Rev Ethelstan Cheese: ‘No aim in life but to serve God’

One of my favourite stories involves an eccentric English missionary priest with an equally eccentric name, possibly the most majestic name you’ll ever hear?

The Reverend Ethelsten Cheese (b. 19/11/1877 – d. 5/6/1959)

Reverend Cheese was walking through the wilderness in the middle of no where.

A British Army soldier was passing in a car, and offered him a lift.

And it is precisely at this point that uncertainty and certainty meet.

The driver asking,

“What would you have done if I hadn’t come along?”

This is the pragmatic, problem solving response.  It’s quite reasonable isn’t it?

But this well meaning question was met with a reply that many of us don’t quite realise.

Reverend Cheese replied: 

“Ah!  But you did come along my dear boy, didn’t you?  Don’t you see?”

This is why he was called a Holy Man and a Man of great faith.

Two titles which holy men and men of great faith really don’t like.

But it shows his trust.

God may have said to him earlier that day:  Keep walking Cheese – a car will turn up soon.”

God may have said nothing, and the Good Rev just went off into the desert.

Which, by the way, is biblically the place where people go to meet with God.

In the desert one learns to trust, to wait, to deal with yourself, to stare down your demons.

When Thomas said to Jesus, “We do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?

He was asking the reasonable, practical ordinary human question.

But Jesus responds, “I am the Way Thomas. I am the Truth Thomas. I am the life Thomas.”

Thomas had discovered what Reverend Ethelsten Cheese lived out.

That Jesus is the roadmap, the vehicle, the source and the destination of the human heart.

He satisfies the deep longings of the human heart and forgives all our sins.

And when we’re wandering around the hot desert of life;

Jesus extends his salvation to all.

Does God really love me?  Look how wide his arms are on that Cross.

We often wonder if there’s a God and if so, when will he turn up.

But He did turn up my dear boy, long ago.  And He’s here right now, don’t you see?

The following is from and chronicles a little more of the life of Reverend Ethelstan Cheese

Midday Sun – Richard Turnbull told me this man’s story – ‘He had first met this strange, itinerant English priest in 1935 in one of the remoter parts of the NFD, trudging along a sandy track carrying a small Gladstone bag, a ground-sheet and nothing else.

He wore a crumpled, threadbare suit that hinted at a clerical cut, and a pair of sandals. A trader’s lorry had dropped him at a duka where water could be had by digging for it, and the next source of water was 50 miles farther on.

He had promised, he explained, to look up the sons of Mohamed Ahamed of the Habier Sulieman clan, and did not like to disappoint the family. In gentle tones he added: ‘I hope it will not embarrass you if I tell you that I put my faith in God and that God looks after me. It’s a funny business, but I’ve never queried it, and it has always worked.’ So Dick Turnbull left him in the desert, but sent out two tribal policemen to follow him at a discreet distance and to go to his aid should aid be needed.

That same evening Padre Cheese, as he was known, came up with a Somali ‘village’ – a family group on the move, with all its possessions, in a never-ending search for camel-browse. The people were on their way to the Lorian swamp and should by then have reached it, but a freak storm had brought up some unexpected browse and so they had delayed their departure.

The tribal policemen returned to camp, reporting that this was a very holy man and that it was the will of God that no harm should come to him. In all Padre Cheese’s time in the North he made two Christian converts. But he never despaired, nor did the nomads ever refuse him food and shelter. His grand design was to translate the Gospels into Somali, but as this tongue still lacked a written orthography he was obliged to settle for the use of Arabic characters.

He translated the Gospel according to St Luke and the whole of Pilgrim’s Progress, retreating for the purpose to Lamu, where a hospitable Arab provided him with a room and writing materials. In appearance he was a pale, thin, ascetic-looking individual with a shy and diffident manner. He had entered Kenya in 1930 from Ethiopia, having been a missionary in Addis Ababa and in Palestine before that. ….. he had been ordained in 1902, so must have been a man of over 50 when he took to the nomadic life, and nearly 60 when Dick Turnbull came upon him carrying his small Gladstone bag.

17 years later, Dick found him living in Lamu and looking older than his 70 odd years. On Sundays he would preach to a handful, a very small handful, of Christians, consisting usually of the DC, one or two followers of the Salvation Army, and the DC’s staff of Goan clerks, who were Roman Catholics but came to the services to give the old man pleasure. Padre Cheese preached long and rather rambling sermons, and then adjourned to Sunday luncheon with the DC, probably his only square meal of the week. He died in 1959 on his way back to England and was buried at sea.

They said of him:

He had no aim in life but to serve God’

The Somali Verdict

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