I'll be honest: For many years, "the persecuted church" was an abstraction to me. My journey of awareness began where so many of my journey start - in my head. Scripture says the persecuted are part of the body, and I should suffer with them. I heard about the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and figured that was a good place to begin.
And, it was - but God didn't want me to stop there. Over the past few years, God has taken that beginning and developed my understanding. A research paper for graduate school, some in-depth readings, and a blog series gave me a deeper understanding of the theological and practical issues involved. Open Doors gave names and faces to persecuted Christians, and I came to understand their struggles and endurance even more. Still, while "the persecuted church" had moved from my heart to my heart, it remained more of a "cause" for me, something that I was supposed to "do something about." I began to pray daily and seek for ways to be very intentional in my advocacy for persecuted Christians as well as for religious liberty worldwide.
Then came the day I heard about an Iranian-American pastor imprisoned for his faith. I heard he had a wife and two children. I read his story. I prayed for him, as I had many others over the years. Our church held a prayer vigil. And one cold Sunday night, I stayed up late to catch a West Coast broadcast. I heard this pastor's wife speak. She told his story, and her story.
Naghmeh Abedini personalized "the persecuted church" for me. As I watched her, I didn't see an abstraction. I didn't see a cause. I saw a wife and mother who had the difficult task of watching her kids' disappointment on Christmas when they didn't get the only gift they prayed for - daddy's return. I saw a woman who had struggled through the harder years of marriage, settling into her relationship with her God and her husband, only to have him torn from her arms. I saw a strong woman who was authentic about her vulnerabilities. I saw someone I could relate to. I saw someone who could easily be sitting next to me on the pews on Sunday mornings or across from me at Wednesday Bible study. In her honesty, I saw myself.
I realized that God had taken my understanding persecution to a new level. He answered my prayers for the persecuted in a way that revealed His heart like nothing I could have imagined. I didn't know to ask for it, but when it happened I knew it had His fingerprints all over it: He caused me to take persecution very personally.
That's how He takes it, you see. In Acts 9, the resurrected Jesus confronts persecutor Saul on the road to Damascus where he was headed to take his next Christian victims. Jesus' words to Saul? "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME." (Acts 9:4). By giving me a gut-level identification with Saeed & Naghmeh's plight, Jesus is letting me take persecution the way He does - personally. After years of praying and advocacy, for the first time I am really beginning to grasp what it means to remember the prisoners as if I were right there, and to feel someone's suffering as my own.
In Faith That Endures, Ronald Boyd-MacMillan gives some great tips to help persecuted Christians in tangible ways, along with warnings of what NOT to do. One of his warnings is to avoid letting the persecuted church be simply a cause. Let's face it: We've all seen a good cause become disjointed from the people it's about. The cause becomes the cause, rather than the people affected along the way.
Similarly, "the persecuted church" can become a politicized cause, a PR cause, a fundraising cause - anything but individuals loved by God who are part of the body of Christ He asks us to serve. Boyd-MacMillan relates a tragic story of a Chinese house church pastor who was called to Washington to receive a human rights award. Politicians joined the gathering, and speeches highlighted abuses of power that failed to relate to the current situation in China. The pastor told Boyd-MacMillan that no one had asked him his story or tried to get current information; instead, "they just wanted to hand me the award." (p. 236-237)
This story would be bad enough on its own, but Boyd-MacMillan's next words caused me to really sit up and take notice: "This experience has been multiplied in advocacy contexts a hundred times. I am weary of looking into the eyes of the persecuted believer being honored and seeing the question, Why doesn't anyone take an interest in my story." (p. 237)
I'm glad God has moved my understanding of persecution from head, to heart, to gut-level identification. By His grace, I will continue to be a strong advocate of the persecuted church and of the importance of maintaining our religious liberty so that we have a voice to speak out on behalf of those who suffer the most for the sake of Christ. There is nothing wrong with Spirit-led action. But I want to always remember that, whether I know their stories or not, there are people with families and dreams and needs, making heartbreaking decisions for their faith, every single day.
On Valentine's Day, Naghmeh Abedini shared a picture that I cannot shake from my mind. It's a picture that I believe God has firmly planted in my memory so that I will always take persecution as personally as I do today. May this story and photo speak to you as it has to me. May God bless you to take persecution very personally.
Saeed's family in Iran is allowed to visit him from time to time, and on the last visit he asked his family to contact Naghmeh's family to arrange a Valentine's surprise for his wife. He wanted her to know she was loved and he hadn't forgotten. After a day with the children, she arrived home to this scene:
Candles, a photo of her and Saeed, flowers. Reminders of the love they share, a love that spans the ocean, a love that prison bars cannot hold back. When I see this photo, I don't see an abstraction or a cause. I see two people who love each other deeply -- but they love Jesus more. And because they love Him more, they won't do the one thing that could cause them to be together. Saeed could deny Christ and be freed - but he won't. And Naghmeh doesn't want him to.
Does she want him home? Absolutely. Does she need him? Desperately. Does she want to face more questions from kids who miss their daddy and just don't understand? Of course not. But more than all of that, she doesn't want to take the easy way out. She, and Saeed, want to endure for the glory of God, for the ministry He has for them during this season, and for the reward of hearing Him say, "Well done."