Perfection


I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few years now, since I first chose the name for this blog. I didn’t just choose an ancient martyr at random, though based on what comes up in a google search for Biblis, it might seem that way.

I had finished reading Eusebius’ History of the Church, which as one might expect, was filled with all kinds of amazing historical characters and inspiring stories. For some reason, however, Biblis, who only gets one paragraph in all of written history, stuck with me.

She stuck with me because she wasn’t named by Eusebius for her strong fortitude in the face of persecution or her stoic insistence on staying true to her faith. She wasn’t one of those early Christians, whose reported superhuman endurance in the face of horrific ordeals I tend to associate with the stories of the early martyrs.

Biblis broke. Biblis recanted her faith. Biblis denied Christ.

Eusebius describes her as having been “handed over to punishment by the devil, who imagined he had already devoured her…so he thought – a feeble creature, easily broken.”

And our faith is the faith of broken and weak people. Our faith is the faith of people who buckle under adversity far less serious than that faced by Biblis. Our faith is the faith of people, myself included, who disappoint each other and God all the time.

But our God is a God who is full of grace and mercy and seeks out His lost sheep. Our Church, when we’re behaving the way we should, holds up those who are struggling and receives the fallen penitent with love, forgiveness and encouragement.

I’ve met many men, women, and even children who have been persecuted for their faith. In my experience, the person who never faltered, never doubted, and stood strong and unflinching in faith is the very rare exception. The vast majority tell me of periods of intense doubt, of anger at God, of confusion and of despair. They also tell me that the support of their brethren, locally, nationally and internationally, was key in reminding them that they were not alone and encouraging them to persevere, beyond what they thought themselves to be capable of, in faith.

Biblis made a comeback. Eusebius tells us that, while on the torture rack being pushed to accuse the other Christians of horrific crimes, “she came to her senses, and, so to speak, awoke out of a deep sleep…she flatly contradicted the slanderers… From then on she insisted she was a Christian, and so she joined the ranks of the martyrs.”

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that even after they learned Biblis had denied Christ, her fellow Christians continued to pray for her and to lift her up to God’s mercy. Somewhere, somehow she found the strength in her utter brokenness to take her stand.

I chose Biblis to head this blog as a reminder to myself never to fall into the trap of promoting members of the persecuted church (or any church for that matter) into some superhuman tier of perfect faith, never to impose upon them standards that were only ever met once in all of history. It reminds me, too, that those men and women out there today, suffering discrimination and persecution, rely on our support in ways that we can’t comprehend and as part of the same Body, we are commanded actively to pray for them, to encourage them, and to suffer with them.

I Corinthians 12:24b-26 But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

In addition to prayer, which is the first and most important thing we should be doing, in some cases there are other simple ways to encourage and build up a persecuted Christian: Connect & Encourage

From The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith:

The greatest burden we have to carry in life is self; the most difficult thing we have to manage is self. Our own daily living, our frames and feelings, our especial weaknesses and temptations, our peculiar temperaments, our inward affairs of every kind, — these are the things that perplex and worry us more than anything else, and that brings us most frequently into bondage and darkness. In laying off your burdens, therefore, the first one you must get rid of is yourself. You must hand yourself, with your temptations, your temperament, your frames and feelings, and all your inward and outward experiences, over into the care and keeping of your God, and leave it all there. He made you, and therefore He understands you, and knows how to manage you; and you must trust Him to do it…here you must rest, trusting yourself thus to Him, continually and absolutely.

Next you must lay off every other burden, — your health, your reputation, your Christian work, your houses, your children, your business, your servants; everything, in short, that concerns you, whether inward or outward.

It is generally much less difficult for us to commit the keeping of our future to the Lord, than it is to commit the present. We know we are helpless as regards the future, but we feel as if the present was in our own hands, and must be carried on our own shoulders; and most of us have an unconfessed idea that it is a great deal to ask the Lord to carry ourselves, and that we cannot think of asking Him to carry our burdens too.

…Let your souls lie down upon the couch of His sweet will, as your bodies lie down in their beds at night. Relax every strain, and lay off every burden. Let yourself go in perfect abandonment of ease and comfort, sure that, since He holds you up, you are perfectly safe. Your part is simply to rest. His part is to sustain you; and He cannot fail.

[Please excuse all the dashes and the commas – I’m reading an 1888 edition and apparently back then they were rather liberal with their punctuation marks.]

As many of those reading this will know, 2011 was rough. I had known death in personal and painful ways in previous years, but nothing like what I experienced last year.

Before dawn on a dark February morning, I received the news that my boyfriend had drowned in a kayaking accident. Three months later, just as I was starting to re-enter life at a more normal operating level, my beloved grandmother died, also relatively unexpectedly. Although very different, in some ways the grief in the second round was harder to bear – it ripped open what had just started to heal and added the additional loss of person who had never not been in my life. In August, my boyfriend’s mother died – her death was not so unexpected but it added to the weight of pain. As the rest of the year went by, it seemed that the shadow of death was all around me as healthy, life-filled, beloved brothers, nephews, and children of people very close to me died abruptly and without warning.

So it was a hard year. Paradoxically, it was also one of the best years of my life. That might seem a strange thing to say – but it was a year in which I learned that in the same heart profound joy and peace can co-exist alongside profound pain and grief without contradiction. It was a year in which I was forced to confront eternity and everything I believe or don’t believe about the “forever and ever” of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a year in which I was challenged to either allow doubt and bitterness to torture me or to embrace my faith and to cling to that hope with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. It was a year in which I learned to live in God’s terrible and tender love. It was a year in which I chose to believe over and over again that all things do work together for the good of those who love the Lord – whether we ever understand them or not.

Death makes people do funny things – and while I received huge encouragement and support from friends and strangers alike, some very well-meaning people also said some horribly insensitive and sometimes offensive things. For the most part I was able to shrug it off and even laugh – not at them, of course, but with other friends who’d experienced similar loss and who shared the similarly insane things people had said to them. We joked about writing a manual for people on What Not to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.

For those who are interested, the advice really boiled down to a couple of things: don’t give advice (at best it’s obnoxious and at worst offensive), don’t try to explain to the person why it happened (you don’t know), and don’t tell them how they should be feeling (just don’t). In reference to those who have lost partners or children – don’t ask when they’re going to start dating again or trying for another child (just don’t even). Do listen, do affirm, do pray, do send letters and messages of encouragement, and do be there when they need you.

Ironically, it was because of some of the strangest things said to me (with much goodwill but great ignorance) by fellow Christians that I came to two realizations about death. These specific comments and advice, which focused on praying for my “liberation” from pain and/or the spirit of death, challenged me to think about why I didn’t agree with them and led me to the following conclusions:

  1. This world is bound by death. I am going to die. Every living thing around me, every person I know, is going to die. I don’t know when it will happen or how but it will. I may experience and witness healing and miracles over the course of my lifetime but the end will come just the same. This isn’t morbid – it’s just a fact of this life, a fact that may be more difficult to deal with for many of us living in the modern first-world where death has been banished to the periphery. If I can’t learn to live with this fact, however, I am going to be in for a rough ride from here on out.
  1. I may have to live with it but I don’t have to accept it. Death is not natural. It is not what we were created for. It is right that everything in me rebels and protests at the very concept and that its advent provokes searing, gut-wrenching pain. Our nature, given to us by God, is to live. And as those who believe and are called children of God, Life is our inheritance.

These two realizations, and learning that it is possible to believe both at the same time, not only helped me to cope and process what was happening to me and around me but also led me to understand Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, Redemption and Eternity in new and more deeply personal ways. It helped me to see how simultaneously insignificant and important our lives are. It allowed me to experience a tiny fraction of that profound grief God must have felt when humanity chose to allow death to enter into His perfect creation. It challenges me to move my focus from the here and now to the life everlasting – and to remember that that is where my treasure is.

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body and soul,
I will shout joyfully to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young
at a place near your altar,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!
What joy for those who can live in your house,
always singing your praises. Interlude

What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.

O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, O God of Jacob. Interlude

O God, look with favor upon the king, our shield!
Show favor to the one you have anointed.

A single day in your courts
is better than a thousand anywhere else!
I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God
than live the good life in the homes of the wicked.
For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
from those who do what is right.
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
what joy for those who trust in you.

Still working out what I feel about the doctrine of sanctification (leaning toward it being a long-term, life-long, most likely unattainable, but still worth striving for, goal), but think this is a rather good checklist:

When John Wesley was asked, ‘But what good works are those, the practice of which you affirm to be necessary for sanctification?’ he replied, ‘First, all works of piety such as public prayer, family prayer and praying in our closet, receiving the Supper of the Lord, searching the Scriptures, by hearing, reading, meditating, and using such a measure of fasting or abstinence as our body allows… Secondly, all works of mercy, whether they relate to the bodies or souls of men, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted, such as endeavoring to instruct the ignorant, to awaken the stupid sinner, to quicken the lukewarm, to comfort the feeble-minded, to succor the tempted, or contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death. This is the way wherein God hath appointed his children to await for complete salvation.’

(John Punshom’s Reasons for Hope)

I’d add that all of the above should be done in love and with a joyful and thankful heart. I also wonder about the man who gives his life for his brother’s or refuses to deny Christ at any cost.

Revelation 7:14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”

In the run up to moving countries, I prayed and hoped for a church near my new home. I liked the idea of attending a church that was rooted in the community in which I live. I was blessed by not one but two churches within a block of my house, and have been attending one of them since my first Sunday here. It’s a lovely old (by American standards) church; the majority of those who attend live in the neighbourhood (and many on my street), and I have been made to feel extremely welcome and included since that first day.

Over the years, I’ve gravitated in my worship preference to the old hymns. I have nothing against the “modern stuff”, choruses and big bands, but there’s something about singing songs with verses, and a narrative that gives testimony to what this walk of faith is all about. There’s also something deeply moving about singing songs that have been sung by generations and thinking about what those words have meant to each, in their particular set of circumstances.

My new church is majority of African descent (when I say majority, I mean I am one of four people who does not appear to have any African ancestry), so the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday two weeks ago was something very special. We had two special services focused on his faith, work and legacy. It was a little overwhelming, in a good way, to sit in the midst of men and women who had marched with him, who were among the first to integrate my new neighbourhood and were the targets of hatred and some of the ugliest aspects of humanity. We all have benefited in different ways from what Reverend King did, but it was something very different to sit among people who experienced the before, during and after, personally and directly.

The day opened and closed with a song that became emblematic of the entire Civil Rights movement (the term civil rights bothers me a bit, such a technical and bland term, when what we are talking about is the right to be treated as fellow human beings and citizens): We Shall Overcome. As we linked arms, just as the peaceful activists facing the fire-hoses of Birmingham and Montgomery did years ago, and sang the verses, I thought about what those words mean – we shall overcome.

There’s something slightly troubling and challenging about the words, as although the song is about victory, it openly admits that we have not yet seen this victory. It’s a song that faces up to pain, and misery, and injustice, and ugliness. But it’s a song of hope and faith in implicitly dark times. As I thought about what the song meant to the people with whom I was worshipping, I also thought about the people in the countries where I and my colleagues work. Countries where victory has yet to even be glimpsed but where we know, through faith, eventually We Shall Overcome.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

The Lord will see us through, The Lord will see us through,
The Lord will see us through someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

We’re on to victory, We’re on to victory,
We’re on to victory someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’re on to victory someday.

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.

The truth shall make us free, the truth shall make us free,
The truth shall make us free someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
The truth shall make us free someday.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

Lyrics derived from Charles Tindley’s gospel song “I’ll Overcome Some Day” (1900), and opening and closing melody from the 19th-century spiritual “No More Auction Block for Me” (a song that dates to before the Civil War).

I’ve been inspired by many things this week: the faith of two friends as they deal with the sudden death of their daughter and wait to learn about the results of the husband’s surgery (he may have cancer); the faith of another friend who last month was diagnosed with a debilitating and incurable disease and then a few weeks ago told she may have been misdiagnosed and is still living in uncertainty; reading the story of Adoniram Judson – (who turned out to be a distant relative of mine!) – who was largely responsible for bring Christianity to the Karen and Karenni and the translation of the Bible into Burmese but who only saw real results after a lifetime of work that appeared to bear very little fruit, the loss of two wives and an infant child and almost two years in prison; reading through the words of Ezekiel and Jeremiah who lived their lives faithful to what God called them to do even though it appeared that no one took any notice of what they said (and frequently did the opposite).

I am reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline at the moment and adding to all the examples above, have had it reinforced that faith is a discipline. Many Christians have been taught to believe that faith is some kind of magical thing that you just have; that it’s somehow bestowed on us with no other action on our part than the initial decision to accept Christ. I’ve also been reading a book on the Great Awakening in the mid 18th century in the American colonies and have been struck by how people at the time deeply agonised over the assurance of their salvation. I think we’d have considered most of them Christians (and “saved”) but many seemed to be convinced that faith was something external that could be given or withdrawn at the apparent whim of God.

Faith is a funny thing and something we should never take for granted. I think many of those with whom I work would agree, that while there are times when our strength runs out and God miraculously refreshes us with faith and hope, most often faith is a decision. It is something we have to choose, sometimes over and over again, when faced with the impossible situations and cases we deal with every day in our professional lives and uncertainty, tragedy and daunting challenges in our personal lives. We are called to pray for our faith to increase, but so must we choose daily to believe.

How brittle are the Piers
On which our Faith doth tread —
No Bridge below doth totter so —
Yet none hath such a Crowd.

It is as old as God —
Indeed — ’twas built by him —
He sent his Son to test the Plank,
And he pronounced it firm.
Emily Dickinson

915

Faith—is the Pierless Bridge
Supporting what We see
Unto the Scene that We do not—
Too slender for the eye

It bears the Soul as bold
As it were rocked in Steel
With Arms of Steel at either side—
It joins—behind the Veil

To what, could We presume
The Bridge would cease to be
To Our far, vacillating Feet
A first Necessity.
Emily Dickinson

Mary on the 2nd Day

A number of years ago I attended a religious liberty conference in Bulgaria. I like to try to take advantage of being in countries where I can actually afford art I like, so while I was in Sofia I used a free afternoon to go down near the cathedral to peruse the open air market where Bulgarians sold art, much of it original, and antiques (lots of the expected Soviet memorabilia and the more unexpected Nazi paraphernalia). I was drawn to the art booths that sold icons and searched for one that looked “different”, something that would call out to me. When I saw this icon, though I had no idea who it was, I knew it was the one I wanted. The artist couldn’t speak English but from what he said I gleaned the two words Kata Pia. In my ignorance, I didn’t realise he was telling me what the Greek letters on the icon said, I thought I was buying an icon of St. Kata Pia and quite happily went away.

That afternoon we met with a Bulgarian Orthodox bishop and a number of priests. The bishop was celebrating his birthday and in the midst of boisterous toasts, I pulled out my new icon to show him and asked his opinion, introducing him to St. Kata Pia. This caused great consternation. The bishop and the priests all agreed that the icon was a good one but they did not think there was a saint called Kata Pia. After about fifteen minutes of intense discussion and argument they reached a definitive conclusion.

“The woman is Mary, Jesus’ mother, but it’s a special Mary,” said Bishop Cyril, looking at me intently. “It’s not the Mary we usually see, the Virgin receiving the good news, or Mary in her glory, ascending to Heaven. It’s Mary on the second day. That is why she looks so sad.”

I love this Mary. I keep the icon on my desk where I look at it several times a day. She is a Mary whose son has just been killed. She is a Mary who has just seen her dreams and what she thought were the promises of God crushed. She is a Mary who watched the Light of the world die a horrifying and final death. She is a Mary who doesn’t yet know what will come on the Third Day and doesn’t even know to hope for it. She is a Mary asking “Why?” in agony and pain.

The Church gives a great deal of emphasis to Good Friday and to the Resurrection, but there is rarely any real focus on the Second Day. Yet this is the day in which most of us live. This is the experience of those who are persecuted for their faith, both those who die and those who survive to mourn the loss of their loved ones. This is the experience of my colleagues who receive devastating news day after day from Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Burma, North Korea, and others where Christians suffer horribly and little seems to change. This is the experience of those of us who have seen dreams die along with those we love.

Mary on the Second Day reminds me that we are not alone in our confusion and our despair. We share it with her, with the disciples, and with all of those who throughout time have cried out in pain as what we thought would be is destroyed for no apparent reason. We can bring our grief and our despair before God and know that He understands it.

I read from Hebrews 12:22-24 this week and was reminded of the hope that lies in the Third Day. We live in the Second Day, and while it can be bleak, we have this promise: No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel.

The line, “You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect” particularly stood out to me. That number includes so many: people we have loved, our ancestors who have gone before us in faith, the martyrs whose names, or sometimes just numbers, flood the inboxes of all of us who work on behalf of the persecuted. This is Hope. We have come to them! They have been made perfect! They are part of all we do! They wait for us!