October 10, 2012

3 lessons from Brainerd’s death

by Jesse Johnson

Brainerd sick horseDavid Brainerd died 265 years ago. Yesterday was the anniversary of his home going.

Brainerd’s life ended when he was only 29 years old. He was not exactly famous when he died; he was expelled from Yale for declaring that an empty chair had more evidence of grace than the seminary president (the original Clint Eastwood!), and then spent the rest of his life serving the Lord in anonymity among the Indians.

Because he did not have a seminary degree, Brainerd refused to pastor a church. In the 1700’s a pastor was expected to have been to seminary, and despite the fact that some churches wanted him, Brainerd was reluctant to participate in what he viewed as the downgrade of the pastoral office by pastoring without a degree. Instead, he learned Indian dialects, translated a few Psalms into one language, and planted a “Christian community” in another.

He literally rode himself to death.

Crisscrossing the New England woods, he spent himself out discipling the Indian converts to Christ. In the 1700’s the United States was a backwoods, forgotten, and remote place. It was far removed from the world’s limelight, and Brainerd removed himself further still. When he died in Jonathan Edward’s parsonage, Brainerd had a handful of disciples, and fewer friends. Outside of the Edward’s home, those who knew him were skeptical of him.

But inside the Edwards’ home, his life had eternal implications. God used his diary (published posthumously) to spark a new wave of missionary fervor. Edward’s daughter Jeshua fell in love with Brainerd, and they perhaps even married. She caught his tuberculosis, and died a few months after he did.

Yet the most direct impact of his life is seen in Edwards himself. When the church in North Hampton voted Edwards out, he had to leave his parsonage—as well as his daughter’s grave—behind. Already regarded as the foremost theologian of his day, and already famous for his notable preaching, Edwards could have gone to London, or Boston, Oxford or Yale. Instead, he followed Brainerd’s example, and went to serve among the Indians.

Yesterday I marked the anniversary of his death by reading a biography of Brainerd by John Piper.Then I crossed a busy street to Starbucks. There was a traffic accident—nobody was seriously hurt, and the police arrived in 5 minutes. I chose from the three different kinds of coffee, then prepared for a staff meeting—I get to work along side eleven other pastors, all of us paid generously by our congregation.

I answered email, and watched a DVD with Wyane Grudem, Al Mohler, and Voddie Bauchum on marriage. The whole time, I had a sort of surreal felling. I kept trying to imagine what life for Edwards was like before Brainerd knocked on his door, entered his life, then left the world bringing his daughter with him.

I realize that through the providence of God, my feet are not in the Americas of the 1700’s. I can imagine all I want, but I have no idea what life was like then. I have DVD’s with leading theologians at my fingertips, while Brainerd clutched only a diary and a Bible, so he wouldn’t weigh down his horse.

At the end of the day, these are my lessons from Brainerd’s example. They are the best I can do, removed from his life by 265 years.

1) In the earthly sense, we simply don’t suffer like Brainerd/Edwards, et. al. The sacrifices pastors made then were simply different than now. My greatest trial yesterday was that my car’s battery died. I could have walked to church and instead a neighbor gave me a ride. That is not quite suffering for Jesus.

2) We are not sinning by not suffering. It’s not my fault that I live in 2012 and not 1747. It’s not my fault that my congregation loves me, while Brainerd was expelled. It is not a sin to not suffer. I feel willing to suffer, but I know it is easy to feel that way when the sky is clear. God’s providence has placed me in a country with blessings like Starbucks, police, and a plurality of pastors. My ministry mirrors Brainerd’s gospel, but not his afflictions.

3) Even the slightest complaining from me is totally and wholly out of bounds. Brainerd left Yale for Indians and death. Edwards left a thriving ministry for suffering on the frontier. The Apostle Peter left everything in this world to follow the Lord. As John Piper writes, “Jesus was not impressed with Peter’s sacrifice.” Our Lord left heaven to come to earth—and he did so without complaining. We can bite our tongues when we make 21st century kinds of sacrifices, and we can be thankful for the era of human history in which we live.

Amazon is selling Brainerd’s Diary—released by Edwards after Brainerd’s death—for 99 cents. It is a long book, and there are difficult sections. For that reason, Kindle might not be the best format, but you can’t beat the price.  Piper’s biography of Brainerd is free, and takes about 30 minutes to read.

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Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA.