Celebrating Wilfred Thomason Grenfell
All Saints Chapel | Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Have you ever heard someone accused of being “so spiritual that they are no earthly good?” This accusation reflects a legitimate critique of religion and religious people. What does it mean to be “spiritual” according to Paul? The reading from 1 Corinthians begins “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” The Greek word translated as “spiritual gifts” is “pneumatika” which also means “spiritual ones.” A spiritual person, according to Paul, is both “gifted” and “gift.”
Verse 6 suggests that the Spirit will activate “giftedness” in every Christian. Everyone is gifted in baptism for ministry. Not just Bishops, Priests and Deacons, but everyone receives something from the Spirit. Paul says “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” – everyone – “and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” We are prompted by the Spirit to respond with God’s love to the distressed and broken-hearted.
Being “spiritual” then is a mature response to the Spirit of God - trusting the caller will equip the called. The prompting of the Spirit, the “calling”, often occurs when we pause, are willing to moved, willing to respond. Let me give you an example.
The London School of Medicine was not in the best area of town. Wilfred Grenfell was in his second year of Med School. Returning from an out-patient visit one night, he turned a corner and found himself in an evangelistic tent meeting. When, in his words, “a tedious prayer-bore began with a long oration” he started to leave.
Suddenly the leader, whom he learned later was D.L. Moody, called out to the audience, "Let us sing a hymn while our brother finishes his prayer." Moody’s practicality interested Wilfred, he paused and he decided to stay. When he eventually left, he had determined either to make religion a real effort - to do as he thought Christ would do in his place - or abandon it. The Spirit gently prodded and he responded. He began looking for a way to serve others.
Wilfred volunteered to teach Sunday school, but he found the few boys that showed up uninterested in denominational teaching programs. He wanted to give up. He also found a friend with some musical ability and a portable organ and held services in underground basements used as lodging-houses. It brought him into touch with real poverty. They learned to preach as they learned to minister - by actually doing it.
I wonder if we have it wrong when we look for people, already groomed and perfect for ministry, when clearly God doesn’t call the gifted, but gifts the called. The text of 1 Corinthians makes it plain that gifts are allocated by the Spirit, and are not based on our worthiness or skill.
Someone once said, “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” Wilfred kept responding to the needs around him. He nearly went broke as he listened to bad luck stories and accepted I.O.U.’s. He quickly learned to wear used clothing and leave his watch and wallet at home.
His growing experience helped him figure out a better way to reach his Sunday-School boys. In this poor section of the city there were no programs for the youth. They cleared the church dining-room every Saturday evening and gave boxing lessons. Wilfred enthusiastically shared his love of sports. The boys began bringing friends whom his exegesis on scripture would never have lured into the church. The program grew. When the church closed down the program they started their own.
Wilfred graduated and began to practice medicine. One of his former teachers was part of an organization interested in the religious and social welfare of deep-sea fishermen. They chartered a small fishing boat, sent her out among the fishermen to hold religious services, simple, unconventional, and administer first aid. The battered boat owned by the Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen had the words "Heal the sick" carved on the starboard bow, "Preach the Word" on the port, and around the brass rim of the wheel ran the words, "Jesus said, Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Once he met the fishermen he knew what he had to do.
In the Gospel of Mark we read that when evening came, the disciples were in the boat trying to cross to the other side. They were straining at the oars against an adverse wind. There are many kinds of adverse winds: poverty, sickness, loneliness, and paralyzing fear.
When Jesus saw that the disciples were struggling, he came towards them, walking on the sea. Here is where the story gets interesting. Mark says Jesus intended to pass them by. Why would Jesus do this? Jesus, the lover of souls, who gave his life to bring life, was going to pass them by. I think Mark is trying to point something out. We see people in need all around us. The needs can be overwhelming. What can I do? What can you do? Mark suggests that though we might be tempted to pass them by we, like Jesus, should allow our hearts to be moved.
Jesus paused. He did not walk on by, but immediately spoke to them and said, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then, and this is the best part of all, he got into the boat with them. His mere presence made the raging wind cease.
Wilfred was sent by the Mission to Newfoundland and Labrador to see what could be done among the poor fishermen. He was shocked by the poverty. He could have passed them by, but moved by their need, he decided to devote the rest of his life to these people. He didn’t minister to them but with them. He lived with the people. He helped established hospitals, open nursing stations, schools, and orphanages.
He believed that if we look into our everyday life we cannot fail to see that God not only allows but seeks our cooperation in establishing God’s reign. Grenfell is a model for modern ministry. He was entrepreneurial and practical. When funding for the mission dried up he started raising the funds himself. He went on speaking tours through both Canada and the United States, wrote books, and organized the International Grenfell Association. He showed innovation, flexibility, and perseverance.
Like Jesus, Wilfred Thomason Grenfell came to the aid of suffering humanity. He did not walk on by. Allowing the needs of others to move him to companionship and compassion, he participated in Theophany and carried the presence of our loving God.
We are all gifted. We are all called. We too can respond to those near us. Let our heart and hands be moved. Amen.