I spent this week away from my church in one of the great cities in the Middle East. I’m blessed to serve a congregation with a world-wide vision for the gospel and they send me on a regular basis as their representative to distant places. So I left last Sunday to visit with some of our partners in ministry working in a difficult and dangerous region.
I’ve been on many mission trips and worked on a lot of different projects. This one was different. It didn’t begin with a specific task that needed to be done. Instead, I went in order to spend time with each one of our partners on a more pastoral level. Listening, encouraging, praying, and studying the Bible with them one on one. I came home with a deeper sense of who these people are, how they live and why they do what they do.
Everyone who responds to vocational missions makes a basic decision to leave their old life behind and step into the unkown, trusting in God’s provision. Even with all the advantages of modern life—communication with family back home, ease of travel back and forth from the field, medical care, availability of language instruction—the essential truth is that a missionary hears the Spirit summon them to a place that knows little or nothing of Jesus, and they choose to say yes. They stand alongside Abraham, when God told him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” They’ve dreamed Paul’s dream: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’”
Most of them are in their thirties, forties or fifties. Married with children. Wrestling with the same laundry list of daily things we all wrestle with. Children. Marriage. House problems. Finances. Health. Aging parents. But on top of the stuff we know so well, they also must contend with learning new language skills, impacting their adopted culture with the gospel, negotiating restrictive government policies and encouraging believers whose new-found faith is so counter-cultural that it makes them strangers in a strange land. They do all this in a religious and political environment that’s shifting so quickly that what’s possible one month may be illegal the next. The one constant of life and ministry in today’s Middle East is change—and almost always for the worse.
Like thousands of others like them, our partners have chosen martyrdom. Not martyrdom in the sense of physical death, although some of them have walked that bright and shining road. But a different kind of martyrdom. One where a person chooses to die to self in ways that most people think about but never do.
In medieval Ireland, the missionary monks spoke of three levels of martyrdom—the word means “witness.” Red martyrdom occurred when a person was physically killed on account of their faith. As early believers collided with the hostility and cruelty of their pagan culture, many were forced to choose between their love of Jesus and the demands of their world. They choose Jesus, and so lost their lives. The color of spilled blood gave this level of martyrdom its name.
As the years passed and Christianity became more accepted, red martyrs became fewer. A new kind martyrdom grew up, one that came about not from people actually dying but from faithful people fleeing the cities in order to find God in the wilderness. The Celtic Christians had a particular flair for language, so they called this a green martyrdom, green representing the rural areas of Ireland. These believers died a different kind of death. They choose to die to worldly ambition and self-centered lives in order to devote themselves wholly to God.
The third level of martyrdom grew from the first two (you can read the history of all this in Tom Cahill’s book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” and St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner). The monasteries connected with green martyrdom weren’t just places of retreat and contemplative prayer, they were also centers of mission. The early monks had a heart to take the gospel to the world. Many of them heard the same calling as do our modern missionary families. From their centers at Iona and Lindisfarne they struck out to northern England and continental Europe to share the gospel with a pagan world. The early missionaries would just get into their small boats and put out onto the ocean, trusting God to take them wherever the gospel needed to be heard. Columba, the founder of Iona, called this a white martyrdom and described those who embraced it as people “called to the white martyrdom, they who sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.”
White martyrs are those who have died to the idea that they control their own destiny. Instead, they place their trust in a sovereign and good God. They abandon themselves to his purposes and set out toward an unknown destination, willing to live in uncertainty for the sake of the voice that’s called them forward.
I don’t know if the partners I hung out with this week would call themselves martyrs of any kind. They’re far too humble for that. But I would. They’re people who’ve counted the cost and been willing to offer themselves in service to Jesus. A few have already become red martyrs. The region they live in is dangerous, and all of them accept the risk. Many are green martyrs. They’ve left behind modern American culture to live a simpler, more genuine and more purposeful life. They’ve acted on the conviction that the consumerism and materialism underneath modern American life is deadly to the soul.
All of them are white martyrs. They’ve set their faces toward a future that only God knows for sure and are willing to trust wherever he leads. Theirs is a modern face of martyrdom.
This is the first blog of several that will look at the Modern Faces of Martyrdom.