He is here. He hears every word. The words poured over me as water over a rock. I was hearing but not listening. I saw but didn’t perceive. And I was reminded once again that God promises to never leave or forsake his children. They are not orphans. But he has come to them and made his home in them. Yet what do you do when he seems so far away?
Your subjective mind and your perception is all you have. And it’s all you know. Isn’t it? After all, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise? And if God is there but no one is around to listen, does he really speak? I pondered these thoughts in my mind as I spoke with my teachers and afterwards as I sat eating, chewing each thought with every bite.
And then I remembered the stars. I’ve always loved stargazing. But growing up in Malaysia and China doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to see them. So when I moved to Sydney I was floored. There were stars everywhere and every night. And yet people walked about each day with their eyes on the ground. But I couldn’t stop staring at the sky. It was a battle between me, time and my spinal stability. Usually I lost.
Every time I see the stars I’m reminded of how little we know of what’s outside us. And yet it isn’t because little exists beyond us. Vast stars, constellations, planets, and galaxies are all formed beyond my knowledge and control, playing a harmony to their creator. And yet to my eyes they are but little specks of white light, light that has travelled for so long and so far that by the time they reach me their very bodies have died and exploded on the black canvas of space.
Why do the stars exist? It would be absurd to think they were for us when we can’t even see them. No, the stars exist for their creator who calls each one out by their name. Not one of them is forgotten or lost to him. Though they seem little more than white dusty specks to us. Often God seems so small and so far off he might very well cease to exist. In times like that you can believe that he doesn’t exist. But then neither do you, a random incoherent bundle of thoughts. But God is able to exist just fine without our perception. And just like the stars, he shines brightest only in the darkest night.
It is just a matter of seeing. So I’m going to keep waiting until I can say, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.”
A minister is someone who serves. Service is part of who we are and not just what we do. At least that’s what I heard as I sat through our sermon at Captivate Presbyterian church this Sunday. It’s a tender topic for me because I’ve wrestled with the relationship between ministry and activity and identity for awhile now. If what we do repeatedly is who we are as Aristotle said, then isn’t one’s relationship to God simply reflected in their service, where their ethical life is? So often it seems to be a guise for all manner of people pleasing and doing what others want; meeting obligations in other words.
I don’t doubt that service is a good thing. A properly packed quarter pounder at McDonald’s can make one’s day. But its nature is elusive. What does it mean to serve out of how Christ has served us? Why did Jesus and Paul care so much about a servant life? I think it comes down to the inward nature of fear. Offering up your money or signing up your time to a ministry program out of guilt comes from an irreverent fear, the one between master and slave, that fears only punishment.
On the other hand, you want to live freely and not out of fear of others. So you don’t serve anyone. You hold yourself close. And you guard yourself. In the end you up serving yourself. And this comes out of fear of a different kind – fear of loss.
In the end I think our lives are inescapably tied to sacrifice. It is part of worship. And everyone worships something as David Foster Wallace observed. Our hearts were made to love. Service is that sacrifice of love. And we’re restless until we find rest in the proper object of our loves.
To serve well is to serve freely not out of fear of punishment or loss. It is to serve out of wholeness from a perfect love that has cast out all fear. This is a reverent fear of awe and delight. The identity of a servant as Jesus’ describes I think is not one who accomplishes or conforms to the needs of others. A servant is the one who is great because he has the least. Because he is the one who has the most. And in dying he gives life and causes another to live just as every mother experiences at a new birth. This is what Jesus offers us in his love to us – by dying to reconcile us and rising to overcome death, he invites us to participate in the same life that he lived.
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell. C.S. Lewis.
One of the subjects I’m studying at the moment has us reading through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. The passage for class yesterday was 1 Sam. 5 which was about the capture of God’s ark by the Philistines. They had walloped Israel in battle, slaying Eli’s 2 sons, causing Samuel to break his neck and his daughter in law to die in childbirth. Israel was a glutton for punishment so the Philistines compounded their victory by seizing God’s ark from Israel and transporting it back to their territories.
Both nations expected Israel to win since they had the ark of God’s presence with them. And this guy had a reputation of smoting some nasty Egyptians with all sorts of stuff – frogs, boils, you name it. But God’s backhand to Israel meant that he allowed himself to be captured. So you’d forgive the Philistines for thinking that God was on their side. They even wanted to honor him by propping him up next to their local deity Dagon. It doesn’t quite end well for him.
Nor does it seem like God takes compliments very well. According to the Masoretic text of 1 Sam. 5 it reads, ”The hand of the Lord lay heavy upon the Ashdodites, and he wrought havoc among them: He struck Ashdod and its territory with hemorrhoids. When the men of Ashdod saw how matters stood, they said, “The Ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand has dealt harshly with us and with our god Dagon.””
Their answer of course in this irony of ironies is that instead of sending the ark of the God of Israel back to Israel, they send it to other Philistine cities. Misery loves company and this only spreads the damage. The ark makes a tour until Ekron where “…the panic of death pervaded the whole city, so heavily had the hand of God fallen there; and the men who did not die were stricken with hemorrhoids. The outcry of the city went up to heaven.”
Have you ever had hemorrhoids? I have. It’s not long before your cries start reaching heaven. Why am I writing all his? I guess it’s to say that God has a sense of humor. I can’t imagine another way of wrath breaking out other than blood vessels breaking out against your bum skin. Hemorrhoids are painful. And sometimes God speaks to us in ways that only look funny backwards. It’s painful for a time but necessary. Because if you don’t laugh you’ll cry. And life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.
Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?
Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.
This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.
While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.
It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.
Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.
So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.
Around Christmas time, I saw a man with cropped hair, olive skin and arms that tried to squeeze out of his gray tank top. As he ducked and weaved his way through the crowds at Westfield shopping center, one bright Unicef worker dared to break through the blur and stand up to the tanned hulk.
Commence the pleading! First came the convenience: “just 2 mins of your time sir.” Then as his clipboard rattled, the cause was put forward — “a cure for AIDs.” But it was too little. And too late. The tank top’s bags had too much momentum. They propelled him forward rolling past the clipboard and spectacles with the polite flash of pearly teeth. Maybe he was shopping for a girlfriend. Then there would be no stopping him.
I shook my head at the man. Now I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t even the most generous person. But at least I wasn’t like that man. That’s what I thought. I enjoyed the amusement fo a second and then used the distraction to skip past the Unicef booth — hopefully unnoticed. The booth was an island among the 7 seas. Currents of people would ripple away from it. And there water often dried.
So I escaped. I survived not just the harassment to my schedule but the pangs of my guilty conscience. After all, who were they to ask for my money? How did one choose between all the noble causes that existed? What about the money I already gave? The entrance to Platypus shoes ended my day time reverie. I slowed my pace as I relaxed into the glassy cases of Vans and Timberlands and Converse. Not even the shop assistant’s questions fazed me. I was there to do my Christmas shopping. I was there to find the right Vans for me.
The Vans expressed how I felt about myself at the moment. Black and white. Size 10s. Lows. They are me. I am them. I would get around to other needs eventually. But 1st I needed to be me. I checked the label for its authenticity and satisfied with it, walked out with a black box. At least I’m keeping it minimal. So I thought.
“For twenty years I labored in the mission.” With emotionless voice Ferreira repeated the same words. “The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country.” “It is not that it does not take root,” cried Rodrigues in a loud voice, shaking his head. “It’s that the roots are torn up.” At the loud cry of the priest, Ferreira did not so much as raise his head. Eyes lowered he answered like a puppet without emotion: “This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”
Over the Christmas break, I witnessed the most intense film that I’ve ever watched. That’s what Scorcese’s Silence was for me. Not content being sad or suspenseful it provoked thought through its sheer intense psychological torture. And it forced you kicking and screaming to live through its characters. Based on Shusaku Endo’s book Silence, it follows 2 Portuguese Jesuit priests’ search for their mentor Ferreira whom their order has lost contact with. Rumor has it that he has apostatized and is now living as a Japanese man. Through a grueling 2 hours, we come to learn of the villages who worship in secret, hoping for the return of the Jesuits and the agonizing deaths suffered by those who refuse to renounce their faith by committing fumi-e – stepping on a picture of Christ or the Virgin Mary. As a result of Japan’s purge of foreign influence all missionaries have also been expelled from Japan. Rodrigues and Garupe are the last 2 priests remaining.
That isn’t the horror of the story. After Garupe dies trying to save the Christian villagers condemned to drown at sea, Rodrigues comes face to face with his Ferreira to see that the rumor has been true. He has become Sawano Chuan, a Japanese man with a wife who now writes as a Japanese buddhist. How did the swamp of Japan finally defeated the missionary spirit of Christ? This is where Scorcese blows the flame of his paradox. Instead of threatening Japanese converts by death, the roots were ripped out by killing and torturing Japanese believers if Jesuit priests refused to renounce the faith themselves.
For the 2 men, Rodrigues and Ferreira, the straw that finally broke their backs was anazuri. The Japanese are suspended upside down in a pit and left to slowly bleed out over the course of days, sometimes weeks. The pit is covered so their heads are enclosed. It can be filled with blood and their excrement. It is like the vicarious suffering of Christ was hit with an Uno reverse card. Just as humanity suffered for Adam’s sin, so the Japanese Catholics die for the confession of the priests’ own faith. Throughout the movie, you’re prompted to ask “where is God in the midst of such oppressive silence?”
The answer is found when Rodrigues sees a vision of Christ who assures him of his presence despite his apparent silence and permits him to step on image of him in order to ease the suffering of others. After all, that is what he came for. Rodrigues lives out his days as a Japanese man with a wife and child and helps the Tokugawa government identify any Christian contraband coming into the Christian. Although he appears to have forsaken his Christian beliefs, the last scene of the movie is a shot from within his cremation barrel where he can be seen holding a crucifix hidden within a paper parcel.
In Christianity, martyrdom for your beliefs is often honored as a heroic expression of faith. But what if others are martyred because of your beliefs? That’s the question that Scorcese wrestles with so well. The movie seems to answer that God works in the silence even of his followers. And that it’s okay to deny him to ease the suffering of others. Like a parent lying to protect their child, we want to be able to let this little lie slide and confess Jesus in our hearts though our mouths may tremble shut. The emotional force of suffering is so great that it would seem a greater evil than even apostasy and the renouncing of one’s faith – essentially your beliefs.
The reason behind the emotional force of the movie is because of the argument by the daimyo Inoue. Christianity is not welcome in Japan. It fits worse than an old shoe with no soles. No fruit can grow out of such a swamp. Such language reminded me of the way manipulative people speak, like a father blaming his child for the way he beat his mother. The responsibility of killing Japanese Christians is shifted by Inoue to the missionaries themselves. Yet no amount of forced decisions can hide that anymore than a tortured testimony can be upheld in a court of law. Their own people could have stopped it at any time. We feel its guilt though, because it appears as though the priests could’ve done something to stop it.
But what’s worse than any physical and temporary suffering? Denying that you don’t know nor believe nor love Christ…That’s the pain Peter felt as the rooster crowed. That’s what the Father felt when he condemned Jesus on behalf of humanity, when he bore the weight of the world’s sin and was abandoned and disowned so that we could be reconciled to him. For God to ask that of us would be for us to do something’s he already done – condemn his Son on the behalf of others. But for us to renounce him is to condemn him as a liar in whom no salvation can be found. We would be saying that Jesus is not worthy of full allegiance nor of more honor than even kings.
It helps if we imagine Christ in the same position – would he deny God his Father if it meant being able to save some of his followers from persecution? While it can be tempting in this cultural age to believe that what we believe and think is of little importance, remember that to Jesus the greatest sin was the blasphemy of God’s Spirit – to call God and his work evil and denounce Christ before men. Jesus alone is the savior of all men: both those bleeding to death upside down and those watching them. To deny that compromises your soul though it might save the momentary suffering of others.
What is hardest is to trust God that even in the face of such an impossible decision his purposes are good and that he is not and will not be silent as the blood of those who die for his sake cry out against their true oppressors and not those they try to blame, manipulating Christian compassion to cover their inhumane apathy. I write all this not because I believe I would be able do what I think is right in such a situation. Because I know that I wouldn’t. The swamp of Japan has defeated the spirit of many. And I wouldn’t be the last. Even if I survived such an ordeal I would be a permanently broken man. So I hope I never have to face such a situation. And if I do I hope that God will sustain me on such a day. All in all, it would’ve been a great film if it wasn’t so dragged out and its attempt at redemption wasn’t just a whimper. But real life is often like that. So watch it. If you dare.
On an evening stroll along the streets of Strathfield, I saw a now abandoned construction site. A shed was in the middle. It had no door. Its dark unlit cavern emitted the sound of scrapes and clinks. A Korean man with a black receding hairline and a white tank top was pumping his arms on top of a mound of dirt. He worked with a vigor and speed that was more appropriate for 7 am than 7 pm. I couldn’t stand to watch. The orange glow of the sky turned purple, its tone telling me that I had to return home to fix something edible for my wife. It was getting dark.
“Baek Sang Min, are you still going?” The voice rang out and cascaded over the shed. All but 1 other man had left. Sang Min had been like this the whole day. The only response was an affirmative grunt. The other worker sighed, took his bucket helmet off and before long was a fading neon speck approaching the Boulevard. It was happy hour.
There was a stillness that lay heavy on the air broken only by the chirp of magpies. Sang Min looked around and realized he was alone at last. This was the 1st time he had stopped working all day. “Sang Min.” A voice croaked from behind the mound, not from weakness but an ancient power. Behind the mound was a gaping black hole. Its bottom was invisible. From below came faint chirps and one could just make out a giant yellow eye as it glinted out at Sang Min.
“It’s time.” Sang Min moved closer to the hole. Trembling, he bent over, hands over his knees and retched. All he had eaten that day was regurgitated into the darkness and was devoured in a harmony of gulps and tweets. He fell onto all fours from the effort. The feathers under his neon vests ruffled. A claw the size of his body came out of the pit and lay gently on top of him. Its talons surrounded him both caressing and caging him in. “Thank you”, the voice crooned. “Don’t forget next time. You know what happened to your siblings. I think you would taste especially great in snow cheese.” “Yes your Incredible highness.” Sang Min staggered out of the shed and before long, the site was cloaked in darkness except for that yellow unblinking eye.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go…” I’ve heard those lyrics crooned in every department store in every town and city of this country. Ad nauseam. Any time I realize that I should really get some Christmas shopping done and I walk into the mall there is a faint chance that some shuck with a PA system will play those lyrics. And then I’ll feel like popping a Buble.
But underneath my old man’s cantankerous demeanor is a child who realizes this truth – that Christmas is a special time of year whether or not you’re religious. It’s been that way for most of the English speaking world. And it’s increasingly exported to other unfamiliar countries. In Japan, they celebrate Christmas with KFC. Upon tasting some mince pies or seeing a neighborhood lit up under the night sky, I remember that there was something magical in that December air. There was the damp air of Kuala Lumpur next to the Christmas tree. There was that chilly and sharp gust that blew across Shanghai’s Bund.
God knows we’ve outgrown believing in magic. But every Christmas seems like people want to relive these childhood illusions or drug themselves into doing so until they forget that fateful day they realized that Santa didn’t exist. Then they can play and pretend it’s all for the kids. Or is it? How can such desires come from illusions?
The yearning for something magical reminds me of the insights we have after finishing a book and scaling the peak of some great mountain and staring into the expanse of the starry starry night. It’s the yearning for the transcendent – a desperate desire for a time and space that exists outside this world yet can only be found in it.
In it, the divorce never happened. The kids are quiet and happy. The family is united around the dinner table. The turkey and the gravy blend together in perfect harmony, each flavor enhancing the other. Not just that but on a Christmas night, the inanimate world finally becomes what humans have always thought it to be – magical and personal. Reindeer speak. Old men climb down chimneys and leave half eaten cookies and milk. Jack Frost greets us at the windows. Whether it is before us like Eden or beyond us like heaven, we crave a taste of it with the ones we love on Christmas and with the world’s creatures.
But then the turkey sucks away the moisture of your mouth and mom and dad end the night screaming at one another again and your uncle is drunk from too much wine. You can’t help but feel just as Sylvia Plath did. “I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas.” Is that all there is? Is that all there is? I’ve often asked God that very same question. Every Christmas over promises and under delivers like some cheap motel. The cynical of us just get on with the show. We hope the whisky can drown out the fake smiles and presents.
God’s answer has always befuddled me. A good father meets his kids where they are. If they want to build a robot, he’ll make one alongside them rather than give a lecture about mechatronic engineering. So 2000 years ago God answered our yearning not by giving us more rules as ladders to heaven…but by reaching down into something wholly other to him. He became a man. There was no fire and smoke. There was just a crying baby in Bethlehem in a manger with no cradle for a bed. In the most mundane of all things, eternity entered time and the infinite became finite.
Christmas is special. Because the incarnation is special. God answers us in the most paradoxical way. He doesn’t get rid of our yearning just giving us what we want but what we need. We don’t make things magical. He does. So the beauty and meaning of Christmas can only be received by knowing him. 2000 years ago he met us in a little Jewish boy. He was born in darkness so that the world might know light. He was lowly so that he might lift us high. I don’t need to grasp in the dark anymore, hoping for that Christmas spark. It’s already there. I just need to see it and receive it. If God became man, everything is possible. We just need to see it. Every Christmas we don’t need the gift of having more but seeing more. Because even a manger can reveal him.
Is it harder to lift your eyes to lead a service or to say goodbye? Today Sophia and I formally we were leaving St. John’s Anglican Cathedral. I’ve never enjoyed public speaking and I was definitely not going to enjoy it now. St. John’s had been my home for the last 4 years and Sophia’s for the last 11. I’ve said goodbye many times in my life. I’ve moved around 10 times. It never gets easier. But today announcing that we were leaving our church was one of the harder goodbyes I’ve had to say since I became a Christian.
St. John’s has been a home away from home this side of eternity. And it was a good home for 4 years. It wasn’t perfect just as no hotel or roadside inn is. There are some doors that need mending. And sometimes the roof would leak. You didn’t always like those you ate dinner with. And you would sometimes wonder whether the inn down the road had a better bed and breakfast. We are a weird bunch. And yet we were still together.
Our lives had intertwined for a brief period. Yet we find ourselves coming away from St John’s bearing the marks of every person we have met. Like soldiers who have gone through a war together and survived, we served together for a common cause: to see the city of Parramatta transformed by the hope of the risen Christ. Sometimes in those few short years it seemed to me like every day was the same. And yet looking back, I can see glimpses of God at work in our city, in maturing our growth groups and in drawing people of all colors and ages to him. There was no big battle. There was only the quiet hum drum of St John’s on Hunter St. We met countless toddlers, youths and university students and elderly folk who had come to meet Jesus.
But what ultimately bound us together was not what we did. We were soldiers who had survived. The resurrection of our souls brought this weird eclectic bunch together and continues to do so today, tomorrow and in eternity. I know we’ll be united again some day because we’ve been raised to new life with our Creator. And that day will make today a momentary pause; just a gentle breeze that passes through life. It would as though we had never said goodbye.
Here and now we’re separated by time and space, near yet far. I may see someone from St. John’s on the street again someday. And if I do I hope it’ll be like old times. And we might say ‘hi’ and ‘how’re you doing?’ And some I know I will never see again at least in this lifetime. So for now it’s not so much goodbye, but ‘till we meet again’, when we will see one another through clearer mirrors than we have ever known.