Category Archives: Mission Stories

Historic Rocks Continue to Speak in the Middle East


Historic Rocks Continue to Speak in the Middle East

Luke 19:40  “And he said in answer, I say to you, if these men keep quiet, the very stones will be crying out.”

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I Peter 2:4-5 “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.”

Israel and Egypt are awesome countries to visit.  It’s hard to walk anywhere a prophet, a biblical hero, or our Savior, Jesus Christ hasn’t walked before.  There are stones a plenty in most parts of the world.  But in Israel, they say “every stone tells a story.” My next few posts take the reader on a photo scan of the rocks at several important sites in the Middle East.

1.  The Rocks of the Pyramids

Did Moses, Joseph, or Jesus see the pyramids?  I really care about that question.  I wanted to see what Joseph admired as he served the Pharaoh of Egypt.  I wanted to find a way to understand some of the early experiences of Moses and Jesus.  All three of these historical figures most likely saw one or more of the pyramids.  Of course, they have changed over the course of three thousand years, but the basic view remains the same.

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Chinese and Americans–One People Under God


Mao Zedong was born in Shaoshan village in 1893. This village was just one hour by car from the birthplace of Cumberland Presbyterian missions in China in 1898. Dr. Lawrence Fung and I led a group from the USA to visit Hunan, Shaoshan village, Changsha, and the infamous mountain atomic bomb bunker of Mao in the Water Dripping Cave near Shaoshan in 1998.

The Entrance to Water Dripping Cave

The Entrance to Water Dripping Cave

Our visit to Shaoshan village came in the early years of China opening their doors to foreign tourism so all the displays were simple. Everything looked so dusty. The presentation yelled, “We don’t care about tourism.” It was easy to see that capitalism had not embedded in the Chinese culture. But we saw it raising its head with the building of huge amusement parks that aimed to bring the Disney mentality to China.

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The Childhood Village of Mao Zedong

The village demonstrated how a young boy, born in poverty, could catch a fleeting spark of hope for change that led to the overthrow of the Chinese government. And, how good intentions for the populace would mutate into another form of government that limited the freedom, peace, and joy of the common people.

I was most impressed when we stopped to see the process of the rice harvest. When I saw the sheaths of rice, I became overwhelmed with the immense task of reaching the millions of people in China and other unreached parts of the world. And, the words from Matthew popped into my mind–“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” (Mt. 9:38).

Harvests

The Harvest is Plentiful

Additionally,  on that day trip, we were able, accompanied by Chinese government officials related to the Three-Self Patriotic Church of China, to visit a village church not far from the Water Dripping Cave. We had to walk about a half a mile from a country road through rice paddies to get to the small church perched on a small hill overlooking the fields we had just traversed.

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This was our only opportunities to relate with the poor working class, the farmers, of China. These were the people that had eked out a living for their full life and had no doubt heard about the evil materialism and colonialism of America through the propaganda machine of communist China. There we stood in the wee church singing praises to God and laughing with these warm smiling people that had seen very few foreigners. And, I thought, “Why must there be war?” None of us present, neither Chinese and American, would ever want that. And for a moment we all forgot our separate patriotic loyalties and we were one people under God.

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My First Trip to Mainland China–Is This Too Good to Be True?


Do you remember an individual’s experience that can be documented, but appears too incredible to be true? The following story of God’s protection of a faithful believer caused me to blink several times in amazement. I traveled to Mainland China for the first time in 1991. We visited the Sha Kai Three-Self Patriotic Church near Zongshan, just across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong. This little church was a Cumberland Presbyterian congregation prior to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when all religion was prohibited during the leadership of Mao Zedong. During that decade Sha Kai church was closed and converted to a factory. Following Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese government relaxed their persecution of religion and began to return some church properties to the Three-Self Patriotic Church. Sha Kai was one of the properties recovered and reopened. Gradually, members of the original congregation returned to worship.

Three Self Patriotic Movement Church Pastor

Three Self Patriotic Movement Church Pastor

During our discussions with the pastor of Sha Kai, we secured permission to meet some of the older leaders of the church who had lived through the Japanese invasion of China and the Cultural Revolution. The pastor guided us on a fifteen-minute walk to the home of Elder Song, a writer and the principal leader of the congregation prior to 1966.

Foreigners, in this case, me, were obviously rare in this area of China. People stopped to gaze as we made our way around street vendors and lazy dogs sleeping on the sidewalk. As the streets narrowed and sidewalks disappeared, only bicycles zipped by close to us. Finally, we made a sharp turn onto a dirt path leading past a small bamboo thicket. The path ended on the stoop of a small one-story whitewashed adobe house. Red petunias hung in a planter just above a bronze bell used to signal the arrival of a guest.

A slender lady opened the door and the pastor explained the purpose of our visit. We were led to a small patio that faced out to more bamboo. The lady disappeared momentarily. The house was obviously the last one on the hillside, which dropped quickly toward the valley below.

Our hostess said her husband was aware of our arrival and that he would soon come to speak with us. A younger woman walked by his side as his slippers scraped along the tiled floor. His smile welcomed us without a word. He slowly eased into a wooden straight-back chair in front of us. Only, then, did he speak softly, “I am honored to have you visit my humble home.”

His wife did most of the talking for her husband, sharing that Elder Song was thankful to live to the age of 83. During an hour visit, we expressed our interest in how they survived the years when Christians were harshly persecuted. She related that ill-treatment began quickly when Mao announced his decision to close churches and deny everyone the freedom of religion. Government officials forced their way into both churches and homes to confiscate all Bibles, religious literature, crosses, or visual representations of Christ or the church.

The key leaders of each church received the most severe persecution to strike fear into others. Any efforts to violate the edicts of the government resulted in beatings and imprisonment. The severe actions intended to cleanse the society of any Western influence or loyalties that interfered with commitments to Communist dogma. The strongest leaders of churches were selected for reorientation camps. Elder Song was one scheduled for such a penalty. The camps included months of brainwashing and oppressive labor. However, just a few days prior to his departure, a stroke paralyzed him from the neck down. He was unable to leave his bed for more than a decade, requiring the full-time care of his wife. He remained faithful through all of those years, teaching and witnessing in the privacy of his home. Following the death of Mao and the government’s increased leniency to religion, Elder Song recovered the use of his body and his health was largely restored.

I often remember this story when my life or the life of those I love appears overwhelming. A believer needs never to rule out the possibility of a miracle even when it arrives dressed in a way we might not expect or desire. God confirms his promise to walk side-by-side with us even through the valley of the shadow of death. We sometimes witness the unthinkable when God is involved—I felt the impossible became tangible in the testimony of Elder Song.

My First View of Mainland China


I am one of the fortunate people who has visited China on numerous occasions. And, ever trip taught me more about the unfathomable differences and similarities between Americans and Chinese. The common people of all lands, even those enslaved by years of a false hostile ideology or those that believe that their country is the only one on earth, immediately with little reluctance, are overjoyed to meet people from another country when in a non-hostile environment.

I am thinking about my many trips to China. I have to drift back to 1980 when I caught my first glimpse of mainland China. That resulted from an unexpected gift from a friend. The date was early 1980. I was in Tennessee for a one-year furlough from missionary service in Colombia, South America. The phone rang and Dr. Marie Blackwell quickly asked me whether I was going to Hong Kong in May to attend the organization of Hong Kong Presbytery

Dr. Maree Blackwell

Dr. Maree Blackwell

My response was simple…”No, I will not be able to attend.” Her next question was as simple, “Why not?”

I answered without thinking, “That is very expensive.”

She said, “I think you should represent the work in Colombia. Would you go if I pay your way?”

I was in Hong Kong on May 4th, 1980 for the organization of the presbytery. Those were the years while Hong Kong was still a British Colony. But we did take time during the visit to travel north to the border between Hong Kong and Mainland China. I peered cautiously from Hong Kong into mainland China. This was just four years after the death of Mao Zedong.

From 1966 to 1976 during the Cultural Revolution, the expression of religious life in China was effectively banned, including even the TSPM. The growth of the Chinese house church movement during this period was a result of all Chinese Christian worship being driven underground for fear of persecution. To counter this growing trend of “unregistered meetings”, in 1979 the government officially restored the TSPM after thirteen years of non-existence, and in 1980 the Chinese Christian Council was formed.

Little did I know I would one day travel widely around China to visit sites of interest in the ministry of the Christian Church.

The Organization of Hong Kong Presbytery

The Organization of Hong Kong Presbytery

 

A Preacher Gets Listeners in an Unusual Place


I was in Lisbon, Portugal in April and saw a very interesting mosaic in a church. It pictured St. Antony preaching to a receptive multitude of fish. The following is the story behind the tile presentation.

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From “The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi,” 1476


Christ, the blessed one, was pleased to show forth the great sanctity of his most faithful servant St Anthony, and how men ought devoutly to listen to his preaching, be means of creatures without reason. On one occasion, amongst others, he made use of fish to reprove the folly of faithless heretics: even as we read in the Old Testament that in ancient times he reproved the ignorance of Balaam by the mouth of an ass.

St Anthony being at one time at Rimini, where there were a great number of heretics, and wishing to lead them by the light of faith into the way of truth, preached to them for several days and reasoned with them on the faith of Christ and on the Holy Scriptures. They not only resisted his words but were hardened and obstinate, refusing to listen to him.

At last St Anthony, inspired by God, went down to the sea-shore, where the river runs into the sea, and having placed himself on a bank between the river and the sea, he began to speak to the fishes as if the Lord had sent him to preach to them, and said: “Listen to the word of God, O ye fishes of the sea and of the river, seeing that the faithless heretics refuse to do so.”

No sooner had he spoken these words than suddenly so great a multitude of fishes, both small and great, approached the bank on which he stood, that never before had so many been seen in the sea or the river. All kept their heads out of the water, and seemed to be looking attentively on St Anthony’s face; all were ranged in perfect order and most peacefully, the smaller ones in front near the bank, after them came those a little bigger, and last of all, were the water was deeper, the largest.

When they had placed themselves in this order, St Anthony began to preach to them most solemnly, saying: “My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator, who has given you so noble an element for your dwelling; for you have at your choice both sweet water and salt; you have many places of refuge from the tempest; you have likewise a pure and transparent element for your nourishment. God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when he made you, ordered you to increase and multiply, and gave you his blessing. In the universal deluge, all other creatures perished; you alone did God preserve from all harm. He has given you fins to enable you to go where you will. To you was it granted, according to the commandment of God, to keep the prophet Jonas, and after three days to throw him safe and sound on dry land.

At these words the fish began to open their mouths, and bow their heads, endeavouring as much as was in their power to express their reverence and show forth their praise.

St Anthony, seeing the reverence of the fish towards their Creator, rejoiced greatly in spirit, and said with a loud voice: “Blessed be the eternal God; for the fishes of the sea honour him more than men without faith, and animals without reason listen to his word with greater attention than sinful heretics.”

And whilst St Anthony was preaching, the number of fishes increased, and none of them left the place that he had chosen. And the people of the city hearing of the miracle made haste to go and witness it. With them also came the heretics of whom we have spoken above, who, seeing so wonderful and manifest a miracle, were touched in their hearts; and threw themselves at the feet of St Anthony to hear his words. The saint then began to expound to them the Catholic faith. He preached so eloquently, that all those heretics were converted, and returned to the true faith of Christ; the faithful also were filled with joy, and greatly comforted, being strengthened in the faith.

After this St Anthony sent away the fishes, with the blessing of God; and they all departed, rejoicing as they went, and the people returned to the city. But St Anthony remained at Rimini for several days, preaching and reaping much spiritual fruit in the souls of his hearers.

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A Tribute to Colombians–Giving the Credit to Whom It Belongs


God continues to hear the prayers that God will send people to help reap the harvest of souls around the globe. Part of God’s plan involves the movement of the Gospel from one nation to another via missionaries. We can assume that will continue until the second coming. We have come full circle in some countries and are witnessing a new phenomenon in terms of missionary deployment. Nations that were originally the senders, like the United States, are now the recipients of missionaries. The strength of a Christian presence can easily shrink in one or two generations as North Americans and Europeans have witnessed.

Colombian Missionaries and their family members.

Colombian Missionaries and their family members.

Those that hear and respond to the call to work in another culture are the fortunate ones. It is hard to express the honor of such a calling. I can’t say that missionaries are special, but they are privileged. They get to board the ships or airplanes to lands not so different from those the apostle Paul visited. It is their joy to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Globalization has changed so much of the mystic of traveling to a new culture, but the reality of learning and serving in a new culture remains the same. It actually like living two lives.

The missionary life has its ups and downs, its joys and its sorrows. They have the privilege of sharing in a much larger worldview than knowing only one culture. Just learning one new language opens the doors to more people to whom to witness and form friendships.

Throughout history missionaries have received so much credit for what has happened in taking the Gospel around the world. No doubt they have contributed significantly to the growth of the Kingdom of God. But this is only part of the story. Obviously it is God that elevates preaching and witnessing to the event of salvation.

More than 250 people have now returned from a very significant week in Colombia, South America. It is the second time that General Assembly has met outside the United States. This visit commemorated the 90th anniversary of Cumberland Presbyterian ministry in one of the beautiful countries of the world. Those people fortunate enough to visit Colombia witnessed a diversity of successful evangelical efforts. They sat beside cute impoverished children receiving a hot meal in a hot lunch program. They visited a host of Colombians in the Cumberland Presbyterian senior living center—a nursing home funded by our denomination. They worshiped in one or another of our denominational churches spread over the length and breadth of western Colombia. No doubt they were blessed by what they saw and felt.

One evening was set aside for the missionaries that have served during the 90-year history of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Colombia to be recognized. It was a joy to remember the joys of the past.

The laity and ministers of the two Colombian presbyteries, Cauca Valley and Andes, reach more than 1,200 people for Christ every year. No one can number the thousands of people that Colombian nationals have led to Jesus; their converts are like the sands of the sea. Their disciples are now living on every continent and nearly every country of the world. So in this way we can say that our denomination has carried the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. We only lack a Cumberland Presbyterian astronaut for the next step into the vast creation of God.

Those of us fortunate enough to have served as missionaries want to express our deepest thanks for everything that pastors and laity have done for each of us. We do not take it lightly that while missionaries often lived in larger houses with more things, drove cars while nationals rode buses or walked, and always worked for a significantly higher salary, our international colleagues loved us as their equal. These brothers and sisters taught us much more than we taught them. We could not have achieved much without their love and hard work. They have walked side-by-side with us as we have shared the Good News and expressed the compassion and love of Christ. What a joy to return to see so many of the people that have enriched our lives.

Missionaries thank God for the privilege to live in countries other than our own. And quite often, we bow in prayer to applaud the courage, love, service, faith, and success of our Colombian brothers and sisters.

“Should You Go or Shouldn’t You?”


COLOMBIA 1982

The long distance call from the USA was crackling from the bad connection so common in the 1980’s, with repetition I finally got the importance of the conversation.  Mr. Nicks, a retiree from Tennessee, was inquiring about the advisability of spending $1,500 for expenses to do carpenter work at a food distribution site for children in Cali, Colombia, South America where I served as a missionary. I answered quickly, “Please come!  I will send you some details by mail.”

Considerable discussion exists about the value of mission work trips.  People ask, “Should I spend the money for plane tickets and other expenses to volunteer service in a country other than my own or should I write a check for a given project and allow those on the field to hire a national worker to do the same work I would do as a volunteer?  It is a complex question.  The answer to which is not as obvious as one might think!  Actually, as with so many things, both options are valid.

Hot Lunch Program

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that my friend would have spent $1,500 for a mission trip to Colombia, South America.  In those days that same money would have funded 6,000 meals in one of the hot lunch centers.  That translated into a hot meal a day for a year for sixteen children.  On the surface it is obvious the man would have done well to have stayed home and sent his money.  He didn’t!

Instead, he worked from daylight to dark for twelve days building tables and chairs for one of the new centers still lacking furniture.  Again, couldn’t the ten tables and sixty chairs been built by a Colombian providing that person with a job?  On the surface, the man should have stayed in the USA and sent his money.  He didn’t.

Let’s look at the rest of the story as it developed over the next thirty years.  We will never know if Mr. Nicks would have actually sent the full $1,500 plus the money he spent on materials once he arrived.  In most cases it is easier to raise money for mission volunteers than it is for the assigned project. Unpredictable spiritual experiences occur when people travel outside their comfort zones away from family and friends.  Many of their defense mechanisms tumble and they become vulnerable to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  When this happens, people hear God’s call on their life and make decisions that carry the potential to change their lives forever.  Such was the case of Mr. Nicks.

Volunteer on mission trips face a possibility they will come face to face with the reality that the world is bigger than their own country.  And, such a view causes people to begin to pray, “God bless the world, and not God bless my country,”  or, “Give them their daily bread, and not give us our daily bread.”  People on mission trips expand their worldview so the globe becomes more than a sphere with names written on it.  Specific people literally walk on the face of every globe. No one can estimate or underestimate the number of lifetime of friendships formed between people of different countries during effectively coordinated mission trips.  One twenty-four hour home visit may lead to a lifetime of endless enrichment for the family units involved.

In the case of Mr. Richard Nicks, he returned to his home church of less than 100 people in Tennessee and began to receive a monthly Sunday school offering for hot lunches for the children in Colombia.  Over the course of the next 25 years he raised more than $65,000.  Upon his death his son perpetuates his love for the children by establishing endowment that has grown to more than $75,000, hence providing an annual distribution for the program.

Should you go or shouldn’t you go?