How God can use our passion
Terrible news of a former colleague in this morning’s Times: “Three British charity workers were killed in South Africa when their car crashed over the side of a bridge and plunged more than 75ft into a river. Chris Naylor, 58, and his wife, Susanna, 54, died on Monday along with Miranda Harris, 66. Ms Harris’s husband, Peter, 67, and the local driver, Thando Kalipa, suffered serious injuries. Two of Mr Harris’s four adult children have flown to South Africa to be with him.” The article goes on to explain: “Mr and Mrs Harris founded A Rocha, a Christian environmental charity, in 1983. Mr Naylor, a former science teacher from Oxford, was the executive director of A Rocha International and had co-founded the Lebanon branch in 1996 with his wife, with whom he had three children. Mrs Naylor was the head of science at Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford.” Heart-breaking. Serving the Lord in many parts of the world courts risk, not least from road traffic accidents. David Leake, who this September celebrated 60 years of ordained ministry, routinely carried a window hammer and a torch as a precaution when travelling by bus around his Diocese in Argentina. As it happens I was only thinking of Peter last Tuesday when reading the obituary of Marjorie Blamey, who became Britain's most prolific illustrator of wild flowers. As a young person Marjorie, a keep photographer, aspired to be an actress – she won a scholarship to Rada at the age of 16. However, the war intervened, she met her husband tobogganing at midnight on the Epsom Downs. As a result she finished up as a farmer’s wife on a dairy farm in Cornwall. However, as the Times records: “At the age of 48, Blamey’s chance encounter with a member of the buttercup family changed her life.” “It was when walking into their farmhouse by the back door in the mid-1960s that Marjorie caught sight of a clematis and thought: “I’d like to paint that.” On a whim, she got out her daughter’s paintbox and had a go. Unsatisfied with the initial results, she bought some watercolours and sable brushes and tried again. And again.” Her whole life abruptly changed direction. Over the years Marjorie amassed about 10,000 botanical paintings and drawings of flowers from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. She contributed all the colour illustrations, amounting to many thousands of paintings, for a succession of distinguished field guides, beginning with Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe. In all this her goal was simple: “I make flowers look alive, not like pressed dead things.” Marjorie won several gold medals for her work from the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society, and in 2007 was appointed MBE. On reading this story, I tried to think of someone I knew who had used their God-given passion to great effect, to enrich the lives of others, even to extend the Kingdom of God. The main candidate had to be Peter Harris. I knew Peter in the 1980’s when we were both curates on the Wirral. We would often meet to discuss the Christian faith and to reflect on our ministries. A lovely guy, Peter had one prominent eccentricity. Often he would casually mention that he had been lying on the banks of the River Weaver at 5.30 that morning. “Why?” I would ask in sheer bewilderment. Peter, it seemed, was a serious birdwatcher (not to be confused, of course, with a twitcher). However, Peter increasingly became uncomfortable with parish ministry – it wasn’t for him despite a fine pedigree from the Home Counties Bible belt. So he decided/God led him to follow his passion. In this he enjoyed the active support of the esteemed John Stott, himself a serious birdwatcher. I will forever be impressed by the vision of the then Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society (now called Crosslinks) who decided to sponsor Peter with his family to move to the Algarve to establish a Christian bird-watching centre, one which would interact with the local people in church building along with a schools ministry. I remember thinking at the time that this was a huge step of faith for Peter and Miranda. In those days very few Christians, in fact anyone, showed any anxiety for the environment. Creation care was of no concern. From such small beginnings A Rocha was born – the name itself is Portuguese, meaning Rock. An international network of environmental organisations with a Christian ethos, A Rocha today has a key role in the Church’s response to the environmental crisis. Today the organisation has an annual income of £5 million with some 145 employees and a worldwide network of 850 volunteers. Its projects include helping captive elephants in India, a forest scheme in Ghana and tackling fires in the Amazon. All this began when Peter surrendered his passion to God and stepped out into the unknown.
So today we pray for Peter along with his four children along with the family of Chris and Susanna, indeed the whole family of A Rocha. A profound tragedy for us all.