Coping and Ministering in Isolation

Blessed is the man who trusts the Lord, floruishing even in droughtAs soon as Arthur and Wilda Mathews arrived, they knew something was wrong. The Chinese church in Hwangyuan, China, had asked them to come and minister in 1950. But now the church leaders seemed strained. The Mathews soon learned that the area had fallen to Communism, and association with white missionaries was a detriment to the Chinese Christians.

The Mathews thought it best, then, to leave. But a capricious Chinese official would not grant their exit visas. The money from the Mathews’ mission came through this official, who then made Arthur wait, grovel, and ask repeatedly for the needed funds. The official only gave them a fraction of what they were due. He also slowly tightened the restraints on the Mathews. First, they could not have the building belonging to the mission. Then they could not evangelize or participate in ministry. Then, a short while later, they could not leave their premises except to draw water, buy food, and gather materials for a fire. And finally, they were not allowed to speak to other Chinese.

The Matthews’ story is told in the book Green Leaf in Drought by Isobel Kuhn, which I reviewed a few years ago here. Their story came back to mind in our current situation. They were isolated for different reasons than we are. We’re not suffering persecution, being spied on by people who would benefit from betraying us, or starved out by petty power-mongers. But they did wonder: how in the world could they be a testimony when they couldn’t even speak to people?

What was there inside these walls to do? It just seemed as if every time they tried to engage in any Christian service, they were knocked flat! Life’s accustomed joys were slowly drying up; but the trees of the Lord have a secret supply.

The title and theme of the book come from Jeremiah 17:8:

But most amazing of all was their spiritual vigor. Whence came it? Not from themselves: no human being could go through such sufferings and come out so sweet and cheerful.

As I was in a small prayer meeting one morning one prayed thus: “O Lord, keep their leaf green in times of drought!”

I knew in a moment that this was the answer. Jeremiah 17: 8: He shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.

That was it! There was an unseen Source of secret nourishment, which the communists could not find and from which they could not cut them off.

This is the story of that secret Source. To add another book to the many telling of trials under communist pressure is not necessary and is not our purpose.
But to tell of the secret Source by which a tree can put forth green leaves when all others around are dried up and dying from the drought—that is timeless. That is needed by all of us. Your drought may not be caused by communism, but the cause of the drying up of life’s joys is incidental. When they dry up—is there, can we find, a secret Source of nourishment that the deadly drought cannot reach?

Here are a few ways that Source helped them cope:

Resting in God’s sovereignty. They wrestled with “Ifs”—if the Chinese church had not asked them to come, if they could have gotten word to them before they came, if this or that had or hadn’t happened. They kept coming back to the fact that God orchestrates our steps.

They fed their souls truth. They regularly read God’s Word and Christian authors. They found help in something Andrew Murray had written (though Isobel doesn’t quote the source):

1. Say, He brought me here. It is by His will I am in this strait place and in that fact I will rest.
2. He will keep me here in His love and give me grace to behave as His child.
3. Then He will make the trial a blessing, teaching me the lessons He intends for me to learn.
4. In His good time He can bring me out again—how and when He knows.
So let me say, I am (1) here by God’s appointment; (2) in His keeping; (3) under His training; (4) for His time.

Before Easter, 1952, Wilda

set herself to study the resurrection story and the resurrection life. As she came to the part that Peter played in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace she suddenly felt heart-condemned. She had not said, I know Him not, but she had no joy. She was not bitter, but she was frustrated and restless. Her opportunity to witness to the Chinese eyes around them that she did know the Lord and that He was satisfying her drought—had she shown that? If not, wasn’t that denying the Lord before man? On her knees before Him she confessed it as such, and the result was a glorious Easter.

They learned to delight in God’s will. While studying Ephesians 5:10, Arthur was arrested by the phrase “learn in your own experience what is fully pleasing to the Lord.”

A few nights later it came to Arthur like a flash: the Son had left heaven, not [just] submitting to the will of God, but delighting in it. Up to now they had been submitting; rather feverishly submitting because they felt they should press His promises. “Lord, why dost thou delay? We could be out spear-heading advance into new mission fields! Open the door now, Lord!” They had been acting like servants who don’t want to do it but have to, because they can’t get out of it. What a different attitude was the Son’s! There came a day in June when together Arthur and Wilda knelt before the Lord and abandoned themselves to live on in that stinted little kitchen as long as He wished them to. And the peace of God poured in like a flood bringing such joy as they had not known before.

Arthur later wrote of this experience to supporters and concluded:

So we came to see that God wanted us to will with Him to stay put; not to desire to run away as quickly as we could persuade Him to let us … It was natural that we should go from there to cry with David, I Delight to do thy will, O my God (Psalm 40: 8)…So we are no longer stupid bullocks being driven or dragged unwillingly along a distasteful road; but sons, cooperating wholeheartedly with our Father…

They endured, trusting God was working through their trials. Arthur wrote, “These trials of faith are to give us patience, for patience can only be worked as faith goes into the Pressure Chamber. To pull out because the pressure is laid on, and to start fretting would be to lose all the good He has in this for us.”

And these are ways God worked through their ministry and testimony even when they were silenced:

The words, actions, and touch expressed earlier were remembered. Their first few weeks in Hwangyuan, Arthur had been able to preach and Wilda had been able to go with the pastor’s wife to minister to the women.

Little did she guess that her loving words and smiles those days were to be the only direct ministry she was to have among them. But it was enough to show the women and girls of Hwangyuan that the white woman in their midst was there to love them.

Those were the days of the touch of the hand, the loving concern in the eyes, the simple testimony of the voice. They would not be forgotten later on when the government forbade it.

People saw God’s provision in their need. Isobel refers often to what she called the Feather Curtain of God, based on Psalm 91:4a: “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.” Story after story relates God’s perfect timing and loving care in supplying their needs.

All the courtyard had heard when the father ordered the milk for the little one to be discontinued for lack of funds; yet that very evening, they not only sang, but the song of praise had an exultant ring in it! (No one knew of Ben’s secret gift.) And the next day the old Tibetan lady was recalled and the milk money was there! Had it fallen from heaven? It most certainly had not come in by the door—that they knew. Did the God of Elijah really live? What more potent message could God have given these people?

People saw them endure the same trials they were experiencing. “The message above all others which the Chinese church needed was to see that truth lived out under circumstances equally harrowing as their own.”

[Arthur wrote} “Then Christmas night, another kind of gift, from the One whose birthday it was. This is what happened. Timothy [the spy] away, the local shepherd voluntarily came to the door to wish us Merry Christmas, and to tell us that the church was packed with outsiders and the few believers, who were met together for singing and the Christmas message.”

What had packed that church with heathen, living under communism? What we lack and lose and suffer are our most prized facilities for bringing home to the hearts of this people the glorious gospel of the grace of God. They had seen green leaves in a time of drought; they themselves were dried up to the point of cracking. What made these Christians able to stay uncomplaining, smiling above their patched clothes, and despite their growing thinness? How did they stay alive when Felix had done his best to starve them? They knew the power of Felix. This was the service which God had planned for His children when He deliberately brought their feet into the net.

In another section:

Was the Chinese Christian falsely accused? So were Arthur and Wilda Mathews. Was he persecuted? So were they. Was he attacked by sickness and bereavement without much medical aid? So were they. Was he laughed at? jeered at? constantly humiliated? So were they. Was he tantalized by specious promises of release? So were they. Was he forced to do menial work, thought very degrading? Much more Arthur Mathews…

And yet as trial piled upon trial; as the ground (their human comforts) grew so parched with drought that it threatened to crack open, their leaf was still green. Every evening the sound of singing and praise to their Lord ascended…Their clothes grew ragged, and their food became so poor that the Chinese themselves were moved with pity. Yet still these missionaries sang on and taught their patched-clothes baby: “In heavenly love abiding, No change my heart shall fear,” until she could sing it too.

Eventually Arthur and a coworker were the very last China Inland Mission members to be evacuated out of China after the Bamboo Curtain fell. Wilda and their little daughter, Lilah, had been sent out a short time earlier. But they all left behind with the Chinese church, the CIM family, and everyone who has read their story a testimony of God’s grace and provision.

Isobel concludes: “But who knows when the drought is going to strike us also? Is it possible for any Christian to put forth green leaves when all he enjoys in this life is drying up around him?” Yes. God’s promises are still true. May He keep our leaves green and flourishing for His glory.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Global Blogging, Senior Salon, Hearth and Soul,
Tell His Story, Purposeful Faith, Happy Now, InstaEncouragement,
Anchored Abode, Recharge Wednesday, Worth Beyond Rubies,
Share a Link Wednesdays, Heart Encouragement, Let’s Have Coffee,
Grace and Truth, Faith on Fire, Blogger Voices Network,
Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

30 thoughts on “Coping and Ministering in Isolation

  1. This was a very timely read! I too like the idea of “spiritual vigor.” One of the odd bits about this situation is the inability to help others in ways that we often would in normal times. I’ve found myself having various people come to mind, more than usual. I’ve taken it as an opportunity to pray for them. Isobel Kuhn is new to me; thanks for bringing her to my attention.

    • Isobel is one of my favorites. By Searching and In the Arena are her life story. Second Mile People is good, too. This is definitely a good time to pray. I’m reluctant to take things to people, since that increases the risk of spreading things. I do have some people I want to check in with by email, though.

  2. “they fed their souls truth”. YES YES YES this totally grabbed my attention. Thank you!! It totally confirms what our pastor was preaching about online yesterday. This is excellent post Barbara. THANKS! I needed this after my work day which was full of headaches.

  3. Thank you for posting this Barbara. We are planning to move soon and all my books are packed. Reading this passage was a great blessing today.

  4. What a wonderful and meaty post, Barbara. I remember your review of a book I’d read many years ago. But so good to be reminded of the truths from the Matthews’ experiences and their evergreen joy in the Lord— and the fruitful result of the testimony.

  5. Barbara, this is so powerful. The point about delighting in God’s will, rather than simply submitting to it, is especially convicting. What a blessing to read this today!

    • That was convicting to me, too. I’m afraid there are big chunks of my life that I went through with a dragging the feet, have-to mentality instead of delighting in God’s will. I can’t do anything about those except confess them to the Lord, but I hope by His grace to have a different perspective now.

  6. What an amazing story, I’m surprised I’ve not heard of it before. And that is one of my favorite scriptures, Jeremiah 17:7,8. I found it when my family bought a cottage on a lake; the property is filled with “trees by the water”, pinetrees, which are evergreen. I share the scripture with our guests and pray that their lives will be “evergreen”. I will look for this book.

    • What a great thing to pray for ourselves and others. We often hear these days about being wiped out or drained, but God promises and ever-ready, ever abundant supply of grace.

  7. There are so many situations that I can’t even imagine living under. I am so grateful for these examples! Thanks for your heart to share about missionaries, Barbara. It always encourages me.

    • Thank you, Lisa. I can’t imagine going through what they did. Their daughter was 18 months old when this started. There was one neat instance of a mother with two children showing up on their doorstep on the little girl’s birthday–a present from God of someone to play with on her day.

  8. Barbara, I was unfamiliar with the Matthew’s story until now. So many similarities we can draw from their situation there in China and ours today. Great lesson we have to learn!!!

    Thanks for linking up at InstaEncouragements!

  9. These are good lessons for us to learn today as we struggle with isolation and uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic. I need to remember to feed my soul with truth and to delight in God’s will. It isn’t easy but nothing worthwhile ever is!

  10. “learn in your own experience what is fully pleasing to the Lord.” Such wisdom in that few words and they have stood the test of time and hard times. I have leaned into this phrase during this trial, “don’t waste it”. There is so much to still learn and most of the time we are so busy we just feed off the past feeding instead of gaining new insight into Him Great post, great reminders.

  11. Pingback: End-of-April Reflections | Stray Thoughts

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