The majority of my teachers are dead. They lived, wrote, and died – long before I ever lived. As I handle the pieces of their lives that remain in words, stories, and actions, I learn how I might speak, think, and act. It is a privilege to listen to and observe the acts of Robert de Nobili, Matteo Ricci, John Amos Comenius, Adonirum Judson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, Sophi Scholls, David Bosch, et. al.
Outstanding among these teachers is Lilias Trotter.
Lilias Trotter left a legacy of a life lived in service to her Saviour and the people of North Africa. Born July 14, 1853 in London, England into a well-to-do family, she dared to take a path different than what society might expect. She was blessed to have financial means, and thus opportunity. On top of this she had exceptional talent. And yet, means, opportunity, and talent do not distinguish her life.
When Lilias was 23 years of age, she and her mother traveled to Venice. There, she was noticed by John Ruskin, a leading artist of her day. He was so impressed with her talent and unique style that he took her as a student and begin promoting her work. After some time with Ruskin, she decided that this was not to be her path. She later wrote: “I see as clear as daylight now I cannot give myself to painting in the way he (John Ruskin) means and continue still ‘to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’.”
Her resolve set her on a path that led first into the nightlife of London where she sought to help women trapped in prostitution and provide shelter to young ladies in trouble. This path eventually led her at age 35 to move to North Africa to work among Muslims of Algeria. During her 38 years there, she cared for widows and children, created booklets of stories and parables in traditional style and pictures for illiterate women and children, championed a place of women in leadership roles, and founded the Algiers Mission Band, which later became Arab World Ministries.
From Lilias Trotter, I have learned …
- faithfulness to one’s calling no matter the cost
- courage to live contrary to the expectations of others
- power of persistent prayer in the face of insurmountable odds
And yet, above these lessons, I am struck with the power of God in the helplessness of this saint. For her, real power was to be realized only in her weakness not in strength or talent. Of helplessness, she wrote
[God] needs that helplessness as truly as the negative pole is needed to complete the electric circuit & set free the power. And so when one can only lie like sort of a log, unable to even frame the prayers one would like to pray, His Spirit will find the way through that lowest point which He so strangely needs, & lift them up to the Throne (Diary, 21 May 1923, cited in Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible, 298).
She saw failing health, conflicts, sadness, and challenges as openings for God’s power and the possibility of God’s mysterious work. This was her supreme hope, especially during the final three years of life, when she was confined to her room because of a heart condition. During this period, she wrote The Way of the Seven-fold Secret, a book for Sufi Muslims, probably the most important work of her life. And during this period, she prayed fervently for the expansion of the gospel among the Kabyle Berbers. What seemed to be impossible then is occuring today among the Kabyle Berbers.
Often in my desire to serve God, I rely almost exclusively on my own competency and resources. I do not seek the place of helplessness before God, nor do I wish to model this before others, because the last thing I really desire is to be seen as weak, helpless, and dependent. I want to serve God from a position of power and self-resource … not helplessness. Oh, I may mouth the words of dependency and weakness, but the reality of my life and service demonstrate an unwillingness to go there. Thus, I serve God but only in my power, mental capacity, and resources. If my health were to fail, my reputation became spoiled, or if I suffered mental anguish or distress, I would see my service as being over or severely limited. And yet, while this might be the end of my work, it could be the beginning of God’s work.
Lilias anticipated more than what her competency and resources might produce. So, she challenged those around her-
Let us dare to test God’s resources …. Let us ask Him to kindle in us and keep aflame that passion for the impossible that shall make us delight in it with Him, till the day when we shall see it transformed into a fact.
Lilias Trotter lived beyond her means, opportunity and talents and toward the impossible. May you and I seek true helplessness and thus find God’s power and possibility.
Among the books written by Lilias Trotter, see Parables of the Cross, Parables of the Christ-life, and The Way of the Seven-fold Secret. For books about Lilias Trotter, see I, Lilias Trotter (A. F. Pigott, 1929), Until the Day Breaks (Patricia St. John, 1990), and A Passion for the Impossible-The Life of Lilias Trotter (Miriam Huffman Rockness, 2003).