Fate of the Believers

I’m writing some small group discussion guides from the gospel of Mark. And, in doing so, am doing some research on the gospel itself.

Today, I read Tacitus’ Annals, in which he described how the Roman emperor Nero actually pitted the Roman Christians against the entire city, when he blamed them for the destructive fire during his reign. It was to these survivors, then, that the gospel was probably written.

I’ve read Tacitus, before, but I wanted to share this with you. Today, for some reason, it was a bit more intense. Here is the quote from Tacitus:

Neither human resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire had been instigated. To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats — and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called ) …. First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned — not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus [Maximus], at which he mingled in the crowd — or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest.

These people were believers. It’s a moment in time, but it makes our own personal bad days seem a bit better. And it reminds us that the call of Christ is never, ever meant to be one of leisure.

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Are We Radical Enough?

2 Timothy is the final letter written by the apostle Paul in our New Testament, written around 65 or 66 AD. If other sources are true, Paul probably died within a year of writing this letter.

Yet, even if he did not die that soon, it is still our final glimpse into the life of this man, who, at the time of writing this letter, was imprisoned and alone.

Reading through its short four chapters, its teaching isn’t what strikes me the most. It is Paul, the man. There are a few theories about his final imprisonment. Some say that he was still under Roman house arrest, while others think he was serving a second imprisonment, because of the dating of the letter. Either way, the passion and fire of his previous letters, like Romans or Galatians seems to be gone. Instead, we find a man at peace with his situation, yet looking over a life of suffering for Jesus. I wouldn’t say Paul was sad, but I would say that Paul felt he was immobilized for the rest of his life.

Consider this verse, one of the last in the letter, and of the last we have from him:

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:13; NIV84)

Paul didn’t even have a coat. Only one companion, Luke, was with him. He wrote, later, in chapter 4, that “everyone deserted him” (4:16).

He was suffering for the gospel. Read these verses:

So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God … (1:8)

 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed … (1:11, 12)

You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. (1:15)

May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. (1:16)

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. (2:8)

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. (3:10, 11)

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (3:12, 13)

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. (4:6)

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. (4:9, 10)

Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. (4:14)

At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. (4:16)

The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. (4:18)

Depressing, isn’t it? This one man, entrusted to blow open the gates of freedom, was in a jail cell, humiliated and alone and cold.

Yet, by the grace of God, his life intersected with a young man from Lystra, who became his protegé. So mature was Timothy, that Paul sent him to Ephesus, to deal with an intense crisis. The crisis had not abated, because Paul told Timothy to “keep reminding them” of truth (4:14).

It was no matter to Paul, though — he wanted to see Timothy, maybe for the last time, and was content to ask Timothy to leave Ephesus, and visit him.

This letter always breaks my heart when I read it. There is some obvious teaching, yet it is not new. Paul shared these very same sentiments elsewhere. But his suffering is what is most obvious. His suffering was the result of his calling.

Yet he believed in God’s vindication, even to the very end. His suffering would not be in vain.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie “The Count of Monte Cristo,” when Abbe Faria, the priest, and Dantes, spent years unjustly imprisoned, and through a series of unlikely circumstances, meet each other. The surprising intersection of these two men was a great episode in the film. While they dig a tunnel to escape the prison, the priest spends hours teaching and instructing young Dantes, who had become his own unlikely protegé.

Yet the priest died before their chance to escape had come. Dantes is broken, as he watches the priest die on a cold floor in the French jail. Yet the priest had one final lesson for Dantes. Here is the scene:

This is how I imagine Paul. Fighting, struggling, suffering, as best he could, until the very end, blessed to have someone to listen to his final words. His legacy — one of teaching and suffering — is one that gives us pause today, and makes us wonder if our lives are radical enough for the kingdom.

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This is my seventieth post in 70 straight days, while reading through the New Testament. It’s been an amazing journey, and has been such a blessing to me. All of the previous posts are here. I have twenty more days of reading and writing, and while there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it is almost bittersweet. God has done a supernatural work in me this summer, and has given me a blessing that is priceless. Thank you for joining me.

Room

The Christmas Celebration in Bagdad included a poster of Jesus.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing!

That may be possible …

The following story is from CNN, and you can find it here.

And maybe, just maybe, every single heart can prepare him room.  Even the heart which has never believed.

Baghdad Celebrates First Public Christmas Amid Hope, Memories
by Jill Dougherty
CNN.com

From a distance, it looks like an apparition: a huge multi-colored hot-air balloon floating in the Baghdad sky, bearing a large poster of Jesus Christ. Below it, an Iraqi flag.

Welcome to the first-ever public Christmas celebration in Baghdad, held Saturday and sponsored by the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Once thought to be infiltrated by death squads, the Ministry now is trying to root out sectarian violence — as well as improve its P.R. image.

The event takes place in a public park in eastern Baghdad, ringed with security checkpoints. Interior Ministry forces deployed on surrounding rooftops peer down at the scene: a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments and tinsel; a red-costumed Santa Claus waving to the crowd, an Iraqi flag draped over his shoulders; a red-and-black-uniformed military band playing stirring martial music, not Christmas carols.

On a large stage, children dressed in costumes representing Iraq’s many ethnic and religious groups — Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis, Christians, Arab Muslims not defined as Sunni or Shiite — hold their hands aloft and sing “We are building Iraq!” Two young boys, a mini-policeman and a mini-soldier sporting painted-on mustaches, march stiffly and salute.

Even before I can ask Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf a question, he greets me with a big smile. “All Iraqis are Christian today!” he says.

Khalaf says sectarian and ethnic violence killed thousands of Iraqis. “Now that we have crossed that hurdle and destroyed the incubators of terrorism,” he says, “and the security situation is good, we have to go back and strengthen community ties.”

In spite of his claim, the spokesman is surrounded by heavy security. Yet this celebration shows that the security situation in Baghdad is improving.

Many of the people attending the Christmas celebration appear to be Muslims, with women wearing head scarves. Suad Mahmoud, holding her 16-month-old daughter, Sara, tells me she is indeed Muslim, but she’s very happy to be here. “My mother’s birthday also is this month, so we celebrate all occasions,” she says, “especially in this lovely month of Christmas and New Year.”

Father Saad Sirop Hanna, a Chaldean Christian priest, is here too. He was kidnapped by militants in 2006 and held for 28 days. He knows firsthand how difficult the lot of Christians in Iraq is but, he tells me, “We are just attesting that things are changing in Baghdad, slowly, but we hope that this change actually is real. We will wait for the future to tell us the truth about this.”

He just returned from Rome. “I came back to Iraq because I believe that we can live here,” he says. “I have so many [Muslim] friends and we are so happy they started to think about things from another point of view and we want to help them.”

The Christmas celebration has tables loaded with cookies and cakes. Families fill plates and chat in the warm winter sun. Santa balloons hang from trees. An artist uses oil paint to create a portrait of Jesus.

In the middle of the park there’s an art exhibit, the creation of 11- and 12-year-olds: six displays, each about three feet wide, constructed of cardboard and Styrofoam, filled with tiny dolls dressed like ordinary people, along with model soldiers and police. They look like model movie sets depicting everyday life in Baghdad.

Afnan, 12 years old, shows me her model called “Arresting the Terrorists.”

“These are the terrorists,” she tells me. “They were trying to blow up the school.” In the middle of the street a dead “terrorist” sprawls on the asphalt, his bloody arm torn from his body by an explosion. Afnan tells me she used red nail polish to paint the blood. A little plastic dog stands nearby. “What is he doing?” I ask. “He looks for terrorists and searches for weapons and explosives,” Afnan says.

Her mother, the children’s art teacher, Raja, shows me another child’s display called “Baghdad Today.”

“This is a wedding,” Raja explains. “Despite the terrorism, our celebrations still go ahead. This is a park, families enjoying time. And this is a market where people go shopping without fear of bombings. This is a mosque where people can pray with no fear.”

In the middle is a black mound that looks like a body bag. Policemen and Interior Ministry forces surround it. “This is terrorism,” she tells me. “We killed it and destroyed it, and our lives went back to normal.”

A Christmas tale perhaps, I think, but one that many Iraqis hope will come true.

Blessed

“Dear Parents:  I must, on this the 4th day of April, 1918, die.  Please pray for me, my dear parents.”

And those were the last written words of Robert Paul Prager.

Prager, a German, lived in Collinsville, Illinois, and was an outspoken supporter of socialism, a very difficult subject to broach in 1918, during the time of what was then known as the Great War.  His views led him to be severely persecuted by a population already roused to defend America against any German influences.  Newspapers and pamphlets and demonstrations in various cities were warnings to those who were deemed to be disloyal to the American effort, or, more specifically, those of German descent. 

Prager was followed home after expressing his opinions in Maryville, Illinois, a small mining camp, and, in the city of Collinsville, Prager was stripped and then covered with an American flag, and made to march through the streets.

He was secured and rescued by a local policeman, who took him to shelter in the city jail, but Prager was later removed from the basement of the building by 300 of the men in town, who arrived at the building in anger. 

This is the description of his death, from a column written in The New York Times on June 2, 1918:

All reports indicate that at this time there was no intention to hang Prager.  It was planned to tar and feather him, but tar and feathers were not to be obtained, and a passing automobile in which was a rope suggested hanging.  The rope was knotted around the man’s neck and he was escorted a mile down the road.

The mob stopped at a large tree.  A small boy, boosted up the tree, adjusted the rope.  Prager was drawn into the air, but was lowered to bind his hands and feet.  He fell to his knees and for three minutes prayed in German.  He then wrote a short note to his aged parents, who live in Dreseden, Germany.  This done, the knot was tightened around his neck and dozens of hands grasped the rope that swung him ten feet into the air to his death.

Eleven men were put on trial for the lynching, and, against the urging of the judge, were tried on the basis of an assumed homefront warning that the war, now called World War 1, should have no bearing on the decision of the jurors.  He urged them to consider the basic fact of the trial, which was the murder of one man.  

The jury only took 45 minutes to reach a decision of not guilty, and when it was announced, the courtroom erupted in applause.  The eleven men who stood trial were congratulated amidst the singing of American patriotic songs.

Perhaps the most poignant part of this event, though, was the burial of Prager.  Buried in St. Louis by members of an organization in which he participated, they fulfilled the last request of the dying man, made on behalf of his burial — an American flag was draped over his coffin. 

Prager, a man in his twenties who sought to serve in the American Navy, a man whose views on government were controversial, was persecuted and killed because he was different.  And though a subplot in the American involvement of World War 1, it speaks to the nature of humanity to always intimidate and oppress those with unique differences, from the world stage to small rural communities. 
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Christianity is no stranger to persecution, positioning itself as counter to human nature, and even counter to any culture.  Early in its formation, Christianity bestowed blessings on those who endured persecution. 

But persecution for Christianity has not ended.  I want you to visit the website of the organization Voice of the Martyrs.  VOM is dedicated to assisting and encouraging persecuted Christians throughout the world.  On this site, you will read of Li Mei, arrested in China for singing Christian hymns to villagers, and praying for the healing of an elderly man.  Her sentence was up to 18 months of reeducation, and she spent a portion of her incarceration chained to her bed, and according to the site, was beaten so severely that she required surgery.  She is fulfilling the remainder of her sentence under house arrest.

Members of churches endlessly debate meanings of passages and visions of our churches.  And while we engage in such conversations, there are those of the Christian faith who are being beaten and chained and killed just because they believe.  We spend our spare time discussing and arguing, while underground Christians offer Jesus to those whose acceptance of Christ could condemn them to death.  Our time is spent with coffee and commentaries, while Christians in oppressive regions always bless the food of what may be their last meal.  We worry about styles and songs, while Li Mei is chained and beaten for a prayer of healing.

And those are the people called blessed

Please visit this site.  Your life, your faith, and your purpose, will change in a matter of moments.