Sunday, February 19, 2012

What Does Your Faith Rest Upon?

My friend, Gabe Landes, a State Farm agent in Ohio and former religious professional, has urged me to tell the story of what happened to me in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet satellite, and what I learned from it (okay, truth be told, what I un-learned from it). If you don't like long stories, skip to the bottom and read 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 and you'll get the moral of the story. But, Gabe thinks you should read this comedy of errors first.

In the middle of the three hurricanes that swept over our Florida home in the summer of 2004, I went as a member of a mission team to Central Asia with a small group of Swiss and German Christians that I hardly knew. I also had never heard of Kyrgyzstan, did not know the language (languages, as it turned out), had no understanding of the culture and history, and daily pretty much didn't know where we were going or who we would be meeting with. I had led a few mission trips myself (and had been a church pastor and seminary professor), so believe me when I tell you that this is not how I believed "it should be done." Yet, here I was.

By the time we got to the historic city of Osh in the South (down near Afghanistan and Tajikistan, West of China), I was in full bumbling stumbling idiot mode, merely along for the ride. I enjoyed the sensations of tasting new food, seeing new people, hearing new music and languages, and the people were kind and friendly. But I was a cliche for what experienced missionaries know: "short term" missions do the short term missionaries the most good, not the people they came to "help." But God is not restricted to our limitations.

So sheep-like I walked with our team and some locals one morning through the Osh market along the river running through the city to the town hall where the city leaders met. Along the way I was jolted by loud wailing coming from the nearby hill, and was told that it was an ancient high place where they worshipped idols (note to self: open idolatry in a 97% Muslim country?). We came into the city hall around 10 a.m., a 40 x 50 meeting room with large pictures of Khrushchev, Gorbachev and all the former Soviet rulers lining the walls. When I asked why all the pictures were still there after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was told the city fathers were afraid the Soviets would come back and didn't want to offend them (note to self: huh?). The group of fifty people gathered that morning were raging humanity-- women, men, elderly, lame--and a strong smell of vodka pervaded the room.

I had no idea why they had come, but the team leader decided they were the wrong sort and told me he was going to "train the leaders," which meant leaving with the handful of Jesus-followers who were there to train them in a different location. (Isn't that what we Westerners think? "If we train the leaders, we'll get more fruit." This was one lesson I was unlearning.) He told me that I was supposed to stay and speak to the group. Then he and the other Christians left.

Venera, my young translator, said to me, "Brother Brian, shall we begin?" I had heard her story the night before. When she decided to follow Jesus, her father took her to the center of their village and had beat her unconscious. When she came to, he was standing over her and she said to him, "I love you, father. But I will always follow Jesus." She was 20 years old and stood 5 feet on her tiptoes, but towered over me in courage. I asked for a moment, prayed a desperate prayer (something eloquent like, "Help!"), and then a sense of peace came over me as I felt prompted to open my Bible to Acts chapter 2 as I stood to address the group.

As I began to speak, a woman in the front started yelling and then she stopped. As she shouted out in a language I did not recognize I thought, "This isn't the weirdest thing that is happening today," as I stared at Khrushchev's ominous portrait, heard the idol worshippers wailing, and smelled the vodka. I didn't understand how important her yelling was until several days later, but they all knew what it meant. Immediately the whole group became quiet and focused on my every word.

I spoke to them about Jesus, and how he was wrongly sentenced to death for crimes He did not commit and was crucified on a cross. At that moment, in walked Davilet, late to the meeting. He had become a follower of Jesus in a Tajik prison, and I had heard his story the night before. He came to understand that Jesus had died for his crimes and sins, and paid the penalty Davilet could never fully pay himself. I felt prompted to ask Davilet to come and tell his story, which he did.

I am not sure what he said because he spoke in one language and Venera translated it into another for the next 20 minutes. But as he was finishing he got tears in his eyes. I looked around the room and many of them had tears, too. I looked back to Davilet, and he was passing the ball back to me. Not knowing what to do, I looked down at my Bible and there in Acts 2 I read silently that Peter's message had cut his hearers to the heart, and they asked him "What must we do to be saved?" Without knowing what Davilet had said, I supposed that it had cut many to the heart. I asked them, "Do you want to know what you must do to be saved?" Many of them nodded their heads (actually, it seemed like all of them did but I can't say that for sure).

So I told them about receiving Jesus' death as a gift of payment for their wrongdoings, trusting that He rose from the dead and was with them now through His Holy Spirit. They needed now to devote themselves to do whatever Jesus, their daily boss, directed, and trust Him in all things in life, death and salvation. I glanced down at my Bible. Acts 2 said that many were baptized that day. So, I looked up and said, "Everyone who wants to be saved by Jesus, follow me to be baptized."

I began walking outside with Davilet and Venera and asked Davilet if he had ever baptized anyone and he said no. I explained to him that if anyone came, I would baptized the first one or two so he could see, and then I would help him baptize any others, if they came. At the same time I caught a strange look in Venera's eye so I asked her, "Is this okay?" She smiled and said, "If we die, we die!" I didn't really register what she meant, nor did I realize the physical violence Jesus-followers here could face. (It wasn't that I was brave like Venera. I just didn't know what I didn't know). Many of the people were baptized that day, most of them by Davilet. How many? 25 or 40? I am not sure since I wasn't counting. There were 25-40 who came the next day to the town hall to be taught more about Jesus.

One final comment. I found out later what everyone in the room new about the woman who had made the outburst. She had been beaten so severely by her husband that she was mute and paralyzed on half her body. The moment she began yelling everyone there knew they were witnessing a tender miracle from God. The next day, again at the beginning of the meeting, she began flailing her arm and stood up. I still didn't know what had happened the day before, so I just ignored it. They all knew that God had just healed her paralysis. It was God's personal message to let them all know He was able and powerful to heal their wounds, cleanse their filth, forgive their sins, empower their lives and bring them safely to heaven. A couple years later, their faith was solid, they were sharing Christ, and multiplying disciples in the nearby villages.

"And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power." (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NIV)

Does your faith rest on head knowledge and polished and persuasive speakers, or on the power of God that raised the crucified Jesus to life?