Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October 20 - Henry Martyn, Missionary, Witness to Calling

This was nothing like what he had hoped for. Henry Martyn was kneeling among the bodies of friends and enemies who were slowly and painfully dying following the Battle of Blaauwberg in South Africa. The Cape of Good Hope no longer seemed an appropriate title for the area. The British had won the battle but Henry feared that they were inexorably losing the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. As he tried to soothe their pain and suffering, he could not help but fear that he had witnessed a tragic shortening of the lives of many who might have heard the Gospel and been redeemed from their brokenness. Instead, their brokenness was cemented by the cold hands of time and finality. Henry shook his head and reflected back upon that fateful day years before in England.

Henry had considered a clerical career like so many of his equally intelligent contemporaries. He had graduated top of his class from St. John's College at Cambridge University. It was his intention to pursue a career in law and politics but God intervened with a different calling. One day, Henry had the pleasure of hearing a challenging and disturbing story about a man named William Carey. He was amazed that William had given his life to share the Christian Gospel with the people of India. He was disturbed by Carey's life because it loudly proclaimed a Gospel that seemed foreign to Henry--a Gospel that called people to lay down their lives. In his quest to understand what he was seeing, he read the biography of David Brainerd--a missionary to Native Americans. This only kindled the calling burning within Henry. He resolved to lay down his professional desires to become a missionary to India.

But, it hadn't been that easy. He had studied for the priesthood in the Anglican church and been ordained. He had prepared himself and packed his things. But, financial difficulties intervened and left him and his unmarried sister in a position where neither of them could continue to live on the money their father had provided for them. Consequently, Henry had taken a job as a chaplain to the British military. This seemed a compromise for Henry because it allowed him to continue in the ministry while still collecting a wage to support himself and his sister. This was how Henry had ended up on his knees among the dead and the dying in South Africa. This was how Henry arrived at the moment that changed his vision of the Church and Britain. He prayed that, Britain "might not remain proud and ungodly at home; but might show herself great indeed, by sending forth the ministers of her church to diffuse the gospel of peace." Among the horrors of war, Henry was converted to a gospel of peace that transcended all nationalities and boundaries.

Later, Henry would go on to India and, eventually, Persia. He would use his education and intelligence to translate the scriptures into the languages of the people and become like them so that he might be with them in meaningful ways. He was not hoping to make them British--he was hoping to show them Jesus. In this, he succeeded. Stories abound of his devotion to a people who were his only by adoption and devotion. He was routinely forced to take vacation and rest because he did not take it without being forced to. It's easy to imagine that it's not because he loved working but, rather, because he didn't understand his life as a missionary as work. For Henry, it was a calling and a vocation but far from a profession or job. Being sick, he was often recommended to travel by sea as his doctors felt it would be good for him.

At the age of thirty and in poor physical condition, he was sent back to England to recruit missionaries and recover his health before returning. He only got worse as he traveled and died in a plague-infested Turkish village. As he lay dying, he reflected on his life and his calling. In anticipation of God's redeeming work in the world, he wrote of God's coming Kingdom: "There, there shall in no wise enter in any thing that defileth: none of that wickedness which has made men worse than wild beasts, none of those corruptions which add still more to the miseries of mortality, shall he seen or heard of any more." It's not hard to imagine that the horrors of war, neglect, and disease were on his mind as he looked forward to their end and the salvation of those he loved.

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