DeerDrinking55071The Psalms reflect the wonder of life, the glory of creation, the incomparable gifts of God, praise for his love and constant care. But they also reflect the loneliness of the human spirit which no earthly medicine can heal; the solitude of mental anguish; the hours of dark despair; the waves of doubts and fears, of questions and tears upon which all men and women are tossed. In the introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin wrote in 1563, “I may truly call this book an anatomy of all parts of the soul, for no one can feel a movement of the spirit which is not reflected in this mirror. All the sorrows, troubles, fears, doubt, hopes, pains, perplexities, stormy outbreaks by which the hearts of men are tossed, have been depicted here.”

Psalms that most closely fit this description are called Psalms of Lament. These psalms mirror the painful emotions of the soul struggling with circumstances beyond its control; trying to reconcile such situations with what it believes about God.

Lament Psalms are of two kinds: National (Ps. 44)- Why? How Long? Why does God neglect his people? How long will they be objects of derision among the nations? Then there are the individual or personal lament psalms. There is a typical pattern to these:
1. An intro- usually a cry for help
2. A lament- a description of the complaint
3. A remembrance of what is known to be true about God
4. A petition- asking God for something
5. A confession of trust

Such a pattern should be a model for our own communication with God in the midst of discouragement or despair. These psalms should teach us that we can bring such things before God, indeed that we must come before God at times like this. They will help us to work out our anger and despair within the context of our faith rather than outside of it.

An example of such lament is found in Psalms 42 and 43, which were (most likely) one psalm with three strophes, each with twelve line concluding with an identical refrain: 42:5, 11; 43:5- “Why are you cast down O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

The psalmist feels that he is separated from God (from the Temple in Jerusalem). He feels this so intensely that he describes it in physical terms- like a thirsty deer trying to find water in a dry and arid land. The psalmist is both spiritually and emotionally thirsty for the presence of the living God. v. 3, His grief finds expression in his tears, in fact, his condition is such that he has been doing more weeping than eating (tears have been my food day and night). Have you ever thirsted for God? I think you have, but just haven’t known it. I believe that a desire to be personally related to God is a basic human drive; the reason why we have been created.

The problem is that this hunger for God is masked behind other human desires. I can prove this by showing that the fulfillment of every human desire does not lead to permanent satisfaction. In fact, our human cravings may actually cause us to hate the very thing we thought we loved. Let’s do a little experiment: let’s say you have a craving for mint chocolate chip ice cream. “I’d do anything for some,” you say. Ok, here are 5 gallons and one spoon, and you must eat it all. Let’s say for arguments sake that you do- you eat every bit of the ice cream, gag. How do you think you would be feeling about your desire? Satisfied? You probably wouldn’t use that word to describe your feeling. I bet you would say with great emotion that you never wanted to see or smell another spoonful of ice cream ever again!

There is a story in 2 Samuel 13 about a man named Amnon, who was in “love” with his half-sister Tamar. He told one of his friends “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister” (v.4). He loved her so much that he couldn’t eat. So he went to bed pretending to be sick and asked that Tamar be sent to feed him. She came into his bedroom and he forced sex upon her. “Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her” (v.15). That was love?

The analogy of the ice cream and the tragic story about Tamar illustrate the same point: human desire cannot be ultimately satisfied by the thing it craves because we were not made for ice cream, or sex, or drugs, or money and fame, but for God. C.S. Lewis said it so well in his Problem of Pain, “If I find in myself a desire which nothing in this world can satisfy, I must conclude that I was made for another world.” Behind every human desire there is a thirst for God.

God said to Israel, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…” (Isa 55:1). Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:27)

Billows Oe’r Me Roll…

big-waveGloria and I are vacationing at the Outer Banks in NC. We are with four out of five of our kids (and their spouses/fiancé), and all five of our grandchildren. One does not normally gain insights on suffering when on vacation unless he gets sunburned or eats bad sushi, however, yesterday I experienced something that gave me such an insight.

I was standing in the ocean about waist deep keeping an eye on my grandson and granddaughter playing in the shallower surf- my back to the open sea. Suddenly, I was hit by a breaker square in the back and it sent me hurtling towards shore. It knocked my prescription glasses off as well as my New England Patriots cap (some of you are happy about that).

I wasn’t hurt, but I was stunned and practically blind without my glasses which I immediately tried to find. Then I was hit with another wave and then another. Finally, I stood up (which I should have done in the first place) and began to search for my glasses to no avail. Fortunately, however, I have two pairs of contact lenses with me.

I was reminded of Job’s experience when his initial suffering came in such sharp succession- where one messenger told him of a tragedy, then another, and another…like waves crashing over him without mercy. And in subsequent chapters, though Job maintained his faith his sight was affected. “Behold I go forward but He is not there; and backward, but I do not see Him” (23:9, 10).

In Psalm 42:7 the writer describes his difficulties this way: “All your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” And Jonah quotes this very verse when he was in the belly of the great fish. “For you have cast me into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (2:3).

Have you ever felt like that in your suffering- wave upon wave? Have you looked for God in your suffering but have not been able to find him? Though there are no easy answers for what you are experiencing, I have found it helpful to stand up or stand on what you know to be true, while you are trying to deal with all the things you do not understand. And like the Psalmist, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (42:11).

That is my insight; now I am going back out to the beach to look for my glasses.

Suffering is NOT for Nothing…

sufferingThe so-called problem of evil has created a talking point for skeptics ever since Voltaire framed a version of it in response to the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1750; thousands sought refuge in the great Lisbon Cathedral and were crushed to death when it collapsed. In essence, Voltaire said that either God is all-powerful but not good or he is good and not all-powerful.

I would like to have you think about this problem of evil a bit differently: The very existence of evil in the world is one of the most important proofs for the existence of God. Dave, did I hear you properly? Please bear with me for a few moments. The atheist Bertrand Russell said, “There is no God, therefore there is no good and evil.” Russell acknowledged that apart from God, good and evil are relative; merely social constructs or personal preferences. Thus apart from God, one would have no way of judging whether an action is good or evil, right or wrong. What is right for you might be wrong for me. It may be an evil for me to fly a plane into a building, but for you it may be a good because it means your salvation. Therefore, how can we judge anyone of some evil unless God exists as the ultimate reference point of good?

An excellent illustration of this point can be found in the movie The Quarrel. A rabbi and a Jewish secularist, both having lost everything in the Second World War, are reunited in Canada. Rabbi Hersch says to the secularist Chiam, “If a person does not have the Almighty to turn to, if there’s nothing in the universe that’s higher than human beings, then what’s morality? Well, it’s a matter of opinion. I like milk; you like meat. Hitler likes to kill people; I like to save them. Who’s to say which is better? Do you begin to see the horror of this? If there is no Master of the universe then who’s to say that Hitler did anything wrong? If there is no God then the people that murdered your wife and kids did nothing wrong.”

The rabbi made a very compelling argument. In other words, to argue against the existence of God based on the existence of evil, forces us into saying something like this: If God does not exist then evil does not exist- just personal preference. There is “nothing ultimately bad, deplorable, tragic or worthy of blame. To paraphrase the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer, the person who argues against the existence of God based on the existence of evil in the world has both feet firmly planted in mid-air.” (Greg Koukal)

The Bible teaches us that God is our ultimate reference point and apart from him we cannot even define good and evil. If I played a discord on the piano, how would you even know that it was discordant? You would know because you have a concept of harmony in your mind and thus you have a context in which to compare sounds. Therefore, we know evil because we know the concept of good, and this concept derives from God, who is Good.

Greg Koukal moves us from the philosophical to the pastoral when he said this: “Let’s say for example that you are suffering with some kind of pain and evil in your life and you come to the conclusion that there is no God. What is the solution to the problem of your personal pain? The only solution I can think of is that your personal pain and suffering are meaningless. They are useless. [You] are helpless.”

The story is told of a poet of the Eastern tradition who had experienced a tragedy in his life. He went to his religious leader to get some comfort after his wife and children had been killed. He was simply told, “The world is dew.” The religious leader’s point was that all of life is just an illusion. The poet went home and wrote this simple poem, only four lines: “The world is dew. The world is dew. And yet….And yet….” In other words, the religious answer to his question was that evil simply didn’t exist. But he knew personally that suffering wasn’t dew, it wasn’t an illusion; it was real and it was painful. What comfort is there in being told your pain is not real?

This is why I believe that the existence of evil is not a “problem” for the Christian. I don’t mean that it is any less hard, difficult, or painful for a Christian to suffer. What I mean is that the existence of evil and the presence of suffering do not undermine the belief in a good and all-powerful God. Rather it teaches us that our suffering is real and that it is not for nothing.

More coming…


farewellThis past Sunday, I officially stepped down as the pastor of Community Fellowship Church of West Chicago. It was in the context of an inspiring outdoor service where hundreds of us worshiped the Triune God led by an inspired worship team of musicians, singers, and techno-ministers. I brought a brief (by my standards) message, passed the baton of spiritual leadership and responsibility to our new pastor Will Pavone. We then celebrated the Lord’s Supper, sang “Christ Alone,” and then spent the rest of the afternoon partying.

Our Deacons had created a country-fair venue with separate kiosks for Muilli chicken, brats, roasted corn, snow cones, freshly made lemonade- to name just a few. Then there were games for the kids, pony rides, bingo for the prime-timers (just kidding), and even a watermelon-eating contest where the old pastor ate up the competition (the new pastor), and was immediately accused of cheating,

During the festivities, a ton of people gave Gloria and me lots of hugs and affirmations for our 9 years of ministry at CF, and wishing me the best in my new responsibility as the interim chaplain at Wheaton College. They also embraced and welcomed Will and Carrie Pavone, Liam, Olivia, and Quinn (8, 7, 5- I think). There were many new families present as well who were encouraged by the transition and excited about this new chapter (chapter 3) in the life and ministry of this wonderful congregation.

My farewell message was based upon Jonathan Edwards’ Farewell Sermon preached in 1750 to his Northampton congregation of 23 years after they had fired him. While the circumstances of my leaving are vastly different (thankfully), some of Edwards’ comments were pertinent. He acknowledged that ministers and the people under their care must often be parted in this world; sometimes by death, but more often by life. “We live in a world of change where nothing is certain or stable and where a little time, a few revolutions of the sun, brings to pass strange things…” Amen.

Edwards also told the congregation that he had labored fully for their eternal welfare. “You are my witnesses, that what strength I have had, I have not neglected in idleness, nor laid out in prosecuting worldly schemes for the advancement of my outward estate, and aggrandizing myself and my family; but have given myself to the work of the ministry laboring in it night and day, rising early, and applying myself to this great business to which Christ has appointed me.” You are also my witnesses.

After addressing the different segments of the congregation and challenging each one (believers, unbelievers, those “under some awakenings,” and the youth), he gave a general warning against two things: falling into doctrinal error, and having a contentious spirit. I think the latter is particularly important in most churches, even those with a solid preaching ministry. I mentioned the fact that “in any church there will be scabs to pick at and pimples to pop. We should do so with great care and gentleness lest they become infected and poison the system.”

Finally Edwards gave two characteristics of what to look for in a new minister: a man who knows God’s Word and can teach the sound principles of doctrine; a man who has an established character and a true “experimental” religion—an authentic, practical faith. Thus a church should find a man who not only preaches the Word, but lives it out. And I believe that Community Fellowship Church has found such a man in Will Pavone.

It was a wonderful day that will be woven into the fabric of our lives along with the memories of the other congregations we have served. Thanks be to God.

And now a final word to Community Fellowship, quoting what Billy Graham always used to say just before he signed off from his weekly radio program: “…and may the Lord bless you real good.”

It’s not about ME…

pass the batonThis is the last “Just a Thought” that I will be writing as the pastor of Community Fellowship Church in West Chicago where I have been for the last nine years. We will officially finish our ministry here on Sunday (Aug) at what I am calling “a transition service.” I will literally pass the baton to a very capable Will Pavone who will shepherd this wonderful flock of God’s people at CF. Then, Gloria and I will venture into a future partly known to us but fully known to God.

The last several weeks have been filled with parties, opportunities for hugs and good-byes, and hearing the loving affirmations usually reserved for funerals. Speaking of funerals, I am reminded of Paul as he rehearsed the amazing things that God had done through him and spoke about the uncertain future he faced as a prisoner of Nero in Rome. However, there was one thing of which he was certain. His ultimate concern was that he would “eagerly expect and hope…that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20, 21). Paul’s ultimate concern was not glorying in his past adventures or looking ahead to his next ministry assignment or even his health or survival, but in the cause of Christ and his glory.

Professional sports, even college-level athletics, have become something so completely different than what we experienced as kids. In sand-lot and high school football we played for each other, for the team, and for the sheer enjoyment of the game. Today, high-powered athletes who earn their living off the game play for themselves and a better contract. If they don’t like the coach or the team, they ask to be traded. If a coach were ever to confront such a player and say, “it’s not about you; it’s about the team,” it would be laughable as well as hypocritical. However, for Paul, it really wasn’t about him or his survival, health, or happiness. For Paul, everything was about Jesus and his reputation in this world.

And so as Gloria and I face the future, the Lord has impressed these things upon me. This is not about us, but about the team, the sheer enjoyment of the game, and most of all the Coach. It is not about what we have done, or about our image, or about our physical or financial well-being, or about our careers or future opportunities. Our ultimate concern must be with that which is certain to be victorious (the gospel), and with Jesus Christ who is certain to be exalted above all things.

As for the future…the Coach will take care of us.