A Faithful Servant of the Persecuted Church

Probably my highlight of the NCFIC conference was that I finally got to meet Rev. Fikret from Turkey. Paul Washer has wanted me to meet him for a long time and is encouraging me to minister among the churches this brother serves in Turkey. Rev. Fikret tells his story in a low-key yet powerful way. Today he ministers in one of the cities of the seven churches of Asia. Here’s the story he told me at lunch and then later to the entire gathering:

 When I was 18, I became curious about God, Islam, and Christianity, even though I knew nothing about the Bible or Christianity. One day I met a tourist couple from America who explained the gospel to me and encouraged me to attend a small, underground Christian worship service in Turkey. I decided to take the risk, but not without precautions. The first time I went I took a large, muscle-bound Turkish wrestler with me; he was trying out for the Olympics and was also interested in learning the basics of Christianity. We were ushered into the middle of the church, which made us feel very uncomfortable, since a Christian could then easily attack us from behind. We moved to the back pew which had a wall directly behind us. We were amazed at how people stood up during the service, how they sang, and how friendly they were to each other after the service. We had never seen anything like that in Islam.

Eventually I got a small New Testament. I read it from cover to cover. Part of me wanted to become a Christian and the other part of me was very afraid. I feared that to become a Christian meant losing my job, denying my culture and country, and eventually facing imprisonment and possibly death for converting from Islam to Christianity. When fear got the better hand of me, I would return the Bible to the friend who gave it to me and make him promise that he would never give it back to me, even when I asked. But then, two or three days later, I would miss it so much, that I would go to him and beg to have it back—and he would give it to me!

I kept attending the underground church despite the risks involved. One day, a church “friend”—or so we thought, but he was really a police informant—asked our group of believers to come over to a friend’s house after the service. There all the Christians were arrested and dragged off to the police station. Initially, they were treated fairly well, though they were told that the government was convinced that they were “Christian terrorists,” and acted as if the Bible was their secret “weapon.” Our captors kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, if you only say the Islamic prayer, you will be set free.” The Islamic prayer means saying aloud: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.” The first man—who we still did not know was the police informant—was the first to say it, so he was set free. Four others followed suit. Then came my wrestler friend, who feared no man. Boldly and freely, he said, “Jesus Christ is God’s Son and through His righteousness and obedience I am saved from all my sins.” They immediately attacked him, beat him up, and incarcerated him. Blood was everywhere.

My turn was next. I was trembling like a leaf. In fact, I was so afraid that it felt like my mind was turning numb. I felt like I had no choice—the torture that would come upon me for denying Islam would just be too great. Just as I was about to open my mouth and deny my new-found faith, I felt hands come from behind me and cover my mouth fully so that I couldn’t say a word. I turned around to see my friend, as I was sure it was one of my friends, but he was nowhere in sight. In all my numbing fear, I suddenly realized that God was holding my mouth so that I would not deny Him but profess Him. After I confessed Jesus, I too was beaten badly and put in a cell.

At that time I didn’t know that there were only 80 Christians in all of Turkey, and that all of them were being arrested the same day that I was. For the next ten days, we were beaten every day, given daily electrical shocks, and underwent coffin therapy. By coffin therapy, the Islamic Turks mean that they put your body in a coffin and fill it with water until you feel like you are drowning. At that point, they again ask you to say the Islamic prayer. This is hard for me to explain, but persecuted Christians around the world have often experienced this well—you are so overcome with numbness that the only thing in life you can remember is that Jesus Christ suffered, bled, and died for your sins. In the midst of numbness, that provides peace that passes understanding.

After ten days, we were released suddenly by God’s kind providence. Apparently a European Union minister (Sir Fred Catherwood) came to Turkey to put pressure on Turkey’s Prime Minister to release us at once if he still wanted his country to be received into the European Union. A few hours later we were released.

 When I asked Brother Fikret if he was still being persecuted today, he said, “I have been arrested several more times after the first arrest, but it is no longer so severe. The authorities beat you and harass you, and then ask you to say the Islamic prayer, but by nightfall they give up and release you again. Things got a bit better for the Christians in the past four years.”

When I asked him how we should pray for the Turkish Christians, he said, “Don’t pray for or against persecution—for persecution keeps us close to God—but pray for perseverance under persecution.”

God is blessing Brother Fikret’s ministry in Turkey, as well as several other Turkish ministers. Today there are 4,200 Christians—a substantial increase from 80, but this is still a very small percentage for a land of approximately 75 million souls. Today, Turkey is still the largest unevangelized nation in the world.

Inheritance Publishers

Wednesday night I was privileged to chair the annual meeting of the Inheritance Publishers (IP). The IP is an interdenominational organization nearly a century old that prints small sermon booklets of pre-20th-century Reformed ministers, most of which are no longer in print. Sermons are mailed free of charge to recipients around the world. Over the years this ministry has grown to reach 22,000 booklets per mailing. [You can also download some recent booklets.]

Members of the committee hail from the Heritage Reformed, Netherlands Reformed, and Free Reformed churches. Henk Kleyn serves as clerk, Len Mol as treasurer, and other committee members include Kevin Ash, James Bazen, and David Bleeker. I have had the privilege of serving as president for 25 years. For most of these years, I have selected the sermons to be printed and I also write a biographical preface for each booklet.

IP is a labor of love for the gospel on behalf of all the committee members. At our meetings, we often read letters received during the past year that illustrate how God is using these booklets for the well-being of souls.

This past year we received a beautiful letter from a friend whose father passed away several years ago. His father had received the IP booklets for thirty years, so quite a pile of booklets had accumulated—including another dozen or more after the father’s death. Being in some dire strait, the son, who had ignored these booklets for more than thirty years, decided to read one, partly because he felt needy and partly because he was curious why his father had enjoyed them so much. God used his reading to his saving conversion, and now he wrote to tell us that he “devours” these sermons and wanted more copies so that he can hand them out to others. Only eternity will reveal the fruits of this quiet, unassuming ministry.

Generally, IP print three booklets per year, depending on incoming gifts. The printing and mailing of each booklet costs over $12,000, so we don’t print another booklet until our balance reaches that amount. If you would like to be added to the mailing list, write ip@hnrc.org or The Inheritance Publishers, P.O. Box 1334, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49501. You will enjoy a rich feast of old sermons.

Kinnelon, New Jersey (August 12, 2012)

I flew to New Jersey on Saturday afternoon to preach to the Kinnelon, New Jersey, Heritage Reformed congregation. Prior to arriving at the home of my great hosts, Ed and Pat Sweetman, we stopped at the home of Mrs. Edwin Palmer, widow of 32 years, where her son, Dr. Tim Palmer, and his wife, Wilma, career missionaries in Nigeria, are living until they return to Nigeria this week.  They still had some books (mostly Dutch) which they desired to donate to the seminary from their well-known father, Edwin Palmer, a systematic theology professor at Westminster Seminary in the 1960s and author of The Five Points of Calvinism. We had a good time visiting with them and going through the remains of Dr. Palmer’s library, loading up nine heavy boxes with books for the library—most of them signed “Edwin Palmer.”

Most of the people in the Kinnelon HRC belonged to my second pastorate, where I served from 1981 to 1986, so it is always a bit nostalgic to serve them. On Sunday, I preached on two of life’s most important questions on Sunday, “Where is the Lamb?” (Gen. 22:7), and “How Can I Endure?” (Heb. 12:1–2).

One highlight of this short trip was meeting a young couple, Lowell and Mae Ivey, married a year ago, who now live in Greenville, South Carolina, where he is attending Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He was in prison for fifteen years—mostly in solitary confinement, where he was converted. He wanted to thank me for ministering to him in prison through my Heidelberg Catechism sermons. He said that he was born again under an Arminian preacher, but soon felt that something was wrong with Arminianism because he really believed he was saved by grace alone.

Lowell and Mae Ivey

About that time, one of my former elders, Marvin VandenToorn (now deceased), began sending on his own initiative a copy  of one of my Heidelberg Catechism sermons every week to several hundred prisons. I didn’t even know he was doing this until several years later, and often thought that was a rather strange thing to send to prisoners—but happily, never told him that! Well, to make a long story short, this young man got on this mailing list, and there in solitary confinement, he said, “God used these weekly sermons more than anything else, to make me thoroughly Reformed. So, I want to thank God for using you as a major force in my life to bring me to embrace and love the doctrines of sovereign grace.”

After being released from prison, this young man then met his dear wife, Mae, in a Presbyterian church. Mae, whom I have known for some years, is actually the sister-in-law of Rev. Johnny Serafini, pastor of the Kinnelon HRC. Lowell and Mae are very happily married. “The past year has been the best year of my life,” Mae said. I was deeply touched, so I asked them if I could take their picture, and share God’s marvelous ways with you on this blog. They immediately said they would be grateful for an opportunity to glorify God’s grace. So, here they are. Marvelous, sovereign, and humbling are the ways of God! He uses weak means to fulfill His sovereign, gracious will.

Hackney, England (Evangelical Reformed Church ministry, June 29–30, 2012)

Conference at Evangelical Reformed Church, Hackney, England

I was up at 3:45 a.m. on Friday morning to fly to London via Chicago. On the flight over the pond, I was bumped up to a “handicapped” seat. The leg room was great but I got more than I bargained for. I sat next to an elderly woman who couldn’t understand a word of English and panicked half-an-hour before landing.

Between times of caring for her, I caught some shut eye, went over the notes of the eight addresses I am scheduled to give, and managed to finish editing the last chapters for The Beauty and Glory of the Holy Spirit, which I am editing with Joey Pipa. It contains twenty addresses given at last year’s conferences offered by Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The book will go to the printer July 10, D.V., and should be out in mid-August, just in time for our August 23–25 conference this year.

A chauffeur provided by the Evangelical Reformed Church drove me to my hotel. A pleasant fellow, he came to England from Nigeria at age 20. After a bit of probing, he readily admitted that though his wife attended church faithfully, he only attended occasionally. He pleaded tiredness after working long hours on Saturday night. After I took him to Hebrews 10:25 and stressed the importance of gleaning weekly spiritual food under God’s preached Word, he promised me that he’d stop making excuses and just attend. He then told me that he would go home and tell his wife so she could hold him accountable.

I then did a mini-conference for the Evangelical Reformed Church—a great group of 125 people (all black, many hailing from the Caribbean). They were pastored by Rev. Thomas Tuitt from 1957 to 1991. Tuitt was a thoroughly Reformed and able preacher. He often preached for seventy minutes or more. He left behind a library of nearly ten thousand books. The church has been without a pastor since the pastor’s sudden death, and is being led primarily by an elder, Easton Howes. This is the fifth trip I have preached at this church, and the second time that I did a mini-conference for them on a Saturday.

I spoke about what the Puritans can teach us about living the Christian life. My first address dealt with how to live in this world with a pilgrim mentality (Heb. 11:23) and the second about how to live godly in your own home (Ps. 101:1–3).

Young People Drawn to Church through My Last Visit

Afterwards, I fellowshipped close to two hours with the people, especially twenty-two young friends who started attending this church after my last visit there two years ago. What happened was that a young man named Kenhinde was with a buddy on a subway where he saw a sign that I was the speaker for a conference at the Evangelical Reformed church in Hackney, London.

He turned to his friend: “Hey dude, isn’t that guy the dude that preaches at Met Tab every now and then? I wonder why he’s preaching at the all black church.”

“I don’t know, dude,” his friend said. “But why don’t we check it out?”

And they did. They came with a whole row of guys—all from a Pentecostal church. None of them returned to their church. They became convicted by Reformed preaching, and then persuaded other friends, twenty-two in all, to come to this church. Since then, seventeen of them have embraced the Reformed faith and have joined this church, and several more are in process. According to Easton Howes, nearly all of them have become genuinely converted.

These dear young people wanted to meet with me afterwards to fire dozens of questions at me—and fire they did! I had a great time with them, answering questions about spiritual life, the call to the ministry, backsliding, family worship, head-coverings for women in worship, and many more. I spoke with two young men privately about coming to our seminary.

I also spoke with a young woman named Leandra, whom the Lord converted under my ministry at the Aber Conference in Wales several years ago. She is still walking with the Lord, and is two weeks from completing her speech pathology degree. She hopes to work with people with speech impediments in a local hospital. Her goal is twofold: help them speak better and evangelize them!

It was so humbling to be with these zealous young people, because, of course, I realized that everything about their conversion and coming to this church is entirely God’s doing, not mine. What is more humbling than being used by God for His own glory and the well-being of never-dying souls?