Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hidden Heroines

King Lemuel asked, "A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies" (Prov.31:10). Looking back at almost 24 years of marriage to my wonderful wife Denita, and recognizing how special our bond is in light of the ministry that God has called me to that in the past decade has often taken me away from home, I acknowledge the truth of Lemuel's words. Dedicated to raising our three children and giving them a stable home and church life, Denita almost never accompanies me in my travels. This is a decision we made together when I first joined The Voice of the Martyrs in 1997 and we have never regretted it. Of course, I miss her very much when we are apart, but her role is critical. She is the unseen partner, the hidden heroine who upholds my ministry and that of the mission through prayer and sacrifice. I praise God for the strength she is in my life.

From the very beginning, the Church of Jesus Christ has been blessed by the testimony and ministry of godly women who were not afraid to declare their allegiance to Christ and prepared to sacrifice for the sake of their Lord. Buried in the pages of history and hidden away in remote areas of the world, their stories of courage and faith shine forth with the message of God's faithfulness in every circumstance. And while each of them would deny that they are heroines, their testimony, once heard, continues to speak to us today.

We need to hear the voice of our hidden heroines; often ordinary women who have answered the call of our Lord to follow Him regardless of the cost. Here are some of their stories:

Felicitas: The Woman Who Worried an Emperor (A.D 164)

Felicitas was a Christian widow who lived with her seven sons in Rome during the early days of Christianity. Both she and her sons were mightily used of God in winning many to Christ. Her witness for Jesus was such that Emperor Antonius, himself, learned that many Romans were turning from idol worship to Christianity because of this family. Alarmed, he ordered Publius, the chief magistrate of Rome, to compel this woman and her sons to renounce their faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods, as was their duty as Roman citizens. If they refused, they were to be put to death.

Publius first attempted to bribe Felicitas into readopting the Roman religion with various kinds of promises. When this was unsuccessful, he began to threaten her with torture, but still he could not move this woman of faith. He urged her to think of her sons. "If you love your sons," he said, "at least, command them to save their own lives."

"If I were to do that," she replied, "they would not be saving their lives but selling their bodies and souls to the devil." She then turned to her sons and said, "Remain steadfast in the faith and in the confession of Christ; for Christ and His saints are waiting for you. Behold, heaven is open before you; therefore fight valiantly for your souls and show that you are faithful in the love of Christ, where with He loves you and you Him."

Enraged, Publius had Felicitas brutally beaten in front of her sons and then sought to convince each of them to renounce their faith. But emboldened by their mother's courage, they followed her words and example and refused.

Finally, Publius sent a message to the Emperor, informing him of his failure. Antonius ordered that the entire family be executed, but that the sons were to be tortured to death by separate executioners, Each son was to be killed in a different manner, with their mother forced to watch each of them die before she was to be put to death.

Thus Felicitas witnessed each of her sons give their lives for Christ just as she had urged them to do. Last of all, this woman who worried an emperor was beheaded. Together, they had remained faithful "even unto death" (Rev.2:10).

Ursel: Weak in Body but Strong in Faith (1570)

As recounted in Martyrs Mirror, the hostility of the new Duke of Alva towards the Anabaptist Christians was well known and so many were fleeing from Maestricht, Holland before the expected storm of persecution broke. Of those who remained was a woman named Ursel van Essen and her husband Arent. Before long, they were arrested and thrown into prison.

Ursel was not a physically strong woman. Her legs and feet were so sensitive to pain that she would often wore her stockings inside out because she could not bear the feel of the seams against them. Yet in the days to come, God enabled Ursel to endure horrible torture. She was scourged, beaten and twice placed on the rack. "Tell us who else believes in your heresy," her torturers demanded. After one particularly excruciating experience on the rack, the temptation to end the torture by exposing others was so strong that she cried out, "O Lord, strengthen me and keep my lips."

Finally on January 9, 1570, Arent and Ursel were informed that they were to be put to the stake the following morning. They praised God that they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ's name and spent the entire night thanking and praising God. The next morning, as she was led to the stake, she asked if she could sing a little and say a few words. Fearing what she might say, the executioners gagged her, preventing her from going to her death with the praise of God on her lips.

Annemarie: "Baptize Me or I'll Shoot You" (mid-20th Century)

Richard Wurmbrand in his book The Overcomers tells the story of Annemarie, a young Slovak Christian who was arrested during the reign of Communism in Czechoslovakia. Even while she was being tortured, her main desire was to prevent her torturer from going to a Christless eternity. She shared with him again and again the beauty of Christ and His kingdom. His reply was more punches and more whipping. This failed to dissuade her.

Her testimony for Christ worked in the man. Once when she was brought before him, he asked her in mockery, "Tell me more about your God." Annmarie replied, "In vain you beat me. You will never succeed in beating out of me my love for God nor my ardent love for you."

He mocked her: "Usually girls wait for boys to declare their love first. What is this stupid declaration of love on your part? We are not in the love business here. You should be telling me the secrets of the Underground Church. If you don't, I will beat out of you all your loves, for God, for me, or for any other young men."

She replied, "While you beat me, I look at your hands. They are beautiful. I imagine how your wife enjoys it when you use them to caress her. When one caresses, two persons have pleasure, the caressed and the one caressing. But what is the good of beating? It is terrible for those of us who are victims. But it must be terrible for you too to have your ears deafened with cries of suffering. And this day by day, every day. It must be maddening. So why don't you turn from beating to caressing?

"I will tell you one thing more, something no girl normally tells a young man. But here we are in extraordinary circumstances. You have very attractive lips. How happy your wife must be when you kiss her. What rapture this must be for both of you. May I ask you a simple question? Isn't kissing better than swearing, shouting foul words, or being angry? Both you and the person you address are soiled by such language. Then why not kissing instead of swearing? God created our lips for this."

"Where do you get all these foolish thoughts?" the communist officer asked.

She replied, "I have a boyfriend, the sweetest of all. And it not simply that He loves me. He is love, itself. The most exquisite love, love of a kind that does not seek pleasure so much as to fill the beloved with joy. Since knowing this boyfriend, I can only love. Whether I am caressed or hurt, I can only love. You love hatred now. I call upon you to love Love."

He gave her a powerful blow, and she fell to the concrete, hitting her temple and passing out. When she came to, she saw him sitting quietly as if in meditation.

He told her, "I have been thinking about your boyfriend. What He says makes sense. Caressing is better than beating and kissing is better than swearing. I'm surprised that this simple truth has not been obvious to me before. Who is this boyfriend of yours?"

Annmarie told him the Name above every name. He asked simply, "How can I make Him be my friend too?" She replied, "You must repent and be baptized." "Then baptize me immediately," he demanded.

She replied, "I can't do that!" She did not know that in special circumstances everyone can baptize, even a child. He pointed a revolver at her: "Baptize me now or I'll shoot you!"

He dragged her to a pool and dumped her into the water. Then he following her in and Annmarie baptized him. After a time, the converted torturer, risking his own liberty, gave her the certificate of release from jail of another woman prisoner who had died on the day she was to be set free.

Zewditu Melsse: Looking for a Home (2001)

The daughter of an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, Zewditu Melsse should have known the way to salvation. But at the age of 16, the Holy Spirit began to pull at her heart to move beyond religious ritual and enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. She started to pray and to read her father's Bible and her walk with Christ deepened. She noticed that certain passages were highlighted and remembered that one of her cousins had once read this Bible and become a "pente" or evangelical. But she continued to delve into the Word of God and her faith grew.

One day her father discovered her reading his Bible. He exploded. "I do not want you to become like my nephew" he exclaimed. "I would rather burn this Bible than allow that to happen. You will give up this foolishness immediately."

But she continued in her search to know Christ. Her father threatened to remove her from school. She still would not forsake her newfound faith. Finally, he gave her a choice, "Faith or home." She chose her faith and was forced to move to Engebara, a neighbouring town where she was forced to take a manual job of hauling water. But because "Pentes" are not allowed to draw water from the well and no one will sell it to her, she must buy her water from other evangelicals in the community. This means more and longer hours of walking and carrying water. Evangelicals in Engebara are treated like second-class citizens, unable to bury their dead, unable to find meaningful work. Children throw stones at them and mobs of young people often attack them as they leave church meetings.

Zewdita is a petite young woman and her life is hard. She is now nineteen years old and lives in conditions that most would find unbearable. She is often weak from hunger and sick. When asked what gives her strength during times of discouragement, she replied, "The knowledge that this life is only temporary and that one day the Lord will take me home where there will be no persecution. I look forward to this day very much." Her heart still goes out to her father and she asked if we would pray for his salvation. Having no home in this world, she looks forward to one to come.

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