“In the garden there is an African ‘soldanella’ – not a real soldanella – only an African version of the same truth of the wonders that God can do in secret. A garden border of a kind of thick matted grass, a foot high – so matted that the leaves were bleached yellow-white for want of sun, for a full third of their length. But right down below that level – almost on the ground – with barely a ray of light, its berries had ripened to wonderful sapphire blue-like jewels when one parted the mass and came upon them. Oh our God can do the same miracles with this tiny glimmer of light that comes to these souls in their tangle of darkness. Glory be to His name!” 17 March 1904
It had been a difficult two-and-one-half years for Lilias. Many of the advances in ministry had been sharply curtailed by official resistance, to all things English, from the French government. On top of this was a sustained period of “failure in sleeping powers & a sudden sense of having come to the end of my strength.” Her return from her summer retreat in England to her beloved Algeria had been repeatedly postponed and, even now, back in Algiers she lamented her “idleness.” (The definition of which could be contested given the various projects with which she was engaged!)
Perhaps her deepest discouragement was the setback in hopes for a station in Tolga – a Southland village where, in 1900, they had been received physically with warm hospitality and spiritually with open hearts. They returned two years later, greeted with the same warm welcome, and purchased a house for a winter station. Their delight was boundless as they furnished their own native home – with earthen walls and floor, ceiling of palm trunk and thatch of palm leaves – and received a steady stream of visitors. Then, without advance notice, their work was shut down by the French military commandant: “. . . our hopes for steady work down here wrecked at a stroke – we fairly ached, body and soul, with the blow.”
The one bit of encouragement came, without any outward sign of confirmation, through the “post” (an Algerian rider on horseback) – a text from Proverbs, with the marginal note, “Surely there will be a sequel,” which became a promise Lilias claimed of God. “A glimmer of light.” And she praised God for what she could not yet see.
Lilias carried on the ministry in Algiers, limited in her estimation, but formidable by any other standard: writing story parables in native phraseology; translating portions of the New Testament in colloquial Arabic, recruiting new workers from the Training Center in nearby Olivage.
It was here, at Olivage, that she observed the African “soldanella” with its brilliant blue berries surviving – thriving – under improbable circumstances: hidden from the sun under thick matted grass. And, once again, God spoke to her through His creation. It spoke of the wonders God can do in secret. . . of the miracles God can do with a tiny glimmer of light. . . .
It would be another 21 years before Lilias would witness the “sequel” she believed God had promised. Her return to the Southlands, first through the desert gates of El Kantara and then to the mud-walled town of Tolga, touched her heart as it had so many years before: “Everywhere in the streets there are hands stretched out in welcome – gaunt hands of old men who were in their prime then, strong brown hands of middle-aged men who were but lads when we saw them last.” The mission home was reestablished. Lilias’s love and vision for Tolga never waned and long after she was unable to make the journey to the Southlands, the ministry continued through generations to follow.
Lilias’s trust in God’s working through the “glimmers of light,” that penetrated the improbabilities of sight, sustained her through countless challenges of ministry. While few of us would compare our challenges or contributions with those of Lilias’s radical ministry, the reality of God’s working is the same. I believe and take heart from the spiritual insights she derived in the battle zones.
I wonder, from time to time, just what difference my small efforts have made in the bigger scheme of things. Particularly those that were limited by time or circumstances. The promising student I taught for a year, never to see again. . . individuals who peopled my life, for a moment, not to know what has gone on since. . . the mission trip or church program that consumed a week or so. . . the chance conversation concerning spiritual verities. . . even efforts extended to family members who might not have fathomed the cost . . . .
You can add your stories – whether “full-time” employed in ministry or living out faith, full time. How much of your time and energy has been expended on people, projects or simple acts of service without the slightest indication of completion or results? Teachers. . . employers. . . coaches. . . mentors – or those who serve under the leadership of others without recognition for the end result? We touch a life, invest our souls only to move on ourselves or they away from us. How often are we frustrated by the magnitude of the task and the limits of our contributions?
Yet! It is not really about our shedding of light. It is what God is doing with that glimmer of light. Oh the wonders that God can do in secret! Oh the miracles He can do with a tiny glimmer of light!
This is confirmed in my own life when I consider the “glimmers of light” that illuminated my life – often for only a brief time; often unacknowledged by me – but made a lasting (if unthanked) difference to me. The woman who built a childhood library for me, book by book, until I was 10 years of age and we moved a thousand miles away. . . the Bible teacher who brightened my first year of college with hospitality (tea and cookies) and led us through the book of Ephesians. . . two 3rd grade teachers who taught me how to teach my first year in public education. . . the authors who shaped my faith. . . older moms who informed my view of parenting and homemaking. . . the two maiden women who introduced Lilias to me – and never knew what would evolve from parting with their treasured books. . . . The list could go on and on.
But I’m going to end where I started: with Lilias – and the amazing “sequel” that prompted this post. Fast forward more than a century from the moment of despair when she claimed as from God “Surely there will be a sequel.” Just this week I received an email from a friend who met with a couple who had lived in Tolga – of all places! When she asked them, “Have you ever heard of Lilias Trotter?” they answered a resounding “yes.” They went on to relate visiting an Arab family in Tolga who mentioned a “Madame Lily” who had been a friend of their grandmother’s. This grandmother took classes from Madame Lily – food preparation and sanitation as well as needle-work. She related how Lilias taught the girls to read – unheard of then – and even recalled Scripture verses that were since passed down through the generations. They credited her for modeling a tradition of hospitality for their family present to this day.
Lilias had no idea what of her loving efforts would be remembered. Nor do we. But, of this she was certain – and so can we – that God would work His wonders in secret. . . that He would do miracles with tiny glimmers of light.
Painting: Diary 1904