Recently, Bethany and I had a chance to visit North Korea. North Korea is a highly reclusive country with an oppressive dictator. Among other “undesirables,” the government persecutes Christians. We went as tourists, and we obeyed the rules of the DPRK (Democratic Republic of North Korea) while we were there.
Still, it was a uniquely terrifying experience to read the Bible and pray in the privacy of our hotel room for our morning devotions. An article in the news the week before had recorded the arrest of an American for leaving a bible in his hotel room.
And when we explained to our guide that we’d got married young in part because we were Christians, responding to his questions about Christianity felt nerve wracking. Is he asking because he is curious, or to sound us out to see if we are trouble?
In our comfortable lives as westerners, this is perhaps the darkest places we’ll go (Lord willing) – in the words of David’s Psalm, “a valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4 – “darkest valley” in the NRSV)
>One of the highlights of this valley- the DPRK – was a huge treasure hall (the International Friendship Exhibit.) Double doors of solid brass, weighing six tones each, guard a stunning array of gifts to “the Leader.” In the midst of these gifts are three icons from Russia.
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the main form of Christianity in Russia, icons are “windows into heaven” meant to show the Gospel just as clearly and with as much theological detail as a page of text. And so these three different groups in Russia tried to give the Kims – and the DPRK – the Gospel.
Every day, in this dark dark country which has forbidden the Gospel- hundreds of ordinary North Koreans and tourists are paraded through a room that proclaims the Gospel. One icon commemorates the “image not made by human hands,” a picture of Jesus that supposedly miraculously cured the king of Edessa, Abgar, from a horrible disease and brought him to Christ. Another icon is of the Virgin Mary, a humble woman who models faith in God for us by her assent to participate in God’s plan – and who reminds us of God’s love for the lowly. She holds Jesus, pointing us to her son, who comes to save the world. The last icon is of the Apostle Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who took the Christian faith from the Jews into the darkness of the pagan world around them.
So in the very darkest place – in a beautiful valley, in a treasure house designed to commemorate brutal dictators, a small light shines from three icons. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5) and even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for God is with me; he comforts me. (Psalm 23:4)