Friday, 29 July 2016

Breaking the Silence

Speak Lord - your servant is listening ~ 1 Samuel 3:10

A gentle mist-rain is falling. The recent downpours have left everything washed and refreshed. We relish drinking in the crisp clean air, and simply wile away the time peeling and eating oranges in the weak winter sun while it is out. With the smell of wet leaves wafting up from the earth. After stormy days and wind-lashed nights, the silence is sweet. The mist is a gentle friend that softens sounds from the village and shuts out the world for a while.

But there are times when silence is not a comfort. When we wait for a familiar foot-fall, a soothing voice on the other end of the line - anything. When even God seems distant. When social media takes the place of real connection between people and the silence is deep. When prayer is a monologue of all we need and want, but still, God seems to remain silent.

In my early thirties I read a novel of historical fiction written by Shusaku Endo with the title "Silence". It left an imprint on my heart and made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. Wonderfully written,  it weaves the story of a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan, who endures persecution in the time of Kakure Kirishitan ("Hidden Christians") that followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion.
The young Portuguese Jesuit, Sebastião Rodrigues (based on the historical figure Giuseppe Chiara) is sent to Japan to succor the local Church and investigate reports that his mentor, a Jesuit priest in Japan named Ferreira, (based on Cristóvão Ferreira,) has committed apostasy. The novel relates the trials of Christians and the increasing hardship suffered by Rodrigues.
Fr. Rodrigues and his companion Fr. Francisco Garrpe arrive in Japan in 1639. There they find the local Christian population driven underground. To ferret out hidden Christians, security officials force suspected Christians to trample on a "fumie", a crudely carved image of Christ. Those who refuse are imprisoned and killed by anazuri (穴吊り), which is by being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled.
Rodrigues and Garrpe are eventually captured and forced to watch as Japanese Christians lay down their lives for their faith. There is no glory in these martyrdoms, as Rodrigues had always imagined – only brutality and cruelty. Prior to the arrival of Rodrigues, the authorities had been attempting to force priests to renounce their faith by torturing them. Beginning with Fr. Ferreira, they torture other Christians as the priests look on, telling the priests that all they must do is renounce their faith in order to end the suffering of their flock.
Rodrigues' journal depicts his struggles: he understands suffering for the sake of one's own faith; but he struggles over whether it is self-centered and unmerciful to refuse to recant when doing so will end another’s suffering. At the climactic moment, Rodrigues hears the moans of those who have recanted but are to remain in the pit until he tramples the image of Christ. As Rodrigues looks upon a fumie, Christ is said to break His silence:
“You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
Rodrigues puts his foot on the fumie, and the Christians are released...
We had a copy of this book on our shelf, but during a recent clean-up, I gave it away, remembering how uncomfortable it made me feel all those years back. This morning as I sat down to write, I remembered why. I wanted God to thunder in anger, to punish the persecutors, to protect the apple of His eye, to whisper words of comfort to those suffering on behalf of their faith. Anything, but to be silent and "allow evil to triumph".

But reading over the words that Jesus is said to have spoken to Rodrigues, I was reminded of this passage of scripture: "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;... - John 13:4. There was no need for an outward show of power. His presence could not be reduced to a crudely carven image. His victory was unequivocal and could or would not be undone. We share in His victory, but also in His suffering. From verse 5 onwards, it tells of how Jesus takes off His outer garments and continues to wash the disciples' feet. Simon Peter refuses to have His feet washed by the Messiah. Jesus says to Him in verse 7: " You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Even though this specific incident took place to show the disciples that they had to be spiritually washed by Jesus to be sanctified and have part of Him, and how the Master became the servant as an example to us, God had a different message for me today. But the verses were placed on my heart to help me understand what I was grappling with, and to relay the message that I wanted to share. And to be peaceful about what I cannot understand here and now. Did God not speak?

Over the years past, I rarely "heard" God giving me a way out, or answers to my endless questions with unmistakable clarity. There had been promptings and inner convictions, many answers to prayer, peace in times of anxiety, joy in times of mourning. I used to think it had something to do with spiritual immaturity or lack of faith. But in hindsight I realise that I was listening for random words rather than the Word, for a "small voice" in my head, giving me the answers I wanted to hear.

In the time that we live in now, we may also feel that God has become silent. That He is standing back, waiting for the cup of wrath to fill up. We cry out, because we can't hear His voice above the busyness, din and depravity in the world. We listen and read what spiritual teachers and preachers have to say to make sense of it all.

But, God has never been silent - He has spoken. Jesus is the Living Word. If we take up that Word today and read prayerfully what He wants to say to us, we will hear. God has spoken - He speaks - He will speak until the end of days. Through His Word, known to us as the bible. Not lifeless pages filled with stories and feel-good messages. But the Word become flesh.

Jesus; alive and as close as the pages in which and through which: He speaks!

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

One and ALL

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires ALL men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. ~ 1 Timothy 2:3-4

Our winter days can be bleak and bitter. But there are those days when the wind settles and the sun is mild and lovely. The air is crisp but not biting. And a gentle light flows over everything, softening the stark winter landscape into something soothing and peaceful. The change of season is distinct and often spectacular - nature announces the time of year, man and beast adjust to it's rhythm. Our children continue to thrive, regardless. But for me, it is often a time of survival, when I have to dig deep to stay strong and joyful. A great part of our days revolve around keeping warm. Without the glow of a fire in the hearth, a mountain home seems almost devoid of life. When the sun is weak and the wind merciless, I tend to ponder too much, and sing too little. My fingers are stiff and slow to reach for the bible on my bedside table. I hide them under the blankets or buried in my pockets, while burdens lay heavy on my heart.

At times, surrounded by so much beauty and blessed to be able to live a simple life, the reality of the world out there seems a bit like a mirage in the desert. But one cannot isolate yourself anywhere, the enemy does not discriminate and our village is no paradise. We are in this world, and it's madness and depravity cannot be escaped. But it can be overcome. And we can play a role in bringing the Kingdom of God nearer, especially to those who do not know Jesus for who He truly is.

The human heart has a tendency to divide people into "the good" and "the bad". We pray for the "good" ones, and hope that God will deal with the "bad" ones fairly and justly. But I realised quite some time ago, that this is not a reflection of God's heart. He sees the "saved" and the "unsaved" and loves them all equally. One of the most loved images of Jesus is of Him carrying a lamb. The lost one, the stray, which he brought back from peril, against all odds. There are so many parables drawing our eyes to a Saviour who goes to great lengths to return the lost to him, who does not want one of His precious ones to "perish".

In a world gone crazy, with the cup of wrath filling up faster than we can imagine, it is easy to loose sight of the fact that Jesus still desires for ALL men to know Him and be saved. And in the light of that knowledge, it is hard to understand why they are not. We see people stubbornly clinging to their old ways, sinking deeper into the quicksand of unbelief. Or being slowly poisoned by little lies, diluting the essence of  Truth, which is Jesus Christ. Until the distorted faith has no more power or real effect in their lives.

Some of these people may be very near and dear to us. But some are appointed as rulers of our country, beggars by the roadside, the man on who's heart evil has a strong hold, and who has succumbed to a life of crime. The woman who has sold her body so many times that it has become just another way to survive. The person who has wronged or hurt you, or mocks your faith. But God looks down, and is overcome by sadness and love. For them all. And longing. The same longing which caused Him to surrender His Son to the cross.

As we draw nearer to Him, we start feeling a hint of that sadness. The sadness for mankind. But then unexpectedly, for a complete stranger or someone we distinctly dislike, a neighbour, a friend or family member. For those whose eyes may be merry, but lack the light of Jesus. Our hearts break when a loved one looses sight of  the Way, for a way which seems easier and offers more instant and obvious rewards.

That is when I know that we are still "urged" to offer "requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks on behalf of ALL people". For it is "good and acceptable" to our Lord who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth". ~ 1 Timothy 2:2-4

And I want His desire to be mine.

It is also a deep comfort to me in this time, to be reminded that Jesus still goes after that one lost sheep, not just once, but time and again. I will not stop praying, for I know that He does not stop saving. Jesus goes to untold lengths to woe His lost children back into the fold. It may seem like our prayers are to no avail at times but:  "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" ~ 2 Peter 3:9

In each heart there is a void that can only be filled by Jesus. We were made for Him, through Him. Does a parent ever stop loving a rebellious child or stop longing to hold him near as when he was just a baby? How much more does our heavenly Father long for those who need Him so, but do not realise it.

I cannot possibly pray for everyone by name, but it has been special to see how the Holy Spirit places very specific people on the paths and hearts of people who have made themselves willing to intercede on behalf of others. God does not need us to save, a soul is brought to repentance and is saved by the working of the Holy Spirit. But my faithful prayer may open the way for this to happen. It is the difference between standing at the edge of a cliff, helplessly looking down at a fallen child of God, or having a rope to throw down. With Jesus, we have that and more - but it is still up to the person involved to take hold of it, and it is still the strength and grace of God which pulls him/her back to safety. Inch by painful inch at times, times in which persistent prayer and trust keeps the hope alive.

This remains to me, one of the amazing miracles of our faith: The authority we have. It makes me feel strong, yet humble. No longer a helpless witness, but chosen and equipped to step into the battle with confidence. No longer crippled by a misplaced despondency over the state of the world or individuals in it. Many battles have been fought and won in the quiet, often lonely places of prayer. There are no medals for bravery or accolades for achievement here. Just deep, strong trusting hearts, satisfied to live out the desire of the One they love and serve beyond question or doubt. For when Jesus is (and was) lifted up from the earth, he will draw ALL men unto Him. ~ John 12:32