A Grateful Glimpse at the Insanity of God
Reflections from an eye opening experience
Last week, my wife Linda and I went to the premier of the new movie, ‘The Insanity of God’. It is a powerful account of hope and joy in the midst of persecution. With the plight of the persecuted church on my mind I have chosen to post this blog. I wrote it last year and I have been praying for the right time to share it, and now seems that time.
This is a very difficult blog for me to write. I hope you will take the time to read it. The difficulty is not only in the honest reflection it requires, but because I am writing it while still in the middle of the turmoil. I would prefer to wait and write in about ten hours when hopefully all will be well and my spirit will have found some peace. But that would undercut the very purpose of the blog. So I am writing while I am still right here, right in the ‘not yet fully resolved’ reality of the painful present.
I will be quite vague on the details of the story in order to protect others. The details really don’t matter anyway and it will allow me to speak more freely. And that comment testifies to the heart of the problem. Here’s the story.
Six days ago I traveled to a conference in a country where the dominant politics and religion are hostile to the Christian faith. I’ve done this before so I really had no concerns about that aspect of the journey. The main challenge I faced was getting six boxes of books to the conference where they would be given out as gifts to the participants. There are two important things to know about these books; they are clearly Christian (large cross on the front) and my name is on them. Before you think me a bit naïve for even trying such a thing, I had been assured by the conference organizers that if I brought them in as checked baggage I would likely have no problem getting them through customs. If I shipped them, however, they would never be seen again. So I chose the checked baggage alternative (I realize this explanation may not deter you from thinking of me as naive). In preparation I spent considerable time carefully boxing the books and reinforcing them for the five-stage, three-country plane ride.
My routing had me connecting in the country of my destination via an international flight and transferring to a short domestic jaunt to the city of the conference. All seemed to go well until my final point of entry. I arrived late and by the time I collected all the boxes I was the last person to clear customs. I tried to smile my way through the too-quiet checkpoint where five bored guards were in no mood to let me and my six quite obvious boxes pass. They stopped me, asked me questions, opened the boxes, examined the books (one asked me for a signed copy) and looked anxiously at the CD’s. They talked energetically among themselves, examined the books more closely and fondled the CD’s with growing suspicion. Ninety minutes later, after official paperwork had been meticulously completed, I left the terminal without any of my boxes. Impounded. Tomorrow, they told me, I could travel to the customs office and see if they would release them to me.
The next day I did, and they did not. Mind you they were very polite and professional, but the number of books and presence of the CD’s made it impossible for them to be released. They said nothing overtly about concerns with the Christian content, but the unstated connection was clear.
Normally, while this would be a disappointment over a lost opportunity and a waste of good resources, I would have taken it in stride and gotten on with my teaching and networking.
But for some reason, this was not ‘normally’. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but on the hour drive to the airport to discuss the boxes with the customs authorities, an image was planted in my mind. It came out of nowhere and it started with a question, “what if I broke a law in trying to bring these into the country?” That was followed by the image of police officers waiting for me when I arrived or being ushered in during my pleading session with the customs officials. I suddenly saw myself sitting in a prison in a foreign country in very unfriendly environs.
The image unnerved me. I fought it all the way to the airport, and as I sat in the modest, wood-paneled office with two professional and reasonably courteous customs officers, my stomach was churning. My advocate, who spoke the language and had assured me we would liberate the cargo, became engaged in several highly animated exchanges with each of the two men. Each time I watched the door waiting for the entrance of police.
I knew it was an unlikely, no, actually somewhat ridiculous idea, but I couldn’t shake it. And I was shook. Our pleading having failed we left with a handshake and all the way to the waiting van I looked around for who might be coming for us. I know how paranoid that sounds. And in all honesty I was deeply disappointed in myself and the extent to which I was distracted by the sense of impending peril, whether real or not.
What was worse, that feeling would dog me for five days. I tried to sleep but the thought of those boxes of books with a cross and my name on the cover sitting in a room at an airport in a hostile country undid me. I lay in bed thinking about the knock on the door in the middle of the night. Thank God for Ambien.
Despite my ever-present sense of dread, I was able to engage in the conference, teaching two workshops and having a good number of significant meetings that will surely blossom into wonderful new relationships and opportunities to serve and teach. I laughed and listened and participated, but the apprehension never abated.
Let me make one thing clear. In every way I had every reason to enjoy every minute of the event. It was held at a lovely resort where staff, organizers and tour hosts could not have been friendlier. I met no one who conveyed any sense of threat, accusation or impending menace. Everything I was feeling was a fabrication of my own imagination. I know, I prayed over it feverishly, but I could not escape it. For some reason, God would not let me let it go. I tried everything I have learned in 42 years of following Him to be rid of the anxiety that weighed down my spirit and haunted my thoughts.
Why didn’t God take it away? Why did I need to endure five days of a tight stomach? Why couldn’t I find any peace, even a momentary escape? Why did this persist as though it were a real, actual moment-by-moment threat to my health and safety?
I am telling myself that the scenarios that unnerve me are more from Hollywood than experience. Perhaps I’ve watched Argo too many times. But that doesn’t matter. In my spirit, my stomach and my psyche, the threat exists; it is real and I am longing to escape it.
Today I packed up and left for my flights home. I wondered what might be waiting for me. Has someone hostile to the gospel tampered with the boxes leading to accusation? They have been out of my possession for five days. Anything could have been done with them. I have never felt so vulnerable, so exposed, so at risk. I headed to the local airport where I spent a very nervous three hours. Every passport check accelerated my heart rate. By the time I was on board and the plane pulled back from the gate, I was undone. And the worst lay ahead – a long layover here in the capital airport with several major passport checks. Ample opportunities existed to be snagged at the last step. And always the image of those boxes, out of my control but bearing my name, remains frozen in my mind and imagination.
As we flew along I prayed again for God to show me why I was carrying this burden. Why wouldn’t he take it from me? Why didn’t I have more faith, more security in him? Why was I so weak, so vulnerable to a threat that likely never existed? I felt miserable, a failure as a warrior for the kingdom.
As I looked out the window and wondered, slowly God unveiled a new thought to me. If my hypothetical threat actually turned out to be real, I would endure suffering for the name of Christ. It would likely be the presence of the cross on the books that would move someone to act out against me. And suddenly, and very strangely, a peace began to settle over me. Not a total peace, the sense of dread has never left. But the thought of what it would be like to suffer directly for the sake of the gospel buoyed my spirit.
Does that seem odd? It did to me. But it was palpable. And then came the follow-on thought. There are followers of Jesus all over the word for whom impending peril is really real! What is more, I have met many of them.
We have all heard about the ‘persecuted church’. It is a phrase that brings sighs, nods and sorrowful glances. I have worked with ministries that served the persecuted church and I have sat with pastors who put their lives at risk every time they stand up to preach. I know, intellectually, that this is all true. But for the past five days, and for the first time in my life, I felt it. Not actual persecution, mind you. But the fact that I had put myself in a situation where persecution was at least a remote possibility had generated in me the awareness that representing Christ can be a dangerous and threatening thing.
I think God refused to let it pass from me so that I might better understand that my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world live this reality every day. In a few hours, God willing, I will board my flight for a ‘safe’ western country. My sense of dread will finally pass and I will go home to a context of security where sharing my faith may bring nothing more than a sigh or verbal retort. I used to think of such confrontations as persecution. How pathetic that now seems.
I am returning with a newfound commitment to pray every day for the persecuted church. I don’t know how these incredible brothers and sisters live under this kind of real threat every day. What amazes me is that they not only live under it, they purposefully choose to continue to engage in activities that foster and sometimes enflame the possibilities of real persecution.
I can’t image it. I can’t. If my little experience has taught me anything it is that God must provide a special dispensation of courage, peace and power to those for whom this possibility of persecution is part and parcel of everyday life. And I believe he does so in part because of the prayers of you and me.
So I am asking you to join me. I am asking you to make a commitment to pray for the persecuted church. To pray for all of those who can’t just get on a plane and escape their situation. For those who continue to minister, to preach, to share the love of God knowing that their knock on the door in the middle of the night is an all so very real possibility. I ask you to join me in writing a check to a ministry that works directly with these churches and leaders. If you don’t know of any, Open Doors is a great place to start.
And meanwhile I sit here now in the country’s main airport. I have at least three checkpoints still ahead of me. My stomach remains tight and my palms damp (making this very hard to type), but I know that will soon and so easily change for me. I was going to write these thoughts when I was in that safe place, but that would betray the lesson God is teaching me. So I am writing to you right now, right here, still feeling the tension of my hypothetical threat and still wondering if I will make it to my plane, through the last passport checkpoints, and safely into the night sky toward more friendly environs.
The difference is I am no longer asking God to give me relief. I am thanking him for allowing me to feel this smallest, most insignificant yet still, for me so very real sense of solidarity with those who are not ashamed of the gospel, no matter what the cost.
God bless them. I, for one, am committed to become a prayer warrior on their behalf. Please join me.