“A Christian is immortal till his work is done.” (Mountain Rain, 5)
For reasons that are obvious (to me at least), many people have recommended this outstanding biography to me over the years, and only recently have I been able to sit down and enjoy it. Though Yunnan Province at the turn of the 20th Century had its fair share of foreign missionaries trying to till that tough and rocky soil, James Fraser was one of few whose eyes went beyond the cities teeming with Chinese souls to the mountains and the minority peoples who inhabited them. He kept finely written journals and corresponded with a number of prayer warriors in England through vividly colorful letters, and from these personal notes, Eileen Crossman and M.E. Tewskesbury have drafted a powerful living sermon from which all believers can learn.
Fraser first arrived in China in his early twenties and struggled for those initial years to grasp God’s perfect direction. Where should he settle? If he felt burdened for a particular people living elsewhere, should he leave those whom he’s currently reaching? If his only few “successes” end in converts returning to their spirit-worship, then what ever is the point? Yet over the course of a 30+ year ministry, he saw a handful of believing families grow into dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands, until entire villages were turning to Christ, not by the power of James’ own preaching, but by the power of the Spirit and the truly stirring albeit immature faith of the Lisu people themselves.
Several overarching themes seem to infiltrate this book and Fraser’s life, namely discouragement, missionary methods, and prayer. Because he spent so many years alone and without much fruit to show for his labor, Fraser struggled often with discouragement with occasional bouts of depressions. For example, “He was assailed by deep and treacherous doubts. Yeah, hath God said? The question came to him again and again…You’ve been in China five years and there’s not much to show for it, is there? You thought you were called to be a missionary; it was pure imagination. You’d better leave it all, go back and admit it was a big mistake” (58). To such thoughts, he eventually responded that all discouragement is of the devil: “Discouragement is to be resisted just like sin.” (67) What he slowly came to discover is that resisting such dark attacks was as simple as spiritually drawing to God (James 4:7) and practically “setting to and doing some honest work” (99).
Fraser’s missionary methods mirror to a great extent those of James Hudson Taylor, specifically with regards to finances, acculturation, and placing an emphasis on the training of nationals to do the real work. In fact, it was Fraser’s emphasis on the autonomy of the national church that led him to champion what would later become the supposed foundation of the Chinese Three-Self Church: self-support, self-government and self-propagation (182). Yet Fraser also had a great deal of practical advice to share with, well, anyone who might be reading! Regarding a specific call to serve, he writes:
“The Scriptures never teach us to wait for opportunities of service, but to serve in just the things that lie next to our hands. … The Lord bids us work, watch and pray; but Satan suggests, wait until a good opportunity for working, watching, and praying presents itself—and needless to say, this opportunity is always in the future.” (17)
And regarding personal issues like a missionary’s private time, he concludes that “‘No admittance except on business’ did not reveal a true missionary spirit” (29), and that no matter how well everything might seem, missions depends not on the effort exuded but rather on the spiritual state of the missionary (188).
Finally, Fraser’s trust in the power of prayer was palpable throughout his ministry and writings, most notably seen in the emphasis he placed up his London-based prayer band with whom he communicated regularly and in great detail. After first arriving in the mountains of Yunnan, he ” found ‘prayer haunts’ in places on the hills, different ones for different weather. A habit he formed early was to walk up and down, praying aloud, talking as a man talks to his friend. He often used a hymn book, praying aloud the words of the hymns. Sometimes he would pray for the city as he sat and looked over it from the hills” (16). His experience and understanding of prayer expanded through the years, until he could say in all honesty: “I used to think that prayer should have the first place and teaching the second. I now feel that prayer should have the first, second and third place and teaching the fourth” (165). He advised, “If the work seems to fail, then pray; if services, etc., fall flat, then pray still more; if months slip by with little or no result, then pray still more and get others to help you” (95).
One particular area in which his prayer life drastically changed was in the distinction between general and specific prayer. Whereas “general prayer has its place until God’s plan is revealed a little more fully” (93), specific prayer grounded in a faith that God answers (not “will answer”) is where the battles are truly won. Still early in his ministry,
He had come to see that in past years he had wasted much time praying prayers that were not effective at all. Praying without faith was “like trying to cut with a blunt knife—much labor is expended to little purpose.” The work accomplished by labor in prayer depended on faith. “According to your faith,” not labor, “be it unto you.”…People failed in praying the prayer of faith because they did not believe God had answered, but only that he would answer their petitions. “They rise from their knees feeling that God will answer some time or other, but not that He has answered already.” …True faith glories in the present tense, and does not trouble itself about the future. God’s promises are in the present tense, and are quite secure enough to set our hearts at rest. Their full outworking is often in the future, but God’s word is as good as His bond and we need have no anxiety. Sometimes He gives at once what we ask, but more often He just gives His promise (Mark 11:24). (64)
As his confidence in prayer grew through the years, he recommended the following aspects to prayer:
(a) A firm standing on God-given ground, and a constant assertion of faith and claiming of victory. It is helpful, I find, to repeat passages of Scripture applicable to the subject. Let faith be continually strengthened and fed from its proper source—the Word of God.
(b) A definite fighting and resisting of Satan’s host in the Name of Christ. I like to read passages of Scripture, such as I John 3:8 or Rev. 12:11 in prayer, as direct weapons against Satan. I often find it a means of much added strength and liberty in prayer to fight this way. Nothing cuts like the Word of the Living God. (Eph. 6:17, Heb; 4:12).
(c) Praying through every aspect of the matter in detail. (83)
In fact, it is James Fraser’s confidence in the power of prayer that is to me the most convicting and most humbling takeaway from Mountain Rain. Oh, to have his passion, dedication, and endurance in this matter! I struggle so often with consistency in prayer, and as I ponder this now, I’m reminded of Scripture’s rebuke: “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2b-3). How true this is of me! Despite his early battles against discouragement, James Fraser was a walking definition of both faith and contentment. His example now reverberates throughout history, not because he was such a great man, but because (to echo Hudson Taylor) he had a great God in whom he trusted fully. What a powerful example he is of 1Cor 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”