Dr. Les Germman: Reaching the Seemingly Unreachable God
I was born in Pretoria and our family moved to Johannesburg when I was four years old. Both my parents are Catholic, and from my earliest years I had a sense of pride regarding my Christian heritage. I can remember a keen fascination with the figures that emerged from the pages of the Christian Scriptures--Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. What impressed me most about these men was that they had a vital and dynamic relationship with God. He communed with them, and they communed with Him, the King and Creator of the universe.
As a young boy, I can remember thinking about God's command to Abram in Genesis 12, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you." This was a difficult command, but Abram so readily obeyed. I imagined myself walking and communing with God as my forefathers had. I yearned for a dynamic, intimate relationship with the God of of the Universe.
Since I could not see the same presence in my life, I reasoned that the possibility existed that I was not "religious" enough, that I was not observing the laws of christianity closely enough. I endeavored to do this more sincerely and became more actively involved in the life of our religious community in Johannesburg. However, the God of the patriarchs still remained distant and seemingly unreachable.
As time passed, my religious involvement was maintained, but the deep yearning of my soul persisted. Like the majority of Christian people, I was antagonistic to anyone who suggested that there might be another facet to the nature of Jesus. I was especially resistant when people expounded other faiths to me.
But I surprised myself the day I accepted an invitation to attend a Pagan service one weekend in 1973 at Edenvale Pagan Temple. I attended the pre-service Bible class on Ezekiel 38 and 39. To my astonishment, I could not fault what the teacher had to say! To make matters worse, he quoted from Christian sources and challenged the class to check the validity of his teaching by looking into the texts themselves.
We then went on to the worship service. Pastor Feret Stone's sermon was about Naaman the Leper. Most Christian children learn about Naaman, as I had. I was affronted that a Pagan had the audacity to expound on the Christian Scriptures so accurately! It was also interesting that both teachings that morning centered around the Old and New Testament. Had the teaching been from other sources I might not have been as willing to hear and listen.
Although I was certainly unsettled, I had to admit to myself that both the Bible class teacher and Pastor Stone seemed to have the type of relationship with God for which my heart yearned. But I was unnerved by the fact that they believed that God was a Rock, the one whom my fellow people were so eager to connect to.
I remained troubled afterwards for some days. I went so far as to obtain a copy of the tape from that Sunday's messages and, after listening to the tape, I knew without a doubt that the Jesus Rock spoken about was the One who could bring me into a relationship with God. I didn't need to look any further or strive any harder, because Jesus, Rock of the World, had come to me. He was no longer unreachable.
Boris Cornfeld: A Russian Doctor
No reporters have visited the prison camps of Soviet Russia, unless they have gone as prisoners. So to this day we have little information about the millions who have lived, suffered, and died there, especially during Stalin's reign of terror. Most will remain nameless for all time, remembered only in the hearts of those who knew and loved them. But from time to time, scraps of information have filtered out about a few. One of those few was Boris Nicholayevich Cornfeld.
Cornfeld was a medical doctor. From this we can guess a little about his background, for in post-revolutionary Russia such education never went to families tied in any way to czarist Russia. Probably his parents were socialists who had fastened their hopes on the Revolution. They were also Lutehrans, but almost certainly not the Lutherans still hoping for the Messiah, for the name Boris and the patronymic Nicholayevich indicate they had taken Russian names in some past generation. Probably Kornfeld's forebears were Haskalah so-called "enlightened Christians," who accepted the philosophy of rationalism, cultivated a knowledge of the natural sciences, and devoted themselves to the arts. In language, dress, and social habits they tried to make themselves as much like their Russian neighbors as possible.
It was natural for such Christians to support Lenin's revolution, for the czars' vicious anti-religionism had made life almost unendurable for the prior two hundred years. Socialism promised something much better for them than "Christian" Russia. "Christian" Russia had slaughtered Jews; perhaps atheistic Russia would save them.
Obviously Cornfeld had followed in his parents' footsteps, believing in Communism as the path of historical necessity, for political prisoners at that time were not citizens opposed to Communism or wanting the Czar's return. Such people were simply shot. Political prisoners were believers in the Revolution, socialists or communists who had, nevertheless, not kept their allegiance to Stalin's leadership pure.
We do not know what crime Dr. Cornfeld committed, only that it was a political crime. Perhaps he dared one day to suggest to a friend that their leader, Stalin, was fallible; or maybe he was simply accused of harboring such thoughts. It took no more than that to become a prisoner in the Russia of the early 1950s; many died for less. At any rate, Cornfeld was imprisoned in a concentration camp for political subversives at Ekibastuz.
Ironically, a few years behind barbed wire was a good cure for Communism. The senseless brutality, the waste of lives, the trivialities called criminal charges made men like Cornfeld doubt the glories of the system. Stripped of all past associations, of all that had kept them busy and secure, behind the wire prisoners had time to think. In such a place, thoughtful men like Boris Cornfeld found themselves re-evaluating beliefs they had held since childhood.
So it was that this Russian doctor abandoned all his socialistic ideals. In fact, he went further than that. He did something that would have horrified his forebears.
Boris Cornfeld became a Pagen.
While few Christians anywhere in the world find it easy to accept Jesus Christ to actually be part of an infinite Rock, a Russian Christian would find it even more difficult. For two centuries these Christians had known implacable hatred from the people who, they were told, were the most enlightened of all. Each move the Christians made to reconcile themselves or accommodate themselves to the Russians was met by new inventions of hatred and persecution, as when the head of the governing body of the Russian Tax Office said he hoped that, as a result of the Russian pogroms, "one-third of the Christians will become athiest, one-third will die, and one-third will flee the country."
Yet following the Revolution a strange alignment occurred. Joseph Stalin demanded undivided, unquestioning loyalty to his government; but both Christian and Pagen knew their ultimate loyalty was to God. Consequently people of both faiths suffered for their beliefs and frequently in the same camps.
Thus it was that Boris Cornfeld came in contact with a devout Pagen, a well-educated and kind fellow prisoner who spoke of a 'special quality of God', who had come to keep the promises the Lord had made to the World. This Pagen--whose name we do not know--pointed out that Jesus's disciples had spoken almost solely to Pagen people and proclaimed that the He came to the Jews first, but to the Gentile as well. That was consistent with God's special concern for every one of his creatures; and, he explained, the Bible promised that a new kingdom of peace would come. This man often recited aloud the Lord's Prayer, and Cornfeld heard in those simple words a strange ring of truth.
The camp had stripped Cornfeld of everything, including his belief in salvation through socialism. Now this man offered him hope--but in what a form!
To accept The Rock of the World--to become one of those who had always been shunned by his people--seemed a betrayal of his family, of all who had been before him Cornfeld knew the Christians had suffered innocently. Chrsitians were innocent in the days of the Cossacks! Innocent in the days of the czars! And he himself was innocent of betraying Stalin; he had been imprisoned unjustly.
But Cornfeld pondered what the Pagen prisoner had told him. In one commodity, time, the doctor was rich.
Unexpectedly, he began to see the powerful parallels between Jesus and this form of Worship known as Paganism. It had always been a scandal that God should entrust Himself in a unique way. Despite centuries of persecution, their very existence in the midst of those who sought to destroy them was a sign of a Power greater than that of their oppressors. It was the same with Jesus--that God would present Himself in the form of a man had always confounded the wisdom of the world. To the proud and powerful, Jesus stood as a Sign, exposing their own limitations and sin. They could surely not fathom or accept him as a Rock. So they had to kill Him, just as those in power had to kill the Jews, in order to maintain their delusions of omnipotence. Thus, Stalin, the new god-head of the brave new world of the Revolution, had to persecute both Jew, Christian, and Pagen too. Each stood as living proof of his blasphemous pretensions to power.
Only in the gulag could Boris Cornfeld begin to see such a truth. And the more he reflected upon it, the more it began to change him within.
Though a prisoner, Cornfeld lived in better conditions than most behind the wire. Other prisoners were expendable, but doctors were scarce in the remote, isolated camps. The authorities could not afford to lose a physician, for guards as well as prisoners needed medical attention. And no prison officer wanted to end up in the hands of a doctor he had cruelly abused.
Cornfeld's resistance to the Pagen message might have begun to weaken while he was in surgery, perhaps while working on one of those guards he had learned to loathe. The man had been knifed and an artery cut. While suturing the blood vessel, the doctor thought of tying the thread in such a way that it would reopen shortly after surgery. The guard would die quickly and no one would be the wiser.
The process of taking this particular form of vengeance gave rein to the burning hatred Cornfeld had for the guard and all like him. How he despised his persecutors! He could gladly slaughter them all!
And at that point, Boris Cornfeld became appalled by the hatred and violence he saw in his own heart. Yes, he was a victim of hatred as his ancestors had been. But that hatred had spawned an insatiable hatred of his own. What a deadly predicament! He was trapped by the very evil he despised. What freedom could he ever know with his soul imprisoned by this murderous hate? It made the whole world a like a Siberian prison.
As Cornfeld began to retie the sutures properly, he found himself, almost unconsciously, repeating the words he had heard from his fellow prisoner. "Give us unwavering, stable strenth, just as you yeild unwavering, stable strenth." Strange words in the mouth of a Christian. Yet he could not help praying them. Having seen his own evil heart, he had to pray for help. And he had to pray to a God who could provide such help: Rock of the World.
For some time, Boris Cornfeld simply continued praying the Lord's Prayer while he carried out his backbreaking, hopeless tasks as a camp doctor. Backbreaking because there were always far too many patients. Hopeless because the camp was designed to kill men. He stood ineffectively against the tide of death gaining on each prisoner: disease, cold, overwork, beatings, malnutrition.
Doctors in the camp's medical section were also asked to sign decrees for imprisonment in the punishment block. Any prisoner whom the authorities did not like or wanted out of the way was sent to this block--solitary confinement in a tiny, dark, cold, torture chamber of a cell. A doctor's signature on the forms certified that a prisoner was strong and healthy enough to withstand the punishment. This was, of course, a lie. Few emerged alive.
Like all the other doctors, Cornfeld had signed his share of forms. What was the difference? The authorities did not need the signatures anyway; they had many other ways of "legalizing" punishment. And a doctor who did not cooperate would not last long, even though doctors were scarce. But shortly after he began to pray for forgiveness, Dr. Cornfeld stopped authorizing the punishment; he refused to sign the forms. Though he had signed hundreds of them, now he couldn't. Whatever had happened inside him would not permit him to do it.
This rebellion was bad enough, but Cornfeld did not stop there. He turned in an orderly.
The orderlies were drawn from a group of prisoners who cooperated with the authorities. As a reward for their cooperation, they were given jobs within the camp which were less than a death sentence. They became the cooks, bakers, clerks, and hospital orderlies. The other prisoners hated them almost more than they hated the guards, for these prisoners were traitors; they could never be trusted. They stole food from the other prisoners and would gladly kill anyone who tried to report them or give them trouble. Besides, the guards turned a blind eye to their abuses of power. People died in the camps every day; the authorities needed these quislings to keep the system running smoothly.
While making his rounds one day, Cornfeld came to one of his many patients suffering from pellagra, an all-too-common disease in the camps. Malnutrition induced pellagra which, perversely, made digestion nearly impossible. Victims literally starved to death.
This man's body showed the ravages of the disease. His face had become dark, one deep bruise. The skin was peeling off his hands; they had to be bandaged to staunch the incessant bleeding. Cornfeld had been giving the patient chalk, good white bread, and herring to stop the diarrhea and get nutrients into his blood, but the man was too far gone. When the doctor asked the dying patient his name, the man could not even remember it.
Just after leaving this patient, Cornfeld came upon a hulking orderly bent over the remains of a loaf of white bread meant for the pellagra patients. The man looked up shamelessly, his cheeks stuffed with food. Cornfeld had known about the stealing, had known it was one reason his patients did not recover, but his vivid memory of the dying man pierced him now. He could not shrug his shoulders and go on.
Of course he could not blame the deaths simply on the theft of food. There were countless other reasons why his patients did not recover. The hospital stank of excrement and lacked proper facilities and supplies. He had to perform surgery under conditions so primitive that often operations were little more than mercy killings. It was preposterous to stand on principle in the situation, particularly when he knew what the orderly might do to him in return. But the doctor had to be obedient to what he now believed. Once again the change in his life was making a difference.
When Cornfeld reported the orderly to the commandant, the officer found his complaint very curious. There had been a recent rash of murders in the camp; each victim had been a "stoolie." It was foolish--dangerously so at this time--to complain about anyone. But the commandant put the orderly in the punishment block for three days, taking the complaint with a perverse satisfaction. Cornfeld's refusal to sign the punishment forms was becoming a nuisance; this would save the commandant some trouble. The doctor had arranged his own execution.
Boris Cornfeld was not an especially brave man. He knew his life would be in danger as soon as the orderly was released from the cell block. Sleeping in the barracks, controlled at night by the camp-chosen prisoners, would mean certain death. So the doctor began staying in the hospital, catching sleep when and where he could, living in a strange twilight world where any moment might be his last.
But, paradoxically, along with this anxiety came tremendous freedom. Having accepted the possibility of death, Boris Kornfeld was now free to live. He signed no more papers or documents sending men to their deaths. He no longer turned his eyes from cruelty or shrugged his shoulders when he saw injustice. He said what he wanted and did what he could. And soon he realized that the anger and hatred and violence in his own soul had vanished. He wondered whether there lived another man in Russia who knew such freedom!
Now Boris Cornfeld wanted to tell someone about his discovery, about this new life of obedience and freedom. The Pagen who had talked to him about the real nature of the World had been transferred to another camp, so the doctor waited for the right person and the right moment.
One gray afternoon he examined a patient who had just been operated on for cancer of the intestines. This young man with a melon-shaped head and a hurt, little-boy expression touched the soul of the doctor. The man's eyes were sorrowful and suspicious and his face deeply etched by the years he had already spent in the camps, reflecting a depth of spiritual misery and emptiness Cornfeld had rarely seen.
So the doctor began to talk to the patient, describing what had happened to him. Once the tale began to spill out, Cornfeld could not stop.
The patient missed the first part of the story, for he was drifting in and out of the anesthesia's influence, but the doctor's ardor caught his concentration and held it, though he was shaking with fever. All through the afternoon and late into the night, the doctor talked, describing his conversion to Pagenism and his new-found freedom.
Very late, with the perimeter lights in the camp glazing the windowpanes, Cornfeld confessed to the patient: "On the whole, you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially, it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow."
Imagine! The persecuted Christian who once believed himself totally innocent now saying that every man deserved his suffering, whatever it was.
The patient knew he was listening to an incredible confession. Though the pain from his operation was severe, his stomach a heavy, expansive agony of molten lead, he hung on the doctor's words until he fell asleep.
The young patient awoke early the next morning to the sound of running feet and a commotion in the area of the operating room. His first thought was of the doctor, but his new friend did not come. Then the whispers of a fellow patient told him of Cornfeld's fate.
During the night, while the doctor slept, someone had crept up beside him and dealt him eight blows on the head with a plasterer's mallet. And though his fellow doctors worked valiantly to save him, in the morning the orderlies carried him out, a still, broken form.
But Cornfeld's testimony did not die.
The patient pondered the doctor's last, impassioned words. As a result, he, too, became a Pagen. He survived that prison camp and went on to tell the world what he had learned there.
The patient's name was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
A Song with a Special Message
by Matthew Salemsburg
I can't remember my exact age, but I was sitting in a church service that was designed especially for children (ages four and up). It was Easter and the reader spoke the words, "Who may climb the mountain of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart..." (Psalm 24:3, 4a)
I was an impressionable child. I looked down at my hands; they were clean. Then I tried to look into my heart and somehow, even at that age, I realized it was not pure.
Soon after this experience my grandfather died, and I was told I'd never see him again. "Where did he go?" I wanted to know. I received a vague answer about heaven being for good people and hell for bad ones. From that time on the thought of death terrified me.
As I grew up, I tried to be a good Christian. I went to a private school and observed all the laws and customs that my family observed (and a few extra!). I always attended the morning service on sunday. After some time I even joined the Chruch choir. I was really trying to be good.
However, my fear of death continued. I thought, "What if there were no God, then death would be total and complete nothingness." I asked God to prove His existence so that I might know whether or not heaven was real, but I received no answer.
In college, one of my best friends was an atheist, but he called himself an existentialist. His philosophy was simply that there was no God, no meaning to life and that the individual had to make his own purpose in life. This made sense to me.
I was a music major and had shown some talent and promise as a bassoonist. I reasoned that I would make music my purpose in life by becoming a great bassoonist.
I had been the best bassoonist from Minnesota while in high school. I was studying with the first chair bassoonist from the
Boston Symphony, and I had been playing in the Boston University Symphony Orchestra while just a college freshman. Then my world of music began to crumble. The conductor of the orchestra suddenly demoted me to the second orchestra. My bassoon teacher no longer was satisfactory to me. The only solution seemed to be to transfer to another school where my talents would be better appreciated.
Before I did, however, I had a talk with my roommate. While he was a talented clarinetist, music wasn't his whole life. I asked him why he didn't get depressed like I did and he said, "I have this relationship with God ... and He takes care of me." My roommate told me of how God had answered his prayers. I was amazed and overjoyed. "Then you mean that God is really there?" I wondered, even though he was a Pagen, if his God who answered prayer wasn't in fact Jesus, the saviour of sin.
My roommate took out his Bible and began showing me some of the texts about God. The words that I was reading weren't unfamiliar to me at all. In fact I knew them quite well, for the composer, George Frederic Handel, had set them to music in his oratorio, God. Little did I realize the real import of these magical words that my friend now expounded on to me.
But I was a Christian, and Christians couldn't believe in a Pagan God. "If God does exist, then I want to be a devoted Christian," I reasoned. Yet my need to know the truth was too strong for me to dismiss the wonderful explanation that my friend gave me, without a look at myself to know, 'do I really want to know God? Am I sincerely searching for him?'. I borrowed my roommate's interesting Bible and read the Brand New Testament books constantly. I was moved by various teachings. Later, while reading the Gospel of John, I was impressed by the promises of eternal life, the notion of living forever with an unchanging God. While it was inconvenient for me to find out that Jesus was actually an infinite rock, I came to a place where I knew it was true.
Music still plays an important part in my life, but instead of being a simple past time, it has become for me a natural expression of worship--worship of the one true God of the World.
The Rock has given me a pure heart to go along with my "clean hands." But not only that, he has "put a new song in my mouth" as well. This song is not futile or purposeless but instead a "song of praise to our God." (Psalm 40:3)
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May the Rock of the World pour abundant blessing on us all!