Victory sideways

Ne 22 ledna 2012

Victory sideways: How a Communist Writer Changed My Life Through a Bible While I Was Still an Unbeliever

Last time I gave you a lesson in a Czech language, this time we turn to the Czech literature. There was an interesting movement among Czech writers (mostly quite lefty ones) in the beginning of the German occupation of the Protectorat Böhmen und Mähren to publish books which were seemingly innocent and censors couldn’t object against them, but in fact they were helping to support Czech nationalism and resistance to the occupation. Some classical Czech books were then written or republished (e. g., Czech Fairy Tales by Horák, Images from the Czech history by Vančura and many others).

One of the writers participating in this movement was a Czech Communist writer Ivan Olbracht. Before the war he fell in love with the people of Podkarpatská Rus and wrote plenty of books about them (who were then mostly Rusyns (Ruthenians) and Hasidim Jews from Galicia). So, it is no surprise that when Germans occupied what remained from Czechoslovakia he wrote a paraphrase of The Old Testament called “Biblické příběhy” (Biblical stories/tales?) to show beauty and glory of Jews. Illustrated with dramatic Doré’s engravings it was a nice introduction to the Biblical world for me (then very early teenager). Although I was then an unbeliever, one story somehow touched me deeply and changed my worldview and led me to some rather countercultural ways (1Sa 9.1-10.1) [1]:

Now there was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah, the son of a Benjamite, a mighty man of valor. He had a son whose name was Saul, a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel; from his shoulders and up he was taller than any of the people. Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, were lost. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Take now with you one of the servants, and arise, go search for the donkeys.” He passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. Then they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there. Then he passed through the land of the Benjamites, but they did not find them. When they came to the land of Zuph, Saul said to his servant who was with him, “Come, and let us return, or else my father will cease to be concerned about the donkeys and will become anxious for us.” He said to him, “Behold now, there is a man of God in this city, and the man is held in honor; all that he says surely comes true. Now let us go there, perhaps he can tell us about our journey on which we have set out.” Then Saul said to his servant, “But behold, if we go, what shall we bring the man? For the bread is gone from our sack and there is no present to bring to the man of God. What do we have?” The servant answered Saul again and said, “Behold, I have in my hand a fourth of a shekel of silver; I will give it to the man of God and he will tell us our way.” […] Then Saul said to his servant, “Well said; come, let us go.” […] As they came into the city, behold, Samuel was coming out toward them to go up to the high place. Now a day before Saul’s coming, the Lord had revealed this to Samuel saying, “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over My people Israel; and he will deliver My people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have regarded My people, because their cry has come to Me.” When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord said to him, “Behold, the man of whom I spoke to you! This one shall rule over My people.” Then Saul approached Samuel in the gate and said, “Please tell me where the seer’s house is.” Samuel answered Saul and said, “I am the seer. Go up before me to the high place, for you shall eat with me today; and in the morning I will let you go, and will tell you all that is on your mind. As for your donkeys which were lost three days ago, do not set your mind on them, for they have been found.” […] And they arose early; and at daybreak Samuel called to Saul on the roof, saying, “Get up, that I may send you away.” So Saul arose, and both he and Samuel went out into the street. As they were going down to the edge of the city, Samuel said to Saul, “Say to the servant that he might go ahead of us and pass on, but you remain standing now, that I may proclaim the word of God to you.” Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his head, kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you a ruler over His inheritance?

It is a lovely story in itself, but for me it was in that moment much more. Somehow, the part of the story which grew upon me was how Saul was being faithful in what he was supposed to do and he got not only what he was after but also a kingdom on the top of it. There was no way how he could try to be a king (for one, there were no kings in Israel at all then), there was no way how he could plan and scheme how to became a king. He was just doing faithfully what he was supposed to do, going through a long way to find those donkeys and in the end asking for help a prophet. And that prophet not only gave him what he asked him for (information about donkeys), but en passant he made him a king as well.

I suddenly saw a God given principle of achieving impossible. When we hope for more than we can achieve, when we hope for something which requires extraordinary God’s blessing or even a miracle, we cannot “go for the thing” directly. We have to just wait and pray for the thing, and hope that God gives us this thing somehow on the top of everything else.

This is deeply in the opposition to the thinking of this world. Post-Enlightenment world (although here probably Protestantism is the one to be blamed, I am afraid) is rational and purpose-driven. We set our goals, decide about steps to get there, and do it (in the ideal case). This is not biblical way of thinking. There is something which Christians of the previous generations knew better. Mother Theresa stated that the goal of her mission was “do something beautiful for God”. Her original job description was to “hug the most poor in the slums of Calcutta”). Also, this is about the worship (and art generally), which is deeply purposeless, which leads to what we are doing right now. [2]

I was then a teenager so of course the first place where I applied this principle was dealing with being without a girl. I just knew (and I think I remember it till this day) that getting the right wife is a miracle, which we cannot do on our own. I don’t remember how exactly I expected miracles to happen when I denied the very existence of God, but I somehow knew that. And when my classmates boasted with their adventures with girls, I had a fight with my own feelings of inferiority by hope that what I am really looking for is a deep friendship for life, and the whole sex thing is something I can just hope to get on the top for free. I was just not willing to settle for less, because of the hope this story somehow gave me. And I am really thankful to God for that.

Now, we have been married with Markéta for fifteen years (this coming summer sixteen), and so couple of single people asked me during those years was asking about finding a girl, with kind of “You have managed to do it, so you now know the way how to do it, right?”. And I don’t have the answer for them. It somehow happened to us. Actually, when I asked couple of married couples myself about this question, they usually give me a good story about some rainy day when she needed to carry an umbrella, and he who was there for some other purpose helped her, and then ... or some other story which has nothing to do with a purpose-driven life. I have never heard a story about a man who decided to marry the best girl possible, so he made a scientific poll, measured all possible girls by some predetermined set of criteria and then worked hard his way to marry the one which won the poll.

We were members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cambridge. Cambridge is a city with an average church attendance 4 % down from the national average of around 40 %. There are endless numbers of failed Church missions all around the Boston area, so much so that in the missionary circles it is considered “The Cold Spot of the America” or “The missions graveyard”. And yes, our church grew in seven years from zero to around one thousand average weekly attendance, which was considered by many quite an extraordinary success. When asked people involved in the leadership of the church how they achieved such a success I heard a lot about hard work, sacrifices and effort, but everybody always emphasized that they were all quite surprised by the success they were given and without any false humbleness they ascribed the growth to special God’s blessing on top of their hard work (“I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” 1.Co 3.6).

I could give many more examples both from my life and from the miracles I have observed around me, but I see this principle again and again.

It certainly doesn’t mean that we should give up our hope, or that we should somehow hide our desires from the Lord. That would be nonsense, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Ma 6:8) and he seeks those who “worship [Him] in spirit and truth,” (John 4:23) not a pretense. Let me put here a couple of practical points how I think we should apply this principle to our life:

  1. Submit your desires! We are not Buddhists, so we are not asked to minimize our desires, just opposite, not only that God hates our hearts of stone with suppressed desires, but He Himself promises us living “heart of flesh” (Ez 11:19, 36:26). However, we are called to submit our desires to His will. I believe in every big desire we hope for we have to come to our Mount Olives and confess from depth of our heart “not My will, but Yours be done” (L 22:42).
  2. Ask others for help! It is no good for us to be alone. God in the Holy Trinity constitutes a fellowship, we are made into his image, so we need fellowship as well. Talk with others about your struggles. Certainly small groups are the best place for you to start, but if you find somebody who would be willing to talk with you and pray with you about this desire for a long run, even better! Trusted wise brother/sister can help you to see what is really behind your desire, can tell what’s wrong with it (if anything), can help you to persevere on your path.
  3. Humble yourself! It is slightly the same as the first point, but it deserves repeating. We submit our ideas about fulfillment of our desires to God, not only for his need to be in control, or to satisfy his sadistic desires, but because we know he loves us and he knows better than we do what is the best for us. And this is true of our goals, what we expect will give us satisfaction, but also (or especially?) about the strategy to achieve such goal. Not in boasting and persuading others about our superiority, but “In repentance and rest you will be saved, [i]n quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isa 30:15) [3] .
  4. Be faithful in what you do! And now we return back to our original story of Saul. The most important part of being content in waiting on God to fulfill our desires is that we are free to stay and persevere in being where God put us already and to be faithful there. And I believe that quite often when we are on our way to find lost donkeys (or souls) of Our Father, we may from time to time meet a seer with a bottle of oil who will turn us to paths we couldn’t even imagine.
  5. Be ready for a sudden change of the path! We should keep our path a bit in the parenthesis, because we never know when God calls us to something overwhelmingly crazily different, from looking for asses to being a king or a queen.

Be it so for all of us! Amen.

[1]After I wrote this sermon, just before leaving to the church I found the actual book in our library, and found to my biggest surprise that actually this story about boy Saul looking for donkeys and finding a kingship is not in the book. I have to probably read it in some other biblical stories collection, although I don’t remember which one. It was too late for me to change the sermon, so I just left it there.
[2]I didn’t have time to mention it in the sermon, but here should be included a brief thought on missing Protestant art. There are Protestants who were great statesman, generals, missionaries, scientists, but there are almost no deeply believing Protestants who would be first class artists (two questionable exceptions being Johann Sebastian Bach and John Milton, but the first did most of his great work for Catholic customers, and Paradise Lost is half way towards tract anyway). Some (including my Cantabrigian pastor) blame missing understanding of life as a sacrifice (i.e., without direct purpose) as a cause of it.
[3]I tried to avoid in this sermon a religious slang, so this somehow meant to include also worship despite our circumstances, but I didn’t know how to say it. After my sermon, other elder of the church stood up and she had on the spot a terrific brief word about thanksgiving and worship (“[T]he Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, […]” It wasn’t exactly most pleasant night in his life, and yet he gave thanks.). Thank you.

Category: faith Tagged: sermon english Bible