‘If I die, then I die!’ Their reference is as casual as ours to bad weather – not the extreme kind of weather that has brought about so much suffering and damage in southern England and Wales in recent weeks and months; not the ‘worst in a lifetime’ storms that have battered our coasts and rivers and beleaguered the local inhabitants; just the ordinary wet, windy, cold, unpleasant, ‘typical of this time of the year (regardless of the actual time of the year)’, everyday vagaries of the British climate. Their references contained less complaint than ours to the run-of-the-mill bad weather we face.
I sat with growing amazement as I listened – aghast at the extremity, the seriousness of what they described and the almost absurd calmness of their descriptions. Even the occasional weeping of some seemed subdued.
I had to check with the leader to ensure that those who were speaking had not been specifically selected because of their extreme experiences. But, this was no specially selected group. The leaders had chosen them at random, which meant that it was a common experience rather than an exceptional one – as common as bad weather, as inevitable as bad weather.
I was at a Brengle Seminar in Bangladesh, and we had asked some of the delegates to share something of their respective spiritual journeys – a kind of This Is My Story period of witnessing and sharing. About half the group had been asked, and part of each afternoon was devoted to listening to these journeys. Common to all the testimonies was great suffering, and, for many, that suffering came through persecution. The suffering was most often described in the context of God’s power and God’s grace – a means to emphasise God’s character rather than their own. I heard tales of life-threatening confrontations, where, but for the intervention of others, serious injury would have been the best possible outcome; of literally starting from scratch in a place where deprivation and need have different connotations to what we know at home; of being disowned by family, emotionally and materially, and losing everyone and everything from the past; of great loneliness despite being surrounded by people, because of rejection and opposition – to the point of having to give birth absolutely alone.
I heard about the healing of God when faced with serious illness and medical opinion had reached its fatal conclusions; the supply of God when even the extremely limited resources dry up; the protection of God when oppression – spiritual, emotional and/or physical – is strong.
I looked about, searching for some reaction from the other delegates as one officer concluded her sharing with Esther-like determination: ‘If I die, I die!’ Although I wondered whether she knew of Esther’s statement, I did not need to wonder that this was an exaggerated, attention-seeking, dramatic but empty declaration – given what she had said in her testimony, it was not! And the reaction from the delegates was not unlike our reactions when someone talks about bad weather – it was shrugged off as inevitable.
Jesus spoke about these extremes in paradoxical terms (Matthew 5: 10-12, paraphrased): ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for being and doing right, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven! Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things against you falsely on my account. Be glad and supremely joyful, for your reward in Heaven is great, for in this same way people persecuted the prophets who were before you.’
The Amplified Bible (v 10) expands ‘blessed’ to read ‘happy and enviably fortunate and spiritually prosperous (in the state in which the born-again child of God enjoys and finds satisfaction in God’s favour and salvation, regardless of his outward conditions)’.
As I observed the Bangladeshi officers over those short days of the Brengle Seminar, I saw something of this paradox in their demeanour and their worship. I believe they know what this means – not merely intellectually, but rather actually, experientially. It’s a much deeper knowledge than can be appropriated through study.
I was humbled as I listened to their commitment… their devotion… their faith. I was challenged about my concept of depth. My knowledge was such that they seemed grateful for my teaching, but I felt myself to be wallowing in the shallows in comparison to their commitment, their devotion and their faith! It brought a challenging perspective to my life, my lifestyle, my ministry and my officership. I find myself wishing that more UKI Salvationists could be similarly challenged – I think it could affect the way we approach our mandate and mission here!