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Integrity: Tough Times

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“It was a dark and stormy time…”

Oh, I can smile about it now, but in those dark days, there was very little laughter.  Fear had a tough grip on my mind and a painful squeeze on my heart. My only defense was the sound of my own voice praying the scripture.  The First Song of Isaiah from The Book of Common Prayer was a torch that drove the darkness back and freed my mind and heart from the powerful clasp of fear.

First Song of Isaiah, Book of Common Prayer (Isaiah 12)
Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in the Lord
and not be afraid for the Lord is my stronghold and sure defense and He
will be my Savior…with joy will I draw water from the wells of salvation…

After almost four decades of constant service through teaching music and leading worship, suddenly there was nothing.  There was a lot to do, but none of it produced income and without a sense of “doing my part.” Creativity, like a little bird with other nests to build, flew out my window never looking back.

Backyard Grace
Sitting in a backyard swing in the comfortable Florida winter sun, the bright world around me seemed only to deepen the darkness within me.  The words to Psalm 23 came to mind: “He makes me lie down.”  If I was going to lie down, I was going to have to be forced—so He did.

Across those decades of work, I had gone from job to job never stopping to process some painful things that happened along the way.  No one serves that long in the church without pain. The inevitable hurts at the hands of others and mistakes made by no one’s hands but my own, seemed to pile up inside me. Pain accumulated in my heart and mysteries amassed in my mind: Why?  How?

The details of my pain collection are not important except to say that these were not moral failures. They were just mistakes.  Many passages were challenges met and risen to:

  • I had already passed through my mid-life crisis without the aid of red convertible or a blond.
  • Our marriage was strong and functioning, a source of strength and sanity.

There in the backyard, the important thing to note is this:  “He restored my soul.”

  • In that dark valley of the shadow He made me lie down.
  • There were green pastures and quiet waters.
  • The rod and staff of His ancient words comforted me.
  • In the face of my greatest enemy, Fear, I found a table of grace spread for me.

When circumstances finally stopped me so that I could give the Lord time, He healed specific injuries dating from my teenage years to the most recent past.

Through the on-going miracle of each day’s steps on the Path of Life, I was led to a place of service that also helped me do my part as husband and provider.  The gentle bird of creativity returned to her nest in my heart, to sing her constant song of observe and report, observe and report. Now my interior landscape is as bright as the Florida sunshine outside and I am “drawing water from the wells of salvation” and sharing it with you.

A poem I wrote at that time, Pastures Green and Waters Still, follows this essay.

Darkness and Light
Psalm 139 is one of the greatest prayer/poems ever written. I suggest we all read it, let sentences from it enter our memory banks for instant recall, and spend serious prayer time meditating on these verses.

It breaks down into

  • an exposition of God’s Care, (1-18)
  • a rant against the wicked, (19-22) and
  • a sincere prayer of humility and repentance (23-24) as if the poet felt guilty for his hatred of his enemies.

In the first part, one verse stands out to me.  I find myself sharing it with others so very often.

Psalm 139:5 NIV
You hem me in–behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.

Think of it:

  • On this Path of Life, Jesus has my back.
  • He is also scouting the path ahead of me.
  • Most amazing of all, He has laid His hand on me!
  • This is no cause for boast, only for profound gratitude.
  • His hand will guide me, correct me, comfort me, provide for me, and protect me from all sides.
  • His hand is as skillful in the darkest night as in the brightest day for both are the same to Him.

Rest Areas
On the Path of Life, there are detours for road construction where life narrows to a single lane and it is a struggle just to keep going.  The miracle of this journey is that even when we are at our regular rest, or when we find ourselves creeping along a detour, we are still making good time.

And, on the Path of Life, there are rest areas:

  • Morning and Evening Prayer,
  • Sabbath Rest, and
  • Lord’s Day Worship.

Sometimes we are tempted to drive right past these areas designed for our refreshment.

Lord, help us to take the safe exit to the safe place of prayer and communion with you. Help take the time to be with you! Because You have laid Your hand on us, because You walk beside us, guard us from behind and keep a lookout ahead of us—We can be fearless! In Jesus Name! Amen.

Pastures Green and Waters Still
Stephen Phifer, 5:00Am March 26, 2009, Bartow, FL

You, who led me through the desert, brought me there.
The breeze was soft. The sky was high and blue.

We sat together, not speaking. You were not offended or hurt that I did not speak.
Silence was the order of the day.

You heard me thinking. You knew my questions, my doubts, my fears.
You easily weathered the storm of my anger.
You waited patiently for my reason to return to me.

I had followed you from city to city, from frenzy to frenzy, never resting for long.
Then you led me there.
I had sung for you in many a hall, never hesitating.  Then you led me to silence.

When I ignored you in the morning, you did not abandon me through the day.
When the evening found us still not speaking, you kept your watch through the night.
When I refused to graze on the green grass you led me to, you held my weakened heart in your warm hands.
When I would not drink from the deep, still water, you bathed me in an unseen mist called Grace.

Into this repose of pastures green and waters still, you invited beasts of the night.
You left me alone (I thought) to do battle with my dreams, these predators from my past.

One by one they circled, threatening.
One by one they smiled, tempting.
One by one they went away, resisted.

Then I heard the ancient song.  “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.”
You loved me so much, you made me lie down.


Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

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