Many historians believe that central to the rise of Christianity was the simple fact that Christians generously loved each other and their neighbours. They point out that in the ancient world mercy was widely seen as a character defect that ran counter to justice. Justice demanded people get what they deserved and was seen as appropriate, where mercy extended grace, love, and kindness to people who had done nothing to deserve it. Yet the Christians valued mercy. Christian communities became places where people tended to live longer and healthier lives, for when they suffered sickness, poverty or mishap they had brothers and sisters in Christ who provided for their need. And Christians extended love way beyond the boundaries of family and congregation to their pagan neighbours.
In 251 A.D. for example, a great plague struck the Greco-Roman world. Memories were revived of a plague a century earlier in which more than a third of the population died. Fear was everywhere. Those who could afford it fled to the countryside. Those who could not remained in the cities. When they went to the temples they found them empty, the priests having fled. The streets were filled with those who had become infected, their families left with no option but to push them out the door. Christian communities however took an entirely different approach. They saw it as their responsibility to love the sick and dying, so they took them into their homes and nursed them. This action meant that many people recovered who otherwise would have died. Historians suggest that elementary nursing could have reduced the mortality rate by as much as two thirds, but it also cost a number of Christian carers their lives.
In The Early Church, Henry Chadwick comments:
The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success. The pagan comment ‘see how these Christians love one another’ (reported by Tertullian) was not irony. Christian charity expressed itself in care for the poor, for widows and orphans, in visits to brethren in prison or condemned to the living death of labour in the mines, and social action in time of calamity like famine, earthquake, pestilence, or war.
So striking was the Christian commitment to generous love that when the fourth century Emperor Julian sought to restore paganism to the Empire he instructed the pagan priesthood to follow the example of the Christians:
Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their [Christians] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [Julian’s word for Christianity]? I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues… For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
Source: Historical data derived from Henry Chadwick, The Pelican History of The Early Church and Rodney Stark, the Triumph of Christianity
The most famous ship of all time is possibly the Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that went down on its maiden voyage. Many movies have been made and many books written about the fateful journey. Few will include the story of Scottish evangelist John Harper. Harper was a passenger on the Titanic.
In 1912 Harper was travelling to Chicago to take up his appointment as Pastor of Moody Church. He had his daughter Nana on board with him. His wife had died a few years earlier. When the Titanic struck the iceberg and began to sink he put Nana into a lifeboat and then ran throughout the ship yelling “Women, children, and unsaved into the lifeboats!” When the ship finally went down he had already given his lifejacket to another passenger. Survivors report that to the very end Harper was witnessing to anyone who would listen. One survivor recalls clinging to one of the ships spars when Harper floated near him.
“Man, are you saved?” cried Harper.
“No I’m not” replied the man.
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” pleaded Harper.
The waves carried Harper away and brought him back a little later. “Are you saved now?” asks Harper.
“No, I cannot honestly say that I am” says the man.
Again Harper pleads with him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”.
Shortly afterward Harper went down. The man who survived was one of only six people rescued, but in a public meeting four years later, recounting this episode he said “There, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed. I am John Harper’s last convert.”
Source: Reported by Elesha Coffman, Christianity Today, August 7,200. The story is told in The Titanic’s Last Hero (Moody Press, 1997)
At the turn of the 5th century the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. With it’s power crumbling, the coast of Britain was subject to attacks by violent Irish slave traders. In 401 a 16 year old boy named Patrick was taken in one of these raids. Stripped from the comforts of his home life and a future which would have included a classical education and career, Patrick was made the slave of an Irish chieftain and assigned the role of shepherd. The life of a shepherd-slave was miserable – isolated for months on end in mountains that were bitterly cold, in a land where he did not know the local languages, and experiencing times of severe hunger.
Such severe circumstances drove the young man to God. His grandfather had been a Christian priest, and Patrick turned to his family’s faith. He spent his bitter days in constant prayer. As he did, a deep love of God and a profound sense of God’s Spirit at work within him grew in the young man.
Six years after his kidnapping Patrick had a dream-vision. In his sleep he heard a voice say “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home.” He sat up, startled, and the voice continued: “Look, your ship is ready.” Patrick got up and started walking. Two hundred miles later he came to the coast and saw a ship. No ship was about to give passage to a fugitive slave and the captain told the young man to move on. But Patrick knew this was his ship. He spent some time in prayer and before he had finished one of the sailors came after him with the message that he could sail with them.
It takes him two years but finally the young man arrives home to Britain. His overjoyed parents beg him not to ever leave them again. But one night Victorious, a man who he knew in Ireland, appears to him in a vision. Victorious holds a letter with the heading “The Voice of the Irish”. The young man then hears a voice of a multitude crying “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.”
Try as he might Patrick cannot put the Irish out of his mind. The visions keep coming until finally he gives in. He enrolls to be trained for the ministry and emerges some time later an ordained priest and bishop. And so a young bishop by the name of Patrick heads off to become the first known missionary to Ireland. His mission is astonishingly successful. The Irish rapidly embrace the Christian faith. By the time of his death Christianity has been established across Ireland, the Irish slave trade has ended, and murder and inter-tribal warfare have markedly decreased.
One of Patrick’s greatest achievements was the salvation of Western civilisation. After the “barbarians” overran the Roman Empire nearly all the great literary works were destroyed. Hundreds of years of learning literally went up in flames. But there was a place the Latin books were copied and preserved – in the monasteries established by Patrick throughout Ireland. When Europe emerged from its Dark Ages it was to the monasteries of Ireland that they turned to recover their learning.
Source: Reported in Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder, 1995)
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little life-saving station grew.
Some of the members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now, the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired life-boat crews to do this work. The life-saving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a symbolic life-boat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s life-saving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life-saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another life-saving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
There was a group called ‘The Fisherman’s Fellowship’. They were surrounded by streams and lakes full of hungry fish. They met regularly to discuss the call to fish, and the thrill of catching fish. They got excited about fishing!!
Someone suggested that they needed a philosophy of fishing, so they carefully defined and redefined fishing, and the purpose of fishing. They developed fishing strategies and tactics. Then they realized that they had been going at it backwards. They had approached fishing from the point of view of the fisherman, and not from the point of view of the fish. How do fish view the world? How does the fisherman appear to the fish? What do fish eat, and when? These are all good things to know. So they began research studies, and attended conferences on fishing. Some travelled to far away places to study different kinds of fish, with different habits. Some got PhD’s in fishology. But no one had yet gone fishing.
So a committee was formed to send out fishermen. As prospective fishing places outnumbered fishermen, the committee needed to determine priorities.
A priority list of fishing places was posted on bulletin boards in all of the fellowship halls. But still, no one was fishing. A survey was launched, to find out why… Most did not answer the survey, but from those that did, it was discovered that some felt called to study fish, a few to furnish fishing equipment, and several to go around encouraging the fisherman.
What with meetings, conferences, and seminars, they just simply didn’t have time to fish.
Now, Jake was a newcomer to the Fisherman’s Fellowship. After one stirring meeting of the Fellowship, Jake went fishing. He tried a few things, got the hang of it, and caught a choice fish. At the next meeting, he told his story, and he was honoured for his catch, and then scheduled to speak at all the Fellowship chapters and tell how he did it. Now, because of all the speaking invitations and his election to the board of directors of the Fisherman’s Fellowship, Jake no longer has time to go fishing.
But soon he began to feel restless and empty. He longed to feel the tug on the line once again. So he cut the speaking, he resigned from the board, and he said to a friend, “Let’s go fishing.” They did, just the two of them, and they caught fish.
The members of the Fisherman’s Fellowship were many, the fish were plentiful, but the fishers were few.
How would you get young people interested in classical music? A few years ago Richard Dreyfuss starred in the movie Mr Holland’s Opus. You’ve probably seen it. Mr Holland is a high school music teacher who is passionate about music. He loves Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. For Mr Holland “music is…about heart, it’s about feelings, moving people, and something beautiful, and it’s not about notes on a page.” But how do you communicate that passion to a bunch of teenagers who have as much energy for Bach as they do for household chores? When Mr Holland starts talking about the classical composers he meets a sea of blank faces and bored looks.
And then one day Mr Holland discovers something amazing. He starts playing one of the hit pop songs of the time. All of a sudden the students perk up, their feet start tapping to the beat, their heads start nodding with the rhythm. “You like that huh?” asks Mr Holland. “Do you know what it is? It’s Beethoven.” This pop song has taken one of Beethoven’s melodies and set it to a rock beat, played it with electric guitars rather than violins, and given it lyrics that speak about boys and girls falling in love. All of a sudden Beethoven is not some ancient relic of a bygone era. All of a sudden Beethoven is relevant, Beethoven has become meaningful to Mr Holland’s students. Beethoven connects.
When people hear about about Christianity they can sometimes become a bit like Mr Holland’s students. Their eyes glaze over, their face goes blank, and they’re bored by it. They’re telling me, “I’m not interested in a faith which is nothing more than an ancient relic of a bygone era. I’m interested in a faith which is a dynamic force in my era. I’m not interested in a faith that speaks to the questions of yesterday, I’m interested in a faith that speaks to the questions I face today. I’m not interested in a faith that dredges through the issues of the past. I’m interested in a faith that engages with the issues of today.” Do you ever find yourself feeling like that?
You know the wonderful thing about the Christian faith is that it can be like Beethoven was for Mr Holland’s students. It’s a song that can be played anew in every era; a melody line that repeats through history, but played using the instruments of our time, with a beat we can dance to. And the task of the Christian church is to take this ancient song and play it in such a way that it connects with the people of our time, the mood of our time and the issues of our time.
Source: Scott Higgins
Jimmy Carter is a former President of the United States. He is also a committed Christian. Every year Carter’s home church of Plains Baptist Church would have a week of mission in which congregation members would go out into the community inviting unchurched people to attend the church’s revival meetings.
Once Carter was asked to speak at another church in Georgia on the topic of “Christian Witnessing”. In his preparation he decided he would share about his involvement in his home church’s mission week. He began to note down that in 14 years he had managed to visit over 140 home sin the local community. Carter felt quite proud of his achievement, until he compared his witness for Christ with his witness for political office. Carter realised that in his 1966 campaign for Governor of Georgia he had gone out and met at least 300,000 people in an attempt to convince them to vote for him. “The comparison struck me – 300,000 visits for myself in three months, and 140 visits for God in fourteen years!”
Source: reported in Jimmy Carter Why Not the Best?
John Shelby Spong is the controversial former Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, USA. In his autobiography he tells of his days as a student at the University of North Carolina. There he met a man who had a large influence on his life, David Watt Yates, rector of the university Episcopalian church, the Chapel of the Cross. Spong describes him as “a unique human being, and a single man in every sense of the word. A militant low churchman, a courageous, if not always inspiring, preacher, and a man of deep convictions, he was a total abstainer form alcoholic beverages and a dedicated pacifist.” When WW2 ended churches across the country were filled with people giving thanks. Reverend Yates led his congregation not in a service of thanksgiving but in prayers of repentance for having taken up arms against fellow human beings. Spong comments, “Some people came that night with gratitude in their hearts and left with enormous hostility. David Yates, however, was undeterred.”
Yates’ ferocious integrity also led him to publicly and frequently speak against the evils of racial segregation. This often upset members of his congregation – at that time many churches in America preached that racial segregation was the will of God.
Another influential figure in Spong’s university years was his professor in philosophy, Louis Katsoff. Katsoff was a committed atheist. When Spong told him he had taken philosophy to help prepare him for his goal of becoming a priest Kastoff “conveyed to me that Christianity was a helpless hangover from another age and that I should not waste my life”.
Years later Spong, now an ordained priest, returned to the Chapel of the Cross to speak to a men’s meeting. To his great surprise he saw Professor Katsoff there – no longer an atheist but a baptised and committed Christian. He went to visit Katsoff at the Professor’s home and during conversation asked how it was he’d been converted. “David Yates finally got to me” Kastoff replied. Now Spong was even more surprised. “How could that be?” he asked. “You can think rings around him.”
“David didn’t outthink me” Professor Katsoff replied, “he just outlived me.”
Source: reported in John Shelby Spong, Here I Stand (HarperCollins, 2000), pp49-52.
Marco Polo is one of the most famed explorers of history. It seems he inherited the travel bug from his father. In 1260, when Marco polo was 6, his father and uncle traveled to Mongolia (part of modern day China). When they arrived there the Mongol emperor revealed an interest in Christianity. He asked the brothers to take a letter to the Pope requesting as many as 100 wise men to spread the Gospel among his subjects.
Three years later the brothers arrived home, and two years later set out on their return trek. Did they take the 100 wise men with them? No. Just two friars, for this was all the church felt they could spare. And even those two didn’t make it, turning back shortly into their journey.
What a tragedy! Imagine if the Kublai’s request had been fulfilled. Perhaps the whole history of China may have been changed.
Source: Information found in National Geographic, May 2001.
Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most respected leaders of modern history. A Hindu, Ghandi nevertheless admired Jesus and often quoted from the Sermon on the Mount. Once when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Ghandi he asked him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”
Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Apparently Ghandi’s rejection of Christianity grew out of an incident that happened when he was a young man practising law in South Africa. He had become attracted to the Christian faith, had studied the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, and was seriously exploring becoming a Christian. And so he decided to attend a church service. As he came up the steps of the large church where he intended to go, a white South African elder of the church barred his way at the door. “Where do you think you’re going, kaffir?” the man asked Ghandi in a belligerent tone of voice.
Ghandi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.”
The church elder snarled at him, “There’s no room for Kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”
From that moment, Ghandi said, he decided to adopt what good he found in Christianity, but would never again consider becoming a Christian if it meant being part of the church.
Source: information reported at pursuingchrist.com
Bruce Beresford is one of Australia’s most successful film directors. Among his more widely known movies are Breaker Morant and Driving Miss Daisy. But one of the most difficult films he has ever made was Black Robe. It told the story of French Jesuit missionaries working among the Indians of Quebec.
The bitterly cold winter weather of Saguenay-Lac St Jean created a logistics nightmare.
But Beresferd’s greatest challenge was not the weather nor accuracy of historical portrayal. It was in making the priest’s missionary obsession believable to film-goers today. According to Beresferd: “He had an obsession with getting people into heaven. This is a concept few people these days take seriously. My job was to convince an audience that this is important.”
Source: interview with Beresferd at signis.net