This hymn has always been one of my favorites (at this point, some of my friends are saying, “But James, you have so many favorites!”). Although that “Sweet hour of prayer” has not been a regular appointment for me until recently, it has been a song of longing. Tears have streamed down my face more than I could count singing this song. These tears were for variotity of reasons:
- Most commonly, the tears flowed because of the reminders, like that of the writer, of “seasons of distress and grief,” when I had nowhere to turn but to God for relief. Every single time that I turned to Jesus, I have found solace there. Often I simply felt relief in voicing my distress, but there were those times when I felt the comforting embrace of the Father.
I remember that time in Belize when I had nowhere to turn but to God, knowing that my earthly father only had a short time with us as he fought cancer. The memory of hours of agony in a hut, meant for prayer on what the missionary who built it called Prayer Mountain, is vividly etched in my mind. It started earlier that afternoon. I was sitting in an adirondack chair, looking out at the drizzle off the balcony of the house. Inside my heart was a storm that had been brewing all that summer. I did not want to be in Belize. My father was dying of cancer and I had given up everything to move back to be with him in his last days on earth. When the church that I was attending needed someone to lead a team to Belize, they came to me and asked if I would do it. My father said “yes” for me. I looked at him with that quizzical look, and he simply said, “I believe God wants you to be on that trip.”
Sitting in that chair, I felt homesick. As I thought about where my home was, I could not think of a physical place. I was born in Korea, moved to the U.S. at the age of 12, met Jesus in Haiti when I was 27, had moved to Orlando two years before, and had return to be with my father little over a year prior to being on that mountain. I was also nursing a broken heart. As I thought about all of that, and more, the clouds in my heart were churning into a chaotic storm. In my mind and in my heart, I found myself shaking my fist at God and asking, “why?!?!” much as Job did when he was being tested. Outside of my mind and heart, there was a storm brewing, too. It was as if God was answering me the way He answered Job. The rain falling off the roof at this point was so hard that it seemed as if there was a curtain of water covering the balcony. Then I felt it, more than heard it…
“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation. Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?…” (Job 38:1-7 ff: NIV). As He did with Job, God was putting my perspective right. He is God, and I am not.
That night, I found myself in the prayer hut – built with timber, palm branches, and other plant material from the jungle. I spent the entire night repenting, confessing, and seeking solace. And God met me there. I felt embraced, as I spewed out my wrong headed thinking. My spirit was lifted as I felt the forgiveness from my confessions. And as I felt the light of the sun cracking through the hut, I felt refreshed and energized to move forward. Yes, the tears freely flowed, but the joy that I felt in that hut, as I met with my Heavenly Father, was something that I do not have the words to describe.
- Sometimes the tears came because of the realization of how long it had been since I felt the presence of God, because I was absent from the Throne Room. I could imagine, as I sang the hymn, God with sadness and longing, waiting for me, knowing full well that I would not show. I have stood Him up way too many times.
- In rare occasions, the tears were for my longing to be at that time when I, too, will be able to sing, “farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer.” The third stanza is what causes me to go there. The writer, William W. Wilford, who was blind, understood that there will no longer be need for prayer when we are finally in His presence. You see, there are times when I really wish the end will come. Just like when I was in that prayer hut. And as I watch all the messiness that world has to offer. So I long for that time when prayer is no longer needed, because I will be in the presence of God. Until then, I will shed a few more tears and long for that time. And as Mercy Me sang, I Can Only Imagine…
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