He asked her to marry him on February 14, 1948, Valentine’s Day. After almost forty-two (42) years of marriage, she began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. The disease took its debilitative control, day by day, week by week, and he worked lovingly to care for his beautiful wife who was leaving him, day by day, just a little at a time.
He was the president of Columbia Seminary, and the demands of managing a vibrant seminary and caring for his wife began to take a toll on him. He was almost fifty-seven – could he hold on for a few more years? What she needed in care, he was having trouble providing. He had a decision to make. Should he place her in full-time care, or should he resign his position?
Listen to his own words: ‘When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, “in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part”?
‘This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.
‘But how could I walk away from the responsibility of a ministry God had blessed so signally during our 22 years at Columbia Bible College and Seminary?’
nothing but grace
He doesn’t see his decision as a choice between two loves, or merely dutiful obligation. He writes, ‘It is all more than keeping promises and being fair, however. As I watch her brave descent into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life. Daily I discern new manifestations of the kind of person she is, the wife I always loved. I also see fresh manifestations of God’s love − the God I long to love more fully.’
All that he faced in dealing with Muriel was grace. Nothing but grace. All the day to day things, the wonderful moments and the worst moments, he found grace. Robertson McQuilkin cared for his ailing wife for fourteen years before she passed in 2003. And, in it all, he found God’s grace coming to meet him in ways he could not have imagined or anticipated.
In the last post, “Prayer is Protection,” we started a series on prayer that help us form the foundation of a life with some iron in it. What does prayer mean? How does prayer make a difference for us? Can we learn to pray better, pray more, or pray with faith-filled hearts? We can read Genesis 15 today, and we can consider how prayer is covenant.
leave your country and family
God called Abram in Genesis 12.1-2: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
That’s how Abram started his amazing journey. When we arrive at Genesis 15, Abram has had a few adventures with the Lord. Abram is wondering, though, when God will deliver on the promise of a son. After all, Abram is not getting any younger.
God told Abram, “Look, you will have a son. Your offspring will be like the stars in the sky, you will not be able to number them.”
And, my favorite moment in Genesis 15 is that little sentence we see repeated several times in different places in the scriptures: “And [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (v. 6).
But, the real power of this moment is not God and Abram’s continuing discussion about what’s going to happen down the road – although that is important. The real power of this moment is the making of a covenant, or “cutting” covenant (to give it a literal flavor).
making the cut
The animals, save the birds, were cut in half, by the Lord’s instruction. Then a deep sleep fell on Abram, and he dreamed. As he dreamed God told Abram again of all that was going to happen. Then, Abram saw a smoking fire pot and flaming torch pass between the halved pieces of the animal.
It sounds weird, but the literal idea of “cutting covenant” meant just that. When to folks wanted to cement a serious deal – say a treaty between tribes or large families – they cut covenant.
The parties to the covenant would get the animals, half them, and them walk between the halves to solidify the covenant. It’s a little like the signature on a contract, except that the agreement here is, “May this [being cut in half] happen to me if I break this covenant.”
Well, in this instance, we see God doing all the walking and covenant making. That’s the smoking pot and torch we see. God makes this deal, not with Abram, but with himself. God makes this deal, rather, on behalf of Abram.
What we see here is the dynamics of sovereign choice. God has chosen to tie himself to Abram – foibles, faith, and all. God will make Abram into Abraham, the father of many nations. God chooses to align with Abram and the people of Israel.
i will be with you
If you remember, it’s like what we saw in the the last post at the end of Psalm 91; notice what we find, here: God acting on our behalf. We heard the psalmist write, “I will deliver, I will protect, I will answer, I will rescue, I will honor, I will satisfy, “I will show,” and “I will be with him.”
That’s what cutting covenant means, in the end. “I will be with you.” “I choose to be with you.” That’s part of the wonder of prayer, God choosing to be with us – not God answering us or helping us – simply, God choosing to be with us.
Grace comes to us without merit or earning. Grace happens because of who God is, how God works, and how God loves.
What’s really challenging about God’s sovereign choice is that we can’t identify any reason God would want to be with Abram. Abram is not anything special. He’s an older guy with an older wife (no offense meant to the older crew, here). He comes from a nowhere place; he married his half-sister; and he’s got questionable religious origins.
All that’s true until we read Genesis 12 and see what happens in Genesis 15. It is the dynamics of sovereign choice, something we might call grace. Grace comes to us without merit or earning. Grace happens because of who God is, how God works, and how God loves. God simply chooses us.
she threw me in the garbage
‘Sister Mary Rose McGeady, president of Covenant House in New York City, has written a book of stories about the kids Covenant House sees on a daily basis. In her 1993 collection God Isn’t Done With Me Yet …,’ Sister Mary Rose describes a visit that took place in June 1992.
‘She came to our front door Tuesday morning, ragged and dirty clothes on her back, and a little aluminum paint can in her arms. From the second she stepped inside, she made it clear to us that she and the paint can were a package deal. Whatever she did, wherever she went, the little paint can never left her hands.
‘When Kathy sat in the crisis shelter, the can sat in her arms. She took the can with her to the cafeteria that first morning she ate and to bed with her that first night she slept. When she stepped into the shower, the can was only a few feet away. When she dressed, the can rested alongside her feet.
‘”I’m sorry, this is mine,” she [would tell] our counselors, whenever we asked her about it. “This can belongs to me.”
‘”Do you want to tell me whats in it, Kathy?” I asked her one time.
‘“Um, not today,” she’d say and then quietly walk off.
‘When Kathy was sad or angry or hurt – which happened a lot – she took her paint can to a quiet dorm room on the third floor. Many times…I’d pass by her room and watch her rock gently back and forth, the can in her arms. Sometimes she’d talk to the paint can in low whispers.
‘Early this [one] morning, I decided to accidentally run into her again. “Would you like to join me for breakfast?” I asked. “That would be great,” she said.
We sat in a corner of our cafeteria, talking quietly over the din of 150 ravenous, homeless kids. Then I took a deep breath, and plunged into it…“Kathy, that’s a really nice can. What’s in it?
‘For a long time, Kathy didn’t answer. She rocked back and forth, her black hair swaying across her shoulders. Then she looked over at me, tears in her eyes.
‘It’s my mother,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “What do you mean, it’s your mother?” “It’s my mother’s ashes,” she said. “I went and got them from the funeral home. See. I even asked them to put a label right here on the side. It has her name on it.”
‘Kathy held the can up before my eyes. A little label on the side chronicled all that remained of her mother: date of birth, date of death, name. That was it. Then Kathy pulled the can close and hugged it.
‘”I never really knew my mother, Sister,” Kathy told me. “I mean, she threw me in the garbage two days after I was born.” (Sister Mary checked Kathy’s story. Sure enough, the year she was born, the New York newspapers ran a story saying that police had found a little infant girl in a dumpster…and yes, it was two days after Kathy was born.)
‘”I ended up living in a lot of foster homes, mad at my mother. But then I decided I was going to try to find her. I got lucky – someone knew where she was living. I went to her house. She wasn’t there, Sister. My mother was in the hospital. She had AIDS.
‘”I went to the hospital, and I got to meet her the day before she died. My mother told me she loved me, Sister,” Kathy said, crying. “That’s why I went to get her ashes.” ([Sister Mary relates that they] double-checked Kathy’s story…every word of it was true.)
‘I reached out and hugged Kathy, and she cried in my arms for a long, long time. It was tough getting my arms around her because she just wouldn’t put the paint can down. But she didn’t seem to mind. I know I didn’t….
‘Sister Mary Rose relates, ‘I saw Kathy again, a couple hours [later], eating dinner in our cafeteria. She made a point to come up and say hi. I made a point to give her an extra hug….”’
loving the unloved and unlovable
Now, you wouldn’t think it, but that little girl is like God: choosing and loving, even when the love is not returned. God chooses to love the unlovable, the unloved, those who don’t want to be loved. God still chooses to love.
Covenant is choosing. Sometimes, it’s making the choice of getting married, making a deal, following the rules. Sometimes, it’s making the hard choice like Robertson or Kathy.
We learn about covenant in prayer. We learn about choosing to love, choosing to be faithful, and choosing to be true as we spend that time in prayer with the One who chooses us.
The perfect expression of God’s choice for us happens at the cross; once and for all God’s love for us is settled at the cross. God chooses to love us, against all odds and in spite of ourselves, God chooses to love us in Jesus Christ.
We learn about choosing, about covenant, when we pray to the One who chooses to love us in Jesus Christ.
A text for the table: Genesis 15.
Textual notes: Robert McQuilkin story, “Living by Vows,” from Christianity Today, February 1, 2004. “Kathy” comes from HomileticsOnline.
Photo Credits: “Covenant of Christ,” from Sid Roth’s It’s Supernatural!,The Human Cane,” from Abdusalam Haykal, “The Oldest Known Map” from Playing Futures and “Backyard Garbage Container,” from martin. (Creative Commons).