Continued from The surprising story of David Michel (2)
‘One wintry day in February, I was with our little group … when we saw Eric [Liddell] walking under the trees … As usual he was smiling.’
‘As he talked with us, we knew nothing of the pain he was hiding, and he knew nothing of the brain tumour that was to take his life that evening, 21 February 1945, when he, one of the world’s greatest athletes, would reach the tape in his final race.
‘He was 43-years-old … In his last hour, he was writing the words of his favourite hymn, and those words brought solace to his soul, as they had before when he gave them to the mother whose son had been electrocuted: “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side; bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to thy God to order and provide; in every change he faithful will remain. Be still, my soul, thy best, thy heavenly Friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.”
‘The evening snow was falling gently as Eric Liddell died, a soul serene amidst the sorrows and sufferings of the war that was to end six months later. His last words were, “It is complete surrender”.
‘Beryl Welch, aged 14, and a daughter of one of our Chefoo teachers, wrote in her diary of 22 February 1945: “Dear old Uncle Eric died last night. It was so sudden. He wrote a letter to his wife just that day. Everyone was greatly impressed. I feel sorry for her. Most people thought he was the best man in camp. What a loss! It snowed today. There was no coal”.’
One man who wasn’t a Christian said, ‘Yesterday Jesus Christ lived among us. Today he is no longer with us’. He wasn’t altogether wrong, for Eric Liddell could say with Paul, ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’.
Six months after the death of Eric Liddell, the prisoners in Weihsien concentration camp were liberated. On 15 August 1945, following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, though this was not known at Weihsien. Two days later, an American B24 plane flew over the camp and seven GIs floated down by parachute and the war was over for those within its walls.
Hard as the experience had been for the parentless children in Weihsien, it was even worse for the parents, especially the mothers. Alice Taylor had four children at Chefoo: ‘One day … I was just entering the house when the newspaper delivery came. The paper’s large Chinese characters announced: “Pearl Harbour attacked. US enters war”.
‘As I absorbed the news, I realised why there had been a long silence from the children. Chefoo had been in the Japanese line of attack. “Oh, dear God”, I whispered. “My children, my children”. I knelt beside the bed. Not even tears came at first, just wave after wave of anguish.
‘As the fear penetrated deeper, I remembered the horror stories of Nanking — where all the young women of that town had been brutally raped. And I thought of our lovely Kathleen, beginning to blossom into womanhood … Great gulping sobs wrenched my whole body. I lay there, gripped by the stories we had heard from refugees — violent deaths, starvation, the conscription of young boys, children, to fight…
‘Kneeling there by the bed, pleading with God, I knew without any doubt at all that I had no other hope but God. I reached out to him now, completely … I pictured our minister … sitting there telling me words he had spoken years ago: “Alice, if you take care of the things that are dear to God, he will take care of the things that are dear to you”…
‘I did not know whether my children were dead or alive: nevertheless, a deep peace replaced my agony. This war had not changed God’s promise’.
Faith and fortitude
When you realise that Alice, like the other mothers, did not see her children for five and a half years, you begin to understand the faith and fortitude shown by those missionary women.
Edith Bell had three children in Chefoo school. There was a Chinese man who visited her home from time to time, who seemed to know something about the Weihsien camp. ‘One evening he said, “Mrs Bell, I have some very sad news to tell you” … He hedged for a while, and then finally said, “All the students in the Weihsien camp have been murdered”.
‘Well, I held my breath for a while, and then I picked up my Bible, and I turned to Jeremiah 31, verses 16 and 17. These were the verses that God had given me not long after my children were interned: “Refrain thy voice from weeping and thine eyes from tears, saith the Lord. Your work will be rewarded. Your children will come from the land of the enemy, and they will come to their own border”.
‘Well, I showed him my Chinese Bible. I said, “Doctor (he was not a medical doctor), you read this”. He read it and threw my Bible on the table in anger. Then I knew he was not my friend’.
When David Michell left London Bible College, he returned to New Zealand intending to work with the China Inland Mission (CIM). By that time China was closed to missionaries. The CIM went into many south Asian countries and I suppose he might have felt called to any one of them. It may be, though, that there was always only one country that he felt called to. He went to Japan.
He served there for two terms of service and then was appointed Canada Director of CIM in 1975. In 1985, and again in 1991, he returned to Weihsien to commemorate their deliverance and to erect a memorial stone to Eric Liddell. Sadly, David died in a car crash near his home in Toronto in 1997. He was 64 years old.
To sum up, the basic lesson of this story is that God is faithful and can be trusted. We do not live in a perfect world. Rather, it is a world that sometimes has some very unpleasant surprises.
Our children are gifts from God, but they will not be perfect in any respect. Some of them may suffer from physical or mental problems; some may cause us great anxiety. We never know what the future holds by way of difficulty or suffering. We do know that it is sometimes through great tribulation that we enter the kingdom of God in its fulness.
There is much heartache, sorrow and suffering in this world. Christians are not immune from this and the way we react to these things either confirms or undermines the credibility of our profession of trust in God to those who know us.
If young boys can suffer in a concentration camp and then afterwards take the gospel to the very nation that caused them such early pain, then that says something wonderful about the Christ of the gospel.
‘The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth … For the Lord will not cast off for ever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men’ (Lamentations 3:25-33).
I conclude with David’s own words, as he stood again in Weihsien in 1985: ‘Night was falling, and our visit was nearing its end … But we made no attempt to leave; we were reliving the struggles and sufferings of the past — the agony of the inner battles and the anguish of the outer war.
‘I walked forward and stood among the flowers. For a few brief moments, I was oblivious of those around me, and for yet one more time, I was a boy again, living with my heroes. I fell to my knees and gave thanks to God — thanks for faith and his abiding faithfulness and for freedom no walls can contain’.
Paul E. Brown
These articles are based on and use quotations from A boy’s war, by David Michell (OMF, 1988). The author is a retired Grace Baptist pastor, living near Lancaster.