As some have already begun the task of digging deeper into my father’s life and putting into writing their findings, I believe it’s my duty and delight to lay bare a few snippets from the life of this great man of God, aspects that have been pretty well hidden to the rest of the world.
First of all, he was and is to me, a loving father. One would wonder how he could ever have had time for me with the great many hats he had to wear. Leading an evangelistic organization with its many administrative duties (in a part of the world where specialists are rare!), writing 15 books that have caught the attention of the world, teaching and preaching around the world, relentless hours of sleepless nights spent trying to make the deep truths of scripture understandable, years spent carefully translating the Bible into Sinhalese, regularly discipling young Christians in YFC, mentoring pastors around the country, intimately getting involved in the lives of the of the poor in his church and yet he still made time for me.
As a child (and adult) I never felt a hint of contempt towards him or his ministry. Often he would come home after a tired days work and we would stroll off to the garden to play a game of cricket. When I got into athletics at the age of 10 my father would take me to the nearby play ground around 3 times a week where we would run the 100 meters race. Of course he would always beat me because of the advantage of a 6 footers long legs!! I could never forget the district Sports-meet in which I represented my school in the 100 meters race. Under the scorching heat of the hot Colombo sun, I nervously walked up to the starting point of the track. I almost felt my feet give away at the sight of the great big stadium. To make matters worse, the sight of other seemingly confident top runners in the district brought a shiver down my spine. I was alone, and my father was no where to be seen. At the blast of the gun the race began and I found myself already behind. And then it happened. Around 50 meters through the race I was at 4th place and from the corner of my eyes, I could see my father running alongside of us beside the steel railing of the stadium. He would have been making an absolute fool of himself. And then I heard the lion roar. My Father shouted “Go Asiri!!!”. I was back in my zone. I won the race!!
A few years before, it was at the heat of the civil war in our country, the guerrilla group that was fighting the government bombed a military compound that was right beside my school. I was eight years old. At the time my father was at a meeting around 3 kilometers away. His heart sank at the news of the bomb. He got on to his motor bike, breaking the speed limit he rushed to the scene. The police didn’t let him go past a certain point. So he left his bike on the road, jumped over a couple of walls and finally found me, safe in the middle of the school playground with just a minor scratch on my hand. He still claims this as the scariest day of his life.
As a child I would often fall sick the day after he would leave on a foreign trip. One day he had just arrived from one of his foreign travels and I was rushing to the room to see him and my hand hit a plaque that had J.S Bach’s face carved on to it. Bach is his favorite classical music composer and he loved this plaque that came crashing down and was shattered to pieces!! I was horrified as I scampered into the room. His shocked face lasted only 2 seconds. Thank God for his big grin that can wash your troubles away.
Delighting in God
“in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” Psalm 16:11b
By far the most wonderful aspect of his life for me is the daily time he spends alone with God. From his childhood there was a growing intimacy, love and fear of God that was developing within him. When he was just 4 or 5 years old at a camp he was struck with an unbearable urge to visit the nearest restroom. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it to the loo in time. In great despair he cried out to God “My God my God why have you forsaken me”.
His daily time alone with God has always been the most important part of his day. He wouldn’t compromise it for anything. When I was studying in the states he was invited by my seminary to speak at the chapel. Around 3 minutes before he should leave for the service where he would be speaking at in front of students and some world renowned theologians, he was furiously taking notes on his devotional journal, thoughts from his morning Bible reading time. Back home in his room he would daily sit in front of three cupboards with almost a thousand photographs pasted of people he would pray for. Friends, co-workers, relatives, people met in his travels and Christian leaders from around the world.
The Gospel proclaiming Slave
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord,with ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” 2 Corinthians 4:5
His clear urgent call to the church has always been to stand up for the uniqueness of Christ and not to shy away from the uncomfortable task of proclaiming the gospel to a lost dying world. He has always pleaded with the church not to give up on this even though we live in a world that rejects the idea of having to submit to an absolute truth outside of ourselves. Eternity is always in his thoughts. Evangelism is his heartbeat. He has committed his whole life for this cause, to see youth living in sin meet their savior, have the fullness of life and enter into glory. But this urgent call was coupled with another call. The call to be slaves of people. But he did not just preach it, he lived it. I saw this with my own eyes. Growing up, the clearest most vivid memory of my parent’s ministry was the one that they did with some families living in the slums of Colombo. It was watching them that taught me what it means to be a servant (Greek –doulos> bond-servant or slave). The poor they worked with felt important, lifted up and respected when they were around my parents. My parents were more like their slaves than their leaders. As their slave my father would often have to work under their schedule rather than his. They had absolutely no clue about his international reputation, qualifications or achievements. To them he was their slave. So they used him to meet their needs. For me, he was the embodiment of “Blessed are the meek”. Giving up your rights and humbling yourself to be used (at times unfairly) by people. I would see him give up the human desire for respect, acceptance and self promotion only to do the complete opposite. Respect them, accept them, lift them up and meet them at their highest.
He has always been willing to die for the staff of YFC. He loves them and they bring him so much joy. As National director he stayed committed to them even when they terribly hurt him. I remember how he preached a whole year within which he once preached and taught around 60 times in 2 months just to raise funds to pay for the masters degree tuition fees of one of the staff. Unlike the hired hand that gives up when times get rough, he has been a good shepherd committed to the sheep who greatly depend on his servant heart. When he is treated unfairly he would never fight for himself. Many times I have seen him in the depths of great sorrow because people he would die for, have hurt him deeply. At times like these he would run to God, be alone with Him until the peace of God would overcome him. Sometimes this process would take many days. Once it is over, he would again die to self, and get back to living for others. A self sacrificial life in exchange for the peace, joy and significance that the world longs for, and only God can give. John Wesley who for the sake of the gospel suffered greatly in the face of countless mobs and riots called the peace of God a “ a pearl of great price”. My father has embraced this truth and is willing sell everything to experience it.
Some of my closest friends growing up were the children of the poor who lived in the slums. Families of 4-5 living in tiny room-sized houses in the meaniest of conditions. For their sake my parents chose to live a simple life. For most of my growing up years my father’s monthly salary was Rs.10,000 ($100). The milllions that came in from his preaching and books was all given to YFC to educate the staff. We would eat at restaurants only if a friend of my parents specifically gave money for us to go eat. That was around 2-3 times a year. My birthday was always a much awaited day as that meant a once a year trip to Pizza hut! We had a simple home. For example, my parents chose not use a microwave because the poor they worked with couldn’t possibly afford one. If our house was full of fancy stuff the poor may love to come to our house, but they would feel embarrassed if we came to their simple homes. Christ made himself “nothing” and came to us. (Phil 2)
But when I think about life growing up, I could only think about the sheer joy that filled our home rather than what was lacking in it. Home was simply, a happy place. My parents were willing to make whatever sacrifice neccessary to ensure that home was happy. They would not paint the house walls when I was a kid simply so that I could play cricket inside the house. Owing to his international reputation many respected Christian leaders from around the world would visit our home from time to time. But the wall remained upainted with the ball patches everywhere. Happiness inside the home was a top priority. This resulted in my sister and I looking for our primary source of happiness (besides God) in the home rather than outside the home even when we were much older. The memories of the four of us sitting on my parents bed talking and singing hymns are precious. I loved the days when we would read a book together like the “Pilgrims Progress”. We would often kneel around the bed and pray. My father, though a workaholic would take his (Thursday) Sabbath rest very seriously. He would spend his Sabbath with the family, read a murder mystery or sing lustily the old Methodist hymns while playing the piano.
In every era of human history God has chosen a few of his servants to stand on a pulpit and preach the Word to thousands, to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, to open their eyes to eternal things, to draw people to Himself. A tiny island in the heart of the Indian Ocean seems like an unlikely place from which God would choose such a servant and then make the world listen to him. But that He did. My father was always a very shy person. As a kid he struggled with the inability to talk in public social gatherings causing him to be very hurt and depressed. When he was in his mid-teens he found himself with a burning passion to preach and so he would go to the beach, stand on the rocks and preach to the waves. During this time his father used to get printed copies of John Stott’s Bible expositions at the Urbana conferences of the 1960’s. For my father who was still in his teens, this was a gold mine of pure joy. John Stott slowly became his hero. What gratitude must have filled his heart when he was one of main Bible expositors at Urbana along with John Stott himself being one the bible expositors. When my father was still in his thirties he spoke alongside greats like Billy Greham and John Stott in landmark conferences like Amsterdam 83 and Lausanne 89. These conferences that bring together church leaders from all over world have had a lasting impact on the worldwide church. The reason why I am saying this is because his sudden rise to fame brought with it many influential job opportunities all over the world. Accepting some of these invitations would have opened many new doors for him as a preacher and teacher. The convenient, market driven, efficient culture of the west would have greatly aided him as a scholar and author. Specialized people could have handled lot of the administrative duties like writing and responding to scores of daily emails, giving him more time to write. Instead of embracing these benefits he chose to stay in Sri Lanka. A majority of his Bible teaching and preaching is done in Sinhalese having almost no media attention or publicity. You would still find him discpling new converts to Christianity on a weekly basis or doing a Bible study for groups of two to three young leaders. All this together with other YFC, local church and wider church obligations forces him (now in his mid-60’s) to still stay up till the early hours of the morning each day, studying, writing or preparing Bible expositions.
Walking in the light (Integrity, accountability and openess)
“And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth”
John 17:19 (ESV)
The greatest model of a life of integrity and holiness to me has been my father. While I’m sure my mother could write a long list of his sins and weakness, in my eyes, he has been above reproach. His relentless persuit of holiness caused him to take passages like 1 John 1:8 very seriously. (“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”). In our “public image” driven world it’s hard for a Christian leader to say with Paul “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing“. My father has not been ashamed to preach in a pulpit that he is full of weakness. Instead of simply expounding passages like 2 Cor 4:9b (“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me”) he tries to live it. The result is that Christ is exalted. He would not go into details about his weaknesses when preaching in a pulpit (especially when speaking to youth) but his weekly accountability group with his 4 close friends is where he would have a (relatively less scary) foretaste of the account he would give to God on the last day. (For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil 2 Cor 5:10 (ESV)) Opening himself up, he would become vulnerable, go into the details and share his struggles. One day when I opened the pages of his copy of John Stott’s “Cross of Christ” I was shocked to see the amount of notes he had taken on almost every page of the 350 page book. It’s his understanding of the Cross and the immensity of God’s grace poured out on us that gives him the strength to share his struggles with his friends. He would never miss an opportunity to say “God’s grace is greater than all our weakness.
At 64 years of age he continues to labor for the gospel with all the energy of Christ (Col 1:29) He continues to make time for God, make time for family and make time for others. He hardly has any time for himself. When I think about my father’s life and Christ’ statement “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done”, 1 my heart is filled with joy. When Paul says things like “if we endure, we will also reign with him”; 2 or “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison 3” I wonder what it would be like for my father. I’m eternally grateful to God for my father and I’m blessed to see a life lived in light of the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It’s no wonder that his favorite verse in the Bible is 1 Timothy 1:17 – “now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God be honor and glory, forever and ever.”