My son died today

It was 16 years ago when I watched my 16-year-old son die in Nairobi, Kenya, as a result of a severe asthma attack. 

His death on an Easter morning wounded the hearts of an entire community.

People asked me, How can God allow your son to die on Easter? You were only seeking to serve and praise Him among peoples unreached and untouched with the Gospel. How can a father handle watching his son die long before his child’s dreams could be realized?

I imagine God’s thoughts when Jesus died on the cross could have been similar to this:

My Son was a skilled carpenter, but I knew that He was made for something more than shaping wood with His hands. He was made for shaping lives with His words, with a touch or even with His tears. 

His life’s work was that of doing the miraculous He healed the sick, fed thousands, allowed those without worth and unclean to touch Him and to be touched by Him. 

He could weep over the death of a friend and almost in the midst of a sob call him from the grave to life again. People were enamored with the miraculous things He said and did. A few people began to discern that it wasn’t what He did that was miraculous. 

The real truth, they began to discover, was not that He did miracles but that He was The Miracle.

Others feared what they did not understand. I saw my Son arrested and ridiculed. Their spit ran down His face, their jeers rang in His ears and their tools of torture caused blood to disfigure His countenance.

Cheers from the days before when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey turned to the jeering of a mob as they watched my Son drag His own cross up to a hill of death, where they raised His mutilated body, nailed upon a wooden cross, to the sky.

Today, I watched my son die.

The political and religious leaders of His day thought this was the end of the threat. Those who had followed Him believed their hope was dead, so they denied they had ever known Him. Both sides deeply believed this was the end of the story, this death, this killing of My son once praised, now once and for all, crucified to death.

And here was everyone’s mistake, their misunderstanding. They believed that crucifixion was the end of the story, that death ended all things the threat to the reigning government and the people’s hopes for an earthly Messiah.

Everyone was wrong. My Son was not to be defined by the waving palm leaves of the adoring multitude or by the shouts of the jeering crowd. Neither would He be defined by a crucifixion.

There was more to come more to the story. This was my plan. The crucifixion by man was a prelude to the resurrection by the Father. I allowed and watched my Son die, to be crucified, to demonstrate my love and forgiveness for all people, for all times. 

But I am not only a Father of love, I am a Father of power.

And while my love allowed for the crucifixion of my Son, my power would not allow Him to stay dead because I had determined that crucifixion was just the prelude to the resurrection.

For my family, the anniversary of my son’s death at Easter brings this bittersweet reminder There is no shortcut, no easy way out, no way to avoid wounds made inevitable by living in a broken, imperfect world.

Like God’s Son, my son died way too young and, at least for a season, for unacceptable reasons.

But my family knows that this earthly life is just a prelude to the eternal life we can have through and with Christ. Jesus’ crucifixion was for a moment in time. His resurrection is forever.

John 3:16-17 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” RSV

A 13-Year Old Church Planter

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was my opportunity and blessing to enter many of the countries of the former USSR  and sit at the feet of many believers, while listening to their stories of faith which were often surrounded by seasons of severe persecution. It was as if my Bible was exploding in present active tense. I was interviewing, in my lifetime, Daniel in the lion’s den and Ezekiel defying and defeating the wicked Queen. I was being introduced to a faith which believed what God has always done, He is still doing!

I had interviewed a very godly, older gentleman. This pastor had been imprisoned and tortured. His beloved wife died while he was incarcerated. He talked about God’s sustaining power in the midst of persecution and suffering-yet he sternly suggested that no one should desire persecution but simply accept whatever God sends their way.

The next day I was in another home interviewing a brother in Christ whose father was severely tortured in prison. At 7 am, over breakfast he was telling me his Bible-like journey with Jesus. Before we could finish breakfast, the door opened and the older pastor from the day before entered the house. I was interviewing this 2nd pastor in the home of workers from America. They were very gracious in hosting me and in the setting up of many godly interviews. I greeted the older pastor, asking him what his agenda was for today. He replied he was off to a new area, of his central European country, to evangelize and attempt to plant a church. He further told me he had come to the house to pick up someone to help him. I certainly expected him to leave the house with the man from the West or the man and his wife. I was shocked by whom he was taking with him.

He was taking the 13-year-old son of this family from America. His parents were too busy to go.

I interviewed the 2nd believing brother until late in the evening. Almost at dark time the front door opened and in came the old pastor with a dirt-stained, scratched and bleeding, 13-year-old boy from the West. Without hesitation this boy exclaimed to his mother and father,

“You won’t believe what happened! I went with pastor today to a new area and he asked me to share my testimony. After we talked some of the people got so angry they threw stones at us and one of them hit me on the head and caused me to bleed a little bit. But after these hateful people left, and many of these villagers saw how we loved even those who cursed, beat and stoned us, many of them gave their lives to Jesus, they were baptized, and we started a church today!”

And suddenly I realized what real discipleship entails. Real discipleship is taking us, our children, other people’s children (when the adults are unable and unwilling to go) and extending the kingdom of God in the toughest of places. What this older pastor gave to the 13-year-old American boy on this day was a genealogy of faith which he, himself can reproduce for generation after generation. The 13-year-old can now lead his friends, possibly his parents, and, someday his own children on this exciting journey called faith in Jesus. He learned from that persecuted older pastor some hard lessons; faith comes with a price. He learned from a godly, former imprisoned pastor the price which has to be paid to see scores of people and multiple families come into the kingdom of God. He learned the joy of suffering with the end result of churches being planted in the homes of others.

This 13-year-old boy had modeled for him that day a faith which is bigger than a mob and more enduring than a rock to his head. I wished he could have learned these lessons and blessings from his own father. I wish it had been his parents who had introduced him to the challenges which come by walking with this Savior. Yet this old man knew who to take with him, who was willing to be discipled, and whose heart was tender enough to forgive even those who attempted to stone him. This old man learned from Jesus and these were lessons too hard-earned not to pass them on to the next generation.

2 Tim 2:1-7 “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.” RSV

Willing to Die for Jesus

It was a soul wrenching time for our family-which is not a surprise to anyone as we were working in Somalia at the time. While there were believers in Jesus from Muslim background inside the country, they were often scattered, alone, and afraid. We were seeing many children and older people die of starvation.  Often we had to wait for those who died during the night to be buried before we could feed those still left alive. Though we began as a mom-and-pop organization late in 1991, we soon had teams in 3 different countries doing everything from food relief, irrigation, resettling refugees, and tons of mobile medical clinics. Soon a team of 8 were feeding 50,000 people per day.

All of this was done in an environment of famine and civil war. I often wondered which classes from my Christian college or from my degrees in seminary were responsible for preparing us to minister in Jesus name in such a tough environment? It was like this; we didn’t mind being “sheep among wolves” as we understood this to be a biblical command and a constant reality. What I objected to was being a sheep among the wolves where the wolves were in the majority and, can I say honestly, we had been sent out as stupid sheep among the vicious wolves.

It’s challenging when you have civil war and famine as your ministry environment while most of your training has been to prepare you to be a sheep serving the sheep.

After numerous trips into Somalia my wife and I had an intense, heart-to-heart conversation. Coming to a deeply held consensus together, we called our 3 sons to join us so we could unpack what we felt the Holy Spirit was saying to us in regard to our ministry in Somalia. This conversation with our boys may not have represented the most articulate moment of our lives, but it certainly was heart-felt. We began the conversation something like this,

“Boys there was a time, early in our lives, when your mother and I had to decide whether or not we were willing to live for Jesus. As a pastor’s daughter, your mother can hardly remember not knowing Jesus as a young girl. My journey to Jesus was much rougher and you know I did not discover who Jesus was until 18 years of age. But both your mother and I made the conscious, spiritual decision that we would live for Jesus no matter what.

When Shane was around 5 years of age and Timmy a little past 3, we experienced a renewed call on our hearts concerning taking the love of Jesus to those who have little or no chance to know him. We heard God’s command clearly asking us if we were willing to go anywhere in the world for Jesus. Without any doubt your mother and I answered this question; it was God’s prerogative to send us wherever He determined. It was not too difficult to decide to both live for Jesus and to go anywhere in the world with Jesus.

All of this was before Somalia. Now we don’t know if going and living for Jesus is enough.

As a family we know that Somalia is a very dangerous place. Though we as a family are living in Kenya, we and our teams are inside Somalia and near its borders in many places. Your mother and I have talked and we want to share something as a family. You’ve heard us talk about our willingness to live for Jesus, giving our lives to Him, alongside our willingness to go anywhere He commands us to go. For this season of our lives it does not seem to be enough to simply be willing to go for Jesus, living for Him wherever He may plant us. We don’t want to scare or frighten you but we want to look at the cost of following Jesus as a family. There is a new question and reality we need to ask ourselves alongside our willingness to live and to go for Jesus.

The question is, are we, as a family, willing to die for Jesus as well as live and go for Him?”

Though the boys might have a difficult time remembering this conversation, it is etched deep within my soul. You see, my culture had taught me a lie. Even my Christian culture bought into this lie. The lie goes like this; “If you love and serve Jesus you are entitled to live a long life, free from serious injury or illness, and never have problems within your family. You are further entitled to a big house and 2 cars alongside a retirement dividend which will allow you to travel and relax for many years. When you reach old age you are to be free from illness and allowed to die peacefully in your sleep.”

Where is a willingness to die for Jesus in the midst of all this cultural Christianity? Who was supposed to model the trifecta of living for Jesus, going with Jesus, and even be willing to die for Jesus? What class or sermon should have prepared us for such an environment as Somalia?

There was no place in my world for such an environment as Somalia and there was no place for a faith which could sustain and grow in such an environment like Somalia. Most of my classes and the sermons I both heard and gave myself prepared me to serve in a white-collar, Christian environment. The blue-collar camel herders of Somalia were a class or a sermon consistently omitted from my nurturing within the church or in my training within denominational entities.

We still struggle consistently with Christ’s command to live for Him, go with Him and, if necessary, die for Him.

Gal 2:20-21 “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.” RSV

The British Half-Penny

We were really proud of Southern Baptists. In Transkei, South Africa we had asked for and received $10,000 to help believers develop their own style of Bible study and Sunday Schools throughout the country. My wife and I, along with our 3 small boys, traveled to the mountains of Transkei to spend the weekend with a very small country church. They were so isolated from the rest of the churches in Transkei that we spent a lot of time simply sharing information from many of the other churches to the one we were now visiting. Almost without thinking, near the close of the time I had to share about what God was doing within the other churches, I mentioned to this small congregation the gift of $10,000 their brothers and sisters had sent them from America.

Unlike anything we had ever seen, a spontaneous love offering exploded inside this mountainous, country church! 

I am guessing you have never seen such an offering? These Xhosa speaking believers lined up between the simple, rough, wooden benches. Their line trailed all the way out of the crookedly hung back door of this isolated church. They begin to sing, dance, and sway toward the simple wooden altar table down front of the church. As they approached the altar table, these women would dance in harmony, slapping their change back and forth on the altar table all

together-sometimes three or four times. Children would ask for money from the adults, run outside of the church, cross the street – where they would enter a simple store to get the smallest change possible for their money so they could dance repeatedly in the aisle of the church, slapping their offerings together on top of the altar table.

This spontaneous offering went on for over 30 minutes!

All of this joy and offering was in response to a gift given by believers in America whom these African brothers and sisters had never seen. They danced, sang, and praised God as they gave, in joy, their offerings in response to the love offering they had received. We were so caught up in the moment, as we watched our brothers and sisters give their gifts to God, our sons began to ask us for change so they could go and slap their offerings on the altar also. It was one of the most joy filled times of giving we have ever experienced.

Until the old, arthritic woman began to limp down toward the front of the church.

As she stumbled down the aisle of the church, she reached inside of her ragged blouse and pulled out a knotted handkerchief. With her crooked fingers and teeth, she tried for many minutes to undo the knot in her old handkerchief. Finally she was able to untie the knot and inside of it was one over-large, copper coin. As she neared the altar of the church, she took that one copper coin, rubbed it with affection, and then placed it gently on the altar table. Then she slowly walked back to her seat. Curious, because I had not seen such money, I went to the altar table, after the spontaneous offering was finished, and picked up the large copper coin. I took it to one of the leaders and told him what I had seen. He went to the old lady and spoke with her for some time. He returned with tears in his eyes as he told me her story.

What she had given as her offering to God, in response to the $10,000 from America, was a British half-penny. This half-penny represented all of this woman’s money in the world; it was her retirement fund. My heart was broken when the leader of the church informed me this half-penny had been discontinued as “real” money since 1963. It was all she had owned for her retirement and it was useless. I was so broken by this old woman’s offering, her giving all she had to Jesus, that I laid a significant offering on the altar, placing her British half-penny in my pocket. For many years I carried this half-penny wherever we went. Whenever I felt we had given all we had to Jesus and it was time to quit, I would remove this half-penny from my pocket, remember this old, arthritic Mama in the mountains of Transkei, and understand that we had a long way to go before we gave all we have.

Mark 12:41-44 “And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.’” RSV

Beast for Jesus

Now I have to admit this is one of my pet peeves. It amazes me how often single women are stepping up to do the tough things for the kingdom of God while single men are astonishingly absent. This challenge crosses denominational lines and is to be found anywhere within the Western Christian environment. It has been our observation over the last decade or two that for every 1 single man on the mission field there are seven single women! As we noted in another article it is as if single men are praying, “Lord here am I, send my sister.”

This has reached epidemic proportions as men today are, seemingly, not tough enough to go to the tough places. While women are prepared to go as “sheep among wolves,” it seems to me believing men want to remain as “sheep among sheep.”

What has brought us to this global challenge?

Let’s focus on our issue men; why are we not showing up? Why are there scores of women prepared to go to the tough places and do the tough things while we stay home? Dare I suggest the location of this unscriptural behavior lies within the broader Body of Christ itself? While women are quietly serving all the way from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the earth-men stay-at-home. Why? In the West men have two models, vocationally, to choose from. Vocation, position, power, and salary packets are important to us men. Our male role models are in pulpits and in classrooms. Yet those without any access to Christ dwell in the deserts, the famines, and the war zones of the earth. Conversely, Christian men in the West are increasingly white-collar while those without Christ are tough blue-collar or no collar men.

Years ago in China I was privileged to stay among three church planting movements. If I were to ask the young men inside those movements what they wanted to be when they grew up, they would quickly answer, “We want to be evangelists and church planters.” While central to the New Testament, these roles for men are virtually nonexistent in most of our churches and seminaries in the West. We train men to be pastors, shepherds of sheep. Shepherds seldom put their sheep at risk, even for the sake of the kingdom of God! I was reminded of this as I read an article the other day. In this article, a major league baseball player talks about how he avoided Christianity as he felt it was soft and for sissies. Yet he found Jesus to be tough, willing and able to die on a cross – Jesus was a “beast,” a real man. Read the article for yourself.

Where are the men? Are we tough enough to serve in the tough places? Are we able to be a beast for Jesus?

Arab Spring?

We returned two weeks ago to America from the Middle East where we live. We had a month of traveling throughout the US and a couple of places overseas. Have you noticed the Middle East is a mess? The other day an opposition politician was killed in Tunisia. The Islamist and the Muslim Brotherhood are considering a partnership in Egypt. Refugees are pouring into Jordan from Syria. Yemen continues to be a challenge, if not an outright disaster, while Somalia shows some flickers of light after more than two decades of civil war and famine. 

It could be argued, in the Middle East and North Africa, that Al Qaeda is becoming their own people group.

Would it be fair to say I am not sure where I want to go with this blog? I am endlessly, eternally optimistic. Yet to classify this time in history as “springtime” in North Africa and the Middle East because of a movement which began when a young man burned himself to death in Tunisia seems to me to be a denial of reality. I think by writing this blog I’m able to put my finger on what bothers me.

The promotion of “Arab Spring” implies this; the solution for the ills of this world is political.

That’s the rub is it not? We clamor for solutions from sources which have never proven they can provide what the world needs. It seems many statements pertaining to local or global solutions begin with, “if we just had enough money,” or “if all the countries of the world had democratic governments,” or “if we were to recognize the truth-all religions are the same, all faiths lead to God,” and the list could go on for a long time. Much of what was just written does have the potential to make life easier, more representative, or at least set a stage for various faiths to talk to one another. But are they or the “Arab Spring” representative of life-changing significance with eternal ramifications? I think not.

While fascinated with the words of the New Testament (content), I am equally fascinated by the context in which the New Testament unfolded. Here’s what we know. Jesus lived all of his life under a Roman, foreign occupation. He never witnessed a democratic government. Soon after His birth His government tried to kill Him. For most of His ministry the leaders of His religious background were in bed with the government, even to the point of partnering in His crucifixion. As far as we know He never owned a house, made car payments, put kids through college, or ever voted in an election.

All he ever did was to die on a cross and then turn the world upside down.

It is our prayer the Arab world will experience some sort of a “Spring.” God knows they need one. Yet it will not be found, ultimately, in the ballot box, some sort of representative government, by the establishment of human and civil rights, or in a market economy.

It will be found outside the doors of an empty tomb.

Praying Nurses

We love nurses and all types of medical people.  When needed the most throughout the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia, believers who are medically trained had come out of the woodwork to give some of the most sacrificial service to God imaginable on the planet.

In horrific places they had helped us reduce malnutrition rates from 85% to 8%.  In another environment we found that 87% of the children had never been inoculated.  By the time we were forced from that region seven years later, the rate was in the single digits also.  For decades in the Northeast Province no twins had survived in living memory.  We began a goat project for mothers of twins and the occasional triplets.  Any mother who could present us with newborn twins or triplets would get a milking goat that would supplement the mother’s milk, virtually guaranteeing the survival of these newborn babies.  Over the next few years it was a joy to see the first-ever twins and triplets survive due directly to a simple goat project.  Yet local people must’ve thought this white man from Kentucky looked simple of mind and could be easily fooled.  Arriving at various villages, once the goat project became known throughout the region, mothers would present us with their “twins,” one which was obviously a newborn, with the second “twin” being old enough to have a full head of hair, a number of teeth, and walking!

Sometimes we gave them a goat anyway just for their creativity.

All of the environments in which we sought to serve were very hostile to the person of Jesus and those who called themselves His followers.  In the beginning we had poor language skills and our medical efforts were often staffed by young nurses fresh out of school.  As older nurses joined our projects we purposely sought to increase our witness, sharing with local people our motivation for coming in assisting those in need.  Our older nurses began to pray for those we would treat, even in the most hostile of environments.

It is hard to close both eyes and pray in a hostile environment when those who curse at the name of Jesus are those holding weapons.

Prayer became a miraculous tool of faith and healing as it was in the New Testament.  In every situation, while we washed our hands with an antiseptic, our oldest nurses would gather around the patient, lay hands on the ill or injured one and pray for them.  Though often met with hostility, this practice grew and led to many spiritual conversations.  While we knew that such a practice was risky in places where believers in Jesus had seldom lived or were wanted, we were impressed that the minimal witness we were willing to leave behind was the witness of and through prayer.

Often our oldest nurses insisted on being the ones who would pray over the recent casualty of war; be it a wounded or starved child.  Their thinking was that since they were so old, it would be better to risk losing an older nurse to persecution than a younger nurse who had so many years left to serve!

In a war zone it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of one’s prayer, actions, and verbal witness.  One’s ministry is so fluid as it ebbs and flows as often as civil war advances and retreats.  There were places where we could return to many times and others we were allowed to visit only once – leaving hungry and wounded children behind.

One day was particularly frightening as we entered a village where fighting had erupted and a child tried to pick up a hand grenade with terrible results.  Pulling into this village we were confronted with the evidence of a small, mangled body.  Our team immediately went into hyper-mode, preparing to do whatever we could to save this child’s life.  As our medical team began to work on this small boy, they were grabbed from behind by gun-wielding Somali men while also being restrained by the child’s mother.

We had no choice but to step away from the bench transformed into an operating theater, turning to face the threats of the moment.  We began to voice our concern for the child, questioning why we were being restrained from treating him.  The answer was not long in coming.

The mother of the wounded child took the lead in exclaiming, “You will not treat my son until you have prayed for him.  We have watched you pray over so many of our children and they have been healed.  You will not operate on this child without praying because it is your God who has healed so many children in this village.”

We had to be reminded by Muslims to be like Jesus.

Sophia

If ever there was a thorn in the flesh of Islam in her country it was “Sophia”.  We first met her at a self-made orphanage outside of Mogadishu during some of the worst months of the Civil War in Somalia.  We tracked her down through the unusual means of hearing children singing in a destroyed section of the capital city where there were no songs.  Over the years our lives have touched and crisscrossed through the tragedy which is the Somali people.

As the persecution increased in Mogadishu she escaped with her daughter, along with hundreds of other Somalis, to a neighboring country inside of a boat intended to transfer cattle from one country to another.  Once upon the high seas, those who could not produce an additional monetary rite of passage were callously thrown into the ocean.  Surviving such ordeals, Sophia found herself in a refugee camp among a people who were almost as dangerous to her faith as those in the country where she had recently fled.  While she was a stranger in a foreign country, we were able to discover that her children, long thought dead along with her husband, were still alive!  There were many efforts to reunite her with her children only to be told by her in-laws, “as long as she was a follower of Jesus, she would never be allowed to touch her children again.”

She was forced to marry someone within her deceased husband’s clan.  Submitting to this plan she chose to marry a man who was very interested in her faith in Christ.  Soon after her marriage she found herself pregnant once again.  She was known throughout her small-town as “that evil woman” whose witness was converting many Muslims to Jesus.  Through the status of her marriage and the strength of her witness, they could not silence her.  The day arrived when she was in labor with the child of her new husband.  There was a serious problem with the position of the baby so she went to the hospital for assistance from the professional medical community.  Quickly she befriended those in the hospital especially one medical orderly.

He was to be used by God to save her life.

As her contractions continued over an unhealthy length of time, this orderly heard a doctor and nurse discuss the case of Sophia’s pregnancy.  He heard them discussing that this woman had caused many people to turn to faith in Jesus Christ and all the attempts used to silence her had not been successful.  To his horror, this aide overheard the doctor and nurse consent to do nothing to help her, allowing her to die “normally” giving birth to her child, thus erasing such a witnessing thorn from the flesh of the community.

The orderly acted quickly with inspiration.  He went to a public phone and called the only believer he knew in the capital city of his country.  This believer quickly contacted a believing airline pilot with the national carrier who arranged to change his flight schedule with another pilot.  Flying immediately to this small desert city, the believing pilot left the airplane in the hands of his co-pilot, climbed into a bush taxi, rushed to the rural hospital, and found the believing sister, still painfully having contractions, lying untreated in the hospital.  He wrapped a blanket around Sophia, picked her from her bed-tubes intact, placed her in the taxi, took her back to his airplane, strapped her in a First Class seat, and flew her to the capital city.  Believers were waiting for the airplane and took her by ambulance to a local hospital where her son was successfully born by cesarean section 3 hours later.

Two days later I was able to visit with her.   I held this baby boy, another miracle child saved from the clutches of a modern day Pharaoh or Herod and their cronies.

Being a New Testament light in the midst of the Old Testament is never easy and it is always dangerous. Be prepared for evil yet never forget to watch for the miracle.

Constantine

During the years of the USSR there was a charismatic movement in a particular country within the State Church called the “Army of God.”  It was quite a renewal movement, returning a massive number of people back to God and the Bible, away from hollow religious ritual.  Sadly, as is true in many persecution environments, the established church and the government joined forces to attempt to harass those who wanted to spiritually color outside of the State religion lines.  Many of those in the Army of God were persecuted, with leaders often imprisoned.

But the persecutors made a big mistake. 

They put Constantine in prison for his faith.  They would have been better served to have left him free and away from the creative pressures that persecution often provides as a traveling companion for believers in prison.  The persecutors would have been better off to have left Constantine in his job without the time to reflect upon the kingdom of God, bringing his gifts to bear upon the kingdom.

I met Constantine in a small, one-room, upstairs apartment.  He was in his late 80s and his wife has already made her short trip to eternity with Jesus.  One could still see the remnants of the powerful man Constantine had been during his younger years.  One could hear in the timbre of his voice the power of the songs he was able to produce as the Holy Spirit sang through him during his younger years.  I took in all of the possessions that were his in this tiny apartment, possessions that probably were not worth $500 in any market.

Yet I met a man whose creativity through song and faithfulness was priceless.  The persecutors would have done well to have left him alone.

Fearing his growing influence in the Army of God they arrested him and incarcerated this leader for many years in prison.  In the crucible of persecution Constantine began, as did Paul and Silas in the Acts of the New Testament, to sing.  Beaten-he would sing.  Denied food-he would sing.  Placed in solitary confinement-he would sing.  Whatever pressures the persecutors brought upon this man of God there was always the same result.

He would sing!

Before, for generations the songs sang in formal worship, especially worship established and approved by the State, were songs borrowed, transliterated from the outside, Western world.  They were songs which were suited for orchestras, maestros, and professional singers who were more concerned with the quality of the product sung than its spiritual content.  These State Church songs had become the norm of the church for many generations.  Sung with such frequency, these songs became a distant reminder of a faith which had long passed away more than a faith which powerfully burned with the Spirit of God today.  These were the songs approved by the State, and used by the State, as a weapon to control and emasculate the singing soul of the Body of Christ.

They should have left Constantine alone, untouched, free, and sitting quietly in his pew.  But they made a big mistake when they arrested this man of God, this leader in the Army of God, and placed him in prison.

As a result, Constantine began to sing.

Through the years he was incarcerated he created and committed to memory over 600 hymns and choruses of his HeartSongs to Jesus.  These songs began to escape through the bars, windows, and cracks in the concrete blocks of the prison.  The songs escaped inside of the hearts of those who were released from prison.  Guards fearfully caught themselves singing the songs they heard created inside of the cell and inside of the heart of Constantine.  Various governmental persecutors and church officials sought to suppress the growing influence of the songs multiplying themselves from within the heart and soul of one man, but spreading nationally.  They tried to silence him using any covert and overt persecution they could imagine.

Still Constantine sang.

By the time the global power of the former USSR was reduced to embers, Constantine had created over 600 songs and choruses to Jesus.  By his release, the songs had spread throughout the churches of his country.  Birthed by the adversity of pressure and in the crucible of persecution, these songs reflected the soul of the true church in his Eastern European country.

Today they still sing the songs of the Holy Spirit which came through the creative mind and voice of Constantine.

I sat with this man of God, a shell of his former self, in an old apartment as aged as Constantine himself.  His voice trembling, his hand shaking-one could still imagine the physical and spiritual presence this man of God had been for decades.  It was a glorious five or six hours to listen to this man of God revel in the retelling of his persecution and how he became such a musical tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit.  He stated confidently he would have never been used of God to create so much of God’s Word through music unless he had been honored with suffering for Christ for those many years.  It was as if I was sitting at the feet of King David writing the Psalms for his Lord and God, songs still sung in churches internationally today.  A little afraid but inspired, I asked Constantine if he would sing one of those songs, perhaps his favorite, which he had composed through the Holy Spirit during those long years in prison.  He looked at me, smiled at the request, and then gave to me a gift for the ages.

 Constantine sang.

Strength in Freedom

It is not a nice story but, sadly, it was a story all too common during the heyday of the Soviet Union.  Understanding comes difficult at times.  In Western cultures we generally believe that those in prison deserve to be in prison.  But what if we lived for generations where many people in prison are incarcerated for being good rather than being bad?

Such was true for this pastor.

He was arrested simply because he was a pastor and went around doing good.  He was kept in a KGB torture facility for over nine months.  History books are filled with the atrocities that the USSR visited on its own people.  This pastor’s experience epitomized what was endured by believers during decades of persecution in the former Soviet Union.  His persecutors did everything they could to torture, humiliate, and force him to deny his faith in Christ.  They fed him bread heavily laced with salt and withheld water from him for days at a time.  They hung him from chains in the ceiling with his arms stretched high behind his back.  They made him sit in a chair for days at a time, and whenever he literally fell asleep and dropped out of the chair, they would beat him for sleeping.

One guard was particularly sadistic.  He would bring the pastor a piece of toast for breakfast with his own human waste on top of it.

This went on for nine months until the pastor was finally transferred to a labor camp where conditions were less torturous but still demeaning.  He was allowed contact with his family for two hours, two times during the ten years of his imprisonment. His kids grew up without their father.  One day the commander called him into the office.  He was told that this was his last chance to deny his faith or he would be executed.  He refused to renounce Jesus.  Guards were called to take him into the yard of execution.  At the door of the prison he was given another chance to recant his faith.  He refused.  They walked him to the post inside the execution yard and showed him the ropes with which he would be tied before being shot.  He could see the stains of blood on the post and ropes.  Pock-marked by the bullets from other executions, covered the back wall.   Still he refused to deny his faith.

Unbelievably his guards grabbed him, dragged him to the wall of the prison, opened a rusty gate in the wall that the pastor did not know was in existence, and threw him into the street outside of the prison!  He was free but free to go where?  How would he get there?

He finally found someone who would give him a ride in their car near the part of the city in which he lived.  He was worried when we found no one at home at his house.  He made his way to the church where he was the pastor when he was first arrested ten years previously.  He went inside and found his family and some of the church members kneeling at the altar praying for him!  Just like Simon Peter in the New Testament, his family and parishioners were shocked to see the man of God standing in their midst like a vision.

The next day, Sunday, he stood in the very pulpit proclaiming again the Good News which had led to his arrest 10 years previously.

As he re-continued his ministry, one of the lady church members came to him begging medicine for her diabetic son.  Such medicine was very difficult and expensive for the church to acquire, often from outside sources.  After many efforts the pastor obtained the needed medicine and instructions on how to administer the drug to the ill son of his church member.  He traveled to her house and greeted her as she led him through the small curtain that separated the living room from the bedroom of the patient. 

As the pastor entered this small bedroom he cried out to God, “Oh Lord, please do not allow me to fail you now as I have served you faithfully in prison for the last 10 years!  Please let me do Your will now.”

On the bed, dying and blind from diabetes, was the son of his church member.  He was also the guard from the KGB torture facility who had fed the pastor his waste on a piece of toast every morning for nine months.  The pastor knew if he spoke out loud this former torturer would recognize his voice and his suffering, along with the diabetes, could perhaps be even more of a pain and burden.

Without saying a word in the presence of this dying, former persecutor, the pastor administered the life-saving medicine, prayed silently over his former torturer, said goodbye to his church member, and left the house.

His actions in the home freed him from the horrors of the last ten years.  As he found strength to endure persecution in prison he also found strength in his freedom to love those who had hated him.

According to Jesus, such is the kingdom of God.