I find the stories of Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea and that unlikely convert are still roaming around my mind.
Last Sunday I covered the two chapters in Acts about Stephen in Sunday School - how and why he was chosen, that magnificent speech and then his persecution and horrible death. We spent most of the lesson talking about persecution - and what a blessing it is to live here in freedom and safety.
I could have illustrated the idea of persecution with anecdotes from Afghanistan or North Korea but in the interests of developmental appropriateness I told the story of how a Chinese couple under threat of persecution prayed the Lord's Prayer instead. These two, they sat together, held hands and prayed the Lord's Prayer in their minds, too scared to even whisper the words in case someone heard them, squeezing one another's hand at the beginning of each new line. That way they knew they were praying the words of the prayer together. And we had a go at it ourselves.
But I am always gripped by the last two verses of Stephen's story.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
It is the mark of a life of deeply faithful, prayerful, loving devotion to God that one faces a violent death by praying for the perpetrators of the awful crime. I find myself continuing to think about how it isn't ours to decide upon the extent of the reach of the gospel. Stephen didn't. He prayed that God would forgive those who were so angrily and awfully ending his life. He was praying for their salvation.
And then there is Saul, standing there, giving his approval to Stephen's death. No-one would dare go near Saul with the good news of eternal salvation through Jesus Christ for fear of similar treatment. And yet, Saul's world was turned upside down soon after and then he proceeded to turn the gentile world upside down with the good news of Jesus.
These verses take my breath away. They encourage me to keep digging where the ground is hard. And to keep praying for those doing hard yards in hard places. It's not our decision. And with God, all things are possible.