“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” — John 12:24
Johan Bojer’s "The Great Hunger (Book III)" tells the story of Peer Holm, a world famous engineer. He became famous and wealthy for building great bridges, railroads and tunnels in many parts of the world. Later, Mr. Holm experienced failure, poverty and sickness. He returned to the little village where he was born with his wife and young daughter. Together they eked out a meager income for the last chapter of his life.
Peer Holm had a neighbor who owned a fierce dog. Peer warned the neighbor that the dog was dangerous, but the old man contemptuously replied, “Hold your tongue, you cursed pauper.” One day Peer Holm came home to find the dog at the throat of his little girl. He tore the dog away but the little girl was already dead.
The sheriff destroyed the dog, and the neighbors were bitter against the animal’s owner who had ignored the warnings. When sowing time came the merchants in the village refused to sell the dead dog’s owner any grain. Neither would the local farmers parcel out their own seed grain to share with the callous old man. Consequently, the man’s fields were plowed but bare. He was unsuccessful in efforts to beg, borrow or buy seed. Whenever he walked down the road, the people of the village sneered at him. Peer Holm found no comfort and was unable to sleep at night for thinking of this neighbor’s pain.
Early one morning he went to his shed and got his last half-bushel of barley. He climbed the fence and sowed his neighbor’s field. By mid-season, the fields themselves told the story. The owner of the vicious dog enjoyed a sturdy stand of lush green barley, while part of Holm’s own field remained bare.
Later he said: "I felt a vast responsibility. (Humanity) must arrive, and be better than the blind powers that order its ways; in the midst of its sorrows it must take heed that the god-like does not die. The spark of eternity was once more aglow in me, and said: Let there be light. ... Therefore I went out and sowed the corn in my enemy’s field, that God might exist."
Reading the story of Peer Holm’s magnificent spirit of forgiveness reminded me of the missionary lives of John and Betty Stam. I finished rereading their story this morning and cried again. Surely their lives exemplified Spurgeon’s words when he said, “Suffering saints are living seeds.”
The Stams' story was one of the great tragedies of the first third of the 20th century. Both John and Betty separately answered the call to missions work in China before they met each other through the China Inland Mission.
In a beautiful tale of shared calling and sacrifice the young workers married and combined their ministries. They began some fruitful efforts and welcomed a tiny daughter into their home in Tsingteh. Then on Dec. 6, 1934, Communist forces attacked the city. John, Betty and three-month-old baby Helen were captured and transported over the mountain of Miaosheo to a house where they were locked in a room. John was bound but Betty sat quietly nursing and caring for their child all night. In the morning, the couple was led out to die. They were stripped of their clothing, ridiculed and paraded up a hillside. The local physician protested the spectacle and was himself taken away to die
The young missionaries were each executed in the presence of the very people they had come to serve. They each died with peace and faith etched on their faces. The Stams had trusted God with their lives, their deaths and even with the unknown future of their orphaned baby daughter. The infant remained undiscovered and untended for more than 30 hours after her parents' death.
How can we humanly explain such grace and forgiveness as that of Peer Holm or John and Betty Stam? Where is there strength for such forgiveness?
The answer is found in the spring and Easter season. We see it illustrated by a rugged cross and a weeping mother at its base. Mary was chosen to be the mother of Christ, I think, more for her strength than any other personal characteristic. She had the strength of faith to love passionately and also to forgive completely. If Mary owned the exclusive rights to that kind of mercy and grace, I’d join the first convent that I passed. However, the Easter story tells us that the grace to live, to forgive, to plant seeds, to become a Peer Holm, a John or Betty Stam, is provided to all of us through the cross of Christ.
Is it any wonder that the birds are singing so sweetly and the flowers are blooming with abandon? Spring is a gift that comes each year. It reminds us that we are the benefactors of grace and mercy. God himself sowed our barren fields, he gave his only son, and made a way of redemption for humanity.
It is turning May and all of nature bursts forth with the beauty of seeds reviving and new life emerging. It may be that as we bask in the blessed beauty of spring that we will be reminded of some seeds that we need to sow in the lives of other individuals. Spring is a fertile time not only for receiving but also for granting forgiveness and pardon, especially when it is undeserved.
Finally in the words of a great American, I quote, “I will not permit any man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” (Booker T. Washington)
Robin Richmond Mason grew up in the Beaverdale community of Whitfield County. She resides with her husband and four children in Paint Lick, Kentucky, and teaches at Eastern Kentucky University. She can be reached via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.