Tom Blunden, our history teacher at Newcastle Boys’ High School used to decry the fact that the school’s curriculum was structured in such a way that we could take either […]
Tom Blunden, our history teacher at Newcastle Boys’ High School used to decry the fact that the school’s curriculum was structured in such a way that we could take either history or geography, but not both because, he said, ‘Geography is the stage on which history is played out.’ I thought of this as I flew from Melbourne to London on my way to attend this year’s Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference in the lush green English Midlands.
Flying across Australia one gains an understanding that this vast country we love and in which we feel so blessed (not ‘lucky’!) really is ‘The Wide Brown Land’. Fully four and a half hours of the 20 hours spent flying to England are spent in the air over Australia so my thoughts turned to that man who did so much to win it for Christ, John Flynn, perhaps the only Presbyterian minister ever to have been given a place on a country’s bank note in honour of the work he did.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service was Flynn’s brainchild back in the day when aircraft were built of wire and fabric. To enable people in the outback to call the doctor, Flynn inspired Alf Traeger to invent the pedal wireless. Bush Nursing Stations and Old Timers’ Homes became part of Flynn’s endeavours to cast ‘A Mantle Of Safety’ over the vast inland. Patrol Padres on camels, in Dodge utes, sleeping in swags under the stars, covering enormous areas over pot-holed dirt tracks fleshed out his vision ‘For Christ and the continent’. The outback was the stage on which the Australian Inland Mission was born and on which the Presbyterian Inland Mission continues today. ‘Lord, bless those men who take the Gospel out today “beyond the farthest fences” and their wives who graciously support them and sustain them in any hardships their children suffer.’
We didn’t pass over Timor Leste, but it appeared on the edge of the Moving Map, so I thought of and prayed for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Timor Leste. It’s been the privilege of the PCA to help extend Gospel work in fellowship with that church through PresAID, and a clutch of our present-day ministers have worked with the leaders there to spread the Gospel. ‘Thank You Lord that there are “no little people, no little places” and bless those who have passed through many trials but are determined to work so hard with so little if only they may preach the Gospel.’
Similarly Burma, now Myanmar appeared on the map even though we didn’t fly over it, reminding me of the work of a great saint of earlier generations: Adoniram Judson, who could truly have said, ‘Lord I have left all to follow Thee,’ and of a present-day saint, Rev Thang Bwee with whom we have such a close fraternal relationship as the work goes on today. ‘O may Your servants, faithful, true and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold, Hallelujah, Hallelujah! Amen!’
Mizoram only just showed up on the map, but I couldn’t help giving thanks for the pioneering work of missionaries from the Presbyterian Church of Wales who took the Gospel there and established Mizoram as ‘the Christian State of India’. Being a Calvinistic Methodist myself at heart I praise God for this great work of grace in a nation so hostile to the Gospel elsewhere within its borders.
So we came to India, crossing the coast over Calcutta, which moved me to think of three great saints, one of whom was martyred, with his two young boys, in the cause of Christ.
Reginald Heber was the first Bishop of Calcutta and all points east. He is perhaps best remembered today as the author of three great hymns: ‘Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty, All Thy works shall praise Thy Name in Earth and sky and sea’ … Heber must have studied geography as well as history, as he also wrote ‘By cool Siloam’s shady rill, how sweet the lily grows’ – a baptismal hymn described by one of his literary critics as ‘perhaps the worst example of Georgian excess in geography, botany and theology’. But wait, there’s more. Heber also wrote ‘From Greenland’s icy mountains, from Afric’s sunny plains … they call us to deliver their lands from error’s chains’. For some unaccountable reason other than possibly something called ‘a great circle’, I flew over Greenland on the way home from Billy Graham’s funeral, almost completing my fly-over of Heber’s geographical references. (I’ve never flown over Sri Lanka, although it was on the Moving Map.) I love that hymn, old and flowery though it is, because it’s such a rousing call to mission, which Heber himself had obeyed in such an exemplary way.
William Carey, reckoned by many to be ‘the Father of the modern missionary movement’, was next in my thoughts. What a remarkable man he was. It is given to some to ‘rise up with wings like eagles’, it is given to others to ‘run and not grow weary’, while to Carey (as to most of us) it was given to ‘walk and not faint’. It’s amazing how much can be achieved by those who under God just keep plodding along. Year after year Carey kept plodding along, translating the Bible, establishing a publishing house decades before he found his first convert, Sundar Singh, who in turn wrote one of my favourite hymns: ‘One who is all unfit to count as scholar in Thy school, Thou in Thy love hast named a friend, O Kindness Wonderful.’
The third person who came to mind was a man whom I counted as a dear friend and brother in Christ. Whenever he was home from the field he would visit us at New Life to update us on his work and call for prayer. A lovely, godly man, he ‘gave (him)self wholly to the work of the Lord’ in his work among lepers in Orissa. Sadly an angry mob set fire to the vehicle in which Graham and the boys were sleeping one night. How totally depraved, how bad, how mad are those who persecute the saints of God even to their own detriment! ‘O Lord arouse Your church to greater and greater missionary endeavour that the day may soon come when “The Earth shall be filled with the Knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea”.’
We flew on, over the south western tip of Pakistan, where Christians are so vulnerable to persecution. Truly, with every persecution, martyrdom and expulsion of Christians, those who cause these things are not winners but losers. As Isaac Watts wrote, ‘Blessings abound where e’er He reigns, the prisoner leaps to lose his chains; the weary find eternal rest, and all the sons of want are blest.’ ‘Lord, open their eyes to see not only their sin and their need of the Saviour, but how in resisting You in so many evil ways, they are depriving themselves of Your blessing upon them.’
All of the above, however, was just a prelude to what would next unfold. We flew up above the Persian Gulf and between the Two Rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, which took me back to the Beginning when in those six glorious and consecutive days God created the Heavens and the Earth, when nothing became everything under His almighty hand and by His all-powerful Word. In this area He created and placed man, male and female. Here they fell. Here He promised that in the fullness of time He would send a Redeemer. From here they went forth and multiplied. We flew above the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Carmel – all named on the Moving map as well – across the road to Damascus now apparently a six-lane freeway and on over Turkey. Oh the wonders which God in His grace performed here! The stage on which the great events recorded in the Bible were played out was there before our very eyes. ‘Thank You Lord for “All things bright and beautiful”, for “the grace that sought us, for the blood that bought us, for the love that brought us to the Throne, wondrous love that brought us to the Throne”.’
From here the acts on stage jumped out of chronological order: at the tip of the north eastern incursion of the Mediterranean into the land mass of Turkey was ancient Tarsus. A few minutes later we flew past Mt Ararat. There, almost seemingly at our eye level, Noah’s ark had come to rest. Then church history intruded into my reverie as we came into view of Cappadocia, where the intellectually gifted Cappadocian Fathers hammered out the answers, especially regarding the Trinity. ‘Thank You Lord for faithful, believing scholars who continue to uphold the inspiration, truth, authority, relevance, sufficiency and wonder of Your Word.’
Yet a little while and the cities of Asia Minor where the Seven Churches had been established came into view, reminding us through the Apostle John’s writing in Revelation 2 and 3 that Jesus, is the Risen, Ruling and Returning Lord of the Church, her only King and Head.
On over western Turkey and Greece we flew, over places once favoured to receive the originals of most of Paul’s letters and beneficiaries of his missionary endeavours, then Rome to whom he wrote his magnum opus. I prayed for Turkey, once such a hub of church planting but later so mercilessly cast down and now so ruthlessly resisted. ‘Lord, please restore the candlesticks to Your Church in Turkey as the missionaries persevere against great discouragement.’
We arrived in London at nightfall, 7.30pm that night. My heart was filled with thankfulness for the great works of Christ in all the world. I had been blessed to have seen glimpses of the stage on which the Lord had performed His mighty deeds, and glad to affirm that:
The day Thou gavest Lord is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest.
to Thee our morning hymns ascended;
Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.
As o’er each continent and island
The dawn brings on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.
So be it Lord, Thy throne shall never
Like Earth’s proud empires pass away,
Thy Kingdom stands and grows forever
‘Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.
– Bob Thomas, (written on his way to the UK Banner of Truth Conference, 2022)