Reflections on persecution

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"Save Christians in Iraq! Save Christians in Iraq!"

 

The crowd that had gathered in London across the street from Parliament was small but energizing. As we walked past the demonstrators with our friends and three kids in tow, I couldn't help but be pulled into the rhythmic chant -- "Save Christians in Iraq! Save Christians in Iraq!" Had the circumstances been different, I am inclined to think I would have left my role as tourist and traded it in as that of demonstrator.

 

"Save Christians in Iraq!" "Save Christians in Iraq!"

 

More than 30,000 miles away, though, the voices of Christians and those who would support them has been quieted. There is no demonstration in the streets of Baghdad today, no energizing chant that would seek to draw passerbyers in. Instead there is silence.

 

But maybe not. When a family of eight Iraqi Christians were given a choice to recant their Christian faith or be killed, they spoke. Whether by confessing out loud with their mouths that Jesus Christ is the only true God or by refusing to recant the faith in their silence, they spoke. The picture given to an Iraqi Anglican vicar showed their murdered bodies lying stilled next to their open Bible. The vicar wrote, "They would not convert (even if) it cost them their life." Their martyrdom and confession spoke through a photograph and continues speaking to all of us who hear their story -- that even in death nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

 

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39)

 

As we speak Iraq's Islamic State militants (ISIS) continues its persecution of Christians and of other faiths in Iraq and Syria. Right now it's easy to find these stories on news outlets such as CNN or BBC, but you can always read more about the persecution of Christians around the world at www.persecution.org.

 

How do we make sense of it all? Leaving the demonstration last weekend, I was left feeling helpless and needing to wrestle with the current issue of persecution.

 

Suffering and persecution of Christians is nothing new. In fact our faith hinges on Someone who was killed -- crucified even. We proclaim His death, and not only do we proclaim it but as His followers we take seriously the mantra, "Take up your cross and follow me." We follow behind our Lord, who was rejected, persecuted and killed, knowing that we might face the same fate as He. This was very real for early Christians in Antiquity when they knew that being baptized would mean immediate and sure death. Almost all of Jesus' apostles were either killed or exiled. According to tradition, Peter was crucified upside down because he didn't think he was worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. Paul was beheaded for his devotion to Christ. These are just a few examples.

 

But when a mantra suddenly turns into a real piece of wood and nails or a noose or a sword or a gun, what keeps that believer from recanting? What brings a persecuted believer comfort in the midst of persecution?

 

And what should those of us on the sidelines do? Should we turn a blind eye because there's nothing we can do? Or, should we chant, demonstrate and raise our voices to help? Should we become radicals seeking out persecution and idealizing the life of a martyr because we have bought into an idea that only those who are killed for their faith have a genuine faith?

 

It's hard to feel helpless. It's even more difficult to face death for what you believe.

 

But here's what I see when I read Scripture. Scripture interprets life for me; it gives me the framework from which to work through things outside my realm of understanding. First of all, there's no teaching in Scripture that says we should cultivate a desire to suffer or die, that we should actively seek it out, or that it is a prerequisite into heaven. (Maybe you don't think there are people who believe this, but just look a little harder and you will find them.) I would wager that any Christian suffering in these ways would gladly change places with one of us who can worship freely and openly and who can proclaim Christ with no bonds of law or of fear.

 

Secondly, for those facing death, exile and other unimaginable sufferings I humbly say that I have no clue what you are going through. I cannot understand the depths of loss or of fear. However, I imagine that in the moments leading up to your death that what comforts you and keeps you strong is the belief that as Jesus Christ died and then came back from the dead alive so too those in Christ after they die will live. Knowing that persecution is nothing new helps us to learn to not be surprised if it happens to us too. It also brings comfort knowing that other believers have walked this path. But in the end it is believing in the resurrected Christ which helps fasten our feet to the ground unmovable and unshakeable when it does happen.

 

For we confess it is the grace of God "which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (2 Tim. 1:10) And also, "If we have died with him, we will also live with him." (2 Tim. 2) God will not abandon His people; death does not have the final say.

 

But there's one more thing that brings us Christians comfort that I imagine would bring current persecuted Christians comfort. It's knowing that though our voices might be silenced the gospel will continue speaking loudly for all who hear. The gospel cannot be silenced. "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!" (2 Timothy 2:8-9) The Word of God is not bound. Say that again, "The Word of God is not bound!" It has to be beautiful irony that the family of eight believers were killed next to an open Bible. Though their voices had been silenced, God continues to speak. His Word will still go forth because it belongs to God. He has already conquered death and His Word will continue testifying to it until He returns.

 

Where does this leave those of us living freely, watching helplessly from the sidelines? As our hearts break, we can be comforted in the same way those persecuted Christians are comforted. (See above quoted Scripture passages.) We also can learn from their examples so that if the wind changes direction and we find ourselves on the end of persecution, we, too, will be strong in the love and knowledge of Christ.

 

Let's not idealize what they are suffering nor pray for the same. Let's learn from the past and not forget the persecuted Christians in the past while at the same time not become calloused to the persecution or the persecuted of the present. Let's continue to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters that God would rescue them, end their persecutions, comfort them in their affliction and help them to remain strong even if it means death. Let's speak up for them, cry for them, thank God for them and love them. And if nothing else, let's not lose heart because we know and believe that Jesus has gone before us, He is with us, and His Word cannot be restrained.

 

In the meantime the chant has become my prayer, "Save Christians in Iraq!"

 

And at times when it's just too much, when chanting just doesn't seem to do much good, I pray, "Come, Lord Jesus. Come."

 

(For the story about the family of eight Iraqi Christians, read more here.)

The Rich Fool

I am a little behind in posting this week because of a sinus infection that has me down temporarily. In the meantime, I thought I'd share with you the link to my husband's sermon in Beeson Divinity School chapel service yesterday. I was so proud of God's Word being spoken through him. Hope you'll give it a listen and may it be a blessing to you.

bit.ly/16infJY

 

"The Good Ol' Days" (Part 2)

good-old-days A better or worse world?

I do agree that America has become more secularized. It is true that as Christians we face an America that accepts both abortion and same-sex unions. However, America is doing more than ever to stop and prevent evils like human trafficking and to protect many of the most vulnerable than it has in the past. America is a better place for women to work now that there are sexual harassment laws. Americans have done much to bring to light the issue of bullying and racism. So even though some things in our world or country have gotten worse, some things have gotten better. Evil and sin never die out; it just changes shape and form.

In the end I don't think we can ever accurately measure if it was more evil then than it is today; nor do I think it is helpful. This world has been fallen for quite some time and I don't need an idealized past to convince me that this day has enough trouble of its own. Nor do I want an idealized past to be my motivation for how I live in the present. Jesus is motivation enough for me.

Conclusions

  • I don't think "the good ol' days" argument/phraseology in relation to America or the world is helpful or accurate in making a statement about the present.
  • "The good ol' days" can be insensitive and offensive to those whose past was not made up of good days. To go back to a time past, for blacks for example, would mean days of oppression, fear of death, opposition, and segregation. And to say that those were "the good ol' days" is to minimize the evil of that day.
  • Scripture teaches us to remember the past faithfulness of God so that we can live faithfully in the present. Scripture does not teach us to idealize the past. If anything it teaches us to look ahead to a future where every day will be a "good ol' day" after Christ returns.

My own blind-spot

Now I don't want to give a bad rep to this preacher or all preachers. We all have blind-spots that cause us to be insensitive to others, and I pray that we all will be patient and forgiving with each other. In fact, this preacher's blind-spot made me aware of my own in the same regard. Often times in seeing someone else's sin, God reveals to us our own sin showing us that we are just as guilty and no better than the other person. (Isn't it funny how God works!) You see, I had bought into the notion of "the good ol' days" in my own life. My sister gave birth to her son a little over a year after I had my son. When she would tell me of her struggles of not getting a lot of sleep at night, breastfeeding, etc, I would say, "Oh, just you wait. It gets worse. Those are 'the good ol' days;' enjoy them while you can because then you'll have real problems. You will have to deal with walking, talking back, potty training, etc." Unbeknownst to me, what I was doing was minimizing what she was going through because in my mind I just remembered the good things, like cuddling, rocking and kissing on a baby. The past seemed much better than my present troubles. But I was not being fair to her or the real struggles and pain she was going through, like her lack of sleep. So thanks to this preacher's mistake, I realized a mistake of my own.

May we remember the past – those special memories with loved ones and those past acts of God's faithfulness – and may they give us hope and encouragement in our present troubles that God is faithful, that He won't abandon us, and that this is not the end. But may we not set up a memorial for an idealized past that never existed thereby making it into an idol.

I think Michelle Van Loon, who wrote an article for Christianity Today's Her.meneutics called Who Raised These Millennials Anyway?, sums it up well, "... the pride embedded in our insistence that we did life better in our good ol' days is counterproductive. And it's simply not true. At midlife, we're tempted to throw a rose-colored tint on the rearview mirror so that when we glance backwards, we remember only the best of our own youthful glory days."

"The Good Ol' Days" (Part 1)

Image "Our world is changing," began the premise of the preacher's sermon. And the first example he gave to support his premise went something like this:

Back in the good ol' days I lived in a subdivision where during the summers us boys could stay out all day playing ball, exploring woods, and going to the community pool and our parents never worried about us. Even after dinner us boys could go outside and our parents were not worried that we would not make it back home.  Let me ask you: would any of you let your children today do this?

The assumed response was no one. Why? Because times have become worse and it was safer then in "the good ol' days" in America than it is today.

I looked around. While the congregation was made up of mostly white middle-class people, there were still a handful of African Americans in the room. My cheeks got red and I felt hot and embarrassed for the preacher.  You see, this preacher had a blind-spot. He spoke of the 1960s as "the good ol' days" and he made these comments in a historically, racially-charged city of the South. I don't think I need to tell you that the 60s were NOT "the good ol' days" for our black brothers and sisters. In fact, a couple miles from the church sat 16th Street Baptist Church, a black congregation that was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four girls. Those were not "the good ol' days." In the 1960s, blacks were denied basic rights and were segregated from the whites. George Wallace, the infamous governor of Alabama in the 1960s, gave a "Segregation Forever" speech, which must have made life even "better" for black Alabamians living in the 60s. Not to mention the 1960s saw the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Probably for most blacks in the south, the world that this preacher described was something they never knew in the 60s. Again, these were not "the good ol' days" for blacks in America.

But not only were the 60s not "the good ol' days" for African Americans, but it also wasn't "the good ol' days" for anyone in the congregation who grew up in poverty, who got swept up in the Hippie movement and experimented with new drugs for the first time, who served in the Vietnam war (America's longest war), or women who worked outside the home and had no rights at the workplace.

His blind-spot was an assumption made out of his middle to upper-class, white, male, Southern background and presenting it as true for everyone. What happens when you don't give hard evidence to support such a strong premise or statement but use tangential evidence is that you don't have a strongly supported premise and you take the risk of offending someone. Now, I don't believe this preacher purposely was being insensitive or rude. Rather I believe he is a kind and well-meaning person who would be sad if he offended a brother or sister of any race. But his blind-spot that the 60s were "the good ol' days" and therefore these days are worse than past days, I believe, was insensitive and potentially offensive.

"The good ol' days" vs. "I remember the day.."

Scripture gives us plenty of examples and commands to remember – an act that was not cognitive alone but that affected how one lived. In Deuteronomy 8, God tells the people "you shall remember the whole way the LORD your God has led you these forty years... ." The theology of remembrance is tied to obedience, faithfulness and belief in God, while those who forget His past faithfulness are likely to forget God and live accordingly. The Psalms are another example of remembering the past. Psalm 137 begins this way, "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion." We learn from the New Testament that our faith is based on a past event that has ramifications for the present and future; therefore, we are constantly retelling a story that happened in the past as we believe it has eternal significance! In addition to Scripture, my own experience of losing two grandmothers who I loved very much, showed me that I sometimes long for those days past with them and I recall those past days favorably.

"The good ol' days" mentality and phraseology, however, is different because it is usually juxtaposed with present day evil. The past becomes idealized as the standard for which we should pattern our present and future. I can't find examples of this done in Scripture for support for us doing it today. In fact, I often see in Scripture the idea that the best is yet to come (Suffering Servant, new kingdom, supper of the Lamb language/texts.) But many preachers love using this phrase in support of a belief that the world is getting worse, which therefore would mean Christ is coming sooner. And the only reasons I can think of preachers using this phrase is a) to convince people that the world is truly bad; b) to possibly scare people into accepting Jesus; or c) to emphasize present day sufferings and evil as worse than yesteryear. I really can't come up with a good purpose for using this tactic. Can you? (Tell me in the comments what you think!)

Either way, "the good ol' days" mentality plays off our human tendency to want to idealize and live in the past. I think this is a tendency of ours because the present is difficult, it is hard. And so we escape in our minds to a place in the past where only the good things existed but not the bad. It's an alternate reality but it is not a true reality. I don't know of anyone who has all good days, who goes through a time with no suffering, or who doesn't complain about how evil the world is. The simple truth is  there are no "good ol' days" as long as we live in a fallen world, and this mentality that America at some point had "good ol' days" is false. Was it good for Native Americans when we wiped them out by the thousands? Was it good for blacks when they were our slaves or lived in a world of hate and segregation? Was it good for Japanese living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when we wiped out 100s of thousands with atomic bombs?

Presiding Bishop Calls Demon Possession a Spiritual Gift

It's been almost a month now since The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, preached one of the most offense and appalling sermons landing it in Michael Bird's category of possibly the worst sermon ever. Intrigued?

If you care about biblical truth, responsible and careful exegesis, the state of the Church, and the purity of the gospel, then you will be intrigued. I was intrigued and infuriated. Why?

Because she called demon possession a spiritual gift of "awareness" and something that is "beautiful and holy." And Paul? Oh he is someone who is "annoyed," someone who is "put in his place," someone who tries to destroy her and her gift, and someone who refuses "to recognize that she, too, shares in God's nature." Basically Paul is the bad guy who is sinning against God in Acts 16:16-24 while the demon-possessed woman is the one who is being wronged but most like God. This is all in the name of unity and not "discounting and devaluing difference."

This is heretical. Simply put she equates having qualities and affiliation with Satan as the same as someone who has qualities and affiliation with God. The question for me, then, is who is God.

I'd like to know what you think.

Here's the link to her sermon. And then here's a link to an excellent article written by my former professor and dean of Beeson Divinity School, where my husband also is a professor, about this sermon.

The Wicked Servant

Jesus told his disciples the following parable:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt. 18:23-35)

I mentioned in a previous post that a couple of weeks ago I knocked down my friend’s mailbox. And when I say knocked down, I mean splintered the wood post holding up the mailbox into two pieces. The entire mailbox had to be replaced. I was so embarrassed. I asked for forgiveness and offered to pay for the replacement/repair of the mailbox. My friends not only forgave me but waived the debt — out of mercy and kindness.

The week before this incident my father-in-law, who lives with us, accidently broke my creamer container that matches my sugar container. I was so sad because I had become attached to my creamer using it every morning to warm up my Coffee Mate creamer to go in my coffee. I had bought it at Home Goods, so you know it was very inexpensive. He apologized profusely. Even though I accepted his apology, I told my FIL that he would have to buy me a new one. Last week (a week after the mailbox incident) my creamer came back to mind. I got hot. I still did not have a new creamer and I had a good mind to walk down the hall and demand money so that I could go buy myself a new creamer.

But then I stopped. Or rather the Holy Spirit stopped me bringing to mind and heart this parable from Matthew 18. I was that wicked servant! Having been forgiven a huge debt of hundreds of dollars, I was about to go demand a debt owed me of $10. Embarrassed. Convicted. Ashamed. I walked back to the kitchen and asked God’s forgiveness right then and there.

But it wasn’t just this incident that came to mind. How often have I been forgiven by my husband for a $50 splurge in a weak moment on a piece of clothing or household item only to jump on his back for going over budget by spending $2 on a muffin at his work? How often have friends and family forgiven me for a quick-tempered moment or hurtful words spoken by me only then for me to hold a grudge for something spoken by them to me in haste? The list goes on, but the fact remains that even though I want and desire mercy and forgiveness I often don’t want to give it to others. I don’t treat others as I wish to be treated. And, no matter what sin or debt others do or owe me it is nothing compared to the debt of sin that I’ve committed against God. And if God can forgive me of that great of debt, then I can forgive others of smaller debt.

This parable reminds me then of three things:

1. I have been forgiven a tremendous debt by God.

2. Out of my gratitude that I have been forgiven much, I should want to and should practice forgiving others’ debt to me.

3. If I don’t forgive as God has forgiven me, my Father, my God will show me the same unkindness that I have shown to others. Do I fear God enough? Do I believe God to keep His promises?

“Father, thank you for forgiving my debt of sin against you. Now, may I go and do the same to others showing kindness, love and mercy in my words, thoughts and deeds. Amen.”

 

 

Miracles: Raised from the Dead

When I was in seminary, I told one of my professors how I was interested in doing a book that compiled stories of answered prayers, miracles if you will. He loved my idea, and like most good ideas, someone had thought of it before. So he referred to me, The Wonders of Prayer, an 1885 compilation of answered prayers narrated by several people including the likes of like D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon and George Muller as a guide for my idea. (Needless to say, I haven't done anything with this idea as of yet.) But it's a splendid little book that I most definitely recommend!

Most recently a friend of my husband's, Dr. Craig Keener, has written a two-volume book called Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. This work includes accounts of modern day miracles, including the story of his sister-in-law being raised from the dead where she lived in the Congo.

This first video is of Craig's wife Medine talking about this account, and the second video is of Craig recalling hearing the story first-hand from his mother-in-law and others who were present.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PJHVSYaPsA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mC8OXGU2QUA

Whether it is accounts of miracles and answered prayers from 1885 or from last year, in my opinion I wanted to share these with you because 1) we are reminded how God has been working in the past and is at work presently and 2) it encourages us who are going through trials of many kinds to never stop trusting in God or the power of prayer.