Middle East first fruits
A man I’ll call Hikmet died of cancer last week, a loss grieved by fellow believers in Jesus across his nation.
He was one of the first four people who were baptized in a little-publicized Mennonite mission among Muslim neighbors in his country, a mission that has persisted for more than 30 years. His story is worth recounting in a chaotic, cynical time.
He had stumbled, surprised, into a relationship with Jesus. With two friends, he took a Bible correspondence course in order to get a free book, the New Testament, for his little library.
“I’d no interest in reading it,” he said. “In fact, I had a conscience against reading it, since it was commonly believed to be an altered, misleading book. So I copied answers deceitfully from a friend who was willing to read it in order to pass the course.”
Undetected, he also passed, and got his book.
That was that. But then a course representative stopped by to visit. Hikmet feigned faith in Jesus to maintain his deceit. Before long the rep introduced him to a Mennonite family who had moved to his university city.
Now he was really in trouble. He was pleased to make foreign friends, but how long could he maintain his guise? He hated the religion and was sure the Christian missionaries intended to divide and destroy his nation.
However, he was drawn back repeatedly to the little Sunday house fellowship. A foreign woman humbly served him, and he loved the songs that didn’t mention Jesus, like “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”
He maintained his mask, but as time passed he increasingly asked, “Who am I, really? Am I becoming a disciple of Jesus?” He was no longer sure.
Friends encouraged him to be baptized, but what should he do? Someone suggested, “Ask God.” And so he did. To his surprise, he heard a voice, “You’re not ready.”
“Was it from God?” he wondered. But then he knew, “I was talking to God. He answered.”
That summer, at death’s door, he was miraculously healed when he called out to Jesus. Afterward, he devoured the New Testament and unmistakably met Jesus. Baptism came quickly, with much joy.
But enormous trials were also soon to come. Some in his nation were dismayed that a few of their people believed in Jesus. They tortured him to within an inch of his life and put him in solitary confinement. Expecting death, he cried out in prayer, “God, why do I have to suffer so much?”
Again God spoke clearly, “You have to suffer so that the people of your nation know that some of you are believers in Jesus.” His story and that of his fellow believers were blazoned across the front pages of the leading newspapers. “Traitors,” they were called, but many took notice.
He was banned from university study at his release. But as he grew in faith. God led him to marry a Korean evangelist who visited with a tour group. They had no common language except a bit of English, but eventually each became fluent in the other’s mother tongue. Together they became effective church planters wherever they went — first in her country and then in his.
Now he studied the Bible instead of engineering. He earned a doctorate in theology. He attended meetings of the International Missions Association and made Anabaptist friends around the globe. Two years ago he baptized his two oldest children, beautiful young believers and symbols of many others.
We grieve to say good-bye. But in a chaotic and cynical world, his life shouts clear, “Jesus is Lord!”
Richard Showalter lives and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.
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