Felicity tore a two-inch convertible out of Malachi’s hand. “Kai,” she explained, “this is not your car. This is MY car.”
Malachi lobbed a fire engine at her head.
I was sitting tensely on the couch, a cold cup of coffee beside me, my mind trapped in Indonesia. It took 15 seconds of screaming to bring me back. I was lost in a book called Hearts of Fire, by Voice of the Martyrs. And, at that moment, reading it seemed like a terrible mistake.
I had recently seen the film “The Insanity of God.” It was incredible. The theater was packed with people from disassociated churches, drawn from miles apart to make a secular space sacred for a moment. The film spoke deep into my heart and I arrived home flushed with solidarity. I was ready to spray paint a giant Arabic “N” to the front of my house. I wore my “one with them” wristbands proudly. I displayed my latest edition of the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) newsletter on the coffee table. I signed up to pray for a frontline worker. I felt swept away in something bigger than me, standing together with persecuted Christians worldwide.
My enthusiasm wasn’t new. By God’s mercy I have advocated for VOM and similar organizations since I was in college. I have wanted to live with intentionality and perspective. I have sought to leverage the wealth and privilege concentrated in the United States to benefit peoples in places where poverty, disease, disaster, and illiteracy are ordinary experiences. Trying to align myself with something precious to God’s heart gives me a calm, comforting sense of knowing who I am and what I stand for. But over the years something inside me shifted. When I got married the stakes silently grew greater. When I held my baby daughter, they suddenly shot through the roof.
Half way through chapter one I began to feel uneasy, as though something dark and dangerous had entered my house. Like the grip of a fierce action movie (the kind Gary likes but I can’t stand), I felt cold wrap around my heart. What if they were really coming? What if it were really me? I could hear the mob outside, hammering on the parsonage windows. What if I were really “N”?
I jumped up shakily to settle the fire engine skirmish. But the mob outside the windows. didn’t go away. I couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling that something awful was just beyond the walls. A few pages later I slammed the book shut.
Tears poured down my face as I stalked to the kitchen to heat up my coffee. Why, in God’s name, had anyone written such a horrible book??
Adel was like me. She was a mommy. Her heart burst with happiness watching her kids play. She was distractedly devoted to her children, dazzled by their smiles. She was in love with her husband. She was overflowing with gratitude for the simple bounty of God’s provision. She was meek. She should have inherited the earth. Instead, her whole town was annihilated. The rooms her kids played in were burned to the ground. 3,000 men with machetes mobbed her neighborhood, tearing people out of their homes and killing them in the streets.
I ran back to the playroom and plucked Malachi off the floor. I was shaking as I stroked his smooth, chubby arms.
It took about 20 minutes for me to calm down. Then I systematically ransacked my house for all the paraphernalia I could find about persecution. I yanked two books out of my nightstand. I left one about Abraham Lincoln and cornbread there, and stuffed the other ones behind the bookcase. Hearts of Fire and my latest edition of VOM newsletter got shoved under the bed. I ripped the wristbands off and threw them into the back of my closet, along with an “I am “N” t-shirt and pendant. How could God let such violence continue? This wasn’t fan gear! I did NOT want to be associated with persecuted anyone! I hesitated over the “10 ways to pray for Persecuted Christians” magnet on the fridge and then turned it backwards. I couldn’t bring myself to touch our Nigerian friends, who are also on the fridge, or the couple we pray for who live in… I promised them I wouldn’t say, but it is a place devastated by violence.
I pushed all the rest of it out of sight and decided to ignore it for the rest of my life. I am just too much of a coward. It is that simple. For years I have said I want to stand with persecuted Christians, but if militant Muslims were barreling down on Pukalani, burning homes and slaughtering children on Loha Street, I would not step up and say “I am one with them.” Instead, I would scream, grab my children, and see how far we could get driving over the tops of my neighbors. I would act out of unthinkable selfishness. I would not be brave. I wouldn’t be a hero. I couldn’t stand to see my children, MY children, the ones I play with, the ones who drew the scribbles on the wall, the ones with their daddy’s brown eyes and my own pale curls, in the hands of men with machetes. I am just too afraid.
And I have a choice. At least, so far, I do. Terror hasn’t come to my town yet. I can huddle in my American dreams and get caught up with less violent, still worthy, first-world causes. I might take up books for little kids, or homeless shelters for veterans, or gymnasiums for people with disabilities. I might focus on how to keep the conversation on excessive force and just authority from being so polarized. I don’t have to care about what is happening in other places, there is enough to care about here. I can shove persecution under the bed, bake a casserole, and just ignore what for millions of people around the world is an inescapable nightmare. I can just plain ignore it.
At least, I can try. For several days I succeeded. I told God I would do other things for Him, but I didn’t want to pretend to be an advocate for persecuted Christians anymore. My frail, first-world brain couldn’t handle it. I had shown myself to be a gigantic, flimsy, self-inflated hypocrite.
But our Nigerian friends were still on the fridge. They smiled at me every time I went for the milk. And dozens of people I pray for and know were still in my heart. The only way to shut them out was to shut down my heart—to close it off to things that are ugly and real but out of sight, and only let in things that are pleasant and in my view. That is no way to live.
And besides, Voice of the Martyrs was still sending me things. I got another edition of the newsletter featuring Nigeria. I scowled at it, but I opened it. Tucked inside was a brochure for this year’s International Day of Prayer (IDOP). The featured story is about a woman named Hannelie. Hannelie was not Indonesian or Nigerian or Sudanese or Somali. She wasn’t a Muslim background believer or a Chinese pastor. She was a well-educated western woman. She was a doctor. She had two kids, like me, and an awesome husband who liked to teach and disciple. She was so much like me. Only Hannelie wasn’t afraid. Or, if she was afraid, she found something inside her that was more powerful than her fear. She and her family moved to Afghanistan. In December, 2014, while she was working at a clinic, the Taliban attacked her home and gunned her whole family to death. She came home to smoking rubble and beloved faces that could never smile again. Hands she could never hold again. Bodies filled with bullets.
How did she do it? I wonder. How does her heart keep beating? I sort of know, in theory, but I do not truly know.
Finally, reluctantly, I crawled under the bed and retrieved Hearts of Fire. I decided to finish the story. It was not easy. I skimmed parts of it. Adel’s nightmare went on for years. I finally got to the end and quietly closed the book.
That was the part I was forgetting. The end. That is the secret of the persecuted church. They know the end. Know has lots of meanings. In English it can denote anything from vague recollection (“I know her from somewhere”) to the familiarity that results from decades of intimacy (“I know my husband.”) Many Romance and other Indo-European languages have more synonyms for know that carry clear connotations of personal, intimate experience. Persecuted Christians know the end of the story the way Adam “knew” his wife—they have held it, touched it, walked it, explored it, and conversed with it. They know what happens next. Eternity is in their hearts, and that is the source of their courage.
End also has many meanings. It can mean the conclusion or final part of a story. It can also mean goal or purpose, the reason for which something happens. Twice in Scripture Jesus calls Himself “the End.” He is the great and absolute Conclusion. He is also the powerful Reason, the meaning, purpose, and logic infused into every activity. The grace of Jesus is everywhere. Like Attwater said, “there is nothing but God’s grace. We walk upon it. We breathe it. We live and die by it. It makes the nails and axles of the universe.” Persecuted Christians see Jesus everywhere, and they find Him closest in their suffering.
Today I got up extra early, before my kids could begin their daily battle. I sought out the quiet, awe-filled presence of God. I opened the Bible and heard His voice resounding behind the Apostle Paul’s. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Then I carefully put my solidarity bands back on.
Whether I like it or not, I am one with them. I am still a coward. But I believe that, if God ever did ask me to hand Him everything that is most precious to me, with the understanding that I would never see it again in this life, He would fill me with the courage to do it. That is how Adel did it. That is how Hannelie did it. That’s the only way anyone does it.
And in the meantime, I can still make a difference to the well-being of persecuted Christians around the world. I can pray. I can be a voice (the kind of party-pooping voice that drops fun-shattering lead balloons on social events and social media sites—at least, sometimes). I can give to organizations like VOM, Open Doors, Samaritan’s Purse, and others who advocate on the ground to get prisoners released, to bring criminals to justice, and to provide tangible, on-going help and companionship to persecuted believers and their families. I can even go with organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and spend some time sitting with people who have lost everything. I can choose not to ignore the reality of violence. I can crawl out from under my bed and decide not to be undone, paralyzed or overcome by evil, but, by the mercy of God, to overcome evil with good.