No one is an island

1112138276The recent news of a pastor beheaded by ISIS in a central Asian republic brought to me by a trusted friend reminds us of the continual challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where living openly for Christ really does mean putting their lives on the line.

The writers of the New Testament letters frequently referred to suffering when they wrote to encourage their flocks.  They regularly stressed that it was normal, that we had been warned in advance about it, and that it’s all part of the cosmic conflict in which we are on God’s side.  Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first (John 15:18ff).  We in the West have been mostly insulated by the ‘Christian’ nature of our culture from the normality of suffering which is only too familiar to people in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

The Apostles’ teaching did not deny the tragedy of their suffering, but placed it into a larger context.  We read of Peter and John rejoicing that they had been considered “worthy” of suffering shame after they had been flogged (Acts 5:41)!  Paul talks about “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and says that the suffering of this life cannot be compared to the glory of the next (Romans 8:18).

For millions of Christians around the world, but particularly in the 10/40 window, their faith means that life is a daily struggle to get served in shops, find jobs, be treated fairly by police, and avoid government oppression or mob lynching.  We in the West can help them by funding agencies like Open Doors which work among our persecuted family to protect, empower and advocate.  We can keep informed about their sufferings by following websites like persecution.org, and we can pray using resources like the World Prayer Map.

It can be so tempting for us just to shrug our shoulders and think it’s just another person we don’t know in a country far away.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is our family, we will meet them one day in heaven and rejoice in the stories of their faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 12:11).  But until then we are parted from them, and as John Donne wrote in his poem No man is an island:

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

What van Gaal is getting wrong

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

The long-drawn out death rattle of Louis van Gaal underperforming season at Manchester United prompts us to revisit this old maxim.  While Syzygy does not have much of a track record as football pundits we came across an interesting statistic in a newspaper recently: despite Man U having a whole string of terrible statistics this season, there is one in which they are top.  They have the highest percentage of possession in the Premiership.  A solid achievement, which means absolutely nothing without the ability to convert possession into goals.

Which prompts us to ask our readers, what do we possess that we are not converting?  We can suggest three things that, we may need to put to better use for the kingdom as we reflect on our lives and values during the current season of Lent.

The Gospel.  We have mentioned before the prevailing western philosophy of Moral Therapeutic Deism, in which our Christian belief is merely there to meet our needs, help us be nice people and feel good about ourselves.  But the Gospel shouldn’t stop with us.  It is meant to be shared.  What kind of selfish people keep good news to themselves?  St Paul wrote “Woe is me if I don’t preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16).  OK, perhaps he was a bit too driven for us to feel entirely comfortable with him, but at least he was motivated.  When are we going to go and tell somebody the Good News, whether we go to the other side of the world or the other side of the street?

Our relationship with God.  We have unprecedented, open access to the throne room of the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, and we use it to ask God to bless people, which God is probably going to do anyway, because that’s what God enjoys doing.  We have the power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead at work in us and we use it to pray for a parking space.  When are we going to realise that through prayer we can change nations?  Can we get a little bit more ambitious with our prayer?  How about praying for a resolution of conflict in the middle east, freedom and peace for the oppressed church, or global revival.  Let’s get a little more ambitious with our prayer.

Significant wealth.  Yes, significant.  Since the finanical crisis of 2008, many of us in the west think we’re poor, yet in comparison to nearly half the world living on less than $2.50 a day [1], we’re filthy rich.  And even if we aren’t sure how we’re going to pay the bills or put food on the table, as William Carey pointed out “even the poor can give.”  Jesus commended not the rich putting their gold into the temple coffers, but the poor widow putting in two small copper coins (Mark 12:43).  When are we going to pour our wealth into something more precious than house extensions, foreign holidays and new cars?

So this Lent, do please consider going (or at least helping someone else to),  make a commitment to pray for mission, and put some serious funding into mission.  Syzygy would be glad to help you!

[1] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

The refugee issue

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

The migrants who have so spectacularly been coming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East are already having a huge impact on Europe which will last for generations.  Whether this impact is revealed in the vast numbers of new residents taken into countries like Germany and Sweden, or the huge fences that have gone up around other countries’ borders to keep out even people only wishing to pass through those countries, the entire continent is being affected.  In the UK, the first of the refugees taken from camps in Syria are beginning to arrive, and across the continent politics is being affected by the argument between those who say we should show more compassion to our fellow humans, and others who say our countries are already full and charity begins at home.

These issues are so huge that many individual Christians are feeling disempowered, despite caring deeply about the issue.  They feel they can’t change anything, have no impact on government policy and don’t know what they can do to help.  So here are some of our suggestions.

Pray – It goes without saying that refugees, whatever their religious beliefs, need our prayers.  So do the charities, churches, government officials and individuals working with them.  Many refugees have seen their loved ones killed, and have lost their homes and communities.  They are traumatised, and so are many of the overworked counsellors trying to help them.

Donate  – Many of the charities working with refugees could do so much more to help if they had more resources, to help them feed and clothe people in refugee camps, provide education and healthcare, and help to welcome and settle immigrants.

Be informed –  Many mission agencies are working with refugees – find out which ones they are through their websites.  The European Evangelical Alliance has an excellent webpage, and the latest edition of Vista addresses the issue of migration.  The Refugee Highway Partnership has a major role to play in this and the European Evangelical Mission Association is hosting a conference in June focussing on refugee issues and the church’s response.  Find out if your network or denomination has a policy, spokesperson on refugee issues and get involved.

Help – Volunteering to help a charity might seem like a huge challenge, but they may need people to sort through donated clothing, distribute food packages and do other tasks which their own staff may be overworked with and would value some help with.

Do – Find out if any refugees are coming to your town, get in touch with whoever is coordinating care for them, and ask what you can do to help.  Over 50 local authorities have been helping to settle refugees so there are probably some near you.  They will need practical support, help understanding your country’s dominant culture and language, and friendship.  You don’t have to be particularly skilled to show them around your community, or drive them somewhere, or go with them to meetings with benefits officers to make sure they understand.

Serve –  Many of us have skills which we don’t think about using to help mission workers.  We can cook, drive, and speak the dominant language of the host community.  We have many connections we can utilise to help.  Many of us have professions like hairdressing, nursing, or teaching which we could use to help refugees.

Advocate –  In a world where much in the media is openly hostile to the idea of taking in more refugees, write letters to newspapers, local counsellors and members of parliament advocating for them.  Sign petitions and use social media to keep the issue in peoples’ minds.

The issues of refugees in Europe is not going to go away quickly.  It will change our societies, our understanding of community and the ways in which we go about mission.  Churches have a huge part to play in this transformation and have a wonderful opportunity to be on the cutting edge of change.

On the road to Jericho

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

There is one small but significant word which is often overlooked when reading – and preaching – on the story of the Good Samaritan: ‘down’.  In Luke 10:30 Jesus makes it perfectly clear which way the traveller was going: down.  ‘Down’ is repeated in verse 31 – the priest was going down the road too.

This does not immediately come to the attention of English speakers since we customarily use the expression ‘down the road’ to mean ‘along’.  But in this instance it is topographically specific: ‘down from Jerusalem to Jericho’.  And that road is indeed a downward route, which drops over a kilometre from 754 metres above sea level to 258 feet below.

Yet it is not the topography which is the point being made in the specific use of the word ‘down’, it is the spiritual implications.  Why were the priest, and by inference the Levite too, going down?  At that time, it was common for many of the priests to live in Jericho, with its abundant water supply, warmer climate and good supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, than in Jerusalem.  They would go up and stay in Jerusalem while it was their turn to serve in the temple, and then return home.  So these two had just finished whatever their ministry called for them to do, and were returning to their ‘normal’ life.  They were off duty.

The unspoken criticism of them is that their religious activity had not had any impact on their relationship with their fellow human beings.  They should have had compassion, but it took an outsider who wouldn’t even have gone to the temple to show them how to live with compassion on those less fortunate.  And ‘compassion’, in Biblical usage, does not mean the bland sense of “oh, what a shame” that it conveys in contemporary English, but means “to be gutwrenched”, so eaten up with feeling that we get a physical response to what we see and hear.

This speaks to those of us who find beggars coming to our church premises, or trip over the homeless sleeping under the lych-gate.  If our relationship with God counts for anything, it should be working itself out in our compassion for the needy.

And so it does, in many cases.  Churches are largely the impetus behind food banks in this country.  Many people working for overseas development agencies are Christians.  Many of those agencies have Christian roots.  And many of us give sacrificially to these agencies, making up the lion’s share of emergency donations in the UK.

But we can easily become weary of doing good.  Particularly when it hits closer to home.  How compassionate am I when a homeless person starts sleeping in the lobby of my block of flats?  How much do we care about the plight of Syrian refugees if compassion means Britain letting into our country hundreds of thousands of them like Germany has done, and having to build more homes, schools and hospitals (at taxpayer expense)?  When push comes to shove, our compassion hardens.

Next week, we’ll be looking at some Christian responses to the current refugee crisis, but in the meantime let us remind ourselves of the words of St Paul:

Let us not grow weary of doing good.

(2 Thessalonians 3:13)

World Watch List shows persecution on the rise

WWL

Last week Open Doors published its influential World Watch List, in which it rates countries according to the degree of religious persecution.  Many of these come as no surprise, as once again North Korea tops the list.  But the news which gives most cause for concern is that the frequency and severity of persecution is clearly increasing.  For example, in 2013 the 50th country on the list scored 35 points.  This year, the 50th country had 53 points.  And frequently the reason that some countries are dropping down the list is not that conditions there are getting better, but that persecution is growing even faster in other countries.

This reminds us that despite what we might feel in the relatively secure West, the world as a whole is not a safe place to be a Christian.  The ongoing threat from global terrorism, dictatorial nationalism and religious extremism not only from ISIS and Boko Haram but also in, for example, India, reminds us that the unprecedented levels of comfort and safety that the West experiences is not shared either by the global church or the historical church.  For much of the church’s history, persecution has been the norm.

Persecution has even been seen as evidence that our faith is genuine – the world hates us because it hated our Lord (John 15:18-21).  In this passage Jesus said that the reason people persecute Christians is that they do not know the One who sent him.  Our response therefore, as well as supporting the oppressed and campaigning to protect them, should also be to strive to make sure that the persecutors really do get to know the One who sent Jesus.

You can read a summary of the report, order your copy of the World Watch List and find out how to pray for persecuted Christians by clicking here.  And remember:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church –

there is one church.

Peace and goodwill to everyone?

Is this peace? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

Is this peace? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

What a barmy army time of year to talk about peace!  With trees to be bought and decorated, a seemingly endless round of Christmas parties to be part of, nativity plays to prepare for (and endure), the right number and quality of presents to be bought, a perfect meal to prepare, often with critical relatives to impress, all while avoiding tempers flaring, tantrums from over-excited children and taking out a second mortgage to pay for everything.  Call that peace?

I think we’ve missed the point.

Peace is usually defined negatively in our culture – as the absence of something like war, noise, people, or work.  When we think about it, we often think about ‘getting away from it all’ and imagine a deckchair on a golden beach, or beautiful mountain scenery.  What does that have to do with peace in our daily life?

The birth of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) was announced by the angels as bringing peace to the world (Luke 2:14).  Yet Jesus himself said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34) – and that is closer to the experience of many of us, particularly believers living in North Korea, Nigeria or many parts of the Middle East.

Yet Jesus the peacemaker told his disciples “In this world you will have loads of trouble, but don’t worry – in me you can have peace…  My peace I give to you.” (John 16.33, 14:27)  He clearly didn’t mean the Hebrew meaning of Shalom – wholeness, health, calm, serenity, blessing, prosperity – because he knew the next day he was going to be flogged and nailed to a cross, and his followers would be hiding, discouraged and demoralised.  There’s no way that counts as peace.

But the incarnation heralded a new era in God’s dealing with humanity.  An era in which we can know peace with God through being reconciled in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19).  The power of Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in us enables us to make peace with ourselves, confronting our inner demons and knowing freedom from everything that has happened to us that prevents us becoming who God wants us to be.  It also gives us the ability to make peace with our enemies through forgiving them and seeing relationships restored.

Too often we don’t actually make peace; we try (and fail) to keep it.  Peacekeeping can prevent the outbreak of open hostilities but the wounds and injustice still simmer below the surface, and occasionally erupt out, hurting everyone around, including innocent bystanders.  That’s why peacemakers are blessed (Matthew 5:9) – because in making peace they demonstrate they, like Jesus, are children of God.

May all our readers know real peace amidst the turmoil of Christmas!

Featured Ministry: Open Doors

hist_beetle_driveIn 1955, a young Dutchman went to a youth congress in communist Poland carrying hundreds of Christian tracts to distribute.  During his visit he discovered an isolated evangelical church struggling to retain its morale in the face of communist persecution.  The young man, now known throughout the world by the name ‘Brother Andrew’, embarked on a life travelling to difficult and dangerous places, smuggling Bibles to a needy church, inspired by the words of Revelation 3:2 –

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.

Driving his battered VW Beetle all over the Soviet bloc, Brother Andrew smuggled Bibles into communist eastern Europe.  But his exploits did not stop there.  He pioneered work into China, and then the Middle East and parts of central Africa.  Open Doors, the organisation he founded, has gone on to print Bibles, broadcast the Gospel by radio, coordinate international prayer ministry, keep the church informed about persecution  and become well-known for delivering practical support to the suffering church.  They also advocate on behalf of the oppressed, and their annual World Watch List is a must-have for Christians seeking information about how to pray for countries where Christians are oppressed.

60 years on from Brother Andrew’s first journey, Open Doors has become a worldwide agency working in over 60 countries through nearly 1000 workers – most of them national partners, because in the places they work people who are obviously foreign can’t always be effective.  Many of them work in challenging and dangerous places, training up new generations of church leaders and equipping the church to survive in the most hostile places on the planet.

All this is true to the adventurous spirit of Brother Andrew, who is famous for pointing out that there are no countries which are closed to the gospel.  There are of course countries from which it may be hard for Christians who preach the gospel to come back alive, but Brother Andrew has proved throughout his escapades in places like Palestine, Iraq, China and the Soviet Union, that God really can shut the eyes of the authorities and open doors.

Today tens of thousands of suffering Christians are supported and encouraged by Open Doors’ campaigns of aid and encouragement.  You can read more about these on their website, where you can find more details on how to pray for them and to join in the ministry.  As the UK CEO of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce said at a recent celebration of 60s of Open Doors’ ministry:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church – there is one church.

Or as St Paul put it: “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Let’s be inspired by the example of Brother Andrew and his many colleagues to relieve the suffering and pray for the parts that suffer.

Should I stay or should I go?

ClashKnowing when to leave is always one of the biggest challenges for mission workers, particularly when a crisis occurs.  A topical application of this issue would be the earthquakes in Nepal, as a result of which some mission workers have left the country, whether by their own choice or because their church or agency chose to withdrawn them.  Other mission workers stayed.  Who has made the right decision?

A few years ago, in a discussion facilitated by Emma Dipper, a group of HR managers were asked how risk-averse they had been when they were living abroad.  Most of us were so un-averse that we could be considered irresponsible, gung-ho mavericks.  We were then asked to think through how risk-averse we are when we think about the mission workers in the field for whom we currently have responsibility.  As we thought that through, we realised we would hit the panic button much quicker.  We would pull people out quickly because we had health and safety responsibilities, issues concerning ‘due care’, and trustees with legal responsibility holding us accountable.

red buttonGiven the litigious nature of western culture, it’s not surprising some churches and agencies would pull their people out of Nepal.  Suppose a mission worker were killed in the second earthquake, or one of the 200+ aftershocks, and the agency were sued by an angry relative.  We would be unable to mount an effective defence, knowing there had been a risk but not having done anything to mitigate it.  So it seems prudent to pull our people out, even if they don’t want to leave.  We have to consider the agency’s reputation.  But this will also give the mission workers huge guilt issues – they’ve had the luxury of going to a safe place while their local friends have to sleep outdoors and hunt for clean water.  Have they run away, or deserted their posts?  What will their Nepali neighbours think when the Christians run away at the first sign of trouble?

Those who stayed in Nepal are having a huge impact, channeling relief funding, facilitating reconstruction, organising counselling and debriefing for traumatised Nepalis, and demonstrating the love of God in their commitment to staying.  Many Nepalis will be encouraged that they cared enough to stay when they could so easily have left.  But the price is the trauma the mission workers will suffer, and their fear for their children.

The Bible leaves us with no easy answers either.  Jesus walked determinedly into Jerusalem knowing that he would be killed but on an earlier occasion slipped away from a mob in Nazareth that wanted to lynch him.  Noah built a boat to escape in, and must have been traumatised by the cries of those trying to escape the flood whom he didn’t let in.  No wonder he took to drink afterwards!  Paul was bundled unceremoniously out of Damascus to save his life, yet on other occasions showed uncommon bravery.  Yet the general tenor of the New Testament is that we should expect to suffer.

Perhaps our best hope of a making an appropriate decision is to ask the local church.  They will be much more aware than we are whether our ongoing presence in their community is likely to bring danger or protection, or to help clear up or be a hindrance.  At least one agency I know of makes all their personnel responsible to the national church leadership, so that the decision to evacuate is taken out of the hands both of the mission worker and the church/agency.  Perhaps that’s a new paradigm for missions – trust the locals to make good decisions!

God meant it for good?

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Last week we introduced the theology of suffering with the general idea that the Bible, far from promising us the unlimited blessing of success and prosperity that some have found in isolated verses, has a dominant theme of preparing us to expect suffering.

While this emerges most strongly in the New Testament, with its context of a minority church resisting attempts by both Jewish and Roman authorities to make them submit to anything other than the kingdom of Jesus, the Old Testament has plenty of suffering too.  While much of this is interpreted by the Bible writers as God’s just punishment for Israel’s failure to follow God faithfully, much of the suffering is undergone by the faithful through no fault of their own.  We only have to think of Abel, Joseph, David, Job, Jeremiah and many of the prophets to realise how many were persecuted for their faith.

Let’s examine the case of Joseph.  He seems to have been an arrogant youth, bragging about his dreams, so it’s no surprise that he earned the hostility of his brothers.  But he didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery or to be falsely accused of attempted rape by a rejected woman.  Yet the outcome of his misfortune was the survival of the Egyptians through an unprecedented famine, the rescuing of his own family from starvation, and character growth in himself and his eldest brother Reuben, who took responsibility for the youngest son of Jacob, when he had not been able to save Joseph some decades previously (Genesis 42:37, cf 37:22).  And after the brothers had been reconciled, Joseph comments:

You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.

(Genesis 50:20)

Does that mean God caused all that suffering?  We in the West hate such an idea, because it implies that we are merely pawns in God’s game, to be moved or sacrificed as God sees fit.  It affronts our sense of democracy, individualism and personal sovereignty.  If however, we came from a number of other cultures across the world, we wouldn’t even be asking this question.  It wouldn’t even occur to us.  We would simply assume that God has the right to do anything God chooses with God’s creation.  We would have a far less inflated impression of our own importance.

But since we’re not from such a culture, we have to deal with that question.  We don’t believe that God is an unfeeling, distant despot, but rather a loving Father who wants the very best for us.  This is certainly what Jesus teaches us in his parables (Matthew 7:9-11, Luke 15:11-32).  But we also believe in the forces of evil, whether at work in selfish or malevolent humans or personified in Satan.  We believe in God’s law of cause and effect at work in this world, and the freedom for all of us to choose to do harm or good.  This creates a world when it becomes very easy for bad things to happen to people, whether accident, abuse or sickness.  Does that mean God causes these things?  No!  But it does mean that God didn’t stop them either.

The plain fact is that God allows suffering to continue in this world.  Why?  While we cannot determine what is going on in each individual case, we can find in the Bible some reasons why suffering might have a purpose.

  • For some, suffering might drive us towards God, perhaps for the first time, and we know of people who have found God because a believing community reached out to support them (2 Corinthians 1:9).
  • For others who observe suffering, it is an opportunity for them to show compassion and develop their own character
  • It may be an opportunity for the victim to develop character and grow more like Jesus (James 1:2-4).
  • For some it is their chance to demonstrate to a watching community the grace of God at work in their lives as they suffer (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
  • We can encourage others who suffer, turning our experience of hardship into a resource (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Many of us who have suffered and come out the other side will say that it was worth it for what we learned of God and ourselves in the process.  That doesn’t mean we deny the pain of it, or even understand why God allowed it.  We simply recognise that the benefits outweigh the cost.  As Jesus himself did (Hebrews 12:2).  In this life we will probably never know the reasons why God allowed our particular suffering.  What we can know however, is that one day every injustice will be righted, and we will be comforted:

And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall no longer be and death, there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying or pain – these things have passed away.

(Revelation 21:4)

Earthquake in Nepal

62 - Anna with PalomaHearing about the terrible disaster in Nepal last weekend reminded me of a time a few years ago when I led a short-term trip to Peru.  We landed just one hour after a major earthquake and after some discussion changed our programme to travel to the disaster area and help feed people, and start clearing up.

Shortly after we arrived, a young Peruvian girl carrying a crying toddler came up to one of our team members and, saying nothing, handed the toddler over to her.  Somewhat surprised, our team member set about comforting the toddler, and while the rest of us went about our work, she spent the rest of the day playing with the toddler and encouraging her to eat.  By the end of the day she had one happy child with her.

Later on, when we had all returned to our base, she said to me “I don’t know what that accomplished”.  What she didn’t know until I told her, was that the toddler had lost both parents in the earthquake, and hadn’t stopped crying for seven days.

It underlines one of Syzygy’s mantras for world mission: it doesn’t take much to make a difference – you just have to be there.

Many Christians, both Nepalese nationals and foreign mission workers, will be making a difference in the aftermath of the earthquake as they help to clear up and comfort the afflicted, even while suffering with their own fear, uncertainty and grief.  Please pray for them to be effective and for the Nepalese people to see the love of Jesus at work in their communities through them.

If you want to donate money to help, why not avoid the uncertainty of the international bureaucracy and mass appeals, and give directly to a Christian charity which has been working in Nepal for over 60 years – INF.  You can give through their website at www.inf.org/earthquake-appeal-europe.

Making sense of suffering

1112138276This week we begin a 5-week mini-series on the theology of suffering.  We referred to this some weeks ago when we considered For the Good of Those that Love Him.  As we said in that blog, there is a prevailing attitude in the west that largely assumes things will go well for us, God will protect us, and we will succeed.  So when a major disaster strikes, it can cause us to question our beliefs if we do not have a good understanding of how and why suffering occurs.

This is what is known as a theology of suffering, and churches, bible colleges and mission agencies are all keen to ensure that their members appreciate that things can go very badly wrong in the mission field at times and that they are prepared to deal with some tough questions.

Many of us will know of people who have lost a close relative, suffered serious injury or disability, been kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned, or suffered spiritual or emotional abuse in the mission field.  Others have been persecuted for their faith, as Christians are even today in places like north Africa, the Middle East and west Africa.  Many have questioned aspects of their faith as a result, or even lost it completely.  So how does this come about?

Has God been caught off-guard?  Was God busy with more important issues?  Has Satan outwitted God?  It can certainly feel like that when we’re looking for answers but God HAS to be bigger than that.  Suffering bothers us because it affronts our desire to be in control of life.  It reminds us that life – and God – is much bigger than we are, as Job found out when he complained that God wasn’t keeping up his side of the bargain: I’ll worship you as long as you deliver health, blessing and prosperity.

Suffering contradicts our sense of entitlement in a way that would seem absurd to many in developing countries who know only too well that life is hard.  The reality is that life is messy and bad stuff happens.  Whether you believe it to be the consequence of the Fall or just the impact of human greed and selfishness at work, the world is full of harm and hurt.  And that is a normal aspect of human life.  Christians suffer just like others.  Christian refugees have recently been drowned alongside Muslims crossing the Mediterranean.  Christians have been killed in Iraq alongside Yazidis.  Christians have probably died in the Nepal earthquake alongside Hindus.  Being a Christian does not give us a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  Jesus pointed out that the sun shines on those who try to follow God and those who don’t (Matthew 5:45), and when asked if people killed in a disaster somehow deserved God’s judgement, he pointed out that we all deserve judgement and should take the opportunity to get right with God (Luke 13:1-5).

Moreover, the Bible is realistic about the existence of suffering.  The writers of the New Testament clearly thought it was normal to suffer, and particularly to be persecuted for being a follower of Jesus.  Jesus talked about it a lot (see Matthew 5: 10-12, Mark 13: 9-13, Luke 21:12, John 12:24-26 among several other verses).  And what can Matthew 16:24 mean if not to communicate Jesus’ teaching that he expects us to suffer?

If you want to follow me, forget about yourself.  Pick up your cross and follow me.  If you want to save your life, you will destroy it.  But if you lose your life for me, you will find it.

And of course, Jesus knew what he was talking about.  He understood that it was God’s plan for him to suffer and die on the cross.  And although it was hard (Luke 22:42), he embraced it with determination.  And he expected us to follow him.  Joni Eareckson-Tada, a well-known quadriplegic woman who has had a prominent ministry bringing encouragement to suffering Christians commented that “Suffering drives us down the road to Calvary where otherwise we would not be willing to go.”

So when suffering strikes, no matter how terribly painful or unjust it feels, the best way to deal with it is to follow Jesus to the foot of the cross.

To find out more about a theology of suffering, check out these links:

  • Dr Ken Williams has put together a very helpful study with a huge quantity of Bible verses
  • Smallgroups.com has a helpful 5-session Bible study for groups on this issue.
  • Many authors including D A Carson, C S Lewis, R C Sproul and Philip Yancey have written on this subject but we particularly recommend Is God to Blame? by Gregory A Boyd.

For the good of those who love him?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Bad stuff happens to mission workers.  You don’t have to be in the world of mission for long before you hear of people who have been kidnapped, killed in car crashes, caught terrible diseases, been lynched, suffered emotional or spiritual abuse, or lost their faith as a result of what they’ve experienced.  That is the lot not only of mission workers but of many thousands of Christians worldwide, particularly in communist and moslem countries.

But when these things happen to us and our loved ones, it can make us doubt either our faith or God’s goodness, because most of us in the West subscribe to a triumphalist theology: God is in control and everything will work out.  We build our worldview on three principal tenets:

  • God loves me and wants the best for me
  • God is able to do anything to help me
  • God is fully aware of all that is going on in my life.

House of cards

While each of these beliefs is true, it’s naïve to build them into a house of cards without reference to other variable factors in the way God created the world, like freewill, cause-and-effect, teamwork and prayer.  And the fact that we are in a battle with the kingdom of darkness.

The result is that when something goes badly wrong it challenges our belief system and therefore our faith.  We wrestle, like Job, with the problem of why bad things happen to good people (Job 10:3).

But a belief system such is this is based on a false premise: the consumerist view that God is there for me, and that if God doesn’t deliver to make my life more comfortable/safe/happy, he has invalidated my faith in him and disproved his own existence.

Vivien Whitfield wrote:

Can we go on trusting God even when terrible things happen and God seems absent?  Only such altruistic trust is the basis for a true relationship with God, shorn of ulterior motives.  God is to be loved and obeyed for himself, not for what we can get out of it.  God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos – not only for me; we sometimes need to be reminded of that.

From The Passion of the Christ

From The Passion of the Christ

If God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos, there are times when his plans may not be in our own interest.  He may ask us to do something hazardous not because it’s good for us but because he needs it to be done.  In doing so we become more like Jesus, laying down our own lives in obedience to God’s will.  There was no way that being crucified served the immediate interests of Jesus, but he chose to be obedient to God’s plan instead.  And sometimes God’s plan for us may be that God has asked us to do things that are clearly not in our own interest but enable him to accomplish something in and through us for the greater good of the Kingdom.

When we don’t understand what is going on, and why something bad has happened, we often turn to Romans 8:28: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.”  Taken on its own, out of context, it looks as if all we have to do is love God and everything will go fine for us.  But that is just Christian superstition.  We need to read on to verse 29 to find out the definition of ‘good’.  It means being conformed to the image of the Son.  It doesn’t mention wealth, or happiness, or safety.  In fact St Paul makes the opposite clear: this is in the context of “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword!  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer!  How can that be?  We conquer, not because everything goes well for us, but because when it doesn’t, we don’t give up, we don’t compromise, we don’t retaliate.  We become more like Christ.   That doesn’t make our suffering any easier.  But it does, at least, make it tolerable.

Coffee – a fragrant aroma

Ripe coffee berries

Ripe coffee berries

Fruit is a well-known biblical metaphor.  Jesus tells us that bearing fruit glorifies the Father (John 15:8), and Paul says we are joined to Christ so that we can bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4).  Jesus makes it clear that the fruit is the evidence that we are disciples (John 15:8) – or not (Matthew 7:20).  Whether we understand the fruit to be a metaphor for our activity (Colossians 1:10) or our character development (Galatians 5:22-23), it is clear that if we’re genuine disciples of Jesus, fruit is the outcome.

When we think of fruit, we probably have in our minds fruits like peaches, grapes, apples, apricots or strawberries, which we can just pick and pop in our mouths.  They are the ready-meals of the fruit world.  But other fruit requires a bit of work to it.  While we can eat grapes just as they are, they can also be made into wine.  Apples can be made into pie.  Corn, a slightly different type of fruit, can be made into bread, a much more pleasant form of carbohydrate.  But to achieve this, the fruit needs to be crushed, chopped or ground.  A totally different experience.

Coffee beans

Coffee beans

Another type of fruit is coffee.  Most of us never even seen the coffee fruit on the plant, but we enjoy the end product.  But to get to us, the coffee fruit has a terrible experience.  First, the fruit is stripped off the bean and discarded.  It has no value to us.  The bean is then fermented, and rinsed in large quantities of water.  Then the bean is roasted and, finally, ground up and brewed using hot water.

Suddenly being fruitful doesn’t sound quite so attractive.  And many of us are no stranger to processes like those the coffee bean undergoes – we often feel like we’re in deep water, walking through fire or being ground to bits.  When things like this happen, we can often wonder if we’ve got it all wrong, and begin to doubt our faith.  We discussed the theology of this last week, but suffering is an ever-present reality in the lives of most Christians, and is clearly the biblical norm.  All the writers of the New Testament letters expected their correspondents to be undergoing varying degrees of difficulty, if not active persecution.  One even tells them to ‘count it pure joy’! (James 1:2)  This is because even though the process is unpleasant, the outcome is good.  James tells us that as a result we will be ‘perfect and complete’ (James 1:4).

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

Photo courtesy of ace barista Simon C Bright

The careful processing, roasting and brewing of a fine coffee results in something remarkable.  A simple berry has been turned into a refreshing drink which invigorates and stimulates.  Taken in moderate quantities it is beneficial to concentration, alertness and general health, and may even contribute to longevity.  Even its aroma is attractive.  The next time we undergo some sort of trial, let us remember what the coffee goes through to bring some joy into the life of its drinker, and remember that our suffering is part of the process of bringing joy to the Lord, as in the flood or the furnace we are made more like Jesus.

Sykes-Picot and the ISIS dilemma

NThe ISIS insurgency in Iraq has hit the headlines in the last few weeks as this Islamicist group has rapidly gained control of territory and prompted a mass-movement of refugees by its extreme persecution of minority religious groups, prompting many Christians to show their solidarity with the persecuted church by changing their Facebook photo to the Islamic letter ‘n’, which ISIS have been writing on the doors of the homes of Christians so that they can be easily identified.  It stands for ‘Nasrani’, the Arabic word for Nazarene, the local term for Christian.  Many people will not however have heard of the obscure Sykes-Picot Agreement which ISIS has vowed to overthrow.

ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is the successor to a number of Al-Qaeda-linked organisations which emerged in the aftermath of the Western invasion of Iraq, and which gained ground as an insurgent group in the Syrian civil war.  It has gained sympathy among Iraqi Sunnis marginalised by the pro-Shia regime of the recently-deposed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and it aims to impose a Sharia religious state (or Caliphate) throughout the Levant.

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François George-Picot

Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were diplomats, British and French respectively, who in 1916 drew up a secret treaty agreeing how Britain and France would carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which they confidently expected to be defeated in the First World War.  When this happened, The League of Nations gave Britain and France a mandate to run the countries we now know as Syria and Lebanon (France) and Israel-Palestine, Jordan and Iraq (Britain) as part of their Empires while creating independent countries.

Sykes and Picot drew lines on a map with little consideration of ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations, rather as the European colonial powers had done in Africa a generation previously.  The two countries subsequently imposed their own rule on these countries, overthrowing local arrangements which had emerged following the collapse of the Ottomans and reneging on previous agreements, particularly those made with local potentates by British soldier T E Lawrence in exchange for their support in fighting the Ottomans.

1112138276

Ongoing persecution for the church in Iraq?

This meant that local groupings had no opportunity to work out their own spheres of influence in the region.  In fact, since the arrival of Islam in the mid seventh century, the entire region has been in the hands of large empires (the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans) which have artificially kept a lid on this turbulent region.  Centuries-old tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims are now erupting  in what experienced Middle East observers, including Lord Ashdown, have pointed out could be their equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War, as rival religious/tribal/ethnic groups vie to carve out their own polities.

The challenge for the Western world, which for the last century has continually tried to keep the lid on tensions in the region through a policy of appointing and supporting local strongmen like Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, is whether we step into this carnage and reimpose order (at what cost to ourselves and the locals?) or let the conflict that might have resolved issues a hundred years ago play itself out – at incredible cost of life and the ongoing persecution of minorities.

The dilemma is whether the Sykes-Picot Agreement should be overthrown, and if so, can we justify the consequences?

Many Christian agencies are working to help our brothers and sisters fleeing from the conflict in Iraq.  Open Doors is one of them.   Christian Today has some very practical suggestions on what individuals can do to help.

The Parable of the Oppressors?

1354359_fifty_pounds_2The western church has traditionally interpreted the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) as an encouragement to use wisely the gifts that God has given us, though we usually play down the bit about the wrath of God poured out on the servant who doesn’t.  As we observed two weeks ago, this fits in neatly with our protestant work ethic – our performance demonstrates our salvation, and God is looking for a return on his investment in us.  But are there other ways of interpreting this parable when seen through the eyes of other cultures?

When workers’ groups in Latin America looked at this parable they came up with a very different interpretation, because their perspective is different.  In Europe, theology has traditionally been done by wealthy, white, educated men.  But the worker’s groups were the opposite: poor, uneducated, marginalised people who recognised in this story a situation only too relevant to their own situation.  They pointed out that in an agrarian economy anybody who was returning 1000% profit (Luke 19:16) was clearly exploiting someone, and was therefore a bad guy.  Only an evil and corrupt king would commend him.  By their reckoning, the only person who comes out of this story with any credit is the one who buried his talents – because he didn’t oppress anybody.

No pressure then...

No pressure then…

Most Europeans find this interpretation hard to accept, but possibly this is only because we are so accustomed to our traditional interpretation – that God has given us certain talents and expects us to make the most of them… or else.  Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really square with our idea of the totally unmerited grace of God.

The marginalised South Americans who developed their own understanding of this parable would be far closer to the culture of Jesus’ audience than we are.  And while there may be flaws in their interpretation (is Jesus really telling us it’s good just to bury our treasure and do nothing with it?) there are also flaws in ours – is God really an exacting man, reaping where he did not sow, and punishing those who don’t perform well enough?

We also face the challenge that the word ‘talent’ has a double meaning in English.  We understand it to mean a gift or ability, which is stretching the original text too far, as a talent was in Bible times an enormous sum of money.  Luke uses the equivalent word ‘mina’ (an ancient middle-eastern currency unit), which emphasises that there is a financial context to this parable.  A mina was worth about 9 months wages for an agricultural worker – a phenomenal amount of spending money for the sort of people Jesus was talking to.  A talent was the Greco-Roman equivalent.

Jesus is in fact basing this parable on a real life incident involving the king of Galilee, Herod Antipas.  When his father Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, his will had to be confirmed by the Emperor, so all his sons scurried off to Rome to persuade Augustus to grant their claims.  The Jewish people also sent a delegation asking the Emperor to get rid of Herod’s dynasty altogether!

Which raises a relevant question:

Would Jesus really use Herod as a metaphor for God?

We naturally assume that the authority figure in any given parable – a king, a judge, a landowner – stands for God.  But that’s not necessarily so.  There can be the very odd occasion when the authority figure is an anti-type of God – see for example Luke 18:2-8 where the judge is clearly contrasted with God.  This parable is designed to contrast the oppressive behaviour of the king with that of God.  The king commends his stewards who exploited the poor by saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

SheepIt is interesting to note that immediately after this parable Matthew places the judgement of the sheep and the goats, which also features a reward for performance.  But in that story, the slaves are not expected to make a huge profit out of the people, but to be generous to them.  They were expected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Is it possible that Matthew has set up a deliberate contrast between two ways of behaving – a worldly way embodied by an evil human king, and the heavenly way following the righteous God-King?

This understanding frees us from the pernicious pressure to perform in order to earn our salvation (or at least our reward) and allows us to love generously and freely, in a way that brings hope to the marginalised.  Over history, faced with the choice of being the oppressor or siding with the oppressed, the church has at different times done both.  Institutional church has often been the oppressor, while many courageous, counter-cultural individuals like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa have met Christ in the poor and downtrodden as they served them.

Which course will you take?

Persecuted for their faith in Iran

captiveWe have blogged on numerous occasions about the suffering church worldwide but a visit to hear two young women from Iran talk about their experience of being imprisoned for sharing their Christian faith prompts us to consider the heroism of the many millions who struggle daily just to stay alive, let alone actively share their faith.

Maryam and Marziyeh both grew up in muslim families in Iran, and independently met Jesus while still in their teens as a result of their search for more meaning.  Within weeks they had led family members to Christ, and then shared the gospel with friends and strangers.  Boldly they spent four years handing out New Testaments around Teheran, or leaving them in restaurants, or posting them through people’s letter boxes.  In four years they were able to distribute 20,000 before the authorities finally caught up with them and imprisoned them.

Held in detention in a notorious prison, they continued to share the gospel with guards and prisoners, leading many to Jesus.  When challenged by interrogators, they said it was the fault of the authorities for putting them there!  They pointed out that it was natural for other prisoners to ask why they were there, and they had only answered truthfully, which led to people asking what Christianity was all about.

Which for us at Syzygy raises a rather uncomfortable question: how can two young Iranian believers be so bold in their faith when we in the west feel embarrassed to mention Jesus even to members of our own families?  Many of us will excitedly travel halfway round the world to take part in the latest outbreak of Holy Spirit revival but we won’t walk down the road to share the gospel with our neighbour.  We talk about being persecuted at work when colleagues tease us about being Christians and never have to face a life-and-death choice.  How did we get our values so upside down?  Why can’t we say, with St Paul:

I do not consider my life dear to me, in order that I may finish the course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God…. For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

(Acts 20:24, Philippians 1:21)

Subsequently cleared of the charges, freed, and allowed to emigrate to the United States, Maryam and Marziyeh now devote their time to reminding the church of the plight of believers in Iran, where many Christians are still in prison, and those who are not face significant discrimination and active persecution.  They are currently on a world tour telling their story to help Open Doors raise funds for a much-needed project.  We strongly recommend going to one of their remaining events, which you can find out about here.

Please pray for the suffering church in Iran, particularly those in prison.  You can find out more at the Open Doors website.

Christmas – the happiest time of the year?

ChristmasAccording to contemporary mythology, Christmas is the happiest time of the year.  A time for giving, celebrating, and enjoying being with family.  Many seasonal songs perpetuate that myth.  Yet for many people it is far from that.  Coping with the various personal tragedies which can afflict humanity, Christmas is merely a mirror of the joy they don’t have.  So often church only seems to make it worse, enthusiastically buying into the seasonal activities while blissfully unaware of the isolation this can cause.  Christmas can be the most unhappy time of the year.

It can be an extremely difficult time for those who have been bereaved, divorced or abandoned, particularly if that has occurred in the last year.  For them this celebration will be a mockign memory of former happy times.  Other people will be lonely, having no special person to share it with, and it’s interesting to reflect on how many popular Christmas songs indicate that the presence (or absence) of a key loved one is a crucial factor in whether Christmastime is happy or not.  Some people will have no children but will be longing for their own children to treat, and they burn with pain each time somebody says ‘Christmas is all about the children’.  With so much activity centred on the children, those who want them can feel that it just makes their lack harder to bear.  Christmas can be the most lonely time of the year.

crackerWhile the celebrations of many who do not have family, or have a key part of their family missing, are overshadowed by their lack, many of those who do have family will also be suffering.  Perhaps loved ones are estranged, or relationships are tense, with a threat of arguments or even violence over Christmas.  Others are weighed down by the burden of expectation, needing to get along with in-laws or deliver a perfect Christmas experience of food, presents and decorations, perhaps while lacking the time or the finances to do it properly and fulfil everybody’s Christmas dreams.  Christmas can be the most uncomfortable time of the year.

Others will have no home at all, relying on shelters and hoping for mild weather, or will have no food to eat, or will be unable to afford to heat their homes.  Others will be refugees, wondering if their community can survive international conflict or natural disaster.  Christmas can be the most painful time of the year.

It is no coincidence then, that the child whose nativity we celebrate was not born into a perfect family Christmas.  The were forced to be away from their home by a dictatorial empire, and quite possibly were ostracised by family due to the suspicions surrounding Jesus’ paternity.  With no place to call their own, they found rough shelter in a strange town and Mary gave birth in uncomfortable and humiliating surroundings.  Soon afterwards they were political refugees, on the run from an oppressive tyrant murdering innocent children who might grow up to overthrow him.

Yet Jesus came to bring hope and comfort to those who suffer.  In this age through his church, and in the future in heaven, he promises better for us.  For those of you who feel lonely, uncomfortable or in pain at this time of year, we offer some words of encouragement:

  • Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be satisfied; blessed are you who are crying, for you shall laugh.  (Luke 6:20-21)
  • To those of you who can’t have children, don’t say you’re all dried up; I’ve got something better for you – a name that will last forever (Isaiah 56:4-5).
  • Look!  God has come to set up home with humanity… and he will wipe away every tear, and there will be no death, or mourning, or crying or pain any more.  These things all belong in the past (Revelation 21:3-4).

And for those of you who are fortunate enough to be enjoying a happy, festive occasion, maybe you’d like to spend a few moments considering how you can share your company, food and joy and with those for whom Christmas is a season to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Focus on Mongolia

mongoliaMongolia is a country which is not often talked about in the west, and the suffering Christians in the least densely populated country in the world seem largely ignored.  Even the respected website www.persecution.org has no current reports on the situation for believers there, yet anecdotal evidence emerges for the suffering of the church.

Although there are fewer than 50,000 believers in Mongolia (precise numbers are not available), the church has an ambitious goal to have 10% of the population as active church members by the year 2020.  In a country dominated by Buddhist and atheist beliefs, where powerful shamans still wield significant influence at all levels of society, this goal is also significantly dangerous.

The Orthodox church of the Holy Trinity in Ulan Bataar

The Orthodox church of the Holy Trinity in Ulan Bataar

Life in Mongolia is hard for many people.  Unemployment is high, and so are the prices of basic commodities.  According to one source, it is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  The value of its currency has tumbled almost as fast as Syria’s in recent weeks as falling coal exports deprive the country of foreign earnings.  But life is even harder for Christians, who can lack the family support networks to help them survive, and are vulnerable to significant persecution, bureaucratic disinterest and family opposition.

Yet the country does not feature in the top 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian, largely because Christianity is officially permitted.  But a recent unpublished report told of how the spy holes in the doors of apartments where Christians live had been painted over with red paint, compromising their security, but not those of their non-Christian neighbours.  Death threats spray-painted in red have been left for them.  Some have had to leave home in fear of their lives.  Despite that, the number of churches in the capital has proliferated and over 400 overseas mission workers now serve there.  Truly remarkable growth for a country which had just a small handful of believers in 1989.

Please pray for our suffering brothers and sisters.  The church faces many challenges as it seeks to reach out.  There is hostility from other faiths, lack of resources, poor access to the Bible in their own language and a resurgence of Buddhism.  Pray that God will make them bold in their proclamation of Jesus, strong in their faith, united in their love and comforted in their grief.

Update on the Arab Spring

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

Two years on from the outbreak of the Arab Spring, it’s worth pausing to take stock of what has happened so far, particularly since recent the military conflict in Mali against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the ongoing civil war in Syria have drawn attention to the region once again.

Readers will recall that early in 2011 a democratic uprising in Tunisia, largely facilitated by the use of social media in organising, communicating and publicising, triggered a number of popular uprisings in the Near East/Middle East/North Africa (NEMENA) region.  Since then, not a single county in the region has been unaffected by some form of protest, and the ongoing conflicts continue to destabilise the entire region and threaten to spill over into west and central Africa, the Caucasus and central Asia.  Several countries have experienced major unrest and the results have been mixed – certainly not the democratic success that liberals were hoping for!  Here’s how they stack up:

Successful change of government: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen

Top down change in response to the uprising: Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia

Civil war: Libya, Mali, Syria

Authoritarian crackdown: Bahrain

The key questions for us at Syzygy are not so much about the politics but about the impact of these disturbances on a) Christian mission and b) the national church.  It should be remembered that most of the countries in the NEMENA region were not particularly hospitable to Christians before the Arab Spring, and many of them had no significant Christian population.  Overt Christian mission was not possible in any of these countries.

1112138276The breakdown of law and order in the Arab Spring uprisings caused many mission agencies to withdraw their teams from most countries in the region in 2011.  The risks of becoming inadvertently caught up in the conflict, or of being specifically targeted by extremists were considered too great.  In many of these countries the overseas mission workers have still not returned, or if they have, their actions are hampered by the need to take security seriously.  This has an impact not only on their Christian witness, but on the vital humanitarian and development work they have been doing.

The prospects for the national church have been even worse.  The possibility of Sharia law being introduced (in Egypt for example) is a major threat to their ability to meet together openly and have their minority rights protected.  In the event of civil war the Christians are more vulnerable because often they are not able to rely on support from a wide family network (who may have ostracised them), or because they may be seen as covert allies of western democracies whose influence is opposed by Islamic extremists.  In Syria, where the minority Alawite regime has in the past been reasonably tolerant of Christians because they too were a minority, the rebels can even see the Christians as the enemy, particularly as they have not taken sides in the war.  There is nobody to protect the believers from extremists who want to lynch them and burn down their buildings.

Here are some recent headlines about what is still happening to the suffering church in the region:

  • Church burned, Christians stoned by Egyptian villagers (17th February)
  • Christians sentenced for (allegedly) proselytising in Algeria (13th February)
  • Christians in Sudan face victimisation by the Government (12th February)
  • Internally-displaced Christians in Mali face starvation (11th February)
  • Iraqi Patriarch claims Arab Spring resulting in bloodshed (9th February)
  • 200,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by war (1st February)

Yet God continues to do amazing things throughout the region.  There are reports of miraculous protection of Christians and church buildings.  Many people are finding Christ through the internet, or satellite tv and radio broadcasts.  We reported last year on ‘The Beautiful One’ who meets people in their dreams.  Nevertheless, as we observed on this website in 2011, these are precarious times for the church throughout the NEMENA region.

  • Pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters, that their faith will be strengthened and they will be comforted in their suffering.
  • Pray that mission workers will feel assured of God’s protection, have wisdom in avoiding detection, and be able to get on with their ministries unencumbered.
  • Pray that revival will break out as people commit their lives to ‘The Beautiful One’.
  • Donate to Christian relief agencies providing humanitarian aid in the region.

Islam in central Asia

In 1991 when the USSR collapsed there was barely a hint of Islam in public life in the central Asian republics.  That was due, of course, to the seventy years of communist rule in which all religion was unlawful, barring the recognition of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in many cases was led by a KGB agent posing as a priest.

In the first year following the collapse of the USSR, all five republics declared their independence. This fresh independence brought with it a new constitution, which declared the freedom of religion.  Churches sprang up, reaching out both locally and to neighbouring countries.

By the mid 90’s there was a definite new presence of Islam.  Mosques began to reopen.  We began to hear rumours from local people that Iran was funding an underground Islamic movement throughout central Asia.  Throughout the later 90’s there was growing evidence of the growth of Islam throughout the region.  Islamic universities and seminaries were opened.  Calls to prayer were heard over loud speakers five times a day and men clad in long robes bowed in the streets by the hundreds on their prayer mats.  Those not participating were ridiculed and threatened.  More and more women were veiled and dressed in long robes down to their ankles.  Reports of abuse to women by their Islamic husbands became rampant.

Following 9/11 the United States launched an attack on Afghanistan and people from the north of the country began to flee across the borders into the  central Asian republics.  Most of the people were professing, if not practicing Muslims.  Christians seized the opportunity to begin sharing Jesus with the newly arrived refugees.  Hundreds of people came to know Jesus as a result.

The report of hundreds coming to know Jesus fuelled the hatred of Christians from the Islamic faction.  Throughout the region, as people are known to be Christians, they have difficulty in doing business in their communities, shunned by family and friends, bullied in the work place.   They are denied promotion at work or even fired from jobs.  Their children are ridiculed by classmates and often beaten themselves en route to and from school

In the late 90’s there began to be reports of beatings and people being stoned for their Christian faith.  By 2004 the reports were coming very nearly each month.  By 2007 the reports were weekly.  Today the reports are a daily occurrence.  I still remember vividly the time I met with pastors who had fresh bruises on their faces.  They had been beaten for their faith in Jesus.  In 2006 a pastor was shot for leading others to convert from Islam to Christianity.  In recent years some have been butchered and boiled.  The murder of Christians  is brutal and horrific and goes unpunished.

When I meet with these, our brothers and sisters in Christ, I often say to them that I’m praying for them and that I will share with the western church as I am able, so they too may pray.  They always answer with a request that the prayer be that they ‘stand strong in the face of persecution.’  I am often humbled and daunted that they never ask for prayer for the persecution to stop.  They consider it an honour to be identified with Jesus and also take it as an opportunity to share their faith even with their tormentors.  Ultimately they yearn with joyful longing to share in the glory of Jesus when they will see His face.

How can the western church pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout central Asia?  Their three requests are:

  • pray that they stand strong in the face of their persecution and bring honour to the name of Jesus.
  • pray for those that persecute them to come to know Jesus
  • pray for the western church to know that not only can Jesus meet all their needs – Jesus Himself is all they need and anything else is extra.

This report was prepared by a mission worker with extensive connections in central Asia, who for obvious reasons prefers to stay anonymous.