An excerpt from Being Lutheran. © 2016 A. Trevor Sutton. Used with permission. Available Spring 2016. For ordering information, please contact Concordia Publishing House at 800-325-3040 or visit them at www.cph.org.
They had one of the nicer churches in Sudan. Rather than roasting in the sun through the long sermon, the congregation met in a long mud hut. Even with the luxury of a roof overhead, the building was dark, hot, and sweaty. They fanned themselves through the service. They sat on metal stools and benches. On particularly crowded Sundays, people had to sit on temporary benches made of stray tree branches tied together.
Every Sunday was crowded.
Seliman’s father was a leader in the congregation. A shortage of pastors meant that many congregations had to rely on lay leaders to assist with worship. Occasionally the congregation would travel to the capital for a large worship service with many other people. More often they gathered together to hear the Gospel openly proclaimed in their local congregation. The Holy Spirit moved in that place. The presence of the Lord was with them.
The government was increasingly suspicious about the open proclamation of the Gospel happening in the congregation. Pressure grew against Seliman’s father and the church: “Keep your mouth shut.” “Stop preaching the Gospel.” “We are watching you.”
Threats grew more frequent. Violence became more imminent. This forced Seliman’s family to leave Sudan in the middle of the night. His father woke him at 2 am and told him they were going to Egypt. They had sold the house and everything in it.
Cash in hand and shoes on their feet, Seliman and his family left Sudan to find somewhere else to openly proclaim the Gospel.
Egypt was a temporary home after leaving Sudan. Seliman was just about ten years old when they arrived there by train. People were immediately suspicious of him and his family: Who are these people coming from Sudan? Why do they have so much cash on them? What are they carrying in those bags? Where are they going? Are they Christian?
Every car on the train was filled with greedy eyes looking at Seliman. He prayed for God’s protection. He always kept one eye on his father. He ran fast when his father told him to go. He ran too fast; he lost a shoe running through the train station. Seliman entered Egypt with only one shoe.
Open proclamation of the Gospel was no easier in Egypt. They could not worship in a congregation. Instead, the family met together with a few others in their studio apartment. The doors were locked. The shades were closed. The tension was high. And the Gospel was proclaimed. Relying wholly on the Lord, Seliman craved God’s Word. He had a fire in his bones kindled by prayer. He longed for the day when the Gospel could be openly shared with all people. Doors open. Windows open. And mouths open proclaiming the Gospel.
His father worked a construction job in Egypt. He had the job until they found out he was a Christian. He did not shout it from the top of the building they were constructing; he simply prayed a blessing over his meal before he ate. Even that was too much. He was fired on the spot for being a Christian: “Turn in your hard hat and tools. Do not plan to return tomorrow. We will not have any Christians working for us.”
Seliman and his family were not comfortable in Egypt. He was constantly running from discrimination. Fear followed him everywhere. Persecution was a daily reality. Though violence was always close, God was always closer. Jesus had opened his heart to God. Only ten years old, Seliman trusted God for his eternal salvation and his daily protection. Not even a teenager, the Holy Spirit worked a spiritual maturity in him through daily hardship.
God provided an opportunity for Seliman and his family to move to America. February in Ohio is much colder than it is in Africa. In a little over a day, he went from sweltering ninety-degree heat to frosty sub-zero winds. Nevertheless, they were warmed by the opportunity to worship without persecution. Proclaiming the Gospel was not punishable by death. Preaching the Good News of Jesus would not get you fired. For the first time in his life, Seliman could pray with both eyes closed.
Some friends in America invited Seliman and his family to attend a church. The church was a Lutheran church. Many other refugees had found their way to this Lutheran congregation. This is what they had craved for so long. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was openly preached from the pulpit. There was no veil of good works covering the grace of Jesus. The Good News was not obscured by rationalism, political correctness, or fear. All people had open access to God’s salvation in Christ Jesus.
Seliman has no desire to return to a land of persecution. He does not long for the days when his family had to worship with closed doors, closed windows, and hush voices. He rejoices in the open access to the Gospel that he and his family now enjoy.
Nevertheless, there is something missing. Persecution kept his faith sharp. Threats of violence honed his prayers. Rumors of people suffering for the Gospel drove him closer to the Lord. Experiencing the open proclamation of the Gospel—even if it was in hushed worship behind closed doors—was precious. Hearing the Gospel whispered made it speak even louder in his heart.
In a land of persecution, Seliman was keenly aware that he had to wholly rely on God. In a land of plenty, he still has a fire for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, that fire feels a bit more temperate now. Zeal is oddly harder to maintain in a land where there is free and open access to the Gospel. He certainly does not want to go back to those days of struggle. He does, however, want to go back and experience the power of God at work in the midst of persecution.
To be certain, Seliman counts it a blessing to finally pray with both of his eyes closed. Still, as great as it is, praying with both eyes closed makes it that much easier to fall asleep.
Rev. A. Trevor Sutton is Associate Pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Haslett, Michigan and a graduate student in Writing and Rhetoric at Michigan State University.