A Faith That Sings: Night Is When The Stars Shine
I wish to read for you the final portion of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This is the Word of God.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the Saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that, in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those He predestined He also called, those He called He also justified, and those He justified He also glorified.
“What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is He that condemns? Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written, for your sake, we face death all day long. We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. No. In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us, for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His Holy Word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Through my great friend, the late Doctor John Calvin Reid, I learned about the noted Pittsburgh astronomer who actually wrote his own epitaph. His name was John Brashear, and the words he wrote now grace his gravestone. He wrote, “I have loved the stars too fondly to ever be fearful of the night.” Isn’t that a beautiful thought? “I have loved the stars too fondly to ever be fearful of the night.”
As I’ve allowed those words to percolate in my mind and heart, I’ve come to see, obviously, that those words are an apt expression of the life experience of John Brashear, but it’s also occurred to me that those words could be an apt expression of the life experience of the great Apostle Paul. Remember, please, Paul did not always live in the sunlight. Not every day for Paul was filled with the brightness of success and victory. Paul knew times of trial and trouble. Paul knew days of darkness and despair. And pour on top of that the fact that, for most of his adult life, Paul had, wearing away at the edge of his everyday experience, the hard, harsh blade of suffering. He called it his thorn in the flesh.
We do not know precisely what it was. What we do know is it hurt like the mischief. And we also know that, sometimes, it put a restraining brake on his ministry. Paul knew what it was to experience the nighttime experiences in life, and it was in the midst of those nighttime experiences that Paul came to see that the stars of God’s presence and God’s power shined so brightly. And Paul loved those stars too fondly to ever be fearful of the night. Night is when the stars do shine.
I find it fascinating to note that, in the latter portion of Romans 8, Paul wrote words, words which I’m convinced flowed directly out of his life experience in both the dark times and the good times. It’s a passage that I dearly love, and it occurs to me that, in that great passage of Scripture, Paul delivers to us two great affirmations of faith. I wish today to try to carve those great affirmations into our consciousness so deeply that we shall never ever forget them.
Affirmation number one: Paul declares that when we encounter the darkness of pain or suffering or difficulty in life, the star of God’s presence shines brightly.
In other words, when it is dark, God is with us. Romans 8:28, “We know, we know that, in all things, God works for the good to those who love Him and who are called according to his purpose.” In other words, when we encounter those tough times in life, there is, at that very moment, sent to us from Heaven itself, the gift of the presence of the Lord. God is with us when the night is dark. That means that God’s presence is most-embracing, most-encompassing, most-encouraging, most-empowering, right at the very moment when we feel the most weak. Paul puts it this way, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Yes, when the night is dark, God is with us.
I saw that so clearly in the pain and suffering of my dear friend Ruth Ross. Ms. Ruth, that’s what I always called her. Ms. Ruth Ross; she was a member of the congregation that I served in Kilgore, Texas. And let me tell you, she was as radiant and powerful a Christian as anyone I have ever known. Some years back now, Ms. Ruth was stricken with cancer. It was a particularly virulent form of cancer. It started in her throat, her mouth, her tongue, her lips, and it spread rapidly from there. It was a particularly painful form of cancer, and her pain and suffering would only grow more intense until her death not terribly long thereafter.
When she was diagnosed, Ms. Ruth was brought here to Houston to MD Anderson. I happened to be on my way back home to Orlando, Florida, and I had been speaking at a church on the West Coast, and I arranged for a layover here in Houston so that I could go visit her. When I walked into her room—I can’t show you a photograph of the room, but I can at least try to paint the picture with words. When I walked into her room, it was filled with light and life and love and laughter, yes, great roaring, rolling, rollicking laughter. That’s always the way it was wherever Ms. Ruth Ross was. When you stepped into her presence, you had to check your depression at the door.
We had a great visit that day, both of us knowing full well that we would never see one another again this side of glory. We talked about her faith and our friendship, about her courage and our Christ, and we laughed. Yes, we laughed a lot. When it came time for me to leave, I got up and leaned down over the bed and I kissed her on the forehead. And I said, “Ms. Ruth, I love you. I just wish that I could take some of this pain away from you.” She looked up at me and smiled. It must have been an agony, but she smiled. And she said, “I know you love me, Preacher, but I haven’t got a single pain to spare.” She said, “In my life, I’ve known joy, and I’ve known pain, and I’ve never yet seen the pain that could kill that joy.” I’ve never forgotten that.
And I’ve never forgotten something else she said to me that day. I don’t know if the words were hers or if she’d read them or heard them somewhere. I don’t know. What I do know is the words came straight from her heart, and as far as I’m concerned, the words are hers. She said to me, “I would rather walk with the Lord in the dark than with anyone else in the light.” I want you to tuck those words away in your heart for safekeeping. I would rather walk with the Lord in the dark than with anyone else in the light. Ms. Ruth knew was Paul knew, that when we encounter the tough times of pain and suffering and difficulty in life, the star of God’s presence shines brightly. When the night is dark, yes, God is with us. That’s a part of what I mean when I say, “Night is when the stars do shine.”
Affirmation number two: Paul declares that when we encounter those dark times in life, the star of God’s power shines brightly.
In other words, when the night is dark, we are with God. Catch that, please. Note the distinction. Not only is God with us, but we are with God. Put it in spatial terms and it comes out like this, “When the night is dark, not only does God come down to be with us, but the Spirit of God lifts us up to be with God.” Romans 8:38-39, “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation shall ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” Nothing. Nothing. Nothing in life, nothing in death, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Now, let’s be honest enough to acknowledge that when it comes to pain and suffering and difficulty in life, Christians are just exactly like everybody else. Christians are not exempt from hurt and hardship and heartache and heartbreak. Christians are not exempt from disease and despair and difficulty and death. Christians go bankrupt. Christians get divorced. Christians have automobile accidents. Christians are rushed to emergency rooms. Christians are placed in intensive care units. When it comes to pain and suffering and difficulty in life, Christians are just exactly like everybody else. There’s only one way, only one way, in which Christians are different and it is this; nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord. That’s what makes Christians different. That’s what sets Christians apart. That’s what gives Christians a courage that other people do not possess. Nothing, nothing in life, nothing in death, nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord. When the night is dark, we are with God.
I saw that so clearly in the pain and suffering of my friend Kim Lee Shin. Tricia and I met Kim Lee Shin at the Wilson Leprosy Center in Sunchon, Korea. The Wilson Leprosy Center is one of our great Presbyterian mission hospitals. It’s built down on the southernmost coast of South Korea. It’s on a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea. I was preaching and teaching all over the nation of South Korea in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Presbyterian mission work in Korea, and one of the places that I preached was the Wilson Leprosy Center. It was there that Tricia and I first met Kim Lee Shin. I don’t quite know how to describe him to you, but at least I have to try. Leprosy had extracted a terrible price from him physically. He had no fingers, no toes, no ears, no eyes, no nose, no lips. All his facial features were gone. Nothing left except a smile; dear God, nothing left except a smile. Every day at the Wilson Leprosy Center, Kim Lee Shin leads 14 other blind lepers down to a little structure right at the edge of the water. It’s called Scripture House. Not much of a place; just four walls, a roof, cushions on the floor, that’s all.
And every afternoon at the Scripture House, from 2 o’clock until 6 o’clock every single day, those 15 blinds lepers play the harmonica. Think about that. No fingers, no lips, and they play the harmonica, and oh, you should hear them play. They pray. They pray for all of their sisters and brothers all over the world, and oh, their prayers have such power. And they sing gospel songs, the gospel songs that our Presbyterian missionaries have brought to them, and their singing is so beautiful. And they memorize scripture; that’s right. They memorize scripture. The day Tricia and I were there, they had memorized the entire New Testament, and they were more than one-third of the way through the Old Testament. As we stood together with those 15 blind lepers in the Scripture House, suddenly, Kim Lee Shin turned to me and he said, “Pick a chapter, any chapter, from the New Testament, and we’ll recite it for you.” Off the top of my head, I said, “Mark chapter 7.” Kim Lee Shin turned and said to the other blind lepers in Korean this cited the chapter Mark 7, “One, two, three,” and in one voice, in perfect unison, word for word, those 15 blind lepers recited the entire seventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Tricia and I stood there with tears streaming down our faces because we realized that, in that moment, in the midst of as dark a circumstance as you could ever imagine, we had been lifted by those lepers up into the power of God, perhaps as never before.
What I learned from Kim Lee Shin is this; nothing can come to us through pain which does not bring with it the promise of gain. I want you to tuck those words away in your heart for safekeeping. Nothing can come to us through pain which does not bring with it the promise of gain. Kim Lee Shin knew what Paul knew, that when we encounter the dark times, the star of God’s power shines so brightly. When the night is dark, we are with God. Nothing but nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. That’s a part of what I mean when I say, “Night is when the stars do shine.”
Will you now carve out just a little space in your heart to make room for the story behind one of our greatest hymns? The hymn was written by a man named Henry Francis Lyte. His name is spelled L-Y-T-E, but while his name may have been Lyte, ironically enough, his life was marked by darkness. He was orphaned at a very early age. He was very poor. As if those two strikes against him were not enough, he had a third strike. He suffered all his life long with ill health. He suffered the ravages of asthma and tuberculosis at a point in time where medical science had no cure or help for either one. Despite his physical frailties, he did manage to achieve his dream in life, and that was to become a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. After his ordination, he went to serve a little church in a little town called Brixham on the southern coast of England. By the way, if you ever travel to England, make a little detour and go by and see that little town of Brixham. He served that little church for the remaining 23 years of his life, and despite his personal physical problems, he poured himself into the life of that little church. It was tough. It was a tough church, mainly because the people there were tough. Most of them were fishermen or seafaring people. But Henry Francis Lyte loved those people, and they loved him in return. And as he poured himself into the life of that little church, some amazing things happened. I could cite several, but let me point to just one. After just a few years, Henry Francis Lyte had developed, in that little church, a Sunday school numbering 700 children. A little church, a little town, 700 children in Sunday school. People came from all over that region, bringing their children on Sunday to learn about Jesus. By the way, it was Henry Francis Lyte who coined the phrase, “In life, it is better to wear out than to rust out.” And wear out he did. There came a point where his physical health deteriorated to the point that he had to resign his pulpit. And so it was, on September the 4th, 1847, he preached his last sermon to the people he so dearly, dearly loved.
The record states that he had to be literally carried up into the pulpit in order to preach. The record states that, several times during the sermon, his voice quivered a bit. But the record also states that the message of the sermon was oh-so-strong. But the act of preaching left him so spent that he spent the rest of that Sunday afternoon in bed at his home. By the way, if you ever visit the little town of Brixham, you can visit his house. In fact, you could actually stay there. It’s become a bed-and-breakfast.
Just as the twilight began to descend on that September Sunday afternoon, Henry Francis Lyte struggled up out of his bed, stepped out of his house, walked the few steps down to the harbor at Brixham. He sat down, and he looked out over the water, which looked like molten gold in the setting sun. And suddenly, everything that had happened to him that day overwhelmed him. He broke down. He started to cry. And yet, even through his tears, somehow, some words began to roll about in his mind and in his heart. Haltingly then, he made his way back to his house, back to his study. He sat down and wrote down those words, and then, as the darkness fell on this, the darkest day of his life, he formed those words into lines, lines which perfectly reflect the great affirmations of Romans 8, lines filled with incredible Lyte, L-Y-T-E. Lines filled with incredible light, L-I-G-H-T.
In just three weeks, Henry Francis Lyte was gone, but his words live on. They live on in one of the loveliest hymns of them all, “Abide with me. Fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens. Oh, with me, abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me. Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes. Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks and Earth’s vain shadows flee. In life, in death, oh, Lord, abide with me.”
Now, do you understand what I mean when I say, “Night is when the stars do shine”?
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.