Black Night

Black night, then, great God? You’ve chosen black night
For this your little sheep to wander through,
Cold, shiv’ring, bleating as he follows you
So close behind your steady gate, your sight
Set firmly on your lamb though doubt and fright
Enshroud his moonless route? To him be true!
Lead down a trail that gleams with morning dew
In dawn’s fair light, but please, great God—black night?

Hush now, dear sheep, and shadow close beside
The Maker of the path and of the light
That you so long for; let me be your guide!
Could I not speak and banish dark forthright?
For good I chose this road that you now chide,
So follow on though my choice be black night.

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In the Shadow of the Shepherd

Your dear sheep bleats to hear his shepherd’s voice
and longs for revelation of his choice
of what awaits the flock just down the path;
Are stored up long-sought streams or desert’s wrath?
And how long must he wait just out of sight
of what’s around the bend—bleak dark or light?
Small, tired feet desire this day’s close—
to be there now—and yet the shepherd slows
until he halts and stares on up ahead
while silently behind him his sheep dreads
that this stop may be long and hard to bear.
Desiring what’s to come, he trusts his care.
So wait, dear sheep, though bleat all that you will,
for he who’s led you thus far leads you still.

© 2013 Eric Evans

Behind the Poem: “As For Man”

To read the poem “As For Man” explained below, click here.

The Backstory
Laura and I walked into his room at Unity Hospital with hesitancy. A strong, gentle pastor that had been a rock for us during two difficult years of our lives as a newly married couple now lay before us in a bed, covered only in a hospital gown and a sheet, slumped slightly to one side. One tube that was wrapped over his ears and down to his nose supplied him with oxygen. An IV attached to a touchy machine that loved to beep every time he moved his right arm provided him with a steady stream of fluids. In stark contrast to the steady, precise manner in which he used to speak to us those Tuesday afternoons in his office at church, his words were now slurred together, and his thoughts were, at times, jumbled and incoherent. The former Bolivian missionary recognized Laura and was quick to switch to Spanish, a very comforting sign showing just how much of him did remain after the stroke that had suddenly taken him just the evening before. There, in that little hospital room on the ICU at Unity Hospital, I read this dear man Psalm 103. “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,” it begins. Pastor Tom closed his eyes as if in deep concentration, and the eternal word of God began to comfort him like nothing else could. The very same word that had been his food for so many years was sweet to him again as he heard it afresh there in his hospital bed.

Verses 14-17 impacted me the most as I read them aloud:

For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.

Truly this man whom we considered a giant in the faith and who had been such a powerful instrument of God’s good grace to us in our time of desperate need was but grass. One day the wind will blow over him, and he will be no more. One day the wind will blow over me and I’ll be no more. “But” —and what a beautiful conjunction that is in God’s word— “the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.” There in that hospital room, the glaring reality of that truth was unmistakable. We are nothing and will come to such. God alone is eternal and will endure to everlasting as he has been from everlasting. We can place no hope in man, not even in a good man like the one we came to visit after his stroke. We can have all hope in God. Praise him that his steadfast love endures forever.

The Technical Stuff and Meaning
This poem is an Italian sonnet, which is a fourteen-lined poem divided into two parts. The first eight lines are called the octave and the remaining six lines are called the sestet. The first eight lines follow the rhyme scheme A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A and the last six follow the rhyme scheme C-D-C-C-D-C.

In the octave I developed the picture of one lily out of a field full that grew up above the rest. I had in mind this beloved pastor and mentor whom Laura and I visited in the hospital. He was dressed “in fairest white and luscious green.” He was a mature, fruit-bearing Christian. He was one to whom God had imparted much grace. And God had given him such grace for a specific purpose: to minister grace to others. Laura and I and countless others are the “lesser lilies.” I had in mind struggling lilies growing up underneath this one, towering lily, and that one helping the others to survive and even thrive despite the scorching sun.

In the sestet I shifted the focus from the strength of the lily in helping others to its demise and the uncertainty that that causes us lesser lilies— those of us who have been so helped by this one—to feel. The word bower means “a shady leafy shelter or recess in a garden or woods.” That’s exactly what Pastor Tom had been to us. The thought of losing a man that had been such a source of comfort and hope is troubling to say the least. And yet, precisely in feeling such trouble the words of Psalm 103 hit me so hard: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone…. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting.” This precious flower of God will fade. God’s love for him and for all the other flowers of his field will not. What hope is ours. Bless the LORD, O my soul.

Find other editions of “Behind the Poem” below:
Behind the Poem: “It Is Enough”
Behind the Poem: “Innocence Lost, Glory Gained”
Behind the Poem: “Unrestrained”

Now Stand

God fells a tree to forest’s floor
that fainting fledglings might see sun.
God raises rotting roots to plant
resistant, righteous ones that that grow
deep down, resisting fiercest rain.
God breaks a man that he might build
him better than he was before.

Great God, and now you bid me stand?
How can you bid me stand in strength
when you in sweetest sovereignty
secured my swift and sure demise
and devastated my whole world?
Is this some kind of hateful joke?
Am I to stand up tall or die?

The tree falls for the fledgling’s sake,
and rot is rooted up for life.
It seems, then, God has broken me
that I might be rebuilt to stand,
for standing is impossible
with malformed legs that can’t hold weight.
Now wrecked and built anew, they stand.

© 2011 Eric Evans

Behind the Poem: “Innocence Lost, Glory Gained”

Click here to read “Innocence Lost, Glory Gained,” posted January 26, 2012.

The Meaning
A little boy stares up at me with probing brown eyes. In a moment I catch a glimpse of the shift that has begun to take place in his bright, young mind. He’s beginning to see the world for what it is. And as you and I know, the world is not always a pretty place—but he’s just figuring that out. And just as you once experienced but have probably forgotten, such a realization can be devastating to a child.

Maybe the other fourth graders have stopped wanting to sit by him at lunch because they’re starting to see that he’s just a little different from the rest. Perhaps his parents are fighting more than ever and he’s not able to drown out their shouting like he used to. It could be his sister tried to kill herself a few days back, and he’s been suddenly faced with realities that he could not, a week ago, even fathom existed. (I wish all those examples were hypothetical. You learn a lot about life from third and fourth graders.)

Staring back into his big brown eyes, I can only weep on the inside, for I see what he doesn’t see. I see what his parents and his classmates and his sister don’t see. I see that life is only going to get harder, especially for this boy, of this socio-economic class, in this racist world, living in this godless and therefore hopeless society. From my vantage point a little bit farther down the road, I can see that this instance is only the first of many run-ins with reality that will leave his head spinning.

And it makes you want to cry. It makes you want to take this precious little boy home and shelter him from every horror that’s out there.

And then this thought hits me upside the head: In my own life it has been amid realizations of the harsh realities that exist around me that Jesus has whispered most clearly, “Nevertheless, I’m here, and I’m sure. I’ll be your rock in a very shaky world.” And doing the only logical thing my mind can conjure up, I cling to him in utter, helpless faith. And he saves me.

It may be that this brown eyed boy has a long, hard road ahead of him. And he may be on the very cusp of realizing that fact. Yet it might just be that this long, hard road was designed by this child’s Creator—who, by the way, loves him infinitely more than I ever could—to eventually lead him to Jesus. Perhaps it’s only through the hardship that this little boy will think to seek out the one who promises to carry him through like nothing else in the universe can. Maybe only up against the ugliness of life will this little boy ever be able to clearly see the beauty of the Jesus he so desperately needs.

May God be faithful to work it out to such an end.

The Technical
This poem doesn’t follow any traditional form. It is written in iambic quadrameter consisting of rhymed couplets. That means that each line has eight syllables that generally follow the pattern ta-DUM-ta-DUM-ta-DUM-ta-DUM. That the poem consists of rhymed couplets means that every two lines rhyme with each other.

The first 22 lines describe the changes that take place as a child grows up. The next four lines act as a commentary on the first 22 lines and a bridge to the next 22 lines. In the second half of the poem I discuss the difficult truth that it is confrontation with the harshness of reality that many times drives one to Jesus, and if that’s the case for my student, may it be so. God will be good to him as he has been to me.

Praise the Lord for the hope that’s found only in Jesus, hope that is seen most clearly when all other hope is lost.

Innocence Lost, Glory Gained

Behind those eyes of yours so brown,
At times I catch a future frown
That may one day replace your cheer
As life’s dark side begins to rear
Its ugly head and youth’s sun sets.
From weathered heartache, mounting debts,
Crushed, awe-filled dreams, depressing loss,
Adult’s drab glower spreads across
One’s face like gangrene takes a toe,
A marring rot, one cruel and slow.
The sickness works to guarantee
That beautiful transparency
Is colored in with ashes charred—
Blinds drawn, walls up, doors locked, heart barred.
It binds once unbound liberty
And casts faith out on doubt’s dark sea.
Bright, vibrant wonder dims to gray,
Becoming cynicism’s prey.
An openness, once unashamed,
Is turned to shadowed secrets chained
Within a nervous heart that fears
Another’s judgments, jokes, or jeers.

Oh, precious eyes of yours so brown,
I fear that maturation’s frown
May soon assail your innocence
And turn youth’s tune to dissonance.

And yet, brown eyes, I’m not content
To leave you sheltered, ignorant
Of life’s disturbing truths of pain,
For glimpses of the Lamb once slain
And genuine perceptions of
The greatness of the Father’s love
Are offered just to those who bear
Hatred of sin’s consuming snare.
So don’t be blind, dear child, of all
Adulthood has in store; man’s fall
And all its horrors rightly seen
Will drive your soul to Christ pristine.
So I will not bemoan the find
Of sin’s sick cancer of the mind
If such a grim discovery
Compels your soul’s recovery
And leads you to the cross. May ills
Constrain your search for him who kills
The sin that robbed your virgin smile
And beautifies each sin-caused trial,
For he is joy though grownup’s frown
Has dashed young hopes of eyes so brown.

© 2011 Eric Evans

Lessons from Job, Part 6

If you’d like to read Parts 1-5 of this series, you can do so here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5). In Part 1 you’ll find an introduction to this series as well as a summary of the book of Job. Parts 2-5 each contain lessons from Job.

Lesson 9: Job’s First, Humble Response was Much Better Than His Later, Arrogant Response
I want to walk a fine line here. On the one hand, even when suffering people say really stupid things about themselves, their situation, or God, what they don’t need is for someone to take their words and use them to beat them over the head (see lesson 7). They need grace. On the other hand, in light of God’s response to Job in chapters 38-41 and Job’s subsequent humble repentance, it is clear that there is a right way and there is a wrong way to respond to suffering.

Job’s initial response to unthinkable suffering at God’s hand was this: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21). The narrator states, “In all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:22). After a second round of suffering, Job declared, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” And again the narrator affirms, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). In the space of a very short time, however, Job began to call God’s actions into question and eventually accused him of being unjust. That is definitely not the right way to respond in the face of suffering.

Apart from a supernatural outpouring of God’s grace, a humble acceptance of God’s sovereign will in the face of suffering is an absolute impossibility, especially when it’s suffering on the magnitude of what Job experienced. Yet such a response is the right response. Any other response only shows man’s need to repent, just like Job had to do. And when you have to repent for responding badly in suffering, God is being gracious to you.

Lesson 10: God is the Hero in Every Story, Even in the Story of Your Suffering
Who was the hero of the book of Job? God was. It wasn’t Job. It wasn’t his friends. It wasn’t even Elihu, though I think he was on to something. God was the hero. He always is. A major theme of the book of Job and a very important lesson I think we can learn from it is that no mere mortal, no matter how upright and how just, deserves the praise that belongs only to God. No matter how much a person suffers and endures, God alone deserves the glory. Job was a good man, yet as I’ve tried to show previously, Job had some serious heart issues that rose to the surface as a result of his extreme suffering.

When you suffer, God will sustain you, but not in such a way that in the end you will be able to glory in your own strength or in your own righteousness. He will sustain you in spite of your imperfections. And he will sustain you such that he alone will be the hero. God is right and good in designing your suffering that way. He’s being good to you. Your being the hero wouldn’t satisfy the longings of your heart anyway.

Share Your Thoughts
1. What do you think caused Job’s outlook to change?
2. How have you seen God as the hero of your or another’s suffering?

Lessons from Job, Part 5

If you’d like to read Parts 1-4 of this series, you can do so here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). In Part 1 you’ll find an introduction to this series as well as a summary of the book of Job. Parts 2, 3, and 4 each contain two lessons gleaned from Job.

Lesson 7: Suffering People Need Comfort, Not Condemnation
I cannot fathom Job’s anguish. Then to add insult to injury, Job’s “friends” showed up. To their credit, they started off well. They simply sat down in the ashes where Job was and cried with him (2:11-13). Then they decided to open their fat mouths. From that point on, they condemn Job, provoke him to wrath, and accuse him of wrongdoing. Not only were their words false, they simply weren’t helpful, even had their accusations been true. And if that weren’t enough, amid their lies, they exalt themselves in light of Job’s suffering (19:5). Their argument went like this: Job was suffering because he had “obviously” committed some type of sin against God. Hidden behind such logic was their assertion that the reason that they weren’t suffering like Job was because they were much holier than Job.

In short, Job’s friends were neither nice nor helpful. Job called them horrible comforters (16:2). Hurting people don’t necessarily want or need an explanation for their suffering. They want you to love them and weep with them. Don’t be too harsh with suffering people, even when they make some pretty dangerous statements, like Job did many times. Adding salt to their wounds doesn’t aid their healing.

Lesson 8: There is Such a Thing as an Upright Sinner
You can be blameless before God and man and still not be sinless. Neither Job nor his friends could conceive of such a category of people. They were too black and white. Job’s friends’ argument went like this: “Seeing as how you’re suffering, you must have sinned. You can’t be blameless in light of all this ‘obvious’ judgment God has poured out on you. You must repent and God will take all this suffering away.” But that’s way too simplistic, and simply put, that’s not how God operates. God called Job’s friends to repent for arguing this way. Their logic and their conclusions (not always their direct statements) were wrong.

But Job’s categories were off, too. His logic was surprisingly similar. His argument was that since he was blameless, his suffering was completely uncalled for. Job overestimated his own righteousness. Job’s logic was that since a particular sin wasn’t the root cause of his suffering, his suffering was therefore completely groundless. The implication, then, was that God was capricious at best, unjust at worst. But both of those options were fallacies as well. Job’s thinking was also way too simplistic. Even if you’re blameless before God and man, that doesn’t mean that your suffering is pointless, uncalled for, or even unjust.

Elihu, who was not one of Job’s three infamous “friends,” described a third category of people in 36:7-15. He described them as righteous sinners. He said that when the righteous are bound in cords of affliction, God reveals to them their iniquity. God “delivers the afflicted by their afflictions” (36:15). What the righteous label as the disease turns out to be the cure to a much more heinous disease that they didn’t even know they had. (See lesson 6 from this series.) And in so revealing sin that it might be repented of and purified from the heart, God is good.

Share Your Thoughts
1. What are some practical ways to comfort suffering people well?
2. In the light of Jesus’ gospel, how is it that someone can be a sinner but still be counted righteous?

From Gray to Gold

You are the God who changes death’s cold gray
To life’s resplendent shades of greens and golds.
You are the God who overflows with day
And crushes night for those inside your fold.
You are the God who reaches down not shamed
To put a hand on broken sinners’ backs.
You are the God, despite your hallowed name,
Who condescends in light of desperate lack.
What joy is patiently afforded those
Who cling the more to God’s dear son revealed.
Ev’n when the heart is caught in death’s dark throes,
The promise rings of life and heart soon healed.
How great and kind and beautiful the God
Whose love spares not his harsh yet healing rod!

© 2011 Eric Evans

Lessons from Job, Part 4

If you haven’t read Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, you can read them here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). In Part 1 you’ll find an introduction to this series as well as a summary of the book of Job. Part 2 contains the first two lessons and Part 3 the following two.

Lesson 5: “What For?” is a Better Question than “Why?” When it Comes to Suffering
For Job and for the Christian today, “What’s God’s purpose in my suffering?” is a much better question than “What caused me to suffer?” It’s better because it’s more helpful, and it’s better because it more than likely gets closer to what God is up to in your suffering. “Why?” wants to know cause. “Why?” wants to know where the suffering came from. “What for?” wants to know purpose. “What for?” wants to know where God is going with this suffering. It changes suffering from being the end to merely being a means to some greater end.

With this in mind, while God had no obligation to explain himself to Job, there are some clues as to what God was up to in light of a statement that Job made at the end of the book (and in light of the New Testament, which I will merely mention for your reference: 2 Corinthians 1:3-6 and 16:6-10, 1 Peter 4:1, and Hebrews 12:3-11). After God made it very clear to Job that God was God and that Job was not, Job said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5). After suffering, Job knew God like he had never known him before. Job said, in essence, that his knowledge of God before his suffering was nothing compared to his knowledge of God after his suffering. And remember, Job was a very honorable, God-fearing man already. For Job and for many like him today, suffering has revealed God to them like nothing else. That’s difficult to write, but that was Job’s testimony. We would be wise to listen and beg God for grace to conclude the same when it’s our turn.

Lesson 6: It is Possible for Suffering to Reveal Sin When Sin is Not the Cause of the Suffering
Amid his horrendous suffering, Job said some things he never should have said. He basically challenged God’s righteousness. Not a good idea. Job’s words fully warranted God’s harsh response in chapters 38-41. In fact, they warranted much greater severity.

It is important, here, to understand that sin doesn’t simply appear from nowhere, nor do mere circumstances cause the human heart to sin. Sin is present within us (Romans 7:20). Circumstances merely reveal the sin that’s already there. This, I think, was what was happening with Job. He was an upright man, but he wasn’t perfect. Pride lurked in his heart somewhere. Doubt had taken hold at some deep level of Job’s inner man. He probably didn’t even know it. For sure no one around him knew it. Nevertheless, such pride and doubt is sin, and that sin was very suddenly revealed amid unimaginable suffering.

However, as I’ve argued thus far, Job’s sin was not the cause of his suffering. His sin was merely revealed by suffering. And Job repented for it. And his repentance was a very gracious gift from God. So God was not being harsh with Job in causing his suffering. He was harsh with Job only as a result of Job’s response to his suffering. But even that was grace. How? God wanted even more of Job. He wanted him purer than he was (and he was already blameless and upright!). God graciously allowing circumstances to reveal Job’s heart was the only way that Job could repent of the sin Job didn’t even know was there and thus move closer to God.

How good suffering is when it is at the hand of a God who, like a master surgeon, cuts open our chests to save our hearts.

Share Your Thoughts
1. How is thinking in of terms of God’s purpose for a particular situation more helpful than thinking of terms of what caused a particular situation?
2. How is it that God is good to us in revealing our sin through suffering?