This is a praiseful realization:
love is bit and bridle, despair, the beast.
To live well is to learn how to ride,
how to lean into grief.
That is how one of the opening pages in A Small Cup of Light first introduces you to the author, Ben Palpant, as he opens a window into his life for you to peer into some of the work the Lord has done. Speaking of his wife early in the book, he says, “she set aside her fears to speak into my own” (p25), and that is what A Small Cup of Light is all about—setting aside personal fear to step into pain with someone else—bearing burdens together as one way to share the light of Christ.
God. Help. Me.
Nothing but me and my need stated frankly and simply. I have since wondered if, perhaps, this prayer is the most elemental of all prayers. Perhaps this is the most indispensable form of any petition. (p93) Now I know that God is always present. I’ve known that since I was a little boy. But I do not think we feel His presence very often. I certainly had not until that moment. (p95)
My family has the sweet privilege of personally knowing the author, of having worshipped alongside his family for nearly a decade, and while we knew he was suffering in some ways, we had very little information about it at the time, mostly just knowing that he was in a place of pain & vulnerability—and it made him one of the most empathetic people we bumped into on a weekly basis. One of the most personal ways Mr. Palpant has blessed my family is through prayer. Through the years—particularly during six of my recurrent miscarriages—he has encouraged us to pray along with him, in church and in less official places—and I have long thought that his prayers have even helped shape my Gabriel’s prayer life specifically when he was a toddler—the most stunning example being a prayer vigil that Mr. Palpant organized in our front yard when I had just delivered our tiny son Hosanna back in 2010.
She had invited herself into my suffering so she could empathize with me, walk with me, and speak to God on my behalf. (p99) Many such moments, unexpected cups of light, made my heart weep for joy and glimpse the sun again. Each moment reminded me that my weakness, my perceived failure, was bringing about a new birth not only in me, but in those around me. (p99) I am learning slowly to see life as God sees it. God is giving me new eyes. (p101)
I am an arrow shot from a bow string. I am a bird in flight. I am a falling leaf. (p122)
Though night may again fall upon me suddenly, You, O God, will be my refuge. Though I find myself in a desert, stumbling beneath a starless sky, still, I will listen for the shy song of that small bird, Hope. I will follow it, weeping and singing. So it is and so it will be. Weep and sing. (p126) Despair is not the only viable response to suffering. I offer a different one: celebration. (p126) Suffering is a night, a brooding blank on the soul’s staring eye. Those who have suffered deeply remember the constriction, the immobilizing fear and doubt. A million moments of laughter and pleasure in life may slip from memory, but we recall the pain with ease. (p129) Joy sometimes saddles despair’s back. (p129)
After having only occasionally run into him over the last year—one time being able to snatch his autograph on our copy of A Small Cup Of Light—we were overjoyed when we found out that Mr. Palpant was going to be coming to our church for weekly Lenten lectures this year between Ash Wednesday and Holy Week, to share some of the dark corners and deep honesty from his book, from his life, from how the Lord has brought beauty from his suffering.
Most of what he shared at the weekly Wednesday night gatherings are things with which I am (and perhaps you are too) familiar—whether it is the emotional, the physical, or the spiritual side of suffering. He does tell snippets of his personal story, but I think he knows that most of us had already gotten our hands on his book & the majority of us had read through it rather quickly, so he mostly has gone less from him and more to the journey. Rather than telling us again all about his particular story of suffering, and all the paths the Lord prepared for him and how He has carried out this story of life through this one man & his family—he gives us lessons that he has gleaned by God’s grace through his own story, which apply to all thirty or fifty of the other stories gathered in the room where he is speaking.
No child in the history of mankind, when asked what he would like to do when he grows up, has ever responded, “I want to suffer.” (p29) What really terrified me was that divine hands, against which I was simply powerless, had created that fissure into which I felt myself sliding. (p36) …The dilemma that kept barking at the back door of my mind was this: A good God is fine when life is tropically blissful, but what when the hurricane comes? Where is the safe haven then? What are we to do when chaos bangs against the windows and when the roof of reliability is ripped off? What to do with all this suffering? C.S. Lewis called pain God’s megaphone. John Piper has called pain God’s pedagogy. “God, I am listening. Teach me. Speak into this bewilderment.” (p43) Hawk and hen, God made them both. (p47)
We converse with one another—other image bearers of God the Father, Creator of us all—over bowls of soup and fists full of bread. Often, it seems that these are opportunities to get beyond the normally casual conversations between mere acquaintances, allowing us to delve into new corners of companionship, comradery, actual fellowship (which isn’t just talking, but spurring one another on to love and good works, in the spirit of Hebrews 10:24-25). And then someone serves us by donning an apron (and let me tell you, when our pastor dons an apron, and washes the feet of Christ’s disciples by cleaning up after our messes, it serves as a truly wonderful embodiment of a shepherd caring for his sheep by humbling himself & laying down his life—when I was personally blessed by that for the very first time a couple weeks ago, it struck me with so much grace and joy) to clean up the messes we have made, and we shuffle our chairs until we can look at Ben Palpant, and all listen with our ears & our hearts—because every single one of us suffers. We have different stories: we are an entire library of biographies gathered in one room, each story being unique and enthralling in its own way, with its own climaxes and culminations. But we have common threads. And the Lord’s working in our lives takes the shape of suffering at various points and in various ways—but none of us is spared from it. Oh! Lest we grow haughty or callous, none of us can escape the hand of the Lord. If you haven’t felt it yet, you will yet someday. Some way.
Humor became a kind of relief valve in our home, momentarily warding off mountain fears. Tenderness coupled with laughter became a balm even to me. (p79) I thought of the fatigue that came from trying to live and the fear that came from not trying. (p85) How easily we forget how much mental strength is required to argue, to complain, to kick against God. (p91) Suffering is personal. Although a community, a family, an entire people group might face the same loss, each member must taste the wormwood on his own tongue. The bitterness is individualized, tailored for each of us. A mystery. (p92)
And so with one common storyline being emphasized, that of suffering, we listen to Mr. Palpant offer encouragement, exhortation, observation, challenge, comfort, grace. And it is a time of souls and stories mixing together, hearts softening, sometimes theologies bumping into one another. It has been a time of great conversation starters too—questions about God’s ordaining, allowing, creating (or lack thereof) of suffering, devastation, catastrophe, calamity, even evil. I have had really great conversations about these things over the last couple of weeks with my husband, a few people from church, a friend online, and my sister-in-law.
God does not look at our suffering from afar. It is an intimate event to Him. (p48) [Jesus] is after much more than happiness in our lives. He is after a sustaining joy and He will give us that joy by giving us Himself, whether through the small gifts of life that bring us gladness or through the dark night of suffering. Sweeping affliction under the rug of our heart, therefore, is simple denial, an act of cowardice, and an act of ungratefulness. We must dare to look it square in the eyes. (p50) If we try to comfort ourselves in our need instead of leaning fully on our God and Savior, God promises to make us taste that need full force. (p78)
Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi, in Scripture, plainly believed that the Lord Himself brought the calamity of multiple bereavements upon her (Ruth 1:20-21). Isaiah, inspired from the mouth of the Lord to speak on His behalf, proclaimed that there is no god but Yahweh, and that He forms light and creates darkness, makes well-being and creates calamity—it is the Lord alone who does all these things (Isaiah 45:5-7). In some translations, verse 7 even says “I make peace and create evil”—try that on for size for a conversation starter in a Christian church setting. 🙂 Pair it with Amos 3:6 which says,
Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?
Clearly the Lord does all these things, even calamity and disaster… yet Christians are pretty diverse, I’ve noticed, on the interpretation of the Lord’s involvement here. As though we are not to take Scripture for what it plainly says! But following that up with reading Psalm 135:5-7 (and the examples that follow, through verse 13) is pretty great:
For I know that the Lord is great,
and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the Lord pleases, He does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from His storehouses.
Mr. Palpant reminds us that, to put it bluntly, we are not the center of the universe—our entire point of life is to glorify God. Like Isaiah 48:10-11 says,
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For My own sake, for My own sake, I do it,
for how should My name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.
So for the last five weeks, we have been weekly blessed to share fellowship with people on a level that has been intimate—discussing the vulnerable, sacred places of our lives that are, well, terrible. And it has been good to enter into the terrible things with one another, to get past the shallow and the superficial, to encourage one another to see Christ in the darkness and sip His light!
How long must I learn to carry this grief in faith? How lasting is suffering’s effect on the soul? Heaven promises to be a place without grief, without tears. Does that mean that I forget my story in Heaven? I don’t think so. (p134) I have a hunch that we’ll spend eternity remembering our own suffering also, learning how to wear it well, remembering that Christ’s suffering redeemed our own, and realizing how our trials worked to glorify God, the great Story-Teller. All our singing will be prompted not by forgetfulness, but by thankfulness. (p134) Suffering in every form is meaningless and hopeless unless God is in control of it. (p148)
This book is good drinking, er um, reading. Steven read the whole thing one long, restful Sunday afternoon. I read it in snippets over numerous evenings, because I could only swallow so much at a time. But take a sip, a gulp, drink it up—you won’t be sorry you savored it, because in the drinking, You will taste the sweetness that comes from bitterness shared, and the blessings that God intends for us even as He glorifies Himself in the darkness when we see His light.
As though I made it to the other side of the trial and can now move on. At some deep place inside, we’d like to simply get through our suffering and move on, but this does not accurately picture reality. (p130) It is a mistake to think that I can just get through my trials. We are the accumulation of our experiences and we do ourselves a disservice if we embrace only the happy parts of our story. The dark moments of our existence are also worth valuing because they are an essential part of the story that a good God is telling. They are not an accident of existence. (p131)
Anticipating death and calling it gain, Christians are evangelists of the grotesque. The very hope of the Gospel rests directly upon our ability to imagine a world in which suffering serves as the soil from which resurrection springs. (p133) I think another lesson I learned is that life is not so much about what I’m doing for God as much as it is about how I’m learning to see what God is up to in my life. I try too hard to please God by my efforts instead of letting my efforts spring naturally from a kind of thankfulness for what He has done is doing in my life. Perhaps the hardest prayer I’ve learned to pray is this one: “Lord, I’m ready for You to do whatever You must to draw me close to You.” It’s a terrifying prayer for some reason, but it’s also very liberating to vocalize. (p150)