Being Christian not supposed to be easy

Back when I got my driver’s license Friday nights were for “driving around” with friends. Driving around was not a particularly productive activity, but that was small town life in the seventies. Our parents hoped we didn’t do anything stupid, a low bar we usually achieved.

One particular Friday was in doubt. That was Good Friday, the most somber day of the church year. Traditionally Catholic families didn’t let their children go out that night. But right there in the seventies The World That I Grew Up In was changing. About half my friend’s parents made their kids stay home that night and about half did not. My own folks were hesitant. But they had parented a lot of years, and I was able to take advantage of a leniency that came from that.

It was a small matter. The culture we live in is made up of such small matters. Back then every store closed at noon on Good Friday, and I’m sure the majority of townsfolk made their way to one church or another. (I don’t begrudge businesses today not following that old structure; they have to exist in the world that is.) Remembering the crucifixion of Jesus during those Friday hours was a type of traditional value. Our small Midwest town was a generation behind urban places when it came to dispensing with lots of traditional values.

Keeping holy the Sabbath is another of those values. The ban on liquor sales in Minnesota on Sunday is another “small matter.” That will fall by the wayside in an upcoming legislative session. The arguments for maintaining that historic law are thin. It just “feels right” won’t influence many legislators’ votes.

Good Friday customs and no Sunday liquor are remnants of a Christian influence on society that is fading. They are fading as church attendance declines in the United States. That can be depressing unless you remember that it’s a big world and it’s God’s world and God’s time is not our time. All we can do is get up each day and be the best Christian we can be, and when we fail get up tomorrow and try again.

While Christianity wanes in significance here, it is a different story in much of the world. Christianity is growing across large swaths of Asia and Africa. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, many of our new brethren are living in places where it is dangerous to be a Christian. Occasionally it splashes on to our news, like when the 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya. More often, it doesn’t make it into newspapers or our consciousness.

Recently the journalist John Allen spoke in Redwood Falls. Allen is a reporter for CNN and the Boston Globe. He is the author of several books including, “The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution.” He made a strong case that it’s worse than we think for these Christians. Allen has been to the places where the persecution exists and talked to survivors and relatives of those who didn’t survive.

You can use statistics to illustrate the problem. But real stories of real people make it come alive. Allen told about missionary Sister Leonella Sgorbati. Sister Leonella devoted a 30 year nursing career to serving the poor in Africa. She was shot outside the children’s hospital where she worked in Mogadishu, Somalia. The Muslim man who was her body guard died with her. Mohamed Osman Mohamud tried to shield Sister’s body with his own and took the first bullet. They died together, martyrs of two faiths. Sgorbati’s last words were “Perdono, perdono,” meaning “I forgive, I forgive.”

Allen told other stories, one more heartbreaking than the other. We know some about the Mideast, ironically the birthplace of Christianity. People with ancestry dating back 2,000 years ? Copts, Maronites, Armenians ? find themselves under attack. Many are fleeing, part of the waves of refugees with nowhere to go. Still new Christians sprout in unlikely places. Christianity is the fastest growing religion in Iran. There are three million Christians in Pakistan. Two weeks ago Catholic and Protestant churches there were bombed killing dozens.

We don’t know so well places like India. Christianity is growing especially among the lower class, groups that remain at the bottom of society from the old caste system. When Jesus walked the Earth, he reached out to the most vulnerable. That continues in modern times. As far as sheer volume of Christians being persecuted, India leads.

It is not only Christians who find themselves victimized. Wherever minority groups are oppressed and aggrieved, we absolutely need to care about and pray for them.

Historians will look back on this era and no doubt wonder how Christianity fell into decline in the wealthiest nations in the history of Earth at the same time it was growing in the poorest. I was talking to a friend about that after Allen’s talk, and he wondered if it just got too easy here.

Being Christian, following Jesus, was never meant to be “easy.” We are told to take up a cross. We are told to “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” We are told this world is not our kingdom. None of that sounds comfortable. None of that speaks to a nice house, winter vacations, and having plenty socked away for retirement.

We are in Holy Week. Holy Week is not “easy.” Christians from across the globe walk with Jesus from Jerusalem to Gethsemane to Calvary. Every human emotion and sensation is seared into our hearts along the way. If you let yourself go deep into it, it is crushing and exhausting. When we come to the cross on Good Friday, the one who loves us the most is up there dying in excruciating pain. More than our family and our friends, that man being crucified loves us so much as to take that indescribable burden upon him.

We walk into the valley of death with Jesus. Then, amazingly, Holy Week arrives at Easter morning. There the most unlikely occurrence in history changes everything. We can’t comprehend it but for faith flowing through us. It is the core and essence of our belief. That is true whether we are in Sleepy Eye or Calcutta.