Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

by John Howard Farmer

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Expect & Attempt Great Things

Having wet my feet often in the waters hereabouts, my taste for things nautical developed early on. I have grown from a Richmond kid on vacation in the Northern Neck to a teen with an outboard motor boat; to a Marine at sea aboard a MSTS troop ship outbound from San Francisco to Hawaii. The years following have been just as adventurous. I am the happiest when I can get the smell of salt air, and the sight of ships, yachts and docks in focus.

Back home after service, and a job or two later, I arrived at Richmond’s Philip Morris employment office looking for a job. They hired me. For the next 13 years I worked for them three different times. Company travel often took me to places nautical.

When I accepted the call to ministry and found myself at Louisville, Ky., I walked often along the docks and shores of the Ohio River. Many a Sunday, or Wednesday afternoon I would board the Belle Of Louisville and claim my Mark Twain heritage. God was ever so kind as to call me to a seminary with a river.

I pushed inland for a while in my ministry; then arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony and water; water everywhere, along with enough ships and sea stories to build a library. I remember the first smell I breathed of the bay. I just couldn’t describe it. Later that week high atop the Hancock Building, Copley Square, an actor narrator gave us a bird’s eye tour of the city. He described the dank, musky, almost spoiled smell of the tidal basin; its oysters, crabs, lobsters, fish, mud and sea grass. I was enthralled—it smelled better to me then the best perfume.

My feet soon sought out all the available water view spots from Cape Cod to the north shore. Down south I stumbled upon the rock engraved 1620, at Plymouth, then remembered my Virginia heritage and declared: “but the first Thanksgiving was on the James.” 

Up on the north shore I found an exciting spot. At Salem Willows, the family and I would often spend a summer evening picnicking upon the lawn overlooking the harbor. The setting sun would light homes from Beverly over to Marblehead. I wrote home and said that I could see from the iron front, wisteria-draped home of Henry Cabot Lodge (1902–1985, Massachusetts Republican Senator) to Nathaniel G. Hershoff’s (1848–1938, American naval architect, mechanical engineer, yacht design innovator).

The kids would play in the amusement park; and me, I would watch the boats. Unlike the docks around here, few Massachusetts boats are dockside; rather, are tethered out amongst mooring buoys. Every now and again the wind would shift and the flotilla would bob and weave as if some water-borne ballet. Grand evenings were spent aboard the tour boat that made the harbor tour, and broaching the breakwater and back.

One day I drove over to old Salem. Grassy lawns were bordered by huge granite boulders. They formed a seawall worthy of description. Once, while wandering about I saw a monument proclaiming the launching spot of such missionaries as Adoniram Judson (1788–1850) and Luther Rice (1783–1836), both Congregationalists, who set sail from New England to Burma (India). Along the way Scripture study and meditation prevailed. They arrived in Burma as Baptists. Yea!

William Carey (cobbler/schoolteacher 1761–1834) had preached a sermon at Nottingham on May 30, 1792. His topic was “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” It was based upon the text from Isaiah 54:2-3: “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.” It would be recorded historically as the “Deathless Sermon.” It was the kindling that floated the Atlantic to set America’s missionary fires aglow.

Judson, Rice and Lott Cary (1780–1828, Virginia-born slave, first African-American missionary to Africa) all would hear the call “come over and help us.” They followed the purpose of Carey who had said to his earlier supporters: “you hold the ropes and I will go down in the well.” It focused upon the teamwork of missions. Support is just as necessary as service. Woven together they continue to send forth American missionaries to lands afar. Lott Cary used his meager earnings and the proceeds from leftover tobacco scraps to buy his and his children’s freedom. He genuinely cared about those to whom he felt called.

America’s changing political and cultural climates have affected missions like winds changing in the sails of time. Denominational infighting about this and that view of theo-political issues have preoccupied Baptists, if not other mainline houses of faith. So much so, that I honestly believe that the worldwide cause of Christian missions has been seriously thwarted. We need to regroup.

Missionaries from Christian groups as well as various Eastern religions these days find America ripe for mission harvest. Wait a minute. What’s going on here? It would seem as if we have lost our zeal for converts. Do we doubt our mission? Do we question our calling? What’s happening? Not only have we slowed in our zeal to go, we have slowed in our purpose to win for Christ, those who come here as our neighbors.

World missions set sail from sanctuaries large and small; mostly from smaller ones like the over 80 houses of faith here on the Northern Neck. Maybe like Judson, Rice and others we ought to go back to the book. We need to see God’s world as our vineyard and get busy at sharing the love of Christ with those outside our walls.