Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nearer To Thee

 This song came to mind this morning (click here to hear a beautiful version sung by the Sharon Singers of the Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute), and I listened, eyes closed.

Such a deep and powerful hymn - so close to my heart. I did not learn it from the "Titanic" movie, or from Elvis "singing the gospel." I grew up finding it in the dusty pages of the old green Baptist hymnal, or listening to its mournful, haunting tones echo against the wooden rafters of the Mennonite church of my mother's childhood.

It sums up everything I feel and long to say, now and forever.

Listen with me:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Can you fathom what this is saying? That through any means, whether suffering or death or cross or shame, I am willing - if it brings me nearer to Christ. It is looking back on these days of agony at Hospital de Base in Brasilia, Brazil with our son, when he underwent emergency surgery for hydrocephalus and a clogged valve/shunt. Our little one's needle-punctured hand and cold fingers tucked in ours, and saying yes. His poor bandaged head, his stitches, and his tears, and saying yes.

Why us? Why Ethan? Why this child, why the blockage in the tube? The only answer I know is yes. So long as it draws us closer to You, then yes, Lord.

After all, I could ask the same questions another way: Why were we chosen to love and care for Ethan? Why this child for us, and not another - and how are we so fortunate - so blessed beyond all reason? Why this child born into a country with medical care and free neurosurgery where millions die on the side of the roads from disease, from starvation, from war and neglect? Why a mere blockage that was swiftly corrected, and not a terminal disease?

And this time we fall on our faces in thanks for yes.

For yes always means nearer. Nearer, my God, to Thee.

Is this not the whole goal of life? Of every breath? To draw nearer to Christ in his life and in his sufferings? To know Him more fully, and become more like Him in his love and in his death?

I think of another yes more than fifteen years ago, on a green hillside in Churchville, Virginia. A gray granite stone marked with my mother's name. In memory of the day she burst forth in life in 1952, and the day she said yes to God's call to come home forever. Walking in obedience and faith, day after day.

Ask her now if she regrets her following, her faith. Ask her now, secure with her Savior and resting at last in the Everlasting Arms, if God's often difficult will for her life, for her early death, was unfair.

No - for now her dreams have been fulfilled.

Nearer. She is nearer to her God - she is with him! - as we all will be. She tastes now the joy that we all secretly long for, with every heartbeat and every breath.

And that's it exactly: the secret we try so hard to avoid. That God is good no matter what, and His plans for our life are good as well.

"God is good," people said when we heard the joyful news that Ethan's CT scan showed a wonderful blank gray of healthy, fluid-free brain tissue, and his life and healing may continue. And He is good!

But God was good, too, fifteen years ago when we lay my mother's body to rest in the cold February ground at a mere forty-three years of age.

He would still be good if the scan was bad, if the neurologist came to the operating room door with a bowed head and teary eyes, if the car we got into after the hospital never made it home. He would still be good.

Because He is good.

There is no other way for Him to be otherwise.

Read with me the rest of the words to the hymn:

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I'd be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

There let the way appear steps unto heav'n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv'n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I'll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

I think of the story of Jacob in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, as he fled from his brother Esau. He slept on the ground with a stone under his head, and God sent him an amazing dream of stairs leading to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on its bright steps. "Jacob's ladder," we call it.

Where else have we seen this image in the Bible? We find it again with the stoning of Stephen in the book of Acts, when he looked up and said, "I see heaven open, and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

Of course! The Son of Man - Jesus Christ Himself - who bridges the gap between earthly us and the perfect Father. The precious link between heaven and earth. The tower of Babel that the ancients tried unsucessfully to build - why? Because they needed Him. His sacrifice and atoning death.

Without the Bridge, the Ladder, we cannot reach the righteousness of God.

We don't need Babel and confused syntax. We need the WORD. The clear and understandable Word that speaks to us, and for us. For "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Jacob's ladder - and ours, too. That brings us nearer, my God, to Thee.
It is the only thing we will ever need.

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Forever, from now until my last breath, all I need is Jesus.

In every joyful moment, all I need is Jesus.

In every God-given, sacred, shimmering moment of tear-filled thanks, all I need is Jesus. To say yes. And so to draw nearer - nearer to Thee.

All I can say are the words of Job, after God appeared to him in the windstorm: "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

For I do not deserve this:

And yet when I open my eyes, he is there. With his shy smile and stitched head, which has grown into thick and beautiful curls. Scars forgotten. Life, and health, and joy! After five months we can no longer tell the place of his incisions. "He needs another haircut," my father says.

A gift. God's gift.

All of it. The pain and the sorrow. The delight.

Every moment, as long as as I live.

For all of it brings me, moment by moment, nearer to Thee.
Jennifer Rogers Spinola is a writer, author, and speaker who just relocated from Brasilia, Brazil - after two years in Sapporo, Japan - to rural Belle Fourche, South Dakota, with her Brazilian husband and son. Her second book with Barbour Publishing, "Like Sweet Potato Pie," released March 1.

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