Lilias Trotter: And how the higher life doesn’t need to kill you

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“Lilias Trotter” c.2014 by Austin Blasingame

I have been thinking a lot about Lilias Trotter lately. For one reason, she was the subject of a 2015 movie which made her a bit more notorious — it is great when Christians discover an interesting spiritual ancestor and tell their story! For another reasons, I am a history buff who loves finding interesting characters from the past. In a movie or in a book, I am happy, but also cautious, when I hear stories about great Christians from the past. I think it is safe to say that one often finds what she is looking for in history — the stories that get told often end up looking strangely like the autobiography of the historian!

Nevertheless, Lilias Trotter, presented by her admirers or suspected by her detractors, has had me thinking ever since she appeared in Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body last week. I love her, even if at the same time I think she may have been a bit deluded. And I respect her, even though I know remembering her has the capacity to drive certain Christians to despair.

In case you didn’t read the blog entry, Trotter was an English socialite in the Victorian era who committed herself to the “higher life” in Christ and ended up being a missionary in Algeria. She was so sickly, the missionary board would not send her. But she and her friend, having resources of their own, struck out for North Africa anyway and spent 30 years trying to help Muslims meet the living God, risen in Jesus. That would be an inspiring reason enough to remember her, but it is even more inspiring to know she left her very promising art career behind to serve Jesus. She was so talented that no less than John Ruskin told her she might become one of the greatest English artists if she applied herself. But she left her development as an artist behind to follow her calling. Fortunately, she still did a bit of art, but she could never give her heart to the pursuit, since her heart belonged to Jesus.

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El Oued desert 1895 — Lilias Trotter

When I brought Lilias Trotter into our cell dialogue last week, I started with the quote from Jesus with which the Daily Prayer blog started:

“…unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Jesus – Matthew 5:20).

I will not attempt to unpack all we had to say about that piece of scripture; we just scratched the surface, anyway. What we started discussing is the fact that we, like the Pharisees, tend to get stuck in a “box” of our own making that we consider about as good as it gets (or as good as we can do) and we become satisfied with it, or defensive of it, or stuck within the confines of it, or unable to see beyond it. We are all prone to the frailty of mortals, even if we are trying to be as righteous as the Pharisees were trying to be. We need the Lord, in our case the risen Lord, to tell us, “Your ways will not get you into the kingdom of heaven; you must join me where I am. I will show you the way, personally.”

Lilias Trotter was at the beginning of a movement among Christians in Europe and the United States that heard the call from Jesus and immediately looked around at their boxed-in lives and boxed-in religion and made every effort to get out of the box. It has been called the “higher life” movement. Trotter learned of this higher life in the Spirit and about died seeking it, all the while thinking death would be fine, because she did not want to be in the box when Jesus returned; she would rather have died than to miss out on her highest calling. She gave her utmost for the Lord’s highest.

Several people in our cell grew up in environments where word of this higher life was the constant message of their parents and elders. They constantly heard, “You need to get out of wherever you are and go further. You need to make sure you are not missing your highest calling. Ordinary people filled with the Holy Spirit do extraordinary things.” So they were always quite sure that there was a further place to go and they had not made it yet.

Even when they tried to be as good as they should be, they secretly felt guilty for not being  good enough.  In the name of spiritual freedom they felt completely condemned! This may not have happened to you, but a couple of people experienced such anxiety and depression they felt even more faulty, since an “extraordinary” day for them might be getting out of bed and actually going to work! Having the devotion of a Pharisee in a righteous box might seem like success! So when Jesus appears to say such limited righteousness is not enough to get them into heaven, it is devastating. They’d never even gotten into a religious box yet, much less would they have the wherewithal to get out of it!

They were glad our church was so gracious to accept them where they are, even though it is filled with “higher life” types (like me) who are rearin’ to go most of the time. Our church is, essentially, a radical kind of place that, by nature, might not seem like the best place for someone who feels successful if they make it to the Sunday meetings a couple of times a month. We are often blasted with messages from people who would have loved to follow in Lilias Trotter’s footsteps to Algeria. And yes, she and her type will be celebrated as admirable ancestors in “our transhistorical body” while we appear to overlook the millions of Jesus followers who no one remembered much after they died.

I ended the dialogue in our cell like I am going to end this blog post, with this question. Why can’t Lilias Trotter be celebrated for who she is and each of us be celebrated for who we are? If she is greater, why not love her for it? If you aren’t, why not love you for it? Isn’t that the gospel, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and we are all saved by the redeeming work of Jesus? As soon as the Lord makes us all equal in his love as he dies for us on the cross, do we immediately need to turn around and create a hierarchy among us according to how much glory someone is reflecting, or not?

I know being loved as we are and feeling hope for a higher life is hard to accept when we are depressed and anxious, or when our parents and associates have made us feel like we are not worth much, or sin at work in us has warped our view of self and God so much we can’t see straight. I freely admit that many Christians have been a menace, acting all holy and doing terrible things in the name of their righteousness. In spite of their sin, we need to receive our new self in Christ whether it lives in a messy, yet-to-be-perfected box or not! It is the crucial act of putting on the new self of God’s beloved that leads us out of every restrictive box and onto the unusual ways of faith in Jesus.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

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