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The Making of Maescywmmer
A Review of John Jenkins by Hywel George
A few weeks ago I completed a series on Biblical, Systematic, and Historical Theology, and in that last instalment, I alluded to how biographies form an important element of our understanding of theology from a historical perspective. A few months ago Hywel George, a pastor from Wales, released a short and poignant biography of a man most of us would never have heard of had it not been for his book. George’s interest in John Jenkins—or Siôn Shincyn in the original Welsh—is akin to tracing one’s family tree, though the two aren’t blood-related. Their connection goes deeper than that, having received the same spirit of adoption, and appointment to the same post. Each sentence, therefore, reads like a recollection of a beloved—but long-lost—grandfather, a sentiment George has every right to hold; he is the spiritual descendant of Jenkins, now holding his same office and preaching in that same pulpit. In just seventy pages, George manages to cover several vicarious warnings to young Christians, provides a rare example of a man of faith from a working-class background, and a pastoral example tried and tested not only by himself but through the words of Jenkin’s contemporaries.
George and Jenkins share not only a pastorate but also a pastoral heart. George’s own experience shines through at times, both in his love for Christ, as well as his incredulity about how God sometimes chooses to win souls to himself:
“Phylip explained to him the ‘graceful salvation which is in Christ.’ How many times John must have heard this sort of thing before? Yet, it was there and then that he became a Christian. For a long time, the Lord had been chasing him and fought for him, at long last John put it simply: ‘I was won.’”
For many Pastors out there, this is a recurring question. ‘Why when I spent eighteen years trying diligently to reach that young man, did God wait until he went off to Uni to save him?’ George makes clear throughout, however, that whatever God does—which might seem like foolishness to us!—we must trust in his eternal wisdom and love. It isn’t our job to understand everything the Lord does, in fact, it would be impossible to do so; as Chesterton once said:
“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
To that end, rather than spending the seventy pages polishing the life story of his predecessor like spotless steel, he lays bare the truth of Jenkin’s falls, fears, and failures, including those which occur as a result of ongoing sanctification, even after he began in ministry. George makes clear that it isn’t up to him as Jenkin’s biographer to wash him clean of his sins, but that only Jesus can do so. For that reason, he goes so far as to say the following:
Moses said that man does not live by bread alone but by the word of God; John was choosing the hope of bread over the certainty of church life around the Bible he loved.
As Christians, we’re all prone to wander and go our own way. Jenkins was no exception to this, he was tempted to rely upon himself and his own strength, and he gave into that temptation.
Why point this out though?
In my conclusion to Dusting for God’s Fingerprints: Looking for God in History and Biography, I said the following:
“I’m blessed to have access to my great-great grandfather’s journal, he was a minister and a military chaplain and he documented the blessings and struggles of that life. Reading his journal left me with a sense of legacy, of missional familial continuity. The same is true when I look at the life of my younger brother, a man dedicated to the Lord and to seeing young men and women discipled well. I’m not academically fascinated by my brother, I’m spiritually spurred on. The same is true of my ancestors in the faith, their words and examples are a reminder to me of what has come before, but also of what’s ahead and I can’t wait for you to find out what that is like too.”
When we witness the lives of fellow saints, it is often tempting to view them in the best possible light, and conversely, we often want others to view us in the same way. When we stand on that podium though, or place others upon it, bathing ourselves in the man-made floodlights of counterfeit glory, we do so at the neglect of the clothing of righteousness which has been bought for us; paid for with the blood of Christ. Why replace the truth with a fake, however impressive it might seem, especially when that truth is so much greater?
Shortly before my wife and I left Brighton, a young man from our Church called me up and asked to take me out for coffee. We sat down outside the cafe—I ordered a long black for you coffee lovers out there—and braced ourselves against the cold. “Adsum,” he said, “Please can you tell me what you struggle with?” I was a little taken aback, but willing to talk about it, “Can I ask why? Is there anything in particular you want to know?” He sat for a moment and humbly admitted, “I’ve gotten to the place where I believe I’m the only one struggling with sin, I look at the men I respect in my life and I assume that have everything fixed. I know that can’t be right, but I just need someone to tell me, and show me, that I’m wrong.”
It has been a year since then, almost to the day, and I’m still grateful for that conversation. It was a reminder of how much each of us in the Church needs to be honest about our weaknesses, and why we mustn’t measure man’s virtue against any other standard than Jesus.
With all of that said, this book isn’t simply an expose of Jenkin’s failings, but a true story of God’s power being perfected in weakness, a power which—like the architectural landmarks left behind because of his influence—can still be felt today. George wouldn’t be standing where he does every Sunday if it weren’t for the man who stood there before him, a testament to God’s faithfulness to generations of families in Maescywmmer, and to much of Wales.
This biography reminds us to trust God, to walk with him, to give our burdens to him, and to provide an example for other believers not by pretending we are without sin, but instead proclaiming that our sin was once crucified along with the sins of all who believe. I do, at times, recommend books which might take weeks or months to read, but this you could easily pick up and make your way through in an afternoon, whilst drinking a long black coffee. John Jenkins: The Man Who Made Maesycwmmer is made up of ten short chapters, in language anyone can understand (aside from the Welsh, I’m afraid that might as well be Elvish to most of us) but rich enough that anyone of any age, background, or academic achievement would surely benefit from it. The book is self-published and therefore runs into a couple of the formatting issues that sometimes come with that, but nothing the content doesn’t make up for many times over. George has provided us with a great example of the Spirit’s leading in the life of a man and his church, and a portrait of the enduring legacy of God’s steadfast love to that church, even unto the present day.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
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