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.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".
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...
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!