Last year at about this time, I got a letter from my doctor. He wrote that my PSA was high, which is a blood test to detect prostate cancer. He advised me to find a urologist and get a biopsy. I stared at the letter, dumbfounded, for several seconds before I called my wife and shared the news. I confessed that I was worried. My wife, ever the strong and optimistic one, said, “It’s probably not cancer.”
Guess what? It was cancer.
That wasn’t the cheeriest Thanksgiving or Christmas I celebrated. Oh, I put on a happy face for the family. But inside, I was stewing. I had been a healthy guy all my life. I’ve had the flu and strep throat and some minor surgeries, each accompanied by an acute case of “whineorrea” – the condition of whining a lot when you’re recovering in bed. But cancer? I never thought I’d have it – it was always the “other person.”
Twenty-two years ago, I endured another unhappy Thanksgiving. On October 7, 1994, my dad literally dropped dead of cardiac arrest in his living room. He had no heart problems that we knew of. He was a robust man of 72, an active gardener, full of life. And then he was dead. Just like that. Despite the fact that the extended family got together to eat turkey and dressing that year, one chair was empty and it made the whole room forlorn.
Life doesn’t always give us what we want, does it? None of us sign up for misfortune or order grief for the holidays – but sometimes these unwelcome guests invade, anyway, and their ugly presence most keenly at those times when we focus on family and food and fun.
Now imagine the anguish of the prophet Habakkuk, way back in the BC era, about 600 years before Christ. He stood on the ramparts of Jerusalem, anticipating the invasion of the fierce Babylonians – an army whose horses, in the prophet’s words, were swifter than leopards, their soldiers keener than wolves, the entire force as violent as an eagle when it swoops down to tear apart its prey (Hab 1:8). In 598 BC, Jerusalem fell to King Nebuchadnezzar, but the Jews rebelled just over ten years later, and he came back to finish the job. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city walls, plundered Solomon’s temple and took the elite of Jerusalem into Babylonian captivity, leaving the poor behind to fend for themselves. The captivity lasted for 70 long years.
Could you imagine giving thanks in such circumstances? How can gratitude take root when things around you tumble like a Jenga tower?
Let’s first notice that Habakkuk didn’t whitewash the situation. He knew his homeland was headed for destruction and didn’t put a cap on his emotions. In the opening verses of the book, the prophet wails, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ yet You do not save.” Toward the end of his prophecy, as he contemplates the raw power of the Babylonians, Habakkuk writes that his “inward parts” trembled and his lips quivered in fear.
For a couple of weeks after I received my diagnosis, I was stumbling around in a haze of dismay, grief and shock. My mind kept going over the “what ifs?” I cried in front of my wife one morning. I told God repeatedly how confused I was. When life falls in around you, it’s okay, like Habakkuk, to display honest feelings. It’s not a sin to admit the turmoil going on inside of you. The only problem is getting stuck.
Is there a solution to the things in life that vex us? Is there anything that can pull us out of the ditch? Yes, there is – giving praise and thanks to God. I’m not saying we have to do that seconds after a negative diagnosis, or a bitter argument, or the pink slip that your boss hands you on a Monday morning. I’m not even saying that your circumstances will immediately change for the better. But what I am saying is that we can change. If we lift our eyes to the hills as the Psalmist writes – a metaphor for anticipating God’s deliverance – our troubled hearts can settle into peace, our fear can turn into faith, and our despair can be replaced by the gift of hope.
I love that one little transitional word that Habakkuk uses in 3:18: “YET.” After fearfully foreseeing a day when the “fig tree should not blossom” and the “fields produce no food,” the prophet writes, “Yet….”
“Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.”
Yes, the flesh is weak – YET “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
Yes, the world doles out pain and misery – YET “Take heart, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Yes, the devil is alive and active – YET “He who is in us is stronger than he who is in the world” (I John 4:4).
Yes, it’s difficult to give thanks in a storm – YET, we can give thanks for the God who is in the storm with us.
Yes, He may slay me, as Job famously declared – YET, I will hope in Him!
On May 26 of this year, I rose early to get ready for surgery. I thanked God for my life, family, friends, my ministry and the medical advances of our day. So many people had contacted me with encouragement; two churches shipped me prayer shawls; friends were coming by with food when I got home; three pastor-friends sent me off to the OR with prayer. These all were signs from God, which, in the words of Habakkuk, made my feet like the feet of a deer. Gratitude helped me to reach the summit of praise, to walk on the high places (Hab 3:19).
But there was more to come.
The anesthesiologist came in with his questions and then said, “Don’t worry – God will be in that operating room with all of us.” He talked about his faith and showed me some scripture bracelets he was wearing. After surgery, which went well, the first nurse who came into my room introduced herself with a big smile. “My name is Hope,” she said. I shared this with my younger sister, who is a devout believer. She praised God and added, “Don’t forget that your surgeon’s name was Dr. Shepherd.”
Martin Luther, the great reformer, once said, “I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.” Despite the Babylonian storm clouds boiling on the horizon, Habakkuk chose to trust the Good Shepherd, the God who would lead the flock of Israel to better times. Seventy years of exile ended when Cyrus, a benevolent king, allowed the cupbearer Nehemiah, a Jew, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls. God then raised up a priest named Ezra to lead a religious revival. Temple reconstruction began. Hope returned to the land.
God is always at work. Let the church never forget that! Situations sour, circumstances change, people fail, evil can run rampant – YET – we can trust the Ruler of heaven and earth, the God of Israel, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, for “He is working all things for the good for those who trust him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
That is enough reason to always give thanks!