Lilias Trotter and the Will of God


I finally had a chance to watch the documentary “Many Beautiful Things.” It is on the life of Lilias Trotter. She was a missionary of the early 1900s in Algeria. I connect with the story. Like me, she was a missionary who was not sent out by a traditional mission agency or society. But I suppose the differences far outweigh the similarities. She was a missionary who had potential for great fame as an artist but chose obscurity in a very dry and barren (literally and metaphorically) mission field. Curiously, because of the documentary and the research of Miriam Huffman Rockness, Lilias Trotter has gained a considerable posthumous fame. It is possible that in the years ahead her fame may eclipse John Rushkin, the one who was trying to develop her to be a reknowned painter. While I have long been familiar with John Rushkin, today he is far from a household name. Time will tell.

I strongly recommend perusing the website, www.liliastrotter.com. It has lots of resources including the documentary.

The question in the documentary was whether she had made the right choice. Was it better to embrace her gift or embrace her sense of calling. Or maybe her gifting was evidence of her true calling. There is a bit of a similarity here with the story of Eric Liddell (“Chariots of Fire”), where his gifting as a runner appeared to be at odds with his desire to serve as a missionary.

For some people, the answer is simple. One must accept God’s Call no matter what. But recognizing God’s Calling is… challenging. I have seen people go into missions who I was pretty sure should never go into missions. On a few occasions, things seemed to work out for good (I can easily be wrong) but other times I felt that my concerns were confirmed. I don’t believe that God’s Call is only one way. That is, God’s Call is not always towards formalized mission work or ministry. God’s call could theoretically be to be a great painter, or a great runner. I was an Officer in the US Navy, and then later a Mechanical Design Engineer. I think it safe to say that I was not meant to spend my adult years in the military, but I am not so sure regarding civilian engineering. In college I talked to a missionary about my uncertainties of missions or engineering. He believed that God can call people to engineering as much as He may call people to missions. The important thing is to serve God faithfully whatever was one’s vocation. I spent the next 19 years of my life pursuing engineering, and then I went into missions. The change of path does not necessarily mean my first path was wrong. And if my first path was right, it doesn’t necessarily mean my later change was wrong. God’s calling is a path, not a destination.

I like the documentary “Many Beautiful Things” because it doesn’t really give answers. That Ms. Trotter’s desire to establish a “visible church” in Algeria did not happen (until decades after her passing) may draw into question her calling. Or maybe it doesn’t. It is for us to decide. It is like the movie Silence (2016) that asks serious questions about Christian missions, without giving trite answers. I enjoy the movie Candle in the Dark, on the life of William Carey. It spoke of his many struggles along the way. But it ended with a seeming pronouncement of victory. Carey chose the right path after all. But things are not that simple… even for William Carey.

Trite answers abound. The poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost has often been used to support the idea that one must choose the path that the crowds ignore. It suggests a certain praise of individualism, or perhaps following God. But then I heard people say that it meant the opposite. It really did not matter which path is taken. However, when I read the poem again, I felt it said neither. Each path goes in different directions. The poet later will interpret his life as being radically changed by that choice— but there is no way to verify this because it is impossible to go back and try the other path. In the end, we don’t know. We cannot know the results of paths not chosen.

Did Lilias Trotter make the right choice? What about Eric Liddell, or Fr. Rodrigues (in Silence), or John Rushkin, or myself? Did we make the right or wrong decisions? Did we follow the will of God or not?

I believe that I have. I have felt God’s sustaining grace along the way. I have seen good things happen in our work here. But is that proof? No. Lilias Trotter had at best only modest success in missions. Eric Liddell’s life was cut short, in part, because of missions. It is possible that my wife and I could have had greater impact if we stayed as engineer and nurse in the US. We don’t know.

But God is faithful in our uncertainty. We don’t know what happens on alternative paths. We are not supposed to know. We are to seek God the best we can, and follow Him as best we know how.

Faithfully following God, as uncertain and tentative that following may be is the important thing, “And,” quoting Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference.”

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