Joan wasn’t unknown, at least, not in her home range. But you probably never heard of her. She was kind, generous, hospitable, and popular – but increasingly forgotten as age side-lined her from the youthful mainstream. Most of us fade from sight as we grow older. But her funeral, in June 2019, was well attended.
A well-attended funeral – is that the best we can look forward to? Perhaps that fear explains the common urge for celebrity. It’s not new. In times past, rich people set up monuments, had their portrait painted, and endowed churches or charities to achieve recognition. But most people couldn’t afford such honours. Today, the urge for celebrity draws people into talent contests, quiz programmes, or ‘reality’ shows. Christians are not exempt from the obsession with celebrity. But there are better ways to make our mark.
Joan found better ways. Her life wasn’t a struggle for recognition. Her relationships didn’t consist of networking for advantage. She was fruitful in the sense implied by Jesus’ words, “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20 NIV). She brought up her three daughters, supported her husband, ran a good home, and related conscientiously with neighbours, friends, fellow-Christians, and the general public. She didn’t seek position, influence, or special recognition. Her conversations were genuine, truthful, and encouraging. I know, because I was a beneficiary of her encouragement – but her most significant contribution to my life was a simple, sincere compliment that ruined my prayer life!
She paid me that compliment during a social gathering in her home. It was a generous comment about my daily prayer habits – but how did she know about my prayer life? Obviously, I must have boasted about it. She probably thought no more about the conversation, but God spoke through her words, and showed me that my devotions were less of a sacrifice and more of a performance. I wasn’t being fruitful. Rather, I was using my religious activity to win approval. Due to her innocently spoken compliment, my prayer life was ruined. But that gave God the chance to rebuild it properly. Her God-inspired words cut through my totem piety and changed my life so much that I’m still talking about it fifty years later. I even related the incident in one of my books.
Joan and I subsequently moved to different parts of the country and I saw very little of her after that. It was one of her daughters who informed me about her death. But Joan had many friends and must have had thousands of conversations as brief and seemingly inconsequential as the one that changed my life. So, I wonder – how many other lives did she change? How many lives have you changed? I doubt if you know how many or whom – and you may even feel inadequate because you seem to have little to show for your life of faith. I doubt whether Joan knew how significant she had been to me but, if she had, she would have been surprised. She wasn’t trying to change me; she was just being fruitful.
Just think about the traits that are included in the biblical “fruit of the Spirit”: “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22,23 NIV). It doesn’t include preaching, leadership, serving on a committee, evangelism, being visibly active in the local church, or any of the virtuous acts that make us noticeable in the Christian community. The fruit of the Spirit is all about character; it grows while we aren’t looking or trying; and it is our most effective testimony to the power of God. Fruit trees don’t strive to produce fruit; fruitfulness is the natural product of what they are. If the tree is healthy it will grow fruit.
Are you an ordinary, little known but sincere and faithful believer – just like Joan? Do you live in relative obscurity, doing and saying ordinary things that don’t seem exceptional, but just flow from the person you are? If your attitude and intention is to serve God faithfully you will bear fruit. Your words will often be ‘the word of God’ to someone, and your actions will often bear effective witness to the Saviour you love and serve. Though you may rarely have been aware of it, you have probably been a valuable influencer. Don’t underrate what God achieves through and because of you.
© Derrick Phillips 2019
Who was that lady?
Joan Letchford was an intelligent, middle-class lady, wife to Norman, a professional manager in an international corporation, and mother to three daughters. When I first knew her, she lived in Kent and was a member of the same small evangelical church that I attended. Later, she moved to Gloucester where she joined a large Baptist church. After Norman took early retirement, the couple ran a guesthouse together. For their final years, Joan and Norman moved to Cheshire, living close to one of their daughters.
What was that book?
The book mentioned in the “Totem” paragraph is “Still Digging – Scratching the surface and plumbing the depths of prayer”, which is available from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. The unnamed reference to Joan is in Chapter 10.