As many Christian who have “lost” loved ones to heaven can testify, the early months of bereavement are filled with the sense of the spiritual presence of those we miss, and the remembrance of their words. As mystical as this sounds, heaven may be nearer to us than we know. Certainly, those of faith who have gone before us are described as “a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). This description is telling, because it signifies, regardless of the specifics, the ongoing consciousness of those dying in Christ, and, seemingly, their awareness of things ongoing on earth, at least to some degree.
Ironically, Dad, who passed to glory nearly ten months ago, made little of such talk during his lifetime. He loved very deeply, yet so self-contained was he in his temperament and impacted from his youth by “the Blitz” in World War II Britain, that he aired his feelings about personal sorrow more with his his eyes and his actions than with his words. Whatever his own expression of loss, he could hardly argue with ours, especially now that he is our loss!
One of the many memories of Dad which has reverberated around my mind is his great esteem for John G. Paton (1824-1907), missionary to the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides. In an age when so many in our Western Christianity have mistaken the consolation of the gospel for the need to be comfortable, Dad held up John G. Paton as an inspiration and an example of surrender to Christ and to his calling on our lives. Specifically, Dad was impressed by Paton’s burial of his wife and child in the same grave shortly after his arrival on Tanna, and of his keeping guard of the grave from the local cannibals.
Blessed by this memory, I’ve recently taken up Paton’s autobiography. There are many matters and incidents on which one could comment: Paton’s views on biblical manhood, prayer for the lost, catechizing, parental discipline, Christianity’s impact on the standing of women, the importance of the Lord’s Day, and the Devil worship among the savages. I take up, however, Paton’s view of his own protection, largely because of the reminder it affords of the view of Jim Elliot and his friends, as mentioned, if remembered aright, in Elisabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor. Here is Paton’s perspective:
All through that morning and forenoon we heard them [a band of armed men] tramp-tramping around our house, whispering to each other , and hovering near window and door. They knew that there were double-barrelled fowling-piece and a revolver on the premises, though they never had seen me use them, and that may, under God, have held them back in dread. But the thought of using them did not enter our souls even in that awful time. I HAD GONE TO SAVE, AND NOT TO DESTROY. IT WOULD BE EASIER FOR ME AT ANY TIME TO DIE THAN TO KILL ONE OF THEM. Our safety lay in our appeal to that blessed Lord who had placed us there, and to whom all power had been given in Heaven and on Earth. He that was with us was more than all that could be against us. This is strength; this is peace: ~ to feel, in entering on every day, that all its duties and trials have been committed to the Lord Jesus, ~ that, come what may, He will use us for His own glory and our real good! *
Many may differ from Paton, but none may doubt his seeking first the kingdom of heaven. Could it be possible that, a near fifty years after Paton’s death, Jim Elliot (right), Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Nate Saint, met their martyrdoms in 1956 under the influence of Paton’s reasoning? It is not at all certain to me that Paton was wrong, nor that the five were either, when, headed to Ecuador, they decided not to take guns for protection from a people known for violence toward outsiders. Certainly, their concern for the eternal destiny of the Aucas (now known as the Huaorani) echoed Paton’s for the cannibals of Tanna. But is this coincidence or an interesting historical connection? Others may be able to shed more light on the matter. Wherever we come down on the issue of force in the cause of self-defense on the mission field especially, we know that both the natives of Tanna and the Aucas got to witness the kingdom before their eyes, and that some repented and entered therein, even though Elliot and his friends never got to see that in this life.
* John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides, An Autobiography edited by his brother James Paton; reprint ed. (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 138-39 (capitals inserted).