Singing from the Cross

Monument of the Twenty-Six Martyrs by Funakoshi Yasutake, Nagasaki, 1962.

Monument of the Twenty-Six Martyrs in Nagasaki (visited last March)

Four weeks ago I watched Silence: the Martin Scorsese film released last December, based on Shusaku Endo’s historical fiction novel. One hour prior, I finished reading the book.

The story follows two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit missionaries’ journey to Japan in search of their mentor, who has reportedly apostatized amidst intense government persecution. Though few in the US are familiar with the novel, nearly every Japanese person knows about it. Endo is one of Japan’s most famous 20th century novelists, whose stories reflect his Catholic faith.

The movie (like the book,) is controversial. I’ve read over ten responses by Christian authors in the US and Japan. Half highly praised it; half criticized it as demeaning to missionaries, the Japanese, or even Christianity. While I have my opinions, I will save that for another post. What I’d like to share instead, is a personal reflection about the scene that moved me most.

Early in the story, two Japanese Christians are captured and crucified on the beach. The waves of the rising tide beat upon them in rhythm, blow after blow. And as they hang, awaiting the departure of their souls from their wasted bodies, one of them opens his mouth:

参ろうや、参ろうや

パライソの寺に参ろうや

パライソの寺とは申すれど

遠い寺とは申すれど

We’re on our way, we’re on our way

We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise

To the temple of Paradise

To the distant temple

In his greatest moment of suffering, he sang.

What moved me is that this isn’t just a story. Last year I visited the museum in Nagasaki dedicated to the 26 martyrs crucified in 1597. Endo’s trip to this same museum first inspired him to write the novel. I read the testimony of how many of the martyrs sang hymns from their crosses, including one 13-year-old given the name Anthony, who “at the foot of the cross he overcame his biggest temptation–his mother’s tears–and he died singing.”(1)

When I tell people I feel a burden to write congregational music, the response is always positive. “That’s great! I love singing worship songs.” Or perhaps, “Oh I always enjoy the songs we sing before the sermon.”

But I sense that what many are really thinking is, “What a great, supplementary ministry.” Indeed, that’ll be great “before the sermon.” After all, that’s what congregational music is in many churches: the salad before the steak. And honestly, some of us could do without the salad.

I love sermons. I listen to them on Sunday mornings, and on trains when commuting. I even preach them once in a while.

But if tied to a cross with waves crashing upon us, we will probably not quote a sermon outline–yes, even if all three points start with the same letter. Not unless the preaching invades imaginations and takes hearts captive like Babylon seized Jerusalem.

Because that’s what songs do. They fight with two hands–words and music–where many preachers fight with one. They wield swords of poetry that pierce hearts, not just twigs of prose to poke the mind. They spread beyond country borders and denominations like few sermons can. They sneak into your subconscious and lie in wait in the trenches of your memory. So that when you’re tied to a cross–literally or figuratively–you can fight, praise, reassure, and even offer your soul to God.

Why do I want to write songs?

I want to help you drown out the voices of anxiety that wake you in the middle of the night with words of truth. I want to help you tune your heart when your fears shout at you on your Monday morning commute. I want to help you suffer well. I want you to see your entire life as a song, sung to your Maker. I want your last breath to be proclaiming a beautiful truth, set to a beautiful melody.

I hope I die singing. It’s unlikely, as I have a hard enough time singing when I get a minor cold. I forget the lyrics to my own songs. They’re probably not memorable enough yet.

But on that day, I hope I’m resounding with lyrics sweeter than the stench of death, and a melody that could sooth a soul more insane than Saul’s.

(1) Yuuki, Diego, S. J. The Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki. Enderle Book Co., Ltd.

 

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3 Comments

  • Patti Yung says:

    Ohh my, beautiful sharing, Ian. Thank you for sharing your heart’s passion and calling about congregational song writing. Your songs DO raise our faith level and encourages us in our journey with God! I already see it and have personally experienced it in some of the songs you have written thus far. Thank you for writing songs! May the Lord continue to anoint you with the power of His Holy Spirit and His voice and songs penned through you. God bless you!

  • Leo says:

    Very encouraging post. Thanks for sharing

  • Auntie says:

    your calling to inspire others to lift their voice in song to our Wonderful God, whether corporately or privately is a calling so unique, Ian. may the songs He brings call others into overwhelming love and gratitude to our Father, Savior and Holy Spirit and may He graciously lead you into experiencing and knowing the depths of your heart’s cry. love you. Auntie

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