September 10, 2017
By Lucy Reid
I would love to have known St Aidan of Lindisfarne, our patron saint whom we celebrate today. I think he would have been an inspiring, likeable, challenging person and religious leader. He was a doer – someone who saw what needed to be done, and just got on with it. He left his monastic community in Iona, Scotland, and travelled to Northumbria in the NE of England because he believed the people there deserved to hear about Jesus from a gentle and patient person, and even though other missionaries had given up on that task, he didn’t. He went there, founded a community, built a monastery, and just got on with it. I like that. I’d love to sit down with him and have a long conversation about putting faith into action.
When David and I were in Newfoundland this summer I came across the story of another doer, another Christian who saw what needed to be done and just got on with it. He was a Victorian medical doctor from England called Wilfred Grenfell. Grenfell’s father was an English vicar, but he wasn’t particularly religious himself as a young man, and went to university to study medicine. While still a student he went to an evangelical tent meeting with the American preacher Dwight Moody, and experienced a call to put his life into following Christ in very practical ways – not just to believe in Christ, but to follow him in active, courageous service. Later Grenfell wrote that faith should be tried out “in the laboratory of one’s own life.”
As a young doctor he signed up with the Mission to Deep Sea Fisherman, and was sent as a medical missionary to investigate the conditions lived in by those in the Labrador fishery. And he was appalled at the poverty he saw. The fishing communities along the Labrador coast had no access to any medical care, and were trapped in indentured labour for the fish merchants who kept them in debt and in poverty. Tuberculosis was rampant and deadly, and adults and children were dying from malnutrition and disease.
What began as a fun adventure for a young man who had embraced a form of “muscular Christianity” became his life’s work. Grenfell worked tirelessly to bring medical care to Labrador and parts of Newfoundland, and apart from the 4 hospital ships he worked from over the 40+ years of his mission, he established 6 hospitals, 4 schools, 7 nursing stations, 2 orphanages and numerous coops where the fishermen could escape indebtedness to the fish merchants.
Religion, he said, “made one do things.”
Grenfell fundraised the money needed for all this by writing short books with the help of his wife Anne MacClanahan, and selling them on speaking tours when he was away from Labrador. He wrote with a fast-paced style, and one of his best known books was about his experience of being adrift on an ice pan with his dog team while trying to get to a sick child to operate on him. In danger of dying of exposure while drifting helplessly out into the open ocean at night, he had to kill and skin three of his beloved dogs, and wear their skins to keep himself from freezing to death, before he was miraculously rescued the next day. (He later had a plaque made and displayed in memory of the dogs whose lives were lost to save his own.)
Grenfell was something of a force of nature. He believed that faith had to be put into action, and no matter what your circumstances in life, you had to ask yourself, “How is my faith making a difference? How am I embodying the spirit of Christ?” And
Christ helps us, Grenfell wrote, “by challenging us to look at him and daring us to follow him.”
Today, at the start of another season, as we face more changes and challenges and opportunities, the footsteps of St Aidan and people like Wilfred Grenfell beckon us to be bold, to take action, to get started even when we don’t know where the road will lead.
There is so much need in this world, so much suffering and destruction. It can seem overwhelming. We can’t fix it all, but we can join in the global effort to bring healing and help. Each one of us, in our own small lives, can be part of something much greater – which we Christians call the kingdom of God. Each one of us can put our faith into action in the laboratory of our own lives and their circumstances.
So choose something you want to do, or join in with, or explore as a follower of Jesus. Volunteer, challenge yourself, try something new and maybe scary. Don’t be afraid to make sacrifices, because the path of discipleship is costly. But it’s rewarding and rich in so many ways, too.
Aidan and Grenfell were people of action, Christian doers. You may have other heroes who inspire you. When the needs of the world can depress and deflate us, let’s allow the example of people who’ve gone before us lift us up and inspire us. And then let’s get busy!