In the run up to moving countries, I prayed and hoped for a church near my new home. I liked the idea of attending a church that was rooted in the community in which I live. I was blessed by not one but two churches within a block of my house, and have been attending one of them since my first Sunday here. It’s a lovely old (by American standards) church; the majority of those who attend live in the neighbourhood (and many on my street), and I have been made to feel extremely welcome and included since that first day.

Over the years, I’ve gravitated in my worship preference to the old hymns. I have nothing against the “modern stuff”, choruses and big bands, but there’s something about singing songs with verses, and a narrative that gives testimony to what this walk of faith is all about. There’s also something deeply moving about singing songs that have been sung by generations and thinking about what those words have meant to each, in their particular set of circumstances.

My new church is majority of African descent (when I say majority, I mean I am one of four people who does not appear to have any African ancestry), so the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday two weeks ago was something very special. We had two special services focused on his faith, work and legacy. It was a little overwhelming, in a good way, to sit in the midst of men and women who had marched with him, who were among the first to integrate my new neighbourhood and were the targets of hatred and some of the ugliest aspects of humanity. We all have benefited in different ways from what Reverend King did, but it was something very different to sit among people who experienced the before, during and after, personally and directly.

The day opened and closed with a song that became emblematic of the entire Civil Rights movement (the term civil rights bothers me a bit, such a technical and bland term, when what we are talking about is the right to be treated as fellow human beings and citizens): We Shall Overcome. As we linked arms, just as the peaceful activists facing the fire-hoses of Birmingham and Montgomery did years ago, and sang the verses, I thought about what those words mean – we shall overcome.

There’s something slightly troubling and challenging about the words, as although the song is about victory, it openly admits that we have not yet seen this victory. It’s a song that faces up to pain, and misery, and injustice, and ugliness. But it’s a song of hope and faith in implicitly dark times. As I thought about what the song meant to the people with whom I was worshipping, I also thought about the people in the countries where I and my colleagues work. Countries where victory has yet to even be glimpsed but where we know, through faith, eventually We Shall Overcome.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

The Lord will see us through, The Lord will see us through,
The Lord will see us through someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

We’re on to victory, We’re on to victory,
We’re on to victory someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’re on to victory someday.

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.

The truth shall make us free, the truth shall make us free,
The truth shall make us free someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
The truth shall make us free someday.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

Lyrics derived from Charles Tindley’s gospel song “I’ll Overcome Some Day” (1900), and opening and closing melody from the 19th-century spiritual “No More Auction Block for Me” (a song that dates to before the Civil War).


Egyptian Worship

Isaiah 19:19-21 In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and witness to the LORD Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the LORD because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them

Four years ago I stood in a dark corner of an ancient Egyptian temple. There, carved into the wall, were a cross and other Christian motifs. Our guide told us that during periods of intense persecution in Roman times, Christians in Egypt met secretly in the ancient temples, which were avoided by others who feared that evil spirits lurked there.

Fifth Century Carving of a Cross in an ancient Egyptian Temple

I was struck by the beautiful carvings and the way the early Christians had reclaimed something seen by others as evil and frightening, making it into a place of worship and light.

Earlier this year I stood with those men and women’s descendants. Little it seems has changed. They may not have to meet in secret places but they still often struggle to meet legally; they face discrimination and sometimes outright violent persecution on a regular basis. One young woman told of how she was turned away when she went to take her final exams at university because the exam monitor noticed her Christian name and her lack of headscarf. Another young woman expressed her fears after a local religious leader had publicly stated that any woman not wearing a headscarf was “asking to be raped”. Would it then be her fault, she asked, if she was sexually assaulted on her way to attend church? A third young woman shared the horror of witnessing the bombing at an Alexandria church last New Year, and the subsequent injustices she personally experienced in the following weeks.

This is a Church that has been tempered and refined by more than 1500 years of persecution. It is a Church that God has preserved and upheld through dark and darker times. It is a Church that is “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Far from it in fact. This Church continues to venture into those frightening and dark places, where others show more hesitation. The young men and women we met have been involved, from the beginning, in the movement for democracy, challenging the dictatorship from the inception of the “Arab Spring”.  They continue to lead, courageously stepping out into the more and more hostile streets in peaceful protest, and have succeeded in unmasking for all Egyptians the true nature of the military junta that now holds power. In response to the horrendous October massacres, when military trucks mowed down peaceful protestors calling for religious freedom and respect for diversity, they called a three day worldwide fast, looking to God to protect and guide them and their country. These past few weeks, they have headed to the front once again in peaceful demonstrations in remembrance of those killed in the October Maspero massacre. Many have been deeply involved in the most recent protests demanding a true democracy which have been met with a violent response.

Many young Christians have given (Mina Daniel) or have expressed their willingness to give (Michael Nabil Sahad) their lives. With the way things have gone this week, it seems likely that more will do so, and this is something that should deeply challenge every one of us.

Many well-meaning but misguided people in the West have expressed the belief that life under dictatorship was “better” for the Egyptian Church. Many, with some valid reasons, are worried that the downfall of the Arab dictatorships will lead to the destruction of the Church in those countries. But now is not the time to give up hope. For over 1500 years, our Egyptian brothers and sisters have kept the flame of faith burning in that part of the world. Those I met this year, tell me that they continue to believe that there can be a democratic and free Egypt where everyone will be free to worship as they please, without fear of persecution.  Not one expressed a desire to return to the days of Mubarak.

This month they go to the ballot boxes in elections that will help to determine the direction Egypt will go. To my Egyptian brothers and sisters, I say, get out and vote. Do not lose hope. We have not forgotten you, and we will not.

To those of us who cannot vote, pray. Pray for this country, beloved of God, home of an ancient and towering Church. Pray for our brothers and sisters there, for their future as Egyptian Christians.

Mary on the 2nd Day

A number of years ago I attended a religious liberty conference in Bulgaria. I like to try to take advantage of being in countries where I can actually afford art I like, so while I was in Sofia I used a free afternoon to go down near the cathedral to peruse the open air market where Bulgarians sold art, much of it original, and antiques (lots of the expected Soviet memorabilia and the more unexpected Nazi paraphernalia). I was drawn to the art booths that sold icons and searched for one that looked “different”, something that would call out to me. When I saw this icon, though I had no idea who it was, I knew it was the one I wanted. The artist couldn’t speak English but from what he said I gleaned the two words Kata Pia. In my ignorance, I didn’t realise he was telling me what the Greek letters on the icon said, I thought I was buying an icon of St. Kata Pia and quite happily went away.

That afternoon we met with a Bulgarian Orthodox bishop and a number of priests. The bishop was celebrating his birthday and in the midst of boisterous toasts, I pulled out my new icon to show him and asked his opinion, introducing him to St. Kata Pia. This caused great consternation. The bishop and the priests all agreed that the icon was a good one but they did not think there was a saint called Kata Pia. After about fifteen minutes of intense discussion and argument they reached a definitive conclusion.

“The woman is Mary, Jesus’ mother, but it’s a special Mary,” said Bishop Cyril, looking at me intently. “It’s not the Mary we usually see, the Virgin receiving the good news, or Mary in her glory, ascending to Heaven. It’s Mary on the second day. That is why she looks so sad.”

I love this Mary. I keep the icon on my desk where I look at it several times a day. She is a Mary whose son has just been killed. She is a Mary who has just seen her dreams and what she thought were the promises of God crushed. She is a Mary who watched the Light of the world die a horrifying and final death. She is a Mary who doesn’t yet know what will come on the Third Day and doesn’t even know to hope for it. She is a Mary asking “Why?” in agony and pain.

The Church gives a great deal of emphasis to Good Friday and to the Resurrection, but there is rarely any real focus on the Second Day. Yet this is the day in which most of us live. This is the experience of those who are persecuted for their faith, both those who die and those who survive to mourn the loss of their loved ones. This is the experience of my colleagues who receive devastating news day after day from Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Burma, North Korea, and others where Christians suffer horribly and little seems to change. This is the experience of those of us who have seen dreams die along with those we love.

Mary on the Second Day reminds me that we are not alone in our confusion and our despair. We share it with her, with the disciples, and with all of those who throughout time have cried out in pain as what we thought would be is destroyed for no apparent reason. We can bring our grief and our despair before God and know that He understands it.

I read from Hebrews 12:22-24 this week and was reminded of the hope that lies in the Third Day. We live in the Second Day, and while it can be bleak, we have this promise: No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel.

The line, “You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect” particularly stood out to me. That number includes so many: people we have loved, our ancestors who have gone before us in faith, the martyrs whose names, or sometimes just numbers, flood the inboxes of all of us who work on behalf of the persecuted. This is Hope. We have come to them! They have been made perfect! They are part of all we do! They wait for us!

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

I spent the past week with a living example of this verse, which was funny because I’ve been reading about the beatitudes for the past few weeks and the significance of the Kingdom of Heaven. The book, The Divine Conspiracy, makes the argument that the promises are not just promises for our future but promises for our present. We who live in Christ also live in the Kingdom of Heaven, here today, but all too often interpret these promises as something for our far off future, not something we can receive now.

I had the privilege of escorting our special guest around the UK last week as she spoke at churches and shared her story, exhorting everyone she met to never doubt God’s faithfulness and challenging them to pray for and write to our brothers and sisters in the Persecuted Church, sharing what an encouragement that kind of support had been her for and her family over the past two years. Everywhere she went, people were deeply touched. She left every single man in a Welsh Baptist congregation last Sunday weeping. A member of parliament who we had never met before spent an unprecedented two hours with us, inviting us to worship at mass with him (in a private chapel in the parliament!), giving us a lengthy tour of both houses of parliament and treating us to a drink on the terrace of the Stranger’s Bar in the parliament. A senior officer at the Foreign Office, clearly deeply moved, swore up and down he would do all in his power to raise her case and the cases of others like her – and his colleague then proceeded to give us yet another unprecedented tour around the “important bits” of the FCO. A church of 200 women laughed, cried and applauded as she shared her story. Everywhere we went, people would come up afterwards and ask if they could simply hug her.

My friend’s husband, a pastor, disappeared two years ago. Disappearance is one of the cruelest acts committed by man – families go on for years, sometimes a lifetime, in the emotional torture of not knowing. Hope itself, one of the “three things that remain”, is twisted and used to cause an unrelenting pain. I have met women who have not seen their husband or children for twenty or thirty years and exist in a kind of excruciating limbo – torn between hope that they still live, that they will be reunited and the fear that they have been truly gone all this time and are never coming back.

My friend believes her husband is alive. She holds onto that hope – but she rests in something greater. Her pain is evident. As she spoke, the tears were always at the surface; but she is also without a doubt the most joyful person I have ever met. I laughed more last week than I have laughed in a long time because her joy was infectious. She is indeed poor in spirit, the pain and uncertainty she lives on a daily basis is something few of us will ever comprehend. The paradox of this beatitude, however, is made manifest in her – hers is the kingdom of Heaven and she knows it and has claimed it – living in hope and firm in the faith that our God is a faithful God. Lest I leave the impression that her faith and hope are focused on the return of her own husband, I’ll conclude this post with her own words. “I hope that my husband is alive. I believe that he is alive and will be returned to me. But whatever happens, whatever the answer, I will go on loving my Lord, because He is Faithful. Amen!