A village named Paradise
Christmases come and go, leaving with us vivid memories. This is the story of a scientist who sacrificed science for God and spent a Christmas blessed and inspired by a vision of Christ.
John Smith grew up in England with his widowed mother. John was taken to church every Sunday and imbibed the scriptures in Sunday school and was invariably top of the class.
At the age of 12, however, John felt uneasy because he saw no link between the atmosphere in church and school.
John thought that church and school curricula might seem like parallel lines that never meet. However, he had also learnt that geodesics – the more general term for parallel lines – do meet in space. John saw no reason why these concepts should be limited to the space of inanimate matter and not govern the space in our minds. Apart from these thoughts he saw the absolute necessity of being able to integrate the unseen world to which Jesus bore His testimony and the scientific picture of the universe embracing as it does the seen and the unseen. If integration was not possible, then, he could not hold onto his faith and the scientific outlook at the same time.
John matured through middle and secondary school and entered the University of Cambridge as a scholar. He sailed through all parts of the Mathematics Tripos examinations with first classes and emerged Senior Wrangler at 22. In the following year he bagged a remarkable academic double with a doctoral thesis on Divinity!
At 31, John was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and six years later was awarded the Order of Merit. He was also appointed chaplain of his college. John was now at the peak of his academic career but, strangely, a feeling of despair had begun to agonize his mind. He felt that a life spent in science alone was not fulfilling enough. He could not see how he could honour, practically, the second great commandment of Jesus: Love thy neighbor as thyself. John could not understand how his research, though greatly valued and admired by the scientific community, could infuse love and joy in the lives of ordinary suffering and needy people.
At 40, John had clearly reached the crossroads in his life. Would he take ambition at the full and go on to good fortune or, could he not translate the love that the Lord enjoined, in some practical way among those in dire need of life’s essentials? The answer came to him in a most unexpected fashion on a Christmas Eve. He had spent the night quietly in his study at Cambridge and knelt down, prayed, got into bed and was soon fast asleep.
In the early hours of the morning, John woke up with a start. He felt some strange presence in the room but could not see what. He quickly switched on his bedside lamp and then he saw. He rubbed his eyes thinking that he was hallucinating; but there it was! This strange figure in a flowing white robe stood at the foot of his bed and chuckled like a child at the sight of John rubbing his eyes. Strangely, John was not gripped by fear because in the eyes of this strange figure John saw such love and compassion that he had never experienced before in all the years of his existence.
Surprised John and intrusive Jesus gazed at each other for just a moment but it seemed to John like an eternity. Then John broke the ice. “What would you have me do, Lord,” he asked. “You have honoured your mother thus far but now it’s your turn to honour me,” said Jesus. “How would you have me do that?” asked John. “There is in Gabon, 60 kilometres to the south of Tchibanga, a tiny village with no name. The small population of about 200 people are among the poorest of the poor. They barely subsist. Go to that village, humble yourself and get to work there. You have my blessings,” said Jesus and was gone.
John’s plan was to go as a social volunteer. Proselytizing was not his mission. Multiplication of numbers in the Lord’s vineyard by any means other than living by example, had little mathematical excitement for John.
John arrived in Gabon on a wet and windy day. After spending a night in Libreville, the capital, he travelled the next day to Tchibanga. There, with the help of a guide he was able to ascertain the location of the village. With the guide’s help he travelled to the village and met a few of the elders.
They were glad that the Englishman had come as a social volunteer because no one had come there before with such a laudable purpose. However, they did have some reservations that they did not wish to divulge to the visitor. White men had come before to other parts of Africa to do social work that had only been an ostensible excuse for religious conversion.
John’s subsequent conduct soon dispelled their unfounded suspicions. He had brought a good part of his life’s savings to help fund at least the initial phase of social reconstruction. With the help of some villagers he put up a little wooden shack to serve as living quarters. Meanwhile, his ex-colleagues in England had raised about 62,000 pounds sterling for John’s needs. John planned and constructed a 20-bed hospital. A Cambridge acquaintance of his, Dr. Simon Keat who specialized in tropical diseases volunteered to come down for a year and help commence health services there. John’s mother channelled a large part of her earnings annually to her son. He next embarked on the establishment of an elementary school and for this purpose another friend, Jack, took a year off from his Cambridge teaching engagements to assist him. Two elementary schoolteachers also came down from England as volunteers.
John’s social initiatives in this little known African village stirred the government of Gabon to support his objectives. The government took steps to provide electricity, basic sanitation and pipe-borne water to the villagers. At 49, John could look back with some satisfaction that he had been able to love these neighbours as himself, in accordance with the Lord’s second great commandment. By this time he had acquired a sufficient familiarity with the native Bantu language of the villagers that enabled him to translate the Gospel of St. Matthew.
On Christmas Eve he wrote a letter to his mother and spent the night in prayer. He was soon fast asleep. Then it happened for the second time in his life. Feeling once again a presence in the darkness of his shack, he bestirred himself, switched on his bedside lamp, bounded out of bed and knelt down readily before Jesus. The silence, even for a moment, between God and man had a chilling effect on him. “John, you have honoured me well. Now you must have your reward,” said Jesus. “Reward?” echoed John. He had come out here to do the Lord’s bidding but here he was promising a reward for charity! As all this did not add up John said, “Lord, charity seeks no reward.” Jesus said, “Now you are preaching!” John could not guess whether the Lord was pleased or not with his remark. “Tomorrow you will see Paradise,” said Jesus, and was gone.
John sat up in bed. He was hale and hearty and in robust good health. Yet, Jesus had promised him Paradise. Then he realized that what Jesus had promised the penitent on the cross at Calvary was that he would be with Jesus in Paradise but now what Jesus had promised John was that he would see Paradise. With that difference noted, he fell fast asleep.
Christmas Day dawned with nothing planned. However, John thought he owed a debt to both God and man. He assembled the villagers for an informal Christmas talk and disclosed for the first time his Jesus encounter in England that had changed his life and brought him out here to be among them. He then took out his translation to Bantu language of St. Matthew’s Gospel and read it out slowly. It was then that he observed from the corner of his eye that a group of elders were huddled in a corner slightly away from the assembly, having a quick powwow. At the end of the talk a largely appreciative gathering dispersed but the elders walked up to John and bowed before him.One of them addressed him in a most conciliatory tone: “ John, sir, we want to tell you how foolishly suspicious we were especially at the start of your mission in our village. We apologize and ask for your forgiveness. For the first time in eight years you have told us about God and Jesus through your reading of your own translation of Matthew’s gospel. You have not converted us. Let everyone know that. However this may embarrass you, we want you to know that a large majority of us have converted ourselves even before you read the holy words to us today. We want you, sir, to postpone all further development and give us all, very urgently, a church building where we can worship God together.”
Barely suppressing his tears of joy John simply said: “ It is not for man to forgive, but God will. I will build a church, since you have asked for it.” The elders then had the last say: “And we will name the village Paradise.” Jesus had kept his word.
John had no idea why the villagers would want the name Paradise for their village.
On a hunch, John reached for the modern classic ‘Mere Christianity’ by C.S. Lewis and turned to the chapter titled ‘Hope’ and there he saw these lines that he had marked in his youth when he had read the book for the first time: “The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who had built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”