O Educator, be
gracious to thy children: O Educator, Father, Guide of Israel, Son and Father,
both one Lord. Give to us, who follow thy command, to fulfill the likeness of
thy image, and to see, according to our strength, the God who is both a good
God and a Judge who is not harsh. Do thou thyself bestow all things on us who
dwell in thy peace, who have been placed in thy city, who sail the sea of sin
unruffled, that we may be made tranquil and supported by the Holy Spirit, the
unutterable Wisdom, by night and day, unto the perfect day, to sing eternal
thanksgiving to the one only Father and Son, Son and Father, Educator and
Teacher with the Holy Spirit. All things are for the One, in whom are all
things, through whom, being the One, are all things, through whom eternity is,
of whom all men are members, to whom is glory, whose are all things in their
goodness; all things in their beauty; all things in their wisdom; all things in
their justice. To him be glory now and forever. Amen.
The goldfinch is a bird that's common at feeders, well-known and beloved by many. But what you may not know is that this favorite backyard bird has a long history of symbolism in Christian art. This bright, sprightly little bird, especially in its European variety, came to be a reminder of Christ's passion. Before I explain why, here's a little bit of background and a few interesting facts about the goldfinch.
- Goldfinches are widely known in two species, the European Goldfinch in the Old World, and the American Goldfinch in the New. But there are additional species called "goldfinches" beside these two widespread and well-known instances, including Lawrence's Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinch, both in the Americas. In actuality, however, the name is rather arbitrary: the European goldfinch is more closely related to some other Old World finches, and the American goldfinches are closer to the siskins, than either is to the other.
- Goldfinches, like many other members of their wider family of finches, can have some of the most beautiful, complex, and varied song repertoires of the bird world. Finches are also noticeable for the wide adaptation of their bill size and shape, which come customized to many different food sources (and even include some true oddities, like the crossbills, whose bills really do curve and cross at the ends, an adaptation perfect for prying seeds from the depths of pine cones). It is to finches that we owe the scientific legacy of Charles Darwin, who, whether you love him or hate him, has had enormous influence throughout the biological sciences. He was first sparked to consider evolutionary adaptation because of the variation in bills that he saw in Galapagos finches.
- Goldfinches have been prominent inspirations in the history of art even outside of their Christian symbolism. They appear in classic paintings, in folk art (such as the "distelfink" of the Pennsylvania Dutch artistic tradition), and in music. At the bottom of the post, click on the video to listen to Antonio Vivaldi's marvelous concerto for flute and strings, "The Goldfinch" (Opus 10, No. 3).
- One of the group names for goldfinches (in addition to general bird group names like "flock") is a "charm."
In Christian symbolism, goldfinches came to symbolize Christ's Passion--and specifically, the tortures of his crucifixion. Why? Well, most homeowners with backyard bird feeders might be able to connect the dots. The favorite food of goldfinches, far and away, is thistle seed (often called nyjer seed when sold for bird feeders). Thistles, being prickly, are a reminder of the crown of thorns. The scientific names for goldfinches allude to this tradition: the European goldfinch, carduelis, has a name meaning "thistle," and the American goldfinch, tristis, has a name meaning "sorrowful." Additionally, the European goldfinch has a bright red face, calling to mind the blood of Christ. In Renaissance paintings, a goldfinch often appears in scenes of Christ as an infant or toddler (usually being held in Jesus' hand)--a reminder that the Incarnation is inextricably tied to the Crucifixion. Other symbolic associations also occur, such as goldfinches representing endurance or fruitfulness, but the connection with Christ's crown of thorns is the most prominent symbolic meaning with which this bird is endowed.
So when you see those brilliant bursts of gold fluttering around your thistle feeder, let it remind you of the way that Jesus' death has brought forth beauty, grace, and all the golden glories of eternal life.
(Images - Top: "American Goldfinch," by Matthew Burden; Upper inset left: "The Goldfinch," by Carel Fabritius, 1654; Upper inset right: "American Goldfinch," by Bob Hines, US Fish and Wildlife Service, c.1974, public domain; Lower inset left: Pennsylvania Dutch Fraktur Taufschein with Distelfink, 1788; Lower inset right: "Madonna of the Goldfinch," by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c.1760)
For the past decade or so, word has been bubbling up in the Christian missionary community that something extraordinary is happening in the Muslim world. Muslims are turning to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Now, we might expect some such conversions, as the result of ordinary missionary work in Muslim countries (I myself got to know several Muslim-background Christians during my time of mission service in North Africa). But evidence is emerging that the pace of these conversions is accelerating, that whole movements are emerging in which many thousands of people are coming to Christ, and that, in quite a few cases, these are happening through Muslims' encounters with Jesus in dreams and visions.
When I was working in North Africa, I was instructed not to describe myself as a "Christian" when asked. The reason was because that word, "Christian," immediately evoked in the Muslim mind images of American excess, colonial injustice, and crusaders with bloody swords. Rather, I was told to describe myself as "a follower of Isa al-Masih" (the Arabic for "Jesus the Messiah"). That way, Muslims would immediately understand where I placed my faith, and I could describe it in a way that they understood, a way that was compelling for them. Indeed, those Muslims who knew the Qur'an well would be reminded that Isa al-Masih is perhaps the most talked-about, most positive figure in their own scriptures. Although
the Qur'an clearly holds a heretical view of Jesus' claims to divinity,
it nevertheless does refer to Jesus as being endowed with the Holy
Spirit (2:87, 2:252, 5:110), performing miraculous signs (2:87, 2:252,
43:63), born of a virgin (3:47, 19:21-22, 21:92, 66:12), the Messiah
(3:45, 5:75, 9:31), the Word of God (3:45), the bearer of "Good
News"/Gospel (5:46, 5:111, 57:27), dying and rising again (19:32), a sign to all
mankind (23:50), and coming again at the Last Day (43:62) to defeat the
Antichrist. As more and more Muslims are becoming educated and literate, able to read their own scriptures, they are being confronted with the person of Jesus Christ, driven to read more about him in the Gospels, and finding there the true doctrine of the great Redeemer of mankind.
In 2014, missiologist David Garrison released a book, A Wind in the House of Islam, in which he put forward the evidence he had collected to show the beginnings of a massive revival of Christianity in the Muslim world. Muslims were turning to Christ, and not just transplanted Muslims in the Western world; no, it was happening in the heartlands of Islam itself. He researched to see if there were any large-scale conversion movements in history (to qualify, a movement had to have at least 1,000 baptized converts or 100 churches planted). He found that there had been two such Muslim-to-Christian revivals in the 19th century, the first such occasions since the founding of Islam. Then, in the 20th century, there were eleven more. But here's the real showstopper: in the first twelve years of the 21st century, there have been sixty-nine major Muslim-to-Christian people movements within Muslim-majority countries! These sixty-nine movements (35 in Muslim Africa, 15 in the Middle East, and 19 in Muslim Asia) are all ongoing and continuing to increase. This constitutes the greatest movement of Muslims to Jesus in history, by a very long shot, and the pace is accelerating. Global Mapping International recorded the growth rates of evangelical Christianity around the world, and found that the fastest growth of all was happening in some surprising places: 7 of the top 10 evangelical growth rates were being reported from Muslim countries! The top two fastest growing evangelical Christian communities in the world are in Iran (19.6% annual growth) and Afghanistan (16.7%), which is astounding considering that the global evangelical growth rate of 2.6% is already just about the fastest global growth rate of almost any religious community, and more than double the world population growth rate of 1.2%. In the vast majority of Muslim countries, the growth of the evangelical church outpaces the country's population growth (the only exceptions being Turkey, Niger, and Guinea). These statistics only relate to numbers of evangelical Christians, not because other forms of Christianity are not also being used by God in this revival, but simply because evangelicalism appears to be the fastest growing form. There are also many other Christian presences in most of these nations, some of which go back all the way to the apostolic age itself (the Assyrian Church of the East, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, the Coptic Church, etc.), and they continue to bear faithful witness to the name of Jesus Christ in the middle of the Muslim world.
So how is all this happening? Well, there are a few missiological factors behind these revivals. Christian missionaries have been laboring in these lands, alongside the witness of ancient Christian communities present there, for many decades now. There are far more media presentations of the Gospel available to Muslims now than ever before, through the Internet and radio and satellite TV. But the most explosive growth appears to be coming from Christian evangelists who hail from these new communities of Muslim-background believers. Some of these believing communities in Isa al-Masih are creating new styles of Christian worship based on their cultural heritage as Arabs and Egyptians and Persians, and this is having greater effectiveness than Western missionaries have ever been able to achieve. But there's more than just missionary tactics going on here. I recall hearing a testimony once from a Muslim-background believer from Kyrgyzstan. "Christianity will triumph over Islam in the end," she said confidently, "because Christianity has love." Indeed, Muslims are coming to faith in Christ because of the love displayed among the Body of Christ, and never more clearly than when they love their enemies in the midst of great suffering, as many are having to do in the present Middle East.
Beyond just the statistics, though, there's something else going on. If you know any Christian worker in the Middle East, ask them if they've met someone who has encountered Jesus Christ in a dream or vision. Chances are, they'll say yes. Over and over, we're hearing many reports of Muslims coming to faith in Jesus Christ because he has appeared to them in a dream or a vision. This is a wildly rare means of conversion in the Western world, but it is popping up so frequently in Muslim countries that it's nearly impossible to come to any conclusion other than that Christ himself has decided that it is time to bring the Muslims into his family of believers. Even secular news agencies are noting that Muslim conversions to Christianity are happening in this peculiarly dramatic way. There are entire books being filled with the anecdotal evidence for this means of conversion, coming from some of the most reputable agencies and publishers (see the links at the bottom of the post for some recommended resources). God is on the move, and Isa al-Masih is calling Muslims to himself.
God is moving in mighty ways in the Muslim world. That doesn't mean that the work is over, of course. Though the growth rates for these movements are phenomenal, they still represent only tiny slivers of their countries' populations. The vast majority of the Muslim world is still without access to a viable Christian witness, and, in many cases, is even still ignorant of its own religion's very high view of Isa al-Masih. So while the hope is that the news of these movements will be an encouragement, we also want to inspire Christians to get involved with the continuing work of God in this area. One of the most important ways you can do that is simply by praying for the Muslim world. This Saturday marks the beginning of one of the largest Christian prayer-movements in the world, the 30 Days of Prayer. Coinciding with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, over a million Christians band together to pray for Muslims every single day. You can follow along with the program here if you like. At the bottom of the post you'll find links to some other resources, if you want more information on this incredible move of God. But first, take a look at this video: a Christian worship service in Egypt, and let it inspire you with a vision of what God is doing in heartlands of Islam:
(Images - Top: "Jesus Walks on the Water," image from an Arabic Bible, by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, 1684; Upper inset left: the name of Jesus in Arabic calligraphy, by Ibrahim Ebi, shared under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; Upper inset right: photo from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, by Andrew Shiva, shared under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license; Middle inset left: "An Arab Sage," by Rudolf Ernst, 1854-1932; Middle inset right: First page of the Gospel of Mark from an Arabic Bible, by by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, 1684; Lower inset left: illuminated folio from a Qur'an, 16th century)
I've taken a few days off this week to do some birdwatching during the spring migration season, so haven't had time to compose a new set of verses for my Evangeliad. In its place, I offer a poem which is not mine, but which happens to be one of my favorites: the bit of poesy that G. K. Chesterton wrote as a dedication to preface his wild and wonderful novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. I've chosen to exclude a few of the original stanzas, but you can follow this link if you'd like to read the entire poem. Enjoy!
To Edmund Clerihew Bentley
A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather, Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together. Science announced nonentity and art admired decay; The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay; Round us in antic order their crippled vices came-- Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame... Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung; The world was very old indeed when you and I were young. They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named: Men were ashamed of honor; but we were not ashamed. Weak if we were and foolish, not thus we failed, not thus; When that black Baal blocked the heavens he had no hymns from us. Children we were--our forts of sand were even as weak as we, High as they went we piled them up to break that bitter sea... But we were young; we lived to see God break their bitter charms, God and the good Republic come riding back in arms. We have seen the City of Mansoul, even as it rocked, relieved-- Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind, believed. This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells, And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells-- Of what colossal gods of shame could cow men and yet crash, Of what huge devils hid the stars, yet fell at a pistol flash... Between us, by the peace of God, such things can now be told; Yes, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old. We have found common things at last, and marriage and a creed, And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.
“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader
of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world
with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus
came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as
ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not
because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed
us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all
- Henri Nouwen, 20th-century Roman Catholic priest, from his book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership
(Painting: "The Greek Priest," by Francois-Andre Vincent, 1782)