A World On Fire

Freedom always comes with a price tag. The sad and tragic fact is the price is often shed blood. My own country’s struggle for freedom 240 years ago was a struggle soaked in blood. This morning as I read the news from around the world I see that same struggle happening in country after country. This is nothing new yet in recent days it has struck me in a far more personal way. I have personal connections in many of the places where people are striving for and in some cases dying for freedom.

Freedom Square in Kiev, known locally as Maydan, is a place I have visited many times. I have numerous friends who have been in the square making their voices heard, not only for freedom but for the Gospel. They have had a prayer tent in the middle of the square since day one and they have served the broken and wounded, both the physically broken and spiritually wounded. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds severely injured. Venezuela is following in the footsteps of Ukraine. Reports are that paramilitary bands are roaming the streets on motorbikes shooting anyone who looks like they are going to protest a government that has increasingly oppressed huge portions of the population. Torture and death have become commonplace but still people are massing to protest the brutality. Venezuela is on our minds because one of our daughters-in-law’s family is from Venezuela having been forced out under Chavez. In the South Sudan cities of Juba and Malakal there is gunfire in the streets with rebels and government forces battling. With a team from Northland I trained 100 church planters in those cities a year ago. They and their children go to sleep at night with the percussion of gunfire and explosions of grenades as their lullaby. Bangkok is barely in the news but I have paid close attention, having been there recently and knowing a team of people who are there now training church planters. Then of course there is Egypt which continues to boil. Once again a place in my heart. I have been there 8 or 9 times over the years. My middle son lived there for the first year of the revolution and we have a close partner church one block from Tahrir Square. That church, like others in Kiev, has served as a makeshift hospital in the midst of bloody turmoil.

These places are not far off distant lands to me or my family. They are very real, tangible, close. We can hear the sounds, see the sights, and smell the unique aromas of each of those places. We hear the voices of friends there and see their faces, hear their laughter, feel their anguish. We have talked about the fact that as a family we have a connection to each of these places, about how our hearts ache for our friends. I honestly wish I could be there with them. I long to be there to stand with them, to let them know they are not alone, that others around the world have not forgotten them. But how do you go to half a dozen places at once? You don’t. But even going to one is not an option. Not because of the danger, but because I know my friends. In one moment they would be thrilled and encouraged by my arrival and in the next their amazing love and hospitality and concern would kick in and they would end up focusing their time and energy on me and not the task at hand. So I stay on my back porch and think of them, pray for them and write to all of you about them. I pray for Oleg, Anatoly, Nadia, Olena, Fayez, Nader, Sarah, Matta, Patrick, their families and many others who yearn for freedom and are paying a price in its struggle and are at the same time being a witness to others of the love of Christ, risking their safety so others may know Jesus.

Know Jesus. That’s really the point isn’t it? Even in thinking about freedom and the price paid for it, one cannot escape the Gospel. I said that the price of freedom is often paid in blood. I wonder, should we really be surprised by that when the price of our ultimate freedom was also blood? There is a great passage in John 8:31-6 where Jesus says that the truth will set us free and that in Him we have true freedom. The religious leaders argued that they had always been free and didn’t need Him to make them free. But as He usually did, Jesus meant something far deeper than physical or even political freedom. He was talking about being spiritually free, which is the most important of all freedoms. He was talking about the fact that we are all enslaved to our sins and desires but that He came to pay the price, the blood price for our freedom. We say that our freedom as Americans has been purchased by the blood sacrifice of countless others who died so we might live. Jesus is the premier example of paying that price for our freedom. He shed His blood so that all who believe and trust in Him might have freedom from guilt, freedom from sin, freedom from the bondage and slavery of our broken human nature. I can’t think about Kiev, Bangkok, Juba, Malakal, Cairo, or the friends I have in those places without thinking about Jesus who gave everything that I might be free. As He said in John 8, “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed”.

So I pray for my friends, that they would know Jesus presence and freedom even in the midst of suffering. I pray that they would know they are not alone, that He is with them. Yet I wonder perhaps if they don’t already know His presence in the midst of pain far better than I do from the comfort of my back porch. I suspect they really do, for Jesus makes Himself known to us in the midst of the furnace in ways not possible in the midst of comfort.

Finally I ask that you pray for them as well. Pray for Jesus to show up in those places and change hearts as only He can. As you pray for them, pray for yourself also. Pray that Jesus sets you free and makes Himself known to you as never before.


Christians in Ukraine: The First Generation Grows Up

As a republic of the former Soviet Union, the people of Ukraine lived under the forty-year domination of a communist system that worked relentlessly to destroy the church and any belief in Jesus Christ. With the fall of communism and the break up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine suddenly found itself free to determine it’s own future.

In the midst of that new freedom, the Gospel of Jesus began to flourish. Tens of thousands began to give their lives to Jesus. The result is a growing church in Ukraine that is filled with first generation Christians. These are people who have no history of a cultural Christianity. They were taught from birth that there is no God and that their first allegiance is to the communist party and the state.  Now they are learning what it means to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength.  They are learning what it means to be the church. They are learning what it means to be a fist generation church that is in many ways a spiritual teenager.

During the past week I was able to meet some of the most remarkable members of that adolescent church. At a missions conference outside Kiev for three days I was both a teacher and a student. I taught them about a God who at His heart is a missionary who sent His son into the world to seek after us so that we could find our fulfillment as worshippers of Him. I also taught on how the local church, and every member of it, needs to see itself as called to that mission. What I learned was far more rich in many ways.

I learned again that God is a sovereign King who will do what it takes to reach us with His love. A young woman named Marina who was raised in a very poor Jewish family in Ukraine taught that to me. She told me of being in young teenager with not much more than rags to wear and the embarrassment it caused her. One day she cried out to a God who she was not even sure was real and asked for just one set of new cloths to wear to school. Ask she literally finished her prayer a knock at the door announced the arrival of four large boxes being delivered from America. For the first time ever, relatives who immigrated a few years earlier, sent gifts to her family. Included in the boxes was not just one new outfit, rather an entire wardrobe for young Marina. Suddenly she knew there was a God. Three years later she was one of 22 students chosen from more than 700 to spend a year as an exchange student in America. She ended up living with a Christian family who demonstrated the love of Christ. In short order she was added to the family of Jesus. Today she is a missionary to her mother country helping start churches all over Ukraine.

Nadia, one of our translators, reminded me that worldly success means nothing when you have the chance to serve the poor and broken in Jesus name. She too is in her late 20’s and came to faith in Jesus out of a non-Christian family. She has a Masters Degree in English at a university. It is a secure life that many in her country dream about. But Nadia dreams only about serving Jesus. She is more than willing to give all that up for Him. She tried to spend a year in India among the poor, being the hands and feet of Jesus for them. However God seems to have other plans. She was recently turned down in her visa application. Many would have taken that as a sign to keep her comfortable and secure God or been discouraged and given up; not Nadia. She kept her eyes open for another door to serve and give her life away. Now it looks like God may be leading her to serve orphaned and vulnerable children in Swaziland and other parts of southern Africa.

Nine out of every ten Christians I met in Ukraine are first generation followers of Jesus just like Marina and Nadia. A majority of them have been following Jesus for less than 15 years. That includes most of the pastors and church leaders as well. Truly the church in Ukraine is in many ways an adolescent still trying to figure out who she is and what she will be when she grows up. But in the midst of that teenage search for identity there is an inspiring freshness that is in many ways far more spiritually mature than much of the church in places like America and Great Britain.

They are not “experienced” enough to know that they should not be so excited and sold out for Jesus. I for one hope they never are.