Jessop's Journey


Jessop Sutton

The day after President J. F. Kennedy died, was the day my life turned from one of doubt to one filled with hope. I was converted after reading two short sections from the Bible quoted in an article about him in a daily newspaper. I was twenty-nine years old at the time.

My early life was characterized by agnosticism. I was born of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father, and religion -- Christian or otherwise -- simply fell through the cracks. Adding to this the fact that my tender years were spent on a farm, far away from any church, may account for my unbelief, but my naturally questioning personality had a lot to do with it as well. I was in my twenties before I started to get any hint that Jesus could have any significance in the world and in my personal life.

Later, circumstances brought me into contact with the girl who was to become my wife. Dorothy was of the Anglican faith, that is, the Church Of England, but she loved me seemingly unconditionally and managed to persuade me to go with her to Church now and again for special services. Although I attended periodically for her sake, the proceedings left me cold.

I stood for the hymns, but did not join in; and I sat for the prayers with my eyes open while everyone else kneeled with their eyes closed. God was not for me. At the time I was leaning strongly towards communism, which was a dangerous thing because the communist party was a banned organization in our country. For some unknown reason I was prepared to try anything but Christianity, including some decidedly cultic organizations and strange mystery religions. I didn't get very far with any of them, probably for the same reason that I couldn't get into God and Jesus. I rejected anything that seemed like escapism. Belief in a god of any sort -- in religion of any sort -- just seemed to be confirmed again and again as that undesirable flight from the reality of life and the world.

Then there came the day when the news filled the front page of every newspaper: 'John F Kennedy assassinated!'

The world was in an uproar; the chief citizen of the most powerful country brought down by an assassin. The day after his death, stories about JFK still filled the front page. One article I read on the bus going to work that morning said that Kennedy was a churchgoer; that he attended mass regularly; that he prayed; that he read his Bible. The article said he had some favourite verses written out and on his desk in his office. It quoted two of them, both from the Prophet Isaiah. Firstly,

"Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee."

And the second, a longer piece:

"Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of His understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint."

By the time I got to work, these words were preying on my mind. Here was the strength I lacked, the meaning to life I was looking for. In these words there seemed to be offered everything I needed to cope with a life 'attended by so many difficulties'. I marveled that a President of the United States, whom I thought must surely be regarded as the most important citizen in the world at any time, believed in, worshipped, and prayed to the God of the Bible -- and I, a nobody in the world, was too clever to believe in anybody but my own weak self? I knew nothing of Kennedy's his character, only that he believed in God.

At about ten o'clock that morning, between the counters in the shop where I was a floor manager at the time, I lifted my eyes towards the ceiling (where else would I look for God?), and prayed silently: "Lord," I said, "I must be the most foolish man in the world. Here is the President of the United States, a very big person in the world, and he believes in You, but I don't? Forgive me, Lord. I have been really foolish."

I addressed God as simply as that, but the effect was immediate and dramatic. A load was immediately lifted from my shoulders, and I turned from being a doubter to being a believer in the God of the Bible in that very instant. At the first opportunity I left the floor, went to the men's room and sat there saying "Thank you, God! Thank you, God!" At lunchtime I visited a nearby bookshop, bought a small pocket edition of The Gospel According To Saint Mark, and began to read. I took it from my shirt pocket to read whenever I had a moment, soaking up what Mark had to say about Jesus of Nazareth, and his mission to the world.

Soon after, I started looking to see what various denominational Churches stood for before settling for the Anglican Church of my wife. The first one I went to was a member-church of the Congregational Union Of South Africa --- a Congregational Church. I stayed with them, and after a while studied with them for ordination into their Ministry. I was ordained in due course, but during my studies I began to see that what the Congregational Church was today, was not like it had started out to be in it's early years as Independency in England. In those beginnings, the independent congregations sought to be the Church, as it was in the days of Paul, the apostle of the Lord, having no official separated ministers, and all members being participants in the meetings. Although I didn't realize it at the time, this knowledge aroused in my soul a sense of dissatisfaction, and started me off on that long quest for the New Testament Church as it was and should be.

The journey continues, and I press on. Keeping my mind clear of thoughts of compromise and returning to the denominations that divide, I have adopted as my banner the saying: "Be open to all Christians in the whole Church, or be mired in the party-spirit."

Jessop Sutton, Cape Town, South Africa.

Jessop can be reached at sutton@kingsley.co.za

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