Monday, June 30, 2008

Escape from Iraq - Part 1

by S. Joseph Kidder

One day during the summer of the year 1973, I was spit on, humiliated, beaten almost to death, and thrown out into the street. However, that day—that experience—turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. I am, in fact, literally alive today because of it.

I come from the biblical city of Nineveh, which is located in Iraq now. At the heart of the downtown area is the grave of Jonah. All the major roads lead to it or go around it, reminding all the people to repent and turn to the mighty God who can give them repentance and forgiveness.

I was born in a very religious Christian home. My parents belonged to the Christian Orthodox Church, which is very similar to the Catholic Church. My mother read the Bible to me daily, and she took me to church every week. I lived a very happy and contented life. But things started to change in my life as a result of one boring afternoon.

On a Friday afternoon in the summer of 1969, my cousin came to spend the afternoon with me. We played backgammon (a favorite pastime in Iraq) for several hours. We played till we got bored. Then we decided to take a walk. We walked and walked till, by accident, or should I say by divine providence, we came to the Adventist Church. There was a sign advertising a movie about the life of Jesus Christ. We were bored—we didn’t have anything to do—so we went inside to watch the movie, and that was the beginning of a series of troubles and problems which lasted for several years.

After the movie the pastor gave a devotional message about watchfulness. He said that Christ took His disciples to Gethsemane to stay up and pray with Him. But they slept. What about us? Are we awake with Jesus or are we sleeping?

The message touched my heart so much that I went to the pastor and asked him if he would be willing to study the Bible with me. That Bible study lasted for over four years. I loved everything I learned till we came to a subject that I really hated. I hated it so much that I despised the day I had gone to the Adventist church.

I was confronted with a strange issue—the Sabbath. Which day is the Sabbath? All my life I had thought that Sunday was the Lord’s day, the Sabbath day. But through my contact and study with the SDA pastor, I learned that Saturday is the Lord’s day, according to the Bible. That confused me and drove me to the Bible to know the truth. It drove me to my knees to pray and ask God to show me the truth.

I struggled to know the truth. I prayed. I cried. I asked God day and night to help me, to show me the right way. And I kept struggling, studying, and praying for two years.

Then when I was convinced that—according to the Bible, according to the New Testament and the example of Jesus Christ—Saturday is the Lord’s day, the Sabbath, I was faced with the higher struggle: the struggle to obey God and keep His day holy.

For the next two years I thought of the problems I would face if I took my stand to keep the Sabbath day holy and join the SDA church. I thought of my family and my friends. I knew I would lose them if I started keeping the Sabbath and practicing my newfound faith.

Families in the Middle East are very close. Changing your faith is, in essence, denying your family and going against them and, thus, you deserve to be disowned by them. You become a source of shame for them. I also thought of my school and my education and my job. I would lose all of them because in that country the day off is Friday and everyone has to work the rest of the week, including Saturday and Sunday.

I thought of the problems I would face in the army, like Sabbath keeping, bearing weapons, fighting, and so on. I was afraid because wars in the Middle East start anytime, anywhere.

When I thought about these problems, I started to rationalize and say to myself, “What difference does it make to keep the Sabbath? Every day is the Sabbath day; you just choose one day and the Lord will understand. What difference does it make?”

But the Holy Spirit was reminding me that God kept the Sabbath; it is part of the Ten Commandments; Jesus kept the Sabbath; the apostles and disciples kept it. Shouldn’t we keep it? It must be important. Certainly God wants us to keep it.

Obedience to the Lord is extremely important. You could argue: what difference did it make when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden tree and were kicked out of Paradise? The difference is obedience and loyalty to God and doing what is right. I was thinking that it couldn’t be that all those people who do not keep Saturday holy are wrong. How about all of those other churches? Could one billion people be wrong? But, in reality, what makes things right or wrong is not the majority, religious leaders, or politicians, but Jesus Christ.

I remember that during that time I went and visited a pastor from every church and denomination and asked them about the Sabbath day. I came out of those meetings more convinced that the Sabbath is God’s holy and special day and that in order to honor God we must keep it holy. This struggle was with me for several years.

When I graduated from high school, I received a scholarship that entitled me to four years of free college education. This scholarship was another problem for me. It was a great temptation to keep me away from making my decision. Education was very important there, and it was my opportunity to live a happy, wonderful life.

My first year at the university was one of the hardest years of my life. I was having a tremendous struggle. I was caught between Christ on one side and the devil on the other. The devil was making the world seem too good to leave.

But the Holy Spirit was telling me about Jesus, who is too good to ignore. The Holy Spirit was telling me that Jesus is worth everything.[SWB1] Men and women left everything: family, friends, relatives, and jobs, and followed Him. They lived and died for Him.

It was the end of the school year, and final exams were coming up in a few weeks when my mother asked me to go to church with her. I came up with every excuse I could think of, but failed. So, in order to make my mother happy, I went with her to the Orthodox church. The occasion was the celebration of the ascension of Jesus into heaven. In the Orthodox church, every Sunday is devoted to one aspect of the life of Jesus or His teaching.

The pastor stood up in front of the large crowd gathered to celebrate the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and said, “My heart is troubled. Something happened to me last night that never happened to me before. The Lord awakened me last night and gave me another message for you. The new message is on martyrdom.”

For someone who had not been to church for a while, the last subject I wanted to hear about was martyrdom. I wanted to hear about faith or hope or positive thinking, not martyrdom. But that sermon was the defining moment in my life. In fact, that sermon changed my life.

The bishop talked about the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf at the cross. How the King of the whole universe stepped down and became a Man and lived and suffered and died for our sake. The question is: shouldn’t we do the same?[SWB2] God is calling us to follow the example of Jesus, forsake all, and follow Him.

Then the bishop opened the Scriptures and read the following verse from Matthew 19:

Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Matt 19:27-30, KJV)

He closed the Bible and very passionately started to talk about the disciples and the apostles and the early Christians who, for the sake of Jesus, left their homes, position, and families and followed Jesus. For Jesus’ sake they gave their lives and suffered hardship and endured persecution. Jesus was first and last and everything to them. They are our example.

The point is, if Jesus gave up everything for us, even His life, shouldn’t we do the same? If the disciples gave their lives to Him, shouldn’t we follow their example and give up everything and follow Jesus?

A strange feeling came upon me. My heart was strangely warmed. I felt the presence of God. I was touched by the Holy Spirit. I heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me, telling me that following Jesus was worth it. There would be persecution, there would be problems, but Jesus with His love would always be with us.

At that moment God brought all the peace in the world to my heart. He brought His peace to me, and I decided to follow Him all the way. I turned to my mother and said to her, “You go home, and I will see you later.” I walked from the Orthodox church to the home of the Seventh-day Adventist pastor and asked to be baptized that afternoon. I told him I was ready to bear the cross and follow Jesus all the way. I told him about my fears of losing my family—my brothers, my father, my mother—and my friends. But then I told him about the assurance the Lord gave me that day that He would be my family, my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, and my friends. He was worth it. I had decided to follow Him all the way.

The following Sabbath was the hardest Sabbath in my life. I had several final exams. I woke up at 5 a.m. and had a tremendous struggle. The devil was saying to me, “Just go and take the exams. Just one more Sabbath and you have the whole year under your belt. The Lord will understand. After all, what difference does it make to break another Sabbath?”

But the Lord was saying, “Follow Me, make Me number one in your life.” This struggle lasted from five to eleven-thirty. And it was about that time when the Lord won out. They gave up on me at the church. But I did show up at about noon and made my public commitment to follow Jesus. I was baptized in the name of Jesus and started to keep my first Sabbath that same day.

However, immediately after that, a flood of problems fell on me. First, there were those three exams for me on that Sabbath day and because of that, I lost my first year in the university. Iraq operates on the English system of education, which states that failing two or more subjects or not taking two or more exams means failing the whole year and repeating it.

Consequently, for the same reason I lost my second year in the university. Failing the two years meant the loss of the scholarship I had earned, which was supposed to cover my four years of college education.

When my father saw what was happening, he thought I was crazy. He thought I was out of my mind or under some kind of spell. He became very angry and called all my relatives on the phone and asked them to come to our house. The house was completely full of at least 100 persons crammed into our living room, a place maybe 15’ by 18’.

In the Middle East we have big families. I have seven uncles on my father’s side. Four of them have six children or more, and it is about the same on my mother’s side. It was impossible to get all those people together for a family reunion. But when they heard I was taking the Bible seriously and had started to keep the Sabbath as Jesus commanded, they all came to discourage me and talk me out of it.

The house was full. Everybody was talking to me at the same time. I was confused and under severe tension. Finally, when my dad thought he was not getting anywhere with me, he took off his shoes and threw them on me and spit on me (a sign of the ultimate disgrace in the Middle East). When one of my cousins saw this happening, he and one of my brothers lifted me up by the shoulders and ears and hair and started to beat on me. Soon many more joined them, beating on me and spitting on me from all directions. When I was about to go unconscious, bleeding and hurting, they threw me out into the street. When I landed on the pavement, I heard my dad saying, “I don’t want to see you again until you change your mind and forget about the craziness you are in.” Then I went unconscious for a while.

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