A few months ago some very good friends, career missionaries in Hong Kong, invited me to a local one-day ‘silent retreat’ on a section of the Song of Songs. Judy, a widely- researched and experienced spiritual director, uses the Song of Songs with insights from missionary pioneer to China, James Hudson Taylor, as penned in his Union and Communion.
Goethe described Song of Songs as a medley, on the one hand extolling the preciousness of human love, on the other suggesting that greater love between God and Israel, or between Christ and his Church. Traditionally the authorship is ascribed to Solomon, the reputed lover and poet. By the way, have you ever heard a sermon on the Song of Songs? I haven’t. And to my shame I’ve never preached one on it in over forty years!
I was a little on edge on the retreat day, not because I’m uncomfortable exploring silence on my own. The retreat was in a group setting with report-back times and that made me feel a tad vulnerable. In the end I was thrilled to have participated. At Judy’s suggestion we didn’t hectically scribble down notes as she introduced themes but rather wait to hear from God about the one or two things he would bring to our attention.
The portion for the day was entitled Contemplation: Let My Beloved Come Into His Garden, based on 4:9-16, ESV.
“You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! Your lips drop nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits … a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.”
My first impression was that I was still very much tied to my South African macho man image. Judy at one point said to the men in the group, ‘You are beautiful!’ I succumbed to a nervous cackle… surely not me! And yet to God my Creator and Saviour? to others who may just see something of Jesus’ nature in me? My wife saw something in me, but that was long ago!
My second impression was that at least, for the last ten years since leaving the organised Church, I was in fact pursuing ‘being’ the Bride, in however small a measure. I had begun to take care of my own garden – through times of silence, meditation, reading and prayer. God knows, having ‘pastored’ traditional churches for decades, how busy I had been trying to take care of the thousands of members’ gardens under my care! When my wife and I commenced a ‘simple house church,’ we made it clear: everyone pushes his/her own wheelbarrow! We could/would no longer do that.
My third impression, by far the most powerful, was of the beauty of the Lord, i.e. the Heavenly Bridegroom, the ‘lover of my soul!’ There, I said it! As I sat in that beautiful, Summerstrand guest house garden, thinking about God and his wondrous love for sinners and for me, I was deeply impacted by Hudson Taylor’s comments given us by Judy [by the way, the first Christian book I ever read as a teen-convert was The Man Who Believed God, the story of Hudson Taylor – it shaped my life then, it still challenges me today]: “There is nothing sweeter to the Bridegroom or to the bride than this hallowed and unhindered communion…
Well it is when our eyes are filled with His beauty and our hearts are occupied with him. In the measure which this is true of us we shall recognize the correlative truth that His great heart is occupied with us… It is in His presence and through His grace that whatever fragrance or beauty may be found in us comes forth. Of Him is its source, through Him as its instrument, and to Him as its end, is all that is gracious and divine. But He Himself is better far than all that His grace works in us.
Herself His garden, she does not forget to tend it, nor keep the vineyards of others while her own is neglected… what she was (by grace) was more important than what she did, and that she did not work in order to earn favour, but being assured of favour, gave her love free scope to show itself in service. The bride knew her relationship to her Lord, and His love to her… Her vineyard was herself, and she desired for her Lord much fruit.” How deeply, deeply I was touched in the garden that Saturday: “His great heart is occupied with us… with me…” Unforgettable!
My fourth and final impression: Judy mentioned, in passing, the metaphor of Beauty and the Beast. She added that our vision needs to be illumined by divine beauty. We need to engage more with beauty than beastliness. For if we are blinded by the beast, we lose sight of the beautiful and all we see is ugly.
The unbelieving world, in the hands of the devil, is in many ways beastly – we see it daily in the media and all around us. I’m a news-junkie, and often that beastliness gets me down. Let me look far more at beauty – the beauty of creation, the beauty of God’s grace at work in humankind, the beauty of poetry, of great music, above all the beauty of God himself. The news-junkie must be transformed, through beauty, to a Jesus-junkie! Thank God for the ‘rediscovery of Jesus’ within and outside of traditional Church forms in these days! Long ago the Psalmist David confidently sang, amid wars and fears: “One thing I have asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4, NRSV). That song is even more beautiful when we grasp that ‘the temple of the LORD’ is not a building in Jerusalem but Christ himself, and that he makes us his temples in the world. The apostle Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthian church, points to the transforming effect of beholding Christ’s face: “But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil (under the old covenant) is taken away… all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image… For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 3:16-18, 4:6; NLT). Man alive!
I confess I always found American Charles Austin Miles’s hymn, In The Garden, too sentimental for my liking. But I tell you what, I can identify with the refrain even if its last line is somewhat presumptuous:
And He walks with me, and he talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
- Paul T. McCain (First Things), on a recent trip to Japan, learned how J.S. Bach’s music is powerfully influencing that most secularised of countries. Listening to Bach’s sublime music, some have been converted, others are thinking deeply about the roots of Christianity. This is true particularly among the Japanese elite and young people, disillusioned by materialism and activism. Apparently the Japanese don’t even have a good word for ‘hope.’ True beauty is powerful.
- I haven’t touched on the ‘beastliness’ of so much masquerading as ‘Christ’s Bride’ today. In 1970 already Francis Schaeffer wrote of her ‘ugliness,’ adultery and apostasy, lovelessness and division. All the more important that I learn to gaze far more often on Christ’s true, magnificent Bride as revealed in the Bible and glimpsed in some of the most unexpected places around the world today!
- Judy Lam is currently working toward her Ph.D with the University of the Free State in the area of Spirituality.