A cool burst of wind turned the falling droplets toward him, christening his face. Looking up momentarily, he drifted off between sleep and waking. His stomach felt queasy on the shifting ship.
But his soul felt numb in gray light between life and death.
He was going home. But there would be no parade. The band wouldn’t play. The people wouldn’t sing. Most folks would probably avert their eyes when passing him for fear of adding to his shame. The great missionary who left Rogersville with a vision from God to convert the Burmese was traveling home a broken, god-forsaken man.
Everything he planted, the soil rejected. He tried to farm but nearly starved. He planted the gospel in the people only to watch a drought suck their faith dry and send them back to their old rituals. The only thing that remained in the soil was the body of his wife and child. Fever and some unknown illness stole her life. All the while he cried out to God, but the heavens were silent.
He sat by his wife and child’s grave for one year. When God refused to kill him as well, he decided to return home from this exile in hell.
Memories of his failure haunted him day and night.
But not today.
He remembered an old Psalm that he taught the people there. Today the words of the song drifted and danced around his half-conscious stare. As the words of the song played over and over in his memory, he began dreaming of another time, another people, another nightmare.
When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream. (vs 1)
The nameless, landless people sat in the darkness of Babylon. Israel ceased to exist. Her children were no longer “children of Israel.” They were exiles. Nameless, faceless people who watched their past burn to the ground. Without a past or a future, they sat and wept.
But the Lord turned with a turning toward them. He called the dead bones back to life. He gave them a name. He gave them back their land. He called a non-existent nation back into existence. And after a 70-year-nightmare, they woke up to a glorious, shimmering dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing. (vs 2)
While their eyes wept, their mouths sounded forth with joyous laughter. And their hearts resounded with singing. As they returned home, “They said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’” And the newborn Israel resounded, “The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad.” (vs 3)
He woke up. And he remembered the faithfulness of the Lord. He remembered how the Lord restored him from the point of death as a child. He remembered the laughter and rejoicing that echoed from house to house throughout the community.
He remembered the dramatic provision the Lord made for him and his wife when they were planning to launch on the missionary trip. As they were saving money for the journey, the community joined in preparations. Strangers even came and blessed them with provision. They went out rejoicing in God’s blessings and looked forward to His continuing blessing.
But then the dry season. Then the failed crop. And then, and then….
His mind drifted back to the song.
Bring back our captivity, O LORD,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears
Shall reap in joy.
He who continually goes forth weeping,
Bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him. (vss. 4-6)
The covenant community now living back in the land, remembered and resounded the song of the captives coming home. But even as they did, they cried out for God to turn a turning toward them yet again.
Crops were failing in a life-sucking drought. They watered the ground with tears crying out for God’s face to look upon them, to look upon the land, to heal the land, to resound His word of joy across the land and beyond.
Their tears of anguish in the land reminded him of his tears sown over the land, the people of the land and his own wife and child. He planted his most valuable treasure in that land.
As he reflected, something turned. Something almost imperceptible turned within him, upon him. Something like the first hint of dawn before the sun appears.
In the middle of this moment, he would not have been able to explain this something. He didn’t fully understand it. Yet in the weeks and months ahead, he would talk about this moment. He would talk about this psalm. He would remember the crop that he planted in Burma. He would ask God to tend that crop and water that crop. He would ask the Lord to bring him back home to that crop.
The almost imperceptible moment awakened his dead heart.
Now he realized that his heart was in Burma. He turned back toward Burma. Or the Lord turned him back toward Burma. In this turning, he sensed the face of God once again. And he asked the Lord to turn a turning toward the people and the land.
He continued gazing across the deck of the ship. The droplets now blossomed into a spring shower. He stood up and lifted up his hands and for a moment remained motionless, resting in the falling rain, resting in the faithfulness of God.