“MARK! WATCH OUT!”
My husband jerked the steering wheel but still grazed the parked motorcycle with our car. It was the second minor driving accident in two days.
Being the calm, soothing wife that I am, I asked, “What’s WRONG with you? You are driving like a mad man. Can’t you SEE????”
His negative answer surprised me. “Not really. I’m losing my peripheral vision.”
Several Taiwanese doctor visits later we received the diagnosis: Keratoconus: degeneration of the cornea.
We learned that although most keratoconus patients are able to have vision restored with rigid contacts, Mark’s eye couldn’t hold a contact. His right eye was shaped more like a football than an orb.
His cornea tissue was so thin that the inside of his eye was bulging outward, skewing his vision. Every time the optometrist placed a contact lens on Mark’s eye, his eye would spit it across the room. It is difficult to balance a convex lens on a cone shaped cornea.
“So what are our options?” we asked.
“Cornea transplant,” was the doctor’s shocking reply.
Mark’s Taiwanese doctor continued, “You don’t want to have it done here, as organ donation is rare. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and don’t want to go into the next life missing a vital organ.”
“I do perform some transplants, but I will be frank. The corneas that we receive are mostly ‘seconds’ from the states. Their quality is poor.”
Thus began a year and a half journey. We packed up our Taichung apartment, flew back to Texas and Mark was put on an organ waiting list. The sobering fact is that someone else must pass away before a transplant can be harvested.
Even after Mark’s surgery was complete, there were complications. The mother tissue didn’t bond with the foreign cornea. For 16 months, Mark endured misery as his eye attempted to reject the transplant.
It was a long sixteen months. We spent most of it hovering around a 15 watt light bulb.
Yet, as we walked together through those valley of shadows, we discovered something that the Psalmist knew thousands of years prior:
It’s in the valley that our Shepherd is nearest.
Go back with me to Psalm 23. When King David began his prose, he spoke of his Shepherd in third person.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
But when David descended into the shadows, his perspective changed. He spoke with the Lord, not just about Him.
“You are with me.”
Mark and I found this to be true not only through the transplant journey, but in each juncture where our road has narrowed and the shadows have deepened. Our conclusion?
Stop talking about prayer and begin talking to Him.
How about you? How does your conversation need to shift?
“Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, spices with pure frankincense; there shall be an equal part of each. And with it you shall make incense, a perfume…salted, pure and holy” (Exodus 30:34-35 NASB).
I stopped and read again the names of these spices that I had never smelled. Stacte. Onycha. Galbanum. Frankincense. Each an essential element for incense — a sweet fragrance which the Revelation calls “the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8 NASB).
But just what are these five elements of fragrant prayer? Today, let’s explore the first two.
Stacte – “the finest myrrh” (Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 68). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.). Myrrh sources from the resin of a knotted and hearty tree grown in dry, desert conditions of the Middle East. Because of the harsh and windy environment, the trunk of the Commiphora myrrha is typically twisted and gnarled in response to it’s surroundings.
In order to gather resin, gashes must be cut into the bark of the myrrha tree to release the sap. The myrrh resin dries on the trunk before harvesting and the resulting droplets are said to resemble tears. In fact, the Hebrew word for stacte (nataph) actually means “drop.”
Indeed, tears are a vital part of prayer. Of course in public, some people contrive them while others avoid them all together. Yet, when it is simply between you and God, we find that our experience mirrors many of the best examples in God’s Word:
“She, greatly distressed, prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10).
“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; Do not be silent at my tears (Psalm 39:12);
“‘Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears” (Isaiah 38:5).
“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).
If we have such a cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, why do we think we should never have to cry when we pray? Sometimes we cry over our own confession and other times we cry over those still in need of confession. These “droplets of myrrh” are an essential element of our incense before the Lord. My “prayer sister” Jo Woolsey reminded me of a recent Sarah Young quote: “I can bring beauty out of the ashes of lost dreams. I can glean joy out of sorrow, Peace out of adversity”. After all, it is only “Those who sow in tears (that) shall reap with joyful shouting” (Psalm 126:5).
The second incense element is onycha – “a powder obtained by scraping the horny shell cover of certain clam-like mollusks found in the Red Sea” (Stuart, D. K. (2006). Exodus (Vol. 2, pp. 646–647). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers).
Sourced from a shellfish in the Red Sea, onycha is secreted by small mollusks as a seal of protection around their opening during dry periods. It hardens to resemble a fingernail and is scraped off and pulverized to release the aroma embedded in the shell.
Our lives often include dry periods, in which we throw up a protective shell from further pain and heartache. Granted, there are times where we must distance ourselves from destructive relationships, but stiff resistance should never be our attitude toward God.
For prayer to be a dialog between me and my Maker, I must realize that He only connects with “the contrite and lowly of spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Prayer doesn’t always have to involve a blaze of emotions, but the essence of my “onycha” offering must include a willingness to listen.
Years ago, I heard a pastor ask God to “make him willing to be willing.” What a great prayer example for this young intercessor. I have prayed to be made willing many times over the years when my own resistance wanted to harden against the Lord.
My problem is that I often question why the dry spells have to come at all. “Couldn’t the Father keep this difficult situation from happening?” But as my daughter Hannah pointed out to me recently, “The Creator, Who foresaw the coming of the drought, prepared a way of escape for the mollusk. This secreted shell becomes not only a protection for the clam, but also a provision for someone else (the perfumer).”
Although I cannot fully understand Christ’s prayers for me from within the heavenlies nor the Holy Spirit’s prayers for me from within my heart (Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:26), I can respond with willingness to follow. Herein is the essence of faith — responding to the unknown sigh of my spirit rather than the understood sight of my eyes.
“Father, teach me to pray. Connecting to You takes not only a willing heart, but sometimes one that agonizes before You as well. May I come to You with both. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”
Ready for the next ingredient? Click here for a study on galbanum.