God calling! Florence, William, Simon – and you?

Andrew Presland, Peterborough Diocesan Lay Chair, has written a blog on how we can learn from historial figures to put our faith into our everyday lives.

During lockdown, I’ve had the opportunity to look into a couple of important historical Christians, and to find out what made them tick…

Firstly, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale (on 12th May) gained attention in the media. There was a re-showing of a BBC4 documentary of her life and (to be a bit more niche, given my day job) 20 pages of articles about her in the Royal Statistical Society’s Significance magazine, in recognition of her role as a pioneering statistician – albeit with only one reference to her strong Christian faith,  where it noted that she described her work as ‘God’s revenge upon murder’ (with ‘murder’ referring to what she saw as avoidable deaths – more of that later). This coverage was, of course, supplemented by news of the rapid construction of several ‘Nightingale’ hospitals as the country battled to cope with the effects of coronavirus.

From the outset, Florence was brought up in a theologically unorthodox family of Unitarians – that is, belonging to a church that denied the Trinity. As a young adult in February 1837, Florence underwent the first of several experiences that she believed were calls from God, prompting a strong desire to devote her life to the service of others. She wrote in her diary, “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for him alone without reputation”. But it was not until 1850 (aged 30) when she found her true vocation, when she visited a religious community in Germany and observed a pastor and the deaconesses working for the sick and the socially-deprived. She regarded the experience as a turning point in her life and returned shortly afterwards to train as a nurse. Her extensive theological writings were printed in an 800 page manuscript, Suggestions for Thought, which was circulated to a few friends and has since been edited and published by others.

Florence never joined a religious order, nor did she become an active member of any church, although in her writings she occasionally mused about starting one of her own. Her faith had a mystical edge but her mysticism was immensely practical and down-to-earth, worked out in compassionate care for others. In other words, her actions were largely driven by her faith.

Dawn Mayson, a nurse and member of Whitefriars Church in Rushden, commented: I thought that the documentary was very good. I didn’t know Florence was a deeply religious lady and had felt a calling from God to nurse. She is my absolute heroine and although I tend not to put people on a pedestal, I make her an exception. She was a true pioneer, and modern nursing even today still uses her models, albeit adapted to modern life. When I started my training in 1983, we were using her ADL (activities of daily living) model – later shortened to ALs (activities of living) which incorporated activities she felt were essential to life, starting (unsurprisingly) with breathing. These of course were updated throughout the decades but she was their guardian. Not so much now, but in my training we used the ‘plan, implement, assessment, evaluate care plan’ model. So nursing evolved from being task-oriented to a more personal holistic practice. In the UK we celebrate Florence’s birthday on 12th May when we of course have tea, cakes and choccy – the staple nurses’ diet! And in normal times there’s a annual service at Westminster Abbey.

William Carey  from Northamptonshire shoemaker to world mission pioneer
Secondly, over four Sunday evenings in May and June, several of us from our home group took part in a webinar organised by a group of local Christians keen to combine the heritage of Northamptonshire and Christian mission. This was done by looking at the life of William Carey, born in a small Northamptonshire village (Paulerspury) in 1761 before becoming an apprentice shoemaker and then a church minister in Leicester. He then took his largely reluctant family to Calcutta in 1793, for four often difficult decades of preaching the gospel.

William was spurred into action after receiving a clear call from God of the need to follow the Great Commission (Matthew 28). He responded by going overseas to preach the gospel at a time when there was much opposition to this, even within Bible-believing churches and chapels.

His story was told each week using extracts from a film about his life (Candle in the Dark), a talk and discussion, involving participants from Africa and India, as well as Northamptonshire. With the gift of hindsight, it was clear – after William’s largely unfruitful attempts at preaching – that his greatest gifting was in translating the Scriptures into a range of languages, using the God-given opportunities that arose for doing this. His aptitude for learning languages had been identified early on, back in the school room in Paulerspury.

More information about Carey’s life and work can be obtained via The Carey Experience, a tour of five sites in Northamptonshire and north Buckinghamshire connected with Carey, with displays and presentations at each site. More details are available via The Carey Experience website. In addition, Robert Chirgwin of Wellingborough-based Nations (www.nations.org.uk) is hoping to arrange a physical gathering in Moulton of people interested in learning from William Carey’s life (when such an event is possible).

This gives rise to at least three questions:

  • But what about people in the present day, as well as the past?
  • And what about people like us who aren’t internationally known?
  • Has God called you into a particular profession, job or unpaid role?

To hopefully inspire you, Simon King, of Whitefriars Church, Rushden and a manager in the East of England Ambulance Service, has become increasingly aware in recent years of the importance of active Christian involvement within the ambulance service. This has led to the recent creation of the Christian Ambulance Association, now a registered charity. You can find out more about the work of the Christian Ambulance Association here.

More generally, Transform Work UK brings together like-minded Christians within a wide range of jobs and professions. It describes itself as a “charitable organisation whose aim is to see the UK workplace transformed, locally and nationally, by every Christian living out their faith in effective workplace ministry, leading to transformation over time in the nation’s culture, values and spiritual environment”. More details are available from the Transform Work UK website.

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