On suffering and the Psalms

Posted April 28, 2010

Longtime minister Lynn Anderson is in the fight of his life:  Since June of 2009, he has been battling lung cancer.  With a new book soon to be published, we wanted to take a moment to catch up with Lynn – to find out more about his condition and his continuing journey through the Psalms.  Talking Back to God: Speaking Your Heart to God through the Psalms (Leafwood/ACU Press) will debut at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, May 4-7, 2010.

The following are excerpts from anLynn AndersonApril 23, 2010, interview with Lynn Anderson.
I definitely am getting help from the Psalms – more than I could have expected – as I've been battling cancer.  But my readings aren't a new thing. For several decades I've been reading and praying a psalm every day and also memorizing a psalm every month.  The Psalms have always been food for my God-hunger.
The people of God have used this ancient book of song and prayer for 3,000 years.  The Psalms have been read, sung, prayed, studied and memorized.  Through the years, these songs in all their power have been bringing us into a deeper relationship with God, helping each of us in our personal ministries by the way we apply them.
I started writing the book years ago, long before my diagnosis.  I have been teaching this material in mentoring groups with ministers and elders for more than a dozen years, so the book isn’t really a reflection on my current situation.
I can't, however, fail to address my current situation through this project.  At different times in my treatment, there have been different psalms from which I’ve gained strength.  There were the early stages, with the shock that came with my diagnosis and then facing chemo and radiation, and now I face the possibility of my own death.
At first I went to the psalms where God promised over and over again He would provide his presence.  I don't believe God gave me this disease, and he didn't tell me why I got it.  He just tells me that he’ll be there through it, and he will use it in some way.
My problem was that I would keep reading these psalms, like Psalm 121.  It reminds us over and over again that the Lord watches over you and he will protect you from all harm; he won’t let your foot slip; he watches over you day and night and he will be so now and forever more.  In my head I believe that, but in the dark morose feeling that came on in the early stages, I kept saying, "So God, you're saying you're with me - but I can't see you and I can't hear you."
The big psalm for me then became the 13th.  It basically says, "How long, oh Lord, will you forsake me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long will I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?  How long will you let my enemies triumph over me?  Hear, oh Lord, and answer me.  Be light to my eyes or I will sleep in death, and my enemies will say I have been overcome and my foes will rejoice when I fall."   That’s how it starts, and I have really lived in that for a long time.
And then I began to move more to the second half of the psalm which says, "But I will trust in your unfailing love, and my heart rejoices in your salvation, and I will sing and make music to the Lord."

There was a time when I didn't know what I was asking for.  I would wake up in the middle of the night and look into the dark corner of the room and think, God is lying in that dark corner.  "Why don't you come out of there?  Why don't you show me your glory?  Why don't you in some way assure me of your presence, besides just saying in an old document that you’ll be there?"
I don't know what I was expecting – maybe something glowing in the dark or a voice from heaven – but God began to gently help me see that he is there, to see the evidences all around me; I just took them for granted.
There's the blessing of having a wife like mine.  I fell in love with her the first time I saw her, but I had no idea what I was getting.  I just took her for granted, until, with this illness, I’ve been able to realize what she is, that she’s a gift from God.  And my kids - the intimacy with them has grown by fathoms.
There are the thousands of people praying for us.  When I can't pray myself, I have the knowledge that they're there, and that God's there through them.
The elders from Highland (Church of Christ in Abilene) came down and visited.  I hadn't worked there in 20 years.  It's those kind of things that are really helping me through.  I notice the everyday things of life that I had missed:  cardinals nesting outside our kitchen window, how many wildflowers there are in Texas in the spring -- all manifestations of God's grace.
I began to see that every good and perfect thing comes down from the Father.  Man, I love a thunderstorm.  I can hear God shouting at me.  I can see him sending me fire signals.  I hear the rain on the roof, and I'm reminded that he's whispering to me:  "Of course I'm there.  I will never leave you.  I will never forsake you."  In that sense, the second half of Psalm 13 has become even more true to me; so I've been able to pick up on more of the other assurances.
You've got to remember:  60 percent of the psalms are not happy; they're laments; they’re about anger.  And I began to feel God's permission to speak out my anger at him and lament my lot, even though, when it comes down to it, I've never been able to think of a good reason why I should be exempt from suffering when so many other people suffer worse.  "Why do I have to suffer God?" -- the psalms are full of that.
Psalm 88 doessn't have a happy ending.  It closes, after many verses of bemoaning, "My friends have turned from me.  My bones ache."  The last line reads, "Darkness is my only friend."  How’s that for cheering a guy up?
The psalms have helped me identify with the fact that God knows the reality of those feelings.  And he doesn't want any of us to pretend they're not there.
You begin to see the enormous resources we can take from the Psalms, which most people shy away from because they can’t pick up on abstract metaphorical language.  You can't interpret a psalm like you can Acts 2:38.  It's not meant to be interpreted; it's meant to be experienced and expressed.
Virtually all of the Bible is about God talking to us.  The Psalms give us a voice to talk back to him in every circumstance we're in.


Below are Lynn's comments taken from a video presented to the Oak Hills Church in San Antonio in February 2010, which can be seen here.
After my diagnosis, I kept waking up every morning thinking, "I have death in my body!  I could die from this!"  My wife responded, "Of course you do.  So do I, so does everybody.  But you also have life in your body. And we're going to choose to live life."
We're getting up every day and we do our very best to pay attention to the graces that God keeps pouring into our lives. We're not going to let the golden moments of living be taken from us by the possibility of dying.
Through it all we've learned a couple of big lessons.  Number one:  Suffering isn't all bad.  When we face suffering with grace and with the sense of his abiding presence through all of it, we lend enormous encouragement to other people who are suffering.   Suffering makes us more conscious of the suffering of others.  Carolyn (my wife) and I can’t think of one valid reason why we should be exempt from something like this when millions of other people are suffering.

Lesson number two:  Death is not the ultimate tragedy.   God may choose to separate this disease from me, or he may separate me from this disease.  Either way, it’s a win/win.


Advance praise for Talking Back to God: Speaking Your Heart to God through the Psalms (Leafwood/ACU Press)
"Jesus and the earliest Christians dearly loved the Psalms; yet, strangely, the contemporary church has generally neglected them. It is high time the Psalter—the first prayer book and hymn book of the church—is restored to its central place in our private prayers and in the church's worship. Lynn Anderson's eloquent Talking Back to God can greatly help with this mission. Anderson and an impressive  assortment of witnesses, which he has gathered, testify in touching and personal ways to the transforming power of the Psalms in the life of individual believers and in the church's worship. The book is rich for many reasons—not least because its honest, soul-stirring insights flow from a sincere, Psalm-saturated consciousness. Themes from Anderson's own life story movingly illustrate the enduring themes of the Psalms. Talking Back to God is at once an eloquent defense of the Psalms, an inspirational narrative of a great man of God, a practical guide to personal prayer, and a soaring celebration of God’s faithfulness in times of crisis and trial."
- Darryl Tippens, Provost, Pepperdine University; author of Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life
"The book in your hand will tell you something you like and something you don't like. It will tell you that there are no short cuts and five-minute magical routines that will automatically usher you into spiritual formation land. But it will also tell you this: there is only one way to grow in our relationship with God and that is to pray, and the one sure method of learning to pray is to pray with the Psalms. In the middle of your Bible is a collection of prayers; God gave them to you to learn how to pray."

- Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies, North Park University, Chicago
"For over three decades, Lynn Anderson has nourished my soul and directed my path. When he speaks, I listen. When God speaks, Lynn listens. In this book, he teaches us to do the same, taking us to the wellspring of worship: the Psalms."
- Max Lucado, author and preaching minister, Oak Hills Church, San Antonio, Texas