Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pre-Arranged Spontaneities

Saturday, June 4 was the day of the Voice of the Martyrs conference proper.  About 430 of us -- speakers, VOM staff and volunteers, and mostly VOM supporters from far and wide -- showed up, eager to see what God would do.

newcomers seeing the Martyr's Wall for the first time
First up was "Brother Joseph" who works extensively in North Africa and the Middle East.  A few nuggets from his message:
  • Common mistake when helping persecuted churches: helping the biggest churches rather than the smaller, rural ones.  "The most unknown are often the most effective."
  • Sending Americans costs 20 times as much as using native evangelists.
  • With reference to Islamic/Christian interfaith dialogue: "If you don't worship Jesus, we don't worship the same God"
  • "If you visited a church in Egypt, the biggest surprise to you would be the scarcity of praise and worship songs. Most of their songs are lamentations. The spirit of Islam is a spirit of depression. If you minister to Muslims, you must praise and worship, or you will fall into to depression yourself."
Next Russell Stendal spoke about his work evangelizing in the armed conflict zones of Colombia (government versus guerrilla versus paramilitary).  I happened to be sitting next to his two sons while he talked.  I think I enjoyed watching them listen to him more than I enjoyed listening to him myself.  (Not because his talk lacked any drama, but because I had heard him share many of these stories before.)  One would think by now that his sons (ages 19 and 12) would be sick of hearing their dad tell his dramatic stories and impress audiences.  But they listened carefully and even laughed at his jokes as if it were their first time to hear them.  Which signaled to me that whatever other flaws Russell has, he must be the same man at home that he is in public.  Otherwise he would have lost the respect of his sons a long time ago.  His older son is following him into aviation.

During the breaks we had ample time to examine the start of VOM's persecution museum, currently located in the lobby of their new facility.  They definitely have some interesting artifacts.  Here are a few.

Hebrews 13:3 from an original King James Bible.
The charred remains of the Bible that belonged to a Vietnamese tribal Christian.  (VOM provided her a new one.)
Glass communion cups fused together by a Muslim-lit fire that destroyed a church in Indonesia.
The desk and chair of VOM founder Richard Wurmbrand
Page from a Tyndale 1536 New Testament.  Tyndale was burned at the stake that same year for translating the Bible into English.
As much as I enjoyed the morning's speakers, I would have to say that I enjoyed the lunch in the warehouse even more.  Rather than going out for lunch at a restaurant, most of us opted to buy a box lunch and eat in VOM's warehouse.

I wanted to meet someone new at lunch, and the Lord blessed my random seating choice with a couple of fascinating meal mates across the table from me.  I knew I was in for a treat as soon as I discovered that one of them had a British accent!  But, knowing the weakness of Christianity in the UK, I was wondering whether he had truly embraced the gospel or if he were just a cultural Christian.  So I gingerly asked him about the state of Christianity in his country.  "The church is kind of weak there, isn't it?" I asked.

With classic British wit, he immediately replied, "You mean apostasized, don't you?"  I knew immediately I had found a brother.  The next few minutes were pure intellectual thrill as he and his American chum and I galloped conversationally over the hills of history, from the Birkenhead to Biddy Chambers

We might have spent the entire afternoon talking if we had not been forced to stop by the speaker Q & A, which was also held in the warehouse.  The speakers spontaneously answered questions which had been submitted by the audience.  I found this time even more interesting than their prepared talks.

Bob Fu of China Aid, although not one of the official speakers of the day (he had accompanied "Esther", who was one of the speakers) shared some fascinating insights during this Q and A time.

  • It just "so happened" that June 4 (the day of the conference) was the 22nd anniversary of Tienanmen Square.  Bob was one of the university students at Tienanmen.  He told us, "If you believe China is free today, go to Tienanmen and try passing out Bibles or Four Spiritual Laws booklets."
  • "Chinese do not trust each other.  They will share more of their heart with an American than with a fellow Chinese."
  • The best way for Americans to reach Chinese people with the gospel... is through teaching English.
  • Due to lack of Bibles and trained, mature church leaders, more cults (aberrations) of Christianity are started in China than in all other nations combined.
  • The people with the most power to improve human rights conditions in China... are western businessmen.
Harvey Little, VOM-USA chairman, told us that some of VOM's books cannot be sold today in France, England, and Germany because of those nations' increasing intolerance towards the "intolerance" of Christians.

Refreshed spiritually and physically, we returned to main building for the afternoon's messages.  I always enjoy Gracia Burnham's talks, which display a depth and humility rarely found in someone of her notoriety.  You can hear excerpts from one of her talks at a previous VOM conference this year by visiting this page.  One of the most memorable parts of her message this year was the story of the church in New York that was burglarized.  The church had a large crucifix, and for some reason the thieves went to the trouble to unbolt Jesus from the cross and stole just Jesus, leaving the cross behind.  Gracia observed how like us they were -- wanting Jesus, without the cross. 

VOM-USA director Tom White came to speak to us that afternoon, despite having just spoken at his mother's funeral.  It was actually my first time in person to hear him give a formal talk, if any of Tom's talks can be called formal.  He has an amazingly spontaneous style that seems helter-skelter but actually interweaves beautifully.  Despite the suffering he's experienced (not to mention the fresh passing of his mother), Tom salted his talk liberally with what might be called "persecution humor".   Like the people who told him, "They persecuted us, now we KNOW that Jesus is Lord!"  Or how Pravda printed letters from a Christian woman prisoner, with their rebuttals, only to have readers in 6 time zones become Christians as a result.  Or the guy who told Tom, "They only beat me up half the time!"  Or how Tom and his fellow Christian cellies in Castro's gulag used to baptize new converts in the dishwater behind the backs of the guards. 

During one of the breaks that afternoon, I met Thomas Lowery, a young guy with a big beard and an even bigger smile.  It turned out that he grew the beard, then God sent him and his family to East Africa to share the gospel with Muslims.  The beard turned out to be very helpful in earning their trust.  Now back in the states for a few months, he and his family do odd jobs, speak in churches, and witness to unsaved people along the way.  He hopes to go to Lebanon this fall.  And what blew me away was that he was younger than me, both as a human and as a Christian.  I'm not quite sure how their financial walk of faith works, but he sure made it look appealing.

After the conference concluded, a few of us got to go to a special dinner with the speakers and VOM board members.  I'm still not quite sure how they decided whom to invite, and it was one of those times when I looked around and wondered how I made the list.  Thankfully, my roadmates were all invited also.  Lu had Gracia and Bob at her table.  Knowing the danger of Bob's work at China Aid, Lu asked if it was OK to get a picture with him.  He said, "I'm already a wanted man, so why not?"  (What a great attitude!)

Bob and Lu
Gracia and Lu
At my table were Gary Wixtrom and his wife Amy, who led the conference music.  We were amazed to discover that one of Gary's cousins is one of my customers.  (Small world.)

Well, after dinner I went back to the hotel, initially thinking I would get to bed on time (traveling had wreaked havoc on my normal schedule).  But trying to keep (?) in shape despite the sedentary activities of the last few days, I decided first to go have a 9 PM run on the hotel's treadmill.  And who should walk in after a few minutes but Thomas Lowery?  Delighted to discover that we were at the same hotel, he and I went out to the hotel lobby and sat down on the couches for a chat.  We talked so warmly about Jesus that other people passing by could hear.  I noticed one guy walk by several times.  Then he plopped down on a couch across from us and punched buttons on his cell phone.  Finally he could no longer restrain his curiosity and asked to join our conversation!  I'm still not quite sure if he was a Christian, but he was very open to learning from Thomas and me, and asked some good questions, like what is wrong with Mormonism.  I was humbled to see that my "younger brother" Thomas could answer his questions more skillfully than I.

Finally made it to bed at 11 PM, filled with gratitude for a day of unexpected joys.  It is strange and yet thrilling how the 'chance' decisions we make -- where to sit, where to stay -- can be orchestrated by God's sovereignty to produce results more wonderful than we could have planned.  Thank You, Father, for pre-arranged spontaneities.

    1 comment:

    1. Daniel,
      I love VOM, that had to be one of the coolest blog entries I have EVER read.