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Exiles as Missionaries


A number of years ago, I sat glued to my television as two stories of human tragedy were unfolded during a morning chat show. A woman recounted how her child was murdered and described the personal devastation that followed. Twenty years later, she was increasingly consumed with anger and bitterness and forced to rely on sleeping tablets.

In the second story, Gordon Wilson described the murder of his daughter by the Provisional IRA. His daughter Marie, was killed in a bomb that exploded in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. After the bomb went off, Gordon and Marie were lying close to each other in the rubble, where he heard her last words, “Daddy, I love you very much.” Immediately after the bombing, the BBC reported Wilson’s response to his tragedy that ricocheted around the world’s news channels, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.”
A few years later, I was listening as Wilson continued his message of forgiveness and reconciliation that sprang from his openly professed Christian faith. He had found himself unexpectedly thrust into the limelight and had become one of the most prominent peace campaigners for the Northern Ireland conflict. Commenting on Wilson’s response in the immediate aftermath of his daughter’s death, Jonathan Bardon, an historian wrote later, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”

In this harsh environment, where Christian badges were worn proudly, but Christlike grace rarely seen, Wilson’s message stuck out like a sore thumb. His was not mere rhetoric because from the instant tragedy struck, his words and actions were authentic to the character of his God.
Wilson’s story resonates with me on a number of levels. As Brit living in the Republic of Ireland today, I am in an unfamiliar environment. I opened the door one day to find myself in the odd situation of being canvassed by the local candidate for Sinn Féin, historically the political wing of the IRA. I also live in a very small, deeply Catholic village, where everyone knows who I am, and being a protestant pastor, they know what I do. In an environment where differences are noticed, am I authentic to the character of my God?

But let me return to start of my story. I was listening to the stories of two people whose children had been murdered. One was dampening her pain with tablets while the other had risen to international prominence, not simply because he chose to forgive, but rather because he chose to tell people he had chosen to forgive and that he would be praying for the people who killed his daughter. Wilson’s witness was both natural and deliberate. In an alien environment, he was not ashamed of what he believed. But more than that, his faith was authentic to the point that when tragedy struck, it was impossible to stop God’s grace in his life from leaking all over the place.
Today, as I reflect on these two stories and the story that has become God’s leading in my own life, I can’t help but wince a little. As various and unexpected challenges have entered into my own journey, I fear that I have resorted to bitterness and anger more often than I would have liked.

Neither of these people on that Monday morning chat show asked for these tragedies any more than Daniel asked to be exiled, or Joseph was responsible for being sold by his brothers, falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison. While both had multiple opportunities for bitterness and for jettisoning their belief in a sovereign and all-loving God when the evidence appeared to suggest the opposite, they held on. Somehow they maintained a belief in God’s Providence—that while He was not causing their pain, He was definitely active in the shadows working for a future, eternal, good.
They made a choice to hold on to God’s goodness when it didn’t appear to their senses that God actually was good. This was the choice Daniel made as he was carted off to Babylon, and that Joseph made as he was tied behind a camel train and later thrown into prison, and that Gordon Wilson made as he lay bloodied in the rubble next to his dying daughter. In spite of everything, their eyes managed to see that there was something beyond their present darkness, and know that their strange circumstances were temporary.

I would suggest that such faith was impossible without the personal presence of God in their lives. It was God’s personal presence that kept their faith burning. And such faith is a difficult thing to keep hidden. It has this tendency, particularly in challenging situations, to pop up and make itself public. So even as exiles in an alien land, witness always remains a distinct possibility.


“Senator Gordon Wilson” by Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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