The question gets phrased in a variety of ways. The rabbi, Harold Kushner, famously asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Many times, during our three-year struggle to build a parking lot I asked, “When we’re trying to do something good, why does it seem as if you’re making it so hard?” A couple of months ago, I was asked how the apostle Paul dealt with so much discouragement in his life. Throughout the summer, I have been mulling over these questions. Let me share what I’ve learned.
Seeing tragedy in his childhood challenged his views about life. Facing tragedy as an adult challenged the values that he lived for. And addressing tragedy in his life has given him the satisfaction that his heart longed for. Let me share three things I learned about tragedy from Sujo John’s life.
Psalms is quoted in the New Testament more than any other Old Testament book. Obviously, it has much to offer. Have you ever thought about how it’s put together? With 150 psalms, you could be forgiven for not being aware of the structure of the book. Have you ever noticed, for example, that the Book of Psalms is actually made up of five books (Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150) that most scholars believe are related to the five book of Moses? So just as we have five books of Moses to read, we have five books of Psalms to pray and sing. This is minor, though. Missing the forest for the trees in the Psalms is far more problematic in other ways because it teaches some crucial lessons about how to approach life and what to expect from it.
On January 24, 1975, the world-renowned pianist Keith Jarrett was scheduled to play at the Cologne Opera House. Jarrett had requested the use of a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano for his performance but there was a mix-up and the opera house staff instead found a smaller Bösendorfer backstage, a smaller baby grand piano used for rehearsals, and set it up on the stage. According to the concert organizer, the substitute piano "was completely out of tune, the black notes in the middle didn't work, the pedals stuck. It was unplayable." Jarrett made the decision to continue with the concert anyway. A recording of that concert entitled, The Köln Concert, was released later that year and went on to become the best-selling solo album in jazz history, and the all-time best-selling piano album. Great talent under the tension of incredible adversity had created musical magic. It made me think of the many times when plans have failed, preparation gets interrupted, or health problems play havoc with my life or the life of someone I care for. Our men’s canoe trip this weekend was plagued by treacherous winds as we canoed, rain and dampness as we camped, and more mosquitoes than I’ve ever experienced before. We prayed for God to take the trials away – and that was good and appropriate. But The Köln Concert and the Scriptures remind me that there are other things to pray for.
Since Monday I’ve been attending the national conference of our church association, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada. In between business sessions, Paul Tripp has been encouraging us from the Scriptures. With 17 books to his name, he has been used to speak to the church in unique ways. His book on the perils and pitfalls of pastoral leadership, “Dangerous Calling,” and his encouragement to parents of teens, “Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens,” are two that I have that I can highly recommend. What I didn’t know was that he experienced acute renal failure two years ago – His kidneys were dying and he didn’t know it. His kidneys were only working at 65% and so his body went into spasms as a result. Five surgeries, and a sixth planned, have taught him much about God’s purposes in suffering. He shared some of the lessons he has learned through this time.
This week I headed to Huntsville for the FEB Central Pastor’s Conference. Fellowship with other like-minded pastors from whom I have much to learn was a big part of the three days that I spent there. Suffering was a common thread in many of the messages. One spoke of how to deal with disappointment in our relationship with God. His ten-year-old son was hit by a car while delivering newspapers, and having faced such a loss he knew the limitation of superficial platitudes.
Our campus worker with Power to Change invited me to their year-end conference P2C+. I was busy with sermon preparation and other ministry with the short week, and so could only spare half a day on New Year’s Eve, but it was well worth the time. I’m not sure what I expected. There were probably 800 students gathered and it would have been easy to entertain them with light talks on hot topics. What I got instead was a hard-hitting morning on the theme of suffering.