Frightened Faces and Mighty Fortresses: Mission in Violent Contexts

Faces, faces, and more urgent faces were lost and haunting. In 1988, El Salvador was suffering from a deadly, drastic civil war with FMLN communist guerrillas.

Daily local papers brimmed with news of bombings, deaths, and mayhem. Tanks and troops marched through the streets often with helicopter gunships flying overhead. Students and I worked with local missionaries and churches with urgency—every day counted for someone’s eternity. East of San Salvador lies the town of San Martin, where our outreach went throughout daylight hours concluding with public gatherings once dark enough for a film.

In this context, I was reminded of Martin Luther’s wrestling with Romans 1:16-17. His anxious conscience over the consequences of personal sin and unrighteousness before the holiness of God nearly drove him mad seeking settled truth. The passage’s meaning exploded into a myriad of implications; chief among them was that simple faith in Christ’s atoning death justifies anyone willing to believe. Although Paul had written it nearly 1500 years before Luther’s day, centuries of church history clouded it with prescribed self-righteous practices so that faith’s effects grew invisible. Reformation of belief followed; the world indeed changed through an activated monk.

We saw a similar reformation among many gathered in San Martin that night. The film finished, then Luther’s testimony seemed fitting in that city, especially where people’s anxieties were similar, borne by the same Church’s traditions and death tolls mounting daily. A leathered, war-weary face showed years of grief, as an 80-year-old man hobbled down the dirt street holding something familiar to me—a tract titled La Gran Pregunta, “the big question,” which explained eternal peace with God. As he departed the viewing, I inquired why he was so tearful and weary. Film over; he took the tract, hoping someone would read it to him. Either he could not see well, or read, or both. I explained the tract.  Spiritually his heart strove for truth. A simple expression of his faith given in prayer changed his urgently lost face to overwhelming peace and joy.

“Tonight I can sleep,” he said, as he sauntered on home a changed man.

Why do those of us with such Good News sometimes shy from dangerous and deadly places and times when people are usually most sensitive to eternal truth? Jesus said, “I am with you always even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Stated while sending believers out to unsettled places, He, a resurrected corpse, promised to go with us. Death will not come one nanosecond before His timing.

Luther’s lyrics said it well in his 1529A.D. hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
… The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.