A Prayer Story
Death Valley and God's Table
He had taken a few weeks off from work to hike alone in the mountains. Soon he met another, much older hiker, who seemed to embody the wisdom of creation and the Creator. The old man's backpack was well worn, yet appeared lacking the bulk of his own heavy pack.
His eyes scanned the old man's curious features, stopping frequently on the tattered black leather bond book in his right hand. "Why isn't the book in his pack?" the hiker asked himself.
The two men exchanged greetings, and the hiker lost no time in asking about the book.
"This is my Bible. I keep it handy because it answers questions that come to my mind, and I let it speak for me as much as possible." The old man's entire gentle face smiled as he talked, lovingly holding his holy book with both hands.
"Sir," the hiker began, "I'm a follower of Jesus the Christ and, through His gift of redemption and His Holy Spirit, I am joyfully God's child. Although He abides in me and I in Him, I still have my own thoughts. How is it the Scriptures can always speak for you?"
The old man opened his Bible and smiled again. "The Lord says, 'My thoughts and ways are not like yours. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my thoughts and my ways are higher than yours...My words don't return to me without doing everything I send them to do. When you are set free, you will celebrate and travel home in peace. Mountains and hills will sing as you pass by, and trees will clap. Cypress and myrtle trees will stand as a lasting witness to the glory of the Lord!'" (Isaiah 55:8-9, 11-13).
The hiker kicked his boot into the trail dirt as he reflected upon the words of the Lord. Then, slowly looking back up at the smiling old man, he asked, "Then how is it possible to have God's thoughts in me?"
The old man held his Bible upright and let it fall open into his waiting hands. He read, "Let the Spirit change your way of thinking, and make you into a new person. You were created to be like God, and so you must please Him and be truly holy." (Ephesians 4:23-24)
Hiker's legs trembled
a little. He read these Scriptures before, but never did he feel
shaky and overwhelmed as he did upon hearing those words spoken so deliberately
by old man. "My words to not return to me without doing everything
I send them to do." God's words echoed in his heart. Even though
he asked nothing further of old man, hiker heard his soft voice continue
anyway, speaking again God's words: "What God has planned for people who
love Him is more than eyes have seen or ears have heard. It has never
even entered our minds!"
(1 Corinthians 2:9)
Old man waited a bit in silence, deeply breathing in the coolness of the pine scented mountain air. Tears clouded hiker's vision and, as he blinked them away, he heard old man continue: "God's Spirit has shown you everything. His Spirit finds out everything, even what is deep in the mind of God. You are the only one who knows what is in your own mind, and God's Spirit is the only one who knows what is in God's mind. But God has given us His Spirit. That's why we don't think the same way that the people of this world think. That's also why we can recognize the blessings that God has given us." (1 Corinthians 2:10-12)
"Like this one," hiker thought to himself. "Thank you, Lord, for the blessing of your words spoken through this old man. This is indeed my daily bread, for your words are food for my spirit."
Slipping out from his pack's straps, hiker stood up and approached old man, marveling that this voice of God had not moved, except for his Bible caressing hands. "Sir," hiker uttered slowly, "the 23rd Psalm is among my favorite Scriptures." The smiling old man quietly asked, "How does it feel to dine at our Lord's table, sitting in the presence of your enemies?"
Hiker's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Old man continued, "To sit, relaxed, at our Lord's table, surrounded by your enemies, must mean you have taken the long journey. It must mean you have walked through the valley of the shadow of death without fear, to the other side, finishing with a feast at the Lord's table as your enemies watch, powerless to pursue you any longer."
Hiker's eyes teared again, this time with shame. Until that moment, the 23rd Psalm was beautiful poetry of emotional and spiritual comfort. Never did he hear that psalm as a challenge in pursuing his walk through the valley. He pondered what would qualify him to dine at the Lord's table.
As though old man was hearing hiker's thoughts, he spoke the Scriptures again. "The people I treasure most are the humble; they depend only on me and tremble when I speak." (Isaiah 66:2) And tremble hiker did. He had heard God's proclamations all his life, but could not recall trembling at hearing His words. And hiker never remembered a time when he depended only on God. He always had a back-up plan in case God would answer "no" to his prayer, relying on someone or something else other than the Lord.
"God's answer is never 'no.' That isn't scriptural." The old man's words startled the hiker. "What?" was the only thing he could say. Again, old man read Scripture: "Christ says 'yes' to all of God's promises. That's why we have Christ to say 'Amen' for us to the glory of God.'" (2 Corinthians 1:20)
"I tell you for certain that the Father will give you whatever you ask for in My name. You have not asked for anything in this way before, but now you must ask in My name. Then it will be given to you, so that you will be completely happy." (John 16:23-24) "If you have faith when you pray, you will be given whatever you ask for." (Matthew 21:22)
Pacing the rocky trail back and forth, hiker remained thoughtful for a time. Finally, he stopped in front of old man. "I prayed for love. I prayed for truth. I prayed for the light of understanding. I prayed for life itself! And I am still waiting upon the Lord. That's why I'm here in these mountains, hoping God would answer my prayers here."
Old man smiled again and read, "Your prayers are not answered because you pray just for selfish reasons." (James 4:3) "If any of you want to be My followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will destroy it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find it. What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself? What would you give to get back your soul?" (Matthew 16:24-26)
"Sir!" Hiker was now crying audibly. "My prayers for light, truth, love, for abundant life, are not to serve myself!"
Old man replied, "You cannot have these things apart from God, or else you are serving the self. Listen to God's words: 'I am the way, the truth, and the life!' (John 14:6) 'God is love.' (1 John 4:16) 'I am the light for the world! Follow me and you won't be walking in the dark. You will have the light that gives life.'" (John 8:12)
"Then sir," hiker spoke through his tears, "what I really want is more of God, for He doesn't give love or truth or even life apart from Himself, as God is all that and more."
"Yes," replied old man. "God's spirit is in you and you desire Him even more fully and abundantly."
Hiker grew more excited. "So I will pray for grater intimacy with my Lord and the renewing of the fullness of His Spirit in me."
"Yes, 'Seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be given to you.' (Luke 12:31) 'I tell you to ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.'" (Luke 11:9) Old man reverently closed his Bible, carefully tucking it under his arm.
"Will you help me in my prayers?"
Old man took a while to answer this request of hiker. Finally, he said, "Prayers are very powerful. And those who pray fervently and seek to love and serve God with all their heart and strength will come under heavy and violent attack from satan and his diabolical angels. God declared, 'Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and lives for Him will be persecuted.' (2 Timothy 3:16) Are you ready for this? Are you ready to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil?"
Hiker's legs began trembling again, so he eased himself down onto a rock, head resting in his arms, staring down at the play of shadows on the ground.
The soft but vibrant hues of twilight's colors were falling through a brilliant crimson sky, through the forest onto the earth. Old man still stood in the same place, but now facing the west. Hiker could hear him praying from the Psalms. "There are some who ask, 'Who will be good to us? Let your kindness, Lord, shine brightly on us. You brought me more happiness than a rich harvest of grain and grapes. I can lie down and sleep soundly because you, Lord, will keep me safe.'" (Psalm 4:6-8)
Hiker waited for old man to end his prayers. Looking up from his seat upon the rock, hiker informed old man, "Yes, I am ready to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil."
Old man smiled as usual and walked to hiker with his Bible in his outstretched hand. "Take this holy book. It will speak to you and for you." Hiker was overwhelmed at the gift and could barely utter, "Thank you." Old man pointed down the steep slope bordering the trail. "There's the valley," was all he said as he softly walked away, down the trail, leaving hiker alone in near darkness.
Hiker prayed, "Lord, prepare and guide me through this valley." As the sky darkened, the breeze grew stronger. The Bible on his lap flipped open, and Hiker stared down at the pages. "While you are in the world, you will have to suffer persecution. But cheer up! I have defeated the world." (John 16:33) "I will send you the Spirit who comes from the Father and shows what is true. The Spirit will help you and will tell you about me." (John 16:26) "God's Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self controlled... God's Spirit has given us life and so we should follow the Spirit." (Galatians 5:22-25)
Hiker closed the Bible and stood up, holding the holy book high over his head, praying, "Thank you, Father, for this vital and precious food for my soul! Indeed, Holy Spirit, fill me completely. I will follow you. I pray for patience, faith, and self control in the name and for the sake of my Savior, the Christ! Yes, though I walk through, not in or about, but through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and staff comfort me."
He quickly wrapped the holy book in a plastic bag he pulled from his pack and wrapped himself in his poncho, for the night sky was now strobing with lightning and dripping with torrents of rain and bone piercing winds. He descended deeper into the valley, looking for a level area of ground upon which to sleep awhile.
As the distance between him and the security of the trail grew, the words of Jesus echoed in his mind, drowning out even the thunder: "Go in through the narrow gate. The gate to destruction is wide, and the road that leads there is easy to follow. Many people go through that gate. But the gate to life is very narrow. The road that leads there is so hard to follow that only a few people find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)
The slope into the dark valley was quickly transforming into a mud slide. Hiker could work his way down carefully by holding onto trees, often losing his footing and lying in the rushing muddy water, clenching tightly the holy book in his left hand. He could only keep hugging that saving tree with his right arm as walking was futile.
Night should have evaporated into day, but dawn brought only a clouded haze into the valley of shadows. Hiker still could not see more than a few yards ahead, and was growing colder and weaker. If only he could free himself from his heavy pack without losing grip of the tree. The arm whose hand still clenched the Bible pulled free of one shoulder strap. While wrapping his left arm around the tree, hiker unclipped the waist strap and shook off the other shoulder strap. The pack rested against the tree for only a moment, then slid away in the mud.
After a few seconds, hiker was startled upon watching the pack disappear into a short silence, then hearing the unmistakable thump of his backpack crashing to a quick stop. Hiker now understood the gravity of his situation. His grip on his life-saving tree was keeping him from sliding off and beyond the edge of a cliff, to injury or death!
Hiker's weakness grew as his mind lost hope. The rain continued as the slope down to the cliff turned increasingly into a slow waterfall of mud. Hiker held onto the tree and the holy book with all his strength, a limited human strength dwindling quickly along with his hope.
The contours of the Bible were a comfort in hiker's hand under his rain poncho. He was reminded of scriptures he had read many times, but never took on life until this moment. "The Lord gives strength to those who are weary. Even young people get tired, then stumble and fall. But those who wait upon and trust the Lord will find new strength. They will be strong like eagles soaring upward on wings; they will walk and run without getting tired." (Isaiah 40:29-31) "I am the Lord your God. I am holding your hand, so don't be afraid, I am here to help you." (Isaiah 41:13)
In response, hiker prayed, "Save me, God! I am about to drown. I am sinking deep in the mud, and my feet are slipping. I am about to be swept under by a mighty flood. I am worn out from crying, and my throat is dry. I have waited for you 'till my eyes are blurred... Answer me, Lord! You are kind and good. Pay attention to me! You are truly merciful. Don't turn away from me. I am your servant, and I am in trouble. Please hurry and help!..." (Psalm 69:1-3, 16-17) Hiker remembered praying this before nearby.
The rain settled into a soft drizzle. In it, hiker could hear the Lord responding, "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you your heart's desire. Let the Lord lead you and trust him to help. And he will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him... If you do what the Lord wants, He will hold your hand, and if you stumble, you still won't fall." (Psalm 37:4-7, 13-14)
The Psalms were dear to hiker's heart. In this valley these words came alive! Delight yourself in the Lord! The declaration could have just stopped there, but it continues with a promise. How odd, hiker thought. He needed to reason to delight himself in his Lord any more than he needed a reason to delight himself in his son. But the psalmist continued with the added consequence of delighting in God, the giving of our heart's desires. God is indeed awesome!
Hiker's meditation in God's word had hiker forget he was cold, wet, and weak. He suddenly realized his challenging and life threatening circumstances didn't determine how he felt in his spirit. God's Spirit in him spoke over the diminishing drizzle: "Don't worry about anything, but pray about everything. With thankful hearts offer up your prayers and requests to God. Then, because you belong to Christ Jesus, God will bless you with the peace that no one can completely understand. And this peace will control the way you think and feel." (Philippians 4:6-7)
Hiker felt warmed by a curious, pervasive, peace and contentment through his soul. The rain of the past twenty hours was slowing down, though the midday hours were as dark as the twilight. As he rested more deeply and faithfully (full of faith) in the Lord, hiker realized his patience, self control and perseverance had grown tremendously. "Thank you for answering my prayers, my Lord and my God!" he shouted into the misty forest.
Hiker was not able to sleep at all, still wrapping his arm around his tree, but he could feel surges of energy pulsate in his body. The shrill of an eagle circling above the cliff just below him in the soft drizzle made him smile with remembrance and gratitude of God's promise and presence. Hiker was new renewed with strength and peace. He felt no fear and could have easily pulled himself up from the muddy earth. But his self control and patience called upon him to wait on the Lord a little longer. Hiker was content to be still in God's awesome presence.
The drizzling rain stopped as the sun peeked through fast moving clouds. Hiker could see further into the valley and knew it was time to continue walking through. Carefully removing the holy book from the protective cover, hiker prayed for guidance. "Lord, you are my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing. I desire to lie down in your green pastures, to be led to still waters, for you to restore my soul and lead me in the paths of righteousness for your name's sake."
He flipped through the pages of the Psalms and stopped, reading, "Live under the protection of God Most High and stay in the shadow of God All Powerful. Then you will say to the Lord, 'You are my fortress, my place of safety; you are my God and I trust you...' God will command his angels to protect you wherever you go. They will carry you in their arms, and you won't hurt your feet on the stones. You will overpower the strongest lions and most deadly snakes. The Lord says, 'If you love me and truly know who I am, I will rescue you and keep you safe. When you are in trouble, call out to me. I will answer and be there to protect and honor you. You will live a long life and see my saving power.'" (Psalm 91:1-2, 11-16)
Hiker shouted, "Thank you!" in joy. He pulled himself to his feet and smiled at the realization that he lost everything except the clothes he was wearing and the words of God in his hand and heart. He was now completely dependent on God, body, mind and spirit. And hiker knew this is exactly what God wants, total dependency, trust and surrender. That's the relationship between the sheep and the Shepherd.
Although the valley slope was still treacherously slick, hiker's footsteps were now guided and secure. He approached the edge of the cliff that swallowed his backpack and had been waiting for him all night and day. He heard God's Spirit within him calling. Holding the Bible in both hands, it fell open to the book of Ephesians and hiker read God's message: "Let the mighty strength of the Lord make you strong. Put on all the armor that God gives, so you can defend yourself against the devil's tricks. We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and power in the spiritual world. So put on all the armor that God gives.... Let your faith be like a shield, and you will be able to stop all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Let God's saving power be like a helmet, and for a sword use God's message that comes from the Spirit. Never stop praying, especially for others. Always pray by the power of the Spirit." (Ephesians 6:10-13, 16-18).
So hiker stood at the edge of the cliff, looking up at the constantly moving array of clouds and streaming sunlight, praying for many others, for faith, for the full armor of God. Then hiker looked back down over the edge of the cliff and delighted again in the Lord. His eyes and heart feasted on the wondrous view of a great expanse of rich green fields and forests, crisscrossed by numerous streams and lakes. Fearless and full of the strength of the Holy Spirit, hiker gleefully worked his way around the cliff, down into this beckoning paradise. After drinking deeply from the living waters, hiker rolled over on his back for a much needed sleep in the Lord's care.
"Suddenly, an angel woke him up and said, 'Get up and eat.'" (1 Kings 18:5) Hiker opened his eyes to see old man smiling at him. "I must be dreaming," he thought. He smiled back at old man. "My journey was dangerous and challenging," hiker explained. Old man replied, "You prayed for that and God provided." "I don't understand, sir." Old man continued, "When you pray for patience, perseverance, self control, faith, for more of God in your life, how else is our Lord to answer your prayers without giving you the circumstances that demand the exercise of patience, perseverance, self control, faith and the utter reliance on and surrender to God?" Of course, hiker understood there was no other way.
Hiker needed to tell old man a true story. "Two brothers were exploring the forest river not far from here. One of them was like the prodigal, wayward son, spending his inheritance on earthly treasures of no eternal value. The other was redeemed by the Christ and kept his treasures in the kingdom of God. He was patient, living, kind, self controlled, faithful and full of the Holy Spirit.
"One night, as they camped on a small island in the river nearby here, torrential rains came and the swift waters rose quickly, tearing their canoe away along with anything unsecured. Near the island's center was a small rock projecting about six feet high, with enough space at the top for one person to sit. The older brother was the one devoted to Christ, and he insisted the other take the top of the rock and escape the rising river. The younger brother protested, exclaiming they should either live together or die together.
"The older brother explained, 'The Lord is my Shepherd. I have no wants... I will fear no evil for He is with me... Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will live in the house of the Lord forever. You stay on the safety of this rock' he was now yelling above the roar of the rushing, crushing water. 'Brother, I know I will join my Lord in the heavens once I leave this earth. I am safe in this river. You, brother, need to keep living until you cry out to Christ in surrender and love, and ask Him to live in you and you in Him, forever! Then you and me will live together forever in His kingdom.'
"That brother listened tearfully from the top of the rock, then watched his older brother slip away in the force of the fast moving water. The brother on the rock did devote his self and his life to Christ. That's why I love Psalm 23. That's why I came here, to where this story happened.'"
Old man was touched by the story, but not surprised. He rested on his knees, resting his eyes on hiker, and said, "I know this story well. That man is so grateful for his brother's love and sacrifice that led him to embrace the Lord Christ as his God and his Redeemer."
"That's so true. How can you know this?" hiker asked.
"You are the brother who was left on the rock, aren't you?"
"Yes," hiker stammered.
"And I'm the brother who left you there."
They both embraced in
jubilant silence. Hiker prayed his thanks to God: "You, Lord, treat
me to a feast, in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head
with oil, honoring me. You fill my cup until it overflows.
Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and
I will live forever in your house, Lord." (Psalm 23)
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
© November 28, 2000
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