We can ask God for anything, but doing so with open hands and an open heart means we surrender everything.
Hey, Cornerstone, season’s greetings. I hope you’re all safe and healthy and getting into the Christmas spirit. My family and I have just started putting up the decorations and the tree. My favorite part and this is my job is unwrapping the ornaments. I love this because the ornaments are a 3D photo album for me. Michael and I have been married for 28 years. Each year I’ve tried to get at least one ornament that represents the events of that year. For example, there’s a stained glass dove from 1992 when Michael and I were married in a chapel on our college campus that was known for its stained glass windows. We have three boys. So there’s an ornament for each of them when they were born. We’ve moved around a lot. So there are ornaments from different states. I think California is our sixth state together since we’ve been married.
We have, for instance, a lighthouse for the years that we lived in North Carolina on the beach when Michael was in the Marine Corps. We would also bring back ornaments from our travels, such as the Empire State Building from New York City. I guess we like skyscrapers because we also have a Sears Tower from Chicago, which my kids like to make fun of because it’s not really an ornament, it’s a key chain, but it works. How’s that for a little Christmas ornament hack for you?
As I was looking through the ornaments, I realized that we don’t have one from 2015. I’ve never noticed that before, but 2015, wasn’t exactly a good year for me. So I’m not surprised. It was a year that I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. Today I want to share a little bit of that story. I know I’ve shared bits and pieces of my cancer journey over the years, but not all of you may be aware. It was first detected in 2010. After a year of treatment, I was told that I had a 98% chance of being cured. 98%. Those are pretty good odds. However, exactly five years later, it came back. This time it had spread to my bones and it was pretty traumatic receiving the news that I most likely had just a few years to live. My youngest was just seven at the time.
The clinical data was pretty grim. Nobody with my type of cancer had ever made it past five years. If I didn’t respond to treatment at all, it could be as fast as six months. I was feeling pretty hopeless and scared and vulnerable. Everyone kept saying that they were praying for me, which I really appreciated, but I just wasn’t sure if God would answer them. That’s because I’d gotten used to unanswered prayers, especially when it came to health issues. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been prayed over for my sight to be restored. I know that God can heal me in one instant, but for some reason, I still cannot see.
My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she was just 58. My brother and I were still in our 20s at the time. We prayed and prayed for God to heal her, but she just faded away right before our very eyes. The Lord did not heal my blindness and he didn’t heal my mom. So I just figured he wouldn’t heal my cancer either. Part of me just wanted to slip away quietly. I didn’t want to be a prayer disappointment for my friends and family. Sometimes it’s just better not to ask because then you won’t be disappointed. One night, my youngest was reading the story about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. You may know the story. It’s about the three young Hebrew men who served King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. They refused to bow down to his golden statutes so the King throws them into a fiery furnace.
I’ve recounted the story so many times to the boys over the years. They love the story. But that night I felt a strange connection to these men because I felt I too had been given a death sentence. Well, their story has a happy ending. A fourth figure appears in the flames, an angel of the Lord. The king sees the fourth person and orders the men to come back out of the fire. When the three men climb out of the furnace, none of them are harmed, not even a single thread on their clothing.
I was really struck by their faith statement before they were thrown into the fire. Here it is in the NIV version, “If it be so our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace. And he will deliver us out of your hand, oh king. But if not, may it be known to you, oh king, that we will not serve your gods nor worship the golden image which you have set up.” They’re declaring God can save us. He absolutely has the power, but even if He doesn’t choose to do so, we’re not turning our back on Him. “We won’t bow down to you.” It’s like they’re saying whatever God wants is fine with us. I marveled at this notion to be so okay with whatever happens because at the time I wasn’t feeling very okay about dying. Shortly after, I had a conversation with my friend Jenny Andrews. Jenny is an amazing member of our Cornerstone community and she was fighting aggressive cancer also.
She reminded me that God could do the most impossible things. She was determined to beat her cancer. I was especially inspired by her courage, the courage to ask God for something big knowing that He might not give it to you. I was thinking about Jenny as I read through my PET scan for the 20th time. I kept reading it over and over again. I guess I was in denial. Each time I would focus on the section about the tumors in my bones. But this time, I read the scan with fresh eyes. My attention was drawn to a different section, a section that I had skipped over before about my internal organs. It read like this, “Lungs, unremarkable, liver, unremarkable, spleen, unremarkable.” Unremarkable is a medical term and it means normal. I’ve never been more happy to be unremarkable and downright average and something in my heart shifted.
I realized that my situation, although serious, wasn’t as dire as it could be. The cancer had not yet moved into my organs. I just thanked God for that fact. Something about that little moment of gratitude changed everything. For the first time in weeks, I lifted my eyes up and away from my circumstances and made eye contact with God. It’s like he was saying to me, “Don’t look there, Alex, look here.” He gently turned my focus away from the scan results, away from all the what-ifs about the future, and back to Him and to all the amazing qualities of the God I worship. He was nudging me to ask Him for the desire of my heart, for more time with my family. I want to grow old with Michael. I want grandchildren. But He was also inviting me to trust Him no matter what happened.
It’s true that He could heal me if He chose to. The Bible calls Him the great physician, but He is so much more than that. I was getting a fresh revelation of who He is and how He felt about me, that He is good and merciful, that I was deeply loved by Him. He is always with me, even when I can’t feel Him. He is an expert at using bad things for good. I wondered if these were the thoughts of the Hebrew men as they face the flames, that no matter what happened, they could count on their God to prevail, even if they perished in the flames. So it’s 2020 and I know that for so many of us, it’s been a pretty lousy year. But for me, it’s been a pretty incredible one despite the pandemic, because I’m still here. I’m still here.
I’m still alive. I have outlived my prognosis. Not only that, there’s no more cancer in my body. God healed me. I was in a clinical trial for many years and experimental treatment that has recently been approved by the FDA. This past June, right at the five-year mark, my doctors decided to take me off the treatment altogether, which rarely happens with stage four cancer. Their protocol is to treat the patient indefinitely. Wait, there’s more, they might write a paper about me because it turns out that I’m pretty remarkable after all. I just want to take this moment to say thank you to the Lord for healing me. Thank you, Lord. Thank you. To all of you in this community who prayed for me and helped me through all those years of treatment, I am living proof that the Lord can do miracles.
My friend Jenny is doing great too. But I do need to say this, I don’t know why God answers some prayers and not others. What I do know is that we can ask him for anything, for anything. In fact, it’s not what we ask him for that matters, it’s how we ask that defines a heart of worship and that how is with open hands. Open hands. The best example of open hands is Jesus in the garden the night that he’s betrayed. He knows that the cross is near and he’s deeply troubled. And he prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet, not my will, but yours be done.” So simple and yet, so profound. Jesus asks his father for the desire of his heart, but at the same time, he submits to his father’s will. Open hands means an open heart to whatever the Lord wants for us.
A heart that is willing to humble itself in an act of worship and submit to God’s will, to defer to his wisdom, to his plan. Yes, we bring our requests before the Lord, but we have to let go. We present them with open palms, just like Christ in the garden, just like the three Hebrew men. We pledge our unconditional allegiance to God. We place our hope not in the thing that we’re praying for, but in our Mighty God. Open hands means that we can ask God for anything, but we surrender everything. Whereas surrender sounds like defeat. We will actually emerge victorious because surrendering to the Lord can unlock and unleash his power in our lives. First of all, surrender, unlock supernatural peace, supernatural peace.
Philippians 4:6 and 7, this is a good verse to memorize. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” So there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is we won’t always get what we want, but the good news is that God will give us His peace. I remember one of my surrender moments and there were many, was on my bathroom floor. I was just weeping. I just cried out to God. I just had to tell him, “Lord, I want to live. That’s what I want. I want to live, but I trust you. Your will, not mine.”
I follow Christ’s example in the garden. I knew that no matter what happened, God would give me the strength to get through it. This process of surrendering, it’s not easy. It’s like we have to completely empty ourselves of our anxieties and worries. We have to make room to be filled with God’s peace because anxiety and peace cannot co-exist, they just can’t. We have to let go of our dearest desires before we can receive his peace. It’s a peace that surpasses understanding, a peace that doesn’t make sense because our circumstances haven’t changed. Yet we feel at peace.
That’s because this kind of peace comes from the Lord. His peace will guard our hearts and minds. Some translations say, “Will keep your hearts and minds safe.” Safe. I love that. The Lord keeps us safe. No matter what happens, we’re going to be okay. Maybe some of us this Christmas could really use the peace of Jesus. We’re praying and trying to be grateful, but maybe we’re holding onto something a little too tightly. The Lord wants us to loosen our grip. Perhaps He wants to show us something new or different, something better, but maybe our hand position is more like a fist. We’ve experienced constant or deep disappointment and maybe we see the Lord, not as an ally, but more as an enemy.
Tim Keller the pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City once said, “Worry is thinking that God won’t get it right. And bitterness is that God got it wrong.” This can be a dangerous place is to be. Sometimes we want faith on our own terms. We can judge God’s goodness and even his very existence by our circumstances and by how well he’s answering our prayers. We can slip into the lie that God operates like Santa Claus. If he doesn’t give us what we want, that maybe we didn’t deserve it. Or maybe he’s not loving or good after all, or maybe he just doesn’t exist. But we need to stay open because maybe there’s another possibility. Maybe he has something better in mind for us and we just need to let go.
At times we can be like King Nebuchadnezzar. The scripture says that he was so infuriated that the men wouldn’t bow down, that he had the furnace heated seven times its usual temperature, so much so that some of his men died preparing it. The King was throwing a royal tantrum. I admit I can totally relate because we’re human. We want things our way. It’s like there’s a raging two-year-old inside each of us. If you’ve ever raised a toddler, you understand the battle of the wills. Such good times, right? We have three boys and they all have such different personalities, but they were all so strong-willed. My oldest was the quiet, but strategic one. He used to put himself preemptively in time out to avoid cleaning up his toys.
My youngest was really good at standoffs, whether it was the dinner table or the dentist’s chair. But there’s nothing like the middle child. This kid was a professional. His tantrums were so frequent and bombastic that we just didn’t go out for an entire year. As parents, we know what’s best for our kids. We love them. We know what’s best. It’s good to learn how to clean up. It’s good to eat your vegetables. It’s good to control your outbursts. In the same way, we’re sometimes spiritual toddlers. We want what we want. We think we know what’s best for us, but we don’t always know.
Jesus said in the book of Matthew, “You parents if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not. So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him?” Jesus is saying humans are imperfect and yet you love your children and know how to give them good things. How much more capacity does an all-knowing, all-powerful, an all loving God know how to give you good gifts? Even if the gift doesn’t seem good to us at the moment.
You see a surrendering to God’s will opens our eyes to the good gifts he wants to give us because we’re letting go of our own ideas and notions of what’s good. It’s like we get ourselves out of the way and we’re able to see what the Lord has for us. My brother and his wife, Jodi, have a beautiful story. Joe and Jodie. Easy to remember. They live in New Jersey and they had always wanted a pile of kids but they struggle with infertility. They prayed for a baby for years, until one day they realized that they were hanging on to this desire so tightly that there was no room for them to accept anything else.
It wasn’t until they began to loosen their grip, to open their hands, that God could give them a different gift, which was adoption. After a seven-year journey, they finally became parents. They brought their son home from South Korea. I vividly remember the day, what a happy day. I was at the hospital getting chemo when they FaceTime me from Seoul. I’m proud to say that I actually got to help name him. His Korean birth name is Hamin, spelled H-A-M-I-N, but Joe and Jodie really loved the name Benjamin. So I suggested that they incorporate his birth name by inserting an H in Benjamin, of course, sentencing the poor kid to a lifetime of everyone misspelling his name. But I still think it’s a pretty cool spelling. We call him Ben for short. Wanting biological children is a good thing.
Nobody would argue that it isn’t. But in Joe and Jodie’s case, God had a different gift for them. That gift was the joy of adopting Ben. But their journey as parents didn’t stop there, they began to pray for another child to adopt. This time, the Lord led them to foster and they opened their lives to Jackson. Jackson is awesome. Jackson and Ben are awesome and they are inseparable. They were hoping to adopt Jackson as well. But again, they had to hold him with open hands. After about 14 months, Jackson returned to his biological family and adoption was no longer a possibility. Joe, Jodie, and Ben were heartbroken. My brother was telling me that after Jackson was driven away, the three of them just collapsed on their couch and wept holding each other. They had another choice to make, to grow bitter or to believe that the Lord still knew what was best for both Jackson and for them.
It’s interesting, as they move forward in obedience, it’s like God expanded their capacity to love, to operate in uncertainty, and to even recover from disappointment because losing Jackson was painful. They could see that their loss was a joyful gain for Jackson’s family, for both families really, because Jackson and Ben still see each other a bunch. They have lots of playdates, socially distanced-ish. Jackson and his biological family will always be a part of my brother’s family. Joe and Jodie continue to pray for more children. Just last week they welcomed twin five-year-old girls into their home to foster. There’s a lot going on in that house right now. Everyone is adjusting, but our family is super excited, especially because we have no girls on my side of the family. I can’t wait to meet the girls in person.
When my brother talks about this whole experience he says, and I quote, “What seemed to be a zig-zag journey was a straight line to God’s will.” I love that. To us, it feels like zigging and zagging and detours and obstacles, but to the Lord, it was simply, point A to point B. The truth is, God answers prayers in different ways, in different ways. He’s pretty good at over-delivering. One of my favorite verses is Ephesians 3:20. Is another good one to memorize. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.”
It’s a lot of superlatives. Joe and Jodie would agree God didn’t simply answer their prayer to give them children, he gave them a mission to save children. And yes, they’re sleep-deprived and financially strapped, but the joy and purpose they feel in their lives are more than they could have ever imagined. Surrendering to God’s will unveils God’s plans and purpose in our lives. As we step forward in obedience through even the disappointing seasons, especially to the disappointing seasons, the Lord will reveal his plans to us and fulfill his plans through us.
I’ll say it again. I don’t really know why God answers some prayers and not others. That doesn’t seem to be a formula or an algorithm. If you told me five years ago that I’d still be alive today, I wouldn’t have believed you. What I have come to understand is that it’s less about the thing that you’re praying for and more about the journey. Because this funny thing happens over time, the more we get to know the Lord, the more we begin to understand His heart. We find that what’s important to Him becomes more important to us. As the weeks and months turned into years for me, I realized that it’s less about how much time I spend on earth and more about what I do with that time that’s important. I want to make a difference for the Lord, regardless of how much time I have left.
You see we start to change the way we think and the things that we desire become more and more in line with what God desires. My son Bruno got a drone for Christmas a few years ago. Michael recently gave it away without asking him and he was not happy. He stomped off in a huff and slammed his door. When I checked on him, he was really mad. But he wasn’t mad because his dad had given away his drone. He was mad that he couldn’t stay mad. You see my middle son, unlike the rest of us in the family, he loves a good fight. Okay? It’s sport for him. He wanted to be angry at his dad, but he just couldn’t master the emotions because he knew in his heart that it wasn’t what God wanted. My little tantrum happy toddler has grown up to be a man transformed by Jesus.
I know it’s a small example, but it’s a concrete example of how God changes our hearts. As we seek his will with the little things, we can learn to do the same with the big things. Over time, it’s less my will, my way, and more His will, His way. It may even seem God answers more of our prayers. Maybe what’s really happening is that our requests are more in alignment with His will. Do you see? Maybe our prayers go from, “Please give me, to please use me.” Less about our own desires and more about loving God and loving others. This process of transformation, it snowballs. The more we are changed by the Lord, the more confident we become in who He is and His ability to prevail. When we read Daniel 5:17, the Hebrew men seemed like spiritual giants as they respond to the King with that incredible declaration of faith, but they didn’t get there overnight.
If you read the preceding chapters, you will see that their faith grew over time as they experienced the Lord. Their faith grew stronger and stronger, even though their circumstances became harder and harder. So here’s my final idea, surrendering to God’s will becomes easier and more natural as we grow closer to the Lord. In closing, I asked the band to do a song called Yahweh. I love the song because it’s an honest expression of worship. It acknowledges that our faith journey will be hard, it’ll be hard, but that there is also great purpose for our lives. We just have to invite the Lord in. An act of true worship. Take my life, Lord, and transform it from spiritual toddler to the image of your son. Yahweh is the holy name of God in Hebrew. And it’s best translated as Lord, the God who created everything that is, but it means more than that.
It embodies the character, not of a passive God who merely exists, but an active God who is ever-present and keeps his promises, who helps, delivers, redeems, blesses, and saves. Yes, He saves, not always the way we think he’ll save or the way we want him to save, but he saves in ways that are immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine. So this Christmas, as we put forth our Christmas wishes, let’s do it with open hands, open hands. Let’s focus on the giver of the gifts and not the gifts themselves. We can ask the Lord for anything, but let’s surrender everything and see what the Lord will do in our lives.
Because surrender isn’t defeat, it’s victory because if Yahweh is for us, who can be against us. In just a moment the band will do the song and Pastor Terry will close us out, but first, just a quick reminder and a heartfelt thank you for continuing to give generously online. Merry Christmas everyone. See you in 2021.
Hey, this Christmas, this Christmas season, we are being invited into the place of surrender, a surrendered heart to the Lord. If you think about it, that’s what Mary did. She opened up her life to God and because of that, the gift was given. Jesus comes to us because someone chose, a young woman chose to be a yielded vessel for the goodness of God. I really do believe that in this uniquely difficult challenging season, as we bring 2020 to a close, we have many reasons to hold on tight. Don’t we? We have many reasons to be afraid and some of us are really lonely and some of us are a little bit angry, but remember, O Little Town of Bethlehem, the song, the carol, the hymn, reminds us of the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight and that’s Jesus. He wants to meet us this year with all of its fear and with all of His hope, right? That we’re looking forward to around the bend, making the journey together. God’s so good. He’s so good. He’s so good. He’s so God, and He wants us to so good and so God. Let’s make a determination to do that. Don’t forget how greatly loved you are. I’m so thankful we get to do this together. We too are making a journey, our Bethlehem Christmas, and then the New Year. Don’t forget that he’s with us. He is God with us, Immanuel. So may He keep your spirit, soul, and body, in Jesus’ name. Keep your heart soft.