Note: This is a rather long post, which will be completed in a subsequent post. I hope it encourages you. Happy New Year!
Since childhood, I’ve struggled with God’s love. Perhaps that is why I answered so many altar calls as a child. The preacher would give a stirring sermon about forgiveness and God’s love, and I’d be the first one to come forward, weeping, and begging for the assurance of being loved and cared for. My mother, grandmother, and I had been invited to visit a black Pentecostal church. We were the only white people there. Having arrived late, we sat in the back after receiving a warm welcome from my mother’s friend, Ben.
I don’t remember what the pastor said. All I recall is the altar call rushing forward with tears streaming down my face. The whole church burst out in hallelujahs. Afterward, my mother and grandmother yelled at me. They were humiliated that people thought that my mother’s 14-year-old daughter had not yet accepted Jesus. What was wrong with me?
The problem was me
Years later, in college, after watching the movie “The Hiding Place,” I again came forward in the middle of the movie theater, along with many others, to recommit my life to Jesus. But this time was a bit different – this time, rather than just praying for me, I was invited to attend a local church and join a Bible study group. It did help, and I finally began to grow and mature in the Lord.
With time, I knew that God’s love was real and that He truly loved all people beyond the shadow of a doubt. With complete assurance, I encouraged others that God loved them and would never let them go. I had absolutely no doubt of this.
The problem was me. I could not shake the feeling that I was different. Yes, God loved me. Yes, Jesus loved me enough to die for me and proved it by being raised from the dead and placing His spirit to live within me. But in a small, hard, core deep in my heart – I did not believe God really loved me. I knew from scripture that He did, but the inability to feel His love defined my inner self and the prayers that only God heard. In the depths of my soul, I was haunted by an awareness of my own shortcomings and failures. I was sure that sooner or later, God would give up on me.
Easy for me to say now, but truthfully, I couldn’t admit this to myself, let alone to others.
Facing the truth
In early 2020, just before the pandemic hit Israel, I was blessed to attend a retreat in Latrun, Israel, called “Wonderful Counselor.” It was a special time set aside to focus on our relationship with God and listening to the Holy Spirit. We were even given prayer partners who would pray with us about the things we were struggling with.
In the weeks before the conference, I found myself weeping during my quiet times, but I didn’t know why. I begged the Lord to show me. Over and over, I wrote in my diary questions like, what is it that is bothering me; what is wrong with me?
I’ll never forget the prayer time with my prayer partners. As our time drew to an end, I was overcome with uncontrollable weeping. One of the ladies praying with me gently asked, “What is wrong? Debbie, what is it that is so hurting you?”
At the end of myself, even I was unprepared for the words that I gasped between a flood of tears: “I don’t believe God really loves me!”
What followed was prayer and reading scripture that encouraged me in ways I hadn’t even known I needed. I finally stopped arguing with scripture and with God, and began to accept and thank God for His love – not just for others and the world – but for me.
Then came my knee replacement surgery
I’d be lying if I said that I never struggled with God’s love over the next year, but I did realize that I was battling deep-rooted lies, and kept seeking to focus on God and His promises rather than my shortcomings.
Mixed into all those feelings was an ongoing physical weakness. I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve had some gastrointestinal issues in recent years. But I don’t think I’ve talked much about my knees. Long story short, my doctor has been encouraging me to have knee replacement surgery on my right knee for at least five years or more. However, I was terrified of the surgery. Thirty years before, another doctor had wanted me to undergo knee replacement surgery. He had explained that since my legs were misaligned, both legs would have to be broken and straightened. Once healed, only then could I have the knee replacement surgery. Anticipated recovery time? More than one year.
However, the pain in my knee was getting worse. I finally asked my doctor what I should have asked long ago, “what exactly would such a surgery involve?”. He laughed when I shared my fears. Yes, I was correct about what would have to be done – 30 years ago. But things had changed, and I could expect to be walking the next day. In fact, the new knee would be shaped to fit my leg, my leg would not be changed – just stronger and eventually with less pain.
He warned me that the pain would be terrible initially, but that if I worked hard on my physical therapy, I’d be feeling better than I had in years.
After much prayer and in fear and trembling, I agreed, and the date was set for early November.
By the time November arrived, I was ready for the surgery – at least physically. Mentally, I still felt unsettled. I knew that I was trusting God to bring me through no matter what. However, I’ll never forget the strange feeling I had as I left my office at work the day before the surgery. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would not be back to work for a very long time, and certainly not within the six weeks that I’d been encouraged to aim for.
The surgery was a success but…
The day after the surgery my doctor advised that he was very pleased with the results. The physical therapist indeed had me standing for a couple of minutes the day after, and yes, the pain was awful. My doctor assured me that as bad as I felt, I’d be very thankful that I had done the surgery in a few weeks.
A few weeks? Ouch – literally!
As the days passed, I noted something very uncharacteristic of me – I was not hungry, and most of the food I ate made me feel awful. Overall, I just couldn’t eat. I kept telling the nurse that something didn’t feel right, but she insisted that I was being stubborn and didn’t want their food and had to force myself to eat.
On day six after surgery, I woke up in the middle of the night with my heart beating strangely, and I could hardly breathe. The doctor gave me some meds, and eventually, everything was normal. She advised that it had been ventricular tachycardia due to stress. Still, it was a scary experience, and the next day I felt incredibly weak and still couldn’t eat. Even the physical therapist noted that something wasn’t right. He told me I’d have to take things at a slower pace, that physical stress can be a result of surgery… and to make sure I got enough rest at the rehabilitation hospital, where I was scheduled for admission a few hours later.
However, I was physically and emotionally stressed. All morning the head nurse had insisted that I would be transferred to one in Nazareth as there was no room for me in Haifa! I had told her absolutely not, but she had ignored what I said and confirmed the transfer. I sent a message to praying friends and asked them to pray for the situation. However, I mistakenly sent it to a group that I was messaging from work, including my boss. He took it upon himself to interfere, and by late morning, I was assured that I’d be in rehabilitation in Haifa.
Helpless, frustrated, but not alone
A lot of other things happened in the hospital where I had the surgery, which I won’t waste space in sharing. I and many of my friends understood this: I was in a battle beyond my comprehension. Getting into the rehabilitation hospital in Haifa was a miracle in my eyes. God used the message I’d sent by accident to the wrong people to keep me from being transferred to a place where no one would be able to visit easily and near no one I knew. Instead, I was transferred to a facility right across the street from some of my Chinese friends!
Still, by the time I arrived at Fliman (the name of the rehabilitation hospital), I felt so weak and helpless. I still didn’t feel right but didn’t know how to describe what I was feeling to the nurse. She too encouraged me to eat, but I just couldn’t.
Friends from my congregation had come to Fliman to help me get settled. When they left, I lay in my bed and wondered what would happen now. I felt so helpless. I was also frustrated – although I had been forced to walk alone with a walker at the surgical hospital, the nurse at Fliman said I had to stay in bed until approved by the doctor to walk.
A sub-clinical heart attack
Around 6 pm, I was surprised to see one of the doctors I work with entering my room. A religious man, he had been in Jerusalem for some meetings and felt an urge to visit me that day in Haifa. He figured it would be a two-hour drive, but traffic jams made it a 4-5 hour drive!
We began to talk, and then I started feeling even stranger and was having trouble breathing. The thought entered my mind, “ask him to check your pulse.” At the same moment, he stopped in the middle of what he was saying and gave me a peculiar look. “Something is wrong,” he said, “what is it?”
“Could you please check my pulse?”
He did and ran out of my room. A few minutes later, he returned with a nurse and a doctor. When he checked, my pulse was 120, but by the time I was hooked up to an EKG machine, it was going as high as 240! And it was so hard to breathe… and all I could do was wait and hope that they would be able to help me.
The nurse asked if this had ever happened before. “Well, not before my surgery.”
“What do you mean,” she asked. And I proceeded to tell her what had happened the night before. She was amazed. “There was nothing in your transfer papers about that at all. They sent us your medical records. There is nothing written about a stress reaction!”
The doctor came rushing in again with new orders for IV meds. My heart would slow down for a few minutes and then suddenly speed up.
Finally, the decision was made to send me to Rambam, my place of work, for a cardiological investigation. I sent a message to a friend who worked at Rambam and not five minutes letter my boss had messaged me, “Let me know as soon as you arrive.”
To make a long story short, I had suffered a subclinical heart attack that left me with left bundle branch block. In addition, I was suffering from atrial fibrillation. It took six days to find the right medicine and stabilize my heart.
Held in the palm of His hands
I was at Rambam for six days with no physical therapy, which was essential for a good recovery. Furthermore, I was bedridden. But they were six amazing days during which I felt securely held in the hands of Jesus, surrounded by His love. The more helpless I felt, the harder it was to pray. All I could do was ask others to pray, listen to music with my headset, and think about the fact that God was with me, and He was in charge. My life was in His hands, not my doctor’s, and not mine.
A lot of things happened while I was at Rambam, but I’d like to share two things in particular with you.
I’m washing Jesus’ feet
One morning, a man was the only nurse aid available to help the patients bathe. He came to my bedside and introduced himself. He said that if I didn’t want him to wash me, that would be OK, but I needed to understand that no one else was available to do it. However, there was something about him that made me feel safe. Something different. In the shower, we began to talk, and in the process of the conversation, I discovered that he was not only a Christian but a nephew of friends of mine. This led to me asking about his work – he clearly enjoyed what he did, and he really cared. As he washed my feet, he said, “every time I wash a patient’s feet, I believe I am washing the feet of Jesus.”
But what I felt was this, that Jesus was washing my feet! I almost cried.
I belong to Jesus!
Another night, I woke from my sleep with a strong thought in my mind, now it’s time for you to fight. Up until now, everyone else has been fighting for you, but now you need to fight and stand firm. You have no idea what kind of battle you are in.
I sat up in bed and began to pray. But soon, I was clinging to the side of the bed, as though I was trying to cling to my Lord. And all I could do was whisper over and over, “I belong to Jesus! You cannot have me! Nothing will happen to me that He does not allow. Jesus is in charge. I belong to Jesus!” I don’t know how long I prayed like that… it seemed like a long time, but finally, I felt a release, like a heavy pressure had been lifted from me. All the stress I’d been feeling was gone. From that day onward, my physical condition began to improve.
All this to say…
There is no room in this post to tell you about what happened at Fliman. I think I will save that for a subsequent post.
But what I wanted to share with you is this. That time in the surgical hospital and at Rambam, the love that surrounded me seemed physical, and in a way it was. A Chinese friend came every morning to help me after my surgery and throughout my time at Rambam. The love she poured on me was amazing, but I realized that I was feeling something bigger – she was serving as the hands of Jesus ministering to me in my need.
At Rambam, the kindness of the nurses, the doctors, my colleagues at work shocked me. They really did care about me – and through them, I felt a different aspect of God’s love. By the time I left Rambam, I had experienced a heart-healing far beyond physical. When we long for God’s love, I realized that we forget that He chooses to work through people. I had minimized the love poured out by others to me and ignored the fact that such love was also from God.
The doubt and questions have been cast down in the core of my being. I am loved, unquestionably loved by God, and what I have known in my head, I now know in the depths of my being – His love is inextinguishable. I am HIS, and HE is mine.
As I close this post, I’d like to share with you a poem I wrote when I came home from Fliman.
The Nucleus of Who You Are
Width, height, breadth, and depth.
Can extravagance be measured?
How determine a borderless abundance
that never runs out?
The sands restrain the sea –
but never really touch.
The light chases darkness consuming all in its path –
yet even the sun is not eternal.
There is no “enough” with You.
And I know You can be angry, but this –
this is what restrains, reminds,
always sets Your resolve:
Dust we are –
in a blink – we are and then
are no more.
And our passions are feeble
imitations of You
in every expression.
We curse and ignore You,
abuse Your family, Your friends.
We think to manipulate You
a dozen different ways. But —
Mercy is the air You breathe,
becoming a new wind sweeping
the earth with son’s rise.
Patience stays Your sword
and if You had a physical heart
it would shatter a thousand times by
each day’s end.
Yet Your light pierces every darkness, revealing
the nucleus of who You are:
Unfathomable, limitless, all-embracing,
Deborah Hemstreet, (C) December 16, 2021
New Year blessings to you! May Jesus be the source of your joy, and may HIS love surround you, no matter what happens in the coming year.
See how glorious a love the Father has given us, that we should be called God’s children—and so we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Loved ones, now we are God’s children; and it has not yet been revealed what we will be. But we do know that when it’s revealed, we shall be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.1 John 3:1-3