Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Good-bye Karen

On Friday, we say good-bye to someone whom I have come to respect a great deal here at The Voice of the Martyrs. Karen Morgan will be leaving us after almost ten years of faithful ministry. She will be sorely missed.

Karen's contributions to the mission have been manifold. She started out as our receptionist in 1997 and ended up being the responsible for the entire layout of our monthly newsletter. One thing we could always count on with Karen; excellence! In fact, she exemplified our value of pursuing excellence. You never had to worry that Karen would do a mediocre job of whatever she was asked to do. She would quietly and faithfully carry out her responsibilities in such a way that it was easy to take her for granted. I don't think we did though; we knew just how valuable Karen was to the ministry of The Voice of the Martyrs.

I am grateful for the opportunity of having served with her for the past 9+ years. Karen was an integral part of the changes that took place here at the mission that have seen us grow the way we have. I am grateful for having gotten to know her better over the past few years. I have learned to greatly respect her for her warmth and stability of character.

She cannot be replaced.

Thank you, Karen, for having been a vital part of the VOMC family. We wish you God's richest blessing in whatever He leads you to in the years to come. We know that you will be blessing wherever you go and whatever you do.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

What Are You Thinking, Mr. Warren?

What are thinking, Rick Warren? First, since earlier this year, you seem to have this simplistic notion that you are going to be able to go to North Korea where you are going to be allowed to freely preach the gospel in this totalitarian country and that its oppressed people are really going to be able to hear, understand and accept your message without severe consequences. You completely fail to recognize that totalitarian regimes just love naïve preachers who are willing to be used for propaganda purposes just so long as they get to preach to big crowds and take lots of pictures and video. Then a couple of weeks ago, you toured Syria where, in a videotape released by your own church, then subsequently withdrawn from YouTube, you announced that Syria does not countenance "extremism" and is worthy of praise for its protection of Christians and Jews.

It seems to me long past time that you recognize the limits of your expertise. Being a best-selling author of a motivational book (however good it may be) does not automatically qualify you to be a foreign diplomat. Your faux pas', however well-intentioned, cannot ignored or excused, especially when you mishandle the facts in your dealing with religious restrictive nations.

In a recent message to your congregation, you wrote, "Friends, I am aware that inaccuracies, misquotes, and misperceived motivations get reported about me in the press daily. Most of the time, I just ignore them. Jesus said, 'If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.' (John 15:18 - NCV)."

I am sorry, Mr. Warren, but you are not being persecuted. You are being criticized by fellow Christians who love the Lord and His people for comments that you keep making which demonstrate just how seemingly naïve you are being. Some of us actually like your books. To be sure, you are being misquoted, but by enemies of the gospel like Syria whose job you make so easy with press releases that praise the rights that Christians supposedly have. But they are not persecuting you. They love folks like you and I am sure would welcome you back to Damascus at any time. Jesus said that we were to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents. You have the dove part down pretty solidly. You seem reluctant, however, to embrace the role of the wise serpent.

Not Dodging the Ball

As many of you know, I have been fighting cancer for the last four years. I have come to the point now where my best course of action is a stem cell transplant. I meet the criteria of being: 1) in reasonably good health, 2) having a suitable donor, 3) still responsive to chemotherapy. Hence, this past week, the specialist team at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto scheduled me for a transplant on December 20. I will be checking into the hospital on the 16th after four days of extensive chemotherapy as a conditioning process. This conditioning and the transplant will both be hard and potentially life threatening and I confess to a degree of fear as I contemplate the various side effects and potential complications that could arise. I know that it is important that I and my family go into this with our eyes wide open. But for a few hours early last Thursday morning, I seriously contemplated running away from it all. I could not face it.

I woke up at 4:00 am, thinking about what I am about to face and I was scared. I logged onto Google and typed in the sentence "Is it worth it" along with the phrases "stem cell transplant" and "CLL". Finding no hits, I logged onto the Mayo clinic site and read through one of the more helpful discussions on the subject. But reading through such potential complications as graft-versus-host disease, stem cell (graft) failure, organ damage, blood vessel damage, cataracts, secondary cancers, and death, brought no encouragement. I am a man who thrives on information but mere facts only increased my anxiety.

A few weeks ago, my grandfather passed away. While we were not especially close, some of my fondest memories with him involved long hours of tossing a baseball back and forth when I was younger. This was no casual game of catch. Grandpa had a strong arm and threw the ball hard and straight at me. At first, I would try to scoot off to the side and catch the ball away from my body in fear of getting hit by the ball if I missed it. Grandpa would have none of that. "Get in front of the ball," he would tell me. "That way if you miss, you can still pick up the ball when it hits you."

He was right, of course. And I followed his instructions.

I was never a very good ball player. We never practiced batting. And my throwing arm never became as accurate or as strong as I would have liked. But I did learn how to catch and how to catch very, very well. One of my prize possessions is the grass-stained and scuffed up baseball that we played with for so many years, which my grandfather gave me earlier this year. Today it sits on my office desk at The Voice of the Martyrs.

Why am I mentioning this? Because, like catching a baseball, it seems to me that life's problems cannot be handled by trying to dodge out of the way and catching the solution as it flies off to the side. I have learned that you need to take on life's challenges head-on, even it means that they hit you hard. But running away is not an option. As a Christian, I have the assurance that Christ stands with me in whatever situation I am called to. There is no God-forsaken place for the Christian; not even an isolation room in a transplant ward.

I do covet your prayers in the coming weeks. Pray that the conditioning process will be successful and without complications. Pray that my health will remain strong in the weeks leading up to mid-December. And pray for my family as we anticipate a Christmas season with Dad in the hospital. I am so grateful for the support of my wife and children. May God continue to hold them in His hand.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving, Freedom & The Persecuted Church

Slowly the pastor made his way to the pulpit to conclude a service where I had shared concerning the reality of Christian persecution today, testimonies of the faithfulness of the Suffering Church, and the responsibility that Canadian Christians have to stand together with them in their affliction. But as he opened his mouth, I was saddened to realize that, despite all my efforts, this dear man of God had completely missed the point of the message. Thanking me for coming, he then suggested that the congregation spend a few minutes thanking God for the freedoms that we enjoy in Canada since it was obvious that so many around the world cannot worship freely as we do.

This incident was not unique. Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. In Canada, our celebration takes place on the second Sunday of October. Regardless of the date or the country, I am sure that many of us pray such a prayer as we gather together as friends and families or during Thanksgiving services and/or family celebrations.

Indeed, this type of prayer of gratitude tends to be the standard ending to many of meetings where our staff are asked to speak. How many of us haven't prayed a similar prayer at one time or another? It seems to be a particularly suitable prayer when we consider what we were thankful to God for. The issue of religious freedom inevitably comes up, and the prayer is spoken, "Thank you, Lord, for our freedoms, for we know that there are many around the world who don't have them. Thank you that we don't have to meet in secret like so many do." And with that we barely give a second thought about the very people to whom we were comparing ourselves.

Let me state it plainly. If your first and primary response to the Persecuted Church is to feel grateful for the freedoms we enjoy in this country then, like me, you have probably missed the whole point of what God wants to say to you through the testimony of His Suffering Church. Simply put, the Persecuted Church does not exist so that we can feel grateful, and they deserve to be more than a prayer item or sermon illustration designed primarily to elicit thanksgiving.

I recall the first time I began to have misgivings about the appropriateness of responding to reports of persecution by giving thanks for our freedoms. It was after I returned from a week of ministry in Colombia in 1999, when I was privileged to meet a number of courageous believers who are putting their lives on the line for Jesus Christ. In the six months previous to my visit, more than 25 evangelical pastors had been killed and up to 300 churches destroyed by leftist guerrilla groups in Colombia. Satanists had killed other pastors. While there, I met with the families of 180 Christians who had been kidnapped on May 30, 1999, by ELN, one of the country's main Marxist guerrilla groups. The ELN had attacked the church where they were praying and took the entire congregation hostage. With tears in their eyes, the families of those held hostage begged for our help in alerting the world to the plight of their loved ones and were grateful when we prayed for them before we left.

Hearing of the suffering of these people, I thought to myself, what should we do? Offer a prayer of thanksgiving that we don't live there? Do I really believe that this is what God calls for? Is this really the best we can do?

Isn't it ironic that whereas the early church thanked God for the privilege of suffering for Him, we thank God for the privilege of not suffering for Him? And whereas Jesus called those who are persecuted "blessed", we say that the blessed are those who are protected from persecution? Something is amiss here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Parents of Beheaded Girls Forgive Killers

I have been doing a lot of thinking about forgiveness lately since putting together the December edition of The Voice of the Martyrs' Newsletter which focuses on the theme. To forgive someone who has killed your loved one for no other reason than that he or she is a Christian can only be the result of the work of God's Spirit. On October 27, I wrote a blog on the subject, which you may want to take a look at, if you have not already done so.

AsiaNews released a story today of how the parents of the three girls who were beheaded in Indonesia on October 29, 2005 have forgiven the killers of their daughters. I hope that you are as touched by this act as I was.

Poso (AsiaNews) - The parents of three Christian girls who were beheaded last year in Poso, central Sulawesi, have forgiven their daughters' executioners. Yesterday, Indonesian police organized a meeting between families of the victims and the three terrorists now on trial. Hasanuddin, who organized the triple murder, repeatedly said he had repented and expressed his profound sorrow together with his two accomplices, Irwanto and Haris.

In tears, the mother of one of the girls said she was ready to pardon them. The Islamic militants and Christian families embraced and shook hands as a sign of peace.

The police spokesman said "the meeting of Poso has no political ends other than to promote harmony" and the forces of order had merely facilitated the encounter. The police chief Sutanto described the meeting as a "historic moment" when the victims and murderers could "exchange their deepest feelings and seek to forgive."

Indonesia's vice president Jusuf Kalla, said he hoped yesterday's meeting would be "an opportunity to bring peace to Poso".

On October 29, 2005, four Christian schoolgirls, all around 15 years of age, were walking home. Three were assaulted and beheaded by men using machetes near the Gebang Rejo area in Poso. The case repulsed public opinion and was strongly condemned by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Benedict XVI.

Hasanuddin, Irwanto and Haris have pleaded guilty to their part in their killings and could be condemned to death. The accused men said they attacked the young girls to avenge the death of many Muslims during inter-faith clashes in Poso between 1998 and 2001.

The question I am forced to ask myself after reading this story is, "Could I do the same as these parents if my daughter was slaughtered so senselessly and brutally?" Could you?

Building Strong and Straight

The following is the speech given by Glenn Penner at the November 19 banquet in Mississauga, Ontario celebrating Klaas and Nellie Brobbel's 35 years of service to the Persecuted Church.

Mark Twain once said, "It is by the goodness of God that in (the United States) we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."

By this time in a banquet following a number of other speakers, these are certainly words that one should keep in mind. There is probably not much that I could add to what has already been said anyway. And so, I will attempt to show the prudence that Twain spoke of and limit my freedom of speech during the time given to me tonight.

Prior to joining The Voice of the Martyrs, I spend almost three years building concrete basements, mostly for residential homes. Building basements is dirty, hard work. There is nothing glamorous about it and is largely unappreciated; no one compliments a home owner on the beauty of their basement). And when the job is done, it is covered up so that no one can see it.

But the basement is essential to the stability of a home. Everything gets built off of a basement. If a basement is not level or out of square, the construction of the rest of the home will be adversely affected. Everything will be off.

I grew up on a farm in Alberta. My dad would work construction in the winter to pay for his bad habit of farming. Making sure that things were square to the world was a passion of his. Nothing annoyed him more than if something was crooked.

One summer, our neighbour across the road built a new house. And wouldn't you know it, it was just slightly out of alignment with the rest of the world. It drove my father crazy every time he had to look down the lane and see it.

It was just off by a few degrees but it looked odd from a distance and reflected poorly on the builder, the surveyor, and the owner. And it started with the basement. They didn't lay the foundation straight and the whole house looked bad as a result.

For many years, Klaas and Nellie laboured long and hard to build the foundation, the basement, for what would become The Voice of the Martyrs today. It has been hard work; not very glamorous and often unappreciated. Not many may know the name of the Brobbels across this country. They have been most comfortable working in the background and letting others get the credit for when something goes right.

But they have set a building in place with a solid, straight foundation.

Ten years ago, they stood in an empty building on Timberlead Blvd., just the two of them, wondering if the mission would survive. It has survived and not only that; it is thriving.

It has been my honour to work with these two builders for the past 9+ years. And to be entrusted with the task of building off of their foundation as the new Chief Executive Officer is a privilege and a God-given responsibility that I take very seriously.

I was warned by Nellie when I first joined the mission that this kind of work would become an all encompassing life obsession. She is right. I cannot imagine ever doing anything other than serving the persecuted church.

This is God's call upon my life and I am honoured to be able to continue the legacy of the Brobbels. With Klaas, we retire the title of Executive Director and I am glad that I will not have to take that title. It will always be associated with Klaas and Nellie in my mind.

But my dedication to continuing the work of The Voice of the Martyrs is no less than theirs. Like Elisha picking up the mantle of Elijah, I will continue the ministry that Klaas began, asking God for a double portion of the Spirit which he possessed.

Yes, there are differences between us. I am a different kind of leader than Klaas is. The mission is larger now than when he began and the world we face is not the same one he faced when he started. Then, the might of Soviet Communism threatened world peace and the faith of believers everywhere. Today, the threat of militant jihadism threatens world peace and the faith of believers is threatened on many sides, many religious, others secular. The ministry of The Voice of the Martyrs will continue to adapt to the changing needs of the persecuted church in a changing world, just as it has adapted over the past 40 years.

We have learned that how we served the persecuted church 40, 30, 20, even 10 years ago is the best way to do so today. Some mistakes have been made. New ones are yet to be made. But this is how one learns, if one is willing to learn. Klaas and Nellie have demonstrated that kind of willingness. That willingness to learn is part of the foundation of The Voice of the Martyrs Canada today.

I covet your prayers as I pick up Klaas' mantle and seek to wisely lead this incredible and talented team that God has assembled. We dare not live in the past, for victory can contain the seeds for future defeats if we are not careful. But we do know that the God that led Klaas and Nellie is the same God who leads us today. And this gives us grounds for confidence.

The thing to remember is that that the future comes one day at a time, as we walk faithfully and humbly with our God, staying true to our mission and values.

Klaas, Nellie, thank you for your years of service to the Persecuted Church. Thank you for your example of sacrificial servanthood.

And thank you for the fact, that I know that for as long as you live, this mission will be on your hearts and minds and that you will NEVER stop praying for us.

May God bless you both.

Monday, November 20, 2006

From Blindness to Sight

One passage in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book of creative nonfiction by Christian Annie Dillard, tells the real life stories of people who are born blind but have their vision surgically restored through cataract surgery (I actually found the whole passage online and encourage you to read it here). The experiences of these newly sighted individuals got me thinking about people who convert to Christianity after being raised as non-believers, since a number of persecution stories contain conversion experiences. I was also reminded that all Christians, old and new, are forever battling against spiritual blindness, because sometimes it seems easier and simpler to remain in the dark rather than deal with the challenges posed by the light.

What is so surprising about Dillard's description of people who go from blindness to sight is that they do not always respond positively to their new vision. To their untrained eyes, reality is utterly unrecognizable and so can be terrifying. Their mind can't immediately process the colours, shapes and forms and the sheer "bigness" of the world is overwhelming. Dillard quotes one doctor who says that "it oppresses [the newly sighted] to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable." I suppose it would be something like finding out that there really are millions of other planets out there brimming with life and civilization. Suddenly we would all feel crushingly small against the vastness and foreignness of the world.

Dillard's descriptions shatter all of my idealistic illusions and assumptions about how blind people respond to the gift of sight. I always pictured them reacting with endless joy and gratitude, not depression and shock. In fact, as Dillard describes, a number of the newly sighted go so far as to reject their newfound vision. They deliberately go through life with their eyes shut because it is what feels safe, comfortable, normal and, well, "right."

Not all of the newly sighted have such negative reactions to their sight. Some do take immediate delight in their new sight or, at least, come use it with time. However, even if the experience of new vision isn't always tragic, it is always dramatic. As doctor says, the experience is a "rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen". New vision necessities a complete change of life.

What would it be like to go from complete blackness to the seeing world? I can't even imagine! But these stories at least make me certain that it would take a lot of effort, patience and support to make the transition. I certainly would not be able to do it alone---I would need others to, to guide me, to teach me and, of course, to pray for me.

This same level of support is needed for those who go from living without Christ's "light" to accepting Him as their personal Saviour. I often forget just how incredibly jarring and overwhelming it must be for those who convert to Christianity after years of being completely with faith. Since I was born into a Christian home, I don't know what it's like to encounter the Christian faith from a completely foreign perspective. From birth, I've been told that His "light" was there, I just had to choose how I was going to respond to it. There are some people, however, who come to Christ the same way the blind come to sight. Their truths, their beliefs, their perceptions---everything that they once knew changes. And even if this new reality is beautiful, the adjustment can't be immediate or easy. I can completely understand why some might be tempted to "shut their eyes" and just go back to what is familiar, especially if they are in areas of persecution.

A conversion to Christianity is certainly a cause for celebration and joy. However, we also need to remember that, even after the "Hallelujah! Christ is Lord," there is much work to be done. Although God is at work in the hearts of new believers, Satan is also at working to lure them back into the darkness of doubt and disbelief. When a nonbeliever accepts Christ, it does not mean that the work of the Church is finished. Really, it is has just begun, because it can finally take its true shape and role in the person's life.

God calls us to properly equip new believers for their life of faith by instructing them in God's word, teaching them ministry skills and reminding them that they belong to a communal body of believers. In the work of VOMC, I see this calling being answered in our projects that have an emphasis on training persecuted Christians in biblical theology, leadership skills and methods of evangelism. We have a responsibility not to let new believers be forgotten or unprepared.

But it's not just new believers, of course, who need to be in a constant state of learning and training. We are all constantly learning how to "see." Romans 20:19-21a makes this clear when it says ""if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth---you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?" All Christians must strive to be alert, focused and prepared.

In this life, no man will never be able to fully see God's face; we can only see "through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:2). But, nonetheless, the Lord requires us to keep straining our eyes toward Him. If we fail to do so out of fear, we could face the same tragedy as those who literally go from blindness to sight. And the last thing that the Lord wants is for His children to "laps[e] into apathy and despair." We cannot do His work if we are stumbling around with our eyes closed---living without faith and trading the glory of the His light for the empty serenity of the dark.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Very Busy Week

I want to apologize for not doing much blogging this week. It has been extremely busy here at the mission this week. Of course, it didn't help that I was in the hospital until Wednesday. My hemoglobin and neutraphil levels struggled to get to a level that I could finally be discharged safely on Wednesday morning, but I am still feeling a little dizzy and run down. This makes it hard for me to concentrate enough to write anything legible down.

But we have also been having all kinds of guests and meetings here at the VOMC headquarters this week. We had our monthly Executive Team Meeting on Thursday, which I always look forward to. To lead this group as we meet together for the day, praying and discussing the issues facing our mission and looking ahead to the future is a real honour. The unity we have is incredible and I praise God for each of them.

Then our Board of Directors met yesterday and I was invited to join them for their meeting, as this is the last one that they will be having before I become the Chief Executive Officer of VOMC and Klaas steps down as Executive Director in January. This was, thus, a transitional meeting and very meaningful. Again, I was struck by the unity evident amoung the leaders of our mission. The Voice of the Martyrs is a mission built on a solid foundation and our supporters have very reason to be confident as we move into the future.

Also, we have guests arriving from around the world for Klaas and Nellie Brobbel's retirement banquet tonight. I had the privilege of two of my colleagues from our sister mission in Germany out for dinner last night. I was thrilled to hear of what they are doing in Syria amoung Christian refugees from Iraq fleeing persecution from their Muslim neighbours. I am hopeful that we will be able to join with them in this in the coming days. This is an answer to prayer for me, personally, as God placed a burden on my heart for these Iraqi refugees a year ago which, until now, I have been unable to act upon. God may be opening a way.

I would ask for your prayers. I am feeling a little fragile in regards to my health. Pray that God would sustain me during these busy, exciting days.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Theology of Persecution is Necessary for a Healthy Body

I have learned a lot about the human immune system since my own has taken a bit of a beating over the past few years as a result of cancer and chemotherapy (there are times when I think the latter is the harder to live with). Neutrophils are one of these things that I have become very aware of. They are the most abundant type of white blood cells and form an integral part of the immune system. A low count, called "neutropenia", makes one very susceptible to infection.

This is what I am battling right now and why I am in the hospital in reverse isolation. When I was booked into the hospital on Friday, my neutraphil count was 0 (2.5-7.5x10^9/L is normal). Yup, ZERO. Hence, but by the grace of God, I could have picked up virtually anything and had very little to fight it off.

This got me thinking last night. Why does the North American church need the message of the Persecuted Church? In many ways, I believe that the message of persecution in the context of discipleship serves the role in the Body of Christ that neutraphils serve in the human body. Like neutraphils, persecution is common in the Body of Christ. Today, far more Christians face daily persecution than those who do not. The biblical theology of persecution (or diogmology) provides immunity against infections that can harm the Body; teachings like it is always God's will that one be healthy and wealthy and that no harm can come to you if you have enough faith. The understanding that the disciples is called to a lifestyle of suffering, sacrifice, and shame (even to the point of death) in order to accomplish the purposes of the Kingdom of God provides a balance and a context to the other promises of God's Word which, viewed in isolation, can lead to a unhealthy realized eschatology so common in today's western church. Don't get me wrong; I do believe in healing and I do believe that God supplies our needs but I refuse to see these promises apart from the widespread teaching in the Bible regarding persecution for the sake of Christ.

To Preach or Not to Preach, That is the Question

Well, it's another Sunday morning in the hospital. On Friday, I woke up feeling weak and dizzy and so, after a short meeting at the office, I went to the cancer clinic where they determined that my immune system had tanked again (just like a month ago) and they checked into the hospital....again.

I was supposed to speak at a church this morning here in Mississauga for IDOP but that, of course, had to cancelled. I hate it when I have to cancel things, especially as it seems that I have had to call off so much in the last two months. But this is the first time that I have had to cancel a speaking engagement only a day or two ahead of time. Usually, I have been able to find someone else to do it, or reschedule. It's starting to feel like I shouldn't schedule anything at all. At least then I wouldn't have to cancel.

Next week, I am supposed to speak at a church in Alliston. Pray that I would have the wisdom to know whether to go ahead with this booking or have my colleague, Bernie Daniel take it.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Efficacy of Prayer

Yesterday, just a few days before the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, I came upon C.S. Lewis' essay "The Efficacy of Prayer," which I feel asks some important questions and offers some valuable insights about the nature and purpose of prayer.

As usual, Lewis' wrestles with issues of faith by asking questions instead of offering immediate or easy answers. His main question in this essay is "Why do we pray?"---which connects to questions such as "What good are our prayers, anyway?" and "What do prayers change?" Here are a few of his thoughts on the subject:

Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers, or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to cooperate in the execution of His will.

Prayer, implies Lewis, is not an activity that we perform in order to change God's will, but a way for us to submit to it. So, when we gather together and pray for the persecuted, we are not praying that God change his will for the lives of our brothers and sisters who are suffering for their faith. To do so would imply that we don't believe that their suffering is in accordance with His ultimate plan of redeeming mankind. Instead, prayer is a way for us to acknowledge that every life in the hands of a Lord that is wholly good, loving and divine. His mind is not one that can or should be altered by our suggestions and pleas. If it could be changed---if God acted according to our will---what need would we have for Him at all? And why would believers choose to sacrifice their lives for Him? Wouldn't all Christians be able to just sit back, safe from harm, and simply use our prayers to convince him that all of this persecution business wasn't really necessary?

Prayer is not about changing God, it is about His changing us---His helping us to see past our human perceptions and impulses. Although the story of a believer beaten or tortured for his or her faith might compel us to cry out to the Lord for this suffering to cease, He asks for us to also pray that, even if it endures, we will have the strength to entrust it to His purpose. Likewise, He calls on us to pray that the victim will also experience this strength and trust in Him.

The human life is made up of actions, and the Christian life is characterized by a commitment to make all actions reflect our faith. Lewis emphasizes that prayer is an action--- it is a deliberate deed, a movement, a response. It is done because it has an effect. "It is not really stranger, nor less strange," he says "that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God's mind --- that is, His overall purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures."

When we pray, just as when we commit any other action in faith, we are always affected. We are blessed; our lives are filled with more joy, more peace and more hope than they would be if our actions had another purpose. Prayer helps us to know love as it's meant to be known, receive grace as it's meant to be received and, by doing so, teaches us to give both of these things as they are meant to be given. It enables us to connect our actions with God's overall purpose, which is to redeem us and make us holy.

This Sunday, I hope that those who say a prayer for the persecuted will come away feeling assured in God's purpose. May the act of prayer lead many believers to a fuller realization of God's will for their lives, for the lives of the persecuted and for the life of Christ's Church as a worldwide whole.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


From the World Evangelical Alliance International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (http://www.idop.org/idop_aprayer.pdf)

‘I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies.' (Psalm 18:1-3 NIV)

O Lord our deliverer, deliver us from evil.

Sovereign Holy God, we marvel at your work amongst the nations and we trust you. As we bring our requests to you, please forgive our sins, overlook our weaknesses and hear and answer our prayers for the sake of your Kingdom and glory.

We pray today for our brothers and sisters who live with sadness, trauma and fear; and who live with daily hardship, discrimination and persecution because they have taken your name and are Christians in a world that hates Christ.

We bring before you our persecuted brothers and sisters whose lives and security are daily under threat. We bring before you especially those who are imprisoned and those who are branded ‘apostate' and sentenced to death because they have turned to Jesus.

Lord our deliverer, deliver them from evil.

We bring before you our persecuted brothers and sisters whose lives have been shattered by religious repression, violent religious hatred and jihad, as they now face the daily struggle to maintain faith, hope and grace to forgive, as Satan attacks their hearts and minds.

Lord our deliverer, strengthen their faith and deliver them from evil.

We bring before you those who through ignorance, blindness, demonic interference and sin have set themselves against your Church, and yet are merely sinners in need of the Saviour.

Lord our deliverer, convict them of sin and deliver them from evil.

We bring before you all those who profess Christ and yet are soft, luke-warm, un-caring, un-regenerate, fearful or lazy. Lord, may your Spirit awaken, revive, reform and embolden us all to seek and embrace your call upon our lives as ambassadors for Christ, no matter what the personal cost.

Lord our deliverer, forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil.

We pray to you, the only living God, the sovereign Almighty God for whom nothing is impossible. We ask that you the God of Peace (Hebrews 13:2) will intervene in the conflicts in this world. We especially pray that you will ‘frustrate the ways of the wicked' (Psalm 146:9) and disrupt, expose, and destroy terror networks and the illegal trade in weapons and ammunition. Put an end to this trade in death; shatter its foundations and strike its roots; disrupt its progress and starve it in the field, for the sake of your Kingdom and glory.

Lord, may your Spirit embolden and compel your Church to preach the whole gospel. May conviction of sin abound, may righteousness spring up, may persecutors of the Church be transformed into preachers of the gospel (Galatians 1:23), may liberty fill the earth so the sower may overtake the reaper (Amos 9:13), and may all who see it rejoice in the Lord.

We thank you for your grace and mercy.

Deliver us from evil O Lord our deliverer, so we may live to serve you, for the sake of your kingdom and glory.In the name of Jesus. AMEN

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What I Do Know About Helen's Release

I don't know if Helen Berhane's release from detention was the result of an international campaign on her behalf, as Amnesty International is claiming. I don't know if her release is a sign that the Eritrean government is growing more responsive to international pressure. Frankly, I would be surprised. I don't know if this is the first sign of a gradual softening of the Eritrean government towards its evangelical Christian population. I think that this would be saying too much, to be honest; only time will tell.

But I do know that Helen's release was the result of thousands of people praying for her. Since news of her freedom was confirmed on Friday, it has become obvious that this was a woman that many were praying for regularly, if not daily. Helen's release demonstrates that prayer is doing something; it is not that which we do when we have exhausted all other options.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Iranian Church Featured in Latest Persecution Report

The Voice of the Martyrs has just released its latest edition of the Persecution Report. I hope that you have had a chance to watch it. If not, may I encourage you to do so? It is 20 minutes long and filled with information and testimonies that I know you will find helpful in getting to know the Persecuted Church even better. The feature story this month is on the growing church in Iran. It is very exciting to see how God is at work in this restricted nation. Just go to the home page of The Voice of the Martyrs and click on the icon for The Persecution Report. Then tell us how you like it! If you are interested in running the Persecution Report on your website, contact our webmaster for more details.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shooting Higher than the Moon: Encouragement and Christian Persecution

Encouragement is a subject that people seem to like talking about. They take a lot of pleasure in practicing it and reminding others of its benefits. The web, for example, appears to be a never-ending resource of encouragement-related material. If you search one of the numerous "inspirational quotes" databases on the web, the word "encouragement" yields many results. The quotes range from the short and practical ("Correction does much, but encouragement does more") to the flowery and poetic ("Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars. ")The word also yields many results when you look it up in a dictionary or thesaurus. For example, here are but a few "encouragement" synonyms from Roget's Online Thesaurus: advocacy, aid, cheer, comfort, confidence, consolation, faith, helpfulness, hope, incentive, optimism, reassurance, relief, stimulation, trust. The sheer length of this list testifies to the variety of encouragement methods given and received by people throughout the world.

I am pleased to say that, during the past few months, I have been able to experience the benefits of encouragement on numerous occasions. Since I began working here at VOMC, all of the staff members have been a ceaseless source of encouragement. Likewise, I have been surrounded by a network of encouraging faculty members and fellow students since I began my school studies this August. Without such support, both of these experiences would be far more difficult. In fact, I think I might even have surrendered to my doubts and insecurities by now. Instead, I have been surrounded by people who comfort me, appreciate me and, most importantly, challenge me to serve Christ to the best of my ability.

For me, these experiences have emphasized how powerful encouragement is when it occurs between fellow believers. It also got me thinking about the role that encouragement plays within serving the Persecuted Church. My main question is: "How does the encouragement that we are called to give to persecuted Christians differ from the encouragement that is doled out on poster platitudes and hallmark cards?" I've come up with a few possible characteristics that could help to distinguish "general" encouragement from the encouragement that we offer fellow Christians who are being persecuted for their faith.

The encouragement that we offer Persecuted Christians is not...

  • ... Necessarily synonymous with praise ---- Encouraging persecuted believers doesn't mean showering them with flattery or "buttering them up" with praise. Don't get me wrong, I think that complimenting or commending someone is a completely legitimate form of encouragement. However, I also think that people often forget that praise is not the only form of encouragement. The term "praise" is a tricky synonym. When we say we "praised" someone, it obviously don't mean we offered them the same praise that we offer God. After all, you can praise God, but you can't "encourage" Him; he has no need for our encouragement. So when we encourage a fellow believer we shouldn't be trying to say that the person is ‘better' or ‘holier' than we are. Instead, encouragement between believers is a way to say "You have done well!" It is a way to acknowledge that all good is not accomplished by man alone, but ultimately achieved through God. That's why both the giver and receiver of encouragement can respond to a job well done by exclaiming "Praise the Lord!"

  • ... About establishing power roles ---- In some social environments, such as the workplace or even the classroom, encouragement is something that is offered hierarchically. The person with the most knowledge or authority educates or trains the person "below" them by offering them encouragement. It's a necessary part of the process, but it also inevitably marks one person as "above" the other. If, in the context of Christian Persecution, it would imply that those who give it are always the ones teaching or training those who receive it. While teaching and training can be part of the process of serving the Persecuted Church, it's also very apparent that suffering saints can in fact be the teachers to those of us who are not suffering. Their suffering doesn't make them "weaker" believers. They don't need to our pity or our despair, what they need is our support. They need to know that we don't stand above them; we stand beside them, recognizing that we can both teach them and be taught by them about living in full submission to Christ

  • ...Given because its recipient is failing ---- On a related note, a sufferer's need for encouragement isn't a sign of their failure. Those who remain faithful and steadfast during persecution are, in fact, achieving a remarkable victory. Thus, when we encourage them, we are not encouraging them to get out of their suffering by surrendering their witness, the way we might tell a soldier to get off the battlefield simply because he is wounded or outnumbered. Instead, we are to encourage enduring faithfulness, despite the consequences. This is another way to show them that we stand with them. We can also encourage them to remember that their suffering is speciali---its meaning goes far beyond the human conception of success/failure and demonstrates the paradox of victory through sacrifice

  • ...Always sweet, poetic or flowery ---- This point was inspired by those so-called "inspiring" quotes, such as the call to "shoot for the moon." Sayings like this are certainly clever and can be a lovely way to express yourself. However, even if we might offer persecuted Christians nice sayings like this from time to time, I think we also need to go beyond greeting card sentiment if we want the encouragement to be effective. As much as I love crafting a poetic phrase or a pretty metaphor (and trust me, sometimes I love that just a little too much), I've learned that simple and practical words are also extremely powerful and, in some cases, simply more appropriate. For example, what exactly does it mean to tell an imprisoned Christian to "shoot for the moon"? Are those really the most effective words of encouragement we can offer? Probably not. Offering them a specific message, such as a relevant scripture passage or a personal message that pertains to their situation is more concrete expression of hope and faith and so will likely be a more sustaining form of encouragement.

  • ... Just about the encouraging the individual --- Encouragement is not only beneficial to the individual being persecuted, but it is also essential to the worldwide Church as a whole. The giving and receiving of encouragement in response to Christian persecution is a mutual recognition of the union that believers share as members of one body. This reciprocity stands against the individualistic idea of building one person up simply because he or she needs to live up to personal potential or reach independent success. Christians have the blessing of being able to encourage one another with the knowledge and assurance that they have received through Christ. Both the giving and the receiving are enabled by God's grace. Encouragement is but one of the many tools that God supplies for the building and his Church. It uplifts, bonds and sustains believers and strengthens their witness to nonbelievers. Its primary purpose is to prove that we are never alone in our afflictions.

In order to serve the Persecuted Church, God calls us to more than merely shoot for the visible moon; he asks that we faithfully direct all things heavenwards, so that even our acts of encouragement will reflect our hope in things unseen. Only this hope can truly comfort and sustain the men and women who willingly suffer for their Saviour's sake.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Arming the Persecuted?

Yesterday I received a commentary by Peter BetBasoo via the Assyrian International News Agency with a title that caught my eye - "It Is Time to Arm Iraq's Christians."

The article argues that since the governing authorities in the areas of Iraq where the Assyrian Christians live are not providing protection for them, the international community should provide weapons and training for them so that they can protect themselves. The commentary rightfully documents the numerous attacks on Assyrian Christians aver the past two years and argues that not only should the Assyrians be armed but that they should be given a safe-haven to which Assyrians from all parts of Iraq may seek refuge, just as the Kurds, Sunnis and Shittes have.

It would seem that, from a human perspective, that this would make some sense. I might have argued similarly not that very long ago. But that was before I spent the time to work through a biblical understanding of persecution and how Christians are to respond to it from God's perspective.

Now make no mistake; I am not a pacifist in the sense that I would say that Christians should not serve in the military. I believe that believers may do so and have always done so throughout church history. I know that not all would agree with me and that is their right.

However, I do believe that the use of deadly force is mandated in Scripture within rather strict boundaries. I contend that this is not a right given to individuals but falls within the mandate of the duties given to the State. The right to bear the sword is given to the State, not to individuals to wield in vigilante actions. This is especially true for Christians undergoing persecution. All of the passages that call for Christians to turn the other cheek, to not retaliate, and to do good to those who seek to harm you are given to those who are going through persecution. We must take these admonitions seriously and at face value, understanding that it was no easier for the early Christians to write and read these words as it is for us to read them now in the face of ruthless violence. Their temptation to strike back would have just as great as ours. The defense for the persecuted Christian is not found at the end of a sword or a rifle. It is found, first, with the State and, if the State refuses to act (or is actually responsible for the oppression) in the hands of God as the Christian cries out to God for justice. This justice may not come in this lifetime. But regardless of this fact, the believer is never called to respond to violence with violence.

These are hard words. I do not pretend that they are not but I see no other response mandated in Holy Scripture. Should the Assyrians be given self-determination with the authority to set up a government, then by all means they would have the right to bear arms; but not as individuals now. This is not time to arm the Assyrians or any persecuted Christians, however tempting it might be to see this as a possible solution to their plight. Events in Indonesia and Nigeria in recent years should how disastrous a situation becomes when Christians take up weapons against their persecutors. Church leaders in these countries are right when they try to stop such actions. This is not a Christian response. We do not war as the world does. It is easy to trust in horses and chariots (or rifles and rocket launchers); it is much harder to trust in God, isn't it?

(You can order Glenn's book, In the Shadow of the Cross; A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship, in which he develops these thoughts further, online from The Voice of the Martyrs in Canada, the United States and Australia)