When I was young, I listened to some phonograph records on the life of David Livingstone. One story was about his encounter with a man-eating lion. When I listened to it recently, I cringed at the racist undertones. “Bwana, him big like house. Him big like mountain.” “I know Juma …". But I was also reminded why it was so helpful. It probably shaped me in ways of which I had no idea at the time. Even though Livingstone shot the lion, it kept charging and mauled his arm before the bullet finally killed it. “You know, boys and girls, God did deliver David Livingstone from the lion. But he was unable to use that arm for the rest of his life.” Narration like that taught me from a tender age that following God was no guarantee that I wouldn’t suffer, even if I was utterly faithful.
I also remember one scene where terrifying natives were on one side of a river, hurling spears and shooting arrows and yelling at Livingstone and his friends. I can still hear the angry chief calling out in a low, ominous voice, “Go back … Go back ….” That voice is with me to this day and it still gives me the same chills. But Livingstone wouldn’t go back. He kept on going. That’ll teach a young boy a lot about perseverance. And to see the admiration of Zambians for David Livingstone today is an even greater testimony. Who can trace the path of God’s providence and His leading. But I’m now serving in the same country where Livingstone died. So let me commend a few missionary biographies. Perhaps they will spur you on to greater faithfulness, or even serve as your Macedonian call.
“If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).
If you haven’t read, The Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, you simply have to get it today and read it as soon as it arrives. Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s wife, wrote the book and it tells the story of his life of service, devotion, and sacrifice, and his eventual death at the hands of the Auca Indians on the banks of the Curaray River in the jungles of Ecuador. You’ll be challenged by Jim’s simple devotion to Jesus. When he was a college student in 1949, Jim wrote, “He is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” It has always struck me as a very fine summary of Luke 9:23-26. Jim’s story is told more sequentially in Through Gates of Splendor.
Missionaries, like all of us, frequently struggle with the providence of God. Before she got married to Jim, in her first year of missionary service in Ecuador, Elisabeth Elliot worked with a remote tribe in the jungle. Her work included preliminary work towards Bible translation. These Strange Ashes recounts her struggle to find meaning in what doesn’t seem to make sense. Elliot appears to be incapable of giving the easy answers that come forth so often these days. This is a book for those who have suffered great loss in the work of the Lord. Read it slowly.
I’ve only attended one full Urbana Missionary Conference and that was the one held in 1976. The most riveting speaker was Helen Roseveare. She has written three autobiographies about her work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Doctor Among Congo Rebels (unfortunately out of print) recounts the horror of the Simba uprising in the early 60s. It is a tale of high adventure, ruthless honesty, and patient endurance, all of it under the watchful eye of our sovereign Lord. Give Me This Mountain and He Gave Us a Valley complete the story. Helen comes to grips with her own racism as a result of God’s mercy and the persevering prayers of her Congolese co-workers. Later, she experiences rejection at the hand of her friends. How do you make sense of it all? Pick up these books and read. You won’t regret it.
Anyone who has studied missions is amazed at those who have labored long and hard in the Muslim world. Charles Marsh tells the story of his work in Kabylia before its war with France for independence. If you ever wonder why missionaries often seem a bit weird, consider that they may not have started out that way. In Too Hard for God? we learn of the dogged determination that it took to take the gospel to the mountainous regions of central Algeria. As amazed as I am at the work of Marsh, I’m even more impressed by the patience of his wife who spent long lonely hours in their home while her husband made trips into the interior, praying for the success of his forays. Forced to leave his work in Algeria because of the war, Marsh traveled south to Chad and did a lot of work in that country, some of it with my uncle Bill Rogers. Years later, I came to know Mr. Marsh in northern France and he was an encouragement to me at a very difficult point in my life.
In Unlisted Legion, Jock Purves describes his work in far northern India, Tibet, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the late 1920s. This has to be one of the most difficult areas in which to do missionary work. The terrain is mountainous, the weather is freezing, travel is slow, and the people are resistant to the Gospel. Yet God’s grace is real and Purves recounts some of the lives that were touched and transformed by Christ. Truly we see in this book the heartbeat of a man who was determined to preach Christ where He was unknown.
Sex trafficking is a horrible crime against humanity, just like abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. When Amy Carmichael, a young, attractive Irish girl, went out to be a missionary in the Far East, she had no idea how God would eventually lead her to confront this sin in India. She served briefly in Japan and what is now Sri Lanka, before settling in south India. All in all, she worked for 55 years as a missionary without a furlough until her death in 1951. She discovered that young girls were dedicated to the Hindu gods and forced to serve as prostitutes to earn money for the Hindu priests. Amy founded Dohnavur Fellowship to rescue these girls and provide a safe home and schooling for them. Her remarkable story is told by Elisabeth Elliot in A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael. Once again, if you haven't read this book, you need to do so.
So far, I have limited my recommendations to books I’ve read, but here I have to go beyond myself. Too many have been helped by reading about the lives of Henry Martyn (missionary to India and Iran), Adoniram Judson (missionary to Burma), David Brainerd (missionary to the Delaware Indians of New Jersey) and William Carey (missionary to India) for their biographies not to be mentioned.