Why, O Lord?

Come walk with me into Psalm 42.

Hurting, really hurting

The first thing we notice is that the writer is hurting, really hurting.

The psalm opens with the image of a deer: “As the deer pants for the water …” (v 1). This deer isn’t up to its elbows in a mountain stream – it is desperately searching for water in a dry place. The deer is suffering. Where can I find streams in this desert, rivers in these badlands?

As Eugene Peterson translates this psalm in The Message, the writer is “on a diet of tears – tears for breakfast, tears for supper” (v 3). He is “down in the dumps … crying the blues” (v 5). He says to God, “Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me” (v 7).

Some Christians would have us believe that our lives should be lived always on the mountaintop. I remember a chorus that I learned as a teenager that went: “I’m living on the mountain underneath a cloudless sky, / I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry, …”. Is your sky cloudless today?  Thank God if it is.  It is like that some of the time.  For some of us, it is like that more of the time than for others … but please don’t kid yourself that it will always be so! And don’t let others make you think you are somehow a failure if it is not for you a matter of always walking on the mountaintop.

It wasn’t so for Job, it wasn’t so for David, it wasn’t so for Jeremiah, it wasn’t so for Paul, it wasn’t so for Jesus!  He wept, he was the “Man of Sorrows” who was “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3)!


The second thing we notice is that the writer is asking questions.

He is questioning deeply and even questioning God. Again and again he asks “Why?”

There are many today who ask us, ‘Where is your God?’ and if we find it hard to see him in our circumstances, we may begin ourselves to ask the same question, “Where is God?” How can this be happening to me?  How can this be happening to the person I love so much?  Why have you forgotten me, O Lord? Jesus, the Son of God, asked his Father that question as he hung on the cross!

Is it wrong to ask God questions? If we are asking humbly with a genuine desire to know, then I suggest that it is not wrong.  It is all a matter of our motives, of the attitudes of our hearts. The writer says twice that his enemies are asking, ‘Where is your God?’ That doesn’t sound like a question that comes from a true desire to know or a humble heart that is open to learn.

As I read, watch or listen to the news, I find myself asking, “Why do bad things happen to good people? … Why do the wicked prosper?” The latter question was asked by Job (Job 21:7) and one translation puts it like this: “Why do the wicked have it so good?” Why, O Lord?

And yet, and yet …

The third thing we notice is that, in all this hurting and questioning, there is an “and yet, and yet”!

Hear Eugene Peterson again: “soon I’ll be praising again … He puts a smile on my face, He’s my God” (v 5) and “God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night!” (v 8). Tears in the night but also songs in the night – what Leonard Cohen would call a “broken hallelujah”!

It is not that the hurt has gone or the questions been answered – they are still there but they are accompanied by a hope that says God is there in the darkness and that one day we will see him and praise him.

There is a verse in Hebrews that goes like this: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf.” (Hebrews 6:19-20)

The storms of life may toss us about but we can have a hope that is in Jesus who has gone on before us into the presence of the Father. That hope is an anchor in the storm.  It is firm and secure and it holds us in spite of all that is washing over us, all those waves and breakers.

It is an assurance that God is there even when we are not living on the mountain, when we are deep in a dark valley.

A beautiful hymn by John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community begins, “We cannot measure how you heal / or answer every sufferer’s prayer, / yet we believe your grace responds / where faith and doubt unite to care.” It goes on to talk of “The pain that will not go away, / the guilt that clings from things long past, / the fear of what the future holds”.

Let’s make the last four lines our prayer.

Lord, let your Spirit meet us here / to mend the body, mind and soul, / to disentangle peace from pain / and make your broken people whole.”

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‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was last year ranked second on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of first two decades of the 21st century. It is a staggeringly wonderful piece of writing and I have to confess that, although I feel I must write this piece about it, I am deeply aware that I cannot do justice to the extraordinary quality of the work.

The story

Gilead is set in 1956 in a small fictional mid-western town of that name in Iowa and it takes the form of a long letter by a 76-year-old Congregationalist pastor named John Ames to his six- or seven-year-old son. His first wife had died in childbirth and their infant daughter had also died soon after. In his mid-sixties after many years of loneliness, he met and married his second wife, a young woman named Lila (the subject of a later novel by Marilynne Robinson) and she gave birth to their son.

John Ames has been told that he is facing imminent death because of a heart condition so he sets about writing this story of his life for his son to read long after he has died. His grandfather had been a pastor in Kansas and had fought in the Civil War in the cause of the abolition of slavery. His father, also pastor of the Gilead church, was a convinced pacifist and this had led to a rift with the grandfather. John’s brother had studied in Germany and had become an atheist and had fallen out with their father. John’s lifelong and close friend, the minister of the town’s Presbyterian church, always referred to by John as ‘Boughton’ or ‘old Boughton’, features prominently in the story. So also does his son, ‘young Boughton’, who had brought disgrace on the family and left the town. Later in the story, he comes back home. John Ames struggles to forgive him for what he had done.

What some reviewers have said

Gilead is much concerned with fathers and sons, and with God the father and his son. The book’s narrator returns again and again to the parable of the prodigal son — the son who returned to his father and was forgiven, but did not deserve forgiveness. … Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction. … As the novel progresses, its language becomes sparer, lovelier, more deeply infused with Ames’s yearning metaphysics.” (Ali Smith, The Guardian, 16th April, 2005)

“Robinson’s prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense.” (Ellen Levine, PublishersWeekly.com)

“Robinson demonstrates the extraordinary in the ordinary. She shepherds us up to our own death and helps us face it with confidence. She validates our lives in places where we wonder if they have had any impact. … This book is an amazing unveiling of the truth of the Christian faith, barely hidden behind the curtain of human mortality. Robinson’s guided tour of the dusty, dry insignificant town of Gilead is a walk through the deepest of our human experience. She shows us how to celebrate life and God and appreciate every last thing about this life and the life to come.” (Fred D Mueller, Customer Review on Amazon website, 2nd April, 2017)

Some quotations from the book itself (you can find many more here)

“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (p. 8)

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.” (p. 23)

“People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives.” (p. 76)

“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” (p. 238)

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.” (p. 280)

How and why has this book impacted me?

It’s opening sentences are: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.”

John Ames closes his letter to his son with these words: “I’ll pray that you will grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

The pages in between were for me a journey into my own inner life and the world of my memories as well as that of my present relationships with the Lord and with family members and friends.

Later this year I will be as old as John Ames was when he wrote this letter to his son. I certainly have fewer years left of this life than I have lived so far. My father was my age (and almost the age of John Ames) when he passed away. Yes, between my father and me there was often not only loyalty and love but also what Marilynne Robinson terms “mutual incomprehension”.

Although I’ve never been a church pastor, I’ve preached many a sermon. Like John Ames, I’ve often wondered about their impact.

In 1956, the time of the setting of the story, I was just entering my teenage years, a country boy living with my parents and young brothers on the family farm in rural Ireland. Everybody knew everybody else and every grownup knew everybody else’s family histories and their scandals. It sounds like Gilead, doesn’t it?

I never knew either of my grandfathers but my mother’s father, like John Ames, was married late in life to a younger woman. He was a God-fearing member of the Christian Brethren of whom my mother talked warmly, albeit rarely. I don’t know if there was anybody that he found it hard to forgive but I’ve known family members who have found forgiveness a struggle.

I have sons and grandsons whom I love dearly and for each of whom I pray a bright future.

Need I say more?

God of all love and all grace, help us to live in your Big Story and to walk with you to the end of our days. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) enter your email address in the box above ‘Subscribe’ on the right of this blog OR (2) email me through the contact address on this website OR (3) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

What’s the Big Story (Part Two)

Our life-stories are special to us. A T-shirt slogan puts it this way: “I am starring in my own soap opera!”. Some details we can’t remember. Some we remember fuzzily. Some we remember with clarity as if they had happened yesterday. Some we will never forget as long as we have our faculties. 

We locate ourselves in the stories of our lives, stories with a beginning at which we were present but cannot remember and an end which we know will surely come one day but we cannot usually anticipate when or how it will be. We are somewhere in between, we know not exactly where, and this has led some to talk of our human perspective as being both “middled” and “muddled”.[1]

Not only are there stories all about us, our own middled muddled stories and those of other people meeting, interacting, overlapping, and developing day by day, but we find that these our stories are parts of bigger stories, stories of communities and traditions, of people and races. Where does it stop?

We need a Big Story to make sense of all our little stories. Without a Big Story, we are left looking out into nothingness. We are like those in folk-singer Joan Baez’s ‘The Hitchhikers’ Song‘ of whom she says that they are “the orphans in an age of no tomorrows”.

There are many Big Stories that directly and indirectly shape the way we think and live. There is, for example, the Big Story of human beings all on their own in a chance universe, working their way up from nothingness, ever making progress in their understanding, needing no power beyond themselves. Life is getting better all the time as we learn more and can do more.

But is this story true? Yes, we know and understand many things that our ancestors didn’t. Our mobile technology gives us instant communication across thousands of miles even when we are out walking on a mountain slope. Our medical techniques save us from illnesses of which people lived in fear even a few decades ago. A few clicks on the computer keyboard give us access to masses of information formerly stored on many miles of library shelving. But is life really getting better in all respects? Are we human beings on our own making progress towards perfect harmony in our relationships, mastering our selfish impulses, or finding a way of coping with the inner despairs and dreads that haunt us in the dark hours? I suggest not.

But that’s a story in which many people live and move and have their being, the story of the “Ascent of Man,” the story of optimistic Humanism. (A very deformed mutation of it can be found, I fear, increasingly in the western world, in the Big Story of white supremacy.)

What great story is adequate to provide a true and meaning-giving context to the stories of our lives? I believe it has to be the Big True Story of God, the Christian meta-narrative. This is a story that is bigger than all of us.

The Bible comes to us not in the form of a textbook of theology but as a narrative, as the Big True (and amazing) Story of God and his world. The form is primarily that of a story and, even where it isn’t, the context of its poems and letters is still that Big Story of God and the world he has made, the world of people like you and me. Even our statements of belief in our creeds are retellings of this story, of movements of characters and events in space and time.

There are lots of stories in the Bible but they are all set in the context of a Big Story that begins with God himself. He made everything. He made us. But we disobeyed him and we chose to go our own ways. As a result, we were sent out of his beautiful Garden, no longer able to walk and talk with him as his children.

The focal point of this story is the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Cross is the hinge of history and the body of Jesus was broken on that hinge. But we come through to the other side—to life that shall never end! Death is not the end because death itself is defeated by the one who came back from death and will never die.

Jesus will return and make everything new. There will be “the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness.” (2 Pet 3:13, The Message).

This is therefore not only a story of what happened in the past. It tells of what will happen in the future. The best is yet to come! But it is also a story of what is happening now! The kingdom of God is here already, it is within us if we are open to him. It is both now and not yet.

Heavenly Father, help us to live, move and have our being in your Big Story. Help us to be better story tellers and to tell your Big Story, that best story of all, in all we do and say. Amen.

(This blog is adapted from part of a chapter in Bible-Shaped Teaching, a book I wrote a few years ago. The whole chapter and other selected contents can be found online in Google Books here.)

[1] The first to do so seems to have been David L Jeffrey in his People of the Book (p. 143).

What’s the Big Story? (Part One)

It was about fifteen years ago. My little three-year-old grandson climbed on my knee with one of his favourite storybooks. I read a bit and then, from his memory of the many times we had done this before, he told the next bit . . . and on we went together, telling the story in turns to each other. However, this time was to be different for, when we got to the last page, one of us (I can’t remember which) turned over to the blank page at the end and the blank inside cover of the book and we continued the story together, telling each other what might have happened next. As we went forward together in our imaginings, the pictures in the inward eye were much more vivid than those on the earlier printed pages.

We all enjoy stories. As children we love them but, as adults too, are we not also easily caught up in stories we read, hear or view on screen? Those novels for bedtime or vacation reading, the detective mystery unfolding on TV, the blog of that friend’s travels, the heart-to-heart sharing of a life’s ups and downs by a complete stranger sitting beside us on a long bus journey. They have different settings, different plot-lines, different characters and themes, different lengths. We listen to them, we read them, we view them in plays and films, we hear them in song, we make them up, we tell them. They make us laugh, cry, reflect, imagine, lose ourselves—as my grandson and I did in that tale that we read together.

Stories are central to the way in which we structure our understanding of ourselves and others, of actions and events. They are part of our language and thought, of our whole experience of the world and our way of living.

We don’t just enjoy them as diversions, we think in stories. And we dream in stories, however chaotic these tales of the night may be at times. Whether waking or sleeping, we place characters and events in patterns in space and time. We locate ourselves and one another and the things that happen to us and around us in narrative contexts.

We are story-makers! Whether listening on the train to half a conversation that somebody is having on his cell phone, or reading the inscriptions on gravestones, or anticipating the next episode of a serial story on the radio, we cannot help filling in the details.

There is a fundamental incompleteness to all the stories that we tell, just as my grandson and I experienced when we came to the blank pages at the end of the book and found that we just had to continue the story.

This is true of our own personal stories, the stories of our lives. They need the context of bigger stories to make sense of them. Otherwise we are left looking out into nothingness.

Part Two next week!

Heavenly Father, help us to live, move and have our being in your Big Story. Amen.

(This blog is adapted from part of a chapter in a book I wrote a few years ago.)