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Not long after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the newborn Church became the persecuted Church. In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested. In chapter 5, the Apostles are arrested again. In Acts 6-7, Stephen is arrested and martyred. The suffering of the Church continued in waves throughout its early centuries.  Though Christians experienced peace in some places when their religion was tolerated or endorsed by the government, persecution continued elsewhere. There were tens of thousands of Christian martyrs in Persia in the mid-fourth century. Christians in Africa suffered various forms of persecution under Muslim rulers. The trend continued throughout history. Untold numbers of Christians were martyred in Russia and China in the twentieth century.  And persecution continues today.

Erin Dunigan wrote a blogpost called “The Beautiful Shop” a few days ago, in which she shares about her recent trip to Southeast Asia with several other PC(USA) representatives. In the post she shares a quote from a pastor who, like other Christian leaders in his country , has spent time in prison for his faith: “We must keep one leg in the prison and one leg in the Church.”  As his denomination thankfully experiences greater tolerance from the government, he is recognizing a need for the Church to hold on to what it gained through decades of persecution.  I visited some of these same pastors four years ago with a group from my seminary. The picture here was taken by my wife during that trip. Children from one of the villages we entered looking through a window at us while we met with one of the only Christian women in that village.  Having heard stories of persecution during that trip, I tried to remember regularly our brothers and sisters who faced persecution there. But four years of distance had let what was out of sight fall out of mind, until I saw Erin’s pictures and read her post this week.

And this raises a troubling question for me: What happens to the Church when we forget about the suffering which our faith entails? Tertullian’s oft-quoted proverb says “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Do we lose some of our vitality when there ceases to be a cost for living our faith? Is that why the Church is growing rapidly in less hospitable parts of the world? For those of us in places where it’s relatively comfortable to be Christian, how do we keep “one leg in prison”? Here are two answers I would suggest. I hope to hear others.

(1) Suffering. When freedom from persecution provided new temptations, the fourth-century Church developed patterns of monasticism and asceticism that helped them keep one leg in prison.  Voluntary suffering was seen as a way of becoming “white martyrs,” the term applied to ascetics who pursued purity and holiness through denying themselves.  Following the same principles of self-denial gives us an opportunity to both pursue holiness and share in the sufferings of others.  How could disciplines such as fasting unite our hearts and minds with our brothers and sisters who suffer persecution? When we experience other forms of involuntary suffering (sickness, loneliness, grief), can we offer that suffering up to God as a prayer of solidarity with Christ and those who have suffered for Him?

(2) Stories. Today many Americans celebrate Memorial Day, honoring those who gave their lives for our freedom. Our nation recognizes that fallen soldiers are worthy of remembrance. Why would the Church think any less of its saints and martyrs throughout history?  Surely the Church would do well to frequently remember and honor the saints past and present who suffered for their faith in the reign of Jesus Christ. This is one place where we Protestants are at a disadvantage: our heroes are Reformers, not saints.  We know the stories of people who changed the Church better than the stories of people who died for the Lord of the Church.  But this can easily be changed. One doesn’t need to dig far in our history books to discover the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Thankfully people like Erin are sharing the stories of our brothers and sisters from around the world in such a way that we can hear not just the voices of history, but of the present day. How would our life as the Church in our context change if we knew the true stories of the Church in less comfortable places?

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The media’s focus on Iran recently has helped make the world more aware of Youcef Nadarkhani, a man who has been sentenced to death there for apostasy.  Like the case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan, Pastor Nadarkhani’s situation is a rare example the media shining light on the suffering that thousands of anonymous others face because of their faith.  When Christians in more comfortable situations come across such news, our first impulse is to pray. But it’s worth stopping to ask how should we pray for people like Youcef?

Read this letter which was written in January 2011 by Nadarkhani a few months after he was condemned to die. Notice that it has the tone of a New Testament epistle. Notice also that Youcef doesn’t ask for us to pray that his life would be spared or that he would be freed. Instead, he speaks honestly about the suffering of the Christian life:

The Word of God tell[s] us to ‘expect to suffer hardship’ and dishonor for the sake of His Name.  Our Christian confession is not acceptable if we ignore this statement, if we do not manifest the patience of the Lord in our sufferings.  Anybody ignoring it will be ashamed in that day.

Perhaps our first prayer for Pastor Youcef should be that he would “manifest the patience of the Lord” in his suffering.  If and when Nadarkhani is executed, he will join the “multitude which no one could count, from every nation, and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and [with] palm branches in their hands, crying out in loud voice and saying ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” This image from Revelation 7 is often used to speak of the ethnic and cultural diversity  of the Church.  But a few verses later, the individuals in this multitude are identified as confessors and martyrs, “the ones who come out of the great tribulation” of persecution.  Before the throne of God in heaven stand and will stand people from every tribe, language, and nation who have suffered for their allegiance to Christ.

Revelation was a book written to communities facing persecution, and the letters to the Churches in chapters 2 and 3 show us what Jesus desires for communities of His followers during persecution. For example, in the letter to the Church in Smyrna, Jesus says “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.  Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).  It’s understandable and good that we would pray for freedom, healing, and comfort for our persecuted brothers and sisters. But the book of Revelation and Pastor Nadarkhani’s letter suggest that we should first and foremost pray for their perseverance. As the letters to the Churches in Revelation 2 and 3 suggest, we should pray for fearlessness and faithfulness. As is true for all of us, their ultimate freedom, healing, and comfort will come on the day when “they will no longer hunger, nor thirst anymore, nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear form their eyes” (Rev. 7:16-17 NASB).

If that’s how we should pray, we also need to know who we should lift up in this way. The following websites and resources all provide relatively accurate and up-to-date information regarding specific instances of persecution.  I’ve found creating a list on Twitter to follow the latest news on persecution from around the world to be a helpful reminder to pray. However we arrive at such news, having specific instances, people, or locations in mind is necessary to pray effectively for our suffering brothers and sisters in the faith.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide – An international organization based in the UK which raises awareness of persecution and advocates for religious freedom and human rights.

Compass Direct News – Breaking news on the persecuted Church around the world.

Open Doors USA – Provides Bibles and Christian literature for persecuted believers, provides leadership development and community development for persecuted believers, and raises awareness about presecution.

Operation World – Encyclopedic resource with detailed information about every country on earth and a guide to praying for the proclamation of the Gospel in each nation.

Voice of the Martyrs – News, resources, and other suggestions on how to pray and raise awareness about the persecuted Church.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians ends with the words, “Remember my chains” (4:18 NIV). The letter to the Philippians also references his chains, saying “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone that I am in chains for Christ.  Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (Phil. 1:12-14 NIV). Let us remember those who are in chains today, and pray that their chains would indeed advance the gospel with courage and fearlessness.