So...my Wednesday advanced class just beat all records at how late our Bible Study went overtime. The class is supposed to end at 9:10. Our previous record was 9:55, with one student continuing to ask questions privately until 10:15. Tonight we set a new record of 10:50.
Usually I do most of the talking. They toss questions at me and I try to explain them all away, with varying levels of success. It's the class where I feel like God takes over my talking most often, or at least the class where I end up spilling my entire heart about God, humanity, or my own place in the middle of all that without a second thought until all the words are already lying out there in a jumbled heap. It's only after they've been said that the touch of embarrassment can come in. That sense of, "Oops. That was the real me in unrestrained form. Is that a good idea in front of my students?"
Tonight, however, I managed to get them talking. I don't remember exactly how, but it had something to do with Buddhism. They started talking about praying for dead people, and how the prayer is connected to the spirit separating from the body. I asked where the power in the prayer came from, and I think we reached the following conclusions:
1) The prayer has no real power. The spirit separating from the body is just a natural process that will happen regardless of whether the dead are prayed for or not.
2) But prayer for the dead is still important. It shows a respect for the dead person, and that respect is deserved merely on the merit that the person is dead--kind of like respect for the completeness of their life.
3) The meaning behind this prayer is really irrelevant to the people in my class. But the action of folding their hands in memory of one who is died is important to them.
4) Even though most people in my class were arguing from a "Japanese" viewpoint, their idea of the afterlife ranges from unconsciousness (preserved in the memories of loved ones), person becoming a kind of God, or person going to Nirvana.
5) None of my students believes that Truth exists. Some make exceptions for science, some do not. It does not bother at least two of them to know about themselves that they view the world in the way that makes them feel the most comfortable.
Probably I have managed to misunderstand something in here...it was an interesting experience...several times I had to make them repeat things or explain them in a different way multiple, multiple times before I understood enough to go on.
But we finally reached this point of just raw honesty with each other. When they're sitting there like, "We can't believe in truth and we can't believe in God." And a couple of the class members said, "We wish we could believe in God." Which is the point that I start weeping inside. And I decided to dare asking a question that I had never asked in this direction before. I often talk to people about "What keeps you from believing in God?", but I asked them tonight, "What would it take for you to believe that God exists? What if God's existence and the existence of suffering are both true realities?"
I never quite got a straight answer out of them. It took a lot of times for me to repeat the question and try to help them understand it. But their answers were interesting when they did answer, one woman's especially. She talked about how she knew that believing in God would change everything...she is a doctor, and she said that the Truth was whatever the patient said it was, but that that would have to change if she believed in God. She's been thinking about the issue of when life begins and abortion recently and she said she knew she might have to deny some patients treatment if she had God to give her something absolute in her life. And I realized something as she was talking, which was that, even though she had said she wanted to believe in God, really she didn't. Not yet. She knew how difficult that switchover would be. I filed that thought away to pray for her later.
I don't know if this class has any idea how much I love them. But in my final outpouring of heart for them today I got ever so slightly teary eyed. Just enough to grab a tissue and try to dab at my eye at sneaky moments when I hoped they wouldn't notice to try to keep it from stinging and getting worse.
After we were done in class, I was at my desk cleaning up, and we must have been talking in English long enough that they forgot to switch back to Japanese while they were in the kitchen cleaning up the teapot and cups. So I get to overhear them saying, "Yeah...I realized today that I really don't understand Buddhism" and then, "Pamela was crying. I think we made her sad because we couldn't understand."
They actually filed out, the four of them who were left, and apologized for making me sad. I was speechless. Honestly, I hadn't felt so sad until they came out and said it like that. But how could I possibly explain? I finally said, "Japan often makes me a little sad. That's why I'm here. That's why I want to stay." Then they were rather speechless. But my wonderful lady doctor said, "But, Pamela, I really like hearing what you have to say."
I know God is reaching to them. I see it in their faces, in their questions, in what grabs their attention. Evangelism is child bearing. As such, it is painful work. I don't mean in terms of conflict. There is no conflict in this class. Just question asking and seeking and trying to understand. But I ache for them.