Monday, November 4, 2013

One Persecuted Church and the Scriptures

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Psalm 119:97

For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
Ezra 7:10

Sunday my church commemorated her annual observance of the Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church with a flag ceremony. Various church members silently filed in carrying large flags representing each country regarded as monitored, restrictive, or hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amore and I had the privilege to serve in three of those countries. (Actually, we only both served in one. In the other two, I was apparently the team mascot.)  Inevitably, yesterday's ceremony brought back memories of our friends in those nations, especially in the southeast Asian land with which we had our strongest ministry ties.

Pastor H., our primary contact in the large city where Amore conducted pastoral training classes, became the pastor of his house church when he was still a very new believer. How? you might ask. Because he had the entire Gospel of John, and that was the largest portion of Scripture any member of that gathering possessed. Because it was such a treasure, he dared not carry it with him on his bicycle to and from church meetings, lest the police stop him, search him, and confiscate it. Instead, week by week he memorized the passage from which he would preach and carried it in his heart instead of his jacket pocket. To my knowledge, he had not been imprisoned for the gospel the last time we saw him, but others in Amore's class were, even on graduation day.

That festive graduation day, our last day of ministry on our last trip to that country, we spent in the upper room of  Pastor H.'s home. His house church and Amore's classes met there. The wives bustled about the kitchen area cooking our celebration luncheon. Three years of condensed seminary-style classes culminated in this day. A gold curtain and banner I could not read hung across the front wall. Amore called the men up one by one to receive their diplomas. Many of them wanted to have their photo taken with Amore and me. I had not had any responsibilities for the men's classes, but I was wearing the culturally appropriate clothing the wives had made for me, so they insisted I be in the photos too. One of the men told Amore that he didn't know what I'd been saying to the wives in our little conference, but every evening after supper all his wife wanted to do was study her Bible. He'd never seen her like that and didn't know what had gotten into her. I had been teaching them a little about Bible Study Methods; that is the greatest compliment I've ever received in my brief and sparse ministry career.

After the graduation ceremony and meal, we put on our hats and bandanas and mounted the designated motorcycles behind our drivers to return to our hotel, where we promptly changed to cooler clothes and fell into bed to sleep for 4 hours, drained by the emotions and lack of air conditioning or fans all morning due to a power outage (in a climate not unlike that of Houston, Texas).

Left to our own devices, we probably would have eaten something light downstairs in the restaurant and gone back to bed for the night, but one of Amore's students, who also translated for him, had invited us to a Campus Crusade birthday party, and it seemed very important that we go. Honestly, I think I tried my best to weasel my way out of it, but my husband's resolution held firm.

Back went the bandanas on our faces and hats on our heads (to obscure our Caucasian ethnicity). We again mounted separate motorcycles, which quickly diverged and wound around and back, across and through, around and around again back alleys and side streets. This is how the persecuted church tries to shake a police tail, I suppose. Oddly for me, I don't remember being afraid at being on the back of a motorcycle with someone I didn't know and couldn't communicate with, separated from my husband in a country where the government had every right to put me on the next flight home if they knew why I was there and wanted to make an example of me. Wonders never cease.

Finally, the motorcycle stopped. I think Amore was already there waiting for me. We were led away from the entrance into a more private room crowded with young adults of approximately college age. A cook pot was set up in the center of the room, out of which mysteriously and eventually emerged a sort of southeast Asian fajitas (spring rolls?). I tried furtively to communicate with Amore to determine what they were and whether they were safe for our foreign bellies. He told me to watch the locals and do what they did and yes, to eat (which wasn't quite what I'd asked, but no harm came to us from the food).

At some point in this process, two young ladies latched onto me, seizing the opportunity to practice their English. What was I doing in their country? they asked. Not knowing their connection to this gathering (whether they were inquirers who might inform on us or believers), I answered vaguely, "We're here teaching." What did I teach? they wanted to know. I tried in earnest to evade their questions, but to no avail. Finally, I sighed and answered, "I was teaching some women how to study their Bibles."

These girls I'd never met until now grabbed hold of my arm with both hands and exchanged glances. "We've been praying for someone to come and teach us to study the Bible. We've been praying and praying, and now you're here. You must teach us what you taught those ladies."

How many thoughts and emotions can flow through a soul at once? I felt lower than dirt for my grumbling unwillingness to come to this gathering, especially in the face of this kind of welcome. And amazed at God's orchestration of this moment. And dumbfounded at how in the world I was going to answer their question and distill 3 days of teaching into one brief conversation and without a white board, translator, or printed materials. It would have to be simple, concise, and memorable. Help, Lord!

In a most skeletal way, I outlined for them observation, interpretation, and application, and the accompanying questions, "What does it say? What does it mean? How do I respond in my relationships?" I shared with them the 5 W's and an H that all American schoolchildren learned in school when I was growing up, and which my own Bible study methods teachers believed applied just as much to Biblical observation as to literary works and journalistic inquiry. I showed them the hand rubric Prof had given us for things to look for in the interpretive process: things repeated (index finger), things related (middle finger), things alike (ring finger), things different (pinky finger), things emphasized (that thumb that sticks out so), and things true to life (palm). We may have talked through some of the ways God's Word can call us to respond in our relationships with Him, His Word, ourselves, each other, and our spiritual enemies.

Recognizing by God's grace that more content was useless if they didn't remember it, I recall making them repeat back to me until they had these basics down. Time failed for anything more. I still wonder about those girls whose names I could not understand or remember. I pray that those few small seeds have borne fruit in their lives and ministries, if nothing else giving them confidence that God wanted to speak personally to them through His breathed-out Word and through it to teach, rebuke, correct, and train them in righteousness, that they may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16, slightly paraphrased).

The birthday party segment was fairly formal. Each honoree for this gathering stood up front. We sang "Happy Birthday" in our respective languages to him or her, a wrapped gift was handed to each, and then candles on a cake were collectively blown out. None of the cake was eaten. The gifts were replaced, unwrapped, on the table. Everyone slowly trickled out, a few at a time, to avoid attracting suspicion. To this day I don't know if the gifts and cake were real or just a pretense in case the police showed up demanding the reason for the assembly. What could be more innocent than a bunch of college students having a birthday meal together?

As I remember, I am in awe of these friends and many others like them across the globe... in awe and convicted by my feeble hands and knocking knees in the face of much milder afflictions. In the room where I type this are seven Bibles and one New Testament, all of which I own--so many Bibles that some sit on the shelf long enough to gather dust--without ever having feared confiscation. My friends and I bring our beverages and snacks to our comfortable Bible study room and take the most efficient route without so much as a glance in the rear view mirror for someone following us with intent to harm. I wonder if the relative ease of most of my life has dulled my appetite for God's Word. I wonder if that's what the author of Psalm 119 means by his repeated descriptions of affliction as a blessing because it impels him to seek after God's commandments.

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes;
and I will keep it to the end.

Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain!
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.

It is good for me that I was afflicted,

that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

Psalm 119:33-37, 71-72

Teach us, Lord. Teach us indeed. Give us understanding. Lead us. Incline our hearts to Your Word. Revive us in Your ways. Whet our appetites for Your truth, more than for any earthly thing. Forgive me for taking so many of Your gifts for granted, for doing so little with relatively much when my brothers and sisters around the world do so much with so little for the furtherance of Your kingdom, in the power of Your Spirit. In the name of the Word made flesh, Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Thank You, my Father,
for Your Word,
for opportunities to learn it and communicate it to others,
for memories of ministering side by side with my beloved,
for hungry souls,
for good memories,
for Your grace to use foolish, unwilling servants,
for Your courageous followers,

for much improvement in my post-op pain this last week,
for new, more stringent dietary restrictions for my good,
for temporary removal of the temptation to overeat,
for a good post-op assessment today,

for bagels,
for scrambled egg whites,
 for fruit smoothies,
for the first basic Subway sandwich since surgery,

for attending church on Sunday,
for 2 more weeks of activity limitations,
for quiet date nights at home,
for grey skies and needed rain.
(gratitude list #2395-2413)


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