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What Christ Means to Me: Chapter 4

What Christ Means to Me by Wilfred T. Grenfell

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In the autumn of 1891 a friend suggested my visiting the fisheries on the Newfoundland Banks, so in 1892 I sailed in the ninety-nine-ton ketch Albert to the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts. The conceit of the suggestion, the expense of it, and the question of qualifications for the undertaking worried me not a little. As a mere physical adventure the opportunity seemed almost too good to be true. I consulted my beloved mother as to what she would do. Her answer assures me that now, though so-called ‘dead,’ she still speaketh. ‘I would use daily,’ she replied, ‘the words of the 143d Psalm, “Teach me to do the thing that pleaseth thee.’” Could any theology be more profound? Any sociology more practical? To do my surgery as Christ would do it!—my navigation, my investigations, my study of the new problems which would confront me! I am sure that when Christ made doors and windows in Nazareth they did not jam and misfit.

I have been discouraged sometimes in the Labrador work by men who would say, ‘Why spend money for X-rays, radium, and up-to-date hospitals for a few fishermen?’ Yet these same men never queried, ‘Why hang the price of a full-fledged hospital in pearls around my wife’s neck as earlier barbarians did?’ Why? Because that is one of the first things that Christ means to me. He does not do work cheaply because He is dealing with simple men whose bread depends on physical health, nor let things slide because human experts are not there to criticize. Would any decent man? There is no question as to what Christ would do. Wouldn’t He work to secure the right clay if He needed any for the cure of a working-man’s eyes? I’ve spent many dollars on pilgrimages to famous clinics, and many on instruments and new books, with the idea that Christ would at least have me a modernist in the practice of surgery.

What a home-coming that was in December, 1892! What a splendid trans-Atlantic trip we had made, when the ice of approaching winter drove us out of the Labrador harbours, offering us six or eight months in Jack Frost’s bonds, without supplies, as the only alternative. We averaged seven and a bit knots per hour from harbour mouth to pier head in England, all the while dreaming dreams of answering as soon as spring came the most alluring challenge I had ever pictured in all my visions of opportunity. Hero? Bunkum!! That pedestal will not stand the test of experience. One thing the people had to have was nurses—skilful, trained, gentle nurses, the best exponents of love when it is most needed and most vital. The first two of my old nurses who were asked to volunteer responded at once. Good positions, assuring an income and a future, were already theirs. But the love of God, like contentment, never fails to turn the wooden cup to gold and the homely whistle to a strain of sweet music. The splendid description of love in even the first Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 13, fails to envisage its infinite power.

Two years ago, our little hospital steamer, after twenty-five years’ service on our somewhat inclement coast, sank incontinently at sea almost without warning. I found just such a one as I wanted—small, seaworthy, well-found, rating 100 A-1 at Lloyds’, and with boilers which would keep steam so economically on wood that I can run her a mile on a twelve-foot stick, once we have got steam up. Her owner was compelled to sell her. She was within our means, and I bought her lying on the hard at Southampton. No steamer so small, so far as I can learn, had ever crossed the North Atlantic. She is only sixteen feet in the beam, having about thirty inches of freeboard, and a coal-bunker capacity of only eighteen tons—about an hour’s burning for a modern trans-Atlantic liner! ‘You haven’t money enough to pay any one to take her across,’ commented more than one wiseacre friend, after the news of her purchase leaked out. But I was not worrying. I was appealing to a higher force. Skilled friends as soon as the chance was offered them brought her out ‘for nothing, just to do their share.’ If that skipper volunteer and that engineer volunteer did not share my creed, ought I to have refused their help, which was real help? Could that offer, made in His spirit, to do as He would do, be irreligious? And would a decision to refuse their help because ‘I knew it all,’ and as a result have the boat stranded on the other side and our people left without its aid, be religious orthodoxy? It certainly would not be Christian. Every day we cruised in her last season on the Labrador coast. I thanked God for that spirit of His which works in this world ‘without observation’ and without labels, ‘that moveth where it listeth.’

This is not an effort to tell a story, but to try to analyze one as better evidence than any mere statement of what Christ has meant to one human being. Already enough has been said of self. Ninety-nine hundredths of the Labrador work has not been mine at all. To say that it is a movement in which I have been allowed to share is more accurate. At times I have wished I had more money. As the years went by, the sense of the resulting slowness and waste of time impressed me increasingly. I realized how slowly new ideas come to one’s mind. Often I have wished that one could have taken a course at some university on ‘How to love your neighbour.’ Surgery, because it was one’s own particular line of work, a remedial effort which after all only left patchwork, was almost necessarily overemphasized. The need for prophylactic work, child-welfare work, industrial, educational, mechanical engineering, cash stores, means for thrift, the value of artistic influences, the stress on efficient propaganda, the dignity of collecting money, have in turn all risen up and shouted at me. Christ has become to me to mean, more and more, doing something, anything, well.

The medical mission really has nothing over that of the engineer. Clcwes of India was as efficient as Gilmour of Mongolia, or Paton of the Hebrides, or as Livingstone in Africa. Tyndale Biscoe, with his hunting-crop in Kashmir, has built character as surely as ever did Stewart in Lovedale, Higginbottom and his famous agricultural farms in India, Jackson and his reindeer herds in Alaska, as much as Hudson Taylor and his men in China, or General Booth and his drums the world around. There is no such thing as size, to weep over. Size after all depends, as Einstein shows, on velocity; and so we can see how the spiritual is real, the real is spiritual, and the widow’s mite bigger than all the gold and silver of the Pharisees. Mrs. Wiggs at home in the cabbage patch is as true a hero as Sir Lancelot with his spear on his quest for forlorn damsels. God’s challenge to us is only to do whatever we can. Christ’s religion is as natural as the flowers in spring, and relates to the everyday things around us.

I can remember being blamed because my critics claimed that starting a lumber mill, in order to give labour to hungry families, was not a rightful use for ‘mission’ funds. Not a few criticized us severely for so problematical a venture as introducing reindeer into Labrador. When we accepted the gift of a site for a hospital on Caribou Island, Labrador, the deed stipulated that I must not sell pork or molasses, or enter into trade there. At that time it seemed an insult to an English surgeon that he had to sign his name that he would not go into the grocery business. But the time came when it was apparent that that was exactly what Christ would do in that situation. Most of the necessities of life had to be imported in Labrador. The people lived on a truck or peonage system, and were paid in kind and not in cash. They did not know the value of the fish they caught or the price of the things which they were buying. I remember being bitterly assailed for sending the ‘Trade Review,’ telling the prices of our produce and our necessities, into different sections of the coast. I was openly pilloried because I collected a series of ‘accounts’ spread over a period of years, and analyzed them in order to assure myself of the ability of the country to support its people. Indeed, I once became so discouraged with the poverty, and the recurring diseases of both children and adults, diseases which resulted from malnutrition and chronic underfeeding and lack of proper clothing, that I journeyed to British Columbia and made an agreement with the Prime Minister to send over two hundred families to sites selected on that seaboard, he to advance the passage money and see that they got a fair start. This, however, the Newfoundland Government of the day refused to permit. When at length we actually preached cooperation, and started a cash cooperative store, we at once became anathema; and when later we started such a venture four miles from a trader’s station, he, an expolitician, set wheels in motion, not only in the press, but in political circles, and a commission was sent down purporting to inquire into our activities, but really with a view to disclosing our economic turpitude.

Personally, I never felt that the Sermon on the Mount, or the healing of the blind and lepers, brought Christ to the Cross. It followed so closely after He actual interference with the money-changers that I have no doubt but that the devil of greed for gain, which still ruins so many of our men in power, had most to do with His enemies coming out into the open. That devil is not dead yet, not by a long way!

We have now many new efforts seriously begun, and are trying to tackle our problems more in the light of modern sociological teachings. We admit our crudity, and we fully endorse its wisdom, and, indeed, most generous volunteer experts are enabling us to give somewhat efficiently those interpretations of Christ in action. A lesson, much needed, and one which true love calls for, is always to be optimistic. Never again will I be pessimistic because I cannot see the Christ bringing in His Kingdom in my way. If my boy promises me that he will not smoke, and I find a used pipe in his coat pocket, I do not say anything, I just trust him.

Now, whenever we have a real challenge to a real problem, we have learnt to believe that the harder it looks, and the less material return there seems in it, the more surely and easily shall we find some one to respond to its challenge. The fact is, humanity naturally responds to S.O.S. calls when it hears them. There is something else in man besides original sin. Experience has demonstrated this unanswerably.

The storm tosses even the best of ships and sometimes just hurls her on the rocks, or, striking some snag, she becomes partially disabled, and, if unaided, is driven ashore in spite of her best efforts, though she may have been once classed ‘100 A-1’ at Lloyds’. During the years, more than one human craft, damaged in the treacherous currents of modern social life, has come North to seek help in our less artificial surroundings, and they have found it, and gone back, and are living new lives today. But each time, so it has seemed to us, it has not been the escape from the temptation, but the obvious challenge to get up and help others, the chivalry of the Christ service, calling even to heavily handicapped and almost lost talents to do worth-while deeds. Deep calls to deep. Never yet have I seen the fear of punishment help a prodigal to a new sonship.

There may be sections of the world where the method of presenting the Gospel of Christ to men, which prevailed a couple of centuries ago when actual information was necessary, will function to some extent today. But in the new light of our modern world it seems too cheap a price at which to purchase so great an end. If Christianity cannot be presented to the world, if its preachers are not leaders in deeds as well as in words, if our presentation of Christianity has nothing beyond its philosophy to offer to life and fails to ‘deliver the goods’ which developing reason and enriched faith in God teach mankind, then mankind has a right to demand some new religion which can adapt itself to our ever-advancing world. I can never believe but that in every man is born a spirit that is real, as well as a potential sonship of God, though defects in the human mechanism through which it has to relate itself may pervert its efforts and prevent its demonstrating itself. These defects may be hereditary, or ‘original.’ and are often a visiting of the sins of the fathers on the children in the most terrible of all possible ways. As I see the Christ, He teaches that the task of making life worth living is not a loafer’s job. The slacker is not only miserable hereafter, but harmful and foolish here and now.

Life is like Labrador, a Labourer’s Land. It is intended to produce that which no loafer’s land ever anywhere can ever produce, the character of sons of God. Can any one desire a world better suited for that task? Christ teaches us that life offers a worthwhile prize to us all, but, like all other valuable prizes, it has to be won always with some temporary self-sacrifice. Love, Joy, and Hope and Peace are the slow-growing fruits of the spirit. Love spells sacrifice. True joy spells achievement. Hope thrives best in hard times. Peace is a result of victory' first over self. The most meticulous emphasis on the letter of Law or Gospel is more likely to kill than to make alive. The way of the spirit, exactly as of the flesh, in a world like ours, spells labour—hard labour whatever the end we seek.

The Western world which listened to, and heard, if ever so indistinctly, Christ’s message, has led in its emphasis on the dignity of labour, though Europe is still somewhat handicapped by certain social customs and human relationships which are relics of barbaric days. The newer world, in partially freeing itself from many of the old incubuses, was trying to give expression to what Christ really meant—brotherhood under God as contrasted with the snobbery and pride of hereditary rank and its dangerous anachronisms. That mere possession of things still bulks so large in the new world’s psychology is her greatest danger today. Perhaps Christ’s truest message was the emphasis He put on labour. He was a labourer and most of His disciples were also. To be repositories for the truth for which He came to die, He chose mostly not the rich, but the labouring men. I have personally found more inspiration in the cottages of fishermen than in many palaces of the rich. Many of my most helpful and richest hours have been in the company of these children small in the world’s eye. Paul felt the same. He saw the value of labouring as a tent-maker.

Christ means to me that this world has the potential in it of a Kingdom of God. We are finding this through workingmen, not mere talkers, men too humble as a rule to set themselves up as oracles. I take off my hat to every man of science always, if he is a man who works: Newtons, Clark-Maxwells, Stephensons, Darwins, Huxleys, Faradays, Humphreys, the Wrights and Bells, Marconis, and Edisons, who by work teach us of the marvels of the world; and so help me to realize that it is the work of God. What we know of this world with our finite brains, this side ‘the Divide,’ convinces me that neither man nor chance created it. My faith, at any rate, does not have to strain itself to the breaking point to accept that premise as a sound, working hypothesis. I take my hat off naturally also to men of physical accomplishment, the Spartans, the Olympic victors, the great athletes of all time, for their ability to do things. To revere that prowess is more natural than to revere a dollar, a dinner, a diamond, or a drink.

It is mostly in the West that this reverence for physical accomplishment has flourished. Alexander and his Greeks failed to convey it to the Indians or to the East generally. It may be a side-light, but it seems to me a direct reflection of what Christ’s messages really mean. ‘I am come that ye might have life and might have it more abundantly.’ He never meant to me the Christ pictured in the art of the Middle Ages—the convent, the monastery, the hermit, the recluse, the body hampered here with religious clothing and furniture or hereafter with harps and halos. He means that we are the sons and heirs of the Maker of this marvellous cosmos and are the channels upon it of His Kingdom to be. I want to believe, anyhow, and the wish itself seems some presumptive evidence that there exists in me something beyond the ‘mere material’— that is, if the material does exist. The objective is big enough and the conceit lofty enough to suggest an answer to what is the meaning of life, and to redeem it from being the hopeless self-determined tragedy which some are willing to accept and to He down under.

The very idea that we can make life worth while suggests an answer as to the meaning of life. For through the third great department of life, the world with all its doubts, with all its scepticism, so often only the retribution for its failures, is increasingly trying to keep those passions under, the conquest of which is half man’s glory. It proclaims increasingly as real victors the men who have triumphed in the spiritual strife, and won out against the sloth that damns and the assaults that kill. The fame and honour of a Lincoln, even as against a Washington, grow from day to day. The spirit, portrayed in the ‘Perfect Tribute’ of the speech at Gettysburg, wins instant admiration from ever-increasing hosts of mankind.

So, as we think of men who were great—great with the greatness that explains the real challenge and opportunities of life—there rise to our minds, not Midas and Croesus, creators of money bags; not Caesars and Alexanders and Napoleons, creators of temporary kingdoms; but the men who have had a part, in however restricted a walk in life, in contributing to the Kingdom of God on earth, the men and women who embodied most nearly the spirit of Jesus Christ. That spirit made over the Johns and Peters and Pauls, the Cromwells and Lincolns and Jeromes, the Saint Francises, the Savonarolas, the Luthers, the Cranmers, the Kingsleys, the Wesleys, the Livingstones, the Careys, and the Martyns, and later the Booths, the Taylors, the Gandhis, the Sadhu Sundar Singhs, and all those who have followed the Christ. Following Christ is a hard task. It is a warfare. But He teaches me increasingly that life is worth while if and only as we make its goal ‘well done’ and not ‘well comprehended.’