Monday, October 29, 2012
Just One Counts
The best stories remind us that life triumphs over death, light over darkness, goodness over evil. History teaches us that one life matters, that the real heroes often go unnoticed by the books, and that the most tumultuous and miserable periods often give rise to those kind of individuals. These are the characters we desire our children to get to know. We want their hearts and minds to be awakened to the possibilities for their own life and hero tales can affect the character of our children even more than all our teaching and prodding can.
In this week before a national election, when many are anxious about the future and many more feel hopeless that their life can possibly make much difference in the outcome of that future, I would like to tell a little story. Besides being the week before election, it is also the anniversary of one of the church's greatest historic events due to the faith in action of her hero: Martin Luther. His courage and fortitude are absolutely awe inspiring; however, it is a little-known man who preceded him by a century, who probably did more to influence the culture that made the Reformation possible, that is the character in the story I share with you today. Do you know Gerhard Groote?
Once upon a time, he was the one and only precious son of an extremely wealthy Dutch family. As with many such heroes of greater fame, tragedy struck early in his life. The fourteenth century into which he had been born was one of the most turbulent in history, the devastating Hundred Years War's violence nearly destroying both France and England; the Ottomans aggressively invading; and, unbelievable corruption, scandal, and debauchery within the church were all threatening chaos and a complete disintegration of society. Then the worst calamity struck: The Black Death, which swept Europe several times in one decade and wiped out one-fourth to one-third of the population of the entire continent. It also left Gerhard Groote an orphan at eight years old, both parents struck down within three days of one another.
Their son was left extremely wealthy and alone without guidance, just doted upon by an indulgent and irresponsible uncle. Gerhard was an insufferably spoiled child who grew up to be a dissipated and immoral young man. Brilliantly intelligent, he went off to pursue education in the highest institutions of the time, and indulged in every form of sensuality in the bosom of the decadent church. "I was the prodigal son without a father and with no end to the money," he later confessed.
But Gerhard had a friend, a truly pious and reverent young man who sought tirelessly to share the grace of God with Gerhard. God intervened in the life of this lost soul and brought about a dramatic and genuine conversion. He immediately abandoned his life of wickedness and returned to his hometown. He avidly devoured the word of God, which affected him as no monastic disciplines could, stirring him to action. Orphans and widows were plentiful due to the plague and the economy was in imminent danger of complete collapse as institutions and trades of every kind had crumbled with the loss of so many lives. He oversaw the building of homes and hospitals for the poor and unlovely. His personality was apparently quite charismatic and the force of his transformed life drew many to him.
His interests were wide and varied, gardening, cooking, and collecting books. Entertaining many disciples in his home, he joked that if the food was bad, he could always feed them words. Soon he poured himself into recruiting poor children and teaching them to read and write, employing them to copy books by hand, all the copies going to build libraries. (Remember, no printing press yet.) His great passion was to teach children the Word of God and the classics and he was outspoken against the hypocrisy of the church. Once he met the Englishman George Wycliffe and thereafter pursued translating scripture and theological classics into the vernacular. His "Little Schools" spread throughout Europe, continued to thrive for the next 150 years and inspired the movement known as The Brethren of the Common Life. Some of the students of these schools may be familiar to you: Erasmus, Melanchthon, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin. Another of his disciples is responsible for most of the biographical information we have about him, as he collected tidbits of sayings and wisdom from his sermons and teachings, compiling them into a book you probably know quite well: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, which is still one of the most published Christian books next to the Bible itself.
There is no imagination large enough to comprehend the impact Groote made on the world, that miserably rotten, terrifying century. He undeniably paved the way for the Reformation and purification of the church that followed. All this tremendous fruitfulness was cultivated in a short time since he died just ten years after his conversion. His obscurity is likely due to the enormity of the events that followed, namely, such monumental ones as the development of the printing press, the Reformation, and the discovery of two "new" continents.
That short life encourages us who also live in a dark and seemingly hopeless time, who also desire to rescue children and impart living words to them. One of Groote's most notable reminders to his students was "not to despise the day of small things." This is heartening for us to remember six centuries later, as we do our seemingly insignificant task of discipling our children, struggling at our kitchen tables to teach our little ones. Our advantage is that we know six centuries more of the story and have the careful teaching of another educator as well, one single woman in a quiet corner of England, Charlotte Mason, who also did not despise the day of small things. The lives this one man touched spread light to thousands more. The life you touch, the story you read, the book you open to one person this week may have far more ramifications for the generations yet to come than any election in the year 2012 ever will.
It really only takes one faithful person to change the world.
For the joy of reading,