Obedience


ImageWould you give your life for Christ? If your answer is “no” you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If your answer is “yes”, here’s another question for you: would you attend church if doing so put your life at risk? No? Ok, skip ahead. Yes? Here’s another: would you encourage your spouse or your children to attend church with you, if doing so put their lives at risk?

To be very honest, I am not sure what the correct answers are to the second two questions, and I’m certainly not sure what my actual, as opposed to my theoretical, response would be if I was personally faced with these choices.

What I do know is that tonight many of my brothers and sisters in Egypt will make these decisions, just as our brothers and sisters in Nigeria did thirteen days ago. Twelve Christians there were killed in attacks by extremists on two different churches.

The Nigerians didn’t unwittingly choose to put their lives at risk. Attacks on churches have become part of the regular news cycle, and they would have been very much aware that acts of violence on a significant holy day are of particular interest to extremists as they look for high profile publicity to spread their brand of terror.

Tonight, on the first Christmas Eve celebrated under a new Islamist constitution, Egyptians will also make this choice. They know the risks and are painfully aware of the threats that have already been made against them. And yet, a very great number of them will venture out of their homes and neighborhoods to join together to worship and celebrate the birth of our Saviour. They will do so with the full knowledge that the act of physically coming together in fellowship transforms them in the eyes of extremists into a high value, high profile target.

This great country, which once served as a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing persecution, is becoming a place where it is unsafe to celebrate the birth of their Son.

It is dark, but it is not hopeless. Each person who tonight stands in a church in faith stands against that darkness. Each one of their non-Christian Egyptian brothers and sisters who stands with them in solidarity tonight stands against that darkness. Each one of us who tonight stands with them in prayer, stands against that darkness.

John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

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I wrote something! I really, really wrote something!

Please excuse my giddiness… after a couple of rather long years (longer than they should have been) I am finally able to announce the publication in electronic version of the biography of my good friend, Julio Cusihuaman Ccorahua.

Julio was my first ever “case” at CSW; a case which turned quickly into a life long friend, and gave me a new Peruvian family. He and his wife call me sister and named me goddaughter to their beautiful daughter Candy, an honor which still overwhelms me.

I met Julio in a remote Peruvian prison more than ten years ago. He was innocent of the charges against him and we were sure he’d be getting out, but a year later I returned to only to find him still inside. We toured the maximum security prison with him as he introduced us to brother after brother… all members of the church he’d planted during his time as a prisoner. We laughed together, prayed together, sang together and I still clearly remember the emotional disconnect it was to walk out of that place, heavy metal doors slamming shut behind us, leaving him behind. I carry an image in my memory of his face, behind dark metal bars in a tiny window, smiling at us, as he called to us to remind us to pray for him, his family and his ministry.

He is without a doubt one of the most impressive and at the same time, most humble, people I’ve ever met.

If you want to be inspired, need a story to help you put your own life in perspective, are looking for a good (cheap) gift for a friend or yourself, please consider buying this book. We’ve kept the price low in the hopes that more people will read it; for the same reason, it’s also available for free rental if you are a member of Amazon Prime. All proceeds will go to support Julio’s ministry. If you’re wondering, yes, they’re still poor and living at or below the poverty line, yet he and his wife are dedicated to this taxing but rewarding work, so everything helps.

*Please note that this is a true story, and as such deals with some difficult themes. There are scenes involving torture and other severe human rights atrocities. They aren’t gratuitous but they are honest – so it’s probably a good idea to exercise some caution when sharing with younger readers. I’m not necessarily of the mind that teenagers shouldn’t read it (quite the opposite, as I think it might challenge them to think about some of the injustices in the world and what they can do about it), but I do think it might be a good idea for the adult in their life to read it first in order to be able to discuss some of these issues and events with them.

The link and the book description are below – please read, review, recommend. Thank you and a very very Merry Christmas to you!

A Light in the Darkest Corner

The extraordinary and inspiring story of a young man raised in poverty and violence in the highlands of Peru, A Light in the Darkest Corner, is the testimony of Julio Cusihuaman Ccorahua. After his father died from complications related to alcoholism and his mother spiraled into addiction, Julio and his chronically ill sister were left to fend for themselves in the town of Ayacucho, the epicenter of Shining Path terrorist violence. As a teenager he was falsely accused of terrorism, tortured and imprisoned but after a miraculous escape, Julio fled to the city of Lima where he followed his parents’ example, immersing himself in alcohol and parties to bury his pain and anger. A young woman helped lead him to Christ and later became his wife. The pair started a family and a vibrant new ministry only to be hit by a series of tragedies. In 1999, Julio found himself in prison again facing the same false charges as before but this time with a wife, two small children and mounting debts. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, Julio realized God had brought him to a new mission field. Putting aside agonizing questions about his future and the welfare of his family, he began to share Christ’s love with the most despised and rejected of all society, working to transform a nation from the bottom up by bringing God’s light to some of the darkest places on earth.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
― Anne Lamott

Two weeks ago we celebrated Veteran’s Day. I woke up thinking of my Uncle S. I went to church thinking of him, cried, went home and thought of him some more. Uncle S was a veteran of Vietnam, an experience that contributed to his untimely and ugly death in 2006.

He was also one of those people who had never not been there – a constant through my childhood and into my grown up life. He had no children. He had two nieces and a nephew and for my brother, sister and me, he was our beloved uncle. He was gentle, kind, patient and encouraging. He always listened, no matter how inane our chatter or obnoxious our questions. He treated everything we had to say as if it was important and deserved thought (even if it didn’t).

His home in the mountains was always open to us: for family breaks, holidays, and when we needed to get away on our own. He dared us to dip into the icy water of the creek that ran through his property (and paid handsomely when we took him up on the dare), led us on off-trail hikes in search of old gold mines, and taught us how to map the stars and spot satellites moving across the night sky. I can still see his slow smile and hear his easy drawl.

So when he died, while it wasn’t wholly unexpected, it was devastating. It was and is painful. But I learned something through his death, as I watched as one of the solid looking pillars that I thought held my life together crumbled and disappeared. Although I could no longer see it, he was still there. None of the love he poured into me and into my life over thirty years went anywhere. It was still there, and so was he.

And the pain never goes away. I’m not even sure it diminishes. But even so, something else increases. I know I have a choice to make: to be thankful for what I’ve been given, or to embrace bitterness over what will not be. In choosing thankfulness, I also choose the pain – “the broken heart that doesn’t seal back up”. I also choose the joy of memory and of faith – of being sure of what I hope for and certain of what I cannot see.

I am thankful for my past. I am thankful for the love I’ve known – bound as it is to pain. I am thankful for friends who love me and for a church that supports me. I am thankful for the shipwrecks that have deposited me on unexpected shores and sent me down new paths. I am thankful for my work and those I know through my work, which constantly remind me to keep my own struggles and sorrows in perspective.

I’m so thankful for Uncle S. I am so thankful for all the others who I have loved who have gone on before me but who I will see again. I am thankful for a Maker who gave His life to give me a hope and a future.

John 1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

First apologies for not having written much lately and more apologies because I’m not going to write much now. Things have been crazily busy, in a good way, over the past three months but am hoping that in the next few days or weeks I’ll have more time to sit down and write about some of the things I’ve had on my mind.

Today, however, I just want to share something. Communication in many of the countries in which we work is difficult. One of mine is notoriously difficult for geographical, political and technological reasons but much like the Biblical salt – I have a handful of trustworthy individuals scattered throughout the country who try, when they can, to pass on to me information about cases of persecution they know or hear about. Many of them have experienced the effects of worldwide solidarity in the form of prayer and letter writing themselves, and they know it works.

One of them has worked at various churches in different parts of the country but always seems to be assigned to fairly remote places, cut off from the rest of the country and even more so from the outside world. I don’t hear from him that often, but when I do, it’s usually a short message requesting urgent prayer or action. It always makes me think of a Hail Mary (non American Football people, click on the link for an explanation). He throws it out of there, I try not to fumble it and (the analogy stops here) pass it on to as many praying and acting people as I can.

I don’t usually expect much feedback because I know the limitations. Communication inside the country is also difficult to the point of being non-existent sometimes, so he doesn’t expect much feedback from those he’s tried to help either. The most severe cases tend to happen in very remote and rural areas, compounding the difficulty of following up.

So, imagine my surprise and joy, when yesterday I received this message:

Dear BV,

Last night there was a concert, authorized by the Government in the second largest theater in [the country]. The *** Theater.

It was truly historic.

But listen to this story…

A pastor approached me and asked me, “Are you ***? You don’t know me,” he said.

I didn’t recognize him even when he told me his name…

It turns out that years ago his church was threatened with demolition…I asked you for worldwide prayer for him…

We never met each other, not even on the telephone.

Seven years later, he testified to me that they never touched him again…

Hugs,

***

So today I give thanks for answered prayers. I give thanks that seven years ago I was able to be a little cog in the wheel that turned on behalf of this church. I give thanks for this pastor’s understanding of how the worldwide Body of Christ supported his church during their hour of need. I give thanks for his faithfulness in remembering and blessing that same Body, seven years later. I give thanks for our great God who loves us, strengthens us to love one another, and makes a way when there is no way.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few years now, since I first chose the name for this blog. I didn’t just choose an ancient martyr at random, though based on what comes up in a google search for Biblis, it might seem that way.

I had finished reading Eusebius’ History of the Church, which as one might expect, was filled with all kinds of amazing historical characters and inspiring stories. For some reason, however, Biblis, who only gets one paragraph in all of written history, stuck with me.

She stuck with me because she wasn’t named by Eusebius for her strong fortitude in the face of persecution or her stoic insistence on staying true to her faith. She wasn’t one of those early Christians, whose reported superhuman endurance in the face of horrific ordeals I tend to associate with the stories of the early martyrs.

Biblis broke. Biblis recanted her faith. Biblis denied Christ.

Eusebius describes her as having been “handed over to punishment by the devil, who imagined he had already devoured her…so he thought – a feeble creature, easily broken.”

And our faith is the faith of broken and weak people. Our faith is the faith of people who buckle under adversity far less serious than that faced by Biblis. Our faith is the faith of people, myself included, who disappoint each other and God all the time.

But our God is a God who is full of grace and mercy and seeks out His lost sheep. Our Church, when we’re behaving the way we should, holds up those who are struggling and receives the fallen penitent with love, forgiveness and encouragement.

I’ve met many men, women, and even children who have been persecuted for their faith. In my experience, the person who never faltered, never doubted, and stood strong and unflinching in faith is the very rare exception. The vast majority tell me of periods of intense doubt, of anger at God, of confusion and of despair. They also tell me that the support of their brethren, locally, nationally and internationally, was key in reminding them that they were not alone and encouraging them to persevere, beyond what they thought themselves to be capable of, in faith.

Biblis made a comeback. Eusebius tells us that, while on the torture rack being pushed to accuse the other Christians of horrific crimes, “she came to her senses, and, so to speak, awoke out of a deep sleep…she flatly contradicted the slanderers… From then on she insisted she was a Christian, and so she joined the ranks of the martyrs.”

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that even after they learned Biblis had denied Christ, her fellow Christians continued to pray for her and to lift her up to God’s mercy. Somewhere, somehow she found the strength in her utter brokenness to take her stand.

I chose Biblis to head this blog as a reminder to myself never to fall into the trap of promoting members of the persecuted church (or any church for that matter) into some superhuman tier of perfect faith, never to impose upon them standards that were only ever met once in all of history. It reminds me, too, that those men and women out there today, suffering discrimination and persecution, rely on our support in ways that we can’t comprehend and as part of the same Body, we are commanded actively to pray for them, to encourage them, and to suffer with them.

I Corinthians 12:24b-26 But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

In addition to prayer, which is the first and most important thing we should be doing, in some cases there are other simple ways to encourage and build up a persecuted Christian: Connect & Encourage

As many of those reading this will know, 2011 was rough. I had known death in personal and painful ways in previous years, but nothing like what I experienced last year.

Before dawn on a dark February morning, I received the news that my boyfriend had drowned in a kayaking accident. Three months later, just as I was starting to re-enter life at a more normal operating level, my beloved grandmother died, also relatively unexpectedly. Although very different, in some ways the grief in the second round was harder to bear – it ripped open what had just started to heal and added the additional loss of person who had never not been in my life. In August, my boyfriend’s mother died – her death was not so unexpected but it added to the weight of pain. As the rest of the year went by, it seemed that the shadow of death was all around me as healthy, life-filled, beloved brothers, nephews, and children of people very close to me died abruptly and without warning.

So it was a hard year. Paradoxically, it was also one of the best years of my life. That might seem a strange thing to say – but it was a year in which I learned that in the same heart profound joy and peace can co-exist alongside profound pain and grief without contradiction. It was a year in which I was forced to confront eternity and everything I believe or don’t believe about the “forever and ever” of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a year in which I was challenged to either allow doubt and bitterness to torture me or to embrace my faith and to cling to that hope with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. It was a year in which I learned to live in God’s terrible and tender love. It was a year in which I chose to believe over and over again that all things do work together for the good of those who love the Lord – whether we ever understand them or not.

Death makes people do funny things – and while I received huge encouragement and support from friends and strangers alike, some very well-meaning people also said some horribly insensitive and sometimes offensive things. For the most part I was able to shrug it off and even laugh – not at them, of course, but with other friends who’d experienced similar loss and who shared the similarly insane things people had said to them. We joked about writing a manual for people on What Not to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.

For those who are interested, the advice really boiled down to a couple of things: don’t give advice (at best it’s obnoxious and at worst offensive), don’t try to explain to the person why it happened (you don’t know), and don’t tell them how they should be feeling (just don’t). In reference to those who have lost partners or children – don’t ask when they’re going to start dating again or trying for another child (just don’t even). Do listen, do affirm, do pray, do send letters and messages of encouragement, and do be there when they need you.

Ironically, it was because of some of the strangest things said to me (with much goodwill but great ignorance) by fellow Christians that I came to two realizations about death. These specific comments and advice, which focused on praying for my “liberation” from pain and/or the spirit of death, challenged me to think about why I didn’t agree with them and led me to the following conclusions:

  1. This world is bound by death. I am going to die. Every living thing around me, every person I know, is going to die. I don’t know when it will happen or how but it will. I may experience and witness healing and miracles over the course of my lifetime but the end will come just the same. This isn’t morbid – it’s just a fact of this life, a fact that may be more difficult to deal with for many of us living in the modern first-world where death has been banished to the periphery. If I can’t learn to live with this fact, however, I am going to be in for a rough ride from here on out.
  1. I may have to live with it but I don’t have to accept it. Death is not natural. It is not what we were created for. It is right that everything in me rebels and protests at the very concept and that its advent provokes searing, gut-wrenching pain. Our nature, given to us by God, is to live. And as those who believe and are called children of God, Life is our inheritance.

These two realizations, and learning that it is possible to believe both at the same time, not only helped me to cope and process what was happening to me and around me but also led me to understand Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, Redemption and Eternity in new and more deeply personal ways. It helped me to see how simultaneously insignificant and important our lives are. It allowed me to experience a tiny fraction of that profound grief God must have felt when humanity chose to allow death to enter into His perfect creation. It challenges me to move my focus from the here and now to the life everlasting – and to remember that that is where my treasure is.

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body and soul,
I will shout joyfully to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young
at a place near your altar,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!
What joy for those who can live in your house,
always singing your praises. Interlude

What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.

O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, O God of Jacob. Interlude

O God, look with favor upon the king, our shield!
Show favor to the one you have anointed.

A single day in your courts
is better than a thousand anywhere else!
I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God
than live the good life in the homes of the wicked.
For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
from those who do what is right.
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
what joy for those who trust in you.

Still working out what I feel about the doctrine of sanctification (leaning toward it being a long-term, life-long, most likely unattainable, but still worth striving for, goal), but think this is a rather good checklist:

When John Wesley was asked, ‘But what good works are those, the practice of which you affirm to be necessary for sanctification?’ he replied, ‘First, all works of piety such as public prayer, family prayer and praying in our closet, receiving the Supper of the Lord, searching the Scriptures, by hearing, reading, meditating, and using such a measure of fasting or abstinence as our body allows… Secondly, all works of mercy, whether they relate to the bodies or souls of men, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted, such as endeavoring to instruct the ignorant, to awaken the stupid sinner, to quicken the lukewarm, to comfort the feeble-minded, to succor the tempted, or contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death. This is the way wherein God hath appointed his children to await for complete salvation.’

(John Punshom’s Reasons for Hope)

I’d add that all of the above should be done in love and with a joyful and thankful heart. I also wonder about the man who gives his life for his brother’s or refuses to deny Christ at any cost.

Revelation 7:14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”

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