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What Christ Means to Me: Chapter 3

What Christ Means to Me by Wilfred T. Grenfell

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In 1880 my chief suggested that I would enjoy a trip to the Deep Sea Fisheries, He was interested in a new movement to aid the men whom he always loved, for, besides being a very great surgeon, he was also a master mariner and a fine sailor. ‘Don’t go in summer,’ he said. ‘There is nothing to see then. Go in the middle of winter and you will have plenty of excitement and learn to sympathize with the lives of the men on the North Sea banks.’

As I look back I see the reason for this advice. The very physical danger and the splendid courage of the men fascinated me, and a real love was engendered for these red-blooded seamen. This led me to study the problems of their lives exactly as if they were my own. One saw the disadvantages under which they laboured, just because they were inarticulate, and the intolerable vampires who, to rob them and their families of their hard-won earnings, spread the devil’s net in the form of open saloons and houses of ill fame innumerable around the quays at which they had to land. Many were even paid off in offices which were annexes to saloons. Out of these it was practically impossible to escape without drinking and the danger of being drugged. Even at sea, vessels known as ‘hells’ were sent out to get their money at any price. Homes were ruined, widows created, and the numbers of helpless ones left behind had no alternatives but the poorhouscs and orphan asylums. A challenge which seemed big enough to demand attention rang in my ears.

I made a second voyage and my chief came with me. Still later, in London, he put the problem, ‘What are you going to do in life? Practise in London or work among fishermen?’ To me there seemed only one answer possible, for I felt that London would not miss any surgery that I could give it. The missionary effort among the fishermen was in debt, and the first thing I was asked to do was called ‘deputation work.’ I knew nothing whatever about it, and dreaded nothing more than being obliged to go around and ask strangers to give money, even though it was not for myself. Nor was this only because I had never spoken in public, or in debating societies, and had stage fright, but because the methods which I had seen used in such meetings had had too much flavour of conventional piety. The meetings were usually held in a drawing-room in the middle of the afternoon, when one could only expect an audience of ladies, and usually ended with tea and cakes. The vicar usually presided. Health resorts were the most popular sites, and athletes and young men seldom or never patronized them. Sometimes they were held on the lawns in summer. Those were better and always more representative. I liked them better, also, though I always felt that they were sentimental rather than business affairs, and that a great deal of time was wasted, and not infrequently as much was spent on tea and expenses as accrued to the ‘mission’ funds. I remember once in my nervousness snapping the lid of a silver box full of matches in my tailcoat pocket, and thereby igniting the contents in the middle of my speech. By crushing it in my hand, and at the expense of a trifling burn, I escaped detection. I always resented black tail coats as an appanage of religion anyhow. But raising money was part of the challenge and had therefore, I thought, to be endured.

Travels that have led me all around the world have convinced me that inefficient propaganda is still the weakest part of ‘missionary’ enterprise. If we really want to understand the problems of a country, the men of unselfish motives and enough self-sacrifice to go into missionary work, who live their whole lives among the people of a country, and speak their language, should be the ones to give us the best information, and so inspire our hearts to help by showing us the real challenge and what Christianity has to offer in their field, and is accomplishing. If missionaries are not men of sufficient mental calibre to do that, are they the men whom today we should wish to represent any one else’s business except the Lord's? The fact is that some travelogue man, like Mr. Burton Holmes, who takes in all the world, secures far larger and more influential audiences, and so do the so-called explorers and even politicians, who haven’t anything like the same opportunities to give correct information about the countries of the world. To take refuge in saying that we should trust the Lord to do the least attractive end of the work is too often a form of selfishness or idleness. We do not work at the problem enough and put enough of our energy and money into illustrating it to make it intelligently interesting to the average audience, who, so far as my experience goes, are keenly interested in their response when one has real information of a convincing nature to impart. Mr. Ford says, ‘Have any useful good thing to sell and people will want to buy it.’ We all realize the value of visualizing advertisements in every other kind of business, as witness the Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis, Civitans, Lions, Shriners, Women’s City Clubs, Twentieth Century Clubs, and endless others that are looking for outlets for their real religion of loving their neighbour in deeds.

The second duty which I was asked to perform was entirely to my liking. I joined a small sixty-ton ketch-rigged fishing-craft at Great Yarmouth, and as a first missionary effort I sailed to Ostend to pick up four tons of tobacco with which to fight the floating grog traffic. We were frozen into the harbour and the tobacco filled our little ship from ballast deck to main beams. There was an attractive unconventionally about a religion that fought evil with its own weapons. The rumsellers used cheap tobacco to lure men to their destruction on the ‘hells.’ We sold it cheaper, even at a loss, to lure them away. In three months we had nineteen vessels, in as many fleets, each flying a yard of blue bunting a fathom or two above their bowsprit ends on the foretopmast stay. All these vessels sold without payment of duly cheaper tobacco of varieties selected by a plebiscite of the men. These flags stood for ships clean of intoxicating liquors and immorality. A man does not beat his wife, wreck his home, fight his neighbours, or part with his reason and his money because he has been smoking tobacco.

If the hardest thing in the world to resist is temptation, we should present a vision of Christ that tempts men the right way. Real religion dreams dreams, and sees visions that intoxicate, every bit as much as the licence permitted by the will not to believe. Only it intoxicates with deeds of kindness, justice, chivalry, love. It answers the insatiate demands of youth and high spirit for freedom from boredom and the pettiness of daily routine, every whit as naturally and undeniably as do dram-drinking, petting-parties, gaming-tables, or the self-pollutions of lust and licence which surely, if slowly, evoke the loathsome Hyde out of the knightly Jekyll which is in us, and, judged by end results, leave their devotees in hell here, whatever may await us beyond this ‘bourne of Time and Place.’ Paul’s life was as full of thrills as Herod Agrippa’s; Livingstone’s and Lincoln’s as Jay Gould’s or King Charles the Second’s. The idea of expecting a halo for so-called self-mortification is bunkum. No workingman wants any such rubbish. Personally, I loathe the idea; the man who goes around with any such notion in his head is a misfit and should get out.

Christ means to me the best kind of a Friend, as well as Leader, who is giving me in this world ten times, nay, the proverbial hundred fold, as good times as I could enjoy in any other way. Christ’s religion to me is primarily for this world, and the New Jerusalem is to come down from Heaven onto this earth and we are to be the Washingtons and Nelsons. We are to save that city—and we are to have all the fun of really creating it. If Croesus and Midas, Bacchus and the Satyrs, have the fun of life here, then the philosophy of the East is right, and life is hell and Nirvana and nothingness is heaven. If Christ is right and life is a field of honour, and Sir Galahad and Nathan Hale and Edith Cavell got the real fun out of it, then to every red-blooded man life becomes heaven in proportion as he seizes its opportunities for service.

As I write, we are cleaning up land and developing a village. It will not be half the fun when it is all finished. The joy of a temporary world is in doing worth-while things. When warfare meant only physical danger, and called for only physical courage, this vision led men with one heart into the trenches, and that with no thought but fidelitas usque ad mortem. Nor had they any grouch so long as they were convinced that they had done their part. Pounds sterling, or love? Which is the real force? What sane man would lay down his life for money? The constraining power of love, thank God, makes any real man see that there are things dearer than life. The Christian wins out by seeing the unseen. He endures as seeing Him who is invisible.