by James W. Reapsome
What do we think about when we think of the safety of missionaries?
Thirty years ago hope began to fade that Chiang Kai-Shek and his nationalist forces would be able to keep China out of the hands o£ Mao-tse Tung and the Communists. Within two years— by 1950— the war was over, Chiang had fled to Formosa, and thousands of missionaries had evacuated the mainland.
The trauma of those days is beyond the recall of many of today’s missionaries. For them, China has always been a communist nation; it has never been a place one would pray about as far as service is concerned.
How different the spirit among students was in the late 1940’s, when after Japan’s surrender it appeared that China would once again be open to missionary work. Many volunteered and actually got into China for a few brief years before the 1950 exodus.
I thought about the feelings of those years when I read Stan Nussbaum’s article about the safety of missionaries. Stan is a first-term missionary in Lesotho. He is there with high hopes, and yet he is not unaware of the danger that surrounds him.
What do we think about when we think of the safety of missionaries? Since those chaotic days in China, many other missionaries have been caught in the vortex of revolutions. Some are alive today and they are safe; others are not alive.
Back in 1952 Bishop Frank Houghton, then general director of the China Inland Mission (now the Overseas Missionary Fellowship) put the whole issue of missionary safety in a perspective that was helpful to me then. With the evacuation of China fresh in his mind, he stated a principle that is valid for both missionaries and their supporting friends and churches. This is what he wrote:
During 1951 it was part of my duty to live in Hong Kong, and receive missionaries emerging from inland China. In my own mission numbers were reduced from 637 to 33 during the year, and arrivals in Hong Kong were the occasion of great rejoicing, for in every case God had worked a miracle in answer to prayer.
As conditions in China became increasingly difficult, and sometimes dangerous, we prayed all the more fervently that exit permits would be granted. But if our prayers stopped there, we should have been thinking on a purely worldly plane.
"Is that all that matters?" the Lord seemed to ask us. "Are you concerned only that your friends should come out safely?"
And I admit that if some had not emerged, if lives had been lost, through malnutrition or violence we could have been tempted to regard it as a tragedy, and to say to ourselves and to others, "the worst has happened."
But would that be the worst? Would it not be far, far worse if their faith failed, if they came short of the promises of God which were available for such a time as this? That would have been tragedy indeed.
In His mercy God heard the prayer less frequently uttered as well as that which was constantly on our lips, and, over and over again, His servants emerged with faith and hope and love unimpaired, and with glowing testimony to the grace of God which kept their hearts at peace when physical emergence from an acutely difficult situation was long delayed and seemed almost impossible. In those whom we love nothing is half so tragic as the eclipse of faith.
I’m repeating his words here because sometimes success in our work and safety in our lives nudge out the priority of faith.
"What is it that I ought to be afraid of?" asked Bishop Houghton. "Only this: the unbelief or disobedience which holds me back from the enjoyment of God’s promises." This, of course, is the thrust of Hebrews 4.
Today’s under-30 generation of new missionaries needs all of the latest missiological counsel it can get; it needs the best of the anthropologists and the linguists; it needs prayer and financial support. Not having lived through the horror of China in the late 1940’s, and having only vague recollections of Zaire in the early 1960’s, this generation also needs to know that the worst tragedy is not being caught in an unsafe country, but being caught in a failure of faith when under the gun.
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