The Rich Man & the Prayer Warrior
THE BEGINNING – CHAPTER 1
The tightly packed dirt floor was framed by cold stone walls, punctured here and there by grimy windows that were slick with frost and ice. The glow of morning’s first light was still far off, and the room was silent. His prayer was barely a whisper.
“God, thank you for loving me. It’s cold, and my stomach is twisted with hunger, my family doesn’t know where I am, and these frozen fields and strange villages are lonely places. I’m tired of running from police, getting beaten and thrown in jail. Sometimes I want to give up, but I know you’re with me, and I’m always warmed and blessed by you. Thank you for your many blessings. Continue to give me the strength to endure whatever comes my way.”
Wu Ming opened his eyes and peered into the early morning darkness and mist of the deserted village house where he’d taken refuge the night before. He half expected to see someone standing there, but quickly remembered that he was alone.But he wasn’t. He could feel God’s presence surround him like a heavy quilt – warm, protective and reassuring.
Brother Wu’s stomach rumbled. The shriveled, frozen potato he’d dug up the night before hadn’t fully digested, and he longed for some hot tea. But Liping Village was still a half day’s walk away, so he braced himself and ducked through the door as he pulled his thin coat around him.
The icy wind shocked Wu into focus. He was a stranger here, and didn’t want to answer anyone’s questions, so he cut across the frozen rice paddies and quickly stepped through an ancient stand of bamboo. Suddenly he heard … a cat? A wild animal? It was eerie, but sounded vaguely familiar. Like a baby … but it couldn’t be. It was so cold.
Who would leave a child out in this weather? “Oh, Jesus,” he slowly exhaled, “If that’s a baby, lead me to it.” Brother Wu sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit, so he stood perfectly still, barely breathing. Through his wispy breath he saw something move.
And there she was. Or at least there were two big, tear-filled eyes, blinking up from what must have been eight layers of blankets. The bamboo basket that cradled her was carefully placed on the path to the village well. Obviously, someone wanted her found quickly. As soon as Wu lifted the basket from the frosty earth, the little girl stopped crying. Immediately he thought,“How can I care for a child? I’m a fugitive on the run, with no home, food or shelter. I’ve got to find this baby a family.”
“Honey, where’s the checkbook?” Christopher Blake asked his wife. “I need to make out our tithe.”
“It should be right where you left it Chris,” Penny instructed. Chris Blake fumbled around the top drawer of his desk and felt the familiar plastic cover. He pulled out the checkbook, flipped to the last entry and noted the balance – $12,312. He quickly scribbled out a check for $312, stuck it in the tithe envelope, licked it and stuffed the envelope in the left inside pocket of his sport coat. “C’mon, let’s go! We better leave now, or worship will be over.”
“Alright, alright – I just have to finish my hair.”
The Blakes had returned late the night before from a hard-earned mid-winter cruise in the Caribbean, and were tanned and fit. But this was February in North Dakota, and it was cold outside. Chris clicked his key fob and started Penny’s Lexus in the garage. “Finally!” he teased, as Penny came downstairs with every hair in place. “Let’s go!”
At their favorite restaurant, after church, Chris and Penny ordered the French toast.“The warm syrup will taste good on such a cold day,” Penny told Chris. Just about every Sunday, the Blakes and their close friends enjoyed brunch and fellowship together. It was a great way to relax, hear about each other’s week, and occasionally discuss that day’s sermon.
It was appropriate that today’s message was on listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Chris had a lot on his mind. His job took him all over the world, but lately he’d been flying the Fargo-Minneapolis-Beijing route. As a pilot for Northwest Airlines, he liked the convenience of living in a smaller city like Fargo, close to Hector Airport, with quick connections to Minneapolis and beyond.
But life seemed bland lately. Even though Chris and Penny worked hard, owned a nice home in a great community, went to a vibrant church and had wonderful friends and family – something wasn’t quite right.
This nagged at him to the point where he was having trouble shaking it. Chris prayed as he knelt next to his bed after a long day. “I really am thankful for everything you’ve blessed us with, and I don’t want to complain, but I really want something more.”
“Honey, are you OK?” Penny asked as she moved toward Chris. “Why are you shaking?”
“Penny, I don’t know – I just feel something deep,” Chris answered. “Lately, whenever I pray I sense God’s call on my life. It’s not a bad thing – but it does feel serious. I think He’s got something for me to do.”
“Well, you’re flying to Beijing tomorrow. Maybe He’ll show you something then,” Penny said.
The 747 reached 35,000 feet with ease as it started its track over the Arctic Circle on its way to the other side of the world. Capt. Chris Blake turned the controls over to his co-pilot, Bernadette Brown and excused himself. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Bernie. Do you want anything from the galley?”
“Sure, Chris. I’ll take a cup of that good airline coffee – but when are they going to add Starbucks to the menu?” she teased.
After getting Bernie her coffee, Chris took the pilots’ elevator down to the bunk – all 18 square feet of it – and knelt down. The tight quarters actually gave him a sense of comfort and privacy, and he began to pray. “Father, I’m open to your will. Whatever you have for me, just make it clear and I’ll walk in it.” The peace of the Holy Spirit enveloped Chris, and he wanted to stay there forever … but he had a plane to fly!
This had to be one of the strangest situations Wu Ming had faced as a traveling preacher. It was one thing to be on the run, responsible only for himself, but how could he care for a baby? He had nothing – he couldn’t even change the baby’s diaper. He prayed silently, “Lord, I know you led me to this child, so you must have a plan for her. I trust you’re going to reveal that to me soon.”
As Brother Wu searched through the few belongings that were stuffed in the basket under the baby, he felt something metallic and pulled out an old, rusty tobacco tin. As he pried loose the lid, bits of stale tobacco fluttered to the ground, covering the snow like pepper. Wu carefully pulled out some papers and squinted to read them in the early morning murkiness. MY NAME IS LI YING, AND MY PARENTS ARE DEAD. “Li Ying – Beautiful Flower,” Wu thought. “So, I’ve been given a beautiful flower in this strange place, out of the frozen earth.”
Brother Wu emerged from the tiny hamlet as it slowly came to life, but well before its residents discovered he was there. He needed to get to Liping Village today, so he quickly set his feet in that direction. The wintry morning mist blanketed the icy earth as far as he could see, but the rising, hazy February sun teased the fog, threatening to banish it far from the Middle Kingdom.
Li Ying cooed, swaddled in bamboo and blankets, and Wu suddenly remembered the real weight of what lay in the basket. What should he do with this baby? Before he could finish a short prayer for wisdom, he sensed God’s peace and determined to find her a home at Liping. There were good brothers and sisters there, and surely they would be willing to care for little Ying Ying.
Brother Wu trotted across the slippery fields, carefully making his way through the haze and around the icy spots, tightly clutching the bamboo basket. “Dear God, prepare the way ahead of me!”
The way to Liping Village led Brother Wu and his precious cargo through ice-covered fields as the sun struggled to rise above the distant horizon. His hunger was deeper now, and he worried that little Li Ying hadn’t eaten anything either, possibly for a day or more. He needed to get to Liping soon.
A flurry of wings and long necks suddenly blurred everything in front of Wu, and he nearly dropped the basket holding Li Ying. A small flock of cranes sprang from the tall winter grass, causing his heart to flutter like the white flapping wings furiously beating the crisp air, and quickly rising into the clear blue sky.
“I must really be on edge,” Wu thought. “That last run-in with the Public Security Bureau has made me nervous.” He shivered as he thought about the filthy cell he was thrown into just a week ago. His offense? Teaching Bible lessons to a group of teenagers back in Chingyundian.
He still couldn’t figure out why the police had let him go, but he was glad they did, and he took the opportunity to make his way to Liping Village.
In fact, he could now see in the distance the ancient oak tree that filled the center of the village. It was a favorite place for Liping’s residents to hang out, especially when the weather was warm and the days were long. But right now it was bitter cold. Even so, Wu relaxed as he realized he’d be in Liping in less than half an hour. Soon he’d have help with Li Ying.
Chris Blake awoke in the Beijing Hotel after getting a few hours sleep. The flight in had seemed longer this time, and he was eager to get a few days off to see the sights not only in Beijing, but outside the city as well. Even though Chris often flew into China, he didn’t get too many opportunities to spend time with the local people. A fellow pilot had recently told him about some nearby villages that loved to have visitors.
A couple of local schools even welcomed professionals like Chris to come talk to their students. Maybe he’d get the chance to do that on this trip. In the meantime, he knew what he had to do – get over to the Hongqiao Market to buy some pearls for his wife.
Hongqiao Market – five floors crammed full of everything one could imagine. All kinds of luggage, antique paintings and other artwork, knickknacks, jewelry (like those pearls), food, clothing and toys.
“Susan!” Chris called, over piles of precious pearls. “I’m glad I bumped into you – maybe you can help me.” Susan worked at the U.S. Embassy as an immigration officer, and had been in China for 18 years. She knew her way around the city, and also played the politics of Beijing very well.
“Hey, I was wondering if you had any contacts in the surrounding small villages. I’d love to visit one of them,” Chris asked. “I even brought a bunch of small gifts with me, in case I got the chance to go.” Susan replied that she could probably help Chris with a short visit, and in fact, knew the perfect village. “I know just the place, Chris,” Susan stated.
“The people there are warm, there are lots of kids who want to practice their English, and they have some of the coolest old temples you’ll find anywhere.”
The next day was unusually warm for February, and as Chris approached the village gates, he was struck by the vibrant colors and happy faces of the kids waiting curiously to see this tall stranger walking into their village. He looked up at the sign over the gates, and read: “LIPING VILLAGE.” What did God have for him here?
The ancient oak tree had greeted generations of visitors to Liping Village, and offered a welcome sight to Brother Wu as the afternoon sun faded slowly behind the distant western hills. The air quickly felt chilly, but Wu was warmed as soon as he spotted Mr. Ling, who was curious about the contents of Wu’s bamboo basket.
At that moment, little Li Ying let out a wail, and the two old friends broke out laughing as Mr. Ling realized the bundle that Wu carried was alive! When Mrs. Ling heard the squealing, she rushed out of her tiny house and snatched up the infant, digging beneath the blankets to see just who she was holding. “She’s beautiful! But she’s got to be hungry … and wet,” Mrs. Ling sniffed as she bundled Ying Ying into the warm house. Brother Wu was relieved, but didn’t dare show it.
The aroma of dumplings and a pungent vinegar sauce escaped through the door behind Mrs. Ling and drew the two old friends into the house, where Brother Wu faced the woman’s stern gaze. “You silly man! What are you doing carrying this baby around in terrible weather like this?”
“I had no choice,” Wu responded. “I found her near a village well, with this note attached.” MY NAME IS LI YING, AND MY PARENTS ARE DEAD. “It’s hard for me to believe that people can do this to a child. If I hadn’t run across her, this little girl might have frozen to death.”
Mrs. Ling’s eyes moistened. She quickly wiped a tear from the top of her rosy cheekbone, and nodded gently toward Wu. “You’ve done a good thing, Brother, and I’m glad you brought her here. I’ll do whatever I can to help.” The three Christians bowed their heads in prayer as they gave thanks for their food and for the gift of Li Ying.
Throughout Liping Village, lanterns flickered and wavered behind thick, wavy glass as darkness finally took over the countryside. Tired villagers drifted off to sleep while gray, sooty smoke wafted out of their chimneys and melted into an opaque haze, floating like a night blanket just above the columns of clay-tiled roofs.
It was quiet. Almost too quiet. Red hot embers glowed from the iron stove in the center of the Ling house, and occasionally popped and hissed. The only other sound was a mild breeze outside that steadily rustled the bed sheets drooping over the clothesline. The village was deep asleep at 4 a.m.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
“Open the door!”
BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
Who was that at this time of night? The haze outside matched that around their heads, but the angry pounding quickly startled Wu and the Lings awake. It was so early the rooster next door hadn’t even crowed – it was probably hiding in its little coop, trying to escape the early morning chill.
“OPEN UP! IT’S THE PSB! OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW!!”
“What did the Public Security Bureau want here?” thought Wu. “Have they caught up with me?”
Chris Blake looked up at the sign and read: LIPING VILLAGE. He couldn’t wait to meet the people of Liping, see how they lived and discover more of the real China, outside of the cities he so often flew into. Loud giggling drew his gaze down, and he found himself surrounded by a small gang of boys proudly wearing the blazing red scarves of the Communist Youth League.
“Wai ren!” “Wai ren!” (foreigner!) The boys crowded around Chris, jostling for position, but almost afraid to touch him. They bravely practiced their English: “Hello.” “Thank you.” “How are you?”
Chris responded with:“Ni hao ma?” The kids giggled, pushed each other and said “Hao.” “Hao.”
Chris Blake’s escort was a young Chinese man, David Ling, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. His English was flawless, and he’d been a great guide so far. He was obviously highly educated and there was a genuine warmth to his personality, which was unexpected. Chris knew that David had family in Liping, and he was excited about meeting some of them.
“Mr. Blake,” David said, “my aunt and uncle live just around the corner, in the next lane. They are honored to have you as a guest, and have prepared some of their favorite dishes for you.”
As he examined the inside of the ancestral temple, the stern gazes of an old man and woman peered down from faded paintings high above the altar, penetrating the heavy fog of incense with a sense of imperiousness. Between the thick smoke and the feeling that something – or someone – was alive in this sanctum to the dead, it was all a bit creepy, and Chris suddenly craved some fresh air. He and David exited the temple and headed for David’s aunt and uncle’s house.
It was a very simple structure, mostly stone and mud, with old cracked tiles lining the roof in almost-straight rows. The window frames obviously hadn’t been painted in decades – the white surfaces were chipped, worn and curled up in many spots, but they appeared tight. Chris had to duck to enter the modest home. “Mr. Blake, I’d like you to meet my aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Ling. And this is a good friend of the family, Wu Ming.”
Chris extended his hand and bowed slightly, just to get down to eye level. “Hello Mr. and Mrs. Ling. Thank you so much for inviting me into your home. I really appreciate it. Mr. Wu, how are you today?”
As steamed buns, bowls of rice and plates full of vegetables, tofu and pork waited, the Lings bowed their heads in prayer. Frankly, Chris didn’t expect such an open display of faith in a Communist country like China, but eagerly bowed his head too. He sensed a kinship with the Lings and with their friend, Mr. Wu.
But there was a sadness lying just under the surface of these kind people. He could clearly feel it, but he wasn’t sure if he should say anything. He didn’t want to pry, but he finally asked: “Mr. and Mrs. Ling, are you Christians?”
“Yes, we are,” Brother Ling answered firmly.
“Well, I am too, and the warmth of your home and your spirits is a real encouragement to me,” Chris said. “I never dreamed I would feel so comfortable in a place so far away from my family and home, and I want to thank you for that. But can I say that it seems like I’m missing something here? I don’t want to intrude, but is something bothering you?” Chris asked. “If so, I’d like to pray together.”
“Well, Mr. Blake, yesterday we were given a precious gift, but this morning it was taken away, and we just don’t understand why.”
“What do you mean Mrs. Ling?” Chris wanted to know more, and gently prodded his hosts.
“Yesterday, Brother Wu here arrived back in Liping after preaching and teaching in many villages in the area. We hadn’t seen him for months, and there he was – with a baby in his arms! Can you believe it?” Mrs. Ling nearly shouted. “First of all, it was a gift just to have Wu safely here. The police have been looking for him, and we were so blessed to see him. On top of that, he brought us a beautiful little girl – Li Ying.”
“So where’s the baby now, and where did she come from?” Chris asked.
“She was an orphan that I found near a well about a half day’s walk from here,” Brother Wu informed Chris. “According to a note her parents are dead, but somebody obviously cared about her and wanted her found. I didn’t know what to do but bring her here, so that’s what I did.”
“Then early this morning we were jolted awake by the police,” Mr. Ling declared. “We thought they were after Brother Wu, so he hid in a cupboard. But they were really after Li Ying! We don’t know why, but they took her away, and here we are. Please pray with us.”
The Public Security Bureau had just taken away Li Ying that morning. Brother Wu and his friends were still recovering from the shock, and hesitantly asked Chris Blake if he could help, wondering aloud whether Blake’s connections at the U.S. Embassy could find out where she was.
Chris promised to do all he could, but knew there was only one real solution to this tragic situation.
“Let’s pray,” Chris said. “I’m just a visitor here, and don’t know what I can do, but God can help.”
So Wu Ming, the Lings, their nephew David and Chris Blake huddled together around the flickering iron stove in the center of the little house and passionately sought the Lord, warm tears running down their cheeks. “Jesus! We ask you to protect little Li Ying – don’t allow her to be harmed in any way. Place your angels around her to watch over her and protect her. And please bring her back to us. Soften the hearts of the police, and show us what to do. Thank you, Lord for your mercy.”
Time flowed … and Chris sensed a sweet spirit pass between him and these four new friends of his. There was a deep and unmistakable love that filled them, yet – there were tests to come.
Brother Wu slowly raised his eyes, looked at Chris and said, “Obviously, brother, God brought you here. This morning when the PSB stormed through those doors, we didn’t know what was happening. We’re still very upset, but we already see God at work by bringing you here. You’ve been a real comfort to us, and we’re thankful.”
“Brother Wu, I have to thank you and Mr. and Mrs. Ling for opening not only your home to me, but your hearts as well. In a time of loss, you’ve made me feel like part of your family, and I know that’s a bit unusual in your culture – no offense intended,” Chris apologized.
“None is taken,” assured Mr. Ling. “The bond between us is greater than our cultures. Our faith has helped us cross barriers that are difficult to break, even between most Chinese people and foreigners who have lived here for many years.”
“You know, Uncle, I may be able to get some information from the drivers I know at the Embassy. Excuse me while I go outside to make a phone call,” David said. “I won’t be long.”
“Let me tell you – what I’m feeling right now is like something out of my childhood,” Chris barely whispered. “The pain is so familiar that it’s almost physical. I can remember sitting on my grandmother’s lap when I was about six years old, listening to her tell stories like this, of children – and parents – being carried away, never to be seen again. When you first told me about Li Ying, I almost started to cry and I wasn’t sure why. But the emotion, pain and passion that my grandma shared with me in those old stories rushed back like they’d been lurking just below the surface, waiting for an opening.”
“But what would you know about this kind of pain?” Mrs. Ling said. “Here in China, Christians have suffered for generations – persecuted by Nationalists, Imperialists and Communists. Every group that’s come to power has used Christians as scapegoats for China’s problems. If the crops failed, it was the Christians’ fault. If the Yangtze flooded, it was because Christians had upset the ancestor spirits. If sickness invaded the villages, it was blamed on Christians, because we didn’t believe in some of the traditional healing methods.
“We are well-acquainted with grief, and we count it a privilege to share in the sufferings of Christ – to be counted worthy to partake in His afflictions,” Mrs. Ling went on. “We believe deeply in God’s faithfulness to us, because we’ve experienced it – over and over again. But what could you possibly know about this, Brother Blake? You live in the U.S. where you’re free to say and do as you please, you have a wonderful career flying big planes, and you probably have a beautiful home and cars, as well as plenty of food to eat.”
Sister Ling looked down, suddenly embarrassed by what she had said. What was she doing? She would never challenge a guest in her own home. It had been a very emotional day, and the strain was beginning to show.
“My sister, can I tell you what it was like growing up in the suburbs of a large U.S. city in the 1950s?” Chris asked. “I was treated like a despised foreigner in my own country. Every day I ran to school, hiding between buildings and trees, praying that no one would beat me up. At lunchtime, I ate alone and had no one to talk to. When my mother asked me to go to the corner store after school, boys would catch me, slap me in the face and take my family’s money. I was afraid to leave my house.
“There were times I’d come home from school crying, and my grandmother would say to me: ‘Now you listen to me, young man. Don’t you ever let those boys see you cry. You take pride in who you are and never fear any man! Your great-great grandfather and his family paid dearly so you could go to school and get a good job, vote and raise your children in a free country. Your ancestors were beaten and thrown into jail for no reason, some taken away and never seen again. We have reason to hate, but we don’t, and you know why? Because we’re God-fearing Christians.’”
“This is how we feel,” Wu Ming exclaimed. “But I never really understood how Americans could feel this way.”
“Well, like I said, my grandmother always told me stories about her great-grandparents and how they overcame intense suffering and persecution,” Chris responded. “They were kidnapped from Africa – trapped like animals and snatched away from their families. Then they were shipped to America as slaves. They were beaten, starved and sometimes worked to death. Many of them found their only hope in Jesus, and they prayed and sang together as they worked their hands raw picking cotton, cleaning horse stables and scrubbing floors. That racism touched me as a boy, and continues even to this day.
“My grandmother taught me to pray as soon as I could talk, and helped me forgive people who hate and mistreat me,” Chris continued. “Only God’s love and grace has helped me do this. Today, when we prayed together here, your suffering became my suffering. I experienced your pain, and was able to take it to the Lord with passion, because I understood what you were feeling. It’s beyond Li Ying – for the first time I think I understand the suffering of Chinese Christians. I can relate. I’m glad we had time to pray together, and that we’ve discovered this common bond – this ‘fellowship of persecution.’”
Mrs. Ling squirmed on her small stool, sobbing. “Please forgive me, Brother Chris,” she wept. “I judged you and I’m sorry. To me, you were a rich American who came to China just to see ‘the poor Chinese people’ and take a few pictures. But you have the same heart as I do. You’ve suffered like I have. You serve the same Jesus I do, and your prayers are as fervent and passionate as mine. I know you care for Li Ying, and will do what you can to protect her and get her back. Forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” said Chris. “Forget about it. Let’s get started on finding Li Ying!”
Chris Blake’s cell phone rang. It was David Ling, who had returned to his office at the new U.S. Embassy on a 10-acre site just outside Beijing’s third-ring road. He actually liked the old embassy better – near the street markets – because the neighborhood was full of winding streets covered in over-arching canopies of trees, and filled with tourists trying to find a bargain. Of course, there were also the ubiquitous DVD and CD hawkers, whose life’s mission was to get a bootleg movie into your hands at all costs. Maybe the clean, new embassy was a bit easier to take after all.
“Mr. Blake?” David had news about Li Ying, and it was disturbing. “I’ve got some information about the baby – Li Ying. She was taken to an orphanage in Tianjin, where the doctors are evaluating her and deciding exactly what to do with her.”
“But, why?” Chris responded. “She was abandoned, and nobody wanted her. Wu Ming saved her life, and the PSB came in and just took her away. Can they do that?”
There was a pause before David answered. “Someone in Liping Village reported there was a baby in my uncle’s home, and apparently they thought she didn’t belong there. It’s amazing they didn’t arrest my aunt and uncle, or search their home more thoroughly. If they had, they might have discovered Brother Wu, too, and thrown him back in prison. At least the Tianjin Orphanage is one of the best in China. The Director and staff really care about their kids, and will make sure that Li Ying gets into a good home. Maybe it’s for the best – she’s in good hands.”
“I’m with Wu now,” Chris said. “We’ve left Liping, and we’re going on a short trip. I’m taking some extra days off from the airline so I can help him with something he has to do. I want to thank you for taking me to Liping and introducing me to your family there. God has sure opened my eyes about life here, and I’m excited to see what happens on this trip with Wu Ming.”
“Mr. Blake, it’s been my pleasure to spend time with you, and also gain new understanding about your culture,” David said. “Frankly, I’ve never known an African-American before, and you’ve shattered some of my misconceptions as well. Your kind heart and willingness to share the grief of my family truly reflected the love of Jesus, and I appreciate that. I think Li Ying has brought us all together, and she’s going to be OK now.”
“I’ll try to touch base with you before I leave China, but for now, will you pray for us as we go?” Chris asked. “I have a feeling that I’m in for quite an adventure with Wu. Bye for now.”
“What kind of seats did we get?” Chris asked. “I hope it’s not hard seat, because I’ve heard that’s pretty rough.”
“C’mon, now Chris – it’s only a nine-hour ride to Zhengzhou, then we transfer over for the short ride to Kaifeng,” Wu said. “You can handle hard seat, right? Don’t worry – since we’re leaving so late tonight, I got hard sleeper, so we’ll at least be able to lie down. After changing trains in the morning, we’ll get into Kaifeng about 9:00 a.m.”
Chris was reassured as he and Brother Wu slowly squeezed through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on the station platform. He lifted his dark leather bag onto the steaming, idling train as he placed his left foot on the metal step of the old green car and lifted himself into a new world. What was he going to find in Kaifeng?
To be continued …