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Friday, May 24, 2013

No Small Feat~ How can I make a difference in this world?

Do you sometimes wonder whether your life is making a difference in this world? I do. I want to feel like I am part of something bigger, something significant, something that is changing lives of people around me for the good. I want to be changing for the good too. Stories of normal, yet courageous people encourage me to be more bold in my pursuit of my calling. I want to be realistic about my abilities and my limitations, but I don't want my view of my limitations to limit what God might be intending to do through me or even in spite of me! 

One such encouraging story is about the life of Gladys Aylward. My grandfather, Ron Jones, used to tell stories of an unusually short and spunky British missionary woman who would occasionally stay at Maybank, my grandparents large home in Liverpool. This lady, who didn’t exceed 5 feet had become as Chinese as one could get. Her stature, her demeanor and especially her pitch black hair made her look very Chinese. One might think, in one sense, that she was the perfect fit for working in China. But she was not even supposed to have gone to China. 
Gladys was born in 1902. Her father was a mailman. She became a Christian at a revival meeting when she was a teenager and felt called to be a missionary to China. She had worked as a parlor maid in rich West End manors since she was 14. Pursuing her sense of call, she applied to the China Inland Mission and was rejected after 3 months of training. Reason? She wasn’t educated enough and would never be able to learn Chinese. Gladys was determined, though. She worked as a house maid for a few years, saving every penny until she was finally able to purchase her ticket. At age 30, she set off for China by train, crossing war-torn Russia alone.
Gladys arrived in Yangchen and set up an inn there. Yangchen was an overnight stop for mule caravans that carried coal, raw cotton, pots and iron goods on six week or three month journeys. It is told that the first night, she pulled one of the lead mules into the courtyard of her inn and all the other mules followed. The men, at first quite suspicious, were well fed and Gladys told them stories about Jesus. Can you imagine a housemaid ministering to rough Chinese tradesmen? Does this seem to fit the picture of being suited and qualified for a job? But God used her vulnerability and weakness and many of these rough men were drawn to God's love and became believers as a result.
Gladys Aylward practiced Chinese for hours every day and learned it very well. Later she would call this “one of God’s great miracles” because her missions agency had told her she would never be able to learn such a difficult language with her level of education. 
foot binding
This is what bound feet look like
And because of her interpersonal and language skills, and her normal feet, Gladys met the Mandarin (or the governor) of Yangchen who commissioned her to be the official foot inspector in the entire province. The government had decreed an end to the practice of foot-binding. This included binding, sometimes even bending or breaking little girls’ feet so that they would remain small and walk more gracefully. Because Gladys had normal feet, she was given this traveling job. She accepted with one condition: that she would be allowed to tell the families about God's love for them. Permission was granted. She got to visit all the households of the province, inspecting feet and proclaiming Christ.
One of the women who became a Christian as a result of Gladys’ foot inspections later said: “My heart was bound up tight with sin, like I bound up the feet of the little girls. Now I am free and my heart can grow big with happiness”.  And so, if you’ll excuse the pun…..What this little woman accomplished was no small feat!
During her second year at Yangchen, the Mandarin called her to calm a men’s prison riot. The men were rampaging in the prison courtyard and some of them were dead. She was told: “Go into the yard and stop the rioting” to which she responded “How can I do that?” The warden said, "You have been preaching that those who trust in Christ have nothing to fear." So, she walked right into the courtyard and shouted: "Quiet! I cannot hear when everyone is shouting at once. Choose one or two spokesmen, and let me talk with them." The men quieted down and chose a spokesman. Gladys talked with him, and then came out and told the warden: "You have these men cooped up in crowded conditions with absolutely nothing to do. No wonder they are so edgy that a small dispute sets off a riot. You must give them work. Also, I am told that you do not supply food for them, so that they have only what their relatives send them. No wonder they fight over food. We will set up looms so that they can weave cloth and earn enough money to buy their own food." This was done. The people began to call Gladys Aylward "Ai-weh-deh," which means "Virtuous One." It was her name from then on.
Then the war came. In the spring of 1938, Japanese planes bombed the city of Yangcheng, killing many and causing the survivors to flee into the mountains. The Mandarin gathered the survivors and told them to retreat into the mountains for the duration. He also announced that he was impressed by the life of Ai-weh-deh and wished to make her faith his own. There remained the question of the convicts at the jail. The traditional policy favored beheading them all lest they escape. The Mandarin asked Ai-weh-deh for advice, and a plan was made for relatives and friends of the convicts to post a bond guaranteeing their good behavior. Every man was eventually released on bond. As the war continued Gladys often found herself behind Japanese lines, and often passed on information, when she had it, to the armies of China, her adopted country. She was sent a message by the local general “The Japanese are coming in full force. We are retreating. Come with us." Angry, she scrawled a Chinese note, Chi Tao Tu Pu Twai, "Christians never retreat!" He sent back a copy of a Japanese handbill offering $100 each for the capture, dead or alive, of (1) the Mandarin, (2) a prominent merchant, and (3) Ai-weh-deh. She determined to flee to the government orphanage at Sian, bringing with her the children she had accumulated, about 100 in number. With the children in tow, she walked for twelve days. Some nights they found shelter with friendly hosts. Some nights they spent unprotected on the mountainsides. On the twelfth day, they arrived at the Yellow River, with no way to cross it. All boat traffic had stopped, and all civilian boats had been seized to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese. The children wanted to know, "Why don't we cross?" She said, "There are no boats." They said, "God can do anything. Ask Him to get us across." They all knelt and prayed. Then they sang. A Chinese officer with a patrol heard the singing and rode up. He heard their story and said, "I think I can get you a boat." They crossed, and after a few more difficulties Ai-weh-deh delivered her charges into competent hands at Sian, and then promptly collapsed with typhus fever and sank into delirium for several days. 
After 20 years and with the communist takeover of China, Gladys Aylward and other missionaries had to leave. Christianity was suppressed. Would the church survive there? Would the Mandarin’s words to Gladys before he became a Christian remain true? He had once said to her:“Ai-weh-deh, you preach and you work for your God, but I do not think you will make a ripple on China’s consciousness as great as the ripple a gnat makes when he touches the surface of a great ocean.” That is sometimes the way I feel about my life and work. A gnat's ripple! But that is not God's voice, nor his perspective. 
Only in the past few years have we discovered in the West that the church in China not only survived but enjoyed dramatic growth. It is estimated that between the Communist takeover in 1949 and the mid-1980s the church in China grew from 800,000 to as many as an estimated 50 million. Today there are 159 million (conservative estimate). This is one of the greatest surges of growth in all of Christian history which, I think, we can call more than a gnat’s ripple! Gladys' life and work contributed to this movement. Our small steps of faith and obedience can result in huge, life-changing, history-making events. All we need to do is to be willing, to listen and to follow where God leads us. The rest is up to Him!

 How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation (Isa 52:7).

Excerpt from a talk given at a conference.

Gladys Aylward in traditional Chinese garb