India calls


Here is the latest instalment in my Chronicles of Faith series.  The story starts a long time ago and involves a lot of miracles. If you’re interested, read on! I went to England in 1977 to do a PhD in New Testament studies at Durham University. One of the first friends I made there was a guy called Richard Peach. Richard and I used to have heated theological arguments. They often infuriated me because even though he was a school teacher, not a theologian, he was often right and I was wrong. Richard had an unbending sense of call to India. When he finished his studies, he was hired as a teacher at a school for missionary children in a place called Ootacamund in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. One of the last things I recall him saying was this: “God has called me to India. I don’t care if I ever see England again.” The fact is, he never did. One day Richard took a group of children from the school out swimming and in the process he was caught up in the river current and tragically drowned. When the news reached Durham, many of us grieved. Why would God take such a young life so full of commitment and promise? But God encountered me in the midst of it with a word, and the word was this: one day I also would go to India and do what Richard wanted so badly to do -- to share Christ with the Indian people.

The years went past. I returned to Canada from England. Every time I heard someone talking about India, my ears pricked up. But nothing happened. Until the day a friend in Canada told me he had an Indian leader coming to visit his church, and would I be interested in having him to speak. He casually dropped into the conversation that he had been to India to visit this man and they had visited a small town in south India called.... Ootacamund. Of all the hundreds of thousands of towns and villages in India, this was the one he mentioned. Immediately I knew this was my doorway to India.

And so John Babu, the great apostolic leader of Andhra Pradesh, walked into my life. I use “apostolic” in its simple Biblical form, as function, not title. John extended the boundaries of the kingdom into the regions beyond and the regions unknown, and he did so by the love of God, and by undeniable signs and wonders. Let me tell his story as he told it to me.

John Babu was one of a small group of national security advisors to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. His self-description as a policeman was a gracious understatement. John was a non-practicising Hindu. He drank a lot. He beat his wife up most days. He was not a great dad to his eight children. But he was good at his job. One day his doctor told him he had damaged his liver so badly he had only four months to live.  Distraught, John visited a nearby Hindu temple to plead with the gods. Once inside, he heard an audible voice saying these words, “I am the god you are looking for. My name is Jesus Christ.” The voice instructed him to leave the temple immediately. Stunned and trembling, he sat down on a bench outside. The voice continued to address him. He heard that if he died, his fate would be to be thrown into a lake of fire. He saw the lake in front of his eyes and was terrified. But, the voice continued, if he put his trust in the one who was speaking to him, he would be saved. John immediately surrendered his life to a god he did not know. The Holy Spirit took hold of him. Immediately, he went home to tell his family what had happened. His oldest son later told me it was the first time his dad had not come home and beat somebody up. He was a visibly changed man. As he shared what had happened, his wife Anna and all eight children put their trust in Christ. The next time he visited his doctor, he was told he was completely healed.

But this was only the beginning of the story. A few months later, Jesus spoke again to John. He was to leave the police, move to a town called Armoor and start a church. John obeyed the Lord. He left all his earthly security, his position which gave him many advantages in the city and state, and his government salary and pension. Armoor was the place he had previously gone to arrest Hindu militants, and John was not popular there. He was sold a plot of land with a tin shack in the middle of it. John, Anna and their eight kids took up residence in the middle of what turned out to be a cobra-infested swamp. The militants who sold him the land expected him and his family to perish. But instead, they prayed the cobras out. The locals expected the entire family to die and were perplexed when nothing happened to them (read Acts 28:1-6 for a similar story!).  Before long, a thriving church existed.... with no fewer than two thousand people converted to Christ. John began to travel from town to town and village to village, eventually establishing several hundred congregations throughout the state of Andhra Pradesh.

In his life, John saw six people raised from the dead. I don’t know if the following incident counted as one of the six, as John was not physically present when it happened. Let me tell you a story that would be unbelievable if it were not demonstrably true as it was witnessed by hundreds of people. As the churches grew, outreaches were established not only in the larger towns but also the smaller villages. Andhra Pradesh had a population of over eighty million people and had thousands of towns and villages as well as larger cities such as Hyderabad. A high-caste (Brahmin) Hindu lady died in a village a small group had been started in. The omens were consulted and the cremation was set for the time determined to be the most auspicious for the best hope of a higher form of reincarnation. As the funeral pyre was about to be set alight, the Hindu priest halted the proceedings. In a mocking voice, he said Christians had come to the area and claimed to have a god who could raise the dead. He ordered the small group leader to be brought to the ceremony. “Now we will see,” he declared to the man in front of the assembled crowd, “what your god can do.” Trembling with fear, this ordinary believer held out his hands over the pyre and called out to the Lord for help. The woman lying dead on the pyre was physically resurrected. And no, she was not in a coma, nor had the doctor made a mistake. She had been dead for many hours, and her body was decomposing in the Indian heat. As she rose from the dead, panic spread throughout the crowd of hundreds who eye-witnessed the event. The small group leader began to preach Christ. Half the crowd became Christians, the other half fled in terror.

But the most amazing part of the story is this. When later they asked the lady what had happened to her, this is what she said. She recalled experiencing darkness, but into the darkness stepped a man. The man was dressed in clothes so white they were blinding. As he held out his hands over her, she noticed he had bleeding wounds in both wrists. Then she woke up. But a strange thing occurred. There was another man standing in exactly the same position as the first man. His hands also were stretched out over her in exactly the same way. But his clothes were ordinary and there were no wounds in his wrist. That man was the small group leader.

The militant high-caste Hindus put out the equivalent of a contract on the lady. Her response? “I’m not afraid of death. I’ve already died once!” Many many hundreds of people came to Christ because of her testimony.

How often do we realize that we stand in the place of Christ? That ordinary man represented Christ in a way even he had no concept of. Christ, in one sense, is made flesh in us. An army of theologians trying to explain how Christ is made real in his many-membered body, the church, could not have come up with anything so closely approaching the truth as is illustrated in the experience of this humble, (to us) nameless, and probably illiterate Indian brother.

Have I got your attention? Then read the next instalment!