Yesterday I spoke about Jesus’ warning to Simon Peter that he was about to be sifted like wheat; that the enemy (Satan) had demanded to have his way with him. With that warning Peter was assured that Jesus had prayed for him and that his faith would carry him through this ordeal and once he had been changed (as we all are when we endure a crisis) he was to strengthen his fellow believers.
31 And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: 32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. Luke 22:31-32
I have shared my “story” countless times as I have traveled the country singing and preaching wherever the LORD leads me. But this will be the first time I have put it in print and, thus, the first time many of you will have heard it. I have been a Christian since 1956 when, as a six year old boy, I gave my heart to Christ and asked him to be my personal Savior. Since that time I have been walking with God and growing in my faith. I attended Bible College and prepared for ministry and have served as a pastor since 1975. Our family has had many ups and downs and have always found God to be faithful and true. While in Bible College my wife Linda had a miscarriage and almost hemorrhaged to death in the process. Those were some difficult times financially and emotionally but God brought us through it.
After Bible College I had started a church in Deerfield, NH and during the first year of that fledgling church Linda became pregnant again. Our little family was thrilled that we would be expanding. But our fourth child, Jonathan David Witham did not live. We were devastated to say the least. But again, God strengthened us and we endured. Needless to say this journey has not been an easy one but with the heartaches there have also been innumerable blessings. God is a Good God … all the time!
During the first decade of this century I pastored a small church in Cambridge, New York, where Linda and I still reside. It was during this time that I experienced one of the greatest crisis of my life. Our daughter Bethany and son-in-law Brian were expecting a child. They had already blessed us with two beautiful granddaughters, Rachel and Bailey, and had experience the loss of a son, Dominick. But this child was born a healthy baby boy, Kain Gregory. After he had been home for a few days, Kain began to show signs of distress and Bethany took him to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, VT. He was immediately shipped to Albany Medical Center in Albany, NY to the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
We already had two children and one grandchild in Heaven and were not willing to give up another grandson. The professional staff at NICU labored for more than three weeks when the Doctors told Bethany there was nothing more that could be done. I had been fasting and praying for Kain and assured Bethany that when all others had given up there was still hope. I believed in a God a miracles and I trusted that He would hear and answer my prayer. I even boldly threatened God that if He did not heal my grandson I would never preach again! Isn’t it amazing how we can argue with God and even try to bargain with Him when we are desperate? I am so thankful, however, that our God is a loving, caring, forgiving God who does not hold such foolishness against us. I continued to fast and pray! I felt that as a minister of the gospel I could offer something that the medical profession could not … and I wanted, like any father, to come through for my daughter and her husband.
The night before Kain died I stood in the NICU with my wife Linda, daughter Bethany and son-in-law Brian as we quietly stared at Kain’s little body lying in a crib with feeding tubes, suction tubes, IVs and other life support maintaining this precious, innocent little soul. No one spoke but I cried out to the LORD silently, “LORD Jesus, where are you? We need you!” (Even as I type these words I still well up with tears) It was at that moment that I began a journey into the darkest part of my soul. For the first time in my life I experienced absolute silence from God! I felt abandoned! I kept waiting for a response from Him, some assurance that everything was going to be okay … but nothing; nothing but silence. How could this be? The God of creation, the LORD of my life, my personal Savior and Shepherd, the Lamb of God … silent! The silence of the Lamb!
I didn’t know what to make of it but it scared me! Later that night as I lay in bed in our 28 foot camper next to our burned out farmhouse (yes, we had suffered a fire just a few weeks earlier) I continued to cry out to God. Again, silently, for I did not want to wake Linda nor did I want her to know how I was struggling. I said many things to Him that night which I later came to regret, but again He is faithful and true, forgiving and restoring those who love Him. As the sleepless night went on and my desperation increased I finally began to analyze my hopeless situation. I said either God hears me and He doesn’t care (and I didn’t believe that), or He hears me but is helpless to do anything about it (and I couldn’t believe that), or He doesn’t hear me because He isn’t really there! And a little voice spoke into my heart, “That’s right! He isn’t really there!”
Now who do you suppose could have whispered those words in the dark hour? Remember Jesus’ words to Simon Peter, “Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat”. And the sifting began …
In the weeks to come I struggled like never before. Not only had I lost another grandson but I had lost me faith, I had lost my God! I didn’t know what to do! I didn’t know what to believe! I didn’t know if I could still believe in the One Who had been my Guide, my Shepherd since I was six years old. I couldn’t stand behind the pulpit and preach but rather I would sit on a stool in the center isle of the church with open Bible and share, “This is what I believe God is saying to me this week through his Word.” I am so thankful that while other churches would have retorted, “Throw the bum out!” those dear folks at Whiteside Church continued to love me, show compassion and pray for me until the Spirit of God slowly and gently encouraged and strengthened me. Among other things, God used the words of a song to minister to me in a special way. David Patillo, one of my favorite gospel songwriters had sent me his new CD and I was listening to “Let the Living Waters Flow” while driving in my pick up truck. When I got to the second stanza it was like the balm of Gilead. I began to weep as I listened to the words:
“There was a time in my valley when it seemed that no one cared
I looked up to search the sky and see if God was still there
He heard my cry and saw the thirsting down inside my soul
And it wasn’t long until a dried up stream began to flow
I later made arrangements with David Patillo to record that song myself since it had ministered to me in such a special way. It is included on my “Country Gospel” CD and remains one of my favorites today.
There is so much more I could say about this sifting of my soul but time and space will not allow. I would like to say however that during this whole affliction when I wanted nothing but to turn away from God and never look back that I was haunted by the memory of so many folks I had counseled over the years. People who had in bitterness walked away from God and found that they had walked a dead end road. There is no hope on that road; only bitterness, emptiness and heartache can be found there. It was another way the Spirit of God was watching over me and protecting me. I don’t know why God allowed me to be sifted like wheat. I don’t know why the Lamb was silent and I sensed total abandonment. But I do know that He prayed for me that my faith would not fail and having been changed … I am to tell my story to help strengthen my brothers and sisters.