Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sowing With Tears

Psalm 126 (ESV)
A Song of Ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
When our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
"The Lord has done great things for them."
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.

On Friday I was working on the feature article of our April newsletter which will feature the testimonies of several Ethiopian Christians who have faced tremendous persecution since coming to the Lord. The faithfulness in the face of suffering exhibited by Ethiopian Christians never fails to inspire me. This is likely because a number of years ago, Ethiopia was the first country which I opened up for The Voice of the Martyrs. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the family of God there.

Like testimonies of converts in many restricted and hostile nations, their testimonies, while unique in details, often share common themes.

1. They realize their need for Christ and someone leads them to faith in Him.
2. They experience the joy that comes from knowing Christ and often start sharing their faith with others. As a result, they suffer persecution.
3. They begin a life of faithfulness despite opposition and suffering for His sake.

As we read Psalm 126, these same three themes are evident in the lives of the Israelites as they returned from exile in Babylon.

1. When delivered, they were full of joy for the great things that God had done in their lives (verses 1-3).
2. However, upon their return to Judah, they experienced the hardships that came from returning to a land left desolate (verse 4)
3. They begin the hard, even painful and tearful process of living faithfully, trusting God with the results (verse 5,6).

Philip Jenkins in his new book, The New Faces of Christianity, describes how he was discussing this psalm with some West Africans who were from an agricultural society not unlike the biblical one in which this psalm was originally written. They pointed out that the psalm must have been written when times were very hard and food short, a situation which these West Africans could identify with. They pointed out that the people "would have been desperately tempted to eat their seed corn but resisted the temptation because they knew that, if they did that, they would have nothing to eat" (The New Faces of Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2006: 73). Jenkins quotes a traveler to the Middle East in the 1850's, W.M. Thomson, who witnessed this in his observations: "In seasons of great scarcity, the poor peasants part in sorrow with every measure of precious seed cast into the ground. It is like taking bread out of the months of their children; and in such times many bitter tears are actually shed over it" (ibid).

During my travels in Sudan, I saw how in times of desperation, the people sometimes actually did eat their seed grain, leaving them destitute and on the verge of famine in the months that followed when no harvest was taken up. We can criticize them for their short-sightedness but I can only imagine the struggle that a father or mother would face at that time and in such a situation. Knowing that food was in short supply, the decision to take the seed grain and to put it in the ground, not knowing if you will be actually be able to harvest a crop, must seem to be a overwhelming risk. Will the weather cooperate? Will enemies drive you from the land? What about other natural disasters such as locusts, disease, hail, or fire? Any one of these things would render the act of planting not only a complete waste of time and seed but likely guarantee starvation for your family.

The call of Psalm 126:5-6 is to do the right thing, even when it seems to be foolish or a tremendous risk, trusting God for the results. In the book of Malachi, we read of how the exiles were so concerned about getting their own lives set up and their own personal needs met, that they were neglecting to show God the honour that He was due. They were neglecting to give Him his tithe and complained about having to provide burnt offerings. The animals that they did provide were those that were inferior; sick, lame. At the root of the problem was the attitude, "We are too poor. We can't afford to give to God the honour that He is due. We can't afford to obey Him." Malachi's (and the Psalmist's) response is, "You can't afford not to. By not trusting God, you are putting yourself in the position where He will deliberately withhold His blessing from you. Stop living only for the present. Trust God and do what is right, even if it may appear to be far too risky from a strictly human perspective. And watch; God will show Himself faithful."

This is the testimony of many persecuted Christians around the world. When they live faithfully, even when it means taking tremendous risks for the Lord, they experience the resulting joy and blessing. These blessings may not always be material but they are real and they are received with gratitude and praise.

One last thing to remember about sowing seeds and harvesting; it is a never ending process. Every spring, the challenge to trust, despite an uncertain future, looms anew. The life of faith is just that; a life. It is a life of trusting God in a world hostile to Him and His people. Often it is a call to a hard, even painful and tearful, process of living faithfully and trusting God with the results.


Matthew Kratz said...

Your work is so important today in bringing the stories of those who are suffering for their faith. When you can bring your collective observations together in such a succinct way, it is truly a blessing.

May God encourage you in this important work in His kingdom

Glenn Penner said...

Thank you for your kind words, Matthew