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.

Walk Alongside

A leader in East Africa approached me, asking if we would provide training for about 35 Westerners who desired to share the Gospel with Muslim people.  There was only one problem; none of them had ever met a Muslim before coming to the African continent!  They offered to meet with us for one day so we could orientate them in their efforts to reach out to Muslim peoples.

One day!

My brain was frozen in trying to discern how to reduce all that we knew about ministry and Islam into a one-day drive by shooting teaching opportunity?  I tried to negotiate for more time but was unsuccessful.  Today I would probably refuse to participate in such a small slice of training because, as my father used to say, “They know just enough to get themselves hurt.”

But from somewhere within the spiritual realm, inspiration struck.  I agreed to meet with them for a full day, but instead of instructing them concerning the tenets of Islam and ministry, I engaged the assistance of three brothers who were followers of Jesus from a Muslim background.  I informed those we were teaching that I would simply interview these three brothers on stage concerning their cultural settings of their families, their faith, and their persecution in order that we might use this teaching opportunity to its fullest.

It was a fantastic day as these 35 Westerners listened, often in shock, to the stories of their brothers from Muslim backgrounds that live daily in the grips of persecution and the possibility of being killed for their faith.  It was such a holy time the participants were reluctant to take breaks or to eat lunch, as they wanted to soak up as much knowledge and expertise possible.  These three brothers described faith in environments that can only be described as biblical, mostly Old Testament.  At the end of the day the leader of these 35 foreigners posed a very discerning question.  He asked,

“If you have accurately described what your world is like, what is the role of the Western worker?  What can we possibly do which will aid the development of faith while not causing you to be persecuted simply due to our presence?  What can we do to help?” One of the believers from Muslim background proposed a suggestion that rocked the very core of my being.

He said, “We live with trials and persecution every day.  Here is what I would suggest to you.  If you can come, and walk alongside of us, then come.  If you cannot come, then send someone on your behalf to encourage us.  If you cannot come, nor send anybody in your place, please write us a letter, send us an email which describes your love and support for us.  Write to us possible suggestions on how we should live out our lives in the midst of an Old Testament environment.”

Lightning flashed through my brain as I listened to this brother’s reply.  In a few short sentences he had captured the entire relational ministry of the apostle Paul in the New Testament.  When he could go-he went.  When he could not go himself to visit new believers and churches-he sent someone on the behalf of himself and the Gospel.  When he could not go nor send anyone he would write them letters of encouragement and instruction.

Our brother, a first generation believer from a Muslim background, captured a large portion of the life of Paul in a few sentences.  I will never forget hearing him say,

“If you can come, come.

If you cannot come, send someone to walk with us.

If you cannot come yourself, nor send us someone, then write us a letter of encouragement.” It captures the relationship of one believer with others who also follow Jesus in tough places.

This is not brain surgery.  Any one of us can fulfill these requests.  This is the relational essence of the New Testament and evidence of how the Body of Christ provides care for one another.

Why would I waste the truth on you?

Perhaps it’s not what you would expect from a faith-based person who had entered Somalia for the sake of the kingdom of God but I was severely tempted to put my hands around the throat of my Chief of Staff and do him bodily harm. Why such behavior?

He almost got me killed.

Our small relief organization was now up and running.  It was my job many days to survey parts of Mogadishu and the surrounding towns and villages to discover where we were most needed but also where there was enough security so that we could work.  Early in this life-changing, destructive environment I asked my Chief of Staff concerning surveying a certain portion of Mogadishu.  I had indirectly heard that it was still very dangerous and I wanted to double check with my Chief of Staff, Hassan, before traveling to that part of the city.  He assured me that everything was okay and that I should go.

So this Kentucky boy, a product of a denominational based college and seminary training-a sometimes fumbling pastor, was now an overseas worker trying to apply faith in a mostly faithless and dangerous environment.  I got in our pickup truck with the driver and four guards and went to the portion of Mogadishu were my Chief of Staff had assured us it was safe to visit that part of the city.

We almost were killed.  Entering this embattled section of Mogadishu, outlaws tried to drag us from our vehicle, threw blocks of concrete at the truck, and sprayed bullets towards our pickup truck with their ancient AK-47s.  It was a terrifying encounter and we were lucky to get back to our compound with my life intact and my pants dry!

I stormed up the stairs of our headquarters until I found my Chief of Staff.  Working through my fear I grabbed him by the shirt front and demanded of him, “Why did you lie to me?  You almost got me and the others killed!”  He was very affronted and incredulously replied to me, “I don’t know you well enough to tell you the truth.  Why would I waste the truth on someone like you?”

I was struck dumb and walked away.  In what school or seminary was I supposed to learn how to serve Jesus in an environment that was dominated by barbarians with world views such as the Roman Empire?  Oh yes, what I needed to know was in the Bible but I had never seen such godlessness lived out in present active tense.  I realized, perhaps for the first time, that indeed I was a sheep among the wolves.  But for the first time the wolves were in the majority.

Over the next seven years Hassan saved my life 4 or 5 times.  We are close friends today.  But he taught me a valuable lesson.  Don’t expect the Fruit of the Spirit in places where few people know Jesus.  Don’t expect nonbelievers to waste the truth on someone whom they do not know, who are not part of their clan, culture, or country.  Do not transfer Christian attributes to people who do not know Jesus!

Yet bullets directed at you accelerate one’s learning and cultural adaptation.

Where was I supposed to learn what it was like to be a cross-bearer in a Roman environment?  Who was supposed to have taught and modeled for me the Bible in present active tense.  How was I to know that the Old Testament still defined globally many people groups and countries?  Was it okay for me to heavily dislike being a sheep among the wolves where the wolves had the upper hand?

Persecution is Hard

The table in his one-room house is still imprinted on my mind after many years.  There was a low wattage bare light bulb hanging above the table.  On the table’s surface was a well used metal plate, a large spoon, and a knife.  Covering most of the table above these utensils was a huge family Bible; opened, well used, with all the margins filled with hand written notes in Chinese characters.  There was a small closet which held one change of clothes, a pair of sandals, and a box of papers filled with his rambling thoughts.

He had been imprisoned for 31 years.

What went into prison was a healthy man with a wife and children.  In prison, because he refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ, his persecutors forced his wife to divorce him and sent his children far away to be adopted by communist-friendly families.  They never charged him with any crime but locked him away in prison for three decades…just because they could.

They had used him up.  He was just a shell of a man.

There is an inclination in the West to dress up persecution; make it palatable, as we remember the faith that sustains our brothers and sisters in persecution more than imagining the blood and the tears and the separation and the psychological abuse.  Frankly speaking, persecution is very hard and we should never treat it lightly.  Thirty-one years later, having never charged him with any crime, they released him without explanation.  Having nowhere to go, almost everyone he knew were dead, he was now living in a one-room apartment just three blocks from the prison.  He had sent for me to visit him at one o’clock in the morning allowing him to tell his story; recalling his persecution and his faith.  I discovered that his week was well ordered.  Every day he went to the prison and demanded that they apologize for imprisoning him without cause, reminding them that they had cost him his wife and children.  Every day the prison officials laughingly refused to apologize.

He would fast four days of each week spending most of those days praying and reading his well marked Bible.  It became evident to me that he was more comfortable talking to God than to his fellow human beings.  He would share long narratives of his life with me and then, seemingly, forget that I was even in the room.  After 30 or 40 minutes he would look at me and say, “Oh are you still here?” and then continue his life story.

He taught me so much about suffering and about communicating with God as one’s best friend.  As I watched and listened to him I had a mystical awareness that what I was seeing in the middle of the night, inside a one-room apartment, were the remnants of a man.  He had suffered so much, had been dependent upon only God for so long, that he was a shadow of a man on the Earth, becoming more solid each moment in heaven.

Don’t let anyone ever deceive you; persecution is hard.  Yet God does often use persecution to begin a process of making us more like citizens of heaven than sufferers on Earth.

Lay Your Lumber Down

It was so hot that, when our truck broke down and I had to walk about a mile for help, the bottoms of my feet blistered through the soles of my tennis shoes and socks.  Malawi in the 1980s had one paved road, almost completed, from the very north to the south of the country.  Breaking down, and having to leave my wife and two small kids stranded in the truck on the side of the road while I went for help, was not my idea of a good day.  Yet we found the assistance needed in order to get our vehicle moving again.  It was well over 100°F and I had allowed myself to engage in one big pity-party, bemoaning my sacrifice and sufferings to God.

 I spent much of my devotional time later that day in listing before the Lord all the burdens and troubles that we had humbly (with some sarcasm) placed upon our frail shoulders for Him and the kingdom of God.

Two weeks later we were driving down the same road, in the same un-air-conditioned heat, and passed a man walking barefoot on the blistering tar road.  Sweat was pouring down his face as he walked with about eight pieces of lumber, 10 feet in length, weighing well over 100 pounds, balanced on top of his head.  We immediately stopped the truck and helped him and his lumber climb into the bed of the truck.  He told me where he was going and we were thrilled to carry him to his village about 5 miles away.

After driving about a mile I looked into my rearview mirror and was astonished to see the man, legs spread far apart, swaying, attempting to balance himself in the back of the truck with the lumber on top of his head!  I quickly stopped and insisted that our new-found friend lay his lumber down into the bed of the truck.  He looked at me in astonishment and said,

“Sir, it is enough to ask you to carry me in the back of your truck.  How can I ask you to carry my lumber also?”

I was astonished and then broken.  As I convinced this brother to lay his burden down in the back of the truck and rest for the next 4 miles, I recalled my whining before the Lord.  How many times had I recently recounted to heaven all the burdens I was carrying for the sake of the kingdom of God, while the entire time I was being carried?  I was so much like this man, swaying in the back of the truck, legs spread far apart, and carrying with great difficulty what God had already taken upon Himself.

Jesus said it best, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  Matthew 11:28. Or it could be said this way.

“Lay your lumber down.  I’m already carrying you.”

The Dirt of Compromise

“If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also-when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.”  “Go in peace,” Elisha said.

2 Kings 5:17-19 NIV

Imagine that you are the first believer in your family, your people group, or your country?  Additionally you are Naaman, the General of the Army, the strong right arm of the king of Rimmon.  It is a thrilling story as recorded in 2 Kings 5 denoting how the leper Naaman was eventually healed through heeding the advice of a young Israelite girl taken into slavery and placed within his household.  Because of her testimony, Naaman traveled a long distance to seek advice from the prophet Elisha who commanded him to bathe seven times in the small and insignificant Jordan River.  After some heated discussions with Elisha and his servants, Naaman obeyed Elisha, bathed seven times in the Jordan River and was healed.  In expression of his thanks, and his new faith, he offered expensive gifts to Elisha, which Elisha refused.

Naaman prepared to return to the service of the King of Rimmon. He knew his brand new faith in the God of Israel and his service to the kingdom of Rimmon, with its idol worship, would result in an acute conflict for his new, one-person faith.  Therefore he suggested, recalled in the verses above, an ingenious compromise that would allow him to honor his newborn faith while apparently worshiping in the Temple of a false god.  Understandably he tried to get Elisha to approve this creative compromise.  Yet Elisha neither said “yes this is okay” nor did he say “this is a terrible idea.”  He simply said, “Go in peace.”

In environments of persecution exercising one’s new faith is tough.  It is hard to be a brand-new, flickering light from God in an overwhelming, Old Testament darkness.  Many workers from the West encountering new believers who are the first to accept Christ within their family, city, religion or country rush to solve all of the new believer’s problems.  After hundreds of years of believing in Jesus we think that we have all the answers for problems that we have never encountered.  I wonder what advice we would have given Naaman if we would have been Elisha?  With years of religious experience; churches, Bible colleges, seminaries and field savvy, we might be tempted to tell Naaman exactly what to do? We would solve his problem from our vast experience of being from “Christian” countries which entitles us, we think, to know all the answers to the Old Testament problems which we have never encountered, nor lived in.

Naaman knew not bowing with his King in the pagan temple could result in his no longer being the General of the Army and could result in the death of himself and his entire family.  What was the prophet’s advice to Naaman? “You are the one living there brother and you need to live with the tension of new-born faith within a pagan environment.  Work out your own salvation.  Trust God and his Holy Spirit to lead you to embrace faith and the possible persecution that often accompanies new faith in God.”  Elisha did not have all the answers for every new set of problems.  He left the decision in this potentially life-threatening situation up to the free will of the one who had to live out his faith as the only known believer within his culture. “Go in peace,” said Elisha, neither agreeing with Naaman’s solution nor condemning him for being a coward.  The prophet allowed Naaman to live within the tension of his new faith while standing beside the king. What advice might you give Naaman? What advice would you have willingly received?

But let’s not forget the believing ,Israeli slave girl whom God had planted inside of Naaman’s household!

Creating a Space for God

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1 NIV

One of the most gripping and mysterious passages in the Bible is found in Genesis 1:1.  How is it that God can take a dark, empty nothing and create something from it?  He could separate the light from the darkness, dry land from the water and finally, with the dirt He had created from nothing, He molds Adam with His own hands.

Believers who thrive, not just survive, within environments of persecution grasp what it means to believe in a God who can create something from nothing.  Persecution is generally perceived as being overt acts by the persecutors upon the flesh of the persecuted.  When you ask westerners what comes to their minds when you say the word “persecution” they will quickly talk about beatings, torture, imprisonment and even death.

But persecution is more sinister and evil than overt acts upon one’s body.  Often persecution leaves scars that can never be seen.  Often the persecutors use tools which are more psychological than a physical assault on the bodies of believers. Often the worst persecution is to put the believer in a cell, alone, surrounded by an ocean of non-believers.  There you remain one small, flickering light in an ocean of lostness, totally alone.

Three brothers were put in prison in China.  They were thrilled because they were arrested and thrown into prison together.  They were thankful that they were not jailed by themselves.  Their tormentors used their entire arsenal of physical, psychological and emotional abuse to force the three brothers to deny their faith in Jesus.  One of the more dehumanizing tools that the bad guys used was taking the three brothers to the squatty potty.  These are commodes which are flush with the floor and it does not take too much imagination to visualize the condition of squatty potties in a Chinese prison.  These three brothers would be marched to the squatty potty, forced to bend at the waist with their faces virtually inside of the toilet.  Their arms would be twisted behind their backs, with the persecutors “adjusting” the believers arms painfully as if they were TV antennas with the squatty potty being the TV.

While the brothers related the story to me they spontaneously began to reenact what the persecutors had done to them over the last three years.  As they demonstrated this inhumane treatment, they took turns being the persecutor or the persecuted.  As they twisted each other’s arms above an imaginary squatty potty they would ask the one playing the role of the persecuted, “Oh, you are unlucky today because your television is only in black and white.”  Or the persecutors would say, when there was a particularly foul toilet, “You are so lucky today because you have color TV!”

What amazed me the most was how these three brothers laughed with joy as they role-played their persecution which had ended a few weeks before I met them.  What astounded me was how they created a holy space, a place where they could laugh at their persecution and a space where God could create joy in their hearts….in an environment of utter darkness.

They understood that they belonged to the God who could create anything He wanted to, out of nothing. Today you might find yourself in what seems to be a hopeless, a totally dark situation. Bind yourself to the One, Who can help you create something beautiful, hopeful and holy out of nothing.