The last few days I have spent with my church on a trip to Myanmar, visiting one of our partner churches there and conducting a summer english camp. It was an immensely encouraging and humbling trip, seeing that we serve a living God who indeed is working in this world and to see his glory in his church. I’ve decided to write down for myself two affecting thoughts that have struck me on the trip.
A Veil on Glory
The first thought came through a scene that served for me as a parable. On Sunday, we attended the church service of our partner church here. Of course, the service was conducted in Burmese, a language which I barely understood. And yet I sat there listening to them singing their songs with a passion, making out at times the words for ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’. I wondered then, what glories they must be singing about Jesus, what they could possibly be saying about him? What majestic greatness or tender mercy are they recalling to mind as they sing with such passion? It was as though the glory of God was literally right before me, and yet it was veiled.
The scene served as a parable to me. Surely, the whole of creation reveals the Glory of God! Does not the Psalmist say,
“The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.” (Psalm 65:12-13)
The creation rings with the glory of God! It is all around us, as if we were in a kind of perpetual worship service, and yet we cannot see or hear the lyrics. But ah! What glories might they be singing? And surely it is not just the singing of natural creation, but the apostle says that when we gather in worship every Sunday, we
“come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)
If only we could hear and see these things — we are distracted by the songs we may not like, or the people who might be annoying or our pride that gets in our way, but oh this does not hinder the glory which is veiled from us.
After the service we followed the pastor and some of his congregation to visit a house and attend the death anniversary of a man who was the father of one of our congregants. There I saw what I believed must be one of the most beautiful sights I have laid my eyes on. I saw this girl with down syndrome struggling to sing a hymn in the same language which I did not understand. Perhaps it was the jarring nature of the scene that drew me to it, the sound that she made was to me a coarse grunting and mumbling as she attempted to pronounce the words of the song. I later found out that this girl and her family were relatively recent converts to the church, who cared for and loved them after they found themselves in dire straits. I wonder what God might have heard as she sang. Surely to him it was a voice sweeter than than the chorus of angels and more enchanting and sublime than their music. I imagined that he would break into a smile, beaming as his daughter sang to him. Oh God, open my eyes to see these things all around me!
We had been going through Philippians as part of our morning devotions throughout the trip, but as I read the first chapter again on the plane back, a thought struck me. As Paul reflects on his then incarceration in a Roman prison, writing the letter to the Philippians, he ponders whether he would prefer to die or to live. He notes:
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1:21-26)
Something initially appears strange here. Paul has clearly said that if he dies he will be with Christ, and claims that this is a really great thing. And yet he seems fairly okay with the possibility that he remains to be with the church at Philippi. But surely, there could be nothing better than being with Christ! Indeed this is true, but I am inclined to think with some speculation that to be with the church on earth is pretty comparable with being with Christ in heaven. For Christ is the redeemer who dwells in the presence of his people. Indeed, Paul did not say that ‘for me to live is gain and to die is Christ’ (thought that would be true in a different sense) but that ‘for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ — to live is Christ, to live and to see the church again is Christ, to see the people he has saved and to be among the community of the saints is to be among the people with whom God has promised to dwell with and never forsake — that is Christ. Do we see the church of God in this way?
In my very interactions with those from Singapore and my friends from Myanmar, I felt indeed the glory of Christ with us. These were people from vastly different backgrounds from me, from our team there were those from various countries, life stages, social and educational backgrounds and a frustrating and beloved roommate and team leader; and of course we worked with men and women there with whom we shared even less in common. And yet as I spoke to them, I found a brokenness and softness that I understood and a deep joy that comes from knowing Jesus. I heard of a constant struggle to remain faithful and a burden for the coming of the kingdom and the preaching of the gospel. They felt like my very family. As we all gathered for dinner with our partners and their youth leaders one evening, I remember just feeling such joy as we interacted, truly they were my brothers and sisters and father and mother and children. I don’t remember another trip that I had laughed as much as I did. Who but God can bring such a disparate group together in such a loving way?
A Veil on Suffering
Yet it is surely not only glory that is veiled from our eyes, but sin and suffering as well. The trip opened my eyes to see that beneath the surface there is so much pain in this world. It was not so much the relative poverty that they were in or the rudimentary housing that they had, it was the broken families, the fathers who left their children, the parents who compel their children to go far off to work instead of studying — it was these that struck me. Knowing more about the stories of these children reminded me that beneath their cheeky smiles might be tears that have dried in the sweltering heat. One of my team leaders wept as she spoke to one of the children there who was compelled to go to the city to work at a tender age, but had come for the first day of the camp because he remembered the fun he had the previous year before he needed to return to work. In my conversation with her I was moved by the heart she had for the hurting, and was reminded by her that surely God’s heart is even more tender than that.
This too is veiled from us. It is no longer the case that we do not know of hurting people in the world, the press and the internet have long removed that excuse. But it is that the suffering no longer affects us, we are no longer horrified or shocked we no longer weep for these things. The tears of Jesus here comfort and rebuke us. The story of Lazarus in the gospel of John was preached on Sunday and I was struck again by how Jesus weeps (John 11:35) as he sees the pain of his friends and the destruction wrought by the fall.
Elsewhere I have written about how Christianity is uniquely a religion for sufferers. And yet in Buddhist Burma, Christianity can hardly claim to be the only such religion. Buddhism too was founded to respond to the suffering of the world. And yet how vastly different are their responses towards suffering! For the Buddhist, suffering is the result of believing or desiring that transient things be eternal. The fleetingness and the passing away of things is but natural, and it is only our attachment to them that makes us suffer. Our tears are wrong because death is not wrong. But Christianity teaches us the opposite. As Christ wept before death and the effects of sin, so our tears are right. Our tears are right because death is wrong, because the world is not as it ought be, because sin and pain and all sorts of abuse are a curse that have come upon the world. People are not transient things weeping because they wrongly believe that they are eternal, we are eternal beings that weep because we have now been made fleeting.
As sin and suffering are a violence, so must our response to them be violent. Did not Christ say that the kingdom of God has been coming by violence and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12)? We must violently lay down our lives at the feet of Jesus, to love others and share with them the good news that Jesus loves us so much that he tasted our suffering and died for our sins. He did this so that one day he would wipe away the tears from our eyes. And then we must come before Jesus and sing with the saints:
“Facing a task unfinished
That drives us to our knees
A need that, undiminished
Rebukes our slothful ease
We, who rejoice to know Thee
Renew before Thy throne
The solemn pledge we owe Thee
To go and make Thee known”