Shortly after the turn of the century, Japan invaded, conquered, and occupied Korea. They overwhelmed the Koreans with a brutality that would sicken the strongest of stomachs. One group singled out for concentrated oppression was the Christians. When the Japanese army overpowered Korea one of the first things they did was board up the evangelical churches and eject most foreign missionaries. Then they refused to allow churches to meet and jailed many key believers.
One pastor persistently entreated his local Japanese police chief for permission to meet for services. His nagging was finally accommodated, and the police chief offered to unlock his church…for one meeting. It didn’t take long for word to travel. Committed Christians starving for an opportunity for unhindered worship quickly made their plans. Long before dawn on that promised Sunday, Korean families throughout a wide area made their way to the church. They passed the staring eyes of their Japanese captors, but nothing was going to steal their joy. As they closed the doors behind them they shut out the cares of oppression and shut in a burning spirit anxious to glorify their Lord.
The Korean church has always had a reputation as a singing church. It was during a stanza of “Nearer My God to Thee” that the Japanese police chief waiting outside gave the orders. The people toward the back of the church could hear them when they barricaded the doors, but no one realized that they had doused the church with kerosene until they smelled the smoke. There was an immediate rush for the windows. But momentary hope recoiled in horror as the men climbing out the windows came crashing back in—their bodies ripped by a hail of bullets.
The good pastor knew it was the end. With a calm that comes from confidence, he led his congregation in a hymn whose words served as a fitting farewell to earth and a loving salutation to heaven. Their song became a serenade to the horrified and helpless witnesses outside. Their words also tugged at the hearts of the cruel men who oversaw this flaming execution of the innocent.
Alas! and did my Savior bleed?
did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
for such a worm as I?
Just before the roof collapsed they sang the last verse, their words an eternal testimony to their faith.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
the debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away
‘Tis all that I can do!
At the cross, at the cross
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away —
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day.
After the war, in 1972, a group of Japanese pastors traveling through Korea came the site of this tragedy where a memorial had been erected. When they read the details of the tragedy and the names of the spiritual brothers and sisters who had perished, they were overcome with shame. They returned to Japan committed to right a wrong. There was an immediate outpouring of love from their fellow believers. They raised ten million yen ($25,000). The money was transferred through proper channels and a beautiful white church building was erected on the sight of the tragedy.
When the dedication service for the new building was held, a delegation from Japan joined the relatives and special guests. Although their generosity was acknowledged and their attempts at making peace appreciated, the memories were still there.
The speeches were made, the details of the tragedy recalled, and the names of the dead honored. It was time to bring the service to a close. Someone in charge of the agenda thought it would be appropriate to conclude with the same two songs that were sung the day the church was burned.
The song leader began the words to “Nearer My God to Thee.” But something remarkable happened as the voices mingled on the familiar melody. As the memories of the past mixed with the truth of the song, resistance started to melt. The inspiration that gave hope to a doomed collection of churchgoers in a past generation gave hope once more.
The song leader closed the service with the hymn “At the Cross.”
The normally stoic Japanese could not contain themselves. The tears that began to fill their eyes during the song suddenly gushed from deep inside. They turned to their Korean spiritual relatives and begged them to forgive. The guarded, callused hearts of the Koreans were not quick to surrender. But the love of the Japanese believers—unintimidated by decades of hatred—tore at the Koreans’ emotions.
At the cross,
At the cross,
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away…
One Korean turned toward a Japanese brother. Then another. And then the floodgates holding back a wave of emotion let go. The Koreans met their new Japanese friends in the middle. They clung to each other and wept.
In each case the key to perseverance and, ultimately joy was the same thing. When the Koreans were massacred for their faith it was turning their eyes on Christ that allowed them to endure. When, in that memorial service that came much later, the Japanese were forgiven, it was turning their eyes on Christ and His cross that gave them to grace to forgive. If you and I are to stand firm in the middle of difficulty, in short, if we are to have joy, we must remove our roadblocks, recall our legacy, and renew our commitment.