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Hear the Heartening Word of the Lord

March 18, 2020 by

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Plough has a litany of remarkable ladies. No, not their team of female editors and designers – although each is remarkable in her own right – but the extraordinary women highlighted in recent offerings from the publishing house. There is Annalena Tonelli, the little-known “Angel of the Sudan,” whose life combating tuberculosis among desert tribes is spectacular in its daring, all the more so when viewed from our current coronavirus crisis. Or Denise Uwimana, a Rwandan genocide survivor active in bringing forgiveness and healing to Rwandans on both sides. Dorothy Sayers – the British detective writer who dropped clues to her Christian persuasion throughout her novels – took her place in Plough’s “Gospel In …” series in 2018. No cowardice here.

This March, readers will be able to familiarize themselves with one more exemplary female follower of Jesus. (Nonreaders: the book is less than 100 pages and very accessible.) In the third volume she has edited for Plough, Carolyn Kurtz distills the writings of Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India. Titled That Way and No Other: Following God through Storm and Drought, the book introduces readers to a humble and resolute Irishwoman who founded a community for rescued temple prostitutes. (Kurtz’s previous works encompass the writings of Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero.)

Amy Carmichael, it seems, had a Jo March–like personality and was a force to be reckoned with. At age 21, she began construction of a hall in Belfast for the evangelization of local mill girls, although she initially had no funds for the project. Before leaving for mission overseas, she lived in the Manchester slums. When assignments to China and Japan failed, she left for India. Choosing to tackle difficult things as a young adult must have prepared her for her life’s work – and perhaps also proved to the God she served that she was up for a challenge.

Early one morning in India, a seven-year-old girl is thrust into Amy Carmichael’s doorway by a villager. The child, Preena, has just run away from a local Hindu temple – for the second time. Determined never to go back, she tells Carmichael of secret rituals and practices that, in Carmichael’s words, “darkened the sunlight.”

So Carmichael soon finds herself at the head of a growing community of mostly very young temple survivors and the women ready to care for them. (Later, after temple boys begin arriving, men are accepted into the community as well.) A missionary couple working with Carmichael drops out of the picture early on; we are not told why. Did they perhaps consider their itinerant preaching to be of greater importance? It is certainly a question Carmichael grapples with: “Could it be right to turn from so much that might be of profit … and become just nursemaids?” Remembering Christ, who washed his disciples’ feet, gave her the answer: “Is it the bondservant’s business to say which work is large and which is small, which unimportant and which worth doing? The question answered itself, and was not asked again.”

Besides seeing to material and educational needs, Carmichael must now figure out how to house her charges. But always her primary concern was “guiding her children and coworkers toward Christ,” Kurtz writes in a biography that prefaces the work.

In clear and simple language shining with a lovely Irish sturdiness and wit, this “guiding toward Christ” is preserved for us to learn from.

In clear and simple language shining with a lovely Irish sturdiness and wit, this “guiding toward Christ” is preserved for us to learn from. As Katelyn Beaty points out in her introduction, Amy Carmichael had to be not just mother but also father to her flock, an undertaking only possible through her deep grounding in God’s will. In one excerpt, for example, Carmichael exhorts her household to cheerful self-sacrifice:

I have been asking that our dearest Lord may have the joy (surely it must be a joy to him) of saying about each of us, and about us all as a little company of his children: “I can count on him, on her, on them for anything. I can count on them for peace under any disappointment … under any strain. I can trust them never to set limits, saying, ‘Thus far and no farther.’ I can trust them not to offer the reluctant obedience of a doubtful faith, but to be as glad and merry as it is possible.”

Other gleanings speak of the love that Carmichael has for her children, or of insights gained from nature. One of the selections that resonated most with me was a refreshing expansion on what at first glance seemed an unlikely passage, Deuteronomy 2:3. “Ye have compassed this mountain long enough: turn you northward.”

It would take too long to tell what this word has said to me. I will only say it spoke about a mountain of thought round which I have walked rather often. It is time to stop compassing that mountain. …

I know another who always seems to be walking round a mountain of rubble. Self and the feelings of self, doubts and questions, grumblings, little piled-up ingratitudes – what are these but rubble? Is it not very dull to keep on compassing so dull a mountain? Hear the heartening word of the Lord, “Ye have compassed this mountain long enough: turn you northward.”

It’s not just the obscurity of the verse that surprises us, or Carmichael’s openness in applying the lesson to herself first. It’s the question – never before grasped in quite this way – What is the mountain I have compassed long enough? It could be comfort, or routine, or dreams, or ambitions, or maybe even the way I think ministry ought to be done – or by whom (another point that Beaty makes in her introduction). It could be obsessive worry in the face of a frightening global pandemic.

It’s a different mountain for each of us. But throughout this excellent collection, Carmichael’s writings show us what’s crucial: to live vigorously, grab ahold of the tasks that appear before us, and to know when it’s time to “turn northward” and follow “the heartening word of the Lord.”

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