This piece was written for the following writing group exercise:
“Life Savings. You must choose to spare one life: either a religious leader
who to all known facts is a good and decent man who has brought solace to
thousands or a scientist who tests as brilliant but has never accomplished
anything spectacular. Who do you save and why?
You may, if you prefer, show a character answering the question.”
* * *
The plane dropped beneath me again and I clamped my lips as my stomach
contents rose. I gripped the armrests harder, half expecting them to crack
under the pressure of my fingers.
I glanced sideways at Pastor Bruce. He'd begun shutting down his laptop when
the seatbelt light came on, and only now slid it into a protective foam
slipcase. He zipped it inside the laptop bag, tucked it behind his legs and
turned to look at me.
"Have you heard of John Harper?"
The plane lurched again. I shut my eyes against the nausea and fear. This
was not ordinary turbulence. Any second now the oxygen masks would drop and
we'd be told to brace for impact.
Sweat tricked down my nose, but I couldn't wipe it away. At six foot four
and an ex-footballer, I knew people expected me to be impervious to fear.
And gloated when they discovered my vulnerabilities.
I forced my eyelids open a crack and looked out the corner of my eye at
Pastor Bruce. His expression showed nothing more than interest in my answer
to his question.
"No," I managed hoarsely. "I haven't. Who is John Harper?"
Bruce leaned forward, the way he did whenever he spoke about something that
interested him. If he thought me ridiculous for cowering in my chair like an
overgrown child, he hid it well.
"Harper was a hero of the faith from early last century - but hardly anyone
today has heard of him. He was a well-loved British pastor who'd been
widowed several years when he was called to preach in Chicago. He set off
across the Atlantic with his little daughter and his niece - on the Titanic."
The Titanic. I didn't want to know where this was heading.
"Uh, did they make it?"
"No." He shook his head, his eyes bright. "Harper died still serving his
Lord and Saviour. He got his niece and little daughter into a lifeboat then
ran back along the deck shouting, 'Women, children and the unsaved into the
lifeboats!' As well putting the women and children before himself, Harper
didn't want any man who wasn't ready to meet his Maker to risk his life."
Bruce didn't speak any louder than normal, but in the tense silence of the
aircraft cabin his voice carried clearly. The aeroplane still dipped and
shuddered but my attention was fixed on him.
"The Hollywood movie 'Titanic' made a poignant scene of the orchestra
playing 'Nearer My God to Thee' yet there wasn't a single mention of Harper,
one of the true heroes of the tragedy. It’s very possible it was he who requested the band play that hymn - he was certainly on the deck with them, giving no thought to his own safety but pleading with the passengers to come to Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and eternal salvation.
Even when the huge ship broke into two, and Pastor Harper leapt into the sea
with more than fifteen hundred others, he continued to preach the good news
of the gospel, swimming from one person to another and begging them to
believe on the Lord Jesus Christ while there was still time."
"Amazing how anyone could know that since they all drowned," a cynical voice
muttered from the row behind us.
I bristled, but Pastor Bruce continued, unperturbed by the sarcastic remark.
"Of all the passengers in the water, only six were rescued after the Titanic
sunk. One of the six was a young Scot, who told a reporter he was the last
man converted through John Harper's ministry. He told how he'd been drifting
on a piece of wreckage and Harper had called to him, 'Man, are you saved?'
and when he'd said no, and refused his offer of the gospel, Harper pulled
off his life belt and gave it to him, saying, 'Then you need this more than
me.' Harper drifted by the same young man a little later, asked if he was
saved yet, and continued to exhort him to turn to Christ until his own strength
was gone and he sank beneath the waves. The young man did put his trust in
Jesus that night, and testified of his gratitude to Harper afterwards."
The seat belt light flickered off. The captain announced that the turbulence
had passed, and a hostess appeared with the drinks trolley. A palpable sense
of relief rippled through the cabin.
I wiped the moisture from my eyes and grinned sheepishly at Bruce. I felt
more grateful to my own hero than ever.
Not only had his calm conversation kept me from freaking out during the turbulence, but John Harper's story had given me a new perspective. No-one
would have complained if Harper had taken a seat in the lifeboat with his
motherless child - but he wasn't prepared to take the place of someone who
wasn't ready to face God's judgement. Would I ever count my life as nothing
compared to the chance of serving God?
The air-hostess handed me a welcome cup of tea, and I sank back into my seat
with it. Now the near-crisis had passed I found myself re-imagining it, this
time with me heroically rescuing Pastor Bruce. I'd longed to repay my
gratitude ever since he led me to a new life in Jesus when he'd spoken at my
college, and as our plane circled above London I dreamed up scenarios where
I exchanged his faulty oxygen mask with mine, or I hauled him from the
wreckage moments before fire engulfed the plane. I'd gladly die for this
Despite my imaginative martyrdom I was relieved when the plane touched down.
I began to usher Bruce ahead of me down the aisle, but a middle-aged woman
from the row in front of us reached out to him.
"I couldn't help hearing what you were talking about . . . about the man who
died on the Titanic." Her voice conveyed urgency. "And with the plane
dropping like that, well, I knew if I died I wasn't ready to meet God. Could
you please . . ."
I didn't hear the rest of the conversation, but dropped back into my seat as
Bruce sat beside her. These unexpected moments with strangers were part and parcel of travelling as his assistant. I quietly prayed until an air-hostess herded us off the
plane, then collected our luggage while they continued to speak in the
Finally, I had to interrupt. If we didn't get into a taxi within a few
minutes, we'd never make tonight's debate. When the woman bid us goodbye
with shining eyes, I found myself thanking God for the turbulence.
"So, are you ready to meet the world's most intelligent man?" Bruce asked me
in the back seat of the taxi.
"No," I admitted, with a rueful shake of my head. Leith Manton was a
brilliant young scientist, famous for his incredible IQ. However, he was
equally renowned for his outspoken views against organised religion in
general and Christianity specifically.
"They say he is the next Einstein. Perhaps he'll be the man who finds a cure
I shrugged. "Maybe. But I'm more worried about tonight's debate. I've seen
the way he shreds people with his intellect. I can't feel good about you
being in his firing line."
"With my puny intellect then, it's good I'm not planning to outsmart him,"
Bruce replied, smiling. "No matter how Manton or anyone works to argue it
away, everything God has made bears witness to His existence - and the moral
law He has written on our own conscience tells us we're sinful and cannot
stand before a Holy God. My aim is simply to let people know that through the sacrifice of His own Son, God has made a way for us to find atonement for
our sins and through Christ's resurrection, to gain eternal life. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the simple Gospel cuts right through traditions, presuppositions - and massive intellects - and speaks to our heart."
I took a deep breath when our taxi pulled up at the Great Hall of the
University. Thousands of people, like the woman on the aeroplane, found
solace through Pastor Bruce's ministry. Many others, though, were stirred to
passionate hate by his uncompromising message.
Bruce patted my shoulder. "Just remember, Leith Manton is just a young man
like you, who needs to know the forgiveness of God as desperately as you
did. No matter what great good for mankind he may achieve in this life, when
he stands before God none of that will count for anything unless his sins have been washed away
by the blood of Christ."
I was grateful for that reminder many times during the debate. It was hard not to feel resentment toward someone who employed his
powerful intellect to ridicule the man I loved as a father. The man who
continued to calmly state the message of God revealed in the Bible, all the
while knowing the vitriolic response that would provoke.
From my position at the side of the stage I glanced out at the audience. A
young man toward the back was growing increasingly agitated. Perhaps Manton
wasn't God's only quarry this evening - maybe He was using the debate to
convict this student of his sin, as He had convicted me in such similar
As I turned back to the two men at the podium, a flash of movement caught my
eye. The student I'd been watching was hurling something. I began to move,
even while I strained to focus on its smooth arc toward the stage.
Cylindrical, like a water flask.
Metal, like -
I sprang forward. Every muscle strained to reach the podium before the
Two metres now.
I knew my strength. I knew my bulk. I knew my body could shield only one of
the men standing at the podium.
And I knew without hesitation which man that would be.
I leapt, the explosion searing my back as I knocked him to the ground.
- - - - - - -
HEADLINE: THE METROPOLITAN NEWS
HAND GRENADE KILLS TWO AT MANTON/ HINKLEY DEBATE
Two men were killed by a grenade detonated during a Science -v- Religion debate
at the Metropolitan University last night.
International Speaker Pastor Bruce Hinkley died instantly in the blast. His
assistant, former pro-football player Sean Jones, 24, died on the way to
hospital as a result of massive injuries. Dr Leith Manton, the world-famous
scientist, was admitted to hospital suffering mild concussion and
shock. Witnesses say moments before the explosion Mr Jones leapt forward and
knocked Dr Manton to the ground, using his own body as a shield.
The attacker has yet to be found but a police source says . . .
* Note: The story of John Harper and of his efforts of urging those dying
around him in the freezing Atlantic to find salvation in Christ is
a true (and documented) story. The following web page gives a summary of the
account, and links to online documents and news items from the time of the
Titanic tragedy. A biography (currently out of print) has also been
Read the Christianity Today article on John Harper