Years ago I heard someone recommend reading missionary biographies as a way to bolster one’s own faith. Why? Reading about someone else’s journey with God, particularly one who’s especially committed to God, brings inspiration and its own kind of objectivity about who God is and how he works. The reading creates reflection-space in one’s own heart. (I wrote about it once here.) Believing’s made easier when one sees the fruit of another’s believing. And for me - I’m a word girl. Words often rouse my heart and inflame my passions; they’re soul-cultivators.
I gave it a try: over the past five years I’ve read probably twenty missionary biographies. So now I can confirm the advice: it’s a practice very much worth doing. It works.
Sometimes it happens that when I read the biography, I feel like I’m walking with the missionary through the hills and valleys of her life. I can almost feel her struggles as if they were my own, and I take her encouragements and victories on too. I experience camaraderie and warmth coming to me, almost live, off the pages. It’s like the fellowship within the “great cloud of witnesses” (and this is why the Catholic understanding of saints at times feels so powerful to me.) When I’m in such books, I slow down my reading near the end. I don’t want to get to the last page, don’t want to have to stop “walking with” this person, who has become a friend and a mentor.
Such was my experience in reading Elisabeth Elliot’s A Chance to Die: the Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael. Irish missionary to India for more than fifty years without a furlough, mother to several hundred children taken from the lowest and untouchable classes, pray-er, writer, leader…. Amy was so much. She was so single-minded in her devotion and obedience to her God. She lived humbly but with practicality. She was equal parts fierce and tender. Her whole life was prayer and service - and yet consumed with joy and purpose. She relied on God in her day-to-day life to a degree that candidly I find hard to fathom. And she was baffled why other Christians weren’t doing the same.
Amy never married as she felt the service God had called her to was best undertaken with the focus that comes with singleness. She served in numerous ways, but she was best known for the creation of Dohnavur, a home for temple girls and other unwanted children which eventually grew to include well over one hundred children. Though the home had “staff,” she was unequivocally all the children’s mother. Amy also formed a Protestant religious order called “Sisters of the Common Life.” When she died and was buried in the home’s garden, Amy asked that no stone be put over the grave. She was adamantly humble, always wanting the focus to go to Jesus instead of herself.
I took notes on the book after I finished reading it; here are a few things about Amy that I’ll circle back to for meditation:
-A medal? For service in India, service to Him who had died for her? “I have done nothing to make it fitting, and cannot understand it at all,” she wrote to Lord Pentland. “It troubles me to have an experience so different from His Who was despised and rejected, not kindly honored.”
-Amy felt that the world had far too many run-of-the-mill Christians, cool, respectable, satisfied with the usual, mediocre. Why bother to lay down one’s life to multiply the number of those?… “The saddest thing one meets is the nominal Christian… The church here is a ‘field full of wheats and tares.’” Again on this theme she wrote, “O to be delivered from half-hearted missionaries!”
-“There is nothing dreary or doubtful about (the life). It is meant to be continually joyful… We are called to a settled happiness in the Lord whose joy is our strength.”
-“It is a safe thing to trust Him to fulfil the desires that He creates.”
-“Lord, bid me to come to Thee, from any boat, on any water, only teach me how to walk on the sea.”
-“All life’s training is just exactly what is needed for the true Life-work, still out of view but far away from none of us. Don’t grudge me the learning of a new lesson.”
Amy wrote many books and scores of poems, some of which are included in the biography. Here is one poem that I particularly like:
“From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified,)
From all that dims Thy Calvary
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay
The hope no disappointments tire
The passion that will burn like fire,
Let me not sink to be a clod:
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.”
He must increase; I must decrease. As I closed the book I was left thinking, “I want to be more like Amy in devotion and in living faith. Lord, pave the way. May I be and become all you want me to be, for your glory.”
What missionary biographies do you love?
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