Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Point of No Return

You think of martyrs as wild-eyed men with goatskin and beards or ecstatic saints, white-robed amidst flame. You think of them as shuddering in the Arctic winter of a Russian gulag or staring down gunmetal with prayers on their tongues.

You don't really think of them sitting on their couch with their family, holding a son, beside a wife.The picture of Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor facing execution for refusing to convert to Islam, resembles more math teacher than religious dissident. He's wearing a white dress shirt. His hairline is receding. He faces the camera with a small smile, his hand resting on the arm of one of his two young sons. He's calm.

From this picture, you wouldn't guess what the man is up against. He's been arrested before, for protesting that his son was forced to read the Koran at school. His wife's been arrested, a pressure move designed to force him to recant. She was released after international justice movements intervened on her behalf but Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for apostasy.

The fact that regimes around the world violently oppress Christianity is not news.

The fact that Christians around the world face death for their faith is not news.

The fact that they do so with grace and courage is the real story.

According to the article, when pressured to repent, Nadarkhani replied

"Repent means to return. What should I return to?

Those words struck me like the sounding of a bell, one that has reverberated through millenia of faith and persecution. Peter said it first-- to whom shall we go, You have the words of eternal life and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God."

That phrase has been repeated before first century Christians in the arena, reformers at the stake, believers in a Communist interrogation cell, and countless others whose names we will only know in heaven. They are heroes not because they are brave but because they are desperate. To whom shall we go?  
Behind is a wasteland, a scorched and sin-blasted landscape of godlessness, peopled by wretches who stagger in helpless oblivion towards the pit of final wrath. Behind is emptiness, the starless night of a dead soul that all the money, comfort, pleasure, and fleeting joy of earth cannot lighten. Behind is the crushing stone of guilt upon the chest, cracking every bone of good intention and self-made merit until the very heart is pressed flat. Behind is life without Christ. Without grace. Without hope. Dead in our trespasses and sins. Walking decay.
Nadarkhani, like so many other Christians put to the same test, looks over his shoulder and sees all this. He sees who he was before and the answer to the question is simple.

"What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ
"To the religion of your ancestors, Islam,"
"I cannot,"

He's at a point of no return. There is only Christ. While there is hope that an appeal may overturn the death sentence, it is unlikely that the pastor will be released without a long jail sentence “or worse,” according to the article. As his brothers and sisters, fellow members of Christ's body, we should uplift him in prayer not only for the sparing of his life but for the protection of his family should he be taken from them and imprisoned. But let's not just rattle off a prayer of concern, admire the man's faith, and go back to the Starbucks latte that's getting cold. Let's think a minute, because that question is always for you. And me.

What should we return to? 
No one is standing outside my porch with a machete to cut off my hands because I refused to vote for a dictator. When I go to church on Sunday morning, I won't be concerned that soldiers will appear to lock the doors and burn the building down with my babies inside beside me. I can read my Bible. I can invite the grocery store clerk to church without facing arrest. But American Christians, in our life of complete freedom and considerable ease, face a different challenge to our faith. Because our culture is so comfortable, we can forget the underlying chasm. We can turn again to stumbling, grasping at any shiny thing within our reach, angry at God because He took our job, our health, our 401K. We blame Him for our lost dreams, our failed marriages, our angry children. And the Father of Lies is quick to sidle up to our souls and whisper-- repent. Return. Go back. You tried it. He failed you. Give up.

When life is hard and faith is harder, look over your shoulder. Ask for eyes to see, like Pastor Nadarkhani, what lies behind us. Look with eyes of faith to what lies before us. Then answer the Deceiver--

I cannot. 
This animation of the song All I Have In Christ pays tribute to those who have had to answer the question at gunpoint. It  inspires those of us who have to answer it within in our own souls every day. I'm posting in in honor of Pastor Nadarkhani and his family. Pray for him when you watch it. Pray for me, that I'll live out my faith in freedom with the same courage, and I'll pray the same for you. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Birth Songs

to my daughters

I. Fire
Though we named you for fire, you came to us as snow. In silence and midnight you changed everything in sight; we did not even know you were a part of me until suddenly we opened our eyes and saw a world transformed by your existence. We did not know anything about carrying or birthing babies but our love for you made us brave. We walked the journey toward the beginning of your life determined to birth you in the gentlest, kindest way possible. Only we were novices; we were young. When voices older and-- we thought-- wiser told us to hasten your coming with drugs we listened because we thought we could not trust our own voices. Your birth was not gentle, nor was it kind; the drugs made my rushes unnaturally strong and we chose medicine to relieve the pain so that I could birth you without surgery. I could not feel you move through me toward life but I pushed with the memory of my muscles and you moved. In blood, and chaos, in joy and triumph, you came into the world. Your Daddy says I cried out in joy-- my baby, my baby-- as you passed into the midwife's hands and that the cry, the exultation, was louder than any other groan or sigh I made in your birth.
Ember Rose. Flower of fire, firstborn daughter, burning of my heart.

II. Water
We waited for you, as desert people wait for rain. We danced you down; we prayed. As they search the horizon for any cloud, as they lift their faces for any coolness in the wind, we searched for any sign of your coming. And come you did, rushing in to fill and swell my womb. We had another journey before us, and this time we promised you we would trust our wisdom. We told the midwives that we would not bring you into the world early unless it was to save your life. We prepared to wait, as we did with your sister, we thought your birth would come slow. But you came as a strong current, as a tide rushing to shore. Before we even got out of the driveway, I birthed you into your Daddy's hands. He caught you and gave you to me wrapped in a bath towel. The paramedics had come and again we followed voices not our own and went to the hospital, which was not necessary because you were strong and beautiful and healthy. We spent two days waiting to go home with you but you never left my arms. You slept beside me even in the hospital bed, happy with my breast and our love.
River Lynn. Rain child, ripple of joy, water to my soul.

III. Song
You swept over us suddenly. You rushed in like a north wind, rattling shutters and overturning trash cans and changing me, again. Like a blast of air in my face you stole the breath right out of my lungs. And then turned it into song, into hope as you grew and grew strong inside me. We chose wise women to catch you and knew they would leave room for our voices besides their own. Your birthing began as a little breeze that slipped in through my bedroom window and woke me with the first of my rushes. Your eldest sister waited with me, in the darkness before dawn, until we knew you were coming. Birthing you was unlike any other experience of my life. I walked with your Daddy outside the house and lifted my face to the sun when the rushes came. I knelt in water and moaned, and sang, and even wailed, in those last moments, when your birth was a roaring wind in my ears and body. Then you were here. The midwives gave you to me in my own house, and I closed my eyes to rest in my own room. The house was hushed and holy as your Daddy and I slept with you nestled to my breast. Piper Haven. Little sand piper, little bird girl. Song and wind, music to my world.