives, He takes it and does something beautiful with it.  For some of us, we are wrestling with God like Jacob.  Don't let go.  It is going to be sore but don't let go until you receive a blessing.

 God wants to meet you in the darkness. When God touched Jacob’s hip, he walked with a limp. His sons would have looked at Him and said, “That was the night that Dad met face to face with God.”

Jacob called the place Peniel, which means face of God.  God wants to transform your pain.

Restorer of Hope

The God of all comforts us in our pain so that we can comfort others.  I remember the day that hit me.  I realised that this experience allowed me to experience God’s love and mercy in a way that I would not otherwise have known.

God is the restorer of hope.  I have a wife called Rachel… I met her about five years after Lindsay died.  We have two children.  And God is making all things beautiful in His time.