July 21, 2019
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-6
II Corinthians 12:1-10
Sermon by Stewart G. Bridgman
“VISIONS OF THE CROSS”
We are in a time in the USA when we all struggle for a vision for the church. We struggle to see how God’s hand is at work following the terrorist attacks of September 11. We seek to fulfill our partnership with the church in Guatemala. Our nation is divided politically and in many other ways. Violence and racial discrimination are on the rise. It seems that the older I get the more chaos we face. I hunger for a vision of where God is leading us next. Our church seeks a pastor and a vision of how to be in mission to a world growing in need. Our whole denomination continually seeks a vision for our being.
Our Scripture passages all deal with the importance of visions in our holy history. We have Moses and the burning bush; Ezekiel when there were conflicting visions and a hunger for a real vision; Cleopas and his friend telling of the vision of the women that first Easter, then actually recognizing the Risen Lord; and finally Paul rejoicing in his visions that showed the power of God over his weaknesses. These visions whet our appetite for a vision from God to interpret what we face in life today.
My father had a special vision in 1940. He and my mother had been missionaries in China since 1920.
His broader vision was evangelism in that part of north Kiangsu Province more commonly known as Su-bei. Their career was in the city of Yancheng, which translates as Salt City. It was and remains one of the most populated and poorest areas of China. My father went by boat on the massive canal system of that part of China from one preaching point to another. He had a team of evangelists, Bible teachers, boatmen and a cook to help with this evangelistic vision.
In 1940 it looked as if 20 years of effort were going to fail. The armies of Japan were advancing. Then my father became very ill on one of his trips, while separated from our family, and away from proper medical care.
In his fever, he had a vision as he looked from his pallet out of the doorway of the boat. His vision was of a cross, but the cross was burning. The cross was on fire!
Shortly after that, his last view of the city of Yancheng was of it going up in flames before the advancing Japanese armies. The Chinese wanted the Japanese to gain no benefit from conquering that city, so they torched the whole city. Soon after that we were all forced to leave China. Then followed Pearl Harbor and World War II.
Following the war, we returned to China in 1947. We attempted to return to Yancheng, but the Communist Regime already occupied that area. Even in the city of Taizhou where we lived, we lived in peril. Of the four departure routes, all four were never opened at the same time, and often all four were closed. Communist bandits on horseback once fired at us as we traveled by launch on the Grand Canal. Fortunately we were on the steamer instead of one of the barges being towed. The tow rope was cut. We steamed to safety leaving the trailing barges to the mercy of the bandits.
My first view of death was a woman shot by a stray bullet in skirmishes near-by. It was a frightful time
It was at this time that my father first told me the vision of the burning cross. I heard him preach about this vision several times during my high school years. Always, he tried to make sense out of what the vision meant. It was obvious that the church in China was burning like the cross in the vision. Always, my father prayed for the church in China, the preaching points, and the evangelists in Yancheng and other places where he had worked. Family prayers were a daily ritual for us. Why, we even had devotions before opening Christmas presents.
We were soon forced out of China again. The years went by. Many criticized the “China Investment,” the mission effort in China. Since there was nothing left of all that effort, what had once been a mighty vision for the church of the west was now viewed as complete folly and of no value. After all, what was left? Missionaries were severely criticized for living in compounds, not identifying with the natives, and not making the indigenous church self-sufficient. It seemed from the outside that the church had invested in all the wrong ways. Still my father prayed and bore up with his colleagues under all the criticism.
My father had in his favorite Bible a typed list he had made of names and places into a booklet. It listed the evangelists, Bible workers, and each place he had preached and the mission stations of the North Kiangsu Mission. A daily ritual was to pray through this small booklet a page at a time.
My father died praying for those people and places never knowing the results of his prayer. He died in the spring of 1978. I was serving as your mission co-worker in Bangladesh at the time and regretted not returning home for his funeral. My father never saw either the meaning of his vision or the results of his prayers.
I rejoice today that I understand my father’s vision. I have seen with my own eyes the results of his prayers. God answered my father prayers and the prayers of many, many others beyond our wildest dreams.
In May 0f 2001, David, my next older brother, Eleanor, my only sister, and Cara Lin, our daughter, and I returned to Yancheng.
We were met by Brother Gu and Pastor An, leaders of the church in that area. For more than 36 hours we were able to visit the churches in Yancheng and the surrounding areas and meet with some of the leaders who knew our parents.
Pastor and Mrs. Wu knew and worked with my parents. My mother paid the expenses for Pastor Wu to go to the Shantung Seminary during the height of the Great Depression. When we left China the end of 1948, Pastor Wu had gone to the train station to tell my father good-bye. My father told him that they would meet again in heaven. He also prophetically said, “Don’t be afraid to work with your hands. Hand work is honorable.”
Over several hours Pastor Wu shared fond memories of my parents and of his life during the Cultural Revolution. Life had not been easy for him and his wife. They were persecuted because they knew us. But they had survived.
Pastor Wu had retired because of a botched operation on his eyes. He was almost totally blind. Pastor Wu was one who was on my father’s prayer list.
We were taken to the Long-gong Church, formerly one of the preaching points of my father. There were thousands of Christians attending this church. Worship resumed at Long-gong in 1990. The sanctuary was built in 1992, the same year that the church was registered. In the beginning, there were only a few people. In 1992 their membership was 100. In 1996 they divided into five congregations around the county. In 2001 there were six meeting points.
800 came to worship at the Long-gong Church every Sunday in 2001. This church had sent a student to seminary to train as their pastor. But, after graduation, he went to serve in Yunan Province in West China. Because of this they felt they were a missionary church. This church was served entirely by lay workers.
We went to the Shi-yang Church, one of the farthest places where my father went with his team to preach. Today, this area is a large city in itself.
There we met two elders, Chaw and Ting, who remembered my father. They jokingly told how when they were ten years old they would go to the dried rice fields where my father and his colleagues preached. They went to see the foreigner. I laughed when Elder Chaw said he did not understand a word my father preached. That was because Elder Chaw’s local dialect was so thick. Even our interpreter could hardly understand a word he said!
The Shi-yang Church had 2000 believers in 1980. In 2001 they had over 20,000 members and 64 preaching points. This parish was like a whole presbytery in itself. They built an educational building that is three stories tall. The top floor is a school for training their lay leaders. There are desks for 140. During the agricultural off-seasons, lay leaders come for Bible Study and to learn how to administer the programs for this church. They held eight classes a year. This church in 2001 was growing by more than 1000 members per year. Yet this church had only two pastors, two elders, two deacons, and five evangelists. Their sanctuary held only 800, but they had four worship services each Sunday. Overflow crowds sat outside and in the classrooms seeing the service on closed circuit TV. They had hopes of building a new sanctuary that would seat 2,500.
In 2001 there were 7,800,000 people in the ten counties of the Yancheng area. There were 430 churches of which 370 were big ones. All of these churches were registered. There were also house meetings not yet ready to be registered. There were 80,000 baptized Christians in the area, and there were 120,000 total adherents. For the total area there were only eight pastors, 16 seminary graduates, and 15 seminary students. 8000 new members per year was the average growth rate.
In 2014 I again returned Yancheng. I went to the church where I was baptized by my Chinese name as an infant. They were constructing a four story sanctuary with the top two floors seating 3000. The second floor was for closed circuit TV. The bottom floor was for parking but could also seat overflow crowds for closed circuit TV. A four story building behind the church was for the elderly. There were 50 two bed rooms and infirmaries for those needing special attention. The top floor was for physical therapy. To the side was a three story building with a kitchen on the ground floor and two floors for dining. All three building were joined by a third floor causeway to a ten story bell tower. The building was visible throughout the city.
As you can see, what I now know about my father’s vision is that the church was severely burned during World War II and during the early years of the Communist regime. It was burned, but it was not consumed. It was refined. What was sewn in weakness has grown and flourished.
What I have reported was only in the one city where my father served for twenty years. As you can see, my father’s prayers were answered beyond all comparison. His vision has been fulfilled. The church in that part of China is strong and growing as they say like new bamboo after a summer rain. We saw similar signs of church growth in other cities where we had also lived, and in one I was privileged to preach to the largest crowd I have ever led in worship.
Over and over again in the places where we went I asked how they accounted for such massive church growth. The constant reply was that it was by God’s grace alone.
I asked what these Chinese Christians would say to us!! I learned a few things I hope will be a vision for us. Here is a list of some of them:
1. We are to be a thankful church. I once saw a license plate that read “SO THKFL.” “So Thankful!” Yes, that should be our motto as Christians.
2. We are to pray constantly.
3. The power of the church is in its laity.
4. The church must be faithful, especially during difficult times.
5. Evangelism begins in the home, extends to neighbors, and then to the work place.
6. Evangelism is not by word but by deed.
7. Christians are to be model citizens.
8. The Protestant Church in China is one denomination, and there is no place for denominational competition.
9. Heresy is controlled by good education.
10. Christians own their own Bibles and hymnbooks and take them with them to worship.
11. Scripture is often read in worship in unison.
12. Worship is central to the Christian community.
13. Preaching is intensely Biblical.
14. Pastors primarily teach and administer the sacraments.
15. Church growth is a gift of God and results from faithfulness even in the face of martyrdom.
A personal vision for me was fulfilled when I returned to where I first worked as a missionary in Taiwan in an aboriginal village. Larry Ann and I were mission co-workers in Taiwan from 1964-76. In 2001, I found that the old primitive church building with tin roof and stucco walls and dirt floor had been replaced by a beautiful multi-storied new structure.
In the front of the sanctuary was a cross, and behind a cross a stained glass window of flames. I wept when I saw my father’s vision so vividly displayed and felt my father’s blessing on me again! I rejoice that I have been able to share this vision of the Church in China with all of you.
There is an epilog to this experience of 2001. Since then I have maintained a prayer list. Each morning I pray for the people and churches listed. The names of many of you are on it, especially Elise Foster Duerr and Ashton Banks, children’s name I have drawn from the offering plate when presented. I also pray for Carolina Kepler, whom I baptized here when she was an infant eight years ago. One Sunday at our lunch bunch, I realized I had prayed for everyone at the table that morning. I will not live to see all the results of my prayers. But, following my father’s example, I too can have a vision of what God has in store for you and many others. Amen.