My thin sweater did nothing to ward away the chill in the air. The smell of wet earth hung on the wind. I slopped my high heels through grass and mud on the way to the stadium where my littlest brother would be sliding the tassel from one side of his cap to the other, crowded in by hundreds of other robed students doing the same.
Murky water seeped into my shoes on my walk to the concrete. I wanted to grumble, but all I could think about were the waterlogged feet of a woman on the other side of the world, a woman wandering with holes in her boots and a gun to her head. She had walked that way for days, then weeks, then months. By now it had been almost a year since she and her husband were forced from a bungalow on their second honeymoon by a gang of rebels.
The woman’s name was Gracia. And I prayed for her.
On good days Gracia and her husband Martin ate peanut butter sandwiches and bits of coconut. On bad days they survived on uncooked rice, salt and rain water. Gracia’s hope faltered. But whether her husband walked handcuffed to a soldier or sat on the ground chained to a tree, he would quote Psalms by day and sing Gracia to sleep with hymns at night. “Serve the Lord with gladness,” he encouraged her, “Come before Him with joyful singing.”
That same summer, I wandered around in my own wandering mazes lost. As I took a course across the ocean and languished over possible storylines for my life, a long-time suitor sent me the lyrics to an old hymn, “Be still my soul, thy best thy heavenly Friend, through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.” He went on to write, “A rose is beautiful despite the thorns and so is the way of the Lord.”
Along with praying for our future, he had been praying hard for the Burnhams with me. Together with my mom, we had read the articles, watched the proof of life interviews, and worried about the three kids waiting back in Rose Hill, Kansas. We prayed in unison for rescue, almost demanded it.
One morning, I came to the last page of my Bible study about the book of Acts. Tears welled as I read Paul’s words, “…the time of my departure has come.” I didn’t want to let him go. But he kept writing, comforting, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Just as I wrote those words in the margin, I got the call. There had been a rescue attempt. Gracia Burnham had been wounded, but had survived and remained in stable condition. Martin had been killed on the scene.
It was not the ending I had in mind. It wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. I didn’t want to be ungrateful for the half-yes to my prayer, but I winced at the senselessness of Martin taking a bullet in the chest on that hillside.
Yet, I heard reports that Martin had sensed he would soon be leaving. In fact, just days before his death, he had written a letter to his children with his parting words. And, when facing my own distant grief, I had to note the coincidence that I’d been reading about God’s final rescue the very moment the news came in.
Beth Moore reflected, “Paul didn’t see death as a defeat. He did not believe the enemy finally had his way. He saw death as a rescue! We tend to define the word rescue an entirely different way. If we are pursued and we cry out to be rescued, you and I usually are not referring to death! We’re referring to earthly deliverance. God certainly rescued Paul many times on this earth, just as He has rescued us; yet Paul knew the greatest rescue of all awaited him. Death was not God’s refusal to act. Death was God’s ultimate rescue.”
And in His manifold way impacting who knows how many people with the same event, God ever so gently turned my head to see things anew. In praying with that suitor of mine for Gracia and Martin, I began to feel a growing affection. There were still thorns in my story, but I was starting to find the beauty, the gift God had brought me in this steadfast man, devoted both to me and to the Lord.
More than a decade later, I let him sleep as my water broke in the dark of Good Friday. I breathed out the labor pains and thought of the words, “Be still my soul, thy best thy heavenly Friend, through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.” The next night, just three hours shy of Resurrection Day, my husband and I welcomed our third baby. We named her Gracia Rose.
Several weeks after she was born, I took her in to the doctor for a check-up. She cooed and smiled, bright-eyed to the world. But when the vaccination needle punctured her skin, the shock knocked the breath out of her. When the staff members were done, I wrapped her in my arms, rocked her, patted her, shushed in her ear, tried to nurse her to provide some kind of comfort. Life can feel like a trick. For more than twenty minutes she wailed, gasped for air and writhed from the shock.
At times, we see the storyline winding toward a particular conclusion, and then things go completely awry. My hooligan hound dog moved to the farm and learned to hunt with state champs only to get hit by a truck a couple of months later. A young friend went to the mission field and contracted a bacterial infection that snuffed out his life and all plans for his future ministry. And recently, the love of my friend’s life passed suddenly on to eternity before he had a chance to put a ring on her finger.
It can be hard to know how to look at the world when its thorns have pierced and made you feel naive for hoping or believing.
In a smaller, less life-threatening way, the past couple of years have been ones of struggle and suffering for me. I’ve seen my husband through his own crises only to walk into a minefield of my own this past season. Every element of my life seems to have been placed before me with sleight of hand or shifting of shadow and light trying to make me question what is solid and what is not. Something like the Burnhams in the Philippine jungle or Jesus in the wilderness of Judea, I myself have felt lured by an enemy, one who seeks to devour, steal my hope, spoil my faith, and squelch my love. But even in the presence of our enemies, the Holy Spirit is our guide.
As I filled the vase for Gracia’s dozen months of roses during her first year, I kept a pair of scissors and a file close at hand. Before each photo shoot, I’d clip the big thorns and buff out the small ones. “I will go before you and make the rough places smooth,” I remembered.
When I look for the tender presence of the Man of Sorrows and trust Him to take the brunt of sin and suffering for me, I find myself more able to navigate the thorns and enjoy the beauty. I don’t know that He chooses thorns for us, but I do know the thorns are there and that He helps guide us through them.
For me, He has smoothed rough places in honest conversations, in a few brave friends devoted to believing the best for me, in cry-it-out Psalms, in sermons and books, in anointing oils, in waterfalls and secret caves, in surprise adventures and assignments, and even in the gift of placing in my arms one of the gentlest babies He’s ever made.
And I want that gentle baby to know, though she’s not really a baby anymore, that even when her optimism may fail her, the Lord will not. He will live up to His name, Emmanuel.
He will be with.
He has already been with.
He knows the feel of thorns pressed into skin. He felt it in the crown they put on his head. He was so acquainted with pain and grief they called Him smitten of God.
He despised the shame yet endured the cross. Why? For the joy set before Him, for the flower unfolding at the end of the thorny stem. Only in fixing my eyes on Him can I keep from growing weary and losing heart.
My best, my heavenly Friend, through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.