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Some things I’ve learned from the persecuted church

Some things I’ve learned from the persecuted church

By Bill Atwood
July 30, 2014

Those who live in places where public expressions of Christian faith are accepted can easily forget the things Christians go through in areas of persecution. When the greatest threat to your Sunday morning is finding a parking place or walking through some rain from the car to the church it’s hard to relate to those who live with the threat of bombs or machine gun attacks.

Over the years I’ve been really blessed to spend time with many Christians who live victoriously and joyfully though surrounded by horrific circumstances.

From Archbishop Joseph Adetiloye–Courage

Archbishop Joseph was a visionary leader. The great growth of the Nigerian Church really began under his leadership. He pioneered Missionary Bishops who had “gifting like St. Paul” to go into un-evangelized areas. Toward the end of Archbishop Joseph’s ministry, the dictator in Nigeria was Suni Abacha. He was a ruthless thug who is reported to have stolen more than fifty BILLION dollars from the Nigerian people. At the end of May in 1998, just before the famous 1998 Lambeth Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Joseph was convicted by the Holy Spirit to go and see the head of state.

Abacha had made all political activity illegal. He assembled a personal “security” force that did incalculable damage, and he ruled the country with an iron fist. Archbishop Joseph stood in front of the dictator and said, “God is calling you to repent. If you do not repent from your evil ways within ten days, God will take your life.” As one might well imagine, Abacha was not amused. His security forces confiscated the Archbishop’s passport and told him he was under close watch. Archbishop Joseph had been so strongly convicted that he had to go on God’s errand, he went even in the face of possible death.

On the tenth day, the unrepentant Abacha dropped dead from a previously undiagnosed heart problem. He was just short of his 55th birthday. Even as Archbishop Joseph related the story to me it was with a breathless sense of the sovereignty of God.

From Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini

Archbishop Kolini’s courage is not in doubt. He had been serving as a bishop in the Congo, but returned to Rwanda because of the horrible conflicts that led to the genocide to become the Bishop of Kigali and then, the Archbishop. One day after traveling through the countryside, we returned back to his house. He was driving. We came through the security gate in the wall that surrounded the house (a common feature of homes in East Africa) and he began to back and fill to turn the vehicle around. Seeing the quizzical look on my face, he said, “Whenever you park, you need to position the vehicle so you can quickly escape danger. You never know when you will have to flee quickly.” I’ve often thought of that when traveling in dangerous areas and try to plan ahead.

Pakistani Christian–Perseverance

None of Pakistan is a cake-walk for Christians, but the areas of Pakistan where the Taliban is strong are particularly difficult. My friend lives in one of those difficult areas. He said, “Everyone knows who the Taliban are, just like everyone knew about Bin Laden. It helps in dealing with the Taliban for us to remain clear and strong. They respect strength even if/when they disagree. The other thing that we need to remember every day is never give up. Even when things are scary and the price is steep, never give up. When conflict is rising and it seems like it will never end, never give up.”

It would be easy to be discouraged when property is being destroyed and fellow Christians are being arrested, beaten, or even killed. Some Christians exhibit remarkable perseverance. It is good training for us. Things in the West are deteriorating. We could face much harder times as well. We would do well to remember to persevere.

Archbishop Benjamin and Gloria Kwashi

Ben has been a dear friend for more than twenty years. All through the years when they have been attacked, beaten, and threatened, I have consistently observed two things in their lives. They live with an eye on eternity. They know that they might join Jesus face to face any time. With the time they have on earth, they keep their eye on eternal values and on the things that matter. How can they continue when they have been beaten and abused? It is because they know that the trials of this life are nothing to be compared with the eternal joys that wait for us when we are with the Lord in Heaven. They focus on what is possible to do with the power of the Holy Spirit, not on what is too hard to do in human terms.

Iranian Christian–Pearl of Great Price

In Tehran, it was December, and I remember going into a Christian church that was decorated for a birthday party. There were crepe paper streamers and balloons and hand lettered signs declaring Happy Birthday. I asked, “Whose birthday is it?”

A young man about twenty replied, “Isn’t the United States where you have ‘In God we trust’ on the money?” Whose birthday do you THINK it is?!?”

“Oh,” I replied realizing that the decorations were for the upcoming Christmas celebrations.

The young man went on to tell me how, when he had come to faith in Christ, his own father came after him with a carving knife. He had to flee in just his pajamas. “It was terrifying to have your own father try to kill you, and to be rejected by your mother. I have lost everything I had. Instead, I have gained Christ and now have so much more!”

I realized I was looking into the face of the Pearl of Great Price.

Vietnamese Pastor–Joy in Suffering

When he moved, he moved slowly from having been beaten in prison. When he sat down, he sat tentatively and then when he got closer to the chair, collapsed into it. There was a stairway in his small house that ascended up to the second floor. Off to the side, just above the ceiling of the ground floor, was a wooden panel. It looked like the kind that covered electrical boxes. Instead, it was a doorway into a secret meeting room between the floors of his house. There was hardly enough space to sit up; certainly not enough to stand. Into that space, Christians and seekers would gather, laying hands on the walls of the space and singing, clapping their hands, and praying.

The pastor said, “It is good to be out of prison. I was there for three years. In America, pastors go to seminary for three years. In Vietnam, we go to prison instead. We call it ‘God’s Seminary.’ He meets us there and raises us up. What do you do in America for the principles to be more than just facts? How do you really learn them without prison?”

There was a deep “presence” about this pastor. Despite the fact that his body was complaining at the way he had been treated over the years, his eyes were bright and his spirit unbowed. He epitomized, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” (James 1:2)

Bishop Pie Ntukamazina–Resourcefulness

Bishop Pie (Pronounced “P”) is an old friend and the Bishop of Bujumbura. I call him “Pio.” He was traveling with a couple vehicles in tandem when they were carjacked by rebels. They were bound and dragged away from the road as the rebels set fire to the vehicles. Giant plumes of black smoke rose from the cars as the tires melted and the gas tanks exploded as they were taken to a rough rebel camp in the jungle. Celebrating from kidnapping such a visible and high value target, the rebels began drinking heavily. Eventually, all the rebels were passed out in a drunken stupor. Pio remembered where they had put his cell phone, so he worked his way out of the ropes that bound him, and very quietly and carefully retrieved his mobile phone and ran into the jungle. He called back into the Capital city and told the government troops where he was. They came and picked him up. He was amazingly cool under pressure and resourceful. I often remember that story when I’m driving through the high-rise buildings of Dallas and the cell signal drops out—often when on a call with my wife. Inevitably when contact is re-established she will say, “Well, what do you expect? We aren’t in Burundi where the signal even works in the jungle, are we?”

There are a thousand other examples. The point is that the love of God is particularly present when we are in challenging environments. If we listen to His voice and lean on His grace, we can navigate terrible circumstances with peace. It is important to “train” for tough times though. By looking for ways to remain faithful in the midst of inconvenience, we can grow in our ability to stay faithful in more trying circumstances. Sadly, no place on earth is so insulated that it is impossible to be challenged. Equally, there is no place so trying that it is beyond the grace of God.

The Rt. Rev. Bill Atwood is a bishop in the Anglican Church in North America

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