Yellowed and shriveled up, the sight before me was inconceivable. The cactus looked dead but was flush with flowers. Gently and carefully my coworker moved around the thorns to pick up the forgotten pot and return it to retail. The soil had shrunk and its dryness made the plastic container easy for her to lift, but the cactus hung precariously over the edge of the pot and seemed eager to plop out. It desperately needed to be transplanted. Why was this homely and neglected cactus, mysteriously in full bloom?
I often found my coworkers’ scope of knowledge about cultivating cacti was better than searching google. From my perspective, it seemed like my co-workers were all plant savants. Resolving the bizarre mystery of why this half-dead cactus was flowering was a good example of their innate wisdom. Back in the retail section, my boss explained that plants often go into bloom because of stress and drought conditions. Blooming is often a last-ditch effort by a species to reproduce itself, because blooming is the first step in producing seeds which allow the species to survive. You can’t grow seed from a plant without first growing a blossom, after the bloom the fruit grows and finally from the fruit comes the seed.
Blooming is hard work for any plant. Producing fruit is even harder and it takes a lot of resources. Unfortunately, like the desert flora it often can be stress that causes us to bloom. Flowering is something we naturally do when we are close to death. It might be the death of a dream or it might be a physical death, but we blossom and show our true colors when we are near the end of life as we know it.
The first time I witnessed this principle was when our young pastor and his wife, Roger and Julie Barrier, lost their first child. During that awful tragedy I watched our church grow spiritually as well as numerically because Roger and Julie were learning lessons only discovered when you survive a death.
It was while I was caring for my dying my parents that I first caught a glimpse of my own desert flowers. Near the end of their lives I was also busy teaching two different Bible studies. Friends often suggested I take a break from teaching during this stressful season, but I was experiencing the presence of God as I studied for teaching and those times of refreshment were sustaining me. Both studies flourished in spite of my deep sorrow and one even experienced an evangelism explosion. I hated losing my parents, but during their death I also witnessed God’s favor.
Recently, I have experienced another great loss, the love of my life and my husband, Gary Shrader, died of a brain tumor. Though I am sad, I am grateful he is no longer suffering. Surprisingly though, during my grief I am able to reset my priorities and again catch the scent of desert blooms.
Isaiah 58:11 says, “And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.” ESV
One of the many purposes of blooming spiritually is to manufacture seeds for the next generation, so faith can survive and reproduce again and again. In a parched land we wake up and realize how short is the time we have to make a difference, how fleeting are the days we can live for Jesus. Facing the reality of a loss allows us to see the true condition of our surroundings and with a sobered heart we now can pray with genuine surrender.
In our last lesson we focused on Isaiah 35:3,
Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. ESV
We learned from this verse that one of the reasons we make a trip to the desert is so that God can heal us. God takes us to a quiet, dry place and he speaks tenderly to us in our hurt and pain. God desires to bless us and restore us to spiritual health.
Why did Isaiah choose these two parts of the body for healing? Why didn’t he say we needed to heal our broken hearts or our troubled minds? Why does he use our hands and knees? I think he had something very important in mind when he began writing poetically about our weak hands and feeble knees. Specifically, I believe Isaiah was referring to the healing which needs to take place in our lives, so that we can pray.
In scripture we are often urged to lift up holy hands in prayer, a state of worshipful prayer, and we also are taught to bow our knees in prayer. So, the next principle we see from this passage is if we want to bloom in the desert, we must surrender to God’s plan and practice worshipful prayer. God wants our prayer life to blossom.
God heals us because he wants to know us and be known by us. Prayer is one of the main practices God uses so we can know him and learn to trust him. What is the international symbol of surrender? We lift our hands up so everyone can see that we are holding no weapons. When a person is about to be arrested, lifting up their hands is a signal to the police they are unarmed. What does your toddler do when she wants you to hold her? She holds up her hands and by this nonverbal sign she is saying, “Mommy, hold me.” When we lift up our hands in prayer to God, we communicate our willingness to surrender to him and our desire to be held by him.
Secondly, when we think of bending a knee, visions of surrender again fill our mind. Whether it is a man humbly falling to his knees and asking his girlfriend to marry him or a subject bowing before a sovereign king, a bended knee is another international symbol of surrender. I once heard a pastor preach on giving a blessing to others. He shared that the Hebrew word most often translated “to bless” in the Old Testament means “to bend the knee”. So figuratively speaking, healing our spiritual knees is critical if we are to engage in surrendered prayer.
Both lifting our hands and bowing our knees involve prayerful surrender to God. Can we express our surrender and worship if we are hurt, angry and don’t trust God? It would probably be difficult to do this with any genuineness. A feeble knee will not bend and a droopy hand cannot be lifted until healing occurs. We must let the dryness of our personal desert become a place of rest and health.
It is important to understand that surrendered prayer is not a passive form of prayer and neither is it an attitude of self-protection. Sometimes we are so obsessed with a desire to eliminate the heat in our desert that we think we are surrendering, but we are really choosing a form of self protection or passivity. All of us who work with children have experienced the child who on them surface seems to be obeying, but is resisting our directions in a very polite way. When I taught art, I had students in my class who were so polite I hardly noticed they were not doing what I told them to do. True surrendered prayer, worshipful prayer comes from a heart of trust. We can’t surrender when we do not trust God.
Can we preempt a desert excursion by choosing to surrender in prayer without an emergency motivating us? Yes, of course. At the cactus nursery our preferred method for making a cactus flower was not to create stress, but to produce blooms by fertilizing the cactus. We needed plants at their optimal best for customers to find them appealing, so we avoided stressing them; unless we uncharacteristically lost one in the bowels of a distant greenhouse.
Like plants in the natural world, we prefer to blossom without enduring stress. We worship and seek God’s face because he is worthy of all our praise. While this is reason enough to seek his face, great refreshment comes to the worshipper who lingers in the Lord’s presence. The next time we find ourselves living in a parched land, we need to remember it is ok to ask God to hold us.
In Psalm 34:18-19 the psalmist said, The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. ESV
God desires to know us and be known by us. If we want to bloom in the desert, we must recognize that in the desert, surrendered and worshipful prayer grows.
Consider for a moment these thoughts.
1) Have you ever bloomed in a spiritual drought? Explain.
2) Have you ever needed God’s embrace? Explain.
Surrendered prayer means coming to grips with the goodness of God’s plan for our life. When we surrender, we are saying that we believe God is on our side. In our strength we think we know what is best for us and our loved ones. In reality, we simple do not have all the facts to make an informed decision for our lives or for the lives of others. Our scope of evaluation is very microscopic and limited to what we can know in the present. We can’t envision what God is protecting us from in our future by allowing us to experience this parched earth today (Isaiah 55:8-9). God and God alone can see the end from the beginning and as the author of time, God is not bound by his creation in any way. God lovingly embraces us as victors because he knows with certainty that we will be victorious in the end.
Keep bathing in the truths found in Isaiah 35. Consider reading this passage as often as you can. Take a moment now and review what you have learned in five lessons about three short verses.