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  • Jon Taylor

The difference between Columbus and Livingstone: A certain and solid message of hope amidst the seas

Just recently I have been re-reading about exploration and in particular the ‘golden age of exploration’ in the 15th and 16th century. Great endeavours were undertaken to establish trade routes, to discover foreign lands and to acquire spices and precious metals. Whilst the expedition leaders could be praised for their bravery, fortitude, and courage they were invariably willing to pay the price of success at any cost to the detriment of others. This took the form of aggressive conquests, colonisation, slavery and forced conversion to Catholicism. A few hundred years later, their determination and resolve were matched by David Livingstone, though his message and the means he used to engage others was a beautiful polar opposite, since he taught and lived the gospel.

In the age of discovery, Vasco de Gama, Christopher Columbus, and Ferdinand Magellan would deliver presentations to the nobility detailing the plans of their exploits and how that would benefit them. Undoubtedly there was a romantic adventurous appeal concerning seeking out new lands, charting the course of the seas and determining the size of the globe. Risks involved treacherous sailing conditions, scurvy, starvation, pestilence, pirates, mutiny and at times, a hostile and potentially life- threatening reception from unknown peoples.

As a child, David Livingstone worked ten- hour days at the cotton mills in Blantyre, Scotland and astonishingly would educate himself whilst doing so, in addition to two further hours schooling in the evenings. Other children working in the mills were envious that he could read and tried to throw objects at his books to disrupt him, though he persevered. He sought to become a doctor and a missionary, and he achieved that by God’s grace despite the challenging circumstances of his youth.

Livingstone trekked several thousand miles across Southern Africa enduring tremendous heat, difficult and unforgiving terrain, suffering from frequent bouts of dysentery and malaria and being attacked by a lion leaving him with one arm that was semi-mobile. He was appalled by the slave trade and his efforts marked a turning point in the abolition of known slavery prior to William Wilberforce. He was loved by tribal leaders and villagers and he used his medicinal skills to good use to save the lives of many though he insisted on working with the locals so that he would not be venerated. He brought the message of the gospel, that our sin separates us from God and that we can be saved by grace through faith in God. The way he lived and treated others would set a precedent that would endure thereafter.

Columbus thought he was heading for Asia though he arrived and explored Islands around America. The world was much larger than Columbus supposed. He was a master ‘dead reckoner’ and used those skills and managed to negotiate his way across the seas. I remember reading a book of wit recalling an insult made in the house of commons, “The right honourable gentleman reminds me of Columbus. When he set sail, he did not know where he was going, when he arrived, he did not know where he was and when he returned, he did not know where he had been!” On a sober note, for those who do not know the lord they are just like Columbus. They may be able to navigate the great oceans and perform mighty exploits, but spiritually they do not know where they came from, what they were doing and where they are going.

Some might object and say that Columbus was a religious man. He was and he used to go to mass immediately after reaching a port but that did not help him. He was spiritually blind, and his treatment of others testified against him. How can we navigate our way amidst a persistent pandemic and the seas of uncertainty in 2021? Many of the explorers of the golden age were inspired by Marco Polo who visited Kublai Khan and whose travels are still every bit as exciting and read even today. But who or what inspired Livingstone?

When Livingstone was just a young boy, he recited the whole of Psalm 119 with just a few mistakes. But it was more than a recital. Some can recite much of Scripture though have no idea what it means, and it has little impact on their lives. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” For someone who knows and trusts in the Lord they will find guidance throughout the entirety of their lives through reading the Bible since it is God breathed and inspired by the Holy Spirit and able to make one wise unto salvation. The book of the Lord guides the believer ever closer to the Lord of the book, the Potentate of time and the Creator of the rolling sphere, of heaven and of earth.

Columbus and Livingstone are well remembered today. Both usually make the top ten lists of explorers of those who have a rudimentary appreciation for the dangers and accomplishments of their exploits. Though there is obviously great controversy, Columbus Day is a national holiday in parts of the Americas though some do not celebrate that. Songs have been written about him, some more favourable than others. Statues of David Livingstone remain, and you can see the monument and Victoria Falls which he named, and he inspired many in the missionary movement.

Yet these two explorers set out on different paths. If you travel a great distance and veer off a few degrees, you will inevitably arrive a long way from your intended destination. We need to ensure that we are on the right path as we journey through life. The Lord Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the only way to the Father. It is a narrow path and the way which leads to life is difficult and there are few who find it. But for those who have found the Lord, it is He who is keeping you and your resolution for this year and the next one can be to know the Lord and to make Him known. There may be multitudes of unknown and unexpected perils of all descriptions along the way, but if you have boarded the lifeboat of the gospel, you can be certain of where you are going, and your task is to trust in Him and to make Him known to others lost at sea.

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