Egypt: An Uncertain Future for the Faithful

Having just spent a week in Egypt, including time in Cairo, including a visit to Tahrir Square, I am struck by the somber mood that hangs over much of the country. If you have never been to Egypt before you might not notice anything out-of-place. This was my fifth visit to the country in the last three years and I could sense the change. People seemed more hesitant. Even among the more than 300 pastors and leaders that I spoke to for three days, there was a certain hesitancy that I felt. These are people I had been with on every prior trip, so I had some history with them to be able to read their mood. But it was not just these Christian leaders that seemed different. The whole country felt different. The energy of tourists was completely absent, down an estimated 80%. The once ubiquitous police are few and far between, replaced instead by more regular army troops. Shop keepers all spoke of how depressed the economy has become and how uncertain they feel about the future.

How did it get to this? Unless you have been living on Mars you know that on January 25th of 2011 a revolution erupted in Egypt. Thousands of Egyptians entered Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Incredibly on February 11th after three decades of being in power, Mubarak stepped aside. Throughout the next year there would be further protests, many deaths, violence, fear, as well as demonstrations of unity between Muslims and Christians, and the first truly free and democratic elections in Egypt’s history. The new parliament is made up of a majority from The Muslim Brotherhood and smaller numbers of extreme Islamists on one end, and an even smaller number of moderate to liberal freedom parties on the other end.

One of the themes I heard over and over again from Christians in Egypt is that they are so uncertain about what the future holds. There are many among the radical Muslim members of parliament, known as Salafists, who are calling for a complete Muslim state under Muslim law. Some of the them are calling for all women in the country to be veiled, for beaches and swimming pools to be segregated by gender, for all sales of alcohol to be banned throughout the country, even in resorts that cater to foreign tourists. Such moves would cripple tourism which accounts for 20% of the Egyptian economy. Some Christian leaders are so concerned about the future prospects for followers of Jesus that they are, for the first time, talking with moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood in order to reach compromises that in that past would never have been considered.

For the average Christian there is a common theme that I heard. “I just don’t know what the future holds”. I understand what they are saying. Things have changed so much that they can’t see what the road ahead looks like. Will things settle down and freedom become a reality? Will the Islamist rule the day in the short-term but in time people become disillusioned and rise up and complete the revolution for freedom? Will Christianity be persecuted beyond what we can imagine? Nobody knows the future and they are understandably anxious.

In a message that I shared with more those pastors and leaders I focused on this question of the future and the insecurity they felt. The point was, we have never known what the future holds. In the beginning of 2010 they had no idea that a revolution was coming in January of 2011. They thought they knew the future based on the stability of the recent past. They, like all of us, projected into the future that it would be much like what we knew in the recent past and present. But that is never the case. We take comfort in that idea but it is a fools comfort. Life changes in ways we can never predict. There is no security in projecting what we know of the present into the future. We cannot trust in our ability to know the future. We can only trust in the One who holds the future in the palm of His hand. Jesus repeatedly told his followers and us to not be anxious about the future or about people who can destroy our physical lives. Instead He said that we must focus on the one who can give us eternal life. Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The point for any follower of Jesus, no matter where you live and in what time, is that you put your future in the hands of God. You trust not in your ability to know the future. You trust in the fact that you know the One who knows the future. Prior to January of 2011 the fate of Egypt was in God’s hands. Prior to 9/11 the fate of America was in God’s hands. Prior to anything in your life, your fate was and still is, in God’s hands. There is amazing comfort and certainty for the follower of Jesus if we have the right mind. We look not to our immediate circumstances for safety and security. Rather, as the old hymn says, “our hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness”.

Where Jesus and Moses Meet

I recently spent three days in Egypt doing leadership training for 500 Egyptian pastors and business leaders. During my last night there my hotel overlooked the Nile River. I was reminded once again that Moses took a little float trip down this very river as a baby, nearly 4000 years ago. I later visited The Cave Church. It is a Coptic Christian Church that is literally carved out of a huge grotto beneath a sandstone mountain. There are numerous reliefs carved into the mountain side, one of which shows Joseph, leading Mary and her baby Jesus on a donkey. They are walking by the Pyramids in the relief. In that instant I was reminded that both Jesus and Moses spent their infancy in Egypt.

As I scanned the various other reliefs at the Cave Church I can across a full size cross with a replica of Jesus breathing his last breaths. Another connection between Jesus and Moses filled my mind’s eye. It was the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus met both Elijah and Moses before his death. In that event the long dead Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus as Peter, James, and John looked on in wonder. The speculation has been that those two great prophets were bringing some strength and consolation to Jesus before he went to the cross.

So I began to think of all the parallels between Moses and Jesus.

1) Moses lived in the glory of Pharaohs house and left it as a result to trying to serve his people; Jesus lived in the Glory of the Father and left it in order to serve us

2) Moses has an encounter with God in the Wilderness prior to beginning a ministry of freeing his people; Jesus had an encounter with the Father in the wilderness when John baptized Him prior to beginning His ministry to free His people.

3) Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Word of God; Jesus delivered the Word of God in the Sermon on the Mount

4) Moses led a group of people to freedom yet they often grumbled and complained wanting to go back to the familiar comfort of slavery; Jesus leads a group of people to freedom yet we often grumble and complain about how hard it is to follow Him and we go back to the comfort and familiarity of our sin

5) The people Moses led were convinced that they were not strong enough to enter the promised land even though God had already parted the Red Sea and provided Manna from Heaven; Jesus leads followers who often lack faith that He will do as He promised in spite of the fact that He has done so, countless times in and numerous ways in the past

6) Moses prayed for the success of his people even though they often rejected him; Jesus prays for us constantly even though we often betray Him

7) Moses had people spread the blood of a lamb on the wooden door posts in order to save them from death and release them from slavery in Egypt; Jesus was the Lamb whose blood flowed down on the wooden post of the cross in order to save us from ultimate death and free us from captivity to our sins

Even with these parallels and the many more I can not even think of, there is still this key distinction. Moses was a man called by God to serve fellow man. Jesus is God, come in the flesh as a man to give His life as a ransom for many. We know that God loves us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Christianity in the Land of the Pharoahs

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect on my first visit to Egypt. I had been well briefed by my son J.T. (short for Justin Thomas) who has spent a lot of time here recently. But there is always something about being in a place yourself that opens new horizons and understandings. His time had been mostly with teenagers as a counselor in a sports camp. My time would be with more than 500 pastors from across Egypt. They were coming to receive two days of leadership training from me and Dick Wynn, another staff member at Northland.

My first thought was, what business do I have teaching leadership to men who lead churches in a predominantly Muslim culture. My second thought was, are there really more than 500 pastors and leaders of churches in Egypt? The answer to the first question remains to be seen. The answer to the second was that this was just a small even select group of Christian leaders who were chosen for this training. Each one of them has committed to taking this training and over the next six months, they will train five more leaders. At the end of that time they will return for round two of what will eventually be six conferences on leadership.

Two things have stood out to me as I have interacted with these leaders. The first is their incredible joy. The smiles, and laughter, and enthusiasm that they display is contagious. You cannot help but have your heart lifted being around these people. There is no moaning about being a minority. Not excuses made due to their circumstances. They are simply excited to be following Jesus in this place and in this time. As a result they are doing more, with less, than most Christians in the west would ever dream of doing. Big lesson to be learned on that one.

The second thing that has stood out was their hunger to learn and grow. In Brazil a few weeks ago I saw that same hunger among church planters in the Amazon. But for them, they had very little formal education and the hunger was understandable because they had so little training. Here is Egypt it is different. These are all well educated leaders. Many of them with Masters degrees and seminary training. Yet here they are still hungering for whatever learning and skills they can gain. I contrast that with much of Christianity in the states in which people are becoming almost anti-intellectual. We seem to have forgotten the words of Paul to Timothy that we are to “study to show ourselves approved as a workman who rightly divides, (understand) the Word of Truth” 2 Timothy 2:6

My time with these brothers and sisters in Christ has encouraged me in ways I did not expect. The faith is alive and well here. They have figured out how to be a serving witness in their community. They pour their lives out for the sake of the Gospel. They are growing in unity, more than a dozen different denominations were represented in the group. They love Jesus and their neighbor with a reckless abandon.

I came here to teach but I knew that I would be a learner. I did not know that I would be so inspired and encouraged. Jesus you are good!