In 1832 a small vessel, the Messenger of Peace, anchored off Manu’a, an island in the South Pacific. Aboard was John Williams, a British evangelist whose mission was to share the gospel with local islanders, many of whom had little contact with passing ships. As Williams’s ship neared shore, several canoes rowed out to meet it.
“We are sons of the Word,” one of the rowers shouted. “We are waiting for a ship of God to bring us some workers of religion. Are you such a ship?”
Williams was astonished. As far as he knew, no Christian had ever visited Manu’a. What he discovered, however, was that several years before, a group of distant islanders had been blown off course in their canoe. During three months at sea, they had drifted three hundred miles. Twenty died. A few straggling survivors reached Manu’a, including a man who carried eight pages of scripture – his most precious possession. This he had shared with the people of Manu’a, who were now eager to learn more.
As I read this story to my children this week from Janet and Geoff Benge’s biography John Williams, Messenger of Peace, I was perplexed. While it seems to be a story of divine providence – a small group of people who are saved to share God’s message of love – it is also a tragedy. Twenty people died before they reached safety. If God was truly involved, I wondered, why not blow the islanders’ canoe to safety before those onboard died?
Death seems to be everywhere these days, and as a twenty-first century, almost-middle-class American, I am wildly out of touch with it. Unlike past generations, I expect my children to survive childhood. And although death has parted some from me whom I dearly love, no one close to me has died of hunger or diarrhea or war or plague, including in the current pandemic. When it comes to death, I am a novice, as I am a novice in the ways of God.
But perhaps instead of asking why these twenty died, which only God knows, it is more enlightening to focus on the faith of those who lived. After enduring three horrific months at sea, what these survivors held most precious was not their lives but eight thin pages of scripture. And when they reached land, rather than cursing the One who did not save those they loved from the sun and the sea, they shared their firm belief that there was hope beyond death, that their friends’ lives did not end in a watery grave and that every sorrow would one day be recompensed by a future far brighter than an island sunrise.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” says Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV).
We too are living in a time of divine providence and great tragedy. The two often arrive in the same canoe. And yet, for sons and daughter of the Word, whose faith is firm in Christ, we also share a hope unsinkable.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of mid-coast Maine. She is also the author of the Lantern Hill Farm picture book series, celebrating the holidays in a way that builds children’s faith.