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I have a confession. My walk with Christ received a much-needed jolt this week. This divinely-guided jolt arrived in the form of a book I purchased a few days after Christmas.
The book was about global missions, persecuted Christians, human suffering, doubt and the triumph of our crucified yet resurrected Lord. Sound interesting? If your faith needs a jolt, then this book is for you.
The title, in and of itself, is quite provocative, “The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected.” When I first saw it on the shelf I was compelled to pick it up. Then I read the beginning of the blurb on the back: “Nik Ripken has walked with followers of Christ from the hills of Kentucky to war-torn Somalia. Faced with suffering in his own family, the realities of war around him, and the systematic destruction of the work he felt called to do, the evil was at times overwhelming.” How could God be good, when life was so dark? How could Christ reign victorious on a day when the martyrs included some of Nik’s best friends? Is there really power in Christ no matter the circumstance?
Since the author was from our great commonwealth, I knew this book was for me. We are told on the first page of the book that Nik Ripken is not the author’s real name. We never learn his real name. We never learn where in Kentucky the author was born. We never learn which college in Kentucky the author attended. We never learn if the seminary the author attended was Southern Seminary in Louisville.
What we do discover is that Nik and his wife, Ruth, were doing relief work in Somalia during the tumultuous early 1990s. They were actually living in the capital city of Mogadishu during the war portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” They then devoted the rest of their lives to traveling to some of the world’s most difficult and oppressive places to interview Christians about enduring intense persecution for their faith in Christ.
In the second half of the book, Nik recounts many of the compelling stories that he was told during the hundreds of interviews he conducted. Consider what a Christian believer in Russian shared with Nik:
“I remember the day like it was yesterday, Nik. My father put his arms around me and my sister and my brother and guided us into the kitchen to sit around the table where he could talk with us. My mama was crying, so I knew that something was wrong. Papa didn’t look at her because he was talking directly to us. He said, ‘Children, you know that I am the pastor of our church. That’s what God has called me to do—to tell others about Him. I have learned that communist authorities will come tomorrow to arrest me. They will put me in prison because they want me to stop preaching about Jesus. But I cannot stop doing that because I must obey God. I will miss you very much, but I will trust God to watch over you while I’m gone.’”
He hugged each one of us. Then he said, “All around this part of the country, the authorities are rounding up followers of Jesus and demanding that they deny their faith. Sometimes, when they refuse, the authorities will line up whole families and hang them by the neck until they are dead. I don’t want that to happen to our family, so I am praying that once they put me in prison, they will leave you and your mother alone. However, if I am in prison and I hear that my wife and my children have been hung to death rather than deny Jesus, I will be the most proud man in that prison.”
As a pastor with two children myself, this conversation caused me to pause for more than a few moments. As I read story after story, I concluded, to our detriment, that followers of Christ in our country will find little in this story that is relatable. We assume freedom to worship is a legal right. Persecution is something that happens over there and not here. And yet persecution was the norm in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul even said that all followers of Christ should expect persecution. Was Paul wrong or do we just remain silent about Jesus too often?
Nik spends a significant portion of his book describing the flourishing of Christianity in China amid communist rule. For Chinese believers, prison was the norm:
“Virtually every believer who I met in China had either been to prison for the faith—or they knew someone who had. They were personally aware of many of their spiritual brothers and sisters who had endured persecution and had come out of it with deeper spiritual roots, a more mature faith, greater appreciation for fellowship with other believers. They had also come out of the experience with a much stronger relationship with the Lord. One of the house-church leaders actually asked me, ‘Do you know what prison is for us? It is how we get our theological education. Prison in China is for us like seminary is for training church leaders in your country.’”
Again, as a graduate of seminary and a believer in the importance of theological education, it didn’t take long for me to realize that graduating from seminary and being released from prison will produce slightly different results. Seminary produces graduates with heads full of knowledge about God. Prison produces graduates with hearts full of love for God. The difference is no small thing.
The dictionary on my computer defines jolt as “to give a surprise or shock to someone in order to make them act or change.” My faith received a jolt this week. I encourage you to find a copy of this book so you can also experience the joy that this kind of jolt brings.
The Rev. Steven Scherer is pastor of the Worthville Baptist Church in Worthville, Ky.