The Poetry Of Suffering

I recently completed two books on the gift of suffering: Suffering Is Never For Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015) and Though I Walk Through The Valley by Vance Havner (1901-1986).

Elisabeth Elliot is well known for her missionary work and has written many books. Her first husband, Jim, was killed on the mission field. (Her second husband died of cancer). Havner was a beloved Southern Baptist preacher and author, and his book chronicles his experience during the loss of his wife of 33 years (Sara) to Cushing’s Disease. 

What I found interesting is that they both turned to poetry and hymns to help their audience relate. Poetry seems to be the preferred language of suffering. It is God’s gift of grace written by kindred sufferers to point us to the sacrifice of the Man of Sorrows. Poetry helps us to process suffering without directly comparing levels or degrees of it. 

Is it any wonder that God gave us the Psalms to comfort our weary souls? There are times in our lives where we find ourselves like David: 

I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes – it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:8-10

Havner wrote: “One thing I have learned in my journey through the Valley – I am not the only one who has traveled this trail. Every day I meet some fellow pilgrim. Almost every other person I talk with has been scarred by tragedy, bereavement, suffering.” 

Elliot wrote: “I’ve come to see that it’s through the deepest suffering that God has taught me the deepest lesson.”  And, “Suffering is a mystery that none of us is really capable of plumbing. And it’s a mystery about which I’m sure everyone at some time of other has asked why” 

She defines suffering this way: “Suffering is having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have. She explains, “I think that covers everything.” 

She goes on to say:

“The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.” 

“And let’s never forget that if we don’t ever want to suffer, we must be careful never to love anything or anybody. The gifts of love have been the gifts of suffering. Those two things are inseparable.” 

Later Elliot puts it all in perspective: “It’s only in the cross that we can begin to harmonize this seeming contradiction between suffering and love. And we will never understand suffering unless we understand the love of God.” She describes the cross of Christ this way: “It is the best thing that ever happened in human history as well as the worst thing.” 

Likewise, Havner writes: “Nobody ever walked through so dark a Valley and He walked it by Himself. We can never suffer as He suffered, die as He died. He has been through the Valley and we need fear no evil for He walks it with us.” He continues, “So…my fellow traveler, wending your way through dangers, toils, and snares you will meet a host of kindred souls. You have joined the brotherhood at the price of heartache and tears.” 

Elliot goes on to quote several poets and hymn writers:

Measure your life by loss and not by gain,
Not by the wine drunk, but by the wine poured forth.
For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice,
And he that suffereth most hath most to give.
~Ugo Bassi

She references a line from a hymn by Richard Baxter, “Christ leads me through no darker rooms than He went through before.”

She then provides a short poem from the perspective of a young girl who at six-weeks old had an inflammation of the eyes and the doctor tried a procedure which burned both her corneas so that she was blind for life. Here’s the 9 year old words of Fanny Crosby: 

O what a happy soul am I although I cannot see.
I’m resolved that in this world contented I shall be.
So many blessings I enjoy that other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind, I cannot nor I won’t.

Elliot closes her thoughts with a poem by Grant Colfax Tuller:

My life is but a weaving between my Lord and me;
I do not choose the colors, He worketh steadily,
Oft times He weaveth sorrow and I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper, and I the under side.
Not till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful in the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern he has planned.

As Havener travels through his own valley after his wife died, he states: “I have not lost her for I know where she is!” Then he shares the following anonymous poem: 

Death can hide but not divide;
Thou art but on Christ’s other side;
Thou are with Christ and Christ with me,
United still in Christ are we. 

He goes on to quote lines from John Greenleaf Whitier’s poem “The Eternal Goodness.”

I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death,
His mercy underlies,
And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruised reed He will not break,
But strengthen and sustain.

And in another chapter he writes of the joyous expectation of Christ’s return and the longing to go home, but if Christ delays, then:

One sweet solemn thought
Comes to me o’er and o’er;
I’m nearer home today
Than I’ve ever been before.
~ Phoebe Cary

A few days after Sara’s passing Havner wrote: “There is not much that I dread from here on out. When one has drained the bitterest cup he is better prepared for any other potion that life may serve. Indeed he can sing:”

Let sorrow do its work,
Send grief or pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers,
Sweet their refrain,
When they can sing with me:
More love, O Christ, to Thee,
More love to Thee! More love to Thee!
~ Elizabeth P. Prentiss

He ends his book referencing Paul’s suffering and how he “had to find it is far better to learn that God’s grace is sufficient and His strength is made perfect in our weakness.” Then he quotes Fanny Crosby:

All the way my Saviour leads me;
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who thro’ life has been my Guide?

Fanny’s words of hope remind me of my dad who often quoted her hymns. He passed away from cancer in October of 2018. With tumors growing out of his body through weakened scars of surgeon incisions, no longer able to walk, our conversation turned to heaven’s joy and no more suffering, and he profoundly and joyfully said in his last days, whisper-voice, “Praise God!”

There is Hope in the midst of suffering…

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 1 Peter 5:10

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Tom’s Song

Tom Carpenter
Tom Carpenter

One wretched sinner, saved by grace
Through Christ the Son Who took my place
Once dead in sin, a guilty man
Until I met the Great I AM

He knows the number of my days
Discerns my thoughts, sees all my ways
Sealed with the Spirit – guaranteed
O Praise His name! How can this be?

His way, His path, His narrow road
My life’s journey will yet unfold
And when “God help me!” is my cry
My Sovereign knows, He’s not surprised

Though dark and desperate days find me
I’ll fix my hope on Calvary
For Sin and Death cannot prevail
When Christ, the Cure, has made me well

Behind the lines

This song, and the idea behind the GraceSyllables blog, was inspired because of how God worked through Tom Carpenter’s life and his final days with terminal cancer. Tom passed away February 16, 2010 at the age of 51. You may learn more here along with the compelling words he wrote before he died.

 

The Humiliation of Christ – Tom’s Post # 3

Below is the third post by Tom Carpenter which I referenced in Why I started writing lyrics.” Tom would die 3 days later (First Post, Second Post).

I think you will find humor, yet be humbled by his words. May we never forget what Christ has done, and what He went through on our behalf in taking the punishment we deserve.

“For those of you who have ever been in a hospital for any extended period of time, you quickly learn that there is little opportunity for modesty.  I have not worn a diaper for a few decades, but, regrettably this has become part of my new normal routine, since my recent difficulties have overtaken me.  I have learned to get over whatever humiliation this has caused me, however, in pretty short order, present circumstances dictate, that this is my situation.  I hope this will soon change.  It’s funny, not really so funny, but I find myself asking God to just let me keep my diaper clean for a while.  Right now I am involved in the titanic struggle to ward off the bedsore.  If we try we can find some humor even in difficult times.

However, I am also reminded that our Lord and Savior, before He was ultimately crucified was afforded no dignity and was humiliated in all kinds of ways.  We all know the barbaric and inhumane acts that He was subjected to.  He was not even regarded as a human being.  He was stripped of everything.  He wasn’t even afforded the ability to cover Himself.  So whatever brief indignity I may be subject to, simply because I at the moment may not be able to take proper care of myself is of no consequence.

When Christ was pushed, pulled and dragged to that place of sacrifice He had no dignity, no earthly dignity, but He did have the dignity of His Father and the Holy Spirit and it was the supernatural dignity that covered Him and honored Him, even as He suffered and died naked on that horrific cross.

So whatever brief embarrassment or humility we may encounter in this life, is of not much consequence when we truly meditate on what Christ went through on our behalf.

May you all be richly blessed as I have been and continue to be.”

Tom Carpenter 1958-2010

Time Well Spent – Tom’s Post # 2

When launching this blog with why I started writing lyrics,” I referenced three CaringBridge posts by Tom Carpenter (who wrote them days before he died). Below is the second of three from Tom. To read His first post click here.

I hope you’ll consider Tom’s words as “time well spent” because they are a great reminder for us. May we not waste the time God has blessed us with.

“For we are wonderfully and fearfully made.  God knit us together in the midst of our mothers’ womb.  God knew the unique blend of our individual DNA.  God knew everything about us before we were ever even thought of.  I am thankful God allowed me to be born.

I am also thankful for the time God has blessed me with.  Time, however, is something I have often squandered in my life.  There have been so many instances where I have not used time wisely.  For the most part, I took time, a precious gift of God and used it selfishly to my own frivolous ends and purposes.  God forgive me.  None of us know how much time God will give us.  What I have often failed to realize is that it is not my time at all.  Time, like everything in this life, belongs to God.  Of course, God is mindful of the time we must dedicate to our families and our livelihoods.  God does not begrudge us time to take pleasure in this life He gives us.

Ultimately, however, we must realize that time in the here and now is finite.  So let us spend more time with God.  Then, however many seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years God may give us, that time will be blessed and not wasted.”

Are you over scheduled? When do you spend time with God? Are you an early morning, or late-at-night person? What can you adjust in your daily routine so you can spend more time praying and meditating on God’s Holy Word?

Nothing takes God by surprise – Tom’s Post # 1

When launching this blog with why I started writing lyrics,” I referenced three CaringBridge posts by Tom Carpenter. Tom wrote them days before he died and below is the first one in its entirety.

I pray that his words will exalt Christ and be an encouragement to you.

“I am so thankful that nothing takes God by surprise.  God knew what was going to happen to me and set in motion all of the components that led me to deliverance from my most recent desperate circumstances.

I found myself in the dark of an early Friday morning crying out to God to help me.  If I said, ‘God help me’ once, I said it a hundred times.  Half of my body was dead weight to me.  I could not drag myself out of bed, and I was much afraid.  I could not bring myself to have the attitude of St. Paul to be ‘thankful in all situations.’  I only knew I needed help and I was alone in the dark.  But, then I realized that I wasn’t truly alone. God was right there with me and knew everything that was going on in my life right then.  My human emotions still overtook me because, regrettably my faith is often weak.

God did help me when friends, who are like family, got me to the hospital.  God helped me when doctors and nurses almost immediately began to minister to my needs, and learning as fast as they could what was wrong with me and how they could cure it.  God helped me when caring, learned physicians quickly realized that surgery was necessary and most imperative.  God helped me by allowing me to be put in the hands of the most skillful and able doctors to perform surgery at the exact moment when my life could be dramatically and irrevocably changed.  If not for the insight and precise abilities of the surgeon I would be a victim of paralysis.  I did not know how truly desperate my circumstances were, but God did.  God heard my cry and He did help me.  There are still struggles ahead for me, and I do not know how I will bear up under them.  I only know that God will be there with me in pain and in pleasure.

God will be with me in spirit and in faithful friends to encourage me, pray for me, and help me along the way, wherever it may lead.  That way, that path, that road, if it leads to eternity with God, no matter how hard or difficult the journey may become, will be worth it if we keep our eyes on the author and finisher of our faith.  I do not present myself as a source of great biblical wisdom, or a practitioner of prodigious faith.  I am, at the heart of it, a wretched sinner saved by grace who is only worthy of God’s great mercy through the willing sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ.  Why God has such great love for us, only He knows.  It is beyond human comprehension.  God is with us in our joy and in our pain, when we rejoice and when we suffer.  It is hard when life goes against us and we cannot see God’s greater purpose in allowing some hardship to come upon us.  But God has not forsaken us, and his greater purpose will always be revealed to His eternal glory.

May I, or none of us who claim the name of Christ, (not) lose sight of or forget that all things work together for the good of those who are in Christ Jesus.  May God be forever praised, amen.”

Have you cried out to God in desperation? If so, how did He strengthen you?

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