Dear Friends, we have good news! Distant Harm, Book Three of The COIL Legacy, is OUT! Click the title link to read a description and find a direct retailer link. With the release of Distant Harm, my mind has been on the harsh environment inside North Korea. Though China continues to restrict Christianity, their small southern neighbor is much more extreme. Here is a short story based on actual conditions in the closed country. Perhaps this story will leave us with the impression of what is truly valuable, even here in America where we are considered to be very rich. See you on the next page!—David Telbat
Now you are Rich
by D.I. Telbat
Jason Newman was in Eastern China, having the time of his life. Everywhere he went with his Chinese host, Luo Kai, Jason was the guest of honor. It was fascinating to meet the house church leaders in their underground services, to pray with them and to share their humble meals with them. Though Jason had come to China to encourage the secret Christians, he was instead the one being motivated toward a deeper faith.
In one house, not far from the Supung Reservoir on the border with North Korea, Jason was asked to share about Christianity in America. Twenty Chinese believers crowded into one room to listen intently as Jason described the remarkable resources and facilities Christians had in the United States. Churches on every city block, computer programs that practically studied the Bible for you, and fellowship groups every evening in every city were all openly available.
The eyes of the Chinese Christians seemed to convey their fascination, so Jason went on to describe one of the Bible study applications on his tablet. It gave him Hebrew and Greek meanings of words, and offered a dozen commentaries at the tap of a finger. In addition, he explained, he could buy any sermon by any preacher anywhere in the world, and listen to it right in his own living room!
Everyone in the room seemed ready to leave for America right then, and Jason felt as if he were a true motivator of the faith in those few minutes of attention. However, there was one Chinese man who had come late to the meeting. He was standing quietly by the door, with arms crossed, as if he didn’t approve that Jason was boasting in America’s rich Christian liberties. His face didn’t show great interest in Jason’s stories, either, as the others had.
While a meal was being prepared, Jason accepted the praise and embraces of the believers in the room, then angled his way toward the man near the door. The latecomer’s glowering face was ruining Jason’s jovial mood!
“Good evening.” Jason bowed to the man, offering his respect. “I’m Jason Newman from America.”
“I heard.” The squat man with powerful shoulders looked away. Jason was thirty-nine, and guessed the man to be a few years older. “You have many resources in America. You all come and tell the same stories.”
“You don’t approve of America’s opportunities to grow in Christ?”
“But do you grow in Christ? You have said much about what you have, Jason Newman, but little about who Christ is to you. Maybe you have much of the world, but little of Christ.”
Jason raised his eyebrows.
“Most people appreciate America’s liberties. Wouldn’t you like to worship God more openly? After all, even tonight, we’re meeting in secret, aren’t we?”
“I would not trade our sincerity and devotion for your resources and liberty.” The man looked past Jason at the others in the kitchen. “No, I care too much for my Lord to sacrifice what is eternal for what is temporary.”
“If I weren’t devoted to Christ, I wouldn’t even be visiting your country.” Jason waited for the man to respond, but he didn’t speak or look at Jason again.
Disturbed and hurt, Jason mingled with the others in the room, offering his smile and friendship to everyone, but the man at the door had dampened his excitement. He no longer felt as special as he had while he’d been speaking and sharing his stories to the room of believers.
Suddenly, Jason’s Chinese host pulled on his elbow.
“That is Hu Liang,” Luo Kai whispered. “Many do not care for his company, which is why he is alone by the door right now. He’s waiting to meet with one of the elders.”
“But he’s a Christian, isn’t he?” Jason rubbed his jaw, shocked to find such division even in the underground church. “We should try to welcome him into the gathering.”
“He’s not here to eat or be joyful. He’s a radical, shunned by most of us. I suggest you do not speak to him anymore. Come, tell us more stories about American Christianity.”
Luo Kai returned to the kitchen where the small banquet was being enjoyed. The other Christians were speaking excitedly about what they could do with such liberty to worship God, if only they had what America had. But against his host’s advice, Jason wandered back across the room to the man at the door.
“I understand your name is Hu Liang.” Jason leaned against the wall beside him. “You don’t need to remain separate, Liang. I’m sure these brothers and sisters will welcome you to eat something. Come, eat with me, and tell me what’s troubling you.”
“I am not here to feast, Jason Newman.” He uncrossed his arms as an older man emerged from a back room carrying two backpacks. The two spoke Chinese, of which Jason only knew about ten words. Then the older believer went to join the others in the kitchen. “You think you are a rich Christian, Jason Newman, because America has so many religious tools?”
Jason recalled a passage in Scripture.
“I am rich in the grace of God.”
“Prove it. Come with me.”
Jason didn’t have time to object or to express his aggravation. Hu Liang took his two backpacks into the back room. Jason followed him. Upon entering, Jason was forced to halt immediately lest he trip over heaps of clothing and stacks of what appeared to be Bibles of all sizes.
“Put on a coat,” Liang ordered.
“I have my own coat out in—”
“Put on a coat.”
Jason took a deep breath and smiled patiently. The man was making a point. Fine, he thought. He would remain humble and go along for a while. After picking through a few coats, he found a coat about his size and pulled it on.
“Now, put on another coat over it.”
“Yes. Five more.” Liang set down his backpacks and began to pull on coats as well, progressively larger coats until both men looked like marshmallows, Jason mused. “Now, this is for you.”
Jason accepted one of the backpacks, which wasn’t heavy, but fitting it onto his back was awkward since his arms were hindered by all the coats.
“Now, come with me.”
They left the back room and almost reached the front door when Kai intercepted Jason.
“Where are you going?” His host frowned at Hu Liang. “What has he convinced you to do?”
“There are Bibles in the pack.” Jason smiled. “We’re just delivering them. Relax. He thinks he’s testing me. I’m not afraid. This’ll be a good story for everyone back home.”
“You do not understand, Jason!” Kai clenched his teeth. “It is not safe.”
“I can run pretty fast. Besides, it’s dark out. No one will know I’m an American. It’ll be a good experience.”
“You are as crazy as he is.” Kai shook his head. “It is simply not worth it. How long before I should call the US consulate?”
“Stop worrying. I’ll be fine. This Liang guy isn’t as tough as he thinks he is. I’ll show him that we Americans can handle anything he wants to put us through. We’re no better or worse.”
“Go, then, and do not say you were not warned.” Kai turned away.
Jason chuckled and joined Liang at the door.
“I don’t know what everyone’s so uptight about. Lead the way, Liang.”
Outside, Jason joined Liang in a brisk walk down the street for a mile, until they reached the edge of the village. With a gesture, Liang directed them onto a trail that led into a sparse forest. Jason heard the Yalu River ahead, and for the first time, concern sparked inside him.
They emerged from the tree line onto a dirt road where a small shack stood. Liang led the way past it to the river’s edge where a suspension bridge spanned the tumultuous water below. The other side was hidden in darkness.
“Liang!” Jason grasped the man’s shoulder. “We can’t! I thought we were just delivering some Bibles to some neighbors.”
“We are. North Korean neighbors.”
“We’ll be shot! I’ve heard stories.”
“You Americans have many things,” Liang said, “especially stories. Maybe now it is time for faith.”
Liang pulled away, and walked out onto the bouncing, swaying bridge. Jason looked back at the trees, tempted to return to the house. This wasn’t what he’d come to China for! He’d come to encourage the underground church, not risk his life for . . . for what?
He hustled onto the bridge, aware that his palms were wet and his mouth was dry. It was fear. The river raged below, and he was thankful he couldn’t see the watery death that awaited him if the bridge broke.
Jason didn’t realize the far bank was shrouded in fog until a lamplight gradually grew brighter ahead. The form of Liang hustled before him, his movements jostling the bridge, causing Jason’s knees to tremble.
With a gasp, he reached the south bank, and though he expected relief, they were confronted by two North Korean soldiers with rifles. Liang spoke to them in low tones, calming them as they suspiciously eyed Jason’s Western appearance. Speaking Korean, Liang presented the two uniformed men with chocolate bars and what looked like an envelope of money. The soldiers plucked the gifts quickly from Liang’s hands and tucked them into their pockets.
Liang signaled Jason, and together the two walked briskly away from the border crossing.
“There is another checkpoint ahead.” Liang pointed up a dirt road. “We will need to climb the mountain instead.”
“How far?” Jason asked.
But Liang jogged away without answering, then turned sharply to the left to climb a steep bank. Jason was already winded, but he scrambled up the slope, feeling panic at the mere thought of being left behind or getting lost inside North Korea.
The fog and the roar of the river were left behind, and the two hikers emerged on a clear mountainside in bright moonlight that seemed to part the clouds above. The air was crisp and clear, and by the rays of the moon, the rocks underfoot could easily be seen, making travel easier.
With his initial fright fading, Jason steadied his breathing, and matched Liang’s quick pace. He was inside North Korea!
For an hour, they climbed the mountain, skirted an enormous glacier on the north slope, then descended into a valley hidden in moon shadows. Quite suddenly, they were at the edge of dozens of man-made shelters, which appeared flimsy even in the moonlight. They were made of thin boards and stiff fabric. Jason would’ve thought the poor village was uninhabited, but he smelled the smoke of burning coal, though all hints of light were hidden inside the shelters.
He followed Liang as he weaved through the shacks, realizing the Chinese man must’ve been in the ravine many times to be able to pick his way so soundlessly through the dwellings.
They stopped at a shelter that seemed no different from any other, and Liang tapped lightly on what Jason thought was particle board covered in plastic. An opening appeared, and candlelight gleamed dimly. The two travelers were allowed entry by a small Korean man clothed in rags.
Ten men and women similarly clothed were gathered around a single candle. They stared at Jason as he knelt with Liang at the edge of their circle. In whispered Korean, Liang communicated to the secret Christians. Jason was acknowledged, and he took that as his cue to shed his backpack and the coats he’d worn.
However, as he gave the coats one at a time to the believers, they bundled them with twine and set them aside. Their faces were full of joy, as if they themselves had put on the coats for warmth.
“Why aren’t they putting on the coats?” Jason whispered to Liang. “It’s freezing in here, and they clearly have barely enough clothes for themselves.”
“There are many who have less than these,” Liang said. “There are labor camps nearby full of Christians who need coats, and sometimes they also give them to nonbelievers in this village who need to be shown God’s love in their suffering under the regime.”
Next, Jason watched as the Bibles and food from his backpack were passed around. From within the believers’ clothing, they drew notepads, and referenced faded scribbling on wrinkled paper. Suddenly, the people began tearing out pages of the Bibles! Jason raised his hand to object. He hadn’t carried those Bibles across a dangerous river and up a mountain to be used for fire fuel!
“No.” Liang silenced him. “This is the way it is done sometimes. Pages are easier to smuggle and hide than bound Bibles. Their notes keep record of which villages need which books of the Bible next. There are not enough Bibles for everyone, so they must share what they have. And wherever Christians are arrested and sent to the camps, their Bibles are burned.”
Jason watched with mixed emotions. It seemed so strange coming from America where he had everything, to arrive at a place where Christians had so little and lived in constant danger. All he’d done was cross a river from China, but the risks were so much greater south of the Yalu.
Once the food and Bibles were put away, Jason was offered a tin cup of hot tea, which was water with a faint scent to it. As he sipped it, he stared at the candle in the center of the circle.
Suddenly, one man began to whisper a chant, and others joined in, carefully guarding their volume.
“What are they saying?” Jason asked Liang.
“They are singing. This is a worship song. In North Korea, they can sing no louder, or others will hear and report them.”
“What worship song are they singing?”
“It is a song about praising God in heaven, in whose presence they will soon not need to whisper. Now the words say that they may perhaps be granted to suffer as martyrs for Christ, and as they die, they will sing aloud and unafraid. It is a good song, a joyful song.”
Jason studied their faces, many of them weeping as they sang quietly. They really were shining, he thought, like he’d never seen before. He strongly sensed their presence—the presence of Christ—of peace and humility and love.
“But, they have nothing!” Jason stated.
“Oh, you are wrong. They have everything.”
Jason fell over from where he’d been kneeling, as if he’d been slapped. They had everything? When he recovered his balance and returned to his knees, he noticed that Liang had turned away to speak to the others. For a moment, Jason was left to his own thoughts about what a true Christian should value. He thought back to his many boasts to the underground Chinese believers earlier that very evening. He was ashamed.
Twenty minutes later, Liang and Jason readied themselves to depart. They embraced the North Korean church members as if they were close family, then Liang gripped Jason by the arm.
“What stories will you tell other Christians now?”
Jason frowned in embarrassment, but he no longer felt ignorant.
“I will tell about such a hunger for the Word of God that Bible pages are torn from their bindings. I will tell about coats that are refused to be worn so others can be warm. And I will tell about a faith that is attacked, yet is still expressed in whispered praises.”
Liang nodded his approval.
“Now, Jason Newman, you are a rich Christian. Take this wealth back to America. Let us go. Make no sound. We must get across the river before dawn.
Find other Christian short stories here by D.I. Telbat.
NOTE: Thanks so much to our Beta Readers and/or reviewers who are giving their early feedback to David on his newest novel, Distant Harm. We appreciate you!
Prayer Prompts: In a recent Vision Beyond Borders newsletter (subscribe here), they shared of a Christian pastor of a now-closed house church in China who is being held in prison for his faith. Please pray for “Su,” that the Lord will protect him and release him.
Another praise and prayer request from VBB: PTL the land for Miss Emerald’s new orphanage has been bought in Burma! Read the background story here.
COMING UP: Join us next time for an Author Reflection in, “The Bible: God’s Invitation to Come up the Mountain.”