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November 25th, 2012

The Father lovingly imprints his word on our brain so that when we need those messages the most, we can recall them.

Lamentations 3:19-33

November 25, 2012

Ordinary life, extraordinary song

Thomas Obediah Chisholm wrote about 1200 poems and hymns, actually, but as far as I know I have only heard of three: O To Be Like Thee, Living for Jesus, and Great Is Thy Faithfulness.  The latter, as you may have heard me say many times, is my favorite hymn.  You’ll be singing it at my funeral unless I preach yours first.

What is it about the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”?  Earlier this week, not knowing we would be singing this song or preaching on this text today, I received an e-mail from Diane Camp, who had undergone surgery the Friday before.  She mentioned “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” as her favorite hymn, and I asked her why.  She said,

I have always been a hummer. I was unaware of that habit until I was taking my Daddy to the doctor one day.  We were in the car and he said, “I have the happiest children.” I said, “what do you mean, Daddy?” He said, “You are always humming.”

Since then I have been aware of my humming habit, and have noticed that the song I am always humming is “Great is Thy Faithfulness”—I especially seem to hum it when I am stressed or am in need of Him.

Some time back Sally Nicks and I went to the beach.  She got sick and I had to drive us back to Hickory—this was before my new implants and 20/20 vision—this was “cataract vision” that saw very, very poorly in the dark. Sometime into the trip, Sally asked me, “What is that song you are humming?” I said, “Oh, I didn’t know I was humming, but it is ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’” Well, needless to say, My Faithful Father got us home!

Today we reflect on the Scripture text that inspired Thomas Obediah Chisholm to write these lyrics.  The text is from the book of Lamentations, which follows the book of Jeremiah.  We have spent this fall studying Jeremiah, and it did not seem right to preach through the book without following with the appendix.

Lamentations is without rival the saddest book of the Bible.  Welcome to the holidays, right?  It is the corporate version of Job.  Job is about one man’s devastating loss and his passion to clear his name.  But Job isn’t as sad as Lamentations for two reasons.  First, it’s just about one man instead of a nation.  And second, Job has a happy ending.  There’s no happy ending in Lamentations.  It ends wondering if God has “utterly rejected” his people because he is “angry…beyond measure” (5:22).

We get our title, “Lamentations,” from the title of this book in the Greek Septuagint (LXX): “Wailings.”  The title in Hebrew, which usually takes its titles from the first word, is, “How.”  But it’s not “How?” (question), as in “How did this happen?”  It’s “How!” (exclamation) as in, “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!  How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!” (1:1).

This is no hastily-written journal of scattered thoughts.  It is a carefully constructed set of five acrostic poems.  Acrostic poems appear several times in the Bible, mostly in the book of Psalms.  Each verse or section of an acrostic poem begins with successive letters of the alphabet.  There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, so four of the chapters in Lamentations have 22 verses, sort of like suffering from A to Z.  One way to interpret this is that the suffering is complete.

Chapter 3 of Lamentations is 66 verses instead of 22.  Three verses for Aleph (A), three for Beth (B), and so on.  It’s the centerpiece of this book of organized sadness, and you can’t help but grieve with Jeremiah as he wails for his people.

All this is background for the section of Lamentations 3 we read today.  As I said, the passage is in three-verse stanzas.  Each line within that stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter.  Our section starts with Zayin (Z), then heth (Ch), Teth (Th), Yodh (Y), and Kaph (K).  Each has a lesson for us with one key word.

ז   Zayin (19-21) 

The key Hebrew word in this section is zakar (remember).

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

“I remember my affliction (poverty) and my wandering (restlessness), the bitterness (wormwood, a smelly, poisonous plant) and the gall (poisonous venom),” he says in verse 19.  “I well remember them, and my soul is downcast with me.”  Do you ever feel that way?  If you fight depression, discouragement, or disillusionment, particularly as it relates to your disappointment with God, you have good biblical company.

What was it that Jeremiah “remembered”?  Those of you who have been here have heard me describe the events of 586 B.C.  Rather than repeating those details, let me reinforce them with a historical parallel.  You have probably heard of “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” an historical event that can still raise feelings of bitterness among American southerners a century and a half after it happened.  General William Sherman had captured Atlanta, Georgia in the fall of 1864.  From November 15 to December 21 of that year Sherman led tens of thousands of Union soldiers on a march from Atlanta to Savannah.  His purpose was to destroy the South’s ability to wage war – not only physically but psychologically.

Sherman not only wanted to win battles against his military opponents, he intended to demoralize the civilian population.  In his march across Georgia, he burned crops, twisted and broke railroad tracks, killed livestock, destroyed cotton gins and grain storage, and dismantled or burned bridges.

This combination of military and psychological effect was exactly what led to the writing of Lamentations, including the component that up until that point the South had believed God was on their side and they would win the war with his help.  In fact, to an even greater degree the citizens of Jerusalem were spiritually devastated because their defeat and annihilation seemed to break God’s explicitly revealed promise to Israel and to King David a half millennium earlier.  Now Jeremiah, having been the primary voice predicting this catastrophic judgment, puts voice to the people’s gloom.

Thomas Obediah Chisolm was born in 1866 in a log house on the family farm near Franklin, KY, a town of 8500 just north of Nashville, TN.  Chisholm attended school in a country schoolhouse, and at the age of 16 the position of teacher became available.  He was the “best available” and moved to the front of the classroom to teach other elementary school children what he had learned in elementary school.  About six years later, he started working for the local newspaper.

“Yet this I call to mind,” Jeremiah says in verse 21, “and therefore I have hope.”  Remember your life.  But remember your hope.

ח   Heth (22-24) 

The key Hebrew word in this section is chesed (love).

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

Jeremiah recalls Yahweh’s chesed (his mercy, his covenant, his great love) that “we are not consumed” (22).  In the midst of our pain, we are still here.  “His compassions never fail” – literally, “his womb.”  It’s odd to put a masculine possessive pronoun in front of a word like womb.  But Jeremiah uses this mixed metaphor to say that God’s love for us is like that of a mother for the child she has carried and brought into the world.

They (God’s thoughts of compassion) are new every morning (23).  Jeremiah allows the sunrise itself to be a reminder that God never fails.  “Great is your faithfulness,” he continues. God is solid and steady.  You can count on him.

“I say to myself” (imagine how often he has to repeat this), “The LORD is my portion (like when you divide up the inheritance and everyone gets their share) therefore I will wait for him” (24).  I’m not waiting for what God will do or a specific answer to prayer; I’m waiting for him.  God is enough.  God is enough.  God is enough.

At age 27, Thomas Obediah Chisholm gave his life to Christ during a revival held in Franklin by Evangelist Henry Clay Morrison, the founder of Asbury College.  He served for a while as an editor of a Pentecostal newspaper, but not long after was ordained to the Methodist ministry. He only served as a pastor for about a year, however.

Still, that commitment to Christ would define his mission and his priorities for decades to come.  He had come to embrace Jesus Christ as his hope of eternal life, as the greatest expression of God’s “great love.”

ט   Teth (25-27) 

The key Hebrew word in this section is thov (good).

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man to bear the yoke
    while he is young.

The word “good” appears at the beginning of all three lines in this stanza.

“The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him” (25)  Once again, this is a statement of faith.  Looking around at charred rubble that used to be a home, and piles of rock that used to be a temple, Jeremiah says, “God is good.”  I love how in many African American churches they use a responsive greeting by heart.  “God is good…all the time….All the time….God is good.”  In many cases, their circumstances are far less hopeful than yours and mine, but God is good…all the time.

“It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (26).  It’s good to wait – not wait for something, but just wait.  Jeremiah thinks back on the years of prophecy unheeded, loneliness in exile, beatings, and time in the cistern.  Those were years of waiting, and in retrospect he can say, “It is good.”

Something else is good.  “It’s good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young” (27).  Thomas Obediah Chisholm knew that yoke as well.  Health problems forced him to retire from ministry and choose a new vocation – insurance salesman.  He would say at age 75 that he never had enough money through the years because of his poor health.  Yet he would write, “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.”

י   Yodh (28-30) 

The key Hebrew word in this section is yashav (sit).

Let him sit alone in silence,
    for the Lord has laid it on him.
Let him bury his face in the dust—
    there may yet be hope.
Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
    and let him be filled with disgrace.

The word “sit” occurs only in verse 28, but Jeremiah’s focus is on what Eugene Peterson calls “willed passivity.”  Being passive is often seen as a negative trait, but a willed passivity is a choice to wait strategically, to yield, to let go of the need for control.  Jeremiah had no choice had several points in his life.  Or did he have a choice?  He certainly had a choice in how he would respond, choosing to remain loyal and faithful.

I can imagine Chisholm having to move to a new town, a new job, dealing with chronic lung illness, wondering what went wrong.  His life started well, with such promise.  He was going to be a great teacher, a world-renowned journalist, a life-changing pastor, a record-setting salesman.  None of those things worked out for him.  He turned his attention in private to writing poetry, expressing his heart to God.  This is one passage that caught his attention.

We have a number of our families dealing with pain this holiday season. One couple who has been attending Corinth lost their son on Thanksgiving Day a year ago.  A member lost her husband right after Christmas last year, and she says she just doesn’t think she can attend church here during the holiday season.  With the help of our office staff, I went through the prayer lists from the last year and found the names of more than 30 families who are facing their first holiday season without a loved one.  If you know someone like that, I can tell you that a phone call or a note can mean so much.  Their December will be wrenching, and it will help them know you care.

Sometimes I think we (well, let me speak for myself – I) don’t leave enough space for people to hurt, to get mad, to feel and express their pain.  We expect them to work through it on their own so they can come to church and be chipper with the rest of us.  Once again, I’m so awestruck that God doesn’t deal with pain this way.  God leaves plenty of space, plenty of silence, even, for people – even those who believe in him – to express the depth of their hurt and sorrow.  It’s the very best thing we can do with it.  And the best place to do it is in the community of believers.

Chisholm had spent much of his life in solitude – walking or riding from house to house.  He was a person who loved the Scripture and meditated on it during his times of silence.  During one of those times – we’re not sure exactly when – his reflection on Lamentations 3 led him to write the words to “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

כ   Kaph (31-33) 

The key Hebrew word in this section is a conjunction, ki (if, because, although).

For men are not cast off
    by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
    so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
    or grief to the children of men.

All of life until we breathe our last breath is a conjunction.  It’s a hinge that leads to the next phase of life.  Jeremiah writes these words looking at the rubble that was Jerusalem.  It is only his faith that allows him to do so.  He believes his grief will be followed by love compassion and love.  God is not trying to hurt anyone.  God is good…all the time.

After Thomas Obediah Chisholm wrote the words to “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” he sent this and a number of other poems to a musician friend named William Runyan.  This poem stood out to Runyan, and he prayed for special guidance in writing appropriate music.  In 1923, Runyan published a private song pamphlet which included “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

A few years later, Dr. Will Houghton, the President of Moody Bible Institute, discovered the song and turned it into an unofficial theme song for his school; it was same for Columbia Bible College, where Linda and I attended in the 70s.  But it was George Beverly Shea and the Billy Graham Crusades that turned this hymn into a worldwide favorite, especially among evangelical churches of the mid-20th century.  It is a spiritual “comfort food” to me, the Gospel equivalent of turkey and mashed potatoes or Linda’s pumpkin pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Imprints and channels

I asked Diane Camp why this song is her favorite, and she said, “I think My Heavenly Father decided that was the message I needed to have imprinted on my brain.”  She’s right.  The Father lovingly imprints his word on our brain so that when we need those messages the most, we can recall them.

It is in carefully, thoughtfully writing out his pain that Jeremiah says he finds hope.  He chooses to channel his mind in another direction.  This is a word to those who despair.  Yes, it’s perfectly OK to rail against God to his face or among his people.  Be honest.  He loves that, and he can take it.  The reason it’s so good for us is that by voicing it out loud we realize the nothingness to which those thoughts lead us.

But as human beings, God has also given us the capacity to carve new channels in the rock of our minds.  Left untouched, streams will carve deeper and deeper into the rock, creating even something like the Grand Canyon.  Our minds are like that.  We can choose to let those channels of despair continue to create deep patterns.  We can also choose to create new paths for our minds to go.  In the short term the water will try to find its original path, but eventually the new path will begin to carve deep channels in the rock of our minds.

Linda and I visited a dear soul this week who reminds me of Thomas Chisholm.  She never married, but gave her life to serving the Lord at Columbia Bible College as Dean of Women.  She was Linda’s dean and teacher.  She became an even closer friend to Judy Stewart, who with her husband Mike are members of our church.  Mike and Judy brought her to Hickory a few years ago so they could care for her since she has no close family surviving.  Helen suffers from dementia, and lives at the Lutheran Home West.

Judy had suggested we read to Helen from her own Bible, because she has marked so many passages that have meant something to her in her walk with the Lord.  We turned to Lamentations 3 (because I was going to preach on it this Sunday), and sure enough – it was both underlined and bracketed in the margin.  I wasn’t surprised.

My visits to see Helen are always similar.  I come in and have to introduce myself to her again as her pastor.  She’s a little cool until I tell her I went to Columbia Bible College.  She brightens a little, and then I tell her I am married to Linda Rohrer and her whole face lightens up.  I remind her that at CBC I had to ask her permission to take Linda on a single date so I could ask her to marry me.  She always says the same thing, with a twinkle.  “Did I say yes?”

When we asked her on Wednesday how she was doing, she said, “I’m discouraged,” and started to cry.  “Why am I here?” she asked us. We read Lamentations 3 to her, and then sang all the verses of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”  And do you know that this lady, who doesn’t even know she lives in Hickory, NC, sang right with us – remembered the words and the tune.  Her countenance began to change.  A peace came over her.  She joked with us, asking,  “Am I just as sweet as ever?” She is, but she also learned a long time ago to be very honest with her struggles.

This is what I mean by chiseling channels into our mind with Scripture and songs.  Although I understand that those who attend contemporary worship enjoy a freshness and vitality often missing from traditional worship, I sometimes wonder whether in years to come they will miss this element of carving those memories of oft-repeated words into our minds and hearts so we can call on them during the most difficult times of life.

This is the gift that Thomas Obediah Chisholm gave to me – lyrics that became a song that is carved deep into my soul:

Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

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