Easter hope for the Persecuted Church

empty tomb

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! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he also will deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

(2 Timothy 2:8-13 ESV)

 

Lenten Focus: Reflecting

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Over the past 6 weeks, I’ve highlighted 30 of the 50 countries on Open Doors’ World Watch List. I’ve looked at countries with severe and horrific oppression like North Korea and Sudan. I’ve highlighted the plight of refugees and women. Thursday another massive attack on Christians happened in Kenya–a country that is mostly Christian. Muslim extremist from Somalia crossed the Kenya border and attacked Garissa University. 147 students were killed in the attack which began at an early morning Christian prayer service.

We’re seeing this more and more: violence spilling over borders, attacks and persecution on Christians in countries where they are not a minority population oppressed by their government. Most likely, today will bring more attacks on Christians because the enemies of Christ revel in hitting the Church on her holy days. From war in Yemen to the almost certain coming nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the area of the greatest concentration of Christian persecution is becoming more and more unstable, a situation that leads to even more persecution. Likewise, it seems that there will be more instability in East Asia.

Frankly, I’ve had to battle against the tendency to despair in writing these blog posts. (And then against guilt because I’m just reading and writing about distressing events, I don’t actually have to live it. Suck it up, April!) We are called to “Remember those in chains” and to think on “whatever is lovely, whatever is holy, whatever is of good report.” Sometimes it seems impossible to do both.

But I think my sin of despair in this area points to the wider sin of the church and the reason we do not speak much of the Persecuted Church: we have no faith. We don’t really believe in the prayer is effective. From human perspective, the situation looks dire for the Church in many places. Article after article announces the all but complete extermination of the Church in places where it has been established for hundreds and hundreds of years. This events we see and hear about are more convincing to us than the promises of the Word of God. Oh, we of little faith. We are told to pray in faith, not in despair. We are to pray in faith believing that what God has said about his Church is true.

What have I learned during this Lent as I’ve prayed for the Persecuted Church? I’ve learned that life of millions of Christians is difficult and dangerous and becoming more-so every day. And I’ve learned that my faith is very small. Although I say “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church” and “God will preserve his Bride,” I think . . . maybe not. Maybe the Church is going extinct in certain areas of the world, and there is nothing that can be done to stop that. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

Where do I go from here. Well, I think I’m going to try that praying in faith thing. I’m going to continue to pray for the Church, believing that God is faithful to his people and is working though I may not see it. I’m also going to be praying for material ways to help the Persecuted Church, and there are a lot of great ministries out there through which I can do that. Below are the tools I’m going to use from some of the ministries that I have found helpful over the course of this series.

A monthly prayer calendar from Open Doors.

Voice of the Martyrs has a smart phone app with a daily prayer focus.

International Christian Concern sends out a weekly email of prayer points.

If you know of an organization helping the Persecuted Church or a resource to help Christians pray, please post it in the comments. And don’t despair, Easter is coming.

Witness to this

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The Crucifixion by Jacopo Tintoretta. Click the image for a larger version.

 

Since February 18, I’ve been highlighting the Persecuted Church and those who are martyred for their faith. But “martyr” means witness, and those that suffer do so as a testimony of their God.  Today more than any other day Christians everywhere are witnesses to what Christ has done for us. The suffering of Christ for us, and the fact that he calls us to be united with him in suffering, are crucial aspects of our faith. Suffering isn’t the end, nor is it the point of our faith, but it is definitely part and parcel of the faithful life–the means through which we become more like Christ. Whether we live in countries where we freely worship or places where Christians are harassed, persecuted, and killed, this command from Jesus applies to all of us:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

So today, we look more intensely at the suffering Christ endured for us, knowing that he is not only our Savior, but also our example.

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”

From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,

“They divided my garments among them,

and for my clothing they cast lots.”

So the soldiers did these things, but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

(John 19:1-30 ESV)

 

 

 

Lenten Focus: Jordanian Christians

Jordan

Photo: Open Doors

Jordan is number 30 on Open Doors World Watch List and is classified as having moderate persecution. When I think of Jordan, I think of a more modern, less restrictive nation. Yet like every other country in the Middle East, it has been affected by the political and religious turmoil.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Jordan is a significant Middle East power located in the crossroads of the Holy Land and one of only two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel. With few natural resources, it struggles with economic difficulties, unemployment and a burgeoning population. Jordan has taken in more than 600,000 refugees from Syria since 2011. A fresh wave of Iraqi refugees arrived in 2014. The refugee crisis continues to put strain on its already limited natural resources, and the country largely depends on foreign aid. The country continues to strive for regional peace, though it faces a number of security challenges, including a resurgence of Islamic militancy in Iraq.

Islam is the official religion, but the state generally supports religious freedom. The constitution allows citizens to practice religion freely unless it “violates public order or morality or conflicts with Islamic law.” Traditionally, Christians have had few difficulties in Jordan, and even quiet evangelism has been allowed. However, Christians in Jordan, both natives and refugees, increasingly face persecution from their families, employers and society. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of “honor killings” of Christians, wherein a Muslim family kills a Christian family member for leaving Islam. Many traditional Christians have left, but the number of evangelicals continues to grow as people come to Christ.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • For the halt of radical Islam, including the Islamic State
  • For churches working with a large number of refugees from places such as Syria and Iraq
  • That Christians who evangelize Muslims or support Muslim Background Believers will cope with the growing pressure and tensions

Celebrating me with audio books!

I don’t know if you know this, but April is officially my month. This is the month of bluebonnets, my birthday, and when people who think they’re clever make smart* remarks about my name.  Two out of three ain’t bad.

Bluebonnets

Photo: Wikipedia

 

Actually, it’s better than that. It’s bluebonnets, birthdays, and books, because it is also Audible’s Listening Rewards Month. I’ve become something of an audio book addict. We spend an interminable amount of time in the car, and most of the time we’re listening to audio books. And because sometimes it’s all of the kids and sometimes just the boys, we’re generally listening to two audiobooks at the same time. (And I’m generally listening to at least one more on my own, plus a half a dozen podcasts.) What I’m saying is that we go through a lot of audio books.

Of course, the library is a good place for audio books, but nine times out of ten at least one CD is scratched. It’s also harder to switch between books on CD.  Digital audio books are ideal for us, and we have found the Audible is worth it’s weight in gold. Wait, does a digital program weigh anything? Anyway, it’s more than worth the membership cost (af). In addition to all the audio books you can get, Audible carries many lectures and other programs. For example, I’m going to get Foundations, a teaching series on systematic theology for one credit that cost me $16 (including tax.) Regular price? One hundred eleven dollars. I also get The Great Courses lectures from Audible for about $10 each, which has been very beneficial as we’ve read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and now The Aeneid. (And if you want the printed materials that include the transcript and the outlines, you can generally find them used through Amazon for less than $5 with shipping.)

But the reason I’m “going to get” Foundations but haven’t yet, and the reason that April is great for bluebonnets, birthdays and books is because April is Listening Rewards Month. For every four audio books you buy with a regular price of $14.95 or higher, you get a $10 credit. “Buying” includes both using your credit and purchasing books at a member price that’s lower than $14.95, as long as the regular price hits that mark.

But wait! There’s more! Because Audible is an Amazon company, you can get very cheap and even free audio books if you own Kindle editions of some books. This pays off big with older books. Because I had (free!) Kindle versions of Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and The Magic World for $10, and I’ll get a $10 credit.  (Mystie at Simply Convivial shows you how to get the most of Listening Rewards Month.) (Just to be clear, you can get reduced price or even free audio books of some Kindle versions you own anytime, not just during April and November.)

Try Audible for free for 30 days and get two free Audio books. (af)

Mystie also has a great post on getting the most of your Audible Membership.

 

*These remarks aren’t really smart, and neither are you if you make them.

Lenten Focus: Laotian Church

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Laos is number 28 on Open Doors’ World Watch List and is classified as a nation with moderate persecution.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

The Communist Party, which has ruled Laos since 1975, maintains close ties to Vietnam and China. The power and influence of neighboring Vietnam, China and Burma have somewhat isolated Laos economically and geographically. This isolation has fostered a resurgence of abuses by communist authorities, who feel threatened by Protestant Christianity. The predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism, which coexists easily with the animistic spirit worship of the mountain tribes. While Laos does not have an official state religion, the government gives financial support and promotes Buddhism as part of the culture, and also exempts Buddhist groups from a number of restrictions imposed on other groups.

As one of the few remaining communist nations, Laos is a volatile area for Christians. Officially, the constitution allows for religious freedom, and the government officially recognizes four religions, including Christianity. In practice, however, Christians are harassed, evicted from their homes and forcibly relocated, denied education opportunities, arrested and forced to deny their faith. Officials often use a Religious Practice decree, which prohibits activities that create “social division” or “chaos,” to hinder the spread of Christianity. Some believers have started carrying copies of the constitution to help defend themselves against village authorities who tell them their activities are illegal. Churches are watched carefully by the government.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • That the country’s communist government will relent in its pressure on the small Christian community
  • For protection over the members of the illegal church meetings which are often raided
  • For Christians in small villages to stay loyal to their faith despite the threat of being forced from their homes

Lenten Focus: Bruneian Christians

Pray-For-Brunei

Located on the island of Borneo in East Asia, Brunei is the 27th country on the World Watch List. Last May, the country adopted Sharia Law, the first in the region to do so.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Brunei’s economy is based almost entirely on oil and natural gas. The country’s population benefits from high subsidies and no taxes. It has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Ethnic Malays benefit from positive discrimination within the country and make up about two-thirds of the population. The same family has led the country for more than six centuries.

Islam is the official religion, and it is the only religion taught in school. A combination of Islamic law and English common law was used in Brunei, but beginning May 1, 2014, Sharia law will be introduced in three phases. It will be used for civil and criminal affairs for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Christians face a variety of restrictions, including confiscation of religious materials intended for distribution and sale, and prohibitions on religious teaching in private, non-Islamic schools. Evangelism and conversion to Christianity are prohibited, Bible importation is forbidden, and the government regularly ignores requests to build or expand churches. Even religious symbols on imported magazines are censored. Only three types of churches are legally registered in the country: Catholic, Anglican and Methodist, comprising about 20 churches in total. No new churches have been permitted, so many believers must meet secretly.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • For all workers who are risking their freedom in advancing the gospel and interacting with new believers
  • That Bibles and biblical materials may reach Christians despite the ban on those materials
  • That restrictions on Christian worship may be relaxed for the minority believers

Lenten Focus: Palestinian Territories

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Nativity_Church_in_Bethlehem_Christmas_Eve_2006

Nativity Church in Bethlehem, 2006. Photo: Wikipedia

 

The Palestinian Territories are number 26 on Open Doors’ World Watch List, and are classified as a area of moderate persecution.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Gaza Strip — This small territory in southwestern Israel lies along the Mediterranean Sea and borders Egypt. It is one of the most densely populated areas of the world, with over 1.5 million people. Hamas, which is both a political movement and an Islamist terrorist organization, has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007. Renewed conflicts led to calls for peace talks in 2014, but tensions continue. Israel and Egypt block almost all exports from Gaza and restrict imports, which has had severe economic ramifications. More than 70 percent of Gaza’s population lives in poverty and receives humanitarian assistance, and the U.N. reports that it provides food aid to nearly 800,000 people.

West Bank — This territory lies in eastern Israel and borders Jordan and the Dead Sea. More than 2.5 million people live in the West Bank, and 80 percent are Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinian Authority exercises control of the West Bank, but Jewish settlements and Israeli military authorities control some areas within the territory as well

There are an estimated 8,000 Palestinian Arab evangelical believers, with 1,400 of those in the West Bank and 300 in Gaza. In general, the government structures attempt to provide freedom of religious beliefs, although Sharia law is used in both the West Bank and in Gaza. … Both Arab and Jewish believers are persecuted and harassed, sometimes violently. Muslim extremists periodically persecute Arab Christians, particularly those from Muslim backgrounds. Authorities have been known to tell Christian converts to leave their communities to avoid harassment and persecution. Although some churches meet openly in the West Bank, the situation for Arab Christians is more oppressive in rural villages of the West Bank and in Gaza.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • For the many women in Israeli and Palestinian areas who suffer trauma from violence because of war and persecution because of their gender
  • For students at the Bethlehem Bible College preparing for Christian ministry and leadership
  • For the church in Gaza, as many are still suffering from the war in 2014

Great Cloud of Witnesses: The First Martyr

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_150

For Sundays during Lent, I thought I’d look at some of the examples of the faith from Church history. As the author of Hebrews, after listing the the heroes of the faith in Chapter 11, writes in chapter 12, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Stephen was the first martyr after Jesus’ Ascension*.  Stephen was one of the seven men appointed to make sure all those in need were cared for. Acts describes him as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” When he was accused of blasphemy, he used his audience with the high priest as an opportunity to preach the gospel, starting with Abraham. Basically, he told the most learned and esteemed men in his culture their own history through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus, condemning them for rejecting Him. It did not go well.

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

(Acts 7:54-60 ESV)

A few things strike me as I read through Acts 6 and 7. First, Stephen’s boldness and fearlessness always amaze me. He was bold in preaching and bold when he was brought before the high priest.  Also, he had obviously prepared himself to defend his faith. He gave an orderly, logical defense that was crafted for his audience. That means he had considered the possibility that his activities would result in him being arrested, and knew he’d use the opportunity to preach the gospel.

But the other thing that strikes me is that martyrdom is there at the very beginning of the Church. Especially for the Western Church, we consider persecution to be an anomaly, but I’m not sure either scripture or history supports that view. Rather, it is we who have been living the anomaly. It is the normal order of things that believers would suffer for their faith. Persecution is to be expected, and God gives us instruction on how to respond to persecution and a model to follow in Stephen and others. As we pray for the Persecuted Church, we should pray that they would respond in the manner Jesus has set forth, and we should pray that we would be prepared to do the same.

*One might say John the Baptist was the first martyr of the Church, or even Abel. So I’m just saying he was the first martyr after the Ascension, which is accurate, as far as can be ascertained by the written record.

Lenten Focus: the Destruction of Churches

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Mosul

In focusing on the destruction of churches, I don’t want to suggest that these losses are on par with the violence done against humans.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”

But the attack on churches are certainly attacks on Christians. It’s an attempt to drive Christians from their homes and exile them from communities. And the pain Christians must feel seeing their places of worship destroyed–places that generations may have worshiped at, or that they’ve built with their own hands–must be devastating.

In Iraq, ISIS has destroyed countless churches, including an 1,800 year old church in Mosul. Throughout the Middle East, in Syria, Egypt, and many other nations churches are being attacked. Outside the Middle East–in places like Nigeria, India, and China— churches are also targets.

Christian holidays are an especially dangerous time, with attacks increasing as attention to Christianity increases. Enemies of the church seek to make the biggest statement, and attacking Christians at worship on their most holy day does that.

Pray for vulnerable Christians during Holy Week, for their safety and the safety of the buildings they call sacred.

 

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