Saturday, February 09, 2013

Dear God, please give me a heads up before making me weep in public

There's something about learning a little bit more of who God is that causes me to react in a reverential way.  There is also something about knowing a bit more of His heart and what He values and cherishes, because it’s so powerfully intimate and awe-inspiring, but yet I feel so unworthy to be able to have this greater sense of what He cares about.  At the same time, there’s something about being knocked off my high horse with a holy backhand and being humbled in a very public setting that causes me to shut up, take a few steps backward, and remember that God is very big and I am very, very tiny.

I went to the Vancouver Convention Centre for Missions Fest last, last weekend (January 26, 2013).  It was the 30th anniversary and felt quite similar to Missions Fests I’d been to in years past (my last visit was in January 2008).  I had been anticipating this visit for about two weeks now, I think partially due to my recent trip to Romania this past October with my church.  Also, foreign missions is always fascinating and exciting to me.  Who doesn’t like an excuse to travel?

I headed straight for the exhibit hall where all the different organizations had their booths and information tables setup.  And for some unexplained reason, I became very self-righteous and started to look at everything critically and cynically.  I felt like I was at a type of Christian tradeshow, minus the gimmicky attractions and obnoxious sales pitches.  Actually, I remember one year where a Wii was setup at a booth and visitors could play Wii Sports.  This was when the Wii had just come out and it was still new and exciting.  I walked through the floor, past each exhibit, reading the title of the organization on signs above the displays.  If the organization didn’t sound interesting (which was most of them) or if I didn’t recognize the name (which was most of them) I barely gave a glance and just kept walking.  It felt like 25% of the displays in the hall were for some camp or retreat centre.  How are we supposed to reach the nations with the good news of Jesus Christ if all we’re doing is spending the weekends in the boonies, singing praise songs around a campfire?  More pretentious and arrogant thoughts continued to fill my heart, as if I had any right to make those kinds of judgements.  Silly Tim.

It was nearing 2pm, so I went next door to the hall where the plenary sessions were being held.  Basically, it’s a big room with a theatre style arrangement; a raised stage at the front, projectors and screens to see video/words/etc off to the sides of the stage, and seats facing towards the stage/screens.  I listened to a bunch of Korean ladies in colourful hanboks sing old hymns (in Korean) as I flipped through the Missions Fest guide to see what I could be expecting.  I skimmed through the speaker’s biography:
Gracia Burnham is the widow of Martin Burnham…For 17 years she and Martin served with New Tribes Mission in the Philippines where Martin was a jungle pilot …While celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary…the Burnhams were kidnapped…During their 376 days of captivity, they faced near starvation, constant exhaustion, frequent gun battles, cold-hearted murder-and intense soul-searching about a God who sometimes seemed to have forgotten them…On June 7, 2002, in a firefight between the Philippine military and the Abu Sayyaf Group, Martin was killed. Gracia was wounded, but was freed.
At least this lady sounded interesting.

My cynical attitude persisted as the session started.  I critiqued and became bored at the super slow, predictable worship set list.

This song will be played through as Verse 1, Verse 2, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus...NEXT.  [pause] Ugh, great, now an even older, slower song? I said in my head (of course).

Everything felt rehearsed and choreographed so that there could be no chance of anything fun or lively taking place.  People kept filing in late and a middle aged couple sat in the seats beside me.  They seemed like rigid, uptight, white collar people.

They’re probably Methodists, I thought.

Announcements were made to inform guests about other boring things that were taking place during Missions Fest.  I rolled my eyes and sighed under my breath a few times.  A six minute video was played to introduce the speaker, Gracia Burnham.  The techie inside of me screamed at the A/V team as the video’s sound crackled and became echo-y.  Someone’s fader on the sound board was way too high, distorting the voiceover and music. *headdesk*

Finally, Gracia took to the stage.  There was nothing about her that made her stand out, except perhaps her American, central accent.  She could be standing in a crowd of people and go unnoticed.  She shared her experiences and stories effortlessly and simply, just as she had done hundreds of times before, at only God knows how many other speaking engagements she’s attended.  I politely listened for the duration of her talk, until about the last 5-10 minutes.  I felt a weird feeling in my chest and the love in Gracia’s voice gripped me.  The love she still had for God despite all her loss and suffering in devotion to Him and the love she came to have for her captors and their spiritual well being, even as they sit in prison to this day for what they did against her and her husband.  It’s a love that was so genuine and earnest.

It was almost like I was starting to understand not just mentally, but emotionally, the pain and distress the Burnhams faced, as a direct result of their faith.  I felt my eyes begin to water, but I forced my tears back.  There is definitely no way I'm letting myself cry in a room full of hundreds of Missions Fest of all places!  In her conclusion, Gracia asked a number of difficult, rhetorical questions she struggled with, which launched echoes of the same questions and even more in my mind.

Why do some people live in poverty, while others in immense wealth?
Why do some people hear the gospel over and over and over again and fail to respond to that message, while others are dying to even get a chance to hear about it?
Why did they have to be kidnapped and go through such stress, discomfort, and pain?
Why did their kids have to lose their dad like this?
Why where they called to suffer and go through this ordeal and not someone else?
These happenings and losses are devastating. And they’re depressing!  How can Gracia still talk about God’s love and faithfulness?
Why do I, in comparison to them or others in similar or worse situations, have it so good?
Why aren’t I suffering now?
Will I ever have to suffer like this? 
Will I be able to persevere and trust God or will I curse Him and wish for death?

Gracia ended her time of sharing, one of the hosts dismissed the crowd, and everyone streamed out of the hall.  I gave into the weird feeling in my chest as I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore.  They rolled down my face as I sniffled loudly.  I hunched over in my chair and hung my head so that I could hide my face with my hands and so that I wouldn’t cry all all over my clothes. Sigh.

I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t stop it either.  I was so convicted.  I felt like an utter fool for my thoughts and judgmental attitude just moments before.  I thanked God through my tears for Gracia’s testimony as I told Him how sorry I was.  I also kept asking, Why?  What if God calls me to this kind of suffering?  Will I be able to endure it? These questions struck me hard.  Other than my occasional sniffle, I was silent, but it was pretty obvious that I was crying. 

A pair of teenage girls sat at the end of my row chatting with each other.  After drying my face and making myself look as decent as possible, I stood up quickly and exited the row from the opposite side where the girls were sitting, because they were blocking that way.  I wanted to avoid human contact as much as possible.  I had initially planned to attend a seminar following this plenary session, but it was just announced that copies of Gracia Burnham’s book, In the Presence of My Enemies, were being made available for sale and that she would be signing them.  I walked towards that part of the room so that I could buy the book and leave, but as I was trying to find where the start of the book sale line was, one of the girls that was in my row came up to me and asked, “Excuse me…are you going to be ok?”

“Huh? Yeah I’m fine now thanks. I don’t know how to explain it. God is good, right?” I replied hurriedly, somewhat startled and very red-eyed.  I acknowledged her concern with an awkward smile and she returned it.  I bought a copy of Gracia’s book and promptly left the hall.

Haha God, You're hilarious.

After coming home later that day, I pretended like nothing happened and didn’t even start reading Gracia's book until a few days later.  But since that time, up until this very moment, the same questions keep going through my mind and I’m still convicted.  Will I ever have to suffer like this?  Would I even be ready?  How much am I really willing to sacrifice for God?

A few months ago, I gave a brief talk to the youth at our church, which I ironically titled “You Will Suffer” (as if I have any experience in "suffering").  In my slides, I highlighted these verse (underlinings added):
Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.   
Hebrews 11:35-38 (NKJV)
Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
                            2 Timothy 3:12 (NKJV)
The verses speak for themselves, don’t they?  There is nothing symbolic or mystical about those descriptions.  It’s a simple, plain, and written as fact.  This is what happened.  This will happen.

In her book, Gracia describes a time in college when a drama was performed during their chapel service.  The students told the story of “Through Gates of Splendor” (based on the book of the same name by Elisabeth Elliot) where five missionaries were killed in 1956 by Huaorani tribe members in Ecuador.

Gracia writes (p.27):  
I stood up to leave the chapel that day, unable to say a word.  Will the Lord ever require me to do what those men did? to go through what they went through?  I was stunned.  I slowly headed out the door, tears streaming down my face.
Hmmm, that scenario sounds familiar.  Then again, we do worship the same God.


Why was Stephen stoned to death?  Why was Paul shipwrecked and beaten X amount of times?  Why were the Burnhams kidnapped and why was Martin killed?  Why all this suffering?  It hurts so much and causes so much grief in the long run that it doesn’t seem to make sense.  If Jesus suffered the most excruciating of tortures and paid the ultimate penalty for my personal wrongdoings by being crucified, but then was raised back to life by God’s victorious resurrection power, what does our suffering mean today?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but as far as I can tell, I think its so that whoever has experienced it first hand can still say that no matter what, God is still faithful even unto the end.  Despite all the pain along the way, if God is unchanging, He has to be faithful.  And that means that someone like me can’t just marvel at these things, but I have to learn and apply it for myself one day.  Because I will suffer.  Jesus said “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20 NKJV).  Time to man up.  And always carry tissues.

Note: February 9, 2013 - just read Psalm 88, man oh man...