Why did Christianity flourish in the ancient world? What caused it to grow? Its ideas: “The simple phrase, ‘For God so loved the world,’ would have puzzled an educated pagan,” sociologist Rodney Stark says. “The notion that the gods care how we treat one another would have been dismissed as patently absurd.” To the Greco-Roman world, mercy was a character flaw; the ideal was justice. “Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice,” Stark adds. “This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues — that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was something entirely new. “Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, indeed, that it must even extend beyond the Christian community.” This is what made Christianity flourish.
I have seen this personally. Cindy and I are in our thirty-sixth year of marriage. Her family has literally been my family. Eleven years ago this month her father Guy Godwin died suddenly at age 67 of a heart attack. It wasn’t unexpected. Mr. Godwin, as most called him because of his years as a school principal, was a man whose family history was saturated with heart trouble. His father died at age 43 with a heart attack. His mother died with the same ailment at age 52. His next oldest brother Jack died at age 39 with a heart attack, and oldest brother Howard at age 68, also with a heart attack. The amazing thing about Mr. Godwin to me is not the horrific family history of heart disease. It is the way that he loved.
He had his first heart surgery and five bypasses at age 50. Seven years later they were able to do four more bypasses. Ten years later he died, not as some invalid pent up without fanfare in a health-induced prison. Mr. Godwin loved people. He stayed busy, enjoyed travel, and worked his 400 acres of cotton on “Godwinized” machinery. He was active in his church, served as Staff-Parish Chair in the Greeleyville UMC. He also taught Sunday School, including the Sunday before he died. He mentored countless young men and women through education and the farm. He was part father, friend, private investigator, and corrections officer. He didn’t love in a frumpy syrupy way. He didn’t even have to say the words. He simply loved.
A quiet man who despised fanfare, he lived the Christian life and its ideals as well as anyone I have ever known, except perhaps my mother. Certainly, he could be hard-headed, and was addicted to farming even when it wasn’t such a great idea, but, all in all, Mr. Godwin lived life as about as well as I could imagine. He married the woman he loved more than anything or anyone else in the world. He was a man of utmost integrity and unblemished character. He raised two of the smartest intelligent independent caring overachieving women I have ever known, and our daughter Narcie exhibits his handiwork and values, too. He also put up with me and another son-in-law, albeit the other one is a Baptist preacher/CBF Director of Missions. Indeed, he suffered fools with patience, a lot more than I have. He taught my sons the value of family, hard work, the stupidity of arrogance, and the honor in doing a job without sympathy or accolades. He passed on to us all a grand appreciation for all people, especially those least likely to deserve it. It will forever be one of my greatest honors to have been included in his family.
It is people like Mr. and Mrs. Godwin that perpetuate the reason why the church has continued to grow. They have loved beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, and done it well. There is a story that aptly illustrates the kind of man that Mr. Godwin was: An ancient rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was on its way back. “Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. “Could it be,” asked another, “when you look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” said the Rabbi. “Well, then what is it?” his pupils demanded. “It is when you look on the face of any person and can see … your brother or sister. Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.” Mr. Godwin saw a child of God everywhere he looked. Who do I/you see?