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July 13, 2013

grey and a heart prepared

The Europe I visited last November was grey. (That's "gray", if you speak American). There was drizzle in Berlin, a chilly stillness over the nearly-naked Black Forest, and heavy cloud cover at the bottom of the Alps.

Prague, too, fell under the dreary feeling of November. The Czech culture and the city charmed me, in spite of the cool weather, but the most intriguing part of our visit were our hosts, who gave us insights beyond what a typical tour guide could give. In the middle of a dark city, here were people with whom we could talk about holiness or hospitality or Mark Driscoll. So, talk we did, even late at night when our bodies were weary from weeks in transit.

In those short days, our new friends described their own people, the Czechs, as a people beset with suspicions and doubting after communism ate their collective soul. (Their mother was raised in an era when there was only one style of shoes available for each gender. Needing ladies' shoes? "What size?" was the only question the vendor need ask.) And communism was only the most recent in a series of tyrannical rulers who stole freedom and vitality from this small region. Now, neighbours hardly talk to neighbours; gambling is a national pastime; and God is, in popular opinion, non-existent.

You can hardly blame them for being a bit cagey, after all they've been through. But it makes you sad anyway, because between the sour cabbage and polished music halls and stone castles, there is a dark void.

One of our hosts shares truth with university students; it is her job, her life. "How is it?" I asked her. Her reply was, "I have never seen a person turn from lies to truth here. We don't even know what it would look like. We pray. We hope. But we have never seen...." Her sister added, "They call this a graveyard." The conversation was solemn. And Europe was grey, with spots of sunshine and light. For me, Europe is eternally stuck in November, until I see it in the summer sun.

Later I commented to my travelling partner at the sadness in our new friend's statement. "She's never seen one person be transformed?" I did not consider it a fault of hers; I was simply grieved, I knew some days must be discouraging and dark. Then my friend, who was from Canada (not from post-communist Eastern Europe) silenced me, "But Julie, neither have I, really. I mean, kids at camp. But who else?"And I had to recognize the truth in her response—how many personal friends or peers have we seen undergo that total transformation, that rebirth? Maybe it's not just Prague that is grey and damp and soul-dead.

I devour stories of exodus and moving into Canaan, especially when day-to-day life seems to provide few of such stories. I've decided that such accounts should be a regular part of my reading (and that reading should be a regular routine of my living). Especially when some days we feel as grasshoppers surrounded by giants, like riff raff that wants to enter the Promised Land but can't work up the courage because we've got our eyes on ourselves. The only way we keep going is by calling to mind the God behind the miracles that happened thus far, behind our personal plagues that ejected us from Egypt, our individual Red Sea openings and pillars of cloud that led us here. And I keep going by reading stories, like Paul and Rosaria and lately, Star, to remind me that transformation really does happen.

I was asked to review Plowed Under, an old book of Amy Charmichael's that had been out of print until recently. Ever since I read Elliot's account of Amy's life, I have wanted to read more of Amy's own writings, and CLC sent me a copy of Plowed Under so that I could do so. Plowed Under is basically the story of Star: Amy's contact, then daughter, then friend. A child of India, then a child of God. And it is a story of the kind I find encouraging.

Amy writes in her typical flowery style, her texts interspersed with quotations from here and there and word pictures of India in the early 1900's or late 1800's. To be honest, her style of writing is a bit hard to follow sometimes, and I would recommend reading an overview of Amy's life and work, such as Elliot's book A Chance to Die, to give context to smaller stories, like Plowed Under.  Even a short online summary of Amy's life might give you enough context to better understand this short story recorded by Amy.

I also recommend the background reading because so much of Star's story was built upon groundwork that was laid before the book begins. Amy's original readers certainly knew more of her story than most of us would. Amy quotes Josephine Butler who says, “In order to produce a movement of a vital, spiritual nature someone must suffer. Someone must go through sore travail of soul before a living movement, outwardly visible, can be born.” So there was suffering and sacrifice in the life of Amy and others, that Star might know and grow in life. When Amy speaks of the difficulty that some early friends faced, she says, "That track has been followed by many. But few know what it cost to blaze the trail."

But back to Star, of Plowed Under: from a very young age, she questioned the system in which she was being raised.
"Who of all the gods was the God of gods, the Sovereign God, Creator? That had been the first question that she had brought to her father. Was it the [god] whose ashes she rubbed on her forehead every morning after bathing? There were so many gods, she grew puzzled as she counted them all. Who was the greatest?"
She would pray and wonder, but no one she knew could tell her about Most High. Then, when still a child, she heard Amy and her team speaking near a well. A man who knew transformation was saying, "There is a living God: He turned me, a lion, into a lamb.” It was the first full ray of lightin verbal formto hit her soul. That phrase answered questions she had been asking nearly since she was old enough to speak. She began to pray in earnest, for now she knew He did exist, and that those people by the well could tell her about Him.

In her ventures, Amy always asked for "souls prepared", but the evening after the well incident, she knew nothing of what was happening in Star. That night, she lay in her tent discouraged that there had been no response to their message. Star lay in her home, not wanting to sleep, she wanted to talk to the "living God". Only later did Amy discover that while she was feeling like a little David before Goliath, the living God was working beyond what she could see. She wrote, "I had often wondered how it was that this child, who had never heard before, was so ready to understand. We were to see that miracle of miracles, an immediate response to the call...."

So, Plowed Under is the story of that prepared and transformed heart. Of Star's coming, and of the struggles she endured to live counter-culturally in nearly every way. Of her undying determination, which to me seems evidence of the heart the Father prepared in her for years before Amy arrived. Of persecution of her and her friends and family, in the form of emotional wrangling, cayenne pepper to the eyes, andthough no one would admit to itpoison. Of pleading, that if nothing else, please be "not be this kind of Chr!stian, but the harmless kind." Not the "plowed under" or surrendered kind, but the nominal kind of which their region and even their family had a few. But Star was strong.

Amy speaks also of the joys and difficulties of spiritual parenting. Of wanting to keep "her child" Star from harm and trouble, of wanting to keep her close by her side. Amy eventually learned that "the love of God is brave." It allows and even pushes his children into less-than-dreamy circumstances, that they may learn the deeper parts of his heart. And so Amy speaks of her experience of learning to let her child go. "Ours is a God who delivers, not from the hour of trial, but out of it, out of its power; and in the bearing up under it, not in the sliding out from beneath it, there is strength and victory."

Plowed Under truly an encouraging story, a challenging story. Any story of Amy's is.

I thought it might be helpful to summarize a few principles for people who scatter seed and carry lit lanterns, principles gathered from Plowed Under:
  • The Father prepares hearts. We can ask Him to be led to those hearts. He is sovereign.
  • When we are most discouraged, thinking that light is not falling on any hearts, remember Star and Amy on the night Star first heard. He is omniscient, we are not. He is working.
  • Often people come "not in crowds..but one by one." Let's not be distracted by where the crowds are, but by where the truth is. He loves and draws individuals.
  • Darkness does not let go without a fight. Persecution can be expected. "When man or woman, boy or girl dares to break through the opposing powers...and openly follow...something inevitably and often immediately happens, as though to fling that life on the ground and stamp it underfoot. It is usually illness, or accident, something that looks like the hand of the avenging god." And yet, "He Himself is our Peace.""Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world."
  • We need to be prayerful, and in so doing, learn to see things from an eternal perspective.
    "We think in terms of time: God thinks in terms of eternity. We see the near end of the thread on which are strung our moments, minutes, hours, days, like pearls on a string; the other end is out of view, and yet the thread is one, indivisible. We call the near end time, and the far end eternity, as though somewhere the thread broke (at death perhaps). But it is not so. We are living in eternity now."
That is a review of the story and the lessons of Plowed Under.

I do not know if in eternity we will have rainy days or overcast, grey skies. But I've seen somber clouds in North America, South America, Europe...and today, in Asia, where rain streaks the 20-metre-high glass windows of the restaurant in which I am sitting. Outside the traffic keeps its usual pace. Crows make paths across the grey sky. Motorbikes jostle next to pedal bikes. Cars throw up waves of brownish water at pedestrians. The temple across the street has closed its gates; perhaps in the afternoons people do not need to pray, at least when it's raining. It is monsoon and our little corner of Asia is must be many corners of the earth, though I am no meteorologist.

So, perhaps it is fitting to end this post with the poem with which Amy begins and ends Plowed Under:
"Come ill, come well, the cross, the crown,
The rainbow or the thunder—
I fling my soul and body down
For God to plow them under.

And this, this only, is the way of joy."
 A joy that overtakes the grey.


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