Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Brother Andrew, Mao & the hidden bibles

Here is one more great Brother Andrew story which illustrates how big a task lies ahead for today's church in awakening the generation which grew up behind the Iron Curtain to the worth and value of the scriptures.

After his early forays into Eastern Europe, Andrew had the opportunity of getting into China, then during the Cultural Revolution, about as closed as it was possible to be to western influence, never mind Christian thought. Brother Andrew picks up the story on a bridge to the border crossing:

'At long last the British Customs officer (from the Hong Kong side) told us we could cross the bridge. We went single file, stepping cautiously on the cross ties. There were half a dozen of us Europeans in our group; the others were mostly businessmen from England, France and Canada. At the halfway point the shade of green in which the girders were painted was changed. We were in Communist China.

On this side of the border was a much larger complex of buildings, neat and dull, the monotony broken by a profusion of geraniums planted everywhere. The Customs Inspector was a girl, very young, very trim. With a polite smile she said to me, 'Would you please open your valise?'

My heart beat faster. Inside, without any effort to hide them, I had the supply of Chinese bibles with which I would test China's reaction to the presence of a missionary. How was this young official going to react?

I raised the lid to my case, revealing the stacks of bibles. And as I did, I had my first puzzling experience with the Chinese Communists. The Customs Officer didn't touch a thing in my case. She looked at the bibles for a moment, then raised her eyes. 'Thank you sir. Are you carrying a watch, do you have a camera?' she said with her same ever present smile.

No reaction at all to what she had seen in the case. She was twenty, perhaps twenty five years old. Was it possible that she had never seen a bible? That she had no idea what it was?'

China may have been unaware of, or indifferent to the scriptures back then. Complacent even that the work of crushing Christianity and robbing the bible of it's power had been done. Just a few years later in 1981, in an operation called Project Pearl, one million bibles were delivered to a beach in China in one night. This could be Brother Andrew's finest hour.

Who knows this side of eternity what impact these secret missions have had? All we can say is that today in China, conservative estimates number the true church at well over 100 million believers. Perhaps Brother Andrew was right to be bold, and Mao wrong to be complacent?

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Greenhouse of Atheism

I have enjoyed meeting in the homes of men and women in Romania who knew first hand what it was to be blacklisted from jobs, prevented from getting an education, arrested and beaten for having bibles or even just meeting with other believers.

One man I met in the city of Cluj Napoca recently became a follower of Jesus at a church meeting held in the old Secret Police building. What is more amazing is that this man last saw his father when he was taken into that same building 40 years ago. His father was interrogated for being a Christian and never came out again. Now decades later this avowed atheist, a product of the former Communist regime, gave his life to Christ in the same building his father had given up his life in!

This story is not surprising when we read Brother Andrew's account of life in Romania at that time.I'm posting some more Brother Andrew escapades, realising that most of us have either forgotten these stories, or simply had no idea that such conditions existed in Europe in the recent past:
'Romania was known among Iron Curtain Christians as the 'Greenhouse of atheism'. It was Russia's laboratory in which she tried out anti-religious experiments. Rigid control of the church by the state, economic pressures against believers, sowing of suspicion amongst religious leaders, confiscation of property, restriction of worship services, a prohibition on evangelism. This, I was told, was what I could expect to find in Romania'

Such was the climate of fear and suspicion at the time, Brother Andrew was not even free to speak privately with church leaders. Even in this context, local leaders feared they were being set up or observed in some way. Andrew learned to communicate through the scriptures, pointing to phrases in the bible which expressed his greetings and God's heart for them. It was only once these preliminary exchanges had taken place that the conversation could relax into free and honest dialogue.

Even today, amongst the older believers that I have met out in the towns and villages north of Cluj, this attitude remains not far beneath the surface. A generation really has been so scarred, in the same way that a generation in the West needs to be stirred from complacency by these tales again.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Brother Andrew stories for the 21st Century

I grew up understanding how the world worked. East and West, the fracturing of Europe after the war, the continuing cold war. It was just how it was. What went on behind the Iron Curtain was the subject of spy novels and a mystery to most of us. I avidly read books like Bother Andrew’s ‘God’s Smuggler’ as a boy, amazed at the terrifying adventures and near misses. Never really thinking that things would be any different, that this closed, controlled world of the communist regime would open up.

Of course it did, and it is now with some awe that I find myself working into Romania, amongst believers who lived through these times, whose lives are still shaped so profoundly by having endured the totalitarian regime. Today, I can travel door to door from my house and be in a city in a former Communist state in under 6 hours. Today I can openly visit churches, preach the gospel, carry a bible, all without fear of imprisonment or worse.

It is hard to express just how incredible these changes are in such a relatively short period of time. To remind myself, I have been reading Brother Andrew’s old book again this week, writing of a time when he visited Romania under cover in the early 1960’s in order to smuggle in bibles. Here is a taster to whet your appetite:

‘It took me four hours to cross the Romanian border. When I pulled up to the checkpoint I thought I was in luck, only half a dozen cars in front of me. When forty minutes passed and the first car was still being inspected I assumed they must have something on him to take so long. But when that car finally left and the next inspection took half an hour too I began to worry. Literally everything that family was carrying had to be taken out and spread on the ground. Every car in the line was put through the same routine. The fourth inspection lasted for well over an hour. The guards took the driver inside and kept him there whilst they removed hub caps, took his engine apart, removed seats.

‘Lord what am I going to do?’ I said as there was just one car ahead of me. Any serious inspection will show up these Romanian bibles straight away.
‘Lord, I know that no amount of cleverness on my part can get me through this border search. Dare I ask for a miracle? Let me take some of these bibles out and leave them in the open where they can be seen. Then Lord, I cannot possibly be depending on my own strategies, I will be depending utterly upon you.’

While the last car was going through its chilling inspection, I managed to take several bibles from their hiding places and pile them in the seat beside me.
It was my turn, I put the little VW into low gear and inched up to the officer standing at the left side of the road, handed him my papers and started to get out. But his knee was against the door holding it closed. He looked at my photograph in the passport, scribbled something down, shoved the papers back under my nose, and abruptly waved me on.

Surely thirty seconds had not passed. I started the engine and inched forward. Was I supposed to pull over, out of the way where the car could be taken apart? Was I?....surely I wasn’t….I coasted forward, my foot poised above the brake.
Nothing happened. I looked in the rear view mirror, the guard was waving the next car to a stop, indicating to the driver that he had to get out.
On I drove a few more yards. The guard was having the driver behind me open the hood of his car. And then I was too far away to doubt that indeed I had made it through that incredible check point in the space of thirty seconds.’

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Let's give it up for religion this Lent!

What is it about Lent which makes us come over all medieval? It's the 21st century, and we are post modern charismatics, yet to read some of the trending twitter feeds and blogs this week, you would have to assume that the Reformation never happened!
I've got news for you, the Reformation DID happen. Not only do I no longer need to wear a Tudor codpiece to keep in step with fashions, but I've also got the privilege of living after Luther, Calvin at al.

Luther did all the lent stuff, all of the time - all before the light of the gospel of grace broke over his broken life. His mad monastic lifestyle, through which he was trying to get right with an angry God, nearly drove him insane. But then came a glorious moment of relief whilst reading Paul's letter to the Romans over and over - suddenly it came - the righteous shall live by faith!

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for some quiet reflection in the run up to Easter. I like to do a little Lent reading, I even enjoyed working through Cranmer's book of prayer a couple of years ago. Maybe Lent is a good opportunity to get a grip on some issues of shaky self discipline, to wean yourself off the Xbox or the daily latte? Certainly, Lent is a great way to rediscover some spiritual disciplines, giving yourself to prayer and the word, maybe even to identify in some way with the poor and suffering as we approach Easter.

But Easter is the big clue. Easter was the turning point in history. What are you giving up for Lent? The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ gave Himself up on the cross. His once and for all sacrifice, rendering all our little self sacrifices meaningless. If Lent achieves anything, it must point us to a broken Christ on a cross declaring, 'It is finished' over our attempts at self righteousness.
To try to please God in this way is called religion, and the Easter cross tells us that the ONE thing we CAN give up for Lent is religion!