Summary: Everybody wants to be a winner and be on the winning team. John the baptizer was afraid that he was mistaken about Jesus because he saw him headed toward a cross. We are still a lot like John. Following Jesus is often not about winning.

It’s hard to be sure when you are in pain

It’s easy to be confident when things are going well – when you are young, strong – LeBron James for instance, went on TV and had a whole show just to say that he was going to the Miami Heat. Look at me, look how confident I am. This is going to be great.

Sometimes college students can feel that way – so confident – straight A’s. Professors putting little smiley faces and “Great Job” notes on your papers. This is going to be easy.

But LeBron and his boys have been losing as many games as they have been winning so far, and some of our best college graduates are still working at target or McDonalds these days and it’s hard to pay off $60,000 in debts on a McDonald’s salary.

It’s worse when you are in physical pain. I’m starting to learn that these days. Some of my friends have been in constant pain for years. How do they not become bitter? How do they live in faith?

History records many great people who have spent time in jail. Jail has its own kinds of pain – sometimes physical from other prisoners or the guards, and sometimes emotional as you realize that you cannot do your work, and the things you have built are crumbling without your attention, and sometimes relational as you can’t reach or be reached by your loved ones.

Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, John the Baptist and Jesus all knew the overwhelming nature of this kind of pain. Even Jesus on the cross, with its humiliation, agony, and futility had his time of overwhelming doubt and pain – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Now me, I live in a nice warm house. I sleep on a comfortable bed. I have people who like me, some even love me. I don’t have guards who terrorize me. I don’t have a large government system that opposes me. I don’t have bars that keep me from seeing the sun. It’s easy for people like me to have faith.

But I can see why John the Baptist would have to ask the question. Three years or so earlier, John had been a big shot preacher, now he was in prison. He had crowds, he had disciples. People had asked his opinions about matters of faith – now he had jailers who could do anything to him they wanted and he had to ask them if he could go to the bathroom. Three years earlier he had warned soldiers and rabbi’s about the day of the Lord’s judgment. Now he wondered about Herod’s judgment of him. Three years before – he had been so sure that Jesus was the Messiah – God had told him that the one on whom the Spirit fell like a dove from heaven – that one would be the Messiah – and John had baptized his cousin Jesus and seen the dove come and stay on him. John had heard the voice from heaven say, “This is my beloved son.” John knew back then. But here in this dark, damp, dirty jail cell it was hard to know. He had to ask.

For many years I have been haunted by Endo Shusaku’s story called “Silence”. It is so far from my nice warm house with its comfortable couch, big screened TV and labor saving remote control that I sometimes forget about Endo for months at a time. But then he’ll come back to me in a dream and I am as haunted as I ever was.

“"Silence" follows a Portuguese priest, Rodrigues, on a dangerous mission to Japan. Word has filtered back to Jesuit headquarters that the most famous missionary in Japan, Father Ferreira, has apostatized – that is he admitted publicly that he did not believe in Jesus. Rodrigues, who studied under Father Ferreira in seminary, cannot believe it possible that the great man would have renounced the faith after 20 years of courageous service. He sets sail to find Ferreira, knowing that he will likely not return alive.

Rodrigues survives extreme hardship to reach Japan, and upon arrival he hears the confessions of secret Christians (members of the fledgling Kakure church) who have not seen a priest in years. One of these Christians, Kichijiro, a despicable, cunning fisherman, turns in Rodrigues to the shogun for a reward.

Rodrigues holds fast to his faith under personal torture. He even refuses to recant when faced with an unbearable moral situation. Groups of Christians are led to him. If he steps on the fumie – a disk with the face of Jesus on it, he is told, those Christians will be set free. He refuses, and they are taken away and killed before his eyes. "He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him." Still, no matter what barbarous methods of torture the shoguns use, Rodrigues will not renounce his faith.

As the title intimates, the theme of silence pervades the novel. Over 100 times Rodrigues sees the haunting face of Jesus, a face he loves and serves; but the face never speaks. It remains silent when the priest is chained to a tree to watch the Christians die, silent when he asks for guidance on whether to commit the fumie to set them free, and silent when he prays in his cell at night.

One night Rodrigues hears a sound like snoring. The sound is actually of people moaning. It comes from Christians hanging upside down over pits, their ears slit so that blood will drip and they will die a slow, agonizing death. These, too, can be set free, if Rodrigues will only step on the fumie. Rodrigues has been warned about this torture by Ferreira, who visited him in his cell. To his horror, he learned from that visit that the great missionary Ferreira had indeed stepped on the fumie, after just five hours of hanging in the pit. Ferreira urged Rodrigues, too, to step on the fumie. It is just a symbol, an external act. He need not really mean it. It will save so many lives...

Endo later complained that Silence was misinterpreted because of its title. "People assume that God was silent," he said, when in fact God does speak in the novel. Here is the decisive scene when silence is broken, at the very moment when Rodrigues is contemplating the fumie:

"It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?" The interpreter urges him on excitedly. "Only go through with the exterior form of trampling."

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then – only then – suddenly then the Christ in fumie speaks to the priest: "Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men