Article 7 - The Question I Couldn't Answer Print
Thursday, 16 April 2009

The camera rolled, the programme interviewer awaited my reply. My mind raced and I stammered a response which she generously accepted, though I had not answered the question. Meanwhile I aged a hundred years.

Six re-works of a hand-written manuscript and I am still attempting to complete my response as the remaining article of this series. To finalise this I will present it for discussion among our Korean missionary students.

As a dedicated fan of Korean mission, I have devoted my later years to the success of its career missionaries. This is a profoundly satisfying experience, but one where thanksgiving and intense pain share the same stage. Korean missionaries are among the best our world is currently producing and, occasionally, the very worst! For our discussion we have exchanged the classroom for one of my favourite prayer sites . . . on a mountainside. And the question that has caused me so much heart-searching: “What advice would you like to give to Korean mission?”

1.   Recognise: The Priority of Solitary Prayer

Here in South Wales, it is as if the land has sought to keep alive the memory of its people's search for spiritual significance, however diversely this has been expressed. The hills, valleys, and coasts are like a series of overlaid maps that chart man's quest for the answer to his alienation; from Neolithic monuments that pre-date the earliest of Egypt's pyramids, through the monasteries of the Middle Ages, to remote chapels only reached on horseback along timeless trails.

We take a steep path through a pine forest where streams foam through gorges they have engraved in the rocks. Sunlight filters through the foliage, casting intricate patterns on the generations of bluebells that thrive in the forest glade. Today I am looking for a larger pattern in the landscape that will link us with the past. We reach a clearing that, in the Welsh language, is called 'Garreglwyd' – the Grey Rock. It is the site of an iron-age fortress which was inhabited five hundred years before Christ appeared in Bethlehem. It remained occupied until its Celtic defenders found that they were no match for the battle-hardened Roman soldiers who attacked it at about the same time as other Roman troops attacked Jerusalem. We pass through the defensive earth banks and ditches into the main fort arena. My colleagues are overwhelmed by the view over open countryside, forest and sea. Flames of yellow flower dance on a thousand gorse bushes. The limestone rocks give back the sunshine's warmth and we sit comfortably in a circle where ancient Celtic warriors sat and which has become a sanctuary for my personal prayer.

We have entered a story that has already begun. We cannot change what human life has written, but as we take our place in it, we can influence the outcome of our chapter.

Wonder continues to grow as our sense of time expands. Above us, crowning the mountain, is a bronze age fort, perhaps two and a half thousand years older. Across the estuary before us, where the defences of yet another iron age fort sculpture the horizon, are caves settled by our ancestors. Among the bones of exotic extinct animals in the famous Paviland Cave lay a skeleton of a young man of twenty-eight thousand years ago. Nearby is yet another cave used by their progenitors and ours, the hunter-gatherers who lived a staggering three-hundred thousand years before us.

The discipler's role is to demonstrate rather than to lecture and I would like my younger colleagues to appreciate the value of periods of prayerful solitude when they can enter the flow of ancient prayer and gather up the past with the present into the future. Then, perhaps for the first time, they will begin to realise who they are and where they have come from.

We are all products of the prayer, faith and dreams of the past . . . even the vast time-scale of the pre-Christian past. If the mindset of future missionaries is far too narrow, they will be like small evangelical islands in a vast ocean of history. They must recognise faith among today's non-Christian people like the Celts, whose descriptions of timeless faith were at the core of their belonging to God.

2.   Recognise:

Your hour of opportunity From a Western perspective, the civil war brought Korea into the focus of prayer and indirectly helped to alert Korean Believers to their place in world missionary purpose.

From this perspective, Luke's account of John the Baptist closely models Korea's role on the wide stage. While the big names of Europe, America, Russia and China headlined world news, the Word of God came to Korea, the battlefield on which East and West wrestled for power. It was unknown John who, with minimal lifestyle and dress, using no more than Jordan's river, ignored confused religious forms and accurately identified Jesus Christ. Korea rediscovered Christ and, through its missionaries, re-introduced Him to the waiting world.

On the mountain, where we are enjoying each other's company, we are encapsulated in a time frame of a five thousand year period of history. To visualise the likely length of Korea's opportunity for continuing the progress of world evangelisation, we can think of a parenthesis within the five thousand year story. This will help our awareness of the time constraints we work within.

Five thousand years can be viewed at one glance by looking at a simple five metre measuring tape where one year corresponds to one millimetre. The rise and decline of the church in various nations happens with surprising rapidity. The flame of the Welsh Revival, which eventually affected Korea, burned brightly for just six months, though the smouldering embers lasted a little longer. That would measure just half of one millimetre. In contrast, the Wesleyan Revival is said to have lasted one hundred years, just ten centimetres on the scale.

If Korea's opportunity similarly lasts a hundred years, it will not consistently produce the same number of missionaries. The initial thirty-three millimetres will be a flame of daring youthful exuberance when most of the pioneering will begin. The second thirty-three will be a time of consolidation, but denominational and personal interests will trouble many countries. The last thirty-three are likely to be a period of decline in the mother church with the missionary resource slowly drying up. Undoubtedly waves of Korean missionaries are on the leading edge of the rising tides that wash our shores and perhaps this is their finest hour. However, another wave is forming in the deep and will in its time carry the tide further in, for mainland China already have their missionary teams exploring some of the most difficult areas of the world and supplying them with Bibles. Korea, this is your day . . . be aware of the time in which we live!

3.   Recognise: Faith in its many disguises

It is humbling to think that the rocks are older than we are. They echoed the voices of the Celts as they do ours. Little has changed. It is as if the five thousand years between us has not happened. The Atlantic winds, salted with miles of open ocean, blow on us as they did on them. From Adam's day to ours, the slumbering eternity in each human heart waits to be awakened and clothed in our form and action. “How can this happen?” someone asked Jesus. We gasp at the profundity of His simple answer. “The wind blows,” He said. “Where it comes from and where it goes to, may be lost in mystery, but we do know when it touches us.”

It is also staggering to realise that our Bible is largely an account of the emergence of faith among pre-Christian people and the greatest miracles ever recorded are are attributed to the earliest of them.

I ask the group to describe ways in which they think the pre-Christian Celtic people, without Bible or modern religious language, may have spoken of their faith and shared it with others. I have listed their answers:
By stories from nature that illustrate spiritual truth
By sharing experience of hearing God
By praying for each other
By miracles
By love, to the point of dying for others

Together we realise that we have described Jesus, how he lived and taught, even though we are reconstructing conversations that may have taken place two thousand years before his birth. He was already present on earth in the faith of Celtic people.

For some years I have befriended men of my own age who are leaders in other forms of religion, and searched for the beginnings of faith in them that I might build on. Among the most astonishing surprises was my meeting with a hooded, black-robed, sandalled figure who, to Western eyes, appeared as if he belonged to another millennium. He was an Orthodox Coptic monk. I did not learn his real name nor understand his Arabic. After many years of prayer for him, I experienced a revival unfold itself around him. Within three months, twenty thousand had found Christ, some through merely touching his robe. He led it, not from a platform, but from his tiny prayer room. Because this was in a Middle Eastern country with an active Islamic police force, meetings were held nightly at different locations, never in a church. There was standing room only and they continued until dawn the following day. This revival that displayed so much of the character of the Welsh Revival, satisfied my search for reality and set my perspective forever.

The sincere missionary has always worked on the assumption that God is already at work in the people he is called to. His priority is to discover where faith lies and build on it. It is likely that he will make his first disciples this way or else, as happened to me, in the experience of revival, I became his disciple.

4.   Recognise: The Alternative Mission

Tatuh was a tall, lean African, elegant in flowing national dress. Not a stage costume worn airily, it bore signs of humble origins, alive with silent tales of the many hands guiding it through washing and repairs. He spoke of working under the strain of civil war and political mayhem on the violent West African coast. With sharp insight he described the advance of the Kingdom of God as viewed from the dark spiritual world. He told how every planned move was met by a counter move. Powerful illustrations illuminated his bold theology. Tatuh named this reaction from the world of unclean spirit 'The Alternative Mission', so I borrow his title. Tatuh's wisdom provided a framework that helped me understand some of the unaccountable events in my own work.

A quotation from a letter to a Korean missionary read: 'Please leave our town and our country, return to Korea and place yourself and your work under godly leadership.'

With Korea's rise to dominance in the mission scene, it is inevitable that they will project both the strengths and weaknesses of the Korean church onto the world. In many instances, against sound missionary practice, the search for personal aggrandisement, denominational prestige and wider personal religious wars are fought in the countries they are meant to serve. So, in Tatuh's words, 'Alternative Mission' is created.

On China's north-western frontier, where winds from the burning plains of the Taklamakan Desert sweep over the heights of the Tianshan mountains, local underground church leaders asked us to meet them. The private back room of a tea house seemed an ideal place, until two men pushed in, smoked heavily and listened. The leaders left whispering “Secret Police.” Days passed, then we met again. “Please ask the Koreans not to come to our town,” they implored. “Why?” “They are an embarrassment. They come with much affluence. They can be very possessive, cause division and quarrel with each other. When the work proves too hard, they leave. The police monitor all their movements and we have much difficulty.”

I honoured my Chinese friends by making their request known. Later that summer, an email from one of my Korean co-workers read, 'Hundreds of Koreans have poured into the town. The worst fears of the Chinese were realised.'

Wales opens a warm heart to Koreans who are affectionately thought of as grandchildren of the Welsh Revival. I see their training here as a period where they reconnect into the unfinished Purpose for which the Revival was a window. That Purpose, which is as old as man himself, was condensed to few words by Jesus. “Disciple all nations.” Sadly, Tatuh's words have proved true for Wales too. 'Alternative Mission' arrived and has caused its confusion. A Korean pastor from a neighbouring city who wanted to bless the churches in Wales, confided in me that, because of this, some local churches were now no longer open to him. In my own town, warmed by Korean smile, some local people are angry by the division it has caused. It has meant suffering for Korean and Welsh alike. A successful Korean missionary experiencing the pain of this division, wrote in her newsletter. “When lies and injustice come in, jealousy, fighting and evil things take place.” Spiritual pride has no regard for the Apostolic principle - 'Go and die for the people you are meant to serve.'

In contrast, daily I feel bathed in the affection of Korean colleagues whose passion to serve in the purity of their love for Him is a beautiful expression of this principle. With them I want to aim for the highest, a 'front-line mission force', that with honour helps lead a world of nations steadily towards their destiny. It is my privilege to walk forward together and to serve them.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 16 April 2009 )
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