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
It was 1945, World War II had drawn to a close, and a young man sat broken inside a POW camp. He had been a reluctant soldier in Hitler’s army and here, inside a prison in Scotland, he had months to contemplate what had been and what was to come. The cities of his homeland had been reduced to rubble and the people impoverished. His sleep was filled with repeating nightmares in which the terrors of warfare were lived over and over.
And then came what was for me the worst of all. In September 1945, in camp 22 in Scotland, we were confronted with pictures of Belsen and Auschwitz. They were pinned up in one of the huts, without comment… Slowly and inexorably the truth filtered into our awareness, and we saw ourselves mirrored in the eyes of the Nazi victims. Was this what we had fought for? Had my generation, as the last, been driven to our deaths so that the concentration camp murderers could go on killing, and Hitler could live a few months longer?… The depression over the wartime destruction and a captivity without any apparent end was exacerbated by feelings of profound shame and having to share in this disgrace. That was undoubtedly the hardest thing, a stranglehold that choked us.
An unshakeable shame saturated his being and the only future he could see stretching out before him was one that filled him with despair. Yet it was in the midst of this shame and despair that God found him. A visiting chaplain gave the soldier a Bible and, with little else to do, he began reading it. In the lament Psalms he heard resonant voices, the agony of people who felt God had abandoned them. In the story of Christ crucified he encountered a God who knew what it was to experience suffering, abandonment, and shame. Feeling utterly forsaken himself, the German soldier found a friend in the One who cried “my God my God why have you forsaken me”.
In 1947 he was given permission to attend a Christian conference that brought together young people from across the world. The Dutch participants asked to meet with the German POWs who had fought in the Netherlands. The young soldier was one of them. He went to the meeting full of fear, guilt and shame, feelings that intensified as the Dutch Christians spoke of the pain Hitler and his allies had inflicted, of the dread the Gestapo bred in their hearts, of the family and friends they had lost, of the disruption and damage to their communities. Yet the Dutch Christians didn’t speak out of a spirit of vindictiveness, but came to offer forgiveness. It was completely unexpected. These Dutch Christians embodied the love the German soldier had read about in the story of Christ and it turned his life upside down. He discovered despite all that had passed “God looked on us with ‘the shining eyes’ of his eternal joy”, that there was hope for the future.
That German soldier was Juergen Moltmann, who would go on to become one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. Years later, with the message of the loving, crucified God still indelibly printed on his heart, he penned these beautiful words.
But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.
Source: Moltmann’s writings. Quotes from The Source of Life.The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life. Fortress Press 1977
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)
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.
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.
In the year 156 an 86 year old man was brought before a Roman official and asked to renounce his atheism. He was no atheist by our standards. Rather he was the devout Christian bishop Polycarp. To the Romans however he was an atheist, for he refused to worship the emperor as a god along with the other gods of Rome.
Polycarp knew denial would mean a painful death – either being thrown into the arena with a wild animal or burned alive on a pyre. Three times he was questioned, three times invited to renounce his “atheism”, but no renunciation of Christ would he make. “Swear and I release; curse Christ” urged the Roman official, to which Polycarp replied “Eighty-six years have I served him (Christ), and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Polycarp was not spared. A pyre was built and he was burned alive, but his words echo down through time to us: “Eighty-six years have I served him (Christ), and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Source: Based on a text from Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers cited in A New Eusebius. Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337.
Gabrielle Carey is an Australian author most widely known for the movie Puberty Blues, based upon the book of the same title. In a later book, In My Father’s HouseCarey relates an incident that led to her conversion to Christ. Carey was raised in an atheist humanist household. Her father was a university lecturer with a passionate commitment to the left side of politics. Throughout her upbringing he railed against oppression, capitalism and was a key figure in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam years.
Being against religious instruction Carey’s father wouldn’t allow her to attend Scripture classes at school, but he did allow her to attend Sunday School with her friends at the local Baptist Church. He had just one piece of advice: “Just remember to ask the teacher a question. Ask her why God doesn’t stop the war in Vietnam.”
Gabrielle did so but didn’t get an answer. The teacher, obviously embarrassed by the question, excused her self to go to the bathroom, and didn’t return to answer the question.
The experience convinced Carey that her father was right, that there was no God.
Years later Carey was living in Ireland. A music program she was listening to on the radio ended, to be followed by an interview with a Benedictine abbot. Gabrielle was about to turn the radio off when the interviewer asked the question her father had always used in debates with religious leaders. “If there is a God why is there so much injustice in the world.” Gabrielle paused to hear the Abbot’s reply, expecting the same old line about it being God’s will. The Abbot’s reply stunned her. “I don’t know” he said. “Sometimes being married to God is a bit like being married to Jack the Ripper. You just don’t know what he’s doing.”
Gabrielle says “It was the best and most honest answer I’d ever heard to that question.” She began a correspondence with the Abbot that eventually led her to convert to Catholicism.
The Abbot’s answer is honest. At the end of the day we don’t know why God allows suffering and evil. Sure, we can develop philosophically rigorous responses, but in the end they usually seem inadequate in the face of evil.
Source: Scott Higgins, based on Gabrielle Carey’s In My Father’s House (Pan MacMillan, 1992)
A high school girl wrote the following letter to a friend:
I attended your church yesterday. Although you had invited me, you were not there. I looked for you, hoping to sit with you. I sat alone. A stranger, I wanted to sit near the back of the church but those rows were all packed with regular attenders. An usher took me to the front. I felt as though I was on parade.
During the singing of the hymns I was surprised to note that some of the church people weren’t singing. Between their sighs and yawns, they just stared into space. Three of the kids that I had respected on campus were whispering to one another throughout the whole service. Another girl was giggling. I really didn’t expect that in your church. The pastor’s sermon was very interesting, although some members of the choir didn’t seem to think so. They looked bored and restless. One kept smiling at someone in the congregation. There were several people who left and then came back during the sermon. I thought, “How rude!” I could hear the constant shuffling of feet and doors opening and closing.
The pastor spoke about the reality of faith. The message got to me and I made up my mind to speak to someone about it after the service. But utter chaos reigned after the benediction. I said good morning to one couple, but their response was less than cordial. I looked for some teens with whom I could discuss the sermon, but they were all huddled in a corner talking about the newest music group.
My parents don’t go to church. I came alone yesterday hoping to find a place to truly worship and feel some love. I’m sorry, but I didn’t find it in your church. I won’t be back.
Source: Author unknown
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