The story is all here, really, in this simple pen-and-ink. The man in the foreground, penning a hymn, is Reginald Heber, who, as a student at Oxford, had won some winsome poetry awards. He's a clergyman, soon to become the Bishop of Calcutta. The men behind him are determining the shape of Sunday's morning service. Just call them liturgists. They're planning a special Sunday worship dedicated to the cause of Christian missions.
Knowing Heber's literary gifts, the three gentlemen, one of who was Heber's father-in-law, asked him if he could maybe jot down some lines for a special hymn for the service.
Twenty minutes later, the world was introduced to what is now an old missionary anthem, "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." No kidding. Twenty minutes.
Most evangelical boomers, I trust, will never forget that hymn, and can remember singing it heartily at their own ancient missionary Sundays. Reginald Heber could not have had the slightest notion that someday millions would sing that 20-minute hymn and remember it with a big heart.
From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;That's a bold claim, many might even say arrogant. But, when I was a kid, it was greatly awe-inspiring. I never courted the dream of becoming a preacher, like my grandfather; but if you stand up and sing "From Greenland" in a tiny little Christian school, you can't help but shiver to picture yourself someday standing in front of a lean-to full of half-naked savages, delivering them from sin through the gospel of Jesus.
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.
What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;The word heathen made that dream come alive back then. Honestly, today Heber's great missionary hymn barely rates a file in a forgotten desk drawer. The lines he scratched out in twenty minutes, lines the Christian world sang gloriously for 150 years, have no place Christian hymnals because of the word heathen. That preacher/grandfather of mine once upon a time belonged to The Heathen Mission Board of the Christian Reformed Church. If I mention that word in a speech, the crowd can't help but giggle.
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.
Why? At our own incredible arrogance.
Shall we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high,There's us, after all--"we whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high," and there's them, in their heathen blindness. It's "the white-man's burden" to relieve blindness. I couldn't help but see it that way.
Shall we to those benighted the lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation! The joyful sound proclaim,
Till earth’s remotest nation has learned Messiah’s Name.
Waft, waft, ye winds, His story, and you, ye waters, roll"Like a sea of glory, it spreads from pole to pole"? To those "heathen" we colonized those phrases were little more than a dog whistle for Manifest Destiny. The Doctrine of Discovery allowed us to roam anywhere and take for our own whatever we wanted; preaching the gospel just gave the whole endeavor a halo, made us feel as sweetly righteous as our enterprise.
Till, like a sea of glory, it spreads from pole to pole:
Till o’er our ransomed nature the Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator, in bliss returns to reign.
It's not difficult today to equate old-fashioned missionary work with unsullied bigotry, to see a thousand missionary slide shows as nothing less than another form of cultural imperialism.
Honestly, the word missionary, once my parents' dream for their son, is almost an anathema today.
It's simply amazing how far the pendulum has swung.
Dwight L. Moody in a sermon in 1877, heralded the mission cause in these startling terms: "I look on this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a life-boat, and said to me, 'Moody, save all you can.'"
Once upon a time, that line would have thrilled me. I was just a kid. Today to much of the world that line is an embarrassment at best; many would consider it an indictment. The truth, complex and nuanced, lies somewhere between.
In the last two years I've visited the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Niger, Mali, and Ghana. In the last decade I wrote a book on missionary endeavors among the Navajo and Zuni in New Mexico. To be a missionary is still a noble calling, a mission, a God-sent. I could tell a thousand great stories.
But that doesn't change the fact that we simply can't sing the old missionary hymn Reginald Heber scratched out across the room from the liturgists. "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" is simply no longer in the hymnal. With good reason.
Not to realize all of that, and not to repent for what we've done wrong, even in our innocence, is to be--pardon me--far more blind than the heathen.