At a recent gathering of church planters in Central Asia, I heard a man named Dameer (not his real name) tell his amazing story. He grew up in Germany, the son of immigrants, and was a very angry young man. Early in life, Dameer discovered that he could use his fists to gain respect and friends. Most of his friends were disenfranchised immigrant youth who were also resorting to violence. Before long, Dameer found himself in prison, where fighting seemed to be the only way to survive.
In his emptiness and desperation, Dameer cried out to God from his prison cell and asked him to send someone to him who would confirm his existence. No one came. But Dameer did not give up. He continued to call out to God and asked to meet with him personally. God answered, and the Holy Spirit fell on him so that he was baptized in a fire that went from his head to his toes. Dameer lay on the floor of his cell, overwhelmed with God’s love and presence. He repented of his sins and surrendered his heart to God.
In prison, the Holy Spirit became Dameer’s constant companion and teacher. In learning obedience, he heard the voice of the Spirit say, “There is a person on the third floor, the eighth door, who is calling out to me. Go, lay hands on him and bless him.”
At first, he resisted out of fear. But finally he obeyed. When the opportunity came, he made his way up to the third floor and found the eighth door. When he knocked, a giant of a man answered, and Dameer almost apologized and returned to his cell. But he found the courage to explain to the man that God had sent him to pray for him and bless him. The giant of a man immediately fell to his knees and began weeping. He had just been contemplating suicide and was crying out to God for an answer.
It became clear to Dameer that God had saved him so he could in turn help others and learn to join Jesus on his mission.
These kinds of stories inspire me. They help me remember how Jesus has worked in my own life and how he wants to use me to reach others. The Bible is full of stories about man’s rebellion, God’s redemption and the transforming power of hope. As we hear God’s story, we understand our story.
Last year, I was challenged in a fresh way to consider the power of storytelling when I attended a one-day conference at Tabor College in Kansas. Leonard Sweet spoke about the importance of “the table” in passing on our faith to the next generation. He talked about how Amish and Jewish communities retain their faith traditions through sharing stories at family meals. The next generation learned the story of faith at the table. Sweet called us to “bring back the table” as a place where relationships are strengthened and faith is nurtured.
What role does storytelling and the table have in God’s mission? How many of us sensed the stirring of God’s call in our lives as we sat at the dinner table with missionaries and listened to their stories of faith? As we’ve prayed for a theme for this year of Witness, we’ve sensed the Lord asking us to make “God’s Story” our focus. We’d like to join you at your dinner table and give you something to talk about. We believe there’s something powerful and redemptive about sharing the stories of faith in mission with the next generation.
Another powerful story comes to us from the country of Burundi. I was recently visiting our team there that is involved in serving the Batwa pygmies. Burundi is the third poorest country in the world, and the Batwa are the poorest of the poor. They have been enslaved for centuries by other tribes, and therefore many still live in fear in the forests with poor shelter, no education and a high mortality rate. For a number of years, Doug and Deanna Hiebert and their home church of Cornerstone in Niagara, Ontario have been assisting a local Burundian ministry in building an elementary school, medical clinic, church and mission training center among the Batwa. As I visited the elementary school on my trip, I stopped and talked to a Batwa woman who was walking by. She proudly stated that all three of her children were studying in that school. “My children live like kings,” she said, explaining that the school not only taught her children to read but also provided one nutritious meal a day. “They’re healthy,” she said with a smile, “and they all wear shoes!”
When I looked at her face, I noticed a scar that ran from her ear down to her mouth. She touched the scar and explained that she was one of the first Batwa Christians in the area. As a young widow, she had worked hard to advocate for the improvement of her people, but one night as she walked home from a church meeting she was attacked by an unknown assailant with a machete. The man had chopped her head, face and back with a machete, then ran away when her cries for help were answered. The attack was interpreted as resistance from the local community to the empowerment of the Batwa and the improvement of their lives. The forested hillside where the Batwa ministry center was built had formerly been used by the local tribes for witchcraft and even human sacrifice. The battle for the Batwa is costly, but Jesus has already paid the price. He is now calling others who are also willing to fight for their freedom.
The Hieberts were joined this past year by the Schulz family from Chilliwack, BC. Between the two families there are now six young girls who are growing up in Burundi, sharing the love of Jesus in a nation where simply having shoes makes you royalty. The Bible calls us a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” Why? Peter explains it simply, “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9-10). That’s God’s story. He releases slaves and makes them his people. It’s our story as well. Let’s keep telling it!