Monday, October 26, 2020

A Two-Week Break from Blogging

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I'm taking a couple weeks off my normal blog-posting schedule. I'll try to resume normal posts on Monday, Nov. 9. In the meantime, you can check out my church's Facebook feed at, which includes a daily inspirational video post from me and my family.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Dear God, give us peaceful hearts and a right courage in the confusion and strife... And so may we not only endure and finally triumph, but also have peace in the midst of the struggle. May we praise and thank you and not complain or become impatient against your divine will. Let peace win the victory in our hearts, that we may never through impatience initiate anything against you, our God, or our neighbors. May we remain quiet and peaceable toward God and toward other people, both inwardly and outwardly, until the final and eternal peace shall come. Amen.

- Martin Luther

Friday, October 23, 2020

Africa Memoir: Perhaps You Would Like a Sudanese Wife? (Or Possibly Two?)

Blue Nile, Sudan  (Photo by Bertramz, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

My first few days in Sudan were a whirlwind of new experiences. I got to meet my team, which at that point consisted of just two small families, both from Europe and both still fairly young (though a few years older than me). Ernest was our team leader, and he lived with his wife Eve a few blocks away from Aaron and Anne, in the vast, mud-brick suburb of Diems. I was staying with Aaron and Anne until I could get settled into my work and find a place of my own. Even though no one else in the team was a native English-speaker, they had all adopted English as their team language before I arrived, since they did not speak one another’s first languages. They were smart, pleasant, and passionately devoted to their calling, which was to reach some of the people groups in western Sudan (the Darfur region) who had never before had access to the Gospel. They were still in the early years of their team project, so everyone was busy trying to learn Sudanese Arabic, make contacts in the community, and set up the development agency that would provide basic medical necessities to the communities in which they ministered. All of them had left behind other careers and other dreams in order to be of service to the Kingdom of God—in Aaron’s case, he had actually been a professional athlete, a rising star in his sport, but he walked away from it to follow God’s call. 

Aaron and Anne’s house was of a traditional Sudanese design—brown walls, looking rather like adobe from the American southwest, arranged around a small open courtyard. On one side stood my room, connected to the living room (the “saloon” in Arabic); on another side, the tiny kitchen and my hosts’ room; and, in another corner, the bathroom, complete with a hole in the cement floor which served as the toilet. There was a new construction project starting to rise beside their house, and it wasn’t uncommon for curious Sudanese workers to pause and gaze down into the yard to see what the white people were up to that day. (Aaron and Anne said they didn’t mind, except when they, who missed climbing mountains in the Alps, were practicing climbing skills on the sides of their home that faced the tiny courtyard—but, now that I think about it, it seems obvious that Sudanese workers would enjoy watching white people do something as odd-looking as that.) 

That first morning we met with the whole team at Ernest’s house after a short, dusty walk along Sharia Waahid-wa-arobayeen—Street 41. Our neighborhood, Diems (pronounced “Dame”), was a residential part of Khartoum, but to call it a “suburb” is perhaps too generous: to Western eyes, it would look more like a vast, sprawling slum of mud-brick, one-story homes crammed together. There was a local joke there (a pun on the sound of “Diems” in Arabic, which resembles their word for firewood), that the residents of Diems were nothing but fuel for hellfire. On the whole, though, I found the place quite pleasant—the people were friendly, there were a few shops around at which to buy necessities, and the streets were run largely by a fleet of efficient motorized rickshaw-taxis (efficient, that is, until they all disregarded the signals at the traffic light and ended tied up in a Gordian knot of hundreds of vehicles). Ernest’s house was marginally nicer than most homes in Diems (though still very small by American standards), and it had its own sun-warmed water tank on the roof and a generator for when the power failed. We met there every morning of the week to sing a few praise choruses, to pray, and to plan the work for the day. 

One of our first outings was to a “forest preserve” on the banks of the Blue Nile (looking nothing, of course, like any forest I was used to—it amounted to a smattering of scrubby bushes and one or two gnarled old trees, but in the Sahara, that’s probably as close to a forest as it gets). The Blue Nile runs into Sudan from the Ethiopian highlands to the east, and meets the White Nile in Khartoum, so it is there that the famous river takes on its final shape, as it winds its long journey through the desert, up toward Egypt. We gathered there by the river, trying to find shade under one of the only trees in the place, and it was there that we met a few Muslim-background believers (MBBs) in Jesus. These were new Christians, being discipled by our team, and they had to meet in out-of-the-way locations for fear of being discovered. It was technically against the law for a Muslim to convert to the Christian faith, and they could face imprisonment or death if it were discovered. But there was no one else around that day, so we sat in the sparse shade from the blazing sun, and talked a bit. 

A couple of the men knew a little bit of English, but not much. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a smattering of English in Khartoum, since there had been some British influence in the country in the first half of the twentieth century, but most of the time I had to rely on my teammates to translate. The MBB families were kind and friendly, and told winsome stories about their lives. They greeted me with the effusive warmth for guests that you can find anywhere in Sudan—hospitality so forward as to be shocking. “We are so happy to have you here! You should live in Sudan your whole life! We hope you stay with us forever!” (This is a far cry from how my home society in Maine greets anyone “from away”). 

One of the men took it even further. He had his two grown daughters with him, both looking to be about my age. They were lovely young ladies, robed as was customary in Muslim society, with only their faces showing. When Ernest introduced me, the man shook my hand with vigor and asked, “Are you married?” 

“No,” I said. 

“Ah, then perhaps you would like a Sudanese wife! Look at my daughter here! She would make a wonderful wife!” Then he dropped his voice a little, as if he knew that the Sudanese custom he was proposing might not fly in his new Christian circle: “Or perhaps you would even like two wives? Both of my daughters are very fine young women!” 

I smiled and thanked him for the very generous offer, but declined. It was a flattering suggestion, of course, but marrying two Sudanese women on my first week there would have been a little hard to explain in my letters to supporters back home.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: The Puritans

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”  – Titus 2:11-14

The Puritans: Basic Facts

- The Puritans were a group of Reformed Christians in England who wanted to purify the existing Church of England. Their movement ultimately ended up forming several separate, “nonconformist” churches (including the Baptists) in opposition to the Anglicans. As a result, they suffered much persecution. Some groups, known as Separatists, emigrated to Holland; others remained in England; still others founded the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay. 

- Richard Baxter (1615-1691, pictured above) was one of the leading Puritan pastors in England. He reformed the practice of ministry in and around his parish of Kidderminster. His most famous book, The Reformed Pastor, describes this process. He gained tremendous influence during the English Civil War but largely failed to bring unity among the divided Christians of England. He spent much of his career suffering intermittent persecution and imprisonment.

- John Bunyan (1628-1688, pictured right) was a member of the Puritan nonconformist movement that would come to be known as “Baptists.” As a young man, he was tortured by an uneasy conscience and became convinced of his wretchedness as a sinner. It was this feeling of spiritual desperation that led him to a group of Baptists led by the pastor John Gifford. Bunyan took over the pastorate from Gifford, and became famous as a pastor and writer. He is the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the most widely-published books in history, and several other important works, including his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

- A Puritan church service usually lasted 3 hours —an hour for prayer and two hours for a sermon. In Massachusetts Bay Colony, those who failed to attend church were subjected to some form of public discipline, like being put in the stocks.

- The King James Bible, though it later became beloved, was originally composed, at least in part, as an anti-Baptist Bible (Baptists, and some other Puritans of the time, preferred the Geneva Bible).

- The Puritan colony at Massachusetts Bay was one of the most highly-educated, literate societies in the world. Within a few years of its establishment, they founded Harvard College.

- The early Puritans in Massachusetts, in contrast to many other settlers, wanted to evangelize and do good to the Native Americans. They considered their colony a “city on a hill,” an experiment in holiness which the whole world was watching.


“It is the most high and noble part of holiness to search after, behold, admire, and love the great Creator in all his works.” - Richard Baxter

“I preached as never sure to preach again, as a dying man to dying men.” 
 - Richard Baxter

“Men would sooner believe that the gospel is from heaven if they saw more such effects of it upon the hearts and lives of those who profess it. The world is better able to read the nature of religion in a man’s life than in the Bible.” 
 - Richard Baxter

“There are no virtues wherein your example will do more, at least to abate men’s prejudice, than humility and meekness and self-denial.” 
 - Richard Baxter

“Unity in things necessary; liberty in things unnecessary; and charity in all.” 
 - Richard Baxter

“One leak will sink a ship: and one sin will destroy a sinner.” – John Bunyan

“In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without heart.” – John Bunyan

“Heart-work is hard work indeed. To shuffle over religious duties with a loose and careless spirit, will cost no great difficulties; but to set yourself before the Lord, and to tie up your loose and vain thoughts to a constant and serious attendance upon him: this will cost you something.” – John Flavel

Pilgrim's Progress

- This book is a classic work of Protestant devotion, describing in allegory the journey of a Christian from a sinful state all the way, ultimately, to heaven. It has been translated into more than 200 languages and remains popular to this day. In evangelical Christianity, it is the second most influential book after only the Bible itself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Photo of the Week

In the harvest feast or the fallow ground,
My certain hope is in Jesus found:
My lot, my cup, my portion sure;
Whatever comes, we shall endure.

- from the hymn "In Feast or Fallow," by Sandra McCracken

Monday, October 19, 2020

Quote of the Week

"Why are good people afflicted with hard times and calamities?... So that the human spirit may be proved, and that the strength of faithful trust and selfless love with which it cleaves to God may be shown."

- Augustine, from his book City of God (I.9)

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Lord, if judgments now are waking,
Let not Thy compassions sleep,
But, while earthly thrones are shaking,
Firm and free Thy kingdom keep.
Jesus, hear us; be Thou near us,
When the storm shall o'er us sweep.

- William Henry Havergal

Friday, October 16, 2020

An Exciting Announcement

In lieu of my Africa memoir this week, I thought I'd give you a quick update on some exciting developments in my writing ministry. We all dealt with our pandemic anxieties in different ways during the shutdown; I tried to alleviate the pressure with the unadvisable practice of creating multiple book proposals and sending them all out to publishers at the same time. Well, my chickens have come home to roost--in recent weeks, I've received contract offers for two different books! (And now I just have to find the time to complete my work on them, on top of everything else I'm doing.)

The first one will be a reworked version of a project that I initially presented here on this blog. My pilgrimage book, Wings over the Wall, is going to be released by North Wind Publishing, based right here in Maine. It's a part-devotional, part-memoir account of my trip to Israel (with a fair bit of birding thrown in), which invites readers to join me on a reflective journey through the life of Jesus. 

The second one is still in the works, and I don't feel comfortable sharing too much until all the details are in place, but I'm very excited about it. It will be a theology book, my first work to be accepted by a major, internationally-recognized academic publisher, and it will expand on some of the material that I've been working through during my "royal priesthood" series of midweek Bible studies.

I don't yet know the timetables for when these books will be available (for the second one it will likely be more than a year away, and perhaps two). But I'll keep you all updated. Thanks for reading along!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: Lancelot Andrewes and the KJV

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.  – Ps. 50:1-2

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  – Hebrews 4:12

Lancelot Andrewes: Basic Facts

- Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) was a prominent bishop in the Anglican church, renowned as the greatest preacher of his day, a scholar of international standing, and a man of intense personal devotion. He helped guide the English church during a divisive period where fights were ranging back and forth between Puritans and Anglo-Catholics about how the church should be constituted. 

- Lancelot Andrewes’ main impact in his own day was through his sermons and his advocacy for a church polity that supported the rule of monarchical law in England. Today, he is largely appreciated for his “Private Devotions,” which were published and which have come to be regarded as a spiritual classic.

- His greatest legacy, however, is as one of the “directors” of the translation team that produced the King James Version.
(The KJV Bible presented to King James)

Scholarship – Andrewes was recognized as a linguistic genius early in his life. By the time of the KJV translation, he could speak fifteen modern languages and six ancient ones. He is regarded by some as the best writer of the English language in terms of understanding the power of its vocabulary and the harmonies and rhythms of its syntax. In addition to being a bishop, he was also the founder and dean of several prestigious colleges throughout his career.

Ministry – Andrewes took his ministry quite seriously. He refused to give in to the corruption so common in clergy of his time, turning down prestigious new positions if they came with strings attached. He preached courageous sermons against corruption at the royal courts. Despite his busyness, he always took time to counsel his parishioners, even at a moment’s notice.

Devotion – Andrewes began every day by spending five hours in prayer, nearly as much time as he gave to his scholarship and to the administration of his ministerial duties. His “Personal Devotions” continue to inspire many today. The private chapel where he prayed became so widely known as a place of remarkable holiness that many people asked to be buried there.

A Selection from Lancelot Andrewes' "Private Devotions"

“Two things I recognize, O Lord, in myself: nature, which Thou has made; sin, which I have added…Take away from me that which I have made; let that which Thou hast made remain in me…O Lord my God, if I have destroyed my innocence, have I at all thence destroyed Thy mercy? If I have committed that for which Thou mightest condemn me, hast Thou at all lost that by which Thou are wont to save? Truth, Lord: my conscience meriteth damnation, but no offense equals Thy compassion. Spare me therefore; because it is not unbefitting Thy justice, nor unwonted to thy mercy, nor difficult to Thy power, to spare the penitent…However unclean, Thou canst cleanse me; however blind, enlighten me; however weak, restore me; yea, though dead, raise me. Of what kind soever I am, be it good or bad, I am ever Thine…More canst Thou remit, than I commit; more canst Thou spare, than I offend…Infirm I come to the Almighty, wounded I hasten to the Physician: reserve for me the gentleness of Thy compassion.”

The King James Version

- The KJV was conceived of as a way to bring some healing and unity to a Christian nation that was deeply divided—it was intended to be an “irenicon” that made peace between the Puritans and the high-church advocates in England. 

- As such, it was invested with a majestic tone and terminology which avoided thorny theological issues.

- The KJV was produced by a network of scholars (some of them good and saintly Christians, but some of them more politically-minded and a few even dissolute) operating in different translation teams over a period of almost a decade. It used a highly bureaucratic method of correspondence about every line of text until an agreement could be reached on terminology and phrasing. The translators began by consulting the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts available to them at the time in an attempt to make the new translation faithful to the original, inspired documents. (However, they did not have access to the best and earliest manuscripts, which we are now able to consult, and many of the translators were better acquainted with classical Greek than with the koine Greek of the New Testament.) They also consulted previous English translations, hoping to make the KJV acceptable to both the Puritans (who preferred the “Geneva Bible” translation) and the high-church advocates (who used the official “Bishop’s Bible” translation). The KJV translators ended up borrowing heavily from the phraseology of William Tyndale’s earlier translation.

- Interestingly, the KJV did not win immediate acceptance or popularity. Even some of its own translators continued to use their preferred versions (Andrewes, for example, continued to preach from the Geneva Bible). It was only after the English Civil War, after people moved on from the messy political and religious squabbles from which the KJV was born, that it was widely taken up. It became especially valued as a formative text in the new American colonies. Though many new translations can now be more faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew texts because of more widely available resources, new translations have struggled to match the compelling power of the majesty and beauty of the KJV’s prose.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Photo of the Week


The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders...
The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness...
They shout for joy and sing.

- Psalm 65:8a, 12, 13b

Monday, October 12, 2020

Quote of the Week

"There is no power like that of prevailing prayer... It turns ordinary mortals into men and women of power. It brings power. It brings fire. It brings rain. It brings life."

- Samuel Chadwick, author and pastor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Lord of all power and might,
You who are the Author,
You who are the Giver of all good things:
Graft in our hearts the love of your name;
Increase in us true faith,
Nourish us in all goodness,
And by your great mercy,
Keep us ever in your grace;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Africa Memoir: It's All Who You Know

So there I was, sitting in the vacant Khartoum airport as midnight slipped by toward one o’clock, with a gun-wielding soldier at my side to make sure I didn’t move. I’ve called myself an illegal immigrant at that particular moment, but it should hopefully be clear that I didn’t ever intend to try to enter Sudan without the proper papers: all the arrangements had been made in advance, but somebody dropped the ball. I soon found out who that somebody was.

Oddly enough, as I sat there with the threat of deportation or imprisonment looming over me, I didn’t feel worried at all. There was a deep sense of peace that had rested on me from the moment I was waved over into the official’s office; I can only attribute it to the many prayers that were said in my behalf from friends back home.

It was about half an hour later that a tall, big-bellied man with a broad smile sauntered into the airport, papers in hand. He was gregarious and self-possessed, and the customs officials all seemed to know him and to be on quite friendly terms with him. He grinned at me, waved, and then came up to shake my hand.

“Good evening and welcome to Sudan!” he beamed. “My name is Ali, and I am your travel agent here in Khartoum. I must apologize for not being here sooner, but I was stuck in traffic.”

This was a ridiculous excuse, and we both knew it—there are no midnight traffic jams in Khartoum—but it was clearly a polite cultural way to save face and pass smoothly over any disagreements. No doubt he had forgotten about my arrival, had gone to bed, only to be roused by a desperate phone call from my team leader Ernest.

But I didn’t mind; I was happy to have him there. He had documents in hand, and we went back into the corner office and breezed through the applications. Ali was cracking jokes in Arabic the whole way through, and whenever he told me to get out some cash to pay this or that entry fee, I did exactly as he said. Within just a few minutes, my passport was festooned with brightly-colored Arabic stickers, and they waved me through without even the compulsory check of my one piece of luggage. The customs agents just grinned and shook their heads at Ali’s jokes, slapped some yellow stickers on my suitcase to show (falsely) that it had passed inspection, and handed it over to me.

This was one of my first introductions to dealing with bureaucracy in Africa, as done by its expert practitioners—have money ready, keep smiling, and, above all, know the right people. So, with many prayers answered, I stepped out as a legal foreign worker into the hot, dry midnight air of Khartoum.

Ernest was outside the airport, waiting for me beside his car. He was a tall European fellow with blond hair. Looking back on it now, he was young to be a team leader in a place like that—in his late twenties, or thirty at most—but to me at twenty-one, he was enough my senior that I never gave it a second thought. The tenor of his voice in welcoming me betrayed the fact that he had experienced more than a bit of worry while pacing around his car. It was only when I met him, shook his hand and noticed the nervous quaver in his voice, that I truly realized what a dangerous situation I might have just been in a few minutes before.

He drove me through the dark, empty streets into a suburb called Diems, where our team made its home, and left me to sleep the remainder of the night in the house of Aaron and Anne, two young missionaries who were also from Europe. I was really too tired at that point to form much of an impression of them—I was grateful to be done with my journey, and to be in a safe place where I could sleep. Their house was built around a small inner courtyard, as many Sudanese homes are, and they led me to a little room just to one side, where I found a cot, crawled under its dusty mosquito net, and went to sleep.

I awoke a few hours later to the sight of sunlight streaming through the barred window of the room, and the wild, careening cry of “Allahu akhbar!” sounding from the loudspeakers of the mosque next door.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: John of the Cross & Teresa of Avila

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory…”  – 2 Corinthians 3:18a

John of the Cross & Teresa of Avila: Basic Facts

- John of the Cross (1542-1591) and Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), both Spaniards, were the founders of the Discalced Carmelites. They gave the Catholic Counter-Reformation a new inspiration for prayer and the personal devotional life. 

- As a young man, John joined the Carmelite order, which focused on contemplative prayer. But he didn’t find it dedicated strongly enough toward this goal, so he considered leaving to join the Carthusians, a stricter order. Then he met Teresa of Avila, an older Carmelite nun, who convinced him to reform the Carmelites rather than leave them. Together they launched their reformation and produced the Discalced (“Barefoot”) Carmelites. They suffered severe opposition and persecution from the old “calced” Carmelites.

- Both John and Teresa are regarded as among the foremost “mystics” in the history of the church. Mysticism is a way of looking at the Christian life that emphasizes prayer, internal transformation, and spiritual intimacy with God. John of the Cross (also regarded as a great poet) produced two classic books of mysticism, Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul; and Teresa of Avila wrote many works, the most famous of which is her Interior Castle. These books all focus on the progress of the soul towards union with God.

Themes of John's Theology:

- Complete self-renunciation to God
- Giving up our dependence on comforts, both physical and spiritual
- The goal: a spiritual union of love with God himself

Outline of the Classic Christian Spiritual Journey:

1.) Purgation / Purification

     a. Renunciation of sins and of disobedience against God; fighting sinful habits
     b. Building devotional disciplines into one’s life
     c. A “dark night” may lead into the next phase

2.) Illumination

     a. Total consecration to God in love
     b. God experienced within
     c. Unceasing prayer
     d. Increasing social concern
     e. Another “dark night” may lead into the next and final phase

3.) Union

     a. Abandonment to grace
     b. Prayer of quietness / true contemplative prayer
     c. Full union / ecstatic union


“Let nothing trouble you; let nothing frighten you;
Everything passes, but God will never change;
Patient endurance attains to all things;
Whoever has God wants for nothing at all:
God alone is enough.” – Teresa of Avila

“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” – John of the Cross 

“In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” – John of the Cross

The Seven Mansions of Teresa's Interior Castle:

1.) One has the desire to pursue God, yet is easily distracted by the things of the world 
2.) The active practices of prayer begin
3.) Fighting sins and stepping out to love one’s neighbor
4.) Transition to the mystical life: surrendering to God; learning to let go of our own activity and allowing God to accomplish our spiritual formation
5.) First experiences of union: the suspension of normal senses and consolations, but with a certainty of God’s closeness
6.) “The Betrothal”—experiences of ecstatic union; active prayer and reasoning gives way fully to a simple, loving gaze towards God
7.) “Marriage” / Full union—one’s spirit is fully conformed and united with Christ

John of the Cross' schematic of the spiritual life,
from his book Ascent of Mount Carmel

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Photo of the Week

O God of Bethel, by whose hand Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage hast all our fathers led:
Through each perplexing path of life, our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread, our heavenly food provide;
Such blessings from Thy gracious hand our humble prayers implore:
Be Thou, O Lord, our hope, our strength, and portion evermore.

- from a hymn by Philip Doddridge

Monday, October 05, 2020

Quote of the Week

"If, then, you are looking for the way by which you should go, take Christ, because he himself is the Way."

- Thomas Aquinas, medieval Christian philosopher & theologian

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Give me strength to seek You, Lord,
For You have already enabled me to find You
And have given me hope
Of finding You ever more fully.

- Augustine

Friday, October 02, 2020

Africa Memoir: Most Likely to Become a Martyr

I was twenty-one years old, all alone in the middle of the night, and six thousand miles from home. Well, almost alone. In a vacant, dilapidated airport terminal, full of dust and plastic chairs, I sat beneath the gaze of an African soldier, just three paces away. He had a machine gun under his arm—ready, if necessary, to use it on me. At that particular moment, I was an illegal immigrant (though unintentionally so). As I sat there beneath his silent gaze, with two thousand dollars in cash hidden in my belt, Christian literature in my suitcase, and no entry visa in my passport, I had nothing I could do but wait and pray.

So I waited and I prayed. And that’s how I began my life in Sudan.

~ ~ ~

A couple years ago, I learned that my college friends had once dubbed me “most likely to become a martyr.” (It’s perhaps a telling sign about my sensibilities that I consider that a high compliment.) From the perspective of my current life in small-town Maine, martyrdom now seems unlikely. But as I think back on it, reflecting on the places I went in my twenties, and the things that I did there, I can see where my friends may have formed their impressions. The story of my African journeys began on that night of my arrival in Khartoum in early February of 2004, but the roots of my relationship with Africa go back even further, to when I was sixteen years old.

One day I had happened across an article in one of my parents’ magazines which told the story of a man who accepted a dare to choose a country and pray for it for forty days. He took up the challenge, thinking little of it, and began praying for Uganda. The long and short of it is that by the end of the story, not only had that man prayed for Uganda, he had gotten the opportunity to go to Uganda, and while there, he happened to fall into a set of circumstances in which he was able to influence people in the highest levels of Ugandan government. Well, I thought, if that random guy can do it, so can I. So I chose the country of Sudan. I had no personal connection to the country at all. But I knew that it was a place deeply in need of prayer—with the north being almost entirely Muslim, and the largely Christian south under severe persecution, while at the same time suffering from the fallout of a savage, decades-long civil war. I started praying daily for Sudan. I got a “Pray for Sudan” bracelet from Voice of the Martyrs and wore it every day for more than three years as a reminder of my pledge. I learned the name of the Islamist president, Omar al-Bashir, and began praying for him too.

Three years later, when I was in my junior year at Houghton College, I was looking for a short-term missions engagement for the spring. The following summer was already booked: I was signed up to go on one of my college’s semester-length programs in Tanzania. But that left the spring open, and I felt ready to head back overseas and do some service for the sake of the Kingdom. Specifically, I was interested in doing ministry in Muslim contexts, so I got in contact with a mission agency that specialized in that field. They sent my applications out to their team leaders around the world to see what needs I might be able to fill. And when the responses started coming back in, there was one that jumped out above the rest: a leader in Khartoum, Sudan, had seen my file and wanted to offer me a place on their team. And the appeal didn’t end there—out of all the responses I received, theirs was the only one designed to fit my current area of expertise and training: they had a linguistics project for me to work on. So I signed up to go to Sudan, and sent my passport off for an entry visa.

My trip was supposed to commence in January. Unfortunately, we had heard no word from the Sudanese embassy. My visa application hadn’t been rejected; it just hadn’t been reviewed at all. It was sitting in a pile in someone’s inbox on an embassy desk, untouched. Days turned into weeks, and I was waiting at home in Maine, watching January slip by into February. I had already lost one month of my Sudan trip, and there was still no word on when I might get approval to go. At this point, my team leader in Khartoum, a European missionary named Ernest, suggested that I recall my passport from the embassy and book my flights anyway. We talked about the plan over the phone: “We have an agent here in Khartoum who can meet you right at the airport. He’ll have the entry visa and all the necessary fees in hand as soon as you arrive.”

It was a bit of a leap of faith, but Ernest sounded confident that it would work. So I packed my things, together with some Christian literature and other books that the team had asked me to bring. The Sudanese government was under American sanctions, which meant that it was unconnected to the global banking system, so I had to take all my funds with me in cash—thousands of dollars strapped around my waist.

My flights took me from Boston to London (where I had a brief opportunity to pop in on some friends who were studying there), and then to Nairobi, Kenya. I can still remember the feeling of emerging into the bright, humid Kenyan air, and the smell of the equatorial world—a smell I hadn’t taken into my lungs since my boyhood in Brazil—filled my soul with joy. I had a layover of a couple days in Nairobi, and had arranged to stay with the family of another college friend, who graciously let me sleep off my jet lag at their house and then give me a ride back to the airport.

Finally, I was standing in the terminal of Jomo Kenyatta airport, ready to embark on the flight that would take me to Khartoum. I handed my ticket and passport to the British Airways agent behind the counter.

She looked at the documents quizzically, then said, “You are going to Khartoum, Sudan?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“But you don’t have an entry visa for Sudan. We can’t allow you to go.”

I explained that all the arrangements had been made, and that my team leader had someone to meet me at the airport, with my visa already processed and ready to go. I gave her a Sudanese phone number to call if she wanted to confirm it.

She left the counter and went to consult with another woman, then returned a few moments later. “We don’t have to let you on this plane, but we will,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“But before you decide to go, I need to tell you that if you enter Sudan without a visa, they can do whatever they want to you. Deport you, arrest you, put you in jail, and so on...”

It was that “and so on” that captured one’s imagination. I knew what she meant by it. Sudan was run by a radical Islamist government with no love for America (especially since American cruise missiles had targeted Khartoum just a few years before). If an American showed up as an illegal immigrant, he could be held for espionage and subjected to whatever tortures the regime saw fit. The political prisons in Khartoum had been nicknamed “ghost houses” because no one ever came back from them. Add to that the fact that some of the literature my team had asked me to bring might possibly be considered illegal.

But here’s the strange thing: I didn’t feel at all afraid. I suspect it was because I had so many folks at home praying for me.

“Thank you, but I would like to go,” I told her. “I’m sure they’ll have my visa there for me.”

So I climbed on board the plane and got ready for takeoff. It was evening, and the flight had one other stop, in Asmara, before it was to touch down in Khartoum. There were about twenty other people on the plane, many of them English-speaking expatriates, which added a comforting sense of normalcy as we took to the sky. But that comfort fled quickly when we landed in Asmara and every other American and European got off. With just a handful of Sudanese passengers, and I the sole Westerner, the plane took off again into the night, now on its final approach to Khartoum.

It was just about midnight when we touched down. Our little line of passengers walked into the terminal over a dusty tarmac, and the rest of them immediately got into line at the passport control booth. I gave a long glance around the empty terminal. It was a tiny airport, and if my agent with the entry documents was around, it would be impossible to miss him. But there wasn’t anyone there.

I looked around again. But no, there was no one waiting, no one trying to wave or catch the eye of a passenger. No one at all.

After the others had gone through, I finally approached the passport checkpoint. Maybe, I reasoned, the arrangements had already been made, and the man inside the booth knew about it and would have my documents on hand. With my heart sinking, I handed him my passport.

“You have no visa,” he said.

I tried to explain my situation, but he immediately waved me over to a corner room, where several uniformed officers, guns strapped to their belts, sat watching an Arabic-dubbed version of the movie Titanic. The head officer, a lean, mustached man who was lounging back in his chair with a look of abject boredom, took my passport and flipped through it. Then he looked up at me.

“This is big problem,” he said in broken, heavily-accented English.

I tried once again to explain, but the language barrier proved insurmountable. I didn’t know enough Arabic to make it work, and he didn’t know enough English. I had only one recourse left: I pulled out a slip of paper with Ernest’s phone number on it, and motioned that he should call the number.

With a bit of a scowl (mostly, I think, because he was missing the movie on my account), he dug out a cell phone and called the number. I could hear Ernest’s voice faintly from where I stood, but couldn’t understand anything that was said. The officer sounded fairly irate. After a few minutes, the call ended, and the officer waved me back out into the main room of the terminal.

“You, sit there,” he commanded.

So I went and sat in the plastic chair, and the officer stationed one of his machine-gun-toting guards to stand watch over me. Across the room, my suitcase stuffed with Christian materials stood in the middle of a circle of customs agents, still unopened. It was now well past midnight. I didn’t know what would happen next. All I knew was that I had been told to sit. So I sat there, and waited, and prayed.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: John Knox & the Scottish Reformation

You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.  - Mark 13:9-10

God’s word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.  - Jeremiah 20:9b

John Knox: Basic Facts

- John Knox (1513-1572) was an incendiary preacher, pastor, and theologian whose labors took him all across Europe during the height of the Reformation, led him to stand against numerous monarchs, and eventually paved the way for the Bible-based doctrines of the Reformation to permeate his home country of Scotland. The Presbyterian denomination is a direct product of his ministry.

- Knox was courageous and unrelenting, but his hard-edged nature led him to be disliked by many of his contemporaries. Nonetheless, he is probably best understood as being like one of the Old Testament prophets—often reviled by the world because they courageously delivered, without compromise, the word of God. - Knox also promoted radical ideas about politics, including the permissibility (and sometimes duty) of Christians to revolt against an unrighteous monarch. His ideas would have a major impact on the American Revolution.

Timeline of Knox's Life and Ministry:

1543-1545John Knox, a young Catholic priest working as a private tutor, hears the Reformation doctrines flooding into Scotland from its trade contacts with Germany and France, and is converted to Protestantism. He becomes a disciple of George Wishart, a grace-filled and empowered preacher of the Gospel, and appoints himself as Wishart’s sword-bearing bodyguard. 

1546 – Cardinal Beaton, the ruling Catholic prelate in Scotland, is alarmed at the growth of Protestant doctrine. George Wishart is arrested and put on trial. Knox wants to stay and defend Wishart, but the great preacher tells him, “One is sufficient for a sacrifice at this time,” and sends Knox away. Wishart is burned at the stake, and in response, a group of angry Scottish noblemen conspire to assassinate Cardinal Beaton. The French Catholic monarch of Scotland at the time, the regent Mary of Guise, raises an army to punish the assassins, and they flee to the castle of St. Andrews and lock themselves inside. There John Knox joins the revolutionaries.

1547 – The leaders of the rebellion see John Knox’s potential as a preacher and an inspiration to their revolution, so they ask him to become the pastor of the church in St. Andrews. Knox declines at first, but when the whole congregation publicly requests that he take the post, he decides (with tears) to comply, the last straw being a challenge from a Catholic preacher in a nearby village church. He takes up the mantle of preaching and quickly becomes one of the most influential Scotsmen of his day. Unfortunately for him, the French navy blockades St. Andrews until it surrenders, and Knox and many other Protestant prisoners are taken to work as galley-slaves on a French vessel for more than a year and a half.

1549-1553 – Finally released from the galleys, Knox goes to England (Scotland being still too hostile for his return) and is given a pastorate in Northumbria, near the Scottish border. There he meets and marries his wife, becomes famous for his bold sermons, and is eventually appointed to be a royal chaplain, preaching at the king’s court. He involves himself in finalizing the English Book of Common Prayer, the foundational document of Anglican Protestantism. Then Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”) ascends the throne and quickly makes clear her aim to return England to Catholicism. Knox, like many other Protestants, is forced to flee to continental Europe.

1554-1558 – Knox travels to the heart of the Reformation, partnering with John Calvin in Geneva and Henry Bullinger in Zurich before taking up the pastorate of an English-speaking church in Frankfurt. There he is embroiled in a debate over which liturgy to use—he composes his own, The Book of Common Order, which is later to become the foundational document of Presbyterianism—but his congregation rejects it, and he returns to Geneva (interrupted by a short, secretive mission trip back to Scotland during which he managed to be condemned for heresy and burned in effigy). While in Geneva, he writes an inflammatory tract against the rule of women as monarchs of Christian nations, which wins him no favor with the queens of England or Scotland.

1559-1572 – Knox is finally permitted to return to Scotland, but one of his first sermons sets off a revolutionary riot aimed against the Catholic church. This movement is so successful that it manages to take over the Scottish Parliament, to outlaw the Catholic Mass, and to compose the “Scots Confession,” a statement of doctrine to guide the new Scottish Protestant church. In 1561, the new monarch, Mary “Queen of Scots,” returns and regularly butts heads with Knox over her practice of her Catholic faith and her desire to marry a Catholic prince. Knox, though respectful of her authority, shows no fear (and no mercy) in these confrontations. Because of his tenacity, Scotland manages to establish a nationwide Protestant church that is independent of the authority of the monarchy (unlike the Reformation movements in Germany or England). Knox pastors the leading church in Scotland, St. Giles of Edinburgh, until his death.

Quotes from John Knox:

“A man with God is always in the majority.”

“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

“Lord, give me Scotland, or I die!”