The name of Robert Jermain Thomas is known to very few people in his native country of Wales, but amongst Christians in Korea he is a hero. He grew up in rural Wales and graduated from London University. He was an excellent linguist learning Russian and taking just 4 months to master Mandarin. He left the independent chapel in Llanover, near Abergavenny, to go as a missionary with the London Mission Society to China. He and his young wife, Caroline, arrived in Shanghai after a 5 month sea voyage. Within a short time he was devastated when his wife suddenly died.
While in China Robert heard of Korea, which was then known as the Hermit Kingdom with no contact with outsiders. He made a secret visit in 1865 taking with him Chinese Bibles. Those who received the Bibles risked death if they were discovered. In 1866 Robert returned to Korea aboard the General Sherman, an American trading ship, taking more Bibles with him. Near Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, the ship ran aground and was set on fire by Korean fire rafts. Standing on the burning deck Robert flung the Bibles into the water hoping they would float ashore and be read by the people. He died at the hands of a Korean solider. He was just 27 years old.
Many would see his death as the waste of a young life in a futile cause, but the reality was very different. Robert’s death made a great impression on many who witnessed it. Some took the Bibles and used them as wallpaper in their houses. Some read the strange words on the walls of their houses and became Christians. Today there are millions of Christians in Korea. Most of the largest evangelical churches in the world today are in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Korean churches have sent thousands of missionaries to many countries around the world to preach the same message Robert Thomas brought to them.
The value of our lives is not to be judged by how long we live, but by what we have lived for. In 1956 a young American missionary, Jim Elliot, and 4 other young missionaries, died at the hands of the Auca Indians in Ecuador. As he set off for Ecuador, knowing the dangers which lay ahead, Jim had said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Recently I heard a very moving interview with a lady, Lawill Concy, who lives in the town of Gulu in Northern Uganda. Her husband is a Christian minister. Lawill spoke about atrocities which she suffered 10 years ago at the hands the “Lord’s Resistance Army”, a vicious rebel group. She, together with 10 other women, was abducted by some LRA rebels. They were taken several miles into the jungle to a rebel camp.
The rebel commanders ordered a young boy, who was about 12 years old, to mutilate the women with a very sharp machete. They were told, “Don’t cry or scream when the knife comes or you will be killed straight away.” The women were then left to struggle back to the town. The women will have to live for the rest of their lives with the serious facial disfigurement inflicted on them.
Lawill explained how she has coped with her traumatic experience. For several years she was afraid to leave her home. If she had come across the man who mutilated her she would have wanted to kill him for what he did to her. But she went on to say, “But now I’m ready to forgive him and the others. Now I have put myself in the hands of God. The Bible says we should forgive one another. So, I’m ready to forgive them all.”
Lawill’s story is very moving and powerful. In an age when hatred and revenge motivate many, a forgiving spirit is striking and beautiful. It reminds us of God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was rejected and condemned by the people, many of whom had experienced his love and kindness. The crowd shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” As he hung dying on the Cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!” One man who was crucified with him experienced God’s forgiveness before he died.
Lawill has experienced the love and grace of Jesus. She knows that God has forgiven her sins because Jesus suffered and died in her place. Her experience of the love of Jesus has made her a truly beautiful person. Through the strength Jesus gives her she is able to forgive men who did such wicked things to her. She knows, too, that the young boy who mutilated her, and carries it on his conscience still, can also find God’s forgiveness through Jesus.
Fear is a universal human experience. For many of us fears lie just beneath the surface. A recent YouGov poll of more than 2000 people found that 31% feared dementia most as they grow older, compared with 27% who were most scared of cancer. Interestingly, however, 18% said they feared death more than anything else. This fear was not about the process of dying, which makes many of us apprehensive, but death itself.
In the Western world we are living longer than ever before, but we still have to face death. The Bible calls death an enemy, the last enemy. Despite the attempts of some to present death as a simple transition from one room to another one in five people are more afraid of death than anything else.
I remember visiting a man who was in hospital recovering from a heart attack. He was in the coronary care unit and I could see the machine which was monitoring his heart rate. It was 48 hours after the heart attack and he was making good progress. He seemed relaxed and comfortable. During the conversation I asked him if the doctors had told him when he would be able to go back to work and was alarmed to see his heart rate suddenly more than double! It was not a helpful question to ask. The heart attack had created understandable anxiety about the future which was just beneath the surface.
Psalm 23 has been a source of spiritual strength to many people. In the Psalm David rejoices in the Lord who is his Shepherd and who cares for him in every situation of life, in death and in heaven. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
A well-known hymn speaks of death as being like the river Jordan which the Israelites had to cross in order to get to Canaan, the Promised Land. It wonderfully expresses the hope that Jesus Christ gives when we are trusting in him. “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside, death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side. Song of praises I will ever give to Thee.”
We are facing some big challenges. Global is changing the pattern of our weather. We are using up the world’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate. HIV/Aids continues to claim many lives around the world. Our large national debts will take many years of pain to reduce. We are still learning how to live alongside each other in our multi-cultural society.
All these problems, and many more, will not be easily or quickly solved. The actions of this generation are creating problems which our children and grandchildren will have to face and try to solve. Many parents and grandparents are apprehensive about the future of their children and grandchildren.
There is, however, a bigger problem for our children which we seldom seem to consider. There is a moral and spiritual vacuum. Do we ever consider the moral and spiritual values we are passing on to our children and grandchildren? As a nation we have swept aside the moral and spiritual principles on which our society has been built. The sanctity of life, the importance of personal moral purity, the sacredness of marriage and the absolute necessity of honesty and integrity have been undermined. The new “progressive” thinking is based on the autonomy of human beings to think and do whatever they like. In reality we are not moving into greater enlightenment but into moral and spiritual darkness. The consequences for future generations are disastrous.
Sadly, in this situation many churches and Christian leaders are failing the people. Their own personal doubts about the Christian faith, their lack, in some cases, of personal morality and integrity, and their desire to be politically correct and popular mean they are incapable of giving clear moral and spiritual teaching. Christian churches generally seem to lack credibility.
It would be good for us all to sit at the feet of Jesus and to learn from him in childlike trust and dependence. He spoke with authority, unlike the religious leaders of his day. His words continue to speak to the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world today. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapters 5 to 7) he said that those who hear his words and put them into practice are like a wise man who built his house on the rock. History has proved that lives built on the teaching of Jesus are able to withstand all the storms that life throws against them.