Tim Keller died on 19th May 2023. And, although assured by our Christian hope of the resurrection, it was saddening. At 72, Tim was still a significant preacher, writer and elder statesman in the Christian world. I have fond memory of being with him in New York and both of us passionately talking about reaching those outside of the church with the good news of Jesus.www.canonjjohn.comI have been greatly helped by his penetrating and powerful books, such as The Reason for God and the Prodigal God. Tim had many roles – pastor, theologian, writer – but perhaps the most important was that of evangelist. So here, as an evangelist, I want to comment on a few notable aspects of Tim’s remarkable life and ministry in proclaiming the gospel. First, Tim’s preaching had confidence. Intellectually, Tim had deep theological roots: he knew what he was talking about. Although committed to a Reformed Christianity, he nevertheless had a sense of proportion and priority and never let secondary theological elements obscure or distract from the great focus of his preaching: Jesus Christ. Tim readily acknowledged that he had learned from British Christians such as C.S. Lewis, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott the importance of a ‘mere’ Christianity that never strayed far from the beating heart of the gospel: sin, forgiveness, Jesus and the cross. Significantly, although he always sought to reach out to those outside the church, his efforts never involved any compromise of his beliefs. Yet the strength of Tim’s preaching was that it was supported by more than intellectual conviction: he had met with Jesus and knew that only Jesus could change lives. Second, Tim’s preaching had grace. There was a warmth and gentleness in his preaching and writing that warmed people to him and to Christ. One of his endearing characteristics was the way that, whether you read him or heard him, you felt that he stood alongside you as a friend and guide. Tim cared and understood, and he offered invitations to a faith in Christ that were hard to refuse. Third, Tim’s preaching had richness. If he saw the fundamentals of the gospel message as fixed and unchanging, he also saw the significance of the gospel as extraordinarily broad. For him, coming to faith in Christ was not any sort of final destination but a beginning; the opening of a door to a new world, full of every sort of implication for how to live and think. It seemed that Tim could never talk or write on a subject without casting some fresh light on it from the gospel. That he could do this reflected not just his sharp intelligence, but his labours of reading and thinking extensively and deeply on a vast range of subjects. Tim was a firm believer in Abraham Kuyper’s famous phrase, ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”’ Tim believed the key to effectively reaching out to those outside the faith was not to offer an insipid, watered-down gospel, but rather the very opposite; to present a richer, deeper message that captivated and won minds and hearts. Fourth, Tim’s preaching had courage. He had an unshakeable faith that the message of Christ was for everybody; it was what, at depth, all men and women ultimately needed and longed for. That conviction gave him the vision and the courage to take risks. At a time when many people said that the inner cities, with their liberal secular masses, were no-go areas for evangelicals, Tim rejected any idea of retreating and took the gospel to the troubled and turbulent heart of New York. There, to the surprise of many – but not I think to him – his preaching found a receptive hearing. Tim’s courage showed elsewhere. His growing ministry and his many books made him not only a public figure but, inevitably, an obvious target and he found himself under verbal attack, often from within Christianity, for what he said – or didn’t say – on theological or political issues. Undeterred, determined and ever peaceable, Tim simply pressed on with sharing Jesus. J.John Reverend Canon
George Verwer died on Friday 14th April at the age of eighty-four. With his passing the church has lost a man who had an astonishing global influence on the way the church carries out its vital task of sharing the good news of Jesus. In Operation Mobilisation – known as OM – that George started and led for over forty years, quite literally countless thousands of individuals have been brought to Christ and, no less significant, an equally vast number of Christians have been equipped to share their faith with confidence and boldness. Many church leaders that I know can say how formative their time – long or short – with OM has been for their lives and ministries.Facing the Canon interviews and I can honestly say it was one of the most unpredictable interviews I have ever had! Above all, George was a man of mission and let me mention three areas that inspired me. First, George modelled mission. He didn’t simply subscribe in some intellectual way to the need to take the gospel to the ends of the earth; he gave everything he was, and had, to the task. If ever an evangelist truly ‘walked the talk’ it was George. He was supremely committed to missions to the extent of wearing clothes that almost everybody else would have consigned to the rubbish bin. He made a habit of turning up at conferences or preaching engagements wearing a flamboyant jacket displaying all the countries of the world. George set out a standard of discipleship and lived it. Second, George was a motivator for mission. It was commonly held amongst Christian students and others that going to hear George Verwer speak on missions was a very risky business indeed. There was a very real danger that you would leave the meeting having signed up for serving on a ship or for distributing Christian literature in some country you couldn’t even place on a map. Finally, George was a mobiliser for mission. He didn’t simply inspire people to become missionaries; he made it as easy as possible for that to happen. His choice of the phrase Operation Mobilisation for his organisation was utterly appropriate. Almost single-handedly, he threw the door open for people to try mission. He offered various opportunities in different places for different lengths of time, and insisted on little more than a willingness to share the gospel and to endure various inconveniences and risks. At a time where mission was becoming more and more ‘professionalised’ George somehow was able to throw open the doors for ordinary Christians. There will be much said in praise of George Verwer and I have a suspicion it will almost all be merited. Yet above it all I hear George’s own voice, echoing that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV), ‘Follow my example, as I have followed the example of Christ.’ George Verwer – a hero of the faith and promoted to glory. J.Joh Reverend Canonwww.canonjjohn.comIt would take a very large book to do any kind of justice to the many extraordinary labours that George undertook for the gospel, and here I can only give you the briefest outline of his life. George was born in New Jersey in 1938 and, through the remarkable influence of a praying neighbour and a gospel challenge from Billy Graham, came to faith at the age of sixteen. George began his Christian life as he was to go on: totally committed to spreading the gospel. He soon introduced many of his classmates to Jesus. Then, drawn to areas unreached by evangelism, he went on a mission trip to Mexico where he shared Christ and distributed Christian literature. He studied at Moody Bible Institute where he instigated nights of prayer, organised evangelistic ventures and met and married Drena Knecht, who was to become his life-long partner, helper and encourager. As his missionary ventures extended to Spain, the Communist Bloc and the Muslim world, George, with his astonishing ability to motivate and lead others, created Operation Mobilisation. His dynamic and compelling advocacy and the fact that OM offered a variety of programmes of evangelism with few requirements, soon drew hundreds and then thousands. In 1964 George had the remarkable idea of using ships to visit countries, ‘sharing knowledge, help and hope’. The result was many years of extraordinarily fruitful ministry with a succession of vessels, the most recent being Logos Hope. In 2003 George stepped back from leading OM to work on special projects. Always radical, OM has had – and continues to have – a global impact. It’s no secret that in many of those countries where the Christian faith is forbidden and punished, there are men and women either from OM, or influenced by OM, who are building God’s church at the risk of their lives. Throughout his life, George was a popular conference speaker and preacher of extraordinary power and a remarkable authority. I’ve no doubt that as news of George’s passing spreads there are many people saying, ‘Oh, I heard him speak forty years ago and I haven’t forgotten the impact that he made on my life.’ George’s influence was spread even further by the punchy no-holds-barred books that he wrote and then by a presence on the internet. I was privileged to know George and I have no hesitation in using the word unique to describe him. Like many great people, George held together what could have been opposing aspects of life. He was a pioneer missionary but also someone who found an astonishingly fruitful niche as the creator and leader of an organisation. He was a passionate radical but without the criticism so often associated with radicalism. He was a man who always looked heavenward in prayer but at the same time was intensely focused on what was happening on earth. Although he took his role as OM’s figurehead seriously, he had a compelling and sometimes outrageous honesty. I had George on one of my
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Cloudy, rainy, chilly days in the middle of our British summer do not warm the heart. Recently, on such a gloomy day, Killy and I were given some sunflowers. We immediately smiled, our spirits lifted, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about sunflowers. Now don’t mock pondering plants! In 1 Kings 4:33 we read that King Solomon ‘spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls’ (NIV). (Incidentally, he couldn’t have spoken about sunflowers because they originated in South America and were only brought to Europe in the sixteenth century.) Jesus himself took the garden mustard plant and created a parable (Matthew 13:31–32) and in Luke 12:27 Jesus said, ‘Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these’ (NIV).
But sunflowers are especially appealing, and it didn’t take me long to think of four aspects of them that spoke to me.
First, sunflowers are cheerful. There’s something about that disc of brilliant primary colour yellow that lifts the spirits. Possibly it’s because sunflowers look like the sun – or at least every child’s drawing of the sun – and I suspect quite a few of us need sunlight to lift our spirits (certainly anybody with a Greek ancestry like me!). Indeed, I can quite understand why the depressive artist Vincent van Gogh was drawn to painting them. Of course, it’s not always easy being cheerful but we can choose to be cheerful, happy and optimistic instead of grumpy, gloomy, miserable and pessimistic. And I know which people I would rather spend time with: those who lift me up not those who bring me down.
Let us be sunflowers, not weeping willows!
Second, sunflowers are conspicuous. It’s not just the colour of sunflowers that makes them so striking; it’s the fact that they can easily be tall enough to tower over you. Most flowers you look down on; sunflowers you look up to. In fact if you grow sunflowers (as Killy and I are trying to do), you may end up not simply blessing your own garden but your neighbours’ too. I think there’s another lesson here: it’s all too easy to stay concealed. We may not reach the height that some sunflowers do but, short or tall, it’s important that we let our light shine. Remember: even short people can stand tall. Let’s learn from the sunflower to stand up and let what we stand for be seen.
Third, sunflowers are considerate. You may think of sunflowers as an ornament for a garden but of course they are a major crop plant. Sunflowers provide seeds for food and vitamins, oil for cooking, and I’m told you can even make insulation out of those enormous stalks. In thinking about the use of sunflowers, let’s remember it’s not only humans who benefit from them but birds and insects too. Sunflowers are not just bold and big; they are also a blessing. Let us be a blessing to others as well.
Finally, sunflowers centre on the sun. They have the remarkable ability – absent from most other plants – of being able to move. Their flowers and upper leaves track the sun, and when the sun sets in the evening they rotate their heads back to face the east to await the warmth of the morning sun’s rays. It’s clever stuff! Sunflowers soak up all of the sun’s rays for warmth and light. They depend on the sun to make their food so they can keep growing. But what about those cloudy days? Get this: sunflowers will turn and face another sunflower! Looking to each other for support until they can once again see the sun.
There’s a lesson here for us. We should be those who, at the start of the day, are found facing towards God the Son – Jesus – and who during the course of the day continue to keep our eyes fixed on him (Hebrews 12:2). And on those cloudy days look to each other for support and encouragement but remember, as St Francis of Assisi prayed, ‘In giving we receive.’
Rain or shine, may you be inspired by sunflowers and may we all continue to look at the Son.
‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.’ (Hebrews 1:3 NIV)
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Fanny Crosby was a prolific hymnist, writing more than 8,000 hymns and gospel songs, and the most remarkable thing about her was that she did so in spite of her blindness.
Born in 1820 in rural south-east New York, Fanny lost her sight to an eye infection and medical ignorance at the age of six weeks.
Her blindness means that all the existing photographs show her with dark glasses and give the impression of a solemn, formal and very stern woman. The reality was very different: Fanny was an exuberant, warm and cheerful individual.
To be sightless in an age with little concern for the blind, without guide dogs and Braille books, was difficult. Nevertheless, Fanny was raised in a family determined to give her the best possible education and was read Bible passages. Fanny made an early commitment to follow Christ and developed a remarkable memory, learning whole books of the Bible by heart.
Fanny’s formal education did not begin until when, aged fifteen, she went to the New York Institute for the Blind, a pioneering institution where she was to spend twenty-three years: twelve as a student and eleven as a teacher. She developed her singing and learned to play a variety of instruments. The Institute also encouraged her to progress with her gift of composing poetry. An able speaker, Fanny campaigned for better education of the blind and, as part of this, became the first woman to speak in the United States Senate.
Fanny had always expressed her faith in poems and songs and she increasingly became sought after as a writer of Christian lyrics. Despite a growing reputation as a conference speaker and preacher, she remained deeply involved with her church. Ignoring her blindness and the fact she was under five foot tall, Fanny became involved in Christian social work amongst the poor of New York and even acted as a nurse during the devastating 1849 cholera epidemic.
In 1858 Fanny married Alexander van Alstyne, a blind church organist. They had one daughter who died shortly after birth: an event that may have prompted Fanny’s famous hymn ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus’. Fanny lived on to 1915, dying at the then remarkable age of ninety-four.
Fanny had an astonishing ability to write lyrics; she would compose them in her mind and then dictate them to be written down. She could work at incredible speed, sometimes creating seven songs a day. For thirty years she wrote songs for Ira Sankey, the singer who accompanied the evangelist D.L. Moody on his remarkable evangelistic campaigns, and many people made decisions for Christ as her words were sung. Many of Fanny’s hymns are still sung in church today. They include ‘Blessed Assurance’, ‘All the Way My Saviour Leads Me’, ‘Praise Him, Praise Him’, ‘To God Be the Glory’ and ‘Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross’.
Fanny wrote warm and memorable verses that appealed to both the mind and the heart. Consider just a few of her best-known lines:
‘All the way my Saviour leads me
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt his tender mercy,
Who through life has been my guide?’
‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Saviour all the day long.’
Fanny’s theology was simple and Christ-centred. Significantly, in an America that was increasingly receiving immigrants with poor English, her words were both easy to understand and to translate. Her accessible songs revolutionised Christian music, opening the way to simpler, gentler songs and so, ultimately, to ‘gospel music’ and modern worship songs. In 1975 she was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Fanny Crosby was a truly extraordinary woman and I find three challenges in her life.
First, she displayed a remarkable commitment to the gospel. Let’s face it, no one writes 8,000 songs without a very serious level of dedication! In her songs Fanny spoke not only of her own faith but also of her burning desire for others to come to Jesus. She claimed she wanted to introduce a million people to Christ through her songs: she may well have exceeded that number! Fanny showed her commitment not just in her words but in her social work. She did indeed give Jesus everything.
Second, she achieved a remarkable communication of the gospel. Evangelism is about communicating clearly, concisely and compassionately the good news of Jesus Christ, and in this Fanny Crosby was a remarkable communicator and evangelist.
Finally, she displayed a delightful contentment in the gospel. In a life of disability, difficulties and disappointments, Fanny didn’t just find comfort in Jesus Christ, she found contentment. Her first verse, written at age eight, echoed her lifelong refusal to feel sorry for herself:
‘Oh! what a happy soul I am!
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.’
May we too live contented lives and exude joy in Christ despite disappointments and restrictions.
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Over the summer I want to look at some of my favourite Christian heroes. One figure who stands high is William Wilberforce (1759–1833). Although he is remembered mainly for leading the battle against slavery, he did an enormous amount of good in many other areas.
Wilberforce was born into a Yorkshire family and after going to Cambridge University, where he seems to have done as little in the way of studying as possible, he became an MP in 1780. He was to later admit that at this time he had no other ambition than to promote his own career.
In 1784 his life changed when he converted to the Christian faith. He took his new relationship with God so seriously that he considered becoming a clergyman, but accepted advice to stay in politics. He soon became involved with other Christians who were determined to work out their faith in changing society for the better. For many of them the pressing issue of the time was the abomination of slavery and the evil trade associated with it. Wilberforce joined them and, gifted with eloquence, he became the champion of the anti-slavery cause and made it his life’s mission. Although bitterly opposed by those who had interests in what was a very profitable business, Wilberforce persistently introduced Bills from 1789 onwards to abolish first the slave trade and then slavery itself. Despite defeat after defeat he persisted until finally, in 1833, just three days before his death, the British government passed the Bill to abolish slavery. His lifelong battle had been victorious.
Wilberforce was also involved in many other social issues: he campaigned on behalf of single mothers, orphans, Sunday schools, juvenile delinquents and children employed as chimney sweeps. He helped set up many organisations such as the Church Missionary Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society, and was a founder member of one of the first charities against animal cruelty, what is now the RSPCA. Although it has what is now an unfashionable title, his Society for the Suppression of Vice stood against many of the social evils of his day (and, sadly, ours): drunkenness, corruption, prostitution and animal cruelty.
In these days, when every figure of the past is scrutinised by whatever standards are currently held, there are those who might find fault with Wilberforce. He was as much a man of his time as we are of ours, and on many social issues was very conservative. Yet, as he would be the first to agree, the ultimate issue is not how any of us measure against the fluctuating and ever-changing standards that our culture creates, but how we measure up against those of God. Indeed, if we are to condemn, we should remember that to judge is to be judged. If we point a finger in accusation it means three fingers point back at us. After all, it is not as though we live in a time of no evils or injustices. Were he alive today, I think Wilberforce would be a busy man.
Let me suggest five things that challenge me about William Wilberforce.
1) He applied his faith. As many Christians have done, before and since, he could easily have separated his spiritual life from his daily work. He didn’t. With Wilberforce there was a wonderful harmony between what he believed and what he sought to achieve.
2) He served in costly leadership. A small, frail man with poor health, Wilberforce willingly took on a role that he knew would make him a target. We may view him as little short of a saint today but for many of his contemporaries he was a man of dangerous ideas who deserved to be criticised and obstructed. He paid the price for leadership.
3) He had determination. Wilberforce persisted in his battle against slavery, not just for months or years, but for decades. He realised his calling and he stuck with it. His was truly a ‘purpose-driven life’.
4) He had wisdom. Wilberforce was a strategic thinker, sought the support of others and built friendships and alliances from as wide a circle as possible.
5) He guarded his spiritual life. With all his involvements and activities, Wilberforce could easily have had his faith crushed under the weight of his duties and responsibilities. Yet he knew that only God could be the source of the strength he needed. To the very end of his life he remained permanently dependent on the grace of God.
William Wilberforce was an example of a true conversion to Christ. Today, some are cynical of an individual ‘becoming converted’ or being ‘born again’. If any sort of change to faith is talked about, it’s that of a gradual process or some sort of ‘spiritual journey’. The unarguable reality with Wilberforce is that he did undergo a dramatic transforming conversion. He reminds us that conversions do happen, and they can have remarkable effects.
Finally, given that Wilberforce was already a Member of Parliament when he converted to the Christian faith, it inspires me to pray for the same thing to happen to today’s politicians.
Talking about their struggles with a stressful life someone said to me, ‘My problem is that I’ve got too many tabs open in my brain.’ At the time, I thought it was just another example of the increasing habit of using computer terms for ordinary life as when you hear someone say, ‘Sorry, I’m in data overload mode,’ or ‘Let’s interface over coffee.’ On reflection, however, I think it says something important.
The background to this idea of ‘having too many tabs open’ is something that today many of us are all too familiar with. We load a web browser (Safari, for example) and open a webpage, perhaps to check our email. Then we chase up other things, checking on weather, sports, news and then, perhaps, continue trawling around the web as we research things, read reviews and so on, without closing any of the previous webpages.
The result is that open tabs proliferate: I gather there are people who quite commonly find themselves with a 100 open tabs. Eventually the browser slows down and up pops the warning: Too many browser tabs open. It’s a computing habit that has been well studied and been found to be bad practice. Although it may give the user the illusion of successful multi-tasking, in reality it isn’t very productive. It leaves lots of things unfinished, weakens the focus of the user and encourages the sort of displacement activity where you find that you have mysteriously left a hard activity for an easier one.
Applied to life, having ‘too many tabs open’ is a very common phenomenon. Many of us have lives in which there is simply too much going on and which we don’t manage in the best way. On the screen of our existence there are far too many tabs open. We may have one cluster of tabs to do with work: projects, trips, a forthcoming meeting; and another cluster to do with home: that DIY job, the tidying and the gardening.
Then there are all those other collections of tabs associated with our social life, families, finances, holidays, hobbies and so on. Matters are made worse because these are open browser tabs. They are not some sort of static to-do list; they are live issues that we have commenced but not completed. We have either found ourselves bored with them or been distracted away by the call of some other tab.
In part, this is a problem of the modern age. Life is so complicated. Today, everything from a toaster to a car comes with a manual that is at least 30-pages thick – and a demand that it be registered online, connected to the Internet and given a software update. Where once we only received communications from other people once a day when the post fell through the letterbox, now we undergo a continuous deluge of emails, tweets and updates from when we wake to when we fall asleep.
Once, when we left our houses we left our telephones behind; now they pursue us everywhere. Once we lived in a world in which we had space in which we could think and live; now we are under pressure to respond and react continuously. We have too many tabs open.
There’s a lot wrong with this. One danger is that we find it easy to slip from those difficult issues that we need to address into easier ones that don’t need our attention. Another is that it’s confusing: I doubt I am the only person who finds himself asking, ‘What exactly am I supposed to be working on now?’ It’s also stressful. In our minds we know that these tabs are open: we can hear them whispering for our attention. It also discourages serious thinking: after all, you can focus deeply on a little but not deeply on a lot.
What’s the solution? First, we need to have the humility to know our limits. It was always a wise rule to never bite off more than you can chew and it’s even wiser in today’s hectic world. I can well imagine that, somewhere, there’s already a gravestone with the sad inscription, ‘He just had too many tabs open’.
Above all, prioritise. We need to ask ourselves: do I need to do this? Do I need to do it now? Can I do it well? I suggest we need to reflect on the following little story in Luke’s Gospel and note its application both to our mind and spirit.
“As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what He taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to You that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.’ But the Lord said to her, ‘My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42 )
Indeed, there is only one thing worth being concerned about! Let’s make that priority our priority.
Visit J John’s website for more encouraging words. Canon John has a variety of resources for both adults and children including books on evangelism and faith, plus Bible stories retold for today’s kids. Follow J.John on Twitter @canonjjohn
It has been said of Edward Jenner that ‘his work saved more lives than any other man on earth’. It’s an extraordinary claim for someone who spent his entire life as a country doctor, but it may well be true.
Edward Jenner was born in 1749 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England, the son of the local vicar. His family had a long tradition of sending people into the church, but the death of Jenner’s father left the family impoverished and forced the young man to take up another career. From an early age Jenner had a great interest in science and the natural world and was apprenticed to a doctor. Learning the trade, he went on to work in London where his skills both as a physician and a scientist were soon recognised. He was invited by Captain Cook to be part of the science team on his second voyage to Australasia. Jenner, however, had no love of either travel or London life and soon returned to his home village as its doctor.
Jenner’s reputation as a caring and wise doctor grew among his community but he continued to pursue his long-standing fascination with nature. He was particularly interested in birds and his careful studies of cuckoo behaviour gained him such respect in the British scientific community that he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society.
The great medical curse of the age was the killer disease smallpox. In Europe, around 400,000 people a year died from the disease. Typically, when smallpox swept through a village 20 to 50 per cent of those infected died. A third of the survivors of smallpox went blind and many more were scarred for life.
People were so desperate to avoid smallpox that they sought to be deliberately inoculated from sores of those who had a mild form of the disease in the hope that this would give them some immunity. It was a risky procedure with limited success: the great American preacher Jonathan Edwards died as a result of it. It was a disease without a cure.
In thinking about smallpox, Jenner pondered a dairymaid’s intriguing comment: ‘I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox.’ Cowpox was a mild infection of animals which could be caught by humans with little harmful effect. Jenner concluded that there must be a possibility that smallpox could be prevented by inoculating people with cowpox. Yet as a scientist he knew that to be of any worth, any experiments had to be conducted carefully. When an outbreak of cowpox occurred locally, Jenner deliberately inoculated a young stablehand with it. The boy suffered only mild effects and when, a few months later, he was inoculated with smallpox, he failed to catch the far more serious disease. Encouraged, Jenner persisted with more inoculations and in 1797 sent a short communication to the Royal Society describing his results. His paper was rejected on the grounds that it had only 13 samples. Disappointed but not deterred, Jenner went away and carried out more work, eventually publishing his results at his own expense.
Jenner called his new procedure vaccination after the Latin word for cow, vacca. Despite controversy, his method spread rapidly throughout Britain and was soon taken up across the world. Jenner refused to make money out of his discovery – he inoculated the poor for free – and in encouraging the careful use of the new technique he bankrupted himself.
There is very little to say about the rest of Jenner’s life. He continued as a doctor and consultant, kept up his interest in the natural world and died in 1823. His old adversary, smallpox, outlasted him but not for long. Increasingly confined to remote parts of the world, it was finally eradicated in 1980.
Despite the turbulence of the times in which Jenner lived – the Napoleonic wars were raging – his fame became enormous. He was soon considered one of the most famous men in Europe and honoured everywhere, even by Napoleon, who had his entire army vaccinated.
Edward Jenner was a committed Christian. He was typical of many believers in every age who demonstrate their faith through the way they live their lives. An amiable, quiet, warm-hearted Christian, ever ready with the appropriate Bible verse, Jenner was anxious that his discovery would be used as widely as possible. He was particularly concerned that praise should be directed not to him, but to the God who had made and used him.
I find many challenges in the life of Edward Jenner.
First, I’m challenged by what Jenner achieved. In Christian circles, it is still sometimes held that the highest calling that anyone can have is that of being a full-time minister of the gospel. Circumstances demanded that Jenner never made it as a preacher but it’s hard to imagine a life of greater value than his.
Second, I’m challenged by how Jenner let his Christianity guide his work as a doctor and a scientist. His faith supported and regulated all that he did as a doctor and scientist. His science – apparently still impressive two centuries on – overflowed with virtues: enquiring, accurate and honest.
Third, I’m challenged by his determination. Jenner’s first efforts at publishing his results were rejected. Instead of giving up, he simply went back and got more data until his work was accepted. Vaccination then, as now, was controversial and Jenner had more than his fair share of criticism. Nevertheless, trusting in his knowledge, his studies and his God, he stood firm against his critics.
Finally, I’m challenged by Jenner’s immunity to fame. Here is a man who became quite literally a household name across the world, yet his celebrity status left him unchanged. Jenner remained to the end of his life a man who was gentle, humble and gracious.
So at a time when the word vaccination is widely heard, spare a thought for Edward Jenner, the man who started it all. A true hero of the faith.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his long-standing opposition to Hitler, is one of the great Christian heroes of the twentieth century.
Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 to an aristocratic German family. Evidently gifted, he chose to study theology, graduating with a doctorate at the age of twenty-one. In the first of what were to be many international links he worked for two years with a German congregation in Barcelona. He then went to the United States to study for a year at a liberal theological college that he found shallow and uninspiring. He was, however, impressed by the African-American churches he worshipped at, appreciating the congregations’ zeal and sympathising with the social injustices they endured.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1931, lecturing and pastoring a church. Horrified by the rise of the Nazis he spoke out publicly against Hitler from the moment he became Chancellor in 1933. His was not a popular view: many German Christians, encouraged by Hitler’s manipulative use of Christian language, saw him as the nation’s saviour.
Bonhoeffer found himself part of the resistance against Nazism. He spoke against the persecution of the Jews and when Hitler demanded a church that swore loyalty to him, Bonhoeffer helped create the Confessing Church which declared that its head was Christ not the Führer. Bonhoeffer gained only limited support and, disillusioned, he went to pastor two German-speaking churches in London. There, watching with alarm the direction Germany was taking, he made important friendships with British church leaders.
Returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer was soon denounced as a pacifist and an enemy of the state. In 1937 he became involved in the secret training of pastors for the Confessing Church. He also wrote one of his most important books, The Cost of Discipleship, in which he rebuked shallow Christianity that he termed cheap grace: ‘the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession . . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.’ It is a warning that continues to be valid today.
With war looming, Bonhoeffer, committed to peace and refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler, realised that he could be executed. An opportunity to escape conscription appeared with an invitation to teach in the USA. Bonhoeffer left in June 1939, yet once in the States he realised that he could not be absent from his own country at a time of war and within two weeks took the boat back to Germany.
When war did break out, Bonhoeffer found himself drawn into the circle of those patriotic Germans who sought to overthrow Hitler. In order to escape conscription he joined the German military intelligence agency, a body which included many who were opposed to Hitler. On paper his task was to use his many international church links to advise the military, but in reality he used them to try to find support for the German resistance.
As the war went on Bonhoeffer found himself on the edges of various plots to assassinate Hitler. Increasingly aware of the horrors the Third Reich was unleashing, he found himself reluctantly concluding that the assassination of Hitler would be the lesser of evils.
In 1943 Bonhoeffer became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer but shortly afterwards his role in helping Jews escape to Switzerland was uncovered by the Gestapo and he was arrested. At first he was able to write and receive visitors who supplied him with books and took away his writings; many of these were incorporated into another classic book, Letters and Papers from Prison.
In July 1944 Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment became more severe and he was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. The accounts we have of him at this time describe him as a man of peace, full of grace and kindness and occupied in pastoring and counselling those about him.
In the spring of 1945 Bonhoeffer’s name was linked with an old plot against Hitler and his execution ordered. He was hanged on 9th April 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated. His last recorded words were, ‘This is the end – for me the beginning of life.’
I find at least four striking things in the faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
First, his faith was displayed in doing. Bonhoeffer could have stayed an academic theologian quietly writing. Instead, he insisted that Christianity had to be lived out and to be a disciple of Christ was to do something. Beliefs must have consequences: whether it was to work for good or against evil. Bonhoeffer was no armchair Christian and we shouldn’t be either.
Second, his faith was displayed in daring. One of the first German Christians to denounce Hitler, Bonhoeffer worked against Nazism for twelve years, knowing that at any moment he could be – as ultimately he was – arrested, imprisoned and killed. It’s particularly hard not to be impressed by how, having made the safety of New York in 1939, Bonhoeffer then took the boat back to Germany. We could do with a lot more daring today.
Third, his faith was displayed in defying. Faced with a threatening government and a church that remained silent, Bonhoeffer spoke out boldly against both. There are times when we, too, need to stand up and speak boldly.
Finally, and it’s uncomfortable, Bonhoeffer’s faith was displayed in dying. As he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’ And with typical consistency that is exactly what Bonhoeffer did.
High above Westminster Abbey’s west door are statues of ten modern martyrs and there stands the figure of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He deserves that place.
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Elisabeth Elliot was born in 1926 in Brussels to missionary parents who soon relocated to the USA. There, at an early age, she made a personal profession of faith to follow Christ. Elisabeth soon felt God’s call to be a missionary. In 1944, with the intention of becoming a Bible translator, she enrolled at Wheaton College where she met Jim Elliot who had a similar calling for missions and with whom she had a long romance. After graduation Elisabeth trained as a Bible translator and in 1952 both she and Jim went independently to Ecuador to work as missionaries. Finally, in 1953 she and Jim married in Ecuador where, in 1955, their daughter Valerie was born.
A missionary challenge at the time was a totally unreached Amazonian tribe, then known as the Aucas but now known as the Waodani. Links with this tribe, deep in the rainforest, were almost non-existent and their language was unknown. The Waodani also had a fearsome reputation for violence. (Anthropological studies have revealed that they had the highest rates of homicide ever recorded in a human society.)
Drawn by the challenge of the Waodani, a group of five young American missionary men, including Jim Elliot, decided to try to reach them. After seemingly friendly initial encounters, in January 1956 they flew in only to be suddenly speared to death.
The murder of these five men had an enormous impact in the United States and worldwide. The press focused not just on the events and the ‘savage’ tribe involved but also on the survivors, notably Elisabeth and baby Valerie. Elisabeth left for the States with her daughter and there, in a matter of weeks, wrote the book Through Gates of Splendor. It became a bestseller not simply because of the dramatic events it recounted but because Elisabeth, gifted with both writing ability and deep insight, had produced a remarkably powerful book. In this and subsequent books, Elisabeth’s depiction of her husband Jim – with his inspiring quote, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’ – gave the world a great example of missionary commitment.
Feeling called by God to witness to those who had killed her husband, Elisabeth returned to Ecuador with her daughter. Working amongst an adjacent tribe, she prayed for an opportunity to make contact with the Waodani. Finally, a Waodani woman appeared, allowing Elisabeth to begin to learn the language and, after being promised safety, Elisabeth, her three-year-old daughter and Rachel Saint (the sister of the murdered pilot) went to live with the Waodani. The world held its breath. The idea that Elisabeth, as a single mother, was taking her little daughter to live with the violent tribe that had killed her husband was stunning. No less shocking in the 1950s was the fact that it was a woman taking the initiative in reaching out to a murderous tribe.
For two years the women and Valerie lived with the Waodani. They were accepted and, learning the language, taught the basics of Christianity. They were able to display forgiveness to those men who had slain the men they had loved and their living demonstration of what forgiveness meant undermined the fatal Waodani culture of unending family vendettas.
Eventually Elisabeth left the Waodani and worked with another tribe until 1963. Leaving for the States, she then focused on writing and speaking. She taught not just about missions work but also about many aspects of Christian living. As the 1960s brought enormous cultural changes, she found herself commenting on the role of women, where this most courageous of women took a position against feminism.
In 1969 Elisabeth married again, to a professor of theology. Tragically, he died from cancer in 1973. A widow once more, Elisabeth continued her worldwide ministry, marrying for a third time in 1977 to a hospital chaplain. For thirteen years she hosted a daily Christian radio programme. With the new century it soon became apparent that Elisabeth was beginning to suffer from dementia and she gave up public speaking before finally dying in 2015.
Let me highlight three things that are striking in Elisabeth Elliot’s long life of faith.
First, her faith showed a deep obedience to God. Elisabeth saw Christianity as something that involved a discipleship of complete obedience to Christ. It was such a discipleship that compelled her to meet with her husband’s killers and forgive them. When asked to justify missionary work she simply pointed out that the church remained under the orders given by Christ. Elisabeth was convinced: to belong to Christ was to obey him.
Second, her faith was marked by a profound acceptance of God. Elisabeth grappled with the suffering she experienced; the death of two husbands, the murder of fellow workers and many other struggles. She rejected any attempt to find explanations for such events. Importantly, she taught that we must accept what we are given from God precisely because he is God. The path of obedience often leads through deep water: explanations can wait till heaven.
Finally, Elisabeth’s faith gave her a sturdy independence before the world. All Christian communication can either be comforting or challenging and what Elisabeth said and wrote was always the latter. Quite simply, she refused to give what people demanded. After Elisabeth went to the Waodani there was an expectation that she would confirm the view that they were appalling savages. Instead, she wrote compellingly of how the people she had come to love had both vices and virtues. Her concern to say what she felt God wanted her to say made her independent of all other pressures.
The faithful and fruitful life of Elisabeth Elliot sets a challenging example of discipleship to us today. She deserves to be remembered.
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Few stories in Christian history are more dramatic than that of John Newton, whose life demonstrates the title of his most famous hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’.
Newton was born in London in 1725 to a seagoing father and a devout mother. He followed his father to sea at the age of eleven but rejected his mother’s faith, becoming a rebellious, reckless and immoral youngster. He had an ability to find trouble: rejecting good jobs, being fired after six sea voyages and, aged nineteen, press-ganged into the Royal Navy. He deserted, was caught and given a public flogging. Managing to leave the Navy, Newton became involved in the slave trade, shipping slaves from Africa to North America. It’s a sad fact that slavery – a profitable and in Britain largely invisible trade – then aroused little controversy. Newton, having made many enemies, found himself left behind in Africa by his colleagues and was there imprisoned in chains and treated brutally for eighteen months.
When Newton was rescued in 1748 he showed no signs of repentance. Nevertheless, as he sailed back to Britain his ship was struck by a severe storm. As the vessel began to sink Newton began to pray, throwing himself on the mercy of God. Somehow the ship was able to make it back safely to the British Isles. Although Newton later considered his prayer to mark the moment of his conversion he was to write, ‘I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.’ However, change had started and Newton began to pray and to read the Bible.
In 1750 Newton married Polly Catlett, with whom he was to have forty years of happy, if childless, marriage. He returned to serve on slave ships, making three voyages as captain and seemingly ignoring any inconsistency between his trade and his faith.
At the age of twenty-nine, after ill health, Newton gave up seafaring and instead took a job in the port of Liverpool. There his Christian life started to blossom and he came under the influence of those great preachers of the Methodist revival, John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. Newton’s life changed and he became involved in evangelical fellowships and in organising Bible study. He sought ordination in the Church of England but for several years was rejected because of his lack of a degree and the suspicion that he had acquired Methodist ‘enthusiasm’.
Finally, aided by an influential supporter, Newton was ordained and became curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire. A lively, committed and caring pastor who taught the Bible and preached appealing and relevant sermons, he trebled the size of his congregation. He also wrote books that brought him to the attention of the wider public.
The poet and hymnwriter William Cowper moved to Olney and he and Newton became close friends, something that was to prove an enormous help to the depressive Cowper. Together, they set about writing hymns. Newton’s contribution included many hymns that remain popular including ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds’ and ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken’. Although technically Cowper may have been the finer poet, Newton demonstrated a remarkable ability for using simple language.
After sixteen years of fruitful ministry in Olney, Newton moved to a City of London church in 1780. There, at the heart of the nation, he was able to be a powerful influencer, encouraging, counselling and promoting in every way, a vibrant evangelical Christianity. When the young and promising politician William Wilberforce became converted and was tempted to leave politics for the church, Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament and ‘serve God where he was’.
By now the national mood was turning against slavery, and Newton, still grieved over his own involvement decades earlier, wrote a powerful pamphlet – ‘Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade’ – based on his own experiences. It circulated widely and was greatly used in helping Wilberforce in his ultimately successful campaign against the slave trade.
In his final years Newton became perhaps the senior statesman of the evangelical church in Britain, doing whatever he could to promote the gospel; supporting ministers across denominations and helping to found both the Church Missionary Society and the Bible Society. Newton died in 1807 aged eighty-two, after fifty years of service to Christ and just months after slavery was ended across the British Empire.
There are many things to challenge us in John Newton’s life but to me the most striking are those that arise out of his conversion. Let me offer you four thoughts.
First, we see the priority of conversion. The transformation of Newton from the messiest of lives to a gracious servant of God teaches the life-changing potential of an encounter with Christ. Ultimately, Christianity is not a matter of morality; it’s about Jesus changing lives.
Second, we see the principle of conversion. Newton’s story reminds us that while we cannot save ourselves, God can and does. In the words of ‘Amazing Grace’, Newton came to God as an undeserving ‘wretch’ who was ‘lost’ and ‘blind’ yet Christ saved him.
Third, we see the process of conversion. We all love stories of dramatic conversion with overnight changes of behaviour. They happen but so do seemingly protracted conversions like Newton’s. We need to be reminded that sometimes it may take a long time after the seed is planted for the flower of faith to blossom.
Finally, we see the product of conversion. Newton received abundant grace. But it’s important to note that, having received grace, he shared it with others. The rich grace God gave to Newton spilled over into many lives and into the world.
Among John Newton’s last recorded words were these: ‘My memory is nearly gone but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and Christ is a great saviour.’ Amen.
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