A Drizzly November Soul

So muses Melville’s Ishmael:

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” (Moby Dick, chapter 1)

In our own drizzly November souls, where go we when the sea is no option?

A Hymn’s Mysterious Ways

It is typical for preachers such as I in an attempt to bring encouragement to people struggling through difficult times to quote from the hymn whose first line is ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’. We will often along with that tell something of what we know of the hymn’s author, William Cowper.

William cowper 448
We will tell how he was a pastor and a poet, and friends of the famed John Newton, the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. And finally we will point out how Cowper dealt with severe affliction, that he struggled with mental health issues and that he was hospitalized numerous times, sometimes after attempts on his own life. Given that context we will then encourage people to reflect on lines from the hymn:

You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.

And from this, we hope people will find comfort.

But did Cowper find comfort from these words himself? That he did not is the possibility that hymn scholar Erik Routley in his book I’ll Praise My Maker suggests.

Routley points out that the bulk of Cowper’s hymns show they were written by a man with a passionate and sensitive heart. His words were often personal, flowing from a heart in love with his savior.

Oh! for a closer walk with GOD,
A calm and heav’nly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

But Cowper, like many sensitive souls, struggled to understand God’s providence when it took dark and inexplicable turns. And so, Routley points out, the words from his hymn on that matter,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

are completely true and deeply hopeful. But, coming from the pen of Cowper, they are oddly lacking anything personal or emotional. They lack, that is, Cowper’s heart.

The whole hymn exhorts men to trust in God and not to enquire into His ways, which is well enough so far as it goes….

But what astonishes the careful reader is surely this, that here is a man who had both plumbed the depths of suffering and scaled the heights of faith, who wrote so passionately of his Saviour as he did in “There is a fountain filled with blood”,…yet, when he would advise men upon the inscrutability of God’s Providence, he makes no mention whatever of the Saviour of the world, and does not so much as mention the word “grace”.

How can Cowper, after all his experience and all his exhortation, write a hymn of providence that makes no mention of redemption?…Something is wrong here…. (page 110)

I’m not sure that there is something actually ‘wrong’ here, but something is clearly missing. How can that be explained?

Sometimes we find ourselves in those hard places where we are torn between the pain that hurts so badly and the truth that we are supposed to believe. All that we can really do in the midst of that agony may be to recite what we know to be true even though it seems distant from our hearts. Sometimes all we have strength to do is to sing, or in Cowper’s case write, what we are having trouble believing so that we might come around to the place where in fact we do believe and our hearts can again rejoice.

This is the ‘I believe’ part of the complete confession, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ (Mark 9:24) We do believe, but contentment eludes when the horror of what we are experiencing and feeling overcomes us.

Perhaps in his own way, Cowper, struggling with the incomprehensible darkness of mental illness, is showing us a path. In the dark we confess the truth that we know until the light comes to illuminate it to our hearts. Perhaps this hymn itself moves in a mysterious way.

The Psalm in the Middle

Many psalms enter the brokenness of life and give vent to human anguish and confusion. And these usually, somewhere, all breathe a final breath of hope. There is always hope. In every psalm, that is, except Psalm 88.

Psalm 88 knows nothing but despair, the pain of rejection, the darkness of the unknown. It is the black hole of the psalter, sucking into itself everything that is dark and refusing the emission of light.

The psalm is so dark that some read it with no pleasure. It is a strange world to them. But to others, it is a place of refuge because it gives expression to emotions previously unspoken. To these, Psalm 88 feels like the world in which they live. It is a bleak world, stripped of hope and light, but it is familiar because it is their world. Here is just a taste of that world:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness. (Psalm 88:14, 18)

With such unrelenting words the psalm becomes the friend who can say for us what we dare not say ourselves. It says what we might be shocked to find that we are feeling, and assures us we are not alone. There is comfort in that.

Psalm 88 therefore joins us in the dark and gives us a voice. But Psalm 88 never shows up alone.

To get to Psalm 88, we have to trip over Psalm 87.

Glorious things of you are spoken,
O city of God.
(Psalm 87:3)

And from Psalm 88 we can glimpse Psalm 89 on the far side.

I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever;
with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.
(Psalm 89:1)

The question “Why” is the question of the heart that is so battered it cannot imagine enduring another blow. It is the question of Psalm 88 that receives no answer. But those unanswered questions are asked of a God whose favor, obscured, invisible, questioned, and doubted, is no less real. The inexplicable pain of life in the valley of death’s shadow exists in the context of the ineradicable promises of God’s favor and life.

Psalm 88 leaves us with no hope, and for that I’m grateful, for it feels much more real. But hope is still here, standing guard, on either side, for this is the psalm in the middle. And someday, those who feel at home in the darkness will lift up their eyes to see what lies on either side. And that will be a good day.

Unsomber and Undull

I’ve committed myself to reading again the Letters of Samuel Rutherford over the next year. To those of you unfamiliar, Rutherford was a 17th Century Scottish Puritan known partly for his polemic writing, partly for his involvement in the Westminster Assembly, and mostly for his letters. The full collection of his letters was first assembled in 1664 and remains in print today, along with an abbreviated collection as well (available for Kindle for 99¢).

This project will explain what will be, I suspect, my fairly regular reference to Rutherford here and on Twitter. Perhaps the taste this will give might encourage others to pursue Rutherford as well. If your view of Puritan faith that it was rather somber and dull (!) will find a surprising passion in Rutherford. His language of love for Jesus is sometimes embarrassingly intimate which most likely suggests a fault in my faith, and not in his.

As was his beloved Jesus, Rutherford and those around him were acquainted with grief. In a letter seeking to bring comfort to a friend in sorrow, he speaks thus:Rutherford

We may indeed think, Cannot God bring us to heaven with ease and prosperity? Who doubteth but He can? But His infinite wisdom thinketh and decreeth the contrary; and we cannot see a reason of it, yet He hath a most just reason….

Madam, when ye are come to the other side of the water, and have set down your foot on the shore of glorious eternity, and look back again to the waters and to your wearisome journey, and shall see, in that clear glass of endless glory, nearer to the bottom of God’s wisdom, ye shall then be forced to say, “If God had done otherwise with me than He hath done, I had never come to the enjoying of this crown of glory.” It is your part now to believe, and suffer, and hope, and wait on; for I protest, in the presence of that all-discerning eye, who knoweth what I write and what I think, that I would not want the sweet experience of the consolations of God for all the bitterness of affliction. Nay, whether God come to His children with a rod or a crown, if He come Himself with it, it is well. [page 53, Letter XI, full edition]

Such is the faith of an eye fixed on Jesus. Rutherford had a first hand knowledge of such affliction. It is at the end of this letter that he reports his own experience of the rod of God.

My wife now, after long disease and torment, for the space of a year and a month, is departed this life. The Lord hath done it; blessed be His name.

Read Rutherford and be encouraged to look to Jesus and to know hope and joy in the midst of trial.

There Must Be a Reason

In the year following the attack on the World Trade Centers, my wife and I attended an Alison Krauss and Union Station concert. The final song of the night was intentionally, though obliquely, linked to that still fresh wound. The opening verse of the song, written by banjo/guitar player Ron Block, muses

Why do we suffer, crossing off the years?
There must be a reason for it all.

The reality of human suffering is beyond question. To imply that there is a reason for it comes with its own set of problems. Given the horrific nature of what the TVs and our own lives bring into our experiences, if there is reason, it had better be good.

Rarely, however, do we find the proffered reasons satisfactory. That is no surprise to me. If God is, and if God rules, and if God rules with intention and purpose, how can the terrible evil we see fit into that rule, if indeed he is, as we assume, good?

The option to God’s purpose, we noted in a prior post, is no purpose. For many reasons, I opt for the notion of God having a purpose as being a greater comfort. But that does not mean I understand the purposes of an infinite and all wise God. As AKUS notes:

In all the things that cause me pain You give me eyes to see.
I do believe but help my unbelief.

It should not surprise us if we cannot comprehend the purposes of a sovereign God. But that does not mean that we are given no hints. In a day when the horrors were more likely to be next door than simply on television, Christian thinkers were more earnestly pressed to consider the questions and posit some answers. Thomas Boston writing 300 years ago suggested that the afflictions which befall the Christian may arise from one of seven possible reasons. I list them here not to pretend to be exhaustive, but to give us, as the Scriptures do, a place to rest our weak faith.

1. The trial of one’s state, whether one is in the state of grace or not? whether a sincere Christian or a hypocrite?
2. Excitation to duty, weaning one from this world, and prompting him to look after the happiness of the other world.
3. Conviction of sin.
4. Correction or punishment for sin.
5. Preventing of sin.
6. Discovery [revealing] of latent corruption.
7. The exercise of grace in the children of God.

Standing alone these are little help, and even once explained, they may bring minimal comfort. Ultimately our hope is in the love of God, proven in the cross of Christ, where God himself suffered on our behalf.

Hurtin’ brings my heart to You, crying with my need,
Depending on Your love to carry me.
The love that shed His blood for all the world to see
This must be the reason for it all.

More concisely put is this quote lifted from Twitter, which Tim Keller attributes to a sermon of Jonathan Edwards. Knowing the love and purpose of a good and sovereign heavenly Father, we can know this:

There is, in fact, a reason for it all.

O, Death

It’s near the end of the Coen brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? that the bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley sings the brooding ‘O Death’. It is a haunting song echoing a common plea: “O death, won’t you spare me over ’til another year…”

That plea, or at least that desire, is the driving force behind all philosophy, according to Luc Ferry in his well-regarded and often recommended book A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Both religion and philosophy, Ferry suggests, are driven by the same engine, the passion to find a way around, through, or beyond the anxiety caused by the reality of death. Both are, that is, seeking a path to salvation.

Unable to bring himself to believe in a God who offers salvation, the philosopher is above all one who believes that by understanding the world, by understanding ourselves and others as far our intelligence permits, we shall succeed in overcoming fear, through clear-sightedness rather than blind faith. (page 6)

Perhaps, of course, blind faith in the promise of philosophy is all that the philosopher has left once he has jettisoned God. But that he has identified this basic fear of the unknown (the ‘darkest of all things’ noted my then 11 year old son) as the primal human concern is fascinating. Ferry notes that:

All philosophies, however divergent they may sometimes be in the answers they bring, promise us an escape from primitive fears. They possess in common with religions the conviction that anguish prevents us from leading good lives; it stops us not only from being happy, but also from being free. (page 10)

If philosophy and religion are heading the same direction, then, why jettison religion in general and Christianity in particular? Ferry is honest in his answer. He rejects Christianity for two reasons.

First and foremost, because the promise… – that we are immortal and will encounter our loved ones after our own biological demise – is too good to be true. (11)

That calls for its own response, but I want to set that aside to look at his second reason.

Similarly hard to believe is the image of a God who acts as a father to his children. How can one reconcile this with the appalling massacres and misfortunes which overwhelm humanity…. (11)

With this Ferry dismisses Christianity as being insufficiently satisfying. But what, one might ask, do we put in its place? Whatever philosophical salvation is proposed as an alternative must still deal with the “appalling massacres and misfortunes which overwhelm humanity”. How do these philosophies deal with such realities?

I’m no philosopher (which is why I’m reading this book). But it seems to me that that which appalls us is either purposeful and therefore meaningful, or random and therefore meaningless. One either faces a universe that has no concern for him and in fact is tilted toward his destruction, or one faces a universe in which there is a God who, however mysteriously, guides events toward an end which is good. One does not escape the misfortunes by eliminating God from the answer.

I’m well aware that bringing God into the picture creates hard, hard questions. I can’t explain a God, a Father as Ferry correctly notes, who would permit the atrocities and horrors common in this world. But neither can I adequately explain why those horrors are not more common, why life itself exists at all, or why philosophers have the space and time and breath to contemplate death and the rejection of God. I don’t know God’s reasons for permitting evil or for raining good down upon us.

But, it seems to me, that it is not blind faith that convinces the Christian that Christianity is right. Ferry cannot see it, but it may be that the most satisfying explanation for the good and bad in the world is found in a purposeful God who is bringing redemption to a broken world. A God who has not remained distant from that world, but who himself entered into its suffering.

So, if death spares me over ’til another year I intend to try to understand the answers others posit. But I remain convinced that that philosophy which allows us both happiness and freedom is in fact NOT too good to be true.

Rainbows for Caitlin

I know that some of you were moved to pray for Caitlin and her family by my previous post. Now I would ask you to pray for her family, and if it seems appropriate, to weep for them and for the brokenness of this world and the pain of death. Caitlin passed away this past Sunday. I would encourage you to read her mom’s testimony here. But I know that many of you won’t click through, and so, to make it easy, I will copy and paste it here. And as I type, it is raining.

It is Florida’s dry season

There is a joke about Florida’s seasons. Florida has 2: a wet season and a dry season. The wet season runs from April-October, and the dry season runs from November-March. They are just that. It rains every day during the wet season and not at all during the dry season.

So imagine our surprise when God winked and threw us a couple rainbows and some rain in the last several days.

Sunday morning, as I woke next to Caitlin, on the make-shift bed we had relocated downstairs, I knew the day was going to be different. Although she begged for me to take her to church, I knew we would not get there and that she was failing us.

I will not weigh this post down with details and specifics, because death is not beautiful or glamorous as some have described it. I will tell you the beautiful part of this story however.

We held Caitlin in our arms, while family gathered around, and at 3:24 on Sunday afternoon Caitlin took one last breath and died.

We cried some more, and said goodbye. And then, as if God rolled out the carpet for her to travel to heaven, a rainbow appeared. That means, moments after each of her family members said goodbye it rained (for only a few minutes) AND produced a rainbow….in my heart I want to believe Caitlin took the hand of loved ones, and unafraid, she skipped up that rainbow and right into heaven with only one look back to wave and say, “It’s ok mama! I promise I’m not scared! I can skip again!”

Again, without details of the day, I will fast forward to several hours later. We let go of the shell that had once contained Caitlin’s incredible spirit. We kissed those uncharacteristeric chubby cheeks, and the no-longer crooked and droopy mouth, and we placed her body into the care of the funeral home.

As they drove away I started thru the house and out the back door to retrieve the other children from a friend’s house. As I got half way thru the backyard, the sky opened up, and it rained. I stood in the rain with a friend who was walking with me. Honestly, I think we were both paralyzed with shock. Turning our heads toward the sky in stunned silence, we put up our hands and shrugged our shoulders because words weren’t necessary. As our feet hit the back porch of our other friend’s house just a few yards away, the rain stopped.

We gathered children and sent them running thru the backyard for some dinner. Again as we reached the halfway mark in the joined backyards, it rained. It rained harder and harder until we reached the door of my back porch. It rained for 3 minutes and was done. Another wink? How can it be anything but a wink.

Then, finally, after a day of being surrounded by family and friends, and Jeff and I dealt with the tasks of funeral home and church service arrangements, we arrived home yesterday afternoon. We were greeted with a dozen excited and shouting adults and children. Apparently, while we were out “arranging”, at exactly 3:24, a rainbow, ever so faint and light, appeared in the backyard of our home.

God let Caitlin throw her own rainbow. She loved them so much. She thought they were beautiful. And in the last year, when everyone joined in and made it “hers” to own as a symbol of things so much bigger than she could ever know, she was thrilled.

So I’m going to believe, that God picked her up, and said, “Let’s send a message to mommy, daddy, and everyone left down on Earth crying for you. How could we let them know that you’re ok?” It wouldn’t take Caitlin long to reply, “Mama loves rainbows!” And with that, God held her hand, and together they threw a rainbow; a tiny, fading, almost invisible rainbow.

Rainbows and rain, during the “dry” season…..best.wink.yet.

with love from our broken hearts, d

Real Missionaries

It must be hard to be a missionary and to have to write reports home detailing your life and ministry. I’m sure all want to be honest, but many must find it hard to be honest when those to whom they are writing control the dollars which enable them to stay where they are. So, rare is the prayer letter which says “the strain of ministry here has put a great strain on our family” or “we find that after four years here, we have not seen any conversions” or “sometimes I feel like quitting”. Such things are often felt, but rarely written. I understand.

But that can give us a false image of the brokenness that can often be a part of cross-cultural ministry. When a missionary is able to crack a window on his or her broken heart, it not only helps us appreciate what they confront, which can inform our prayers, but it as well can encourage us in our own brokeness.

For a number of years we have been friends with a couple who have been serving in a difficult, predominantly Muslim, part of the world. They find themselves now in a situation which demands that they leave that place which has become their home. They may never be able to go back. And so it is with a profound sense of sadness and grief that they face this move.

Perhaps reading the wife’s reflections on their impending move will give you a greater appreciation for the missionaries you know and the struggles that the tenderness of their hearts cause them to face.

This is a long quote, but worth reading and pondering. It is quoted with permission.

But the harder thing is that we’re telling our friends. And this is the point where I always get emotional. I can talk about the facts of the move ok, but when I start to talk about our friends, I break down. From the first, we have always been here in _____ for the people. Simply put, we love them. God called us to this amazing country to share His love with such wonderful, warm, giving people, all of them made in His image, and He has blessed us with a lot of really special relationships. So, it is really hard to give them up. We’ve learned that, while sure there are sacrifices made in coming to the field, the real sacrifice is when God takes you off that field. When you decide to come, you are making the choice to serve God in the way He has called. And, you still have connections that withstand the distance, especially as you are able to phone, email, and visit home occasionally. But when you have to leave and you don’t know that you will ever be able to visit and many of your friends don’t have email and it is really hard to type Arabic with English letters anyway… 😦 We have to remind ourselves that these precious people will remain in our hearts, even if we aren’t able to stay in touch. That they are a blessing we would never have experienced if we hadn’t come here – and oh, how much richer our lives are because of them! And, I realize that I can trust God to leave them in His hands. Even though many of them have no other believer in their lives, that is not an obstacle for God. We are not their Savior, Jesus is. So, I have to give them over to Him, one by one, in my prayers. Often repeatedly.

And here’s where another big reason I haven’t written comes into play. I haven’t wanted to talk about it. I’ve been mourning, but I’ve realized that I’ve also been really rebellious in my attitude. It took me a while to dissect it, but I found that the emotions I’m feeling were really familiar. I was experiencing the same sense of loss, of betrayal, of things happening beyond my control that have a huge impact on my life as I did when my parents divorced when I was in high school. And that discovery make me understand that I was handling things in the same way that I did when I was 16 – basically feeling bitter and unhappy and passively rebellious.

Soooo. Well, I’ve been praying about it. And God reminded me that I once told Him that I wanted Him to control my life and, as a result, He started changing things up in really startling ways. I had certainly never expected to be a worker overseas and yet that was what God had in store for me. Such a blessing it turned out to be! And now He is changing things up again because He is still the One in control. That comforted me to be reminded of that. Another thing He has reminded me is that I am called to be thankful, to bless the Lord in all circumstances. And I’ve begun doing that again. Two years ago, when we were ordered out of the country, praising God even in the midst of my tears was my immediate reaction and I had so much peace about it all. It’s so crazy that I didn’t start there again this time, but I was too busy being upset about it all… Anyway, I’m not saying that I’m done mourning because I’m sure that will continue, but I am asking the Holy Spirit to change my heart – not that I would ever stop loving our friends here, but that I would rejoice despite our departure.

For Understanding

This is from novelist Ian McEwan’s piece on his relationship with Christopher Hitchens.

THE place where Christopher Hitchens spent his last few weeks was hardly bookish, but he made it his own. Close to downtown Houston is the Medical Center, a cluster of high-rises like La Défense of Paris, or London’s City, a financial district of a sort, where the common currency is illness.

This complex is one of the world’s great concentrations of medical expertise and technology. Its highest building denies the possibility of a benevolent god — a neon sign proclaims from its roof a cancer hospital for children. This “clean-sliced cliff,” as Larkin puts it in his poem about a tower-block hospital, was right across the way from Christopher’s place — which was not quite as high, and adults only.

The highlighting is mine.

That sentence is a call to arms for every apologetic cell in a Christian’s body. But for a moment, let’s just listen.

This is also a very clear, and very poignant, insight into how many think about God. If we have been enabled to reconcile the benevolence of God with a children’s cancer hospital, then let us be grateful to God, but let us as well be sympathetic to those yet to make peace with one of the hardest realities in a broken and fallen world.

And let us pray that we all, especially at Christmas, may have a clear vision of a benevolent God’s breaking into this broken world through a Child.

The Deep Parts

Buried in the positive messages of blessing and prosperity in the book of Proverbs are these wise observations about human sadness.

The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy. (14:10)

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief. (14:13)

Solomon (and possibly Smokey Robinson) understood the deep parts of our hearts which few rarely see.

UPDATE: Apparently the Smokey Robinson link doesn’t work. Puzzles me. Perhaps this works?