5 Of The Most Powerful Images From 2017
As the year ends, I want to share 5 key photos from 2017 and the stories behind them.
1. Samson, Central Asia
Image: Samson holding a Bible.
We had arrived at another registered, but very much under the radar, church in Central Asia. We met Samson, he looked like a wrestler - in his early 50's but lean and strong. As we sat on the floor broke bread and sipped tea, Samson began to share his testimony.
This is - without a doubt - one of the craziest stories I've heard from my time at Open Doors.
One Sunday night they came at 2am to kill him.
Eight people with machine guns and knives. They said, “Come with us.” Samson could not see their faces as they were wearing black head coverings that only left their eyes visible.
Samson told his wife, “My friends have come and I'll be back in the morning. When you hear my voice then open the door.”
Samson's wife locked the door and Samson went with them. They took him to a garbage tip.
They said, “Today is the last day for you. Jesus is not a God he will not save you.”
The Mujahedeen came and grabbed his hair and pulled his head back placing a knife on his throat. They asked Samson, “What do you want to say?”
Samson replied, “Jesus loves you and I forgive you.”
They asked him, “Do you accept Islam?”
And he said, “No I've found the truth, the creator of earth, heaven and all mankind. People created religion. You [God] created holy work. Please reveal Your work to my brothers here, salvation, protection for their children, and let them know that my blood is not on their hands. Please bless their families and I forgive them. Amen.”
The Mujahideen (Islamic extremists) screamed at him, “Are you a fool? We want to kill you. And you are blessing our families! Go home, we will come again and take you.”
Two weeks later thirty people and two Mujahideen’s came back.
They said, “We want to talk! We are those that wanted to kill you.”
And Samson replied, “If you want to kill me now please give me five minutes. I have been working so much I didn’t get time to hug my children. I will not tell them you are going to kill me. I will come back.”
They said, “We are not going to kill you.”
The two Mujahideen standing at the front said the 30 men behind them were their army, “As the leaders we are the ones who kill our victims.”
They proceeded to tell Samson how 24 heads of the army would retreat to the hills during the day and come down at night into the town.
Recently 24 leaders came down from the mountains at night and walked into an ambush set up by the government.
The two leaders at the front of the group told how they laid on the ground with bullets flying over from all four sides. They couldn't raise their heads or they would get shot.
One of the leaders said, “While we were lying there we saw you and you came to us and said, ‘Throw yourself into the water and you will survive,’ and the two of us jumped into the water and we survived. The 22 other leaders were killed.”
They asked Samson, “How did you manage to come to us? And why weren’t you shot?”
Samson replied, “I was not there but my God sent an angel who looked like me because I am his servant. He did it for you to come to me to tell you Jesus loves you, died for you and can give you salvation.”
The man said to Samson, “I will never fight again.” They threw open their arms and said to the soldiers, “This Christian speaks truth. I will accept Jesus.”
2. Joseph, Central Asia
From the moment I met Joseph one of the things that stood out to me was his warm and inviting personality. Don't get me wrong he is a tough man and I get the impression that he's someone you'd never want to get on the wrong side of, but he radiates Godly love.
But this has not always been the case.
In Christian circles we often talk about radical transformation, stories like that of the Damascus road, - and Joseph’s is exactly that.
Joseph and his wife Sally have been married for 26 years.
As we sat eating dinner, Sally told us that for 12 years of their marriage she lived with blue eyes because he was always drunk and beating her. According to Joseph, it was a common practice within Islamic culture.
Sally tells us that many times they were going to divorce but didn’t want the children to grow up without a father so they stuck it out. Their love for each other is so evident and beautiful. They have a wonderful sense of humour and laugh a lot with each other.
Joseph began drinking when he was 10, and not long after dropped out of school and joined the military.
In 1998, Sally’s brother John was sent to jail. A Christian man by the name of Paul would visit John in prison, and also Sally and Joseph at their home.
In those days Joseph was one of the most well-known jewellers in Central Asia. He had loads of money and would often walk home from work drunk throwing wads of money at people.
One day Paul came and visited Joseph at work. Joseph had cigarettes and vodka on his desk. He said to Joseph, “I see that you want to quit drinking but you cannot.”
Joseph said, “That's true but I cannot because I've been drinking so many years.”
Paul replied, “I know one person who can help you. Jesus Christ.”
Joseph thought, “What can He do?”
Paul told Joseph how Jesus had changed his own life and that Jesus could change Joseph 's life too. After that, they would meet together every week. Paul would tell Joseph about Jesus, and Joseph would try to disprove him.
In prison, Sally’s brother became a Christian. Not long after, Joseph accepted Jesus too.
But this is the part that undid me. In my thinking, from this moment onwards Joseph should be a changed man, a good man - but that's not how it worked at all.
Joseph didn’t stop drinking, he didn’t stop beating Sally. He did start evangelizing, especially when he was drunk.
When John was released from prison, he came home and started telling everyone about Jesus, and trying to encourage Joseph to change his ways. But Joseph continued.
One day John came to visit Joseph, they went to church together. Joseph got dressed into his nice clothes – they were also his Islamic clothes.
Everyone was shocked when he walked into church. They thought Joseph had got the mosque confused with the church. He entered the church but didn’t take off his Islamic hat and everyone was whispering between themselves.
John was sitting next to him and Paul went forward to preach, at the end Paul made an alter call.
Joseph told us, “Something happened inside me and I was not able to stay. I stood up and said to John, let me go and I went directly to the pulpit and I could hear people asking what was going on. I am sure people thought I was going to beat the pastor but I fell to my knees and started to repent and pray. The Holy Spirit was doing something supernatural in my heart. Then John ran to me and gave me a hug and fell to his knees. We were all crying and praising the Lord.
“Only later did I realise that for those 4 years John and Paul had been praying for me and that day their prayers had been answered. On that day 28 people one by one accepted Jesus. And that day I promised the Lord I would serve Him faithfully.”
But still for years, Joseph continued to drink.
One day, while he was lying on the couch he heard the audible voice of God.
God said to him, “Did you love your earthly father? Why do you love your father?”
Joseph said to God, “Because he is my father.”
The Lord replied, “Joseph you've been drinking for 21 years of your life. Why during these 21 years have you never dared drink in the presence of your father?
“You've been smoking for so long but why never in the presence of your father? I don’t want anything from you except for one thing that our relationship would be the same as you had with your father.”
Joseph rolled down onto the floor and started to cry. “Lord for me, you were so far away from me, you were in the sky in the heaven but since today and this moment you are my Father.”
He told us that since that moment his life had changed - his world has changed. God has provided miracles, restored the relationship with his wife Sally, his children and brothers.
Joseph finished by telling us:
“There are Christians who want their children to live without any problems, without any needs. It always surprises me. I would tell them that we need to teach our children the different things. Moses says, ‘earn to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and might and we need to teach our children the same. If we would teach them today how to love God, then God promises, ‘The one who believes in Me will never be ashamed.’”
3. They Are Muslim And They Are Seeking Jesus, Lebanon
They are Muslim and they are seeking Jesus.
On a trip to the Syrian border in Lebanon I learnt more about prayer from Muslims than you could ever imagine.
The convicting reality that Muslims have a greater expectation that Jesus will answer their prayer than I do, is something I will never forget.
They pray with an expectation unlike anything I've ever seen.
The first church service here is full of Muslim converts.
The second… veiled women seeking Jesus.
The pastor begins the service by asking whose prayer from last week did Jesus answer? hands go up, testimony after testimony, the service finishes with the pastor asking the women their prayer requests for the coming week, because, not only do they have them ready to share, but they wake up with an expectation that Jesus will have heard, and answered their prayer.
And even in those times where He may not answer them overnight they continue to pray day, after day, after day with an expectation that He will respond.
It's the moment I realised, I can't remember what I prayed for yesterday, let alone last week – and more than that, what have I ever consistently prayed for with an expectation so great, it drove me to look for the answer?
I've learnt that Jesus hears our prayers, but doesn’t necessarily answer them overnight. That sometimes we're called to pray more than once for something. That to ask without expectation is an insult to God. That trust filled respect in God should drive us to look for the answer. I've learnt that prayer is more than asking for the things I want. It's trusting him for the things I need. And that prayer, is indisputably an act of worship.
It's on the Syrian border in refugee camps that this is happening.
These people are Syrian. They are Muslim, and they are seeking Jesus.
Many of them have been displaced for five years and when it comes to prayer, they're not asking for shiny new things.
They're asking that Jesus would make himself real to them in their moment of need. They're asking for things like food, shelter, warmth, education and safety for their children.
And time and time again, Jesus is answering their prayer and more often than not He does so by moving the heart of the local church. Courageously obedient and unquestionably the hands and feet of Christ to those living as refugees in their community, sharing Jesus in a way that doesn't compromise the gospel but brings it to life and offers them salvation.
Isn't it funny? How something so simple can become so complex. It's as though the moment Jesus answers our prayers, and reveals himself to Muslims all over the world, we question the process.
We love the end stories of conversion but their journey to salvation, it makes us feel uncomfortable even awkward. I've learnt from people still searching for Christ, that expectation filled prayer brings the gospel to life.
How's your prayer life? Because mine was in desperate need of change.
4. In The Company Of Legends, Vietnam
We had come to Vietnam to see at what cost following Jesus came for believers in this country.
As we walked into the church there were three men sitting at a small table. We introduced ourselves and sat down eager to hear from them.
Dion began with his story of almost unbelievable persecution. He lives in a remote village, and he had travelled for two days just to meet with us. As Dion began to speak, the translator told us that it was the first time Dion had ever shared his testimony.
Dion was the only Christian in his village, in an animistic culture (where they offer sacrifices to idols) conversion is noticed almost immediately.
When he converted, the local police arranged a public screening of a film denouncing Christianity. It was a video showing extreme poverty in other countries - claiming that’s what happens to Christians.
They were essentially turning the entire village against him.
The next tactic was to drag Dion in front of the entire village each night for a whole week and humiliate him and demand he renounce his faith.
But Dion said quietly but boldly, “I simply believe that God is powerful and he is coming back very soon.”
The authorities came and slashed all of his crops, confiscated his field, killed two of his ducks, hurt his cow so it could no longer plow the fields. And as a final insult they destroyed his house.
Large rocks were thrown through the roof of his house, his wife and child inside.
In August 2015, a group of young men came looking for Dion, they told his wife they wanted to kill him.
Dion escaped, and ran 50km to a nearby village and the safety of a pastor’s house.
Dion told us that it’s that kind of ongoing persecution that makes him so afraid that he spends much of the time just wandering.
He then said, “If you tell me to deny my faith. I will never do it.”
He continued, “I always pray for them (the persecutors) the people who came and beat me, my wife and my son and they don't know about God and God is a heart changing God and I just pray that one day they would come to know God and become a Christian.”
5. A Challenging Journey, India
India, it's a place that I have always wrestled with.
In 1981 I was born in Madras, India and at the age of 6 months was adopted by a Christian family in Australia.
For as long as I can remember growing up my parents always said they'd take me back whenever I wanted to go. In 2000 I decided that it was time. Upon reflection I think I did this more to bring joy to my parents as I know they desperately wanted to show me the country of my birth.
For much of my childhood I experienced varying forms of racism. I was spat on. Verbally abused and ostracised at times from other children.
Don't get me wrong. I had a good childhood with many friends but there was always an element of 'not fitting in', so heading back to India I was naively convinced that the mother land would open her arms and welcome home a long last son. I was shocked when this did not happen.
I remember we landed in the year 2000 and started our four week tour of India and from the moment we exited the airport I didn’t want to be there. I stood out. I wasn't ready for the poverty, the population density, the smell. I just wasn't ready.
This experience really tarnished my view of India. I left after those four weeks never wanting to return but remember feeling the Holy Spirit say, 'you'll be back one day.' I didn’t want to acknowledge it and in many ways have tried to avoid it since.
Flash forward 17 years and I find myself just landed in New Delhi, India. This time it is with Open Doors. It's for the persecuted church and I'm conflicted because there is a part of me that wants to be here and a part that doesn't.
We landed at the airport and went to the hotel. We're not even five minutes from the airport when we happen across two lifeless bodies lying on the side of the road.
A crowd begins to gather and as we drive past I find myself looking at a well and truly dead body.
Blood streaming from a head wound and one other male lying on the ground breathing laboured and no doubt on the verge of death.
Yes, I'm back in India and I'm feeling every bit of it.
There is a difference though. I can tell I've done a lot of growing up in the last 17 years. I'm feeling hopeful not fearful. I'm feeling excited at seeing what courage and boldness the believers here have.
I know that the cost of faith in India is increasing rapidly. I know what this ministry does. And I know that as a believer in Christ I have a carry in that.
Yep, this will be a different trip. It will be a life-changing trip. It will be a confronting trip. But I believe that the Lord is going to use it powerfully to pull down some walls and rebuild some. Speak Lord, your servant is listening.