I’ve recently had the privilege to hear a minister by the name of Jeremy Painter preach a completely life-changing sermon. It was the manor in which he spoke that initially took me by surprise. He didn’t use the same style we’ve all grown so accustomed to; he simply walked to the podium, greeted the church, said his thank you’s to the pastor and his family, and than, proceeded to minister. He didn’t shout or pace back and forth, he simply read. As he read to us the letter he wrote in his desperation to God, tears began stream down my cheeks. It caused me to search my soul, and check my spirit for anything that may have crept in unaware.
After the reading was finished he just bowed his head and began to pray. The sermon had it’s desired effect; and as moths are drawn to a flame, we were all drawn to the alter.
As a minister of the Gospel myself, I couldn’t help but feel the need to share this incredible story, and emotional out-pouring in this letter to the Lord.
This quite long, but trust me when I tell you, it will be worth every moment you spend reading it. May this he wrote bless you as it has blessed me.
To God Omnipotent: In Praise to Him
Almighty God, it is difficult to pour out the contents my heart to Omniscience. You know my thoughts from afar. You are both the origin and the destination of what I say here. O Lord, know the feelings that I have toward you. I intend to worship you in what follows. And yet how well I know that my worship cannot add or detract from your nature: “From everlasting to everlasting, Thou Art God!” And I know full well that my worship of you says more about me than it could ever say about you. One who stands in front of a masterpiece doesn’t judge the masterpiece; its place is secure in the arts. It is my response to the masterpiece that is being judged. If I find it beautiful—then my taste is true; if I’m not impressed—the defect is in me, not in the masterpiece. Just so, as I stand before you and these witnesses, hear my worship and search me, O my God; and teach me the beauty of your ways—show me your glory!
Bear with me, Holy One, as I tell what is already for you a twice-told tale.
I once met a peculiar servant of yours. I had seen him around all my life, but always at church. He seemed to get younger as I grew older. The first time I saw him in church, I must’ve been about 4—and he seemed a wise old man. Now that I’m 36, he seems a child. But though I’d seen him for many years, we weren’t formally introduced until about 10 years ago. I still remember where I was when I learned his name. It was that time I’ve told you so often about when I was listening to the song, “Blessed Assurance” on a CD player at home.
I listen to it over and over so that I can be ready to sing it that night at church. But, as you know, I turn around and see my grandmother on the couch with her hands raised and tears ran all the way down and collected on her collarbone, saying, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.” I was hearing the rhythm of the song, the three-four beat, the modulation, the vocals. But she was hearing something else….
That’s when I first met him. This servant of yours was sitting next to her doing the same thing, and I wondered how he ever got in my house. I ask his name, and he says, “It depends on what language you’re speaking. In Greek my name is Epainos, in Italian: Elogio; German: Lob; Russian: Khvalit; the Chinese call me Zan-mei; the Cherokee: Galv-quododi. Among the Hebrew people, I have long been known as Hallel. You may call me ‘Praise.’ ”
I was used to seeing him only at church—this Praise. But, as big as you please, there he is with my grandmother, glorifying God in my living room. It was an odd place, O Righteous One, to find Praise. I had always interpreted these songs devotionally when I was at church—but always mechanically when I was anywhere else. But not grandma and Praise.
Not long after that, my wife comes home one day and says she saw this Praise in the mall. Laura says, “I was standing there in the Christian bookstore, and I saw a picture of a broken man, holding a giant nail in one hand and a hammer in the other, collapsed in despair in the merciful arms of the wounded Christ. Suddenly, I noticed that I wasn’t alone standing there; for he was standing next to me, making a scene, weeping for joy. I looked back at the picture and saw that I was the broken one in the picture, but I was in the arms of the Lamb of God. I started to cry, and couldn’t break away. I grew up believing in Jesus, but I always believed in him like I believe in planets and galaxies that I know exist but I haven’t seen. But here I MET him. Do you think it’s a coincidence that when I met him, this Praise was standing next to me?”
O God, I didn’t think it was a coincidence, but I still found it odd that he would show up in such a public place—even if it was at a Christian bookstore.
But then I remember taking Laura to dinner in Ocean Shores, WA, right at the edge of the world. The evening is warm and clear, and we were going to get to watch the sun set over the Pacific. Everything is perfect; seated by a window and a warm fire pit, the pianist plays Beethoven. In the kitchen, clanking dishes, glasses filling with ice, flames swooshing, soaring as the cook sautés, happy conversations harmonize with the piano. But then, Maker of heaven and earth, Praise comes in and asks to join our dinner. I tell him quietly, not wanting to hurt his feelings: “Three’s a crowd. And I’m on a date right now!”
He isn’t hurt; he seems to be on a mission; as if he had come here to witness a miracle—so he sits in the next booth over by himself and stares like a child out the window with excitement.
The time comes at last: the sapphire sun descends into the horizon, the waters of the shimmering sea seem to boil, and waves of heat dance over the ocean. Suddenly, the dishes stop clinking, the pianist stops playing, the conversations cease. All is silent. Praise stares breathless. Then, Excellent Lord, the last pink speck of the fiery chariot you made disappears behind the gates of night. The restaurant, filled with saints and sinners alike, erupt in applause. And Praise stands to his feet and shouts with hands upraised, “The Heavens declare the glory of God; the skies show his handiwork… Oh, Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! This night is fearfully and wonderfully made.”
I am conscious a few moments later that I too am clapping—and in my joy a sobering question occurs to me, “Whom would the atheist have to thank for such a moment like this?”
Praise starts showing up in all kinds of places after that. We begin to laugh together quite a bit. We smile at the moon as it changes faces night unto night. Once, we go into town one day and see a little boy losing a race with his melting ice cream cone. You should’ve seen his tongue furiously licking all around the cone. We watch a young man sitting with his friends. A girl that he liked steals a look at him. He blushes, and she smiles at this tribute to her beauty. We see two girls playing kickball on a quiet street, and then we listen to the beautiful sound of their mother’s voice echoing through the street, calling them home for dinner.
I once held my baby boy in my mere hands—the boy I almost lost at his birth. You, O Excellent Creator, gave him a blond streak through his dark hair and made his eyes China blue. I see Praise standing next to me and smiling as I now watch this same son who once strained his neck to look up at me—stand dead even with me and shake my hand with a man’s grip, speak to me with a man’s voice—and yet look at me with the same little boy-eyes. “O God, how great you are!” I hear Praise whispering behind me.
I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for Praise to come with me to the symphony. It’s not a gospel concert, after all. It’s Brahms. But he comes anyway. After the concert I ask him why he applauded the musicians so vigorously. I’ll never forget his answer: “What marvelous gifts God has given to man!”
I start to get more comfortable with Praise—I’ll admit I’m surprised that he’s interested in the smallest and seemingly insignificant details of my life. We start spending quite a bit of time in each other’s company. We are friends now.
It happens though one afternoon that I open up my email and read a note from the English chair. It reads, “Dear Professor Painter, I regret to inform you that one of your students, Denise, after a terrible car accident last night, has died. The family has informed us that forthcoming details concerning her funeral will be posted through this link. Sincerest condolences to you and her classmates.”
I’m crushed, Merciful One, by the news. She was only 21 and one course away from graduating with honors—her whole bright future lay out before her. And to think that I had only just spoken with her 3 days before. I remember that my last communication with her was about her grades. I pull up her document and read what I wrote. My remarks show no signs that I was informed by the knowledge that I was talking to a child on the brink of eternity. My last words were: “Your paper is well-written, but there are some research issues we’ll need to work through in the next few weeks.”
I hear the sudden and terrible crush of a high-speed collision; glass, metal, fire—a rolling mass of metal coming to a stop at the barricade; a sickening primal scream cut short by terrible death… a drunk staggering out of his car and running away.
And, O Man of Sorrows, Acquainted with Grief, I thought of my puny words, “There are some research issues we’ll need to work through in the next few weeks.” What do such words about such trifles mean in the ocean of eternity?
I hear a knock on my office door. It was Praise. I don’t answer. Two days later, I hear the knock again. I let him in, but I have nothing to say to him—and I thought I had finally found a place where he doesn’t belong. I tell him that this is no time for praise.
I remember Emily Dickenson’s words: “The bustle in the house, the morning after death / is one of life’s greatest solemnities. / The sweeping up the heart / and putting love away / until it will be used again in eternity” rings in mind. And so I busy myself with menial tasks in hopes that my mind won’t have time to ask what this pain and suffering means for my belief in a good God.
O Lord, I tell you truly—you know my heart—I didn’t reject you, but—believing that the other side should have its day in court—I decide it’s Pain’s turn to have the floor in my life. Pain must be allowed to speak unfettered. Pain and Praise—2 different voices, 2 advocates for 2 different sides. One an evangelist for you, O Son of Man; the other an evangelist for Chaos and Futility.
But Praise just sits there in my office and stays. The next morning he’s already there.
I sit down and ignore him. I ignore him for days on end; I’m in no mood for Praise. And every morning he’s still there when I come in. But after a few more days, another knock. I’m glad because I know it’s not Praise, who’s still sitting on my couch. I open the door, but this time it’s a dark figure, more fitting to my mood. I don’t need to ask his name, for I know that I’m looking at Death. I won’t let him in, and I close the door and stand against it. But then I hear him whisper from behind the threshold of my door: “Live, I’m coming!”
My knees turn to jelly and I shuffle over to my chair. I remember that Praise is still with me. “Why are you still here?” I shout. He had never said much outside of his exclamations of worship. But this time, Faithful Lord, he speaks to me,
“My longtime friend, do you think you’re the first to feel pain? You act as though pain is a private revelation of yours; you seem to believe that suffering has given you a glimpse of reality that escaped the saints and sages of the past. Can you really believe that Pain and Praise are two different voices? You’re assuming, in spite of all you know, that the saints of ages past have praised God only in the absence of Pain.
“But I was there when the Sweet Psalmist of Israel sang, ‘Eli, Eli, Lamma Sabachthani’; I was Job’s only friend when he said, ‘The Lord gives and takes away, blessed is the name of the Lord!’ Were you there when David cried with bitter tears, ‘God, why are you so far from helping me?’ I was there. I was with Israel by Chebar when they hung their harps on the willows and sang a lament for the ages. Nothing would’ve been heard from the Philippian jailhouse that night so long ago, if Pain had not brought Paul and Silas there. I came too, and our voices filled the night with praise. Heaven heard us.
“Jeremy, do you believe that the Holy Spirit inspired these dark passages; or did the Spirit only inspire passages that speak of the glories of God and the triumph of His people?”
You remember my answer, God. I say, “I believe the Spirit is the author of both—all Scripture is given by inspiration of the Spirit.”
Praise answers, “Then you believe that the Lord was saying to one and the same Lord, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ You see, there is this contradiction even in God’s own heart. Suffering and Praise are not two different voices. I am the voice of both. Have you forgotten that the symbol of our religion is the cross? Do you remember in John that the Son of God said He went to the cross to glorify His Father?
“I marvel that you think I don’t belong where there’s suffering! You have learned that I don’t just belong in church; you have learned that I don’t just belong in your church and your home. You have learned that I belong everywhere in life—but only so long as everything in life is okay! You’re okay with my presence when there are answers, but you imagine that I’m out of place when there are questions. But if this is all you’ve learned from me in the last ten years, you’ve learned nothing at all.
“Why aren’t you asking how it was that grandmother was singing and crying on your couch on that day you met me? Don’t you remember that your grandmother went to bed every night knowing that her husband wasn’t faithful to her? Her family knew and her friends and church knew, and she bore the shame everywhere she went.
“Don’t you remember that when she was 25 she stood over the grave of her own child and wept? You’ve all but forgotten that she nearly died during a nervous breakdown. Had she erased these things from her mind that day she sang, ‘Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine?’ Do you imagine that the tears of joy she shed in your living room were not mixed with great sorrow. Could it be that she heard something in that song that you missed? Do you think it’s significant that she was worshipping to a song written by a blind woman who sings of “Visions of rapture bursting on her sight and of watching and waiting, looking above”? Your grandmother had learned that something could only be taken from her if it had graciously been given to her in the first place. One has had to be given health to know what sickness is. One has had to blessed with the sheer joy of being given a child to understand what it is to lose a child. Praise does not forget the pain: praise takes the pain and reinterprets it within a larger truth.
“What was it that your wife was seeing in that picture of the Wounded Christ, holding a broken man in his arms? What did she see that day that all the other shoppers missed? She saw the One who suffered—and yet she praised.
“I belong not only where you watch a sunset and kiss a child’s cheek; but I belong—and have always belonged—especially where there is sorrow. We don’t praise God in spite of pain; we praise Him, in large part, because it is only through pain that we truly experience what God experiences all the time. Have you never listened to Paul speak of the knowing God ‘in the fellowship of his suffering’? Have you forgotten that the ‘Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world’?”
Then Praise says, “Open your email.”
So, my Lord, I obediently open up my email. I click on the link, hoping to read details about Denise’s funeral. Her funeral had been held. Her brother had written her eulogy and posted it online. At the end of the eulogy, he wrote: “I have not been a believer like Denise was a believer. In fact, I had not believed in life after death. I was convinced that there was only one Omnipotence in the universe—and that was Death. But since she died, I have had the hardest time imagining that someone so full of life as Denise was could really be dead. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that she’s not. I’m deeply suspicious now that God is tempting me to faith. For me, death didn’t change what Denise means to me. Denise changed what death means to me!”
Like a weed in a dark forgotten prison, which, trying to solve the fearful enigma of its existence, turns towards a single ray of light that has somehow reached these depths, I turn to Praise, who is still on the couch. He’s sitting there; his hands uplifted—just as I had met him, next to my now departed grandmother, 10 years before. He keeps whispering, “Death is swallowed up in victory! Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.”
At once I understand I SAW Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it,
Time in hours, days, years
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d ; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;
And I heard the voice of a Christ say,
“I am the day, soon to be born
I am the light before the morning
I am the night that will be dawn
I am the end and the beginning
I am the Alpha and Omega
The night and day, the first and last
“I am the light, soon to begin
I am the new hope in the morning
I am the darkness, soon to be light
I am the rising and the falling
sancta gloriosa, In aeterna.”
“Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”
O Lord, you are altogether lovely! My wife does not put a bow in my daughter’s hair to make her pretty. She puts a bow in her hair because she’s pretty already. And I do not praise you before these people to make you praiseworthy. I praise you because you are always—and forevermore—worthy of my praise.
O Blessed One, I pray to you at this moment for the student suffering loss. You, O Great High Priest, are touched by the feelings of her infirmities. You, Suffering Servant, are acquainted with his grief. This student knows you better now than she knew you before the pain. And now may his voice, weighty with sorrow, be mingled with praise. “Now unto the One who is able to keep us from falling. Be the honor and the glory!” Thank you Blessed Father.
In Christ Jesus’ Name,
October 2, 2012, Feast of the Guardian Angels