The Conclusion of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer
by Eric Elder
You can listen to an excerpt from Psalm 119 here:
Psalm 119, read by Lana Elder, with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” played by Marilyn Elder Byrnes
Some stories take time to tell. I don’t mean they’re long stories. I mean they’re stories that take a long time before you can tell them.
Today, I’d like to tell you one of those stories, a story that started five years ago this month. And through this story, I hope to encourage you to keep talking to God in prayer every day for the rest of your life. God loves hearing what’s on your heart, and He has so much He wants to say to you.
I’ve come to really love my conversations with God, every day, all through the day. I feel like I could have written this verse from Psalm 119 that says:
“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103).
Even His words that are as simple as “Amber Shellac.”
One of the reasons I’ve waited to tell this story is because it involves my wife Lana’s casket. It’s not something I could talk about right then, as there were too many other important things going on. But I’d like to share it now as a way to show how intimacy with God can be achieved over time.
As the final days of Lana’s life here on earth drew near, it became clear to us that apart from a miraculous intervention from God, Lana was about to experience what we all will experience at some point in our lives: the passing from this life to the next.
Lana and I talked about many things in those final days, some of which involved her wishes for her funeral, including her casket. She didn’t want anything elaborate–just a plain wooden box.
She remembered seeing Pope John Paul II’s funeral on TV about 10 years earlier, and could still see the image in her mind of the plain wooden casket in which he was carried through the streets.
His casket was made of simple wood in a trapezoidal shape. I found a picture of it online and showed it to Lana. She said: “That’s it. That’s exactly what I want.”
I called around locally to see if I could find one, but couldn’t. So I searched online and found a man in Provo, Utah, who makes simple wooden caskets just like Lana was wanting.
When I called to talk about our situation, he said he could get one to us within a few days if need be, adding that some people order them years ahead of time just to make it easier for others so there’s one less decision they have to make later. Lana thought that was a good idea–and if she didn’t have to use it for years, all the better!
With a resolve of strength that only God can give for a moment like that, I placed the order, not sure if we’d be using it within days or, if a miracle occurred, getting to save it away for years. Sadly, it was only a matter of days. Lana passed away on November 15, 2012, and her casket arrived the following day.
I had called a friend when I placed the order, a friend who refinishes furniture, to ask if, when the casket arrived, he could refinish it in a style that matched the pope’s casket, as it was shipping to us unfinished. He agreed. So when the casket arrived, he picked it up for me at the shipping office and took it back to his shop.
Now under a deadline to get it ready in time for the funeral, my friend went to the hardware store to buy some stain and finish. But as he looked at all of the options, none of them seemed quite right. He considered all kinds of stains, from cherry to walnut to pine, but each one seemed off for some reason. He walked out of the hardware store with one of the options in his hand, but feeling it just wasn’t right. Then it came to him, as if out of the blue: “Amber Shellac!”
He had used it for projects in the past, and he KNEW that this was the answer to the riddle he couldn’t solve. Amber Shellac would be the perfect finish! He walked back into the store, found the shellac, and left again knowing he had found the solution. He coated the casket in several thin layers of Amber Shellac, and got it done just in time for the funeral.
Lana’s casket was perfect. It was just what she wanted, and just what seemed perfectly fitting for her life: simple, pure, and beautiful. It became the centerpiece of those difficult hours as my family and I stood next to it during the visitation and funeral. From time to time during the visitation, as people came through to talk and pray and offer their condolences, I would reach out and stroke the soft, smooth wood of Lana’s casket. It was the closest I could get to caressing Lana herself.
I loved Lana’s casket, and I know Lana would have loved it, too. We both loved creating and refinishing furniture ourselves. I have built many things from scratch, including the crib that each of our children slept in as infants and a triple bunk bed each of them used at various times as they got older. Lana refinished everything from desks and tables and rocking chairs to all the wooden trim in nearly every room of our house.
How does this relate to my intimacy with God? That brings us to this week, five years later.
I’ve been trying to finish a special project this week, creating a prayer room in our house that Lana had envisioned in our then-unfinished attic. We began work on it before she got sick, with family and friends helping us to begin the conversion.
But when Lana got sick, we had to stop our work. When she passed away, I simply lost heart and could hardly bear to think about finishing the room she had envisioned. I would start, then have to stop again. Then start, then stop again.
This year, however, one of the goals I set for myself was to finish the work on the attic that we had started all those years ago. With the help again of some encouraging family and friends, I was able to make progress and see it take final shape before my eyes. I recently added what for me was the pièce de résistance, the pinnacle of this special space: a beautiful fireplace, something which I’ve always wanted in this home, but have never had.
As I lit the fireplace for the first time a few weeks ago, I praised God that this project which has been so many years in the making was nearly finished. All I needed now was to build a wooden frame and mantel over the fireplace to finish it off.
Loving woodworking and all the options that are available to me, I would normally relish thinking through what kind of wood I would choose and the finish that would go on it. But like a woman in labor, I was also at the point where I just wanted to deliver this baby! I said, “God, help me!” as much out of desperation as out of a true prayer that I believed He would answer.
But as soon as I said, “God, help me!” He did!
I remembered Lana’s casket, and the answer God had given my friend five years earlier as he was walking out of the hardware store feeling overwhelmed with options, none of which seemed quite right. And just as God’s answer came to my friend as if out of the blue, it came to me the same way, and I knew it was right! The perfect answer to my prayer for help: “Amber Shellac!”
Just last night, after days of designing and cutting and sanding the woodwork around the fireplace, I brushed on my first coat of several to come of Amber Shellac–a beautiful and perfect finishing touch to this project that began so many years ago. I am SO looking forward to sitting in this new space soon, with the fireplace going on a cold winter day and seeking God still more with all of my heart.
It’s taken many years–and many prayers–to get to this place. But none of those years and none of those prayers have been wasted, even when I felt like giving up so many times along the way. Those years and those prayers have, in fact, been building an intimacy between God and me that I’m not sure could have been built any other way.
As John Ortberg says in his latest book on the topic of intimacy (and which is subtitled Getting Real about Getting Close):
“Intimacy isn’t built on grand, elaborate gestures. It doesn’t have to be something deep or dramatic–an elaborate, romantic getaway, a dramatic self-disclosure, or sentimental words. Rather, it’s made up of a thousand, everyday moments of interaction” (p. 7).
The same applies to our intimacy with God. Sometimes we think we need to get away for a “special” time of prayer with God to really get close to Him. And there is value and purpose in doing that from time to time. But our intimacy with God isn’t built on just those “special” times. It’s built, rather, on a thousand, everyday moments of interaction with Him–like calling out for help with a woodworking decision and hearing the words: “Amber Shellac!”
I want to encourage you today, and every day, to take time in prayer with God. Take time to talk to Him. Take time to interact with Him, building your intimacy with Him, moment by precious moment.
I want to encourage you to keep “showing up.” Keep walking forward. Keep getting up, again and again. For there’s great value in even those little things that you do to keep your faith on track. As my daughter, Karis, said this week in a talk she gave to a group of people at our church who are going through a difficult season in their lives:
“I was telling a friend recently how proud I was of him for staying steadfast when it would be easy to walk away, for declaring that God will always provide, even when situations aren’t easy. I want to start celebrating people for staying planted, for staying steadfast in the midst of storms. We usually celebrate people when they do these great things for the Lord but we don’t always celebrate when people stay, when they show up when it’d be easy to walk away, and I want to start doing that more often because I believe that staying is just as valuable. And I want to tell you that tonight, I’m so proud of you for staying. For coming and hearing this message, for choosing to stay in the house of God, and for placing yourself in a position to hear from Him.” (If you need some encouragement for a difficult season you’re going through in life, you can watch the rest of Karis’s 12-minute message at this link.)
Today, I want to tell you the same. I’m proud of you for reading this message. I’m proud of you for coming back to God again and again. I’m proud of you for sticking it out with Him, no matter what, and returning to Him over and over, even when it might have been easier to walk away.
I hope and pray that this study of the Book of Psalms has sparked your interest in going further with God–further than you’ve ever gone before–so that you can truly enjoy fuller, deeper and richer conversations with Him. May these words be true about your conversations with Him from now on and forevermore:
“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103).
Will you pray with me?
Father, thank You for speaking to us in little ways and little words, like “Amber Shellac,” words which may not mean much to others, but mean so much to us. Lord, thank You for wanting to have a conversation with us, as much as, and even more than, we sometimes want to have one with You. I pray today that You would spark in our hearts a love for You and Your Word that will carry us through every day ahead, for the rest of our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Here’s the link again if you’d like to listen to an excerpt from Psalm 119:
Psalm 119:9-16, read by Lana Elder, with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” played by Marilyn Elder Byrnes