General

Lament: God-ward Grief

Complain to God. Go ahead. Not only does the Bible allow it, it encourages it. Skeptical? Read on.

 

2 Corinthians 4:7-15

 

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

 

This is the second part of a two-part topical series called “Resurrection & Lament”

 

Resurrection and Lament? What’s the connection?

 

1 Corinthians 15:54-55

 

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

 

55 Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?

 

Then, death loses its sting. Now, it still stings.

 

Death stings. And all the ways death works into our lives. It isn’t just when we die. It’s the slow decay of dying, and our efforts to work against it over and over again. Our loved ones die and leave us, or they stay and become disinterested. We bear our children in pain, and sometimes lose them in pain that makes the pain of labor pale by comparison.

 

We live in the land of lost jobs, joyless work, broken dreams, broken relationships, broken promises, broken bodies, broken lives. We bear crushing responsibilities and heaviness of heart that stops us dead in our tracks. We are taken by depression, cancer, diabetes, MS, heart disease, Crohn’s disease, aids, lupus, paralysis, and a hopeless myriad of other ailments and tragedies that haunt the homes of the human race.

 

Suffering wakes us up to a world that hurts. Like suddenly waking in the middle of a  forest so cold and so dark it could just as well be the middle of the winter and the middle of the night. We have some vague recollection of how we got here but have no clue as to how to get out. What do we do? What should we do?

 

When my son Aedan was 4 years old, I took him with on a VBS mission trip to an Indian Reservation. In the first 45 minutes with the kids there, Aedan took a pool ball to the knuckles, a fist to the back, and was pummeled by a boy on a bicycle – all of this by unapologetic children. Later in the day he ran through knee-high thistle in a pair of shorts. The day was a painful realization for Aedan that the world he lived in could hurt so much.

 

Aedan responded to his pain in the way we ought to respond to ours: he wept.

 

Michael Card, in his book Sacred Sorrow, says that the God-designed path through and out of the impossibly dark forest of suffering, sin, and death is the dimly lit path of lament.

 

I think we must be convinced of this. We don’t believe it. Lament is a capitulation of faith at worst. At best it is just awkward. The emotions associated with lament are inconvenient and embarrassing. Even in the church, we can look down upon those who grieve and complain in ways that make us uncomfortable. We want them to pull it together…to have more faith.

 

We labor to convince our kids they cannot give voice to their every complaint, and we, as adults, follow suit, concluding in the end that most things are just not worth crying about.

 

But the Bible, on the other hand, is so ripe with lament as to encourage us to weep all the more, for the consequences of sin are far more costly than we ever could have imagined.

 

We find in the pages of scripture the laments of Job, Jeremiah, David, Ezra, Solomon, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Habakkuk, Zechariah, and Jesus, who pronounced a blessing on those who mourn. This Biblical Chorus of Lament is given voice in the Psalms, one-third of which are psalms of lament. The Bible seems to suggest by its broad representation of lament that it is okay to say we hate the pain.

 

I. Lament as an Act of Faith: It’s okay to say we hate the pain.

God-Honoring Honesty

 

We could see this in any number of passages ripe with lament, but this morning I want us to look more closely at this passage from 2 Corinthians.

 

As context, Paul says in chapter 1:

 

8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

 

Paul says he was crushed beyond his ability to endure.

 

In verse 8 of chapter 4, Paul says, We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair.” How could Paul be so overwhelmed beyond his ability to endure and yet not be driven to despair?

 

The answer is given to us in verses 13 and 14: It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.”

 

In these verses, Paul speaks of a specific kind of faith, the same sort of faith the psalmist had. Which psalmist? Probably the one that penned the psalm from which he quoted, “I believed in God, so I spoke.” Spoke what?

 

This is a quotation. The context from which it came is implied. We’ll know better what Paul was saying if we know where the quotation comes from. We do know where it comes from. Psalm 116, verse 10:

 

“I believed in you, so I said, I am deeply troubled, LORD.”

 

I believed in God, so I said to God, I hurt.

 

Paul makes this connection so as to convince us that the same faith that believes God raised Jesus from the dead and believes that we too will be raised, is the faith that enables us to give voice to our pain while we’re dying.

 

the Bible would have us believe that complaining to God is not so much a display of faltering faith as it is a bold and God-honoring act of faith – one that demonstrates the belief that God is as real to us as the pain that we are in, and that he is tender enough and strong enough to hold onto us even when our rage is misdirected – even when we’re angry at him.

 

This means our honesty with God honors God. Lament is an act of faith.

 

Michael Card says we must relearn the lost language of lament in order to find our way through the forest of suffering which is this world. So this morning I want us to consider what the Bible has to say about why, what, and how we lament, and then finally, examine the fruit of lament.

 

II. Why, What, & How We Lament: (Re)Learning the Lost Language

 

A) Why

 

The Bible seems to give us at least three general reasons why we lament in this life: sin, suffering, and death. And the first of these is the cause of the others. So let’s consider first the lament of sin. To do so we’ll listen to the words of the Old Testament’s weeping prophet, Jeremiah, in Jeremiah chapters 8 and 9.

 

Sin

 

Jeremiah lived at a time in which his people, the nation of Israel, had been conquered and humiliated by the large empire of the Babylonians. This had happened as a direct result of Israel’s refusal to obey the words of the Lord. They had sinned, and this exile was the consequence of that sin. It is in this context we read the words of Jeremiah in chapter 8, verse 21:

 

“Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. ?22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? ?Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”

Jeremiah 9

1 Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! ?I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.”

 

So Jeremiah cries. But while he cries, we see that, despite the widespread devastation, Jeremiah still had to convince his people to lament their sins to the LORD. He says in verse 17

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come; send for the most skillful of them. 18 Let them come quickly and wail over us ?till our eyes overflow with tears and water streams from our eyelids. 19 The sound of wailing is heard from Zion: ‘How ruined we are! How great is our shame! 20 “Now, you women, hear the word of the LORD: Open your ears to the words of his mouth. Teach your daughters how to wail; teach one another a lament.”

 

We read in Lamentations 2, Jeremiah saying, “Cry aloud before the Lord, O beautiful Jerusalem! Let your tears flow like a river. Rise during the night and cry out. Pour out your hearts like water to the Lord.”

 

Jeremiah had to persuade God’s people to lament in his day. But are we any more willing to lament as they were?

 

Michael Card says that, “There exists within American Christianity a numb denial of our need for lament… So the language of lament sounds stranger and stranger to our ears. It is heard less and less in our churches, and when it is voiced, rarely are our sins genuinely lamented. [But it is only] through lament [that] we regain both a sense of awareness and a language to express the hopeless depth of our sin.”

 

And Jeremiah would have us believe that we should lament not only for our sins, but also for the sins of others. And there’s plenty of that to grieve over these days.

 

But there is one other important thing we can learn about the lament of sin from the prophet Jeremiah; it is that God-ward grief over sin is always expectant of the Lord’s loving-kindness. It is not a dead-end. It is lament in anticipation of the Lord’s forgiveness.

 

Listen to his words in Lamentations 3: “My tears flow endlessly; they will not stop until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees… The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease.”

 

Jeremiah foresaw that because of the coming Messiah there would be no sin that needs to be lamented forever. The presence of God is found in the confession of our sins.

 

There is another reason we lament found often in the pages of scripture, and that is the lament of suffering.

 

Suffering

 

In the book of Job, we are introduced to a man who was said to have been blameless before God, yet who suffered extraordinarily. While his suffering could not have been possible without the sin of Adam and Eve, his suffering was not a direct result of sin in his own life. He did not “have it coming.”

 

Yet in the matter of a few days Job lost his wealth, his health, his children, and the loyalty of his wife and friends. The book then records his complaints to God, his conversation with his friends, and in the end, his conversation with God.

 

Listen to his words from chapters 6 and 7: “For the Almighty has struck me down with his arrows. Their poison infects my spirit. God’s terrors are lined up against me. Don’t I have a right to complain? Is not all human life a struggle? I cannot keep from speaking. I must express my anguish. My bitter soul must complain.”

 

Suffering of this sort seems to call forth some of mankind’s boldest laments. Consider Job’s from chapters 10 and 13: “I am disgusted with my life. Let me complain freely. My bitter soul must complain… As for me, I would speak directly to the Almighty. I want to argue my case with God himself… God might kill me, but I have no other hope. I am going to argue my case with him.”

 

In all sorts of suffering, but in physical suffering in particular, we are made acutely aware of our own mortality. Job says, in chapter 14; “How frail is humanity! How short is life, how full of trouble! We blossom like a flower and then wither. Like a passing shadow, we quickly disappear.”

 

Which brings us to the third and most final lament in scripture, and that is the lament of death.

 

Death

 

For this I’d like us to look at Jesus, gathering with others at the grave of his good friend Lazarus, who’d been dead for several days. Look with me at John chapter 11:33-36.

 

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

 

This passage suggests Jesus wept with such passion that many of those who saw him were deeply convinced of his deep affection for this man who died. Yet keep in mind that this is moments before Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead. There’s no reason to believe that Jesus himself did not know he was about to do this. So Jesus wept knowing full well what was about to happen.

 

This is important because the promised resurrection is sometimes wrongly applied AS reason NOT to grieve at the death a loved one who’s died in the Lord.

 

I remember just out of high school, a friend of mine and my sister suddenly died of complications from cancer, a cancer that by all accounts was being contained. It took us by surprise, and my sister, a few years younger than me, took it harder than I did. I remember sitting with her in her bedroom while she cried. I remember reading from first Thessalonians four and telling her plainly that she shouldn’t cry.

 

Jesus weeping at the grave of a friend he’s about to raise to life should put to rest such suggestions. Furthermore, Thessalonians Four does not tell us to refrain from grieving, but rather to grieve in a way that is different from those who have no hope. As Christians, we are not to be denied the natural out-workings of grief. Celebrate their lives. Anticipate resurrection. But by all means, grieve.

 

**

 

It could be said that Jesus demonstrated lament for all three causes of grief: he wept for the death of Lazarus; he wept for Jerusalem because of her sin; and he wept in the garden and from the cross for the pain and suffering he bore in his body. Isaiah said he was a “man of sorrows; acquainted with grief.”

 

Moreover, when Jesus cried from the cross, he quoted the first line of the Psalms most devastating psalm of lament: Psalm 22, the first two verses of which say, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.”

 

Which brings us to the what of lament, or exactly what it is that we’re trying to say when we lament. When we lament we express a great many things. But though there are many things we may feel or say, the whole of it, in our lives and in the scriptures, can be summed up in one of two questions: “WHY, GOD?” and “WHERE ARE YOU, GOD?”

 

B) What

 

David exclaims in Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me?” Job, in chapter 23, from the darkness of his affliction, says of God, “He is not there…he is hidden.” And in chapter 13, he says, “Why do you hide your face from me?”

 

And this is what we cry too when something in our lives seems to contradict our understanding of God as wise and good. Michael Card points out that “disease and death will always seem inconsistent with God’s loving-kindness.” And in this case, our lament to God is an appeal of faith, in the belief that God must notice the incongruence between our pain and his love.

 

Too often the one who gives voice to this problem, or whose broken body or broken life puts this problem on display, is quarantined from the community, or at best, nudged into the periphery. The suffering one makes us uncomfortable.

 

C.S. Lewis, when he was grieving the death of his wife, spoke of this social exile in A Grief Observed. He says, “An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet.” Job spoke of this in chapter 19: “My relatives stay far away, and my friends have turned against me. My family is gone, and my close friends have forgotten me.” David echoes this again in the Psalms, in Psalm 33:11: “I am despised by my neighbors – even my friends are afraid to come near me. When they see me on the street, they run the other way.”

 

And finally, Jesus himself dealt with this, as prophesied in Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and forsaken of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and like one from whom men hide their faces.”

 

We are tempted, especially in our day, to see grief as a sign of weakness. We are tempted to take offense at, or quickly seek to correct the one who claims to follow God and yet dares to question God with these bold inquiries of WHY and WHERE ARE YOU.

 

But the peculiar community of faith, which we are called by God to be, is not to be like this. We are told in Romans 12:15 to “weep with those who weep” and in Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another’s burdens.” Where the world might seek to remove itself from the embarrassing presence of suffering, we are invited by the spirit of God to enter into suffering, and cry tears with the ones who suffer.

 

Which leads us to the “How” of lament, specifically, that we are meant to lament TOGETHER.

 

C) How

 

It’s been mentioned already that one-third to a half of all the psalms are psalms of lament. Why that matters here is because, for hundreds of years, the psalms were Israel’s communal songbook. It’s what they sang when they worshiped together. And with the coming of Christ it became the Church’s songbook as well. What this means, is that these laments are intended to be sung together. The people of God are to be a people who lament together.

 

This is hard to do. It is especially hard to do well. The best example of how not to do this is found again in the book of Job.

 

Job’s friends come to Job, after receiving word of his loss, to share in his grief. And at first they do something well. They sit with Job in silence for seven days. This became an ancient Jewish custom called sit shiva, which means, literally, to “sit seven.”

 

At the end of these seven days, Job begins to speak “in the bitterness of his heart,” and Job’s friends are scandalized by the brazen honesty with which he addresses God.

 

They try to temper Job’s discontent and to discredit his accusations. They do all they can to correct his theology and silence his complaints. And Job is forced to defend himself and his sorrow to his friends. At the end of the book, it’s Job’s friends whom God reprimands, and of Job God says, “He has spoken rightly of me.”

 

Michael Card says he observes in the book of Job five cycles of lament, in each of which Job’s complaints to God are interrupted by Job’s friends and their defense of God, so that Job is repeatedly distracted from complaining to God and coerced into conversing about God with his friends. Card goes on to point out that, each time Job’s lament is derailed, Job is given to despair.

 

Card goes so far as to say that lament is the polar opposite of despair. Lament keeps Job, and us, “in the ring” with God, as it were; keeps our gaze God-ward, even if God can’t be seen.

 

Job teaches us that when speaking of God, it is better to use the pronoun “You” than the pronoun “He.” It is better to complain to God than to have a conversation about God.

 

Job says to his friends in chapter 13: “As for me, I would speak directly to the Almighty. I want to argue my case with God himself. As for you… if only you could be silent! That’s the wisest thing you could do.”

 

Christians are called to be better friends than Job’s. When the afflicted one asks “Why?” we are to understand it is not a question that is asked of us, so it is not a question that is ours to answer. We are to see another’s grief not as an opportunity to give advice, or to correct theology, or to make a lesson of their pain, but as an invitation to enter into their pain as Christ entered into ours; and if their gaze is not God-ward, to point them to God, inviting them to complain TO God, and then, as much as we are able, to complain to God WITH them.

 

We cannot afford to “brush over” or collectively try to hide our brokenness. We must instead take what opportunity is ours to enter into the pain of those who hurt – to “bear one another’s burdens; to weep with those who weep” – and so share in the suffering of Christ IN SUCH A WAY so as to truly put him on bright display in a dark and hurting world.

 

I believe that if we learn to lament together well, our corporate tears will boldly and incessantly remind the world that something is terribly wrong, and we are in desperate need of one greater than ourselves to put our world to rights.

 

We live now in an age and location that C.S. Lewis calls the Shadowlands: this pitch-black forest where many will build little campfires and live forever in denial and in the dark. But “lament is the polar opposite of denial.” And together we can walk the dimly lit pathway of lament, by which we grieve the darkness of the forest, find our way out of the forest, and weep along the way into the brightness of God.

 

Which brings us finally to the end result, or the fruit, of lament: God found and a story to tell.

 

III. The Fruit of Lament: God Found & A Story to Tell

Daddy’s Face, Daddy’s Chest, and An Empty Grave

 

The first lesson we learn in the world as infants is the lesson we learn in lament: our crying invokes a response. When we lament in God’s direction, though he may seem to take his time, God always responds to the cries of his people.

 

Again, from Card’s A Sacred Sorrow: “The ultimate answer to all laments is not to be found in the specifics of what is lamented for. The true answer for a lament of disease is not ultimately a cure. The real solution for a lament of financial distress is never simply money. The answer is always found in the Presence of God. It is rarely what we ask for, but it is always what we ultimately need.”

 

We can be like Job, who sought God for an answer and got God for an audience. Job wanted to comprehend his suffering and what he got was a companion in his suffering. Through lament, Job found God in the darkness of his pain in such intimacy that at the end of the book he would say to God, “I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.”

 

We can be like my boy Eli, when he was only three months old and sleeping on top of the covers between his mom and me. He would often wake abruptly in the middle of the night, screaming with his infant voice and flailing his arms around in the darkness over his head. All I had to do was lean my face into the space near Eli’s writhing little body, and when Eli’s fist would brush up against my cheek, his crying would stop and his body would be calmed. He would know his daddy was there, with him in the dark.

 

In our lament, we are like a little boy in the lap of our Abba God, lovingly invited and given full permission to say whatever we need to say and as loudly as we need to say it; to cry hard and give full voice to our complaints, as toxic as they may be; to beat our clenched fists hard into his chest (because Daddy can take it) until, exhausted, we collapse into the embrace of the one who’s cried with us and been with us all along, held and loved back into the peace we thought was forever gone.

 

We can be like Lazarus, dead in the grave for days because of the love of the one who could’ve saved him but let him die, so that through resurrection, he would have a story SO stunning that he could say, not that he was merely healed from sickness, but that he was RAISED FROM THE DEAD by the one who called him friend.

 

Lament is the path by which we pass through the darkness of the death that is ours to die and into the healing embrace of our Father, who raises the dead and gives his resurrected ones new life and a story to tell.

 

In the second chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet is given a scroll on which is written, “funeral songs, words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom.” He is then told to eat the scroll, and is surprised to find the bitter words taste like honey in his mouth.

 

We, too, may be surprised by the sweetness of lament.

 

Science has shown that the tears produced by crying expel harmful toxins from our body; hormones associated with high blood pressure, heart problems, and stress. But the best part of lamenting together is the belly laugh that so often follows our times of weeping with someone else. When together we discover that God really is near to the broken hearted; that he doesn’t break bruised reeds; that there really is comfort for those who mourn.

 

Along the way we find that lament is one of the most direct paths to the true praise we know we have lost. For in lamenting God’s absence, we come to recognize his presence; in lamenting the pain of death, we come to the hope of resurrection. Lament in the hands of Jesus becomes more than the path to worship; it is the path of worship, and by it, the Lord is praised.

 

May the Lord be so praised.

 

AMEN.

 

 

 

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Categories: General | 1 Comment

In Uz With Abba: Is It Worth It?

What follows is the manuscript for a sermon, a proclamation of faith shared with our church family in Saint Paul, on the fifth of February, 2012, in response to my diagnosis of MDS, and prior to my bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota, and based on the following texts, from the ESV:

 

Lamentations 3:19-33

Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.

Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.

 

Romans 8:14-25

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

 

Job 42:1-6

 Then Job answered the LORD and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

 

Seven years ago, I was a youth director for Emmaus Free Lutheran church in Bloomington. I was also a music producer working on a worship album for a national youth conference, and I was overworked. I had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease two years prior, was a young father to a young boy, and was easily fatigued by too much activity, and too much activity was my life.

 

I reached a point in the spring of 2005 where I realized I had no more resources. I had run out of whatever was supposed to fill me up on the inside and ministry was very hard. Jen graciously gave me the go ahead for a weekend getaway all by myself. So with a Bible and a handful of books, I set out on a solo silent retreat.

 

I drove three hours north to Inspiration Peak, and slowly climbed the hill, strangely out of breath right from the start. I tried meditating on God’s Word, but I had been so starved of scripture (of my own doing) for so long, that all that came to mind was Psalm 23. So I recited what I could while I hiked up the hill.

 

When I got to the top, it occurred to me for the first time that the paths of righteousness along which the Good Shepherd leads his sheep inevitably go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That is where the paths of righteousness go. That is where the Good Shepherd leads.

 

All weekend long I read and prayed with the sense of a great struggle looming just over the horizon for me. And all weekend long, God graciously strengthened faith and extinguished fear.

 

As I left the retreat center at sundown on Sunday, I decided it was time to break silence. Jen had given me before I left a small book by John Piper called the Job Poems. In the back of the book was a CD of Pastor Piper reading the poems. I put the CD in the CD player and set out to take the back roads into town.

 

I spent the next 45 minutes a weepy mess, with my moon roof open and my windows down, driving 35 down the shoulder so as to avoid traffic I couldn’t see through my watery eyes.

 

Towards the end of the book, Job’s six-year-old daughter Jemimah is asking him years afterwards about his suffering. It was because of passages like this that I was the mess I was:

 

“Do you think God made you so sick?” She drew her breath, and swallowed hard. “I know you’d like to think that there’s a foe that hurts and God that heals. And that would not be wrong; but I have sat and pondered months in pain to see if that is true – if misery is Satan’s work, and happiness is God’s. Jemimah, we must bless the Lord for all that’s good and bad.”

 

“But, Papa, God’s not mean or mad. He’s not our enemy. He’s kind and gentle, isn’t he?”

 

“Your mind is right, Jemimah, but it’s small. He’s gentle, kind, but that’s not all. I have some friends who thought they knew the mind of God, and that their view of tenderness exhausted God’s, and that severity and rods could only be explained with blame, to vindicate his holy name.”

 

“So you think it was God who made you sick?”

 

“I think God never laid aside the reins that lie against the neck of Satan, nor unfenced His pen to run at liberty, But only by the Lord’s decree.”

 

“So you think God was kind to make you sick,” Jemimah asked, “and take away your health and all your sons and friends, and daughters – all the ones you loved?”

 

“Jemimah, what I think is this: the Lord has made me drink the cup of His severity that he might kindly show to me what I would be when only he remains in my calamity. Unkindly he has kindly shown that he was not my hope alone.”

 

Three weeks later, on the Monday morning after Mother’s Day, I went in to see the doctor for a cough. We found there a tumor in my chest the size of a fist tangled up with my vital organs, shutting down my left lung and threatening to do the same to my heart. By four o’clock in the afternoon I had been admitted for what would be the first of 28 straight days in a hospital bed.

 

I had T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. A kids cancer, mine at 28. Doctors told me I wouldn’t die, that they could cure me. But they also told me the cure would be such that there’d be days I’d wish I would die. Days I’d wish the cancer had killed me. I’d like to tell you they were wrong about that. They weren’t.

 

But before I understood how hard it could really be, I sought to affirm for the world my faith in a good God in the midst of it all. I blogged. I wrote letters. I upheld and articulated the belief that God was good and that God was God. God was in control, and could be trusted to work all things for the good for those who loved Him. And I was one of those. I loved Him.

 

Not only that, but there were also expectations, on my part, that God was somehow at work in me, and that this suffering would be the fast track to my sanctification. I had the expectation that complex issues I had struggled with all my life would be neatly resolved and I’d come out looking more like Jesus than ever before. And I wanted that. I really did. I was ready.

 

And the next nine months changed my life. But not how I had expected.

 

The treatment ranked in the top ten percent of the most aggressive protocols prescribed at the time. Had I been 20 years older we couldn’t have done it. I manifested nearly every possible side effect. I had panic attacks and depression. I became and am to this day a chronic pain patient. I made regular trips to the ER, spent three of those next nine months in a hospital bed, and most of the rest, in a bed at home.

 

The hardest part for us was, as the psalmist puts it, hope deferred, over and over again, making our hearts very sick.

 

There a came a point later that fall when I made a decision. What I could have actually done with this decision I couldn’t tell you. But I can tell you that I was done with whatever God was doing in me. I didn’t care what it was, I wanted out. I wanted the pain to stop, the insanity to cease, and if it meant that I wouldn’t get as polished up as God had intended, that was fine with me. I was done. It wasn’t worth it.

 

Now, may the weight of this not be lost on you. I may have had some gaps in my theology at this point. There may have been some very significant misconceptions on my part. But what this meant to me on the inside was no small thing. It absolutely broke my heart. I came to understand that I did not have the faith I thought I had. More importantly, the question that haunted me deeply was what now? What does this mean for God and me? If the sheep won’t follow the Shepherd, will the Shepherd still claim the sheep as His own?

 

Perhaps you know the answer to that question. I think perhaps that I do now as well. But I didn’t then. And it scared me.

 

What I just described, I’ve since learned, is a common experience shared by Christians of all generations. There is even a name for it: the crucible. The language is borrowed from the process by which precious metals are made pure. The crucible is the container that holds the unpurified liquid metal over the fire in the furnace. Suffering, in scripture, is the crucible in which, instead of gold or silver, it’s our faith that is tried and purified. The apostle Peter writes about it in his first epistle, from chapter one, verses six and seven:

 

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

 

Our trials and the grief they bring are cast as the means by which God purifies his people, and it’s the genuineness of our faith that is cast as the intended and final product. God is pictured as sitting over His work, brooding over it like His Spirit over the waters of creation. It’s a powerful image used throughout scripture. By the time Peter used it here, it has been seen at least half a dozen times. Among them are these:

 

“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”

 

“I will also turn my hand against you, and will smelt away your dross as with lye and will remove all your alloy.”

 

“And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”

 

In and out of the fire. Always in the crucible. Always in the dark.

 

In the psalms we read this in-and-out can happen six, maybe seven times.

 

Over and over again.

 

And tradition says the fuller knows the silver’s pure when he can see his face reflected on its surface.

 

Until that happens, it’s in, and out, in, and out.

 

It’s a process for which, when you’re the silver, the end can be hard to see.

 

And when your faith is tried and found wanting, it can feel as if the whole thing’s over. Your faith is dead. You half expect to see the backside of your Shepherd disappearing on the far side of the Valley without you.

 

This is the crucible. This is the point at which your suffering makes you, as is often said, either bitter or better. Either your heart gets harder, or a little bit holier. What makes the difference? How can you be sure to come out one way and not the other?

 

I do not know that it’s as simple as I’m about to make it. There’s probably more to it than this. But, nonetheless, I believe the outcome of the condition of your soul largely depends on how you see the heart of God. Is He good? When the house of cards that was your faith falls in the Valley of the Shadow, and you give up for good, will He stay? Are you still His?

 

How you answer that question makes all the difference.

 

Suffering scares us. Specifically our own. As long as it’s someone else’s we can think about it theologically or philosophically. But when it’s our own, when we learn firsthand just how awful awful can be, then we’re compelled to think about suffering relationally. We’re driven to think about suffering within the context of a relationship, specifically the relationship that is ours between us and God.

 

How can he allow such madness? Specifically, why is he letting all this happen to me? Or perhaps you wrestle with it in seeing the suffering of someone you love: if he truly loves him or her, you say, or maybe if he truly loves me, how in the world can he just stand by and watch this happen?

 

It’s what drove Job to demand an audience with God. His friends had his pain mapped out on a theological level. Job had sinned. He had this coming. Cause and effect, simple as that.

 

Job took issue with that and said, I don’t care to argue this with you; I want to argue this with God. If God has an issue with me, I want Him to tell me about it. I want Him to give me an answer for why I’m suffering the way I am.

 

Suffering is this relational issue. It’s an offense. Either I’ve done something to really tee God off, or He’s got to answer for why he’s letting me suffer the way he is. Either way, it’s between Him and me. And I want to know, at the heart of it all, how are things between us? Are we good?

 

All this is to say there are essentially two questions that are raised by or asked in the crucible of suffering; two questions that wait for answers; answers that will determine whether or not the suffering will be worth it in the end, whether or not this pain will mean anything at all. And if the pain is worth it, if it means something, it can possibly be borne with patience. So these two questions matter very much, and they are these:

 

Is the heart of God good?

 

And is the heart of God good for me?

 

I am tempted to answer these questions with two other questions and be done with it. And if I were to do so, those questions would be these:

 

Have you seen Him?

 

And are you His?

 

If you can answer yes to the second set of questions, you’ve answered yes to the first, and the pain is worth it. It can be endured. Amen.

 

But if I ended that way, I would be ending too soon, and wasting the opportunity to elaborate on some very, very good news.

 

So, the first question again: Is the heart of God good?

 

There are various ways to answer this question, and the best of them demand a pull-all-the-stops, fully orchestrated three-day celebration with singing at the top of our lungs and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. But (my sincerest apologies) I’m a one-man show. And, when you’re in the thick of suffering (and we’re concerning ourselves with speaking into such a situation) a party is not going to land well.

 

And God gets that. So he’s given us inspired literature like Lamentations 3, the chapter from which one of our readings came today. I remember this chapter capturing my attention when I was 15 years old. It was melancholic, and poetic. Some said it was written by my namesake. In any case, the chapter begins with this:

 

I am the man who has seen affliction.

 

In the Old Testament, as God was revealing himself to and through the nation of Israel, it was the Hebrew prophets who had the inside scoop on the heart of God. The writer of Lamentations was one such prophet. And he writes at a time when his people are reaping the painful consequences of their poor decisions.

 

They had dismissed and dishonored God, and rejected his life-giving rule in their lives, and as a result their lives got very hard. They’d been recently conquered by the Babylonians and were now in exile. Conquest and exile were the fate most feared by Israel. Conditions were beyond miserable. And it’s from that context that the prophet laments what he essentially calls the heavy hand of God on him and his people. The following is taken from the verses preceding the passage we read earlier, and this, spoken of the LORD:

 

3 Surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. 4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; he has broken my bones; 16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; 17 my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;18 so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.”

 

This is something we must reckon with. It must be accepted, yes, with much struggle, but eventually with much comfort, that while God does no evil, He is in a way behind the hurts we suffer. God not only lets us suffer, says the prophet, he facilitates it. A faith that doesn’t take this into account is a faith that is fluffy and unbiblical, and will tragically fall like a house of cards in the face of suffering.

 

In verses 37 and 38, the prophet asks:

 

37Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? ?

 

There are some who would like to let God off the hook when bad things happen. They want to wash God’s hands, say he had nothing to do with it. It would appear here that God doesn’t want off the hook. He is involved. He is behind the bad things.

 

But it’s this very involvement, what we call His sovereignty, which becomes the basis for the working out of what the prophet might call the deeper reality at the heart of God; and it’s this deeper reality that gives the prophet hope in the midst of his pain (look at verses 21 through 23):

 

21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

 

And then this, ten verses later, 31 through 33:

 

31 For the Lord will not cast off forever, 32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; 33 for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.

 

The deeper reality, says the lamenting prophet, is the LORD’s steadfast love, his hesed. The pain will come to an end, but his hesed never does; his mercies never cease.

 

Though he causes grief, he has compassion. In the abundance of his steadfast love, love that stays fast, he does not afflict from his heart. He may hurt with his hand, but his heart for us is love, always love, says the prophet. And therefore, we have hope.

 

This is a mystery, and it’s hard to understand. But it’s there. And it’s not just in the book of Lamentations, it’s all over the place. We’ll look at a passage from Job 19 in a moment, but first, to try to understand this a little, let’s consider a vastly inferior shadow of this from the imperfect paradigm of parental discipline.

 

Years ago, when our firstborn was growing into his new role as big brother, he would occasionally walk through a room where his little brother was trying to stand, and he would intentionally deck him, leaving his little brother sprawled out on the floor in tears.

 

If I happened to see this, I would tend to number two, then carry number one to his room, sit with him on his bed and explain to him that what he did was wrong, and then I’d spank him. One little, mildly painful swat to the bottom. While I understand this could be topic for conversation, it’s what happened next that I’d like you to see.

 

He would cry. And he’d turn his face to me, and with his two small hands on either side of my own, would look me in the eye and say through his tears, Daddy, are you sad that I’m sad?

 

And occasionally, particularly this first time, as I was a young father who very much didn’t like what I had to do, I actually was crying too. So I’d say, yes, son, Daddy’s sad that you’re sad.

 

And then he’d wrap his little arms around my neck, and we’d both cry together until neither one of us was sad anymore.

 

The prophet says in Lamentations 3, our Dad is sad that we’re sad. He may hurt with his hand, but He loves, always loves, from his heart.

 

The comparison to parental discipline isn’t perfect, as it’s clear in scripture that suffering is not always, nor is it even most of the time, an action of God in response to something we’ve done wrong. Yet the comparison is elsewhere made, especially so in Hebrews 12.

 

We won’t look at that here, but it’s worth saying that regardless of whether pain comes as some sort of disciplinary measure or not, the effect that suffering can have on the heart is nonetheless similar to the effects of good discipline: it is a formative experience. Suffering forms us. And in the Bible, everyone from the prophets to the apostle Paul says that suffering entrusted to the care of our divine father always forms us for the good. It forms us for the good because the heart of God is good. And he has made and is making us in His image. The silversmith sits until he sees his face in the silver.

 

In Job 19, we find a passage so similar to Lamentations 3 the comparisons are readily made. Starting with verse 6, a smattering of phrases reveals a man who feels as though God has turned against him. Listen:

 

6 know then that God has put me in the wrong and closed his net about me. ?7 Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered. ?8 He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass.?9 He has stripped from me my glory. 10 He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope has he pulled up like a tree.

 

Much like the prophet in Lamentations, Job laments the heavy hand of God, going so far as to say God himself pulled up his hope like a tree. Yet, further in the chapter, he articulates a hope so certain he feels it physically as he shares it. From verse 25:

 

25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. ?26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, ?27 whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!

 

Job describes the hope in the hearts of all the Hebrew prophets: the Redeemer, the Coming One who will make all the wrongs right. The One who will satisfyingly make sense of the mess. The one who will make all the pain worth it in the end.

 

Job says, he lives, and after I die, I will yet, in my body, see God, with my very own eyes. And as he speaks this hope out loud his imagination is so on fire with the feel of it he says his heart is fainting.

 

My Redeemer lives. Job spoke those words on one side of an event that gives them meaning in ways Job could only anticipate. We live on the other side of that event where we can remember and actually know with certainty just how true they are.

 

Is the heart of God good?

 

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus answers that question with a resounding YES!

 

The world sees suffering and asks, “Where is God?”

 

We see suffering and answer, “Emmanuel.”

 

God is with us.

 

We have a Wounded Shepherd. Wounded because he bears our own wounds. A Shepherd who stays with his sheep. We see Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus; we see Him sweating drops of blood on the ground at Gethsemane; we see the Good Shepherd laying down His life for His sheep, and we say God is with us.

 

He is with us. He is sad that we’re sad. He knows what it is to hurt. And He knows how to redeem it.

 

One could say he specializes in making the pain matter; that he alone truly knows how to best bring good from bad.

 

So is the heart of God good? To the extent that Jesus reveals the heart of God, which the new testament writers say is the fullness of God in every way, we can only say YES, the heart of God is very good.

 

But is the heart of God good for me?

 

That all depends.

 

But it only depends on how you answer the next question, and not how you answer it with your words, but how you answer it in your bones. It’s how this question is answered deep inside you that counts.

 

You ask, is the heart of God good for me?

 

And I ask, are you His?

 

Are you His? That’s the question. Do you belong to Him?

 

Because if you’re His, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

 

The Good Shepherd can be trusted to shepherd his sheep. And his Father can be trusted to care for his own.

 

And His Spirit can be trusted to let you know you belong to Him.

 

Our passage from Romans 8 speaks of this. In John 10, Jesus says his sheep hear and know his voice, and they follow him. Here in Romans, the apostle Paul says it’s the Holy Spirit that communicates that deep sense of belonging.

 

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…

 

The Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba.

 

The Aramaic word for Daddy.

 

The Dad who did not spare His own Son, who with Him promises to give us all things, who assures us nothing can separate us from His love.

 

This is the God we are surprised to find in our pain. Our pain says we should find a God who thunders and smokes, where men and animals die as they set foot on the mountain. For a God who allows such suffering as we encounter in this life must be scary indeed.

 

And at first He does scare us, and right he should, for, as the prophet asks in Lamentations: “what living man should complain when punished for his sins.” And in suffering we feel the weight of our sinfulness perhaps more strongly than we do when we’re well.

 

But when the smoke clears, and, instead of finding ourselves alone in the middle of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where we expected to be, we find ourselves mysteriously on top the mountain of God with God himself, we can’t help but laugh a little when we realize we’re not dead, much more the fact that the Father himself holds us in his arms. He has invited us to a banquet, for his Son has made us co-heirs with him in his kingdom, and we are going home.

 

Ours is a fairytale ending. In our flesh, we shall see God and we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The silver is pure. The coals in the furnace are cold. The crucible is broken. And there is no more pain. There are no more tears. There is no more death. And it is just the beginning.

 

We are to consider the sufferings of this present time, which may be substantial, not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us. That is what Paul says.

 

First John 3 says he who hopes in God in this way purifies himself. This hope in him has a purifying effect. Like the crucible in the flame.

 

This kind of hope is what I’m banking on.

 

I was devastated years ago by what felt like the loss of my faith, the death of the faith I thought I had. I was surprised to find God still there when the air cleared. For Him, nothing had changed. He saw what faith I had all along. This, this me with the diminished faith, this was the me He loved. This was the me He wanted, the me He died for. And His pulling back the curtain on my Wizard of Oz faith display was one of the kindest things for me He’s ever done. For one can only truly begin where one really is.

 

And the apostle Peter would suggest it is not the greatness of our faith that matters to God, but the genuineness. And I’d rather know with certainty, that what little faith I actually have is real, than merely hope the great faith I think I have is great. God has been kind to me in this regard.

 

The treatment that saved my life seven years ago broke my bone marrow. It no longer does for me what I need it to do. I have treatment-induced myelodysplastic syndrome, and will need a bone marrow transplant to keep it from becoming an incurable cancer.

 

When I was diagnosed last fall, my doctors at the U wanted to begin with a transplant immediately. We had just lost Jen’s dad in a car accident and were in no condition to subject our boys to my absence just yet. We asked for a plan B, and they graciously gave us one.

 

And that was to do three months of a mild chemotherapy to clean up my marrow prior to transplant. I finished my third month of that one week ago, and with remarkable results. I will now need less chemotherapy going into the transplant because of it.

 

I have one more bone marrow biopsy at the U as part of the work up week prior to my transplant. At that time they will test me in every possible way to make sure I’m eligible for what’s planned. If all is good, I’ll be admitted for what will most likely be, if all goes well, a four to six week hospital stay.

 

Treatment-induced MDS is difficult to cure, and while all transplants are tricky, the particular one I’ll receive lies in the riskier realm, as the incoming stem cells are taken from an unrelated matched donor. The time until full recovery is measured in years. And the potential difficulties along the way are many.

 

We’ve been here before. We know sickness, even this particular kind of sickness, very well. It will be a new experience in many ways, we didn’t have three boys before, but being sick will not be one of them.

 

Perhaps I sound resigned, morose, some say despairing. I am not. We have prayed with genuine faith for healing. In part because of the ministry I’ve done in years past, there are near thousands of people praying for me on a daily basis. We’ve seen many of those prayers answered. As such, we feel very upheld by those prayers and by the God who hears them, and we believe he can and does heal, could do so at anytime, and promises that healing will come for us all eventually.

 

But we are hopeful realists, who live and pray what Paul Miller calls the desert way. We hope for what is not yet, while we work with what is. And what is, is that this could be very difficult. We could be spared the dark days. The actually has the potential of being easier than before. But this could also be very hard.

 

However, whether one or the other, we deeply believe that no matter what happens, with each comes the possibility that we might see God.

 

Whether it’s in my healing immediately, or eventually; in the miracle of health, or the miracle of his sustaining presence in our pain, we believe that God is somehow to be seen in this. That ultimately, this is what all pain is for: that men might seek and see God, and in seeing God, truly live.

 

And it’s on that note that I’d like to end by bringing our attention back to the book of Job.

 

Job sought God for an answer and got God for an audience. He sought God for the comprehension of his pain. He got God as a companion in it.

 

Job sought God with his words. Job saw God in a whirlwind.

 

My question for Job is, is it enough to see God? Is it enough to see God in the whirlwind? To see him in the very thing that caused you so much grief?

 

In Job 42, God has just answered Job out of the whirlwind, out of the very thing that 41 chapters earlier had took the lives of his ten children. God appeared to Job in this whirlwind, and God has answered Job’s countless questions with a non-answer. With questions, questions, and more questions. Questions that probe the unfathomable depths of God. Questions that expose Job’s utter ignorance in matters pertaining to God and his providential care of his creation.

 

Job’s mouth is stopped. When he is finally given the floor in chapter 42, he says but very little, sounding a bit like a man gone mad, answering God with one breath and quoting God with the next. This is what he says in the first 6 verses of chapter 42:

 

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

 

Then he quotes God: “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”

 

“Therefore,” says Job, “I have uttered what i did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

 

Again, he quotes God: “Hear, and I will speak: I will question you, and you make it known to me.”

 

Then Job, a worn out worm of a man, speaks his last recorded words in this book:

 

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

 

“I had heard of you, now I see you. So I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

 

Now this might seem an awful way to bring the conversation to a close, but what can be said, is that Job is clearly humbled by the sharp contrast created by the God he now sees with the apparent weightlessness of his words before this God. Compared to the wisdom and knowledge of the God he sees, his words are such folly he despises himself for having spoke them.

 

Now, this doesn’t take into account that Job is, in the next verse, commended by God for having spoken well of him, but it does provide the context for Job’s repenting in dust and ashes. and it’s here that a certain strand of scholars would suggest that there is more for us to see.

 

There is an ESV footnote that suggests another reading of “I repent in dust and ashes” could be “I am comforted in dust and ashes.” I am no scholar, but what I can understand from these notes is that the word translated repent is a form of the same root word that is used to describe job’s friends intentions to “comfort” job in the beginning of the book, in chapter 2, verse 11.

 

Let me just read this paragraph from the ESVs introduction to the book:

 

the most important key word in the book is the term “comfort”; the book shows where true comfort is to be found. in 2:11 job’s three friends come to comfort him; in 6:10 job takes comfort in not having denied the words of the holy one; in 7:13 job claims that God will not allow his bed to comfort him. in 15:11 eliphaz claims to be offering the comforts of God, while in 16:2 job calls his friends miserable comforters, and in 21:34 he declares they are trying to comfort him with empty nothings. in 21:2 job sarcastically offers to his friends the “comfort” of hearing him out. the key comes in 42:6: now that God has spoken, job can say that he is “comforted in dust and ashes.” when job’s relatives and friends come to comfort him in 42:11, this is probably ironic: job has already found the comfort he needed in the vision of God’s unsearchable wisdom.

 

We live with Job in the land of Uz, where our pain becomes the opportunity to seek and see the God called Abba. And like Job, we can cry out for a glimpse of that God that makes it possible for us to find comfort in the very thing Satan’s designed to rob us of that comfort. That glimpse will someday turn into a gaze. And that gaze is promised to all who are His. And it is promised to make the pain worth it in the end.

 

And may I end with this, in the voice of Job, from the last page of Piper’s Job Poems:

 

Behold the mercy of our King, who takes from death its bitter sting, and by his blood, and often ours, brings triumph out of hostile powers, and paints, with crimson, earth and soul until the bloody work is whole. What we have lost God will restore ~ that, and himself, forevermore, when he is finished with his art: the quiet worship of our heart. When God creates a humble hush, and makes Leviathan his brush, it won’t be long before the rod becomes the tender kiss of God.

 

Amen.

Categories: General | Leave a comment

Virginia Tech Massacre

On the Virginia Tech Shooting:
April 2007…

I just added Cho Seung-Hui to my Word spell-check dictionary.

He doesn’t deserve such recognition. It’d be better if, for years to come, whenever anyone typed his name in any document, it would promptly be underlined with red.

But people will be writing about him for decades, though likely not with the spin he was hoping for.

Apparently, he thought himself a martyr. In the videotaped manifesto he mailed to NBC, he associates himself with the boys from Columbine. With rotting hatred he blames every person caught up in the culture of the day. People like you and me. People with laptop computers, email addresses, cars that run, and dreams to pursue. All said, Cho insists it is our fault that all those students are dead.

And on this point he is right. He is right in the abstract.

But in the specific, he is very wrong.

Make no mistake; Cho Seung-Hui is a murderer, not a martyr.

But it is true that we all share in the eventual breakdown of humanity, and the destruction of creation. Not in his act specifically, but in our disposition corporately.

It is true that each of us has blood on our hands.

It is true that we all contribute somehow to the cause of this effect.

And we are not excused from our own sin just because he was the one who pulled the trigger, over and over again.

Does it hurt yet?

We are quick to categorize, aren’t we? Cho is a creature unlike us. We could never do what he did. Our hearts are not so bent.

Ah, but our Story says otherwise. Our story claims that were it not for the fear of consequences enforced by civil law, we might all very easily be predisposed to crimes of such magnitude.

And more profoundly, apart from the redemptive work begun by God in Christ (and promised from before the beginning of all time), manifested in individual hearts and corporate communities, we would end in a royal bloodbath for sure. For the bent to have our way, the demand to be paid heed to, the ache to be respected – even loved – unchecked, would drive us all to take matters into our own hands.

And our hands would drip with blood.

Yet perhaps a royal bloodbath is precisely what we need, but of a very different kind.

Royal as in the Kingly kind. Blood as in the blood of Christ.

Perhaps what disturbs me as much in Cho’s words as I am grieved by his actions, is his violently flawed interpretation of the life and death of Christ, as paralleled by his own:

“Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”

Cho died hating those he killed. Cho brought death.

Christ died loving those who killed him. Christ brought life.

Big difference.

We don’t need Cho’s revolution; we need Christ’s.

If it is a bloodbath we need, it is the life-giving blood of Christ. His is the death and revolution we need. Blood that not only covers us in forgiveness, but blood that pulses through us in life-giving, world-transforming, life-change.

In the end, Cho is responsible for his crimes just as we are responsible for ours. And the greatest crime of all time, the crime for which the blood is indeed on our hands, is the rejection of the God who loves us as God loves us in Christ.

Accepting Him is receiving His life and accepting His ways – perpetual re-creation through self-sacrificial love.

Love that gives life. Not hate that takes it.

Love that takes the bullet. Not hate that pulls the trigger.

We watch the news and we wake up to the world that is. It is broken. There is real evil here. Left unchecked and unrestrained in any of us it would wreak the eventual destruction of life. It happens every day. And what is done cannot be undone. But what may otherwise become the inevitable end in any situation can be avoided – the story rewritten – by the simple but sustained invasion of heavenly presence in and through the lives of those who belong to God. We go to Him to be saved from our own darkness, and then we participate in the dawning of His kingdom here. Simple, faithful acts of kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, and appropriate and well-timed truth-telling can rewrite a person’s story from one of destruction to one of deliverance. I am watching this happen this week.

A week or two prior to Easter, a friend of mine confessed to me his fantasies of murder. He had been hurt before. He felt altogether unloved (though this may not have been an actuality, it was true in his mind).

A vague suicide note months before had landed him in a mental-psyche ward for three days and an incurred bill of $3000 for what he suggested was liability reasons. He determined never to mention his fantasies or suicidal thoughts to a professional ever again. But he was willing to do so with me. He needed to talk it out. He needed someone to hear the person beneath the pain.

He confessed serial killer tendencies. Days later he had strung up an extension cord.?Ǭ† Wrote the note. Called me in a last-ditch S.O.S. Acknowledged recently that had he easy access to firearms, someone would’ve been dead. I opted out of an Easter Service band rehearsal to pick this guy up and drive around a Minneapolis lake for three hours while he stabilized and made specific plans to make it through another day. Spent most of the time listening and loving. Spoke proactive truth when it seemed appropriate to do so. I have no doubt that death was prevented that night.

But this was not an isolated incident of redemption. Ten years ago this friend left the church in a spiteful rage. He systematically isolated himself from every Kingdom representative he had ever known. He tried to do the same with me, but I wouldn’t let him. He was my friend, and I loved him, after all. The culmination of ten faithful years of sustained (though not consistent in measure) presence in his life was realized in that evening by the lake and in the daily interaction in weeks that followed. There is now this day the evidence of unfolding redemption in his story.

The potential shedding of blood in and by his life was prevented by the preemptive shedding of Christ’s blood on Calvary. Christ’s selfless love saved me, inspired me, and empowered me to play a part in Christ’s salvation brought to this broken world.

So this causes me to ask a question regarding Virginia Tech: where were God’s people in Cho’s life? Where were the Kingdom representatives? Not all evil can be prevented in this world, but it can be curbed. We do not know of the violence that goes unrealized in the otherwise destructive lives of those who’ve been redeemed by God. How many of us are there in the Kingdom today that might have been perpetrators of these very deeds were it not for the redemption Christ has already brought (and is currently bringing) through our lives?

Never underestimate “unnoticed” acts of kindness. Never assume the little you can do makes no difference. Indeed, Christ knows the force of the revolution He has begun. Let us trust Him to do what He does greatly through that which we can do but feebly.

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Through The Valley

THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
PSALM 23

It was a warm spring weekend at the end of April 2005. I had been incredibly busy for four months. In the studio and at church, the demands of ministry had required more of me than I had to give, and any capacity I’d once had for compassionate ministry had shriveled up in the pressures of the season. I hadn’t spent time alone with my Creator for months. His Word had become foreign to me. I was still teaching it, but I hadn’t listened for a long time. As a result I’d become spiritually stale in faith and deed. Akin to a dead man washed ashore after a shipwreck, I needed reviving. I needed new life breathed into me. To be brought back to life. To be rescued and revived.

vueshadow.jpgMy wife willingly gave me blessing to take a three-day silent retreat at the completion of an album that had consumed me for so long.?Ǭ† I drove northward from the Twin Cities towards Inspiration Point Bible Camp near Fergus Falls. I brought no music. On the drive up I sought to recall passages of scripture that I had memorized in years past. And while when speaking or teaching I occasionally find scripture as accessible as though I had a photographic memory, that afternoon heading west on Interstate 94, in the spiritual comatose nurtured by my apathy, all I could remember were the words of the 23rd Psalm.

Psalm 23. The foremost psalm of comfort and consolation. Undoubtedly the most well-known Psalm, if not the most loved, across all cultures and generations in the history of the world. In brilliant poetry Israel’s King David identifies the Lord as our Shepherd, and we as His sheep. That afternoon as I drove, I flipped open a little NIV just to make sure I was getting the verses in the right order.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

Paths of righteousness… Sounds like the right road to be on. Sounds like it goes someplace good. If the journey makes a man’s life, this is the journey by which a life is made good. The path is righteousness, and I would assume it leads to righteousness, as well.

There are three things we can know about this path from these verses: 1) Who leads us on it: It is the Good Shepherd, the Lord, who takes us down this road. It is He who directs our steps and keeps us on this road – on this road, and not another. 2) Why we’re on it: The Good Shepherd has put us on this road for His purposes – for His name’s sake. This is important to Him. He’s got His reasons. 3) Where it goes…

Did I get the order right? Verse four comes after verse three, right?

“He leads me on paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…”

I had parked my car at the bottom of Inspiration Peak at the tail end of my three-hour drive. It was an hour before sunset, and I felt a good hike up to the second highest peak in Minnesota might be a good thing to do before checking into camp for the night. The hike was harder than it had ever been before. I was so easily winded. I assumed I was merely out of shape.

A half hour later at the top of what the Ojibwe call “Rustling Leaf Mountain” I sat down on the backrest of a wooden bench to watch the sunset. It was warm up there. And windless. There were no leaves rustling when it first occurred to me that the paths of righteousness in David’s Psalm lead through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. This is where the Good Shepherd leads His sheep. This is where the Paths of Righteousness must go.

I silently cried sitting there that evening, watching the sun go down on what I felt was another passing season of my life, as I knew somehow that this truth had deep and painful implications for me – indeed, for any sheep who was in the Good Shepherd’s care.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death did not sound like a good thing to me. Three words converged into one moniker maliciously dripping with negative implications.

Four years earlier I had gone backpacking with three other guys for a week in the Utah desert. We’d hiked five miles into a little valley called Hackberry – seventeen miles from the nearest highway – and set up camp at the base of a narrow canyon.

During the day we would hike up and out of the canyon into the high places. There we could see for miles, and it was beautiful. But in the middle of the canyon, there wasn’t much to see but the gray, rocky canyon walls. In the valley, there was no reference point, no horizon?Ǭ† – there was no way of knowing where we were. Without a guide or a good map, one could easily get lost in the valley.

valleypalestine.jpgAnother thing about the valley is that there was so little light. While the days at that time of the year were near fourteen or fifteen hours long, the sunlight reached the valley floor for only six to seven hours each day. And when the sun did shine into the valley, it was a stifling heat, stale and breathless. But most of the time, it was dark and cool, a constant shadow. Not shade. Shade is good. This was shadow. A blocking of the sun.

I guess there was at least one good thing that could be said about that valley – there was water there. We set up camp next to a stream in the middle of this valley. More specifically, right next to a spring that fed the stream. This was the freshest water one could find in that desert. We’d fill our canteens every morning there in the valley before heading to the high country for the day.

I’ve heard that this was also often true of the valleys in the country where David was a shepherd as a boy. The freshest pools of water were in the valley. That’s one of the places a good shepherd would bring his flock for water. To drink elsewhere would be risking contamination or disease.

There’s something else I remember hearing about those valleys in David’s day – they were dangerous. It was a dangerous place to be. Thieves and beasts lurked in those shadows. Wolves lay in wait for the unattended sheep or traveler walking through the valley alone, posed to attack their prey when there’d be no one near to help or to hear the cries.

No, I do not think I like The Valley of the Shadow of Death. I’ve come to intimately know something about this Shadow and its valley. Something that is suggested by the valley imagery and implied by its name. And something that has been experientially proven to me.

As I sat on that hill that evening watching the sun set – as I was catching my breath from the hike up the path – a cancerous tumor the size of a man’s hand was spreading its fingers over every vital organ in my chest, threatening to choke out my life in a matter of months.

I would find this out just a few weeks later. And the subsequent chemotherapy necessary to rid my being of this cancer would change the landscape of my life for at least the next two years. I could tell of four specific occurrences in which death loomed so near I shivered in its shadow. It was all I could see. And I would have to tell you that I was afraid. I was afraid mostly for my family. Who would care for them if I were to leave this world so long before them?

While many might legitimize this fear in terms of genuine love and concern, I have seen it to be in me a lack of trust. Could I trust our Good Shepherd to do here what I could no longer do if I were dead? Could I trust Him enough to agree with Him when He said it was my time to go?

King David did not quiver in this shadow, and he has left his God-inspired poetry as a clue for us as to how this was so for him. He tells us why he did not fear, and why we need not fear, as well.

“Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for THOU ART WITH ME, THY ROD AND THY STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME.”

In the darkness of the shadow of the valley, the sheep may not be able to see the shepherd, but it could feel the end of the shepherd’s staff nudging it along, guiding it first this way, and then that, keeping the sheep on the path, near the shepherd, and out of harm’s way. And though not knowing much (why they were there, where they were going) the sheep would know that if there was the shepherd’s staff, then there was also the shepherd.

We do not have a physical rod or staff to guide us in this life, but neither are we sheep. We are people. And just as a rod and staff would provide guidance and security for a sheep in the shadows, the Word and the Spirit do the same for us in our darkest seasons.

The Word of Christ and the Spirit of Christ testify to the presence of Christ, who evoked this imagery when He spoke of Himself as The Good Shepherd. It is through these means – the Word and the Spirit – that God seeks to communicate to us still that He is with us, and our valleys are no surprise to Him. This rod and this staff tell us that God is here, He knows what He is doing, and we can trust Him to work His good through this bad thing.

There was one other significant thing that God did for me (and in me) that weekend up near Inspiration Peak. The evening I left the camp I stopped my car where the gravel road leaving Inspiration Point met up with the highway. There was one book I had brought along that I hadn’t found the time to read, and fortunately for me, the author of this book had included a CD of himself reading the book. Convinced that it was alright if I listened to something other than music, I put the CD in my stereo and pulled onto the highway.

Job Poems.jpgThe book was by Minneapolis Pastor John Piper. It was poetry – a four-part poem on the life of Job called The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God. As a work of art I consider it to hold the potential of a classic. And as balm for the soul, I consider it one of the more foundational works in fortifying my faith in the strength and goodness of God.

I drove the backroads of central Minnesota for forty-five minutes that evening in a life-changing blurr. With the sun already set, the moon rising high, the windows down and tears blurring my vision, I drove slowly, turning onto whatever road seemed most conducive to the solitude I needed to fully absorb the story I was being told.

Job’s story spoke so deeply into my being that God could be trusted. And that God was so good, and so strong, that His good purposes would be accomplished – not merely in spite of Satan’s rage – but even in and through Satan’s efforts to destroy whatever God has made and is making good.

Redemption is something God does. No one does redemption like God. He alone can take something absolutely awful and take hold of it for the absolutely best possible outcome. It is for this reason that in this season of Lent we remember and honor Christ on the Cross. For on Calvary, God brought that which is absolutely good through that which was absolutely awful. Christ, with our sin on His body, hanging upon our cross, was forsaken by God so that we need never be removed from God’s life-sustaining presence. Because of Christ we can always say, “the Lord is with us.”

And In the Garden of Gethsemane we see the Lord in anguish, crying out to His Father on the eve of His descent into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He prays with blood and tears for another way to the other side of this valley. Yet being it was clear to Him that His Father was leading Him on this Path of Righteousness as He always had, and that this Path went through the Valley, Jesus spoke His resolve in these words, “Not my will, but Yours, be done.”

So God in Christ, our Good Shepherd, knows exactly what it is like to want a way out, to ache for a better way. God gets it. He understands. Yet in the perfect display of trust which followed – His body broken and His blood spilled out – our Good Shepherd not only taught us trust, but fulfilled trust for us.

In faith and in the sacraments we bind ourselves to Christ. We remember His suffering and His obedience. We remember His trust in following His Father into the Valley and to the Cross. And we bind ourselves to Him. I need this. I need communion. If I am to walk the path into the valley I need more than the faith I can muster, I need His. I need to commune with The Good Shepherd. I need Him with me. I need Him in me.

There is one last vital thing we must remember about valleys, and it is so obvious that we can too easily take it for granted. It is demonstrated in Christ’s resurrection. It is implied in the language of the 23rd Psalm. And it is the substance of the hope that keeps us walking in the Shadow of Death, whether that death is the death of a relationship, a dream, a career, a loved one, our health, or our bodies.

The vital thing we must remember about valleys is that valleys lie between high places. Though the path of righteousness leads into the valley, it does not end there. It goes through. The Shepherd is with us through the valley. There is an end to this struggle.

“For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:31-32).

“After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all Grace, who called you to eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (I Peter 5:10).

There is a view on the other side of the valley that will be worth all our sorrow. To see it, God must first heal our eyes, and He does this in the Shadow of the Valley. God has things to tell us on the other side that we cannot hear unless our ears are healed, and He does this in the Silence of the Valley.

The Word and the Spirit, our Shepherd’s rod and staff, assure us that “the end of a matter is better than it’s beginning.” Though the Good Shepherd may lead us into The Valley of the Shadow of Death, He does not leave us there. The path goes through. We must remember that just as Christ is no longer on the Cross or in the Grave, we are travelers – visitors – in the Valley. Not residents, not citizens.

“For our citizenship is in heaven…”

It is the High Countries to which we belong. It is there from which we have come, and it is there to which we are going.

“And [we] will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

AMEN.

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