TWENTY-FIVE years ago, with the revival of the institutional church in China after the Cultural Revolution, some painted a very bleak picture for Christians there: widespread persecution, heresy due to a lack of Bibles and teaching, a cowed official church. But nobody could deny that there was a great hunger for the Word in China.
So smuggling Bibles into China was the rage. Quite a few organisations were doing it. Perhaps inspired by the example of Brother Andrew, “God’s smuggler”, Christians would volunteer to make multiple entries into China, carrying in about 10 kg of Bibles and Christian books each time. You could take the train in from Hong Kong, or you could fly in.
This was despite the fact that there was a Bible printing company in Nanjing – Amity Press — set up by the United Bible Societies in 1987. Initially, it had permission to print a million Bibles a year.
Critics insisted it would never meet demand, that only “registered” Christians would receive these Bibles and house churches would have no access to these Bibles. There were arguments for and against Bible smuggling.
Listening to these arguments then, I thought of the 1986 movie, “The Mission”. Two Jesuits, each in his own way, tried to defend a South American mission against slavers.
Mendoza (played by Robert de Niro) armed the natives, organised a defence force, laid ambushes and mined the bridge. Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) held a Mass.
When the slavers attacked, Mendoza led his men to war while Gabriel led a procession, holding high a cross. In the face of adversity, both Mendoza and Gabriel did the best they could, although they chose different paths.
And I suppose that’s what the Bible smugglers and the printers at Amity Press did — they did the best they could.
China today is vastly different from the gloomy picture painted years ago. There is still persecution. One often hears terrible stories of cults.
But the Gospel is advancing. Today, more than 30 million Bibles have rolled off Amity Press.
In April I walked into two bookshops – one in a theological seminary and another in a church – and purchased a Bible and some books. I also attended service in a church with 10,000 members. Half an hour before service, the main sanctuary was already filled.
The lesson is that no matter how depressing the situation, there is hope in God.
The Bible tells us over and over again to place our hope in God.
For example, in Psalm 31: “Be strong and let your heart take courage, All you who hope in the Lord.”
Again in Lamentations 3, “The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I have hope in Him.”
God works wonders! When nothing goes right, when disaster strikes, when it seems that the whole world is against you, when the future doesn’t seem to be worth living, there is hope in the Lord.
We don’t have to despair. We don’t even have to be pessimistic. Take hope! Things may not work out the way we want them to, but God will make everything work for good. The apostle Paul speaks of our work of faith, labour of love and steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ. It is hope that allows us to work and labour in the darkness, knowing that it is never in vain.
The Christians in China never lost that hope. They set their faces forward and did the best they could. Their brothers and sisters overseas did the best they could, smuggling Bibles, printing Bibles. And God did many wonderful things.
Let me share a story told by Dr Olin Stockwell, a famous Methodist missionary in China. Also the former Pastor at Trinity Methodist Church and head of Trinity Theological College, Dr Stockwell wrote a book, Meditations from a Prison Cell, following his imprisonment in China. In that book, he tells the story of another missionary in China, Gladys Aylward, and of the hope God brings:
“[Gladys] went into a leper colony to minister to lepers’ needs … She preached and served with such enthusiasm that she brought new hope to that whole group of lepers.
“Before she came, the lepers had been quarrelsome and jealous, fighting among themselves. Many of them felt that life was hopeless. She came to tell them of a God who loved them.
“The tone of that colony changed … On the Friday evening before Easter, the local Chinese pastor and I visited the leprosarium to join in the Passion Week service.
“At the close of the service, we administered the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We served bread and wine to men whose bodies were so twisted with the disease that they could not kneel at the altar, and whose hands were so deformed they could hardly receive the elements. But their eyes were alight with new joy and hope.
“God has used this little English Missionary as His Barnabas to them … ”
Barnabas means “son of encouragement”.
Who are you encouraging this week? Who are you bringing the hope of God to? Do you even have that hope in you?
The Rev Chiang Ming Shun is Assistant Pastor at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.