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About the Author
Palmer Chinchen is an engaging communicator who speaks with unique authority on the need for a Christian response to affliction and injustice. Drawing on his years of experience in Africa, he pulls the listener into the fabric of his message and creates a new passion in Christ-followers for responding to a hurting world. He is pastor of The Grove in Chandler, Arizona; he holds a PhD from Trinity International University in Illinois and a MA from Biola University.
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GOD CAN'T SLEEP
Waiting for Daylight on Life's Dark Nights
By Palmer Chinchen
David C. CookCopyright © 2011 Palmer Chinchen
All rights reserved.
Darkness is my closest friend. Psalm 88:18
We have a saying in Africa: "God can't sleep."
Christmas is never supposed to be painful. Maybe that is one of the reasons the tragedy we experienced on the African Bible College campus in Lilongwe, Malawi, hurt so deeply. All fifty-three children from the ABC Christian Elementary Academy were lined up at the chapel door and had begun singing "Silent Night" as they entered, each carrying a lit candle.
Before the first child reached the decorated stage, I heard screams from the back of the room. When I turned, I saw several of the children's lamb costumes on fire. My brother and I grabbed a small girl running past us, on fire, and smothered the flames with our hands and bodies. I looked up and saw another girl, Damalise, fully ablaze. Several men had just backed away from her because her costume had exploded into a literal fireball.
Unfortunately, many of the parents had used a highly flammable glue, easily accessible in Malawi, to glue cotton balls on sheep costumes. As the kids waited in the back of the auditorium to begin the processional, some bumped into others with burning candles in hand, catching the lamb costumes on fire—and the costumes burned as if they'd been doused with gasoline.
I sprinted toward Damalise, pulled her to the ground. Strangely, I didn't feel any heat or pain as I plunged my hands into the flames. Several other men joined me to beat the flames out with our bare hands. All of us ended up with third- degree burns on our hands, arms, and necks. Several hours later, the pain that set in was excruciating.
But my burns were nothing compared to those that eleven-year-old Damalise sustained. Her skin was peeled back in large masses on her legs, arms, torso, and face. As her father and I carried her to the car, what she repeated over and over as she cried out in agony still echoes in my mind: "I'm going to die, I'm going to die." I tried to comfort her—"Damalise, you're not going to die." My words felt hollow.
Five children caught fire that December night. Four days later, Damalise went to heaven.
From the very beginning of the Bible, the writers of Scripture used gardens to talk about life the way God meant it to be. Gardens represented all the beauty and goodness of God's presence.
The first garden was lush and green and filled with color, and God was everywhere. But then things went sideways; people (well, all two of them) turned on God, and they exchanged a flourishing garden for a dark desert. Eden was the Garden of Life, but people turned it into the Garden of Darkness.
The garden was still dark when Judas found Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. The Christ was beaten and hung on a Roman cross to suffocate. Heaven seemed silent. God seemed absent. Everyone wanted the angels to rush down from heaven and lift Him off the cross, but angels never came. He just hung there, in the heat, sweating and bleeding ... to death.
He was buried in a garden as the first day turned to night.
We all want to rush to the end of the story, the third day, because this story has to get better, brighter ... but that's not how God meant this life to be. The first day, the dark day, is a day everyone must live. For some the darkness seems to last a lifetime.
Christians often act as though we can live in such a way that the darkness won't touch us. But the world God put us in just doesn't work that way.
Pain is real.
Suffering surrounds us.
GOD, IT HURTS
Yesterday Pamela came to my office; she said she wanted to tell me about her pain. She told me she was raped when she was seventeen. Now, more than fifteen years later, she still hurts. God, it hurts!
How can God sleep at night when there is so much pain in this world? If God loves people as deeply as the Bible says, and if God has all the power in the universe, then why in the world do the very worst things happen to the very best people? Why are beautiful seventeen-year-old girls attacked by filthy men? Why!?
All of us ask these ringing questions on life's dark nights, on nights when children dressed as innocent lambs sing about the birth of God's Son, then burn to death. How in the world can this happen? Is God asleep?
THE DARK CONTINENT
Several years ago I took a leave from the pastorate to teach at a Christian college in the African country of Malawi. When I arrived, I was shocked by the widespread suffering. Sickness and diseases like malaria and AIDS were rampant. Poverty littered the landscape. Nowhere else—not even elsewhere in Africa, where I have traveled widely—had I seen grown men walk barefoot on city streets. The living conditions were unsanitary; hunger turned to starvation; children wore soiled rags for clothes.
As I lived through this experience, I began looking for biblical answers to the problems of pain, suffering, and injustice. I also realized that I didn't have a well-thought-out, articulated theology of pain. We say really cheap things like, "God won't give you more than you can handle." The Bible doesn't say that. Let's be honest—suffering does not fit well in the framework of Western Christianity.
In the middle of these explorations, I began writing material for a course I would teach called "A Theology of Suffering." Later, when I taught the course, my students and I wrestled with the problem of pain. We read books, we searched Scripture for answers, and we talked about the culprits of injustice. The process was refreshing and eye- opening.
In our search, we read Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel. Manning's signature book wonderfully describes how Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of time with people who had been damaged along the dark paths of life: the lame, the blind, the downtrodden, the lepers, the tired, the broken, and the lost.
We discussed Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer, in which Nouwen explains that Jesus lived a wounded life, but that through His wounds, you and I are made whole. His wounds were the very price of our healing. And here's the beauty of it: The Wounded One is among us today. He sits with you on lonely days. He cries with you through dark nights.
My students were also intrigued by the blunt honesty of Shusaku Endo's magnificent novel Silence. Endo describes the feelings of doubt, disappointment, and frustration with God that all people feel when pain seems unbearable. We've all been there, but we seldom feel like we can be honest about it.
And we read C. S. Lewis' short classic The Problem of Pain. The creator of Narnia forced us to wrestle with the sovereign power of God. He caused us to explore the depth of God's love. He also opened our eyes to the sad reality that, as long as we live in a world filled with people, the possibility of pain is always present. People want to blame God for affliction, yet so often people are the cause of some of life's greatest pain: a cheating husband, an abusive parent, guns, car bombs, genocide, torture, manipulation, oppressive governments, and greed.
Initially I believed the course would have its greatest application in the developing world. Yet after returning to the pastorate in the United States, my eyes were opened to the reality of what we all deal with: the death of a child, the ravage of cancer, the devastation of a failing marriage and a broken family, the hopeless feeling of being unemployed, a foreclosed home, financial failure.
My conviction hit home when I received a phone call about a family we knew—they had found their two-year-old son at the bottom of their swimming pool.
I walked into intensive care to see a beautiful blond, curly headed toddler lifeless in his father's strong arms. Tears leaked silently from the father's eyes as a machine kept his son's heart beating.
What do you say in a moment like that? Where was God? What is my answer to this?
* * *
Where do we get the notion that we, as Christians, are supposed to behave as though we are immune to tragedy and, when there is catastrophe, to act like it was painless? As though suffering would imply we have lost faith in God.
As prevalent as suffering is, most Western Christians have little or no theological framework to deal with pain. The messiness of pain simply doesn't fit with polished shopping malls, granite countertops, and cushioned pews. Preachers, authors, and professors avoid the subject.
Those who do attempt to address the idea of pain end up saying the trite things we've heard before: "It must be God's will," or "It's okay; God is in control." The truth is, pain goes deep, and answers are elusive.
My challenge to you, as you read this book, is to formulate a Christian response to suffering. Wrestle with the questions all people ask: "Where is God when life hurts?" "How long will I stay in the darkness?" "Why me, God? Why—when the world is filled with bad people—why would you allow me to be hurt so deeply?"
* * *
I recently asked three short questions of the people at our church, The Grove: "If you have been affected by cancer, please stand. If you have lived through or are living in a broken family, please stand. If you are economically desperate or without a job, please stand."
Practically the entire room, for three consecutive services, stood.
We've all been hit. We're all left standing, barely.
Suffering is the world's common language. People everywhere know what it means to hurt. The Bible begins with a story of pain and ends with a failing planet. The question is not, "Will we face suffering?" but, "When?" We all make mistakes; we all have relationships that sour; we all age and have more aches and pains by the day.
I don't have pat or simple answers for you. I hope to not say anything glib. But I do invite you to sit, be silent, and discover what God has for you in life's dark nights.
This book is for everyone who has ...
lost a job
moved out of state
had a teenager rebel
been lost in love
filed for bankruptcy
crashed a car
lost a father
ended a marriage
managed a blended family
slipped into debt ... lots of it
or watched their future wither and dreams fade.
This book is for you.
* * *
IN THE NIGHT
Now my story is told,
Opened book, pages to unfold,
My story is true, though seemingly old,
Remember it ...
In the night.
A dusky light calls,
As the sun's face falls,
My friends and I will crawl,
Over shadows ...
In the night.
A vanishing distant scream,
Rumbling behind the trees,
Rustling with the leaves,
Beyond the wall ...
In the night.
Stomach filled, but soul left empty,
Wandering forever in a naked purgatory,
Family and friends remaining memory,
All else is gone ...
In the night.
Here I am, this lonely wanderer,
Roaming through fall, winter, spring and summer,
Maybe, in this world there still is another,
Hope there is ...
In the night.
E. A. MelvilleCHAPTER 2
BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS
The Lord Is Close To The Brokenhearted Psalm 34:18
It's after midnight, and the Kenyan border guard won't budge. He insists our documents are invalid and says we'll have to sort out our problems with a customs official in the morning.
Namanga is a dirty, shack-filled, dilapidated town on the Tanzania-Kenya border. My son, three college students from Arizona, and I have already spent fifteen hours in the van getting here. The last thing any of us wants is to spend the night in it. I walk up and down the narrow streets of Namanga, looking for something resembling a motel. Nothing even close. There are a few noisy bars, lorry drivers drinking beer on curbs or sleeping under their semis—but no motels. I've always felt comfortable in Africa, having lived there for nearly twenty years, but this particularly dark night in Namanga doesn't feel right.
I begin to tell the guys we'll be sleeping with one eye open in the now mosquito-infested van when a young man walks up and asks if we nee d a place to sleep. All evening we have been shooing away street vendors trying to sell us everything from bubble gum to jumper cables, but this guy seems different. The first thing I notice is his ear lobe, which is looped into a knot through a large hole in his skin—a mark of the Maasai. But he has on street clothes, not their traditional tunic with beads. He's also much shorter than other Maasai I had met.
"Are you Maasai?" I venture.
"Yes," he answers with a smile. "How did you know?"
The Maasai are a warrior tribe. Historically, Maasai rites of passage require a boy to kill a lion. They are known throughout eastern Africa for their uncompromising integrity and unequaled courage. Expatriates in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam all desire Maasai for night watchmen. You'll find them throughout the cities, standing guard in traditional clothing, wearing a massive string of beads and dangling earrings, a spear in hand. Quite simply, you don't mess with Maasai.
"Just a wild guess," I answer.
He proceeds to tell us that just on the other side of the Kenyan gate is a beautiful resort. "Your van must stay here, but we can walk to the resort. It's very close," the Maasai assures us.
It sounds better than the van. Two from our group agree to brave the mosquitoes and thieves and sleep in the van while the remaining three of us, with the Maasai as our new guide, head off on foot. We pass a few seedy bars, slip under the guard gate dividing Kenya and Tanzania, and head up a deserted path into the Kenyan darkness.
And when I say darkness, I mean dark as a tomb! As we stumble down the road I ask, half mumbling, "If there's a resort, where are the lights?"
"The generator must be out of diesel," our Maasai asserts with confidence.
Convenient, I think, and add aloud, "Well, how far is it?"
"Oh, it's close, very close," he says.
Now I really begin to smell a setup. I'm certain we're about to be jumped, beat down, and robbed. Slowing my pace, I whisper to one of the college students, a woodsman/Green Beret/wannabe automatic-weapons expert: "John, do you have your knife on you?"
"No," he says sheepishly.
"What? Are you kidding me?" I nearly shout back.
This guy loves weapons. He takes knives and guns to McDonald's. I begin to think we're finished, done for.
It has somehow gotten even darker than the tomb dark from before; I cannot see ten feet in front of me.
"Maasai, we're turning around," I say at last.
"No, no, we're almost there," he assures me. "Trust me, this is a beautiful resort."
"Trust him," John says. "He's Maasai."
I want to trust him, I do, but it's dark and he's short. Maasai are supposed to be tall. Plus he's wearing jeans and a T-shirt instead of the traditional red plaid wrap. I keep looking at his knotted ear lobe for comfort. Okay, keep going, keep going.
Finally we reach an unlit, unmarked building with high walls, and I begin to feel some relief when suddenly a tall figure slips from behind the tree to my right. He's holding a spear in one hand and a machete in the other and coming toward us quickly ...
I'll tell you how this all turns out when we get to part III.
* * *
The Bible is filled with stories of God's people walking dark paths:
Abraham spent three long nights on the dark path to Moriah, where he was supposed to kill his own son.
In the dark of night, Moses led a band of runaway slaves down the road out of Egypt.
David fled down the desert path to Adullam and ended up in a dark cave because his king wanted him dead.
Saul's world turned pitch black on the road to Damascus.
And on one dark afternoon, even the Christ was made to drag His cross down dusty streets in Jerusalem.
Life has paths like that: dark. Dark as Egypt ... or Namanga. And we hate to walk them. But here's what I hope you understand—there's a kind of spirituality that grows only in the dark. You see, God uses the dark and difficult days to mature us spiritually in a way that won't happen on the days when the sun shines and the flowers bloom.
So walk the broken roads; go down the dark paths. God is growing you.
BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS
A month after Hurricane Katrina struck its savage blow on the Gulf Coast, I made my way to Biloxi, Mississippi, seeking pastors and churches that our church, The Grove, could partner with to provide assistance.
As we slowly made our way to the coast, inching around rubble and teams of people cleaning debris from the streets, we saw obvious damage, but nothing to overwhelm us. That is, until we rounded the brick walls of the First Presbyterian Church and caught our first glimpse of the ocean ... and the real devastation.
The contrast was surreal. It was a balmy Mississippi morning. The sky was blue; the Gulf's green water splashed lazily onto the white sand. My eyes went to the beach first, as eyes tend to do—always attracted to beauty.
But then I glanced left and right; nothing but sheer devastation as far as the eye could see. Rubble everywhere—piles of it. Houses had collapsed on each other. Bedsheets hung from trees fifty feet above the ground. Cars washed onto rooftops.
Excerpted from GOD CAN'T SLEEP by Palmer Chinchen. Copyright © 2011 Palmer Chinchen. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I. DARK NIGHTS,
2. BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS,
3. DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL,
4. SILENT NIGHTS,
PART II. GRAY DAYS,
5. DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS,
6. FEAR LOCKER,
7. THE WAR OF FOG,
8. THE HAND IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE,
10. MERCY DROPS,
PART III. BRIGHT MORNINGS,
12. TAKE HER BACK,
13. HEAL OVER,
14. HOLD ON,
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