Clive Staples Lewis (November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963)

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-one years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity'; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And thank you.

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Meadowvale (a prequel to ‘A Time to Mend’): Chapter 36

Link back to Chapter 35.

This is the first draft of a work of fiction; it will probably be revised in the not-too-distant future. It tells the story of Tom and Kelly’s marriage; readers of A Time to Mend will know that it will have a sad ending, but hopefully it will be a good story.



Note that this is Chapter 36 of 47.

 

I was raised in the English school system, in which students, or ‘pupils’ as we were called, were required to wear school uniforms. At my high school, the boys wore grey trousers and blue blazers, white or blue shirts, and school ties; the girls wore grey skirts and blue blazers, and they were also required to wear blouses and ties. Very few of us actually enjoyed this; we were only a few years removed from the 1960s, and most of us would have been far more comfortable in open-necked shirts and flared jeans. Nonetheless, the rules required us to wear uniform, and although we all tested the boundaries from time to time, serious rebellion on this point was rare.

The contrast, when I moved to Meadowvale in 1982 and began to teach at the High School, could not have been more striking. The unofficial student ‘uniform’ seemed to be tee-shirts and jeans, and if the jeans had holes in their knees, no one thought anything of it. I remembered a day in the June of my last year of high school in Wallingford when the headmaster had sent word around that, because it was so hot, boys would be permitted to remove their school blazers (we often removed them without his permission, of course, and most of our teachers turned a blind eye to it, but the assumption that dressing smartly was more important than staying cool was one that many of them would have shared). In contrast, when the weather started getting warmer in Meadowvale, shorts and cut-offs soon became common, and some of the girls wore halter tops, which didn’t do anything to improve the concentration of the teenage boys in our classes. Will was reluctant to crack the whip about this kind of thing, but usually each year there came a time in mid-June when he felt he had to remind the students about what was and was not appropriate dress to wear in the classroom.

Personally I had always preferred dressing casually, and so I enjoyed the fact that I was not required to wear a jacket and tie to work, although a couple of the men on staff did so anyway. I stuck to open-necked shirts and dress pants, and I usually didn’t even bother with a sweater as I found the temperature in the school a little warm for that. “It’s a much more casual school culture”, I said to Owen when I talked about it with him on the phone in the middle of that first year; “Not that there’s any less discipline, or any less respect for teachers, but dressing up and looking smart isn’t really important here”.

I was very surprised, then, when I found out about the high school graduation celebrations; back in England, the only thing people ‘graduated’ from was university. I sat for my ‘A’-level exams in the June of 1977, and later on that summer I was notified by mail that I had passed, which meant that I would be able to accept the place at Lincoln College that I had been offered. In September my school had an awards night, which I went back to, and at which I was officially presented with my ‘A’-level certificates, but many of my classmates didn’t bother to come back for it, especially those who had gone further afield for university. And we certainly never had anything like a formal banquet or a dance to celebrate the end of our high school careers.

In Meadowvale, I discovered, my students would ‘graduate’ at the end of Grade Twelve, and would be presented with their high school diplomas at an official commencement ceremony toward the end of June. And this was not all; the ceremony would be followed by a formal banquet in the community hall at which the young men would wear suits and the young women expensive grad dresses, and afterwards there would be a dance which would last until the wee hours. “Not too many of them will go home afterwards”, Will explained to me; “There’ll be after-parties that last until morning, and I’m afraid some of our grads will be in pretty rough shape by then. There’s always an element that can’t resist the temptation to get drunk out of their tree”.

“And that’s allowed?” I asked.

“Well, there’s alcohol served at the grad banquet – wine at the tables, and a cash bar – and we try to make sure that the people who work the bar follow the law and don’t serve anyone who’s already drunk. But there’s not a lot that we can do about the after-parties, Tom”.

“No, I suppose not”. I thought for a moment, and then laughed and said, “I find it a little amusing that everyone’s going to get dressed up for this”.

“How come?”

“Well, you know, back home when I was in school we had to wear jackets and ties every day of the year, but we didn’t have anything like this sort of formal event. School here is so casual; I never would have predicted a banquet with suits and dresses”.

“You’d better believe it; some of our Grade 12 parents are going to spend some serious money, especially on the dresses”.

As the years went by in Meadowvale I got used to the grad weekend, and eventually, of course, I barely remembered that things were done differently back in England. In 1990, for the first time, I was asked to be a member of the planning committee, and each year after that everyone just seemed to assume that I would sit on it again. For some reason it was expected that the English teachers would help with the production of the yearbook (when I pointed out to Will that seventy-five percent of the yearbook was photographs, not text, he didn’t seem to understand the point I was making), and in my capacity as a drama teacher I was also expected to help decorate the community hall for the great event (“You’re used to arranging scenery for plays”, Will explained, with what I thought was a noble attempt at keeping a straight face).

One year, when Kelly and I were sitting together at the banquet, I said to her, “I think your dad takes advantage of me every year, you know?”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. I mean, I’m his son-in-law; am I going to turn him down?”

And then she smiled at me in that utterly artless way that I had found totally irresistible from the very beginning, and she said, “You know you enjoy it, Tom”.

I looked at her in silence for a moment, and then I reached across the table and took her hand. “Well”, I replied, “it does have the added attraction that at least once a year I get to see you looking absolutely stunning in a formal dress”.

“You like that, do you?” she said mischievously.

“Very much”, I replied.

 

1996 would be my fourteenth grad in Meadowvale, and as I had explained to Becca, it was a special one for us, as almost all of our original Sunday night group were graduating. Dan Rempel, to my amazement, had managed to earn enough credits to get his diploma, and I enjoyed the moment after the commencement ceremonies when he came over to me, held out his hand and said, “You didn’t think I’d make it, did you?”

“I wondered sometimes”, I replied with a grin, shaking his hand, “but I’m always glad to be proved wrong”.

Beth, Katie, Jenny and Megan were all looking lovely in their grad dresses. Beth was heading off to Saskatoon in the Fall to start her nursing degree; she sat with her family at the banquet, of course, but afterwards she came over to Kelly and me with an envelope in her hand; she put her arms around us both and held us tight, and for a long moment none of us said anything. Eventually she released us, and she smiled and said, “I can’t even begin to thank you two for all you’ve done for me; you’ve always been there for me when I needed some extra love and support and advice”. She shook her head; “You honestly have no idea how much that’s meant to me”.

Kelly leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “We’re not going anywhere, Bethie”, she said; “You know you’ll always be welcome at our house”.

“Although we really should stop calling her ‘Bethie’ now”, I said with a grin.

Beth shook her head; “No, you really shouldn’t”, she whispered. She hesitated, and then handed the envelope to Kelly; “I wrote something”, she said, “but I’d rather you didn’t open it ’til later”.

Kelly slipped the envelope into her purse; “We’ll look forward to reading it”, she said.

“You’ll be around for a while yet?” I asked.

“I will”, she replied. “I’m not moving down to Saskatoon ’til the end of August, so I’ll be sticking around for the summer; I’ll be working part time at the deli, but I’ll have lots of free time too”.

“Tom’s mom and sister are coming next month”, Kelly said; “I hope you’ll stop by while they’re with us”.

“For sure; how long is it since your mom has been here, Tom?”

“The last time was at our wedding in October 1984, so it’s getting on for twelve years now”.

“Wow – she’ll notice some changes!”

“I think so”.

“Well, I’ll look forward to meeting her”.

I glanced over to the table where Beth had been sitting with her family; “I see Amy’s back from flight school”, I said.

“Yeah, she’s here for the weekend”.

“Is that a young man I see with her?”

“That’s her new boyfriend; his name’s Luke Bernard”.

“Is he a pilot too?”

“Yeah; he’s a neat guy actually”.

“Is Amy doing okay?”

“She’s doing really well; she loves flying”. Beth looked at us apologetically; “I really should get back to them”, she said.

“Of course”, I replied; “I’ll call you when Mum and Becca are here; we’ll have a barbecue if the weather’s good. But you don’t need to wait for that, Beth; you stop by any time you like”.

“I will”.

 

The school had honoured Will’s retirement with a presentation and a plaque, and Don had given a moving speech in tribute to him at the commencement ceremony. The crowd was larger than I had ever seen, and I recognised a lot of old students as well as some former teachers who had come back specifically for the occasion. Krista and Steve had come to Meadowvale for the weekend, leaving their kids with John and Ruth while they attended the commencement with us. Will had a few things to say at the end of the ceremony, of course; typically, he spent far more time praising the students and staff he had worked with through the years than talking about himself, and he ended with a word of encouragement for Don; “You’ve got the best group of teachers a principal could wish for”, he said, “and a wonderfully supportive group of parents”. And then he grinned and said, “And one more thing, Don – as you know, I’ll still be living in Meadowvale, but I’ll be doing my best to stay out of your way!”

Everyone laughed, and then as he stepped back from the podium we all got to our feet to give him a standing ovation. He came and stood between Don and me while the applause continued; “Okay, boys”, he said to us under his breath, “You can get me out of here any time you like”.

“I don’t think so, Will”, Don replied with a grin; “I think there’s going to be a lot of roasting before this night is out!”

 

Kelly went home at about eleven o’clock to relieve Emma’s new babysitter, Kathy Janzen, John and Ruth’s daughter. Kelly had been rather sceptical when I first suggested that we ask Kathy to babysit for Emma; “She’s only thirteen”, she said,

“Beth was only twelve when she started”, I pointed out to her.

“Yes, but she was eight years older than Emma”.

“Well I’m sorry, my love, but all the eighteen year olds in Meadowvale are involved in the Grad!”

Kelly gave me a rueful grin; “Well, I guess that’s true”, she admitted.

“Anyway, Em’s not going to need a babysitter for much longer. I’d give Kathy a year or two at the most, and then your daughter will rise up and protest”.

“At which point, you will support me, right?”

I grinned; “We’ll talk!” I replied.

So eventually Kelly agreed to give Kathy a try, but she decided that she would stay at the dance no later than eleven. We both knew that I would be lucky to get home before one-thirty or two in the morning; the dance officially finished at one, but there would be a lot of cleanup to do afterwards.

It was actually just after two in the morning when I slipped into the house; the light was on over the kitchen stove, but the rest of the house was dark and quiet. It was a hot night; I hung my suit jacket over one of the kitchen chairs, went to the sink, poured myself a glass of water and drank deeply. I could feel the tiredness in my bones; I knew Emma would want to get up for church in the morning, but I suspected that I would have to push myself to get out of bed in time.

I turned and saw the opened envelope from Beth on the kitchen table. There was a note beside it in Kelly’s writing; it said simply, “Read this”. I picked it up and took out a card and a folded letter; it was too dark by the table to read the note, so I went over to the stove to catch the light.

Inside the simple thank you card Beth had written, “I will never be able to find the words to thank you two for all the love you have showered on me. Please see enclosed note. I love you both and I always will. Beth”.

I put the card down and unfolded the two page letter. Beth had very neat handwriting, and I could read it easily in the light from above the stove.

Dear Tom and Kelly:

One of the earliest memories I have as a child is of a day when the two of you came over to visit at our house; I think I must have been about four or five, so it might not have been too long after Tom arrived in Meadowvale. Kelly, I remember you playing with Amy and me and reading to us; in fact, I remember very clearly that you got down on the floor with us and played with our toys!

Tom, do you remember that house concert that you did with Owen at Pastor Rob’s house when I was about ten? That was the night I first heard traditional folk music, and I loved it! And when I started asking you questions about it, you took me seriously, even though I was only ten; you explained how the songs had come to be written, and you let me borrow any record I wanted from your collection. Later on, of course, you taught me how to play guitar and included me in your singarounds, You also told me to help myself to any books I wanted to borrow from your bookshelves, and you were always ready to sit down and have a conversation with me about anything I’d read or listened to. If it wasn’t for you, I’d never have listened to Nic Jones or Planxty, Anne Briggs or Martin Carthy, and I’m sure I’d never have read Middlemarch or Pride and Prejudice or A Place on Earth or Who Has Seen the Wind? And I can’t even begin to imagine my life without those things.

Or without Christ, either, and again I have to thank you both, along with my Grandma. At first it was just Grandma, as you know; she was the one who started taking me to church and reading the Bible stories with me, and she taught me to pray. But when I started getting older and I had difficult questions I wanted help with, something told me to ask you two. I always saw you in church on Sundays sitting across from us, and I’d heard that you were a cancer survivor, Kelly, so I knew you’d been through tough times. So that night when I was starting to think about baptism, and Jenny and Katie were at my place and we were talking about it, I decided to call you and ask if we could come over, and to my surprise you said yes.

I don’t think I can adequately convey to you how absolutely formative those Sunday nights have been for me. You lived your faith so transparently in front of us; you took our questions seriously, helped us find answers for ourselves, and encouraged us to focus on Jesus and his teaching and example. No question was too difficult: we’ve thrown them all at you, and you’ve never gotten flustered; you’ve always taken us seriously and treated us as intelligent human beings, and helped us love the Lord our God with all our minds as well as our hearts. Oh yes, and along the way I’ve become a much better pizza cook!

Now I’m graduating from high school, and I’m going to university, and I find I’m in a reflective mood. I’ve been blessed with two of the most wonderful and loving and supportive parents any girl could ask for, and a grandma who has been a true spiritual mentor for me. But with you two, I feel I’ve been given two wonderful older friends who’ve always been there for me when I needed extra love and guidance and wisdom, not to mention fun! If I live to be a hundred I’ll never be able to adequately thank you. I only know I love you both and I always will.

Always grateful,

Beth

I read the note through again, then put it back in the envelope with the card, set it down on the kitchen table, and made my way down the corridor toward our bedroom. I undressed quietly in the darkened room, put on my pyjama shorts and tee-shirt, and slipped into bed. Kelly was sleeping on her side with her back to me, but as I got into the bed she stirred, rolled over, and said, “Hey”.

“Sorry”, I whispered; “I didn’t mean to wake you”.

“What time is it?”

“About two fifteen”.

“Are they all done at the hall?”

“Darren and Grant are still there, but they told me to come home. Were you sleeping?”

“Yeah, I fell sound asleep pretty much as soon as my head hit the pillow”.

“Was Kathy okay?”

“She said it went fine”.

“Well, we pretty much knew it would”.

“Is that an ‘I told you so’?”

“Maybe”, I replied with a grin.

“Did you see Bethie’s note?”

“I did; that’s a keeper”.

“Yeah”. She paused for a moment, and then she said, “It made me cry”.

“Yeah?”

“I love her so much; I’m really going to miss her when she goes to Saskatoon”.

“I’m guessing we’ll still see plenty of her”.

“I hope so”.

I put my arms around her and drew her closer; “You’ve done a lot for her”, I said.

“Hey, didn’t you say you’d read her note? Seems like you’ve done just as much, or even more”.

“I’d say she’s earned her keep”.

I felt her nodding against my shoulder; “Yes, she has”.

I yawned; “Are the kids coming over tomorrow night?” I asked.

“Bethie said she thought so, depending on how everyone felt after tonight”.

“Well, then, we’d better get some sleep”.

“Are you going to get up for church with us in the morning?”

“Yes”.

“Do you want me to get up and make you coffee?”

“How will you do that unless I wake you up with a cup of tea first?”

She laughed softly; “You have a very good point there”.

“I know”. I kissed her on the forehead; “Goodnight, Kelly Ruth”, I said.

“Goodnight, Thomas Edwin”.

 

My mother and Becca arrived in Saskatoon on Wednesday July 24th. We gave them a couple of days to recover from the flight, and then on the Friday night we had a backyard barbecue for them at our place. To our surprise, despite the fact that it was the middle of the summer holidays, it turned out to be one of the best attended barbecues we had ever hosted.

Will and Sally had been away on the west coast for a couple of weeks, but they came home in time for the event; they were both looking tanned and happy, and I thought Will was looking more relaxed than I had seen him in years. Joe and Ellie were there of course, with twelve year old Jake and ten year old Jenna; we hadn’t said anything about music, but Ellie arrived with her fiddle in her hand, and as I mentally ticked off the guest list I realized that the potential for an accidental singaround was pretty good, and so it turned out. Darren Peterson arrived with an instrument in each hand, Rob Neufeld brought his guitar, and Beth brought hers as well. Will had left his at home, but when he saw what was going on, he promptly went back and got it.

Most of our Sunday night group were there, including Beth, Megan Neufeld, and Dan Rempel, which surprised me as Dan was not normally into these kind of events. Glenn and Karla brought Molly, who was now five, and Tommy, who had just turned two; Krista and Steve, who had just finished moving to Saskatoon, came up with Mike and Rachel (now nine and eight, respectively). Brenda and her kids were there, and Don and Lynda Robinson dropped by for a while, as did John and Ruth Janzen.

It was a fine evening and most people stayed outside until the mosquitos started getting fierce. At one point Kelly and I found ourselves in the kitchen at the same time, refilling our coffee cups; I smiled at her and said, “I think it turned out pretty well”.

“It sure did”. She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “You know what I was thinking?”

“What’s that?”

“We should have invited Leanne and Brad”.

“Yeah?” Earlier that summer, just after the grad, Leanne Collins had married Brad Melnyk, the grade six teacher at the elementary school, who had moved to Meadowvale two years ago from Vegreville.

“Yeah”. She came over, put her hand in my arm, and rested her head on my shoulder. “It’s time for me to get over myself”, she said softly. “It’s been a year and a half, and she apologized almost from the start, and she’s obviously moved on, and so have we. I’ve been hanging onto this thing with my fist clenched tight, Tom, and it’s time for me to let it go and act like a Christian”.

I turned to face her, kissed her on the forehead, and said, “Well, that’s entirely up to you. You said you had a right to ask me to cut her out of my circle of friends for a while, and I agreed with you; I still think it was the right thing to do”.

“Yes, but time’s gone by, and I know it’s really awkward for you at the school. And anyway, with Mabel in the Special Care Home and Wilf still refusing to leave the farm, she’s got plenty of stress in her life, and I’m guessing she needs all the support she can get”.

“Well, that’s definitely true”.

“So I think that after your mom and Becca go home, I’ll call her”.

“Are you sure?”

“I am, Tom; it’s been on my mind for a while, actually”.

I put my arms around her and held her close. “I love you”, I said.

“I love you too”.

At that moment Becca came into the kitchen, stopped and smiled and said, “Sorry, am I interrupting?”

“Not at all”, Kelly replied; “We were just coming back out”.

 

Becca, of course, knew everyone in our backyard that night, and they all greeted her like a long-lost cousin, as they always did. She sat with Joe and Ellie for a long time while we were eating hamburgers, and later when the music started she wandered in the yard with Brenda and stopped for a chat with Hugo and Millie, who arrived later than everyone else. Hugo apologized profusely for being late; his tractor had broken down, he said, and he had needed to drive into town to get a part before he could fix it. The kids from the pack kicked a soccer ball around the yard for a while, and Becca joined them; later on she sat with the music circle and listened to the songs. With three bluegrass players and one old time country singer, the music had a definite slant that night, but Beth and I managed to get some English folk music in there as well, and Ellie of course could play along with all my stuff.

By about nine o’clock most of the parents with young children had gone home, but Will and Sally and Hugo and Millie were still on the deck; Dan was sitting with them, and Beth had a very sleepy Emma on her knee. Kelly had made a big pot of herbal tea and some decaf coffee, and Hugo and Will were reminiscing about the old days, with Becca and my mother listening and making occasional comments.

“So you were all born here, then?” my mother asked at one point.

“Karl was born in Russia”, Hugo replied, “in Chortitza, in 1923; he was not quite one year old when the family moved to Canada in 1924. There were already a couple of Mennonite families out at Spruce Creek then, so my Dad and Mom got a homestead out there and broke the land”.

“Of course, there wasn’t much out there in those days”, Will added; “There was a dirt road leading out there from Meadowvale – not much more than a cart track, really – no electricity, no telephones or radio reception or anything like that. There was a general store just north of the creek, where people could get a few basic necessities, but when we were kids we mainly grew or made what we needed”.

“Did your father build your house?” my mother asked.

“He sure did”, Will replied. “It was just a log cabin, really, with a barn attached to it – that was the style in the old country, so a lot of people did it here too”.

“It was about twenty-four feet long”, Hugo said, “and about twelve feet wide. Downstairs there was a kitchen area, a living room, and a bedroom for Mom and Dad; and there was another sleeping area on the rafters upstairs; that was where we kids slept when we got big enough”.

“You remember that personally?” Becca asked.

“Yeah, I do. I was born in 1928, after Karl and Elizabeth, and we lived in that place until 1934, when I was six. Then Dad tore it down and built a bigger place”.

“Dad liked building houses”, Will said.

“And sheds”, Hugo added, giving his brother a mischievous look. They both laughed, and Will said, “We used to kid Dad that he’d built some kind of shed every year. I think he would have been happy as a carpenter, actually”.

“He was a good farmer, though”, Hugo added.

“He was”, Will agreed.

“In the early days our mother made pretty well all of our clothes”, Hugo continued, “and she always had a huge vegetable garden. We grew fresh vegetables for the summer, and did lots of preserving for the winter”.

“I used to weed that garden”, Will said with a laugh; “It seemed as big as a forty-acre field to me!”

The two brothers laughed, and Hugo said, “It was big, all right. We’ve still got the garden plot, of course, but we only use about a quarter of what Mom used – if that”.

“Right”, my mother said to Hugo, “I’d forgotten that you still live on the original homestead”.

“Yeah, but I’m a lazy farmer compared to my dad. I’ve got a few cows and some chickens, but I don’t raise hogs like he did, and of course I don’t use horses to plough either; I sit on my tractor in air-conditioned comfort!”

“Listening to rap music in your headphones, no doubt”, Kelly added with a grin.

“Rap music?” Hugo said; “Dan tried to get me to listen to that once, but I only lasted about five minutes!”

“M.C. Hammer”, Dan replied with a smile; “It was actually pretty mild rap, Grandpa!”

“Well, it was a little too weird for me, I guess”.

“Times have changed”, I said; “There sure wasn’t anyone listening to rap music in Meadowvale when I moved here!”

“That was what, about 1953?” Dan asked mischievously.

“Smart ass!” I replied.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Masefield – are you actually supposed to use those kind of words in class?”

“We’re out of class now, Mr. Rempel, and you’re a responsible adult!”

“Holy crap, I never thought I’d hear my name associated with the words ‘responsible adult’!”

I laughed softly. “Tell me again exactly how many acres of your grandpa’s land you seeded this spring?”

“Half of it”, Hugo replied, and I could see the pride in his face. “He’s got a lot more energy than I have these days”.

“Are you going to be a farmer, then, Dan?” Becca asked.

“I don’t know right now”, Dan replied; “Mike Robinson’s taken me on as an apprentice carpenter, but I’m not sure yet whether I’ll stick to it. I like construction alright, but I don’t mind helping grandpa when he needs me; I actually quite enjoy it”.

“I’ve told him the farm can be his one day if he wants it”, Hugo said; “I’d sure like to see it stay in the family”.

“I should think so”, my mother replied; “What is it, over seventy years now?”

“Seventy-two”, Will said.

“Why didn’t it go to the oldest son?” Becca asked.

“Karl didn’t want it”, Hugo replied. “He worked with my Dad for years, of course, but then he got married and had a family, and he wanted a farm of his own, but Dad was still relatively young and strong and he wasn’t anywhere near ready to pass it on. So Karl went out and borrowed some money and bought his own farm. Me, I worked with Dad through the years, and we bought more land and added to the property together. We were a partnership, I guess”.

“So it ended up going to you”, Becca said.

“Yeah; Dad died in 1979, but he and Mom had moved into town a few years before that, and he’d been gradually slowing down, of course; I’d kind of become the senior partner after about 1965 or so”.

“There wasn’t much of a quarrel in the family about it”, Will added; “We all knew how hard Hugo had worked there over the years. Of course, we all shamelessly took advantage of him after that”.

“I never minded growing vegetables for the whole family”, Millie said with a grin, “except when you all forgot to come out and weed your gardens”.

“And then there were the horses”, Kelly said quietly; “You always let us ride the horses”.

I was sitting beside her, and I took her hand in mine. Hugo nodded; ‘You always did like the horses, right from when you were only three or four”, he said.

“I did”, she agreed. She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Thank you”.

“You’re more than welcome”, he replied, and I saw the sympathy in his eyes.

We were all quiet for a moment, and then Kelly smiled, got to her feet, and said, “I’m going to go in and boil a kettle. Is the herbal tea okay, or would anyone like more coffee?”

“I’d sure enjoy another cup of coffee, Kelly” Hugo replied.

“Me too”, Dan added; “Do you want me to help you with it, Kelly?”

“No, no – you sit tight, I’ll only be a minute”. She glanced at Emma, who was still sitting on Beth’s lap with her head resting against her shoulder; “Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah”.

“Sleepy?”

“A little”.

“Do you want to stay out here, or are you ready for bed?”

Emma glanced at Beth, and Beth smiled at her and said, “You can stay here as long as you like, short stuff”.

“Maybe I’ll stay a little longer”, Emma said.

“Okay”.

 

The following week, when we went up to Jasper, my mother surprised us all. She had insisted on sleeping at the campground with us, so I had borrowed an extra tent from Joe and Ellie for Mum and Becca to use. Out on the mountain trails she did quite well keeping up with us, although I was aware that Kelly, who was by far the nimblest on her feet, was holding herself back a little. We spent our first couple of days on fairly easy walks – the Valley of the Five Lakes, and the various trails on the bench behind the Jasper townsite – before riding the cable car up the side of Whistler’s Mountain on the third day, and then hiking to the top. We also went white water rafting on the river and canoeing on the placid waters of Pyramid Lake. My mother was tired every night and stiff every morning when she got out of her sleeping bag, but she wouldn’t hear of slowing down. “No, no”, she would say; “This is why I came, so I could see all the things you talk about every year. It’s a wonderful place, and I want to enjoy as much of it as I can”.

On the morning of our fourth day I woke early, as I always did when I was camping. It had been a cool night in the mountains, and I was glad of the warmth of my fleecy as I walked over to the bathroom to wash up. When I got back to our campsite I lit the Coleman stove as quietly as I could, made a small pot of coffee, poured myself a cup and then sat in my camp chair for a few minutes, enjoying the early morning stillness. There were tents under the trees in the campsites all around us, but it was not yet seven o’clock and very few people were up.

After a while I heard movement in the other tent, followed by the sound of the door being unzipped, and my mother stepped out; she smiled, walked over to where I was sitting, and stooped to give me a kiss. “Good morning”, she said quietly.

“Good morning; would you like some coffee?”

“After I use the facilities”.

“Okay. Is Becca still dead to the world?”

“Sound asleep; I don’t think she gets much exercise in Edinburgh”.

I laughed softly; “You’re the one who’s amazing me, Mum”, I said.

She smiled; “Ah, well, I’ve been training for this for several months, you know”.

“Really?”

“Really, but I’ll say more when I get back from the facilities”.

“Right”.

She walked off down the footpath toward the washrooms with her towel in hand. I sat in silence again, sipping at my coffee; a family of grey jays made a brief stop at our campsite, checking to see if there were any pickings there before moving on, and in the tree above my head I heard a squirrel chirruping at them.

Eventually my mother returned; she sat down beside me, and I poured her a cup of coffee. “I didn’t know you’d been training”, I said, handing it to her.

“Well, I knew you’d be doing this sort of thing, and I wanted to be able to keep up with you. Of course, I’ve always been a walker, but I stepped up my daily walks; I’ve been doing at least an hour a day for the past two months”.

“I’m impressed”.

“Thank you, but I can assure you, the benefit’s all mine. I am thoroughly enjoying myself here, despite the fact that I’m stiff and sore every morning when I wake up”.

“I’m glad you got to see Jasper”.

“Yes; I keep trying to imagine you and Kelly here, the first time you came”.

I smiled; “That was earlier in the year; there was a lot more snow, and the campgrounds weren’t really open yet”.

“Oh right – it was after Easter, wasn’t it?”

“You’ve got a good memory, Mum”.

“Well, I try to remember everything you’ve told me”.

“We did go out for supper at the Pyramid Lake Resort, though – the place we had coffee the other night. That was the first time Kelly and I went out for a meal together”. I smiled at her; “Call me romantic, but I remember the date: it was Friday April 8th 1983”.

“You are a romantic!”

“Thanks; I’ll take that as a compliment”.

We were quiet for a moment, the stillness of the early morning a tangible presence all around us. She took a sip of her coffee, and then I said, “Can I ask you a personal question, Mum?”

“Of course”.

“What made you decide to come, after all these years?”

“I’ve been waiting for that question, actually”, she said.

“Sorry, I’m not trying to be nosey”.

She shook her head; “No, it’s a fair question”. She was quiet for a moment, cupping her coffee mug in her hands. Eventually she said, “The only thing I can say is that this summer your father is representing one of his corporate clients in a huge trial that will probably keep him busy all of July and August”.

“So you weren’t going to see much of him anyway”.

“Well, you know, I never really see that much of him, but usually in the summer he manages to extricate himself for two weeks so that we can go away somewhere. I’m never sure when exactly that’s going to be, so I just make myself available”.

“But this summer you decided not to”.

“He told me that he thought it was very unlikely that he would be able to get any time off at all through the summer months. Well, I thought about that for a few days, and then I decided that I’d waited long enough”.

I reached across and put my hand on hers. She gave me a grateful smile; “Please believe me”, she whispered, “when I tell you that I’ve wanted to come many, many times – when Emma was born, when Kelly was ill, when you moved into the new house, when you were playing concerts with Ellie and Darren. Every summer when Becca came over, I’ve wanted to come with her”.

“I understand, Mum”.

“I’m very sorry, Tom”, she said softly.

I shook my head; “You’ve got nothing to apologize for. In fact, I should be thanking you; I can only imagine what you’ve been through since you told him you were coming to see us”.

She didn’t reply; she drank some coffee, then set her mug down on the picnic table beside us, got to her feet slowly, and stretched her back. “I think every muscle in my body is stiff”, she said.

“Jasper does tend to have that effect”.

She wandered over to the edge of the campsite for a moment, staring off into the trees. Eventually she turned, came back and sat down beside me again. “I do wish that you and your dad could get past this quarrel”, she said.

“Believe me, so do I”.

“Really?”

I stared at her; “What do you mean?”

“I’ve wondered sometimes whether you’d just given up”.

“Well, I’m not sitting around waiting for him to get over himself, if that’s what you mean. I’ve been over to England three times since I left; back in 1990 we spent six weeks, pretty well our whole summer, and what happened? He just couldn’t manage to free himself up to spend time with us; all I got was a speech about how I was a lazy teacher, and how ordinary hard-working citizens never enjoyed the luxury of the sort of holidays I get. So as far as I’m concerned, Mum, I’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty; the ball’s in his court”.

“And of course, you don’t really need him, do you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Tom, anyone can see how happy you are over here. You’ve got Kelly, and she’s a wonderful woman, and you’ve got a beautiful daughter. Will’s been like a father to you; he and Sally have adopted you into their family, and Joe and Ellie and Steve and Krista are like brothers and sisters to you, and beyond that there’s the whole Reimer clan, with more cousins and nephews and nieces and uncles and aunts than you’d ever imagined having”.

I stared at her; “What are you saying?” I asked.

She shook her head; “I’m not blaming you; how could I? Your dad hasn’t been there for you, and neither has your brother”.

“Mum”, I said slowly, “I haven’t abandoned anyone. I’m not the one who’s walked out of anyone’s life. I’ve done my best to stay in touch, all through these years. I haven’t shut the door in anyone’s face; it’s the other way around”.

“I know”.

“So, what exactly are you saying?”

She shook her head; “I don’t really know”, she said, and I heard the note of sadness in her voice. “I suppose I’m just sorry that you couldn’t find this sort of love in your own family”.

I shook my head; “Becca and I are doing fine, Mum”, I said, “and I think you and I are too”.

“I know; you know what I mean”.

I got up from my chair, went over to the Coleman stove, and poured myself another cup of coffee from the pot. “Mum”, I said, “I’m not going to stop coming over to England. We’ll be there next summer, if all goes according to plan, and there’s even talk of Joe and Ellie and the kids coming with us for part of the time”.

“Really?”

“Yes; they’ve never been to England, and they want to see it – and, of course, they enjoy spending time with us”.

“We’d love to have them; we’ve got plenty of room”.

“That’s what I told them. But Mum…”

“Yes?”

“This thing with you and Dad this summer – this realization that you came to, that you just couldn’t keep on putting your life on hold until he decided to take notice of you”.

“That’s a rather harsh way of putting it”.

“Be that as it may, I came to that realization a long time ago”. I went back to my chair again, sat down, and took a sip of my coffee. “I’m happy here”, I said.

“I know you are”.

“I’m not shutting Dad out, but I swear to God, if there’s a hundred miles separating us, I feel like I’ve walked ninety. I can’t walk the other ten; that part’s up to him”.

“I know. I can’t make him do it”.

“I understand that. I’m just saying that I’m not going to put the rest of my life on hold while I wait to see if he’ll decide to take that walk”.

At that moment I heard the sound of our tent being unzipped, and Emma stepped out into the cool morning air, her hair still messed up from her sleeping bag. She came over and sat down on my knee. “Is there any tea?” she asked.

“Not yet, but I could make you some if you like?”

“Okay. I think I need to go to the bathroom”.

“Alright; I’ll start warming up the kettle while you’re gone. Is your mum awake?”

“She rolled over and said hi to me a minute ago, but she’s very sleepy”.

“I’ll bet she is. I’ll make her a cup of tea too”.

“Okay”. She rested her head on my shoulder for a moment, and I kissed her forehead. “Did you sleep well?” I asked.

“I slept like a log, Daddy; did you?”

“I did”.

“What are we going to do today?”

“The same thing we did yesterday, sweetheart – try not to get eaten by bears”.

She laughed; “That’s a good idea”, she said, getting to her feet and smiling at my mother. “Good morning, Grandma”.

“Good morning, Emma”, my mother replied.

“Is Auntie Becca still sleeping?”

“No, she’s awake”, came a voice from the tent where my mother and Becca had slept.

“Looks like I’d better make some tea for her, too”, I said to Emma with a grin; “How about you go do your bathroom stuff, and when you get back, I’ll have a nice hot cup of tea ready for you?”

“Sounds good”, she replied.

Posted in Fiction, Meadowvale | 2 Comments

Are we failing at our primary mission?

The thing that troubles me the most about the condition of the Christian church in 2014 is not our conflicts over gay marriage, or the fact that despite the best efforts of our most knowledgable liturgists we still haven’t managed to produce a liturgy that’s good enough to satisfy their perfectionism. It’s not the fact that most of our members appear to be too busy for anything more than Sunday church attendance once or twice a month, although I confess I find that irritating. It’s not even the fact that we seem to be unable to connect with younger generations in anything more than a superficial way, although I admit that this worries me a great deal.

No, the thing that troubles me most of all is that we appear to be failing across the board at our primary mission of forming disciples for Jesus.

I’m not talking about evangelism here – although I think that for the most part we’re failing at that too. I’m taking about what we do with people after we evangelize them. What happens to a person in our churches after they decide to put their faith in Christ? Or, if we want to put it in terms that most timid mainline churchgoers will find more congenial, after a person decides to become a churchgoer, what’s our plan for forming them as disciples of Jesus?

I take it that we can define a disciple as a person who makes it their primary mission in life to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice. And I also take it that one of the clearest discipleship manuals in the New Testament is the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters five, six, and seven, where Jesus spells out exactly what the daily lives of his followers are meant to look like.

Well, let’s take a hop, skip, and jump through those chapters. The Sermon tells us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, but it appears to me that we North American Christians lay up for ourselves treasures on earth at exactly the same rate as those who do not claim to be followers of Jesus. The Sermon tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, but it seems to me that we North American Christians hate our enemies and act toward them in just the same manner as non-Christians do. The Sermon tells us to avoid divorce, but divorce statistics for North American Christians are practically identical to non-Christians. The Sermon tells us to influence the world around us like salt and light, but I would suggest that most of us are far more likely to let the world around us influence us.

I could go on, but I won’t. Have a look for yourself, and ask yourself how your church is doing.

We Anglicans pride ourselves on our liturgies and we have made corporate worship the centre of our life; that’s why the thing we seem to want more than anything else is to get people to come to church, and why success in our eyes appears to consist of persuading more people to join us for worship. But my question is, if our worship is so wonderful, why isn’t it forming us as disciples of Jesus? It may be inspiring us, giving us a shot in the arm, but is it helping us become people whose lives remind others of the Sermon on the Mount? And if not, what are we doing wrong?

Please note that I am including myself in this criticism. I’ve made preaching the primary task of my ministry, and I like to think I do a conscientious job of it. But the older I get, the less confident I am becoming that listening to a fifteen or twenty minute expository sermon on Sunday is actually transforming people into more consistent Christian disciples. And I’m not convinced that putting on more midweek courses will do it either; my experience in churchland is that the vast majority of churchgoers can’t – or won’t – make the time to attend them.

So is there a way to do this? This is a genuine question. Where are the churches that are doing a decent job of forming their members into growing disciples of Jesus – people who are putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily lives? And if you know of such a church, what are they actually doing to make this happen? I’m asking this out of intense personal interest. I turned fifty-six earlier this month, so God willing, I have about ten years of full-time ministry left in me. I would like those years to be fruitful years. I would like to use them as effectively as I can to help form people as disciples of Jesus. But I’m not at all sure that the ways I’m attempting to do that job at the moment are as effective as I’d like. So I would like to hear about places where it’s being done, and being done well.

Can anyone help me?

Posted in Anglican Church, Church, Discipleship, Following Jesus, Ministry | Tagged , | 4 Comments

St. Margaret of Scotland (a sermon for Nov. 16th 2014)

Scripture referred to is Luke 10:25-42.

 

Many of you will have heard me tell the story of Queen Margaret of Scotland in years past. Some of you, however, have joined us since the last time we did this, and many of you will have been away on this Sunday in previous years, for one reason or another. So I’m going to briefly tell the story again this morning, and then I’m going to lay it beside our gospel reading for today, to draw some lessons for us as we join Margaret in following our Lord Jesus Christ.

Margaret died on November 16th 1093, nine hundred and twenty-one years ago today. She was a member of the aristocracy, and she came into a position of great influence as Queen of Scotland, but she is not remembered today because she was a person of power; rather, we remember her as a person who lived a balanced life of prayer and service to others.

Margaret was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christian, and many people in England saw her brother Edgar as the rightful heir to the throne of England. In 1054 the parliament of England decided to bring the family back from Hungary so that they could inherit the throne when King Edward the Confessor died, as Edward had no children. So Edgar, Christian and Margaret were brought up at the Anglo-Saxon court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns.

The influence of these Benedictines was tremendously important in Margaret’s life. She learned from them the importance of balancing times of prayer and times of working for the good of others; this would be a good description of her later life as Queen of Scotland. They taught her to read the scriptures in Latin, and she also knew the teachings of the church fathers from the early Christian centuries. Her sister Christian went on to become a Benedictine nun herself.

Eventually King Edward the Confessor died, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and claimed the throne for himself, so Margaret’s brother Edgar didn’t get to become king after all. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety. However, the ship carrying the three young people was blown far off course by a fierce gale. They spent some time in northern England and then sailed up the coast to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them a warm welcome to his court at Dunfermline – a little more rustic, perhaps, than the English court, but I’m sure they were glad of the hospitality.

Margaret was now about twenty years old; King Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and he soon became attracted to young Margaret. However, she took a lot of persuading; she was more inclined to become a nun, and Malcolm had a stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that Margaret agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when she was twenty-three. In the end, although she was so much younger than him, she was the one who changed him; under her influence, he became a much wiser and godlier king.

Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day, but she lived in the spirit of inward poverty. She didn’t see her possessions as really belonging to her; everything was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she continued to live the ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned from the Benedictine monks. She was only the wife of the king, but she came to have the leading voice in making changes that affected both the social and the spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot – not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland. It’s actually quite remarkable that the Scots accepted the church reforms that this foreign queen proposed, but she herself lived such a simple and Christ-like life that they seemed to feel instinctively that her way must be a good way.

We’re told by her biographer that Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially praying the psalms. After this, orphan children would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them. It also became the custom that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, then the King and Queen entered and ‘served Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, they sent out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants; they didn’t want to turn it into what modern politicians would refer to as ‘a photo opportunity’.

The church in Scotland at that time looked more to the old Celtic way of Christianity than to the way of Rome. Margaret had been raised in the way of Rome, and was keen to bring Scotland into unity with the rest of the world, but she didn’t do it in an overbearing and proselytizing way. She often visited the Celtic hermits in their lonely cells, offering them gifts, and caring for their churches. But she also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things. Eventually she convinced them, not because of the strength of her arguments so much as by the power of her holy life.

In those days many people in Scotland used to go on pilgrimages to see the relics of St. Andrew at the place now called ‘St. Andrew’s’, just north of the Firth of Forth. Margaret wanted to help the pilgrims, so she had little houses built on either shore of the sea that divided Lothian from Scotland, so that poor people and pilgrims could shelter there and rest after their journeys. She also provided ships to transport them across the water.

I think it’s fair to say that most people recognized as saints by the Catholic Church were monks and nuns who lived lives of celibacy, far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. Margaret, however, is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children, six sons and two daughters. Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christian in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family. All of them we’re told, were also taught to follow Christ first – although I find it a little reassuring that even a saintly parent like Margaret didn’t have a 100% success rate with her kids!

Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.

So what does Margaret have to say to us today? To answer this question, I want to turn to our gospel reading, where we hear two famous stories about Jesus.

In the first story, a lawyer comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him, “You’ve read the Law of Moses, haven’t you? What does it say?” The lawyer replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). “That’s it”, Jesus replies; “Do that, and you’ll live”.

“But who is my neighbour?” the lawyer replies – a funny question until you realize that his focus isn’t on helping other people, but on inheriting eternal life for himself. After all, if there are fifty people in his village and it turns out that only twenty of them are actually his neighbours, why should he go to all the effort of loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus replies with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, about a man who is beaten up by robbers and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side and refuse to help him, but a Samaritan stops to help him, binds up his wounds and arranges medical care for him. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy”. Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (vv.36-37).

I find it interesting that Jesus never actually answered the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” What he did instead was to teach the lawyer how to be a neighbour. It’s not complicated; it just means walking through our day with our eyes wide open, so that we actually see the people in need around us and do what we can to help them. Nowadays, of course, with modern communications technology, we can ‘see’ a lot further, and so we have far more opportunities to help, but let’s remember that this is not just about giving money; it’s about being willing to be interrupted in the course of your day, and to invest your time in helping another human being.

This is what Margaret did. Her situation was very different from ours; she was the Queen of Scotland, we’re just ordinary people, working our jobs, raising the kids and grandkids, paying the mortgage, trying to put a bit of money in our RRSPs. But no matter whether we have power and influence or not, we’re all called to invest our time and resources in helping those who are less well off than we are. And let’s remember that the right question is not ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The right question is, ‘How can I be a good neighbour to those who need me?’

So Margaret undoubtedly sets us a good example of helping the needy. But that’s not the end of today’s gospel reading. Luke goes on to tell us the well-known story of Mary and Martha. They are sisters, and we know from John’s gospel that they live in the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem. Jesus comes to visit, he’s sitting in the living room with the people who’ve come to discuss things with him – probably, in that culture, all men. Martha is the capable host, she’s out in the kitchen getting everything ready to give Jesus the kind of meal he’ll remember for the rest of his life. But what’s Mary up to? She’s invaded the men’s space! She’s in the living room, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. Eventually Martha gets frustrated and asks Jesus to tell her sister to smarten up. But Jesus refuses to do that; “Mary has chosen the better part”, he says, “which will not be taken away from her” (v.42).

There’s a time for doing, and being busy, but there’s also a time for sitting quietly and listening to Jesus. The Benedictine monks and nuns taught Margaret that balance: the day should include acts of mercy to the needy, but it should also include times of meditation and prayer. Today we live in an activist world, and I’d be surprised if the average amount of time spent in prayer per day in our church was more than about five minutes per person. So we need to recover that balance.

Speaking for myself, I can say that starting each day with a time of prayer together is a real blessing for Marci and me. We read scripture together and talk about it; we pray for family and friends, for people in our church, and for those who are in special need. We bring the work of the day before the Lord before the day starts. And doing it together helps to keep us steady in prayer; when you’re committed to praying together with someone else, you’re less likely to skip it because you ‘just don’t feel like it today’. Our time of prayer isn’t long – probably only about twenty minutes – but it sets the tone for the whole day.

So Margaret can remind us of the important of keeping things in balance. We’re called to follow Jesus in caring for the poor and needy, but we’re also called to spend time listening to God’s word and praying. Of course, there was a third thing for her too – the work of being a wife to Malcolm and a mother to their eight children, which was no doubt a demanding job as well. These three things are all part for our lives as Christians today, too: providing for our families, caring for the poor and needy, and spending time in scripture reading and prayer.

How is that balance in your life? Does it need a little adjusting? Why not pray about that, and ask God to guide you about getting a better balance?

So let’s remember with thanksgiving today our patron saint, Margaret, a woman of prayer, a woman who lived a holy life, a woman who loved her family and served the poor, a woman who used her influence in a Christlike way to do good for all people. As a congregation, let us pray that God will give us the strength by his Holy Spirit to live up to the name we bear. Amen.

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Meadowvale (a prequel to ‘A Time to Mend’): Chapter 35

Link back to Chapter 34

This is the first draft of a work of fiction; it will probably be revised in the not-too-distant future. It tells the story of Tom and Kelly’s marriage; readers of A Time to Mend will know that it will have a sad ending, but hopefully it will be a good story.

Note that this is Chapter 35 of 47.

April 10th 1996

Dear Tommy:

I’m just emailing you to let you know that I’ve booked my flights for this summer. I’ll be coming July 24th and flying home August 21st, if that’s okay with you and Kelly?

Now here’s a surprise. Mum rang me completely out of the blue a couple of days ago to ask if I had booked my flights yet. When I told her I hadn’t, she said, “Will you book a ticket for me, too? I’d like to come with you this year”.

Well, as you can imagine I was pretty surprised, and I asked her what it was all about, but all she would say was, “It’s time; it’s been nearly twelve years, and I’d like to see everyone in Meadowvale again”.

I hope you don’t mind, Tommy. I was a bit worried when I first thought about it; you know me, I’m used to Meadowvale and all the things you do in the summer time – Waskesiu and Jasper and the Edmonton Folk Festival and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, not to mention barbecues and singarounds and trips to Myers Lake and endless coffees with all your friends and so on. I hope Mum doesn’t cramp your style at all; I know she talked a brave line when you were over for Christmas in 1994, but I can’t really see her in a tent in Jasper, can you?

Anyway, I expect she’ll call or write and let you know, but I thought I’d better give you advance warning!

Everything’s fine here, I’m still busy every day for ten or eleven hours, of course. I get tired sometimes, but the good news is that I’ve been told that this will be my last year as a Senior House Officer, so starting after I come back from you, I’ll be out of hospitals and into General Practice. I’ve started putting in applications for positions as a GP registrar, which will be my final year of training. There are a couple of possibilities in Edinburgh, but I’ve started to look south to England again. There are some openings in Oxford, and I’ve applied for them, as well as London and the Midlands.

It’s hard to believe that this time next year I’ll be looking around for a permanent job as a GP! There have been days when I wondered if it would ever happen.

Anyway, love to you and Kelly and Emma.

Becca   xxoo

********

April 11th 1996

Dear Becs:

Wow, that’s huge! Well, both things in your email are huge actually! Congratulations on your upcoming initiation into General Practice. Like you, I think sometimes I’ve felt that you’d be in training all your life! This is definitely the light at the end of the tunnel. Well done, Becs. I hope you find a placement you like, and if you want to be back in Oxford, well, I hope you find something there.

As for the other news, don’t worry about it. Kelly and I talked last night and we agreed we’ll make whatever adjustments Mum wants us to make. If she wants to go to Jasper and stay in a hotel, we can do that, or at least, we can book a room for her, while the rest of us stay at Whistler’s campground as we usually do. We’ve got a real opportunity to give her a good holiday and let her enjoy everything our summer has to offer.

We’ll probably be down in Saskatoon for a couple of days before you arrive. We’re not doing a straight week of volunteering for Habitat this year; we’re doing a couple of days at various points through the summer, built around Kelly’s work schedule. As you know, she tends to work three days on and four off each week, so when she has her four off, we make our little trips. While you guys are with us, she’ll take her three weeks’ holiday.

This will be a big year for us. Will’s retiring at the end of the school year, after thirty-one years at Meadowvale High School, twenty of them as principal. Also, most of the kids in our original Sunday night group are graduating this year, including our Bethie. She’s going to Saskatoon in the Fall to take her nursing degree. Kelly will miss her like crazy, and of course Emma will too. So will I, actually.

I’m glad you’re coming, Becs. Kelly and I are so grateful that you do this every year, and you’ve been doing it for so long now; we love having you with us, and I know the folks here all think of you as part of the Meadowvale extended family.

Love and hugs from all three of us,

Tom 

******

April 18th 1996

Hi Tommy:

Sorry I’ve left your last email unanswered so long; I’ve honestly had a really busy time at the hospital for the past week, and on the weekend, as you know, I made a lightning trip home for Mum’s 64th birthday. It was really good to talk to you for a few minutes Saturday night.

Mum’s fine and she had a good time. Auntie Brenda and Uncle Roy send their love. Between you and me, I thought Uncle Roy was looking pretty frail; he’s sixty-seven this year, which is not old, but as you know he had a triple bypass last year and he’s really slowed down. Rick and his family were all there too. Even though I see those kids two or three times a year, it never fails to amaze me how much they’re growing. Little Anna’s going to be four in a week and a half, and of course Sarah will be eight in June and Eric will be ten in September. Rick looked tired; Alyson seemed distant, almost as if she wasn’t really there.

And as for my visits – well, I’m the one who should be thanking you. It’s hard to believe it’ll be nine years now since I came to you for the summer for the first time. What an incredible summer that was! Every year when I get off the plane in Saskatoon, it’s like the weight of the world falls off my shoulders. Sitting out on your deck drinking iced tea, smelling the familiar smell of those citronella candles (!), sunbathing at Waskesiu, hiking the trails in Jasper, sitting on Gallagher Hill listening to the music – I get this feeling of calm and tranquility just thinking about it. And then there’s all the birthdays I’ve celebrated in Meadowvale, and all the birthday barbecues over at Will and Sally’s! It’s hard to believe Will will be retiring – and Beth graduating from high school, too; I think I noticed her for the first time when she was about ten.

Well, I need to sleep, Tommy; I’m really finding my days exhausting right now. I love you, big bro. Big hugs to you and Kelly and Emma.

Becca  xxoo

********

April 20th 1996

Hi Becs:

Did Mum say anything to you about why she’s decided to come out this year? I mean, I’m really, really glad she’s coming, but I’d gotten to the point where I’d taken it as settled that she just wasn’t ever going to come, because she didn’t want to leave Dad by himself, or didn’t feel she could (I don’t know which of those reasons is the right one, because Mum has never, ever said anything to me that let me in on the inner workings of their marriage). She amazes me, you know. I mean, you know how things are at home; she can’t really be getting much happiness from their marriage, can she? Dad’s out of the house every day by seven and home at six, but even when he’s there, he seems to spend a lot of time by himself in his study or in his greenhouse, and she occupies herself with her piano students most evenings. I can’t really see it as a close marriage, can you? And yet she sticks with it.

It seems strange to be having this conversation with you actually; all these years we’ve talked about lots of things, including Mum and Dad, but I don’t really think we’ve talked about their marriage before. I guess I’m wondering if things are okay with them – in other words, does this decision to leave him for four weeks and come to visit us signify that she’s giving up on their relationship, after all these years of being loyal?

Speaking of BBQs (well, you were, anyway!) I’ve got to run, as it’s the first BBQ of the spring at Will and Sally’s tonight. The weather’s gorgeous around here this weekend, the trees are all greening up nicely, and all the farmers are out in the field putting their crops in. We were out at Hugo and Millie’s to ride the horses this morning; tomorrow is Hugo’s 68th birthday, but he still works a full day and he’s as strong as an ox. As you know, he’s not frantic about it; slow and steady, but he just keeps on going. By the way, we saw Brenda and the kids out there this morning, and Brenda said to say hi to you. Did I tell you that she’s the Co-op manager now? Oh, and by the way, Jackson’s ailing. Well, he’s twenty-seven, which is a grand old age for a horse, but Kelly loves him like crazy, so she’s having a hard time watching him go down. She doesn’t talk about it much, so she probably hasn’t mentioned it to you, but I thought you should know she’s upset about it.

Oh, and although we might go to Waskesiu this summer, we won’t be seeing Steve and Krista and the family there; they’re moving to Saskatoon as soon as school finishes. Steve will be appointed as the Provincial Wildlife Habitat Specialist with the Saskatchewan Government in August (which is, you know, a Big Thing!), and Krista and David are going to formalize their partnership as independent wildlife conservation consultants. As you know, they’ve got two government research projects going right now (one with caribou and one with bird habitat), and David has had some other inquiries too. Also, Krista’s going to be an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan which I understand means that she’ll be doing research as well as supervising some graduate students. As Kelly says, we’ll soon be proud to know our relatives!

Okay, I’ve got to go. Love and hugs from all of us,

Tom

********

April 27th 1996

Hi Kelly:

Tommy told me last week about Jackson; sorry, I should have written earlier, but my weeks have just been crazy; as you know, this last six-month term I’ve been in A & E (Accident and Emergency – sorry, I often forget you use different terms over there), and I don’t know if we just have a particularly accident-prone city here in Edinburgh, but it seems like every day when I get to work we hit a hundred miles an hour and stay there all day.

Anyway – do you remember when I came over for your wedding and you took me out to the farm to ride Gus? I’ll never forget that, I was fourteen years old, it was my first time on a horse, and I was scared stiff. But you got me on his back and you taught me the basics and then we rode around the paddock for a little while with you on Jackson. I remember looking at Jackson and thinking, “That’s a beautiful horse” – and you and he were obviously so comfortable together, it was a lovely sight to see you riding him. Since then, of course, I’ve been on him myself, and I’ve had lots of opportunities to see you and him together. I’m really sorry to hear that he’s not doing well, Kelly; I know it’s hard when people lose a well-loved pet, but Jackson’s so much more than a pet to you. My love and hugs to you (and to him, too, of course!).

There’s not much going on in my life right now apart from work and sleep, but I did go out on a date a week or so ago with one of those ‘nice Scottish boys’ you mentioned to me a while back. Very nice, but nothing going on there. Maybe after I qualify, I’ll have time for a personal life.

On a completely different subject, could you give me an email address for Krista and Steve? I’d like to send my congratulations to them both.

Once again, Kelly, sending my love and hugs.

Becca  xxoo

**********

May 1st 1996

Hi Becca, Kelly here. Thanks so much for your email of a few days ago. Jackson got worse on the weekend – he had been struggling with a respiratory problem for a few weeks, and it just wasn’t getting any better – and on Sunday Joe told me that there really wasn’t anything else he could do, and it would be kindest just to put him down, because he was going to be suffering and it was going to get worse and worse. Well, of course, that wasn’t a decision I wanted to make, and it took me about twenty-four hours to come to it, but eventually I realized that Joe was right, it would be cruel to do anything else. So Monday evening Joe came out to the farm and put him down, and we buried him out there, where he’s lived all his life ever since he was born. Of course, I was a wreck, because he’s been my horse for twenty-six years and we were pretty good pals.

It feels strange to be without him, and to be without a horse at all, even though I know most people don’t have horses! Emma asked me yesterday if I was going to get another horse, and I said I didn’t think so; it’s expensive to buy one and I couldn’t expect Uncle Hugo to keep giving me foals for free, like he did when I was a girl! Also, of course, there’s expense involved in their upkeep, and we have to think of all these things, and I know Uncle Hugo’s never going to turn me down if I ask if I can go out to the farm and ride one of his saddle horses. But honestly, Becca, I’m just numb about it right now, and maybe in a couple of weeks I’ll feel differently.

On another subject, I wrote to your mom and told her that I think it’s just awesome that she’s coming out to visit with you this summer. I think Tom’s a little worried that this is going to cause trouble between her and your dad, and I guess I am to a certain extent as well, but I’m really looking forward to having her here again and showing her some of the things we do every summer. And by the way, don’t worry about her and Jasper and the Folk Festival and all that; she’ll be fine.

Well, I’d better go; I’m on a day off today and I’ve got a little extra time so I want to cook something a little more special for supper. We’ve been having some gorgeous days around here, and all the farmers have been busy seeding. Can’t wait to see you and your mom and enjoy the great outdoors with you again!

Thank you again for writing the way you did, Becca.

Love and hugs,

Kelly  xxxx oooo

P.S. You can contact Steve at stevejanzen@pc.gc.ca and Krista at krista.reimer.janzen@sasktel.net.   K.

**********

May 27th 1996

Hi Tommy:

Sorry you haven’t heard from me for a few weeks (I seem to say something like that at the beginning of all my emails to you!). Something’s been going on here and I didn’t want to tell you anything about it, because I was afraid it was too good to be true, but it looks as if it’s going to happen, so I suppose I should bring you up to date on it now. I asked Owen last week if he’d said anything about it to you, and he said that he hadn’t; that was up to me. 

You may not know that the practice Owen belongs to is accredited as a training practice in the Oxford deanery, which means that they normally have one or two registrars at any given time. I knew this, because the last time I saw Owen I asked him about it. Anyway, to make a long story short, back in April when I knew that I would be able to apply for registrar training this year, Oxford deanery was one of the areas I applied to. I was accepted, and then there was a short process of deciding which training practice I should go to. Well, big bro, I’m very happy to tell you that Owen’s practice has accepted me as a registrar starting as soon as I get back from Canada. Owen has made it very clear to me that he will not be my supervisor, because of our previous relationship, which of course I fully understand and agree with, but all the same, it’s a pretty exciting development, don’t you think?

I actually went down for my final interview with them last week. I don’t know if Owen’s ever told you the names of his partners? There are five altogether, Owen, Ian Redding (who was in medical school with Owen and who also goes to Owen’s church I think), John Barnes, Audrey Harrison and Nigel McGuire. Owen, Ian, and Audrey are the training partners, but Owen excused himself from the interview because of our previous friendship. Anyway, it went really, really well; I really liked what they told me about their practice and they seemed to like me too. So I’ll be finishing here in Edinburgh at the end of June, and then moving to Oxford for the next year. Audrey (Dr. Harrison, I should call her!) will be my supervisor, and I’m going to be staying with Stevie. I don’t know if you knew that she’s living with a guy called Ian Thomas? They’ve got a place in New Marston with a student flat upstairs that they’re going to rent to me; they need the money, and I need a flat, so it works well both ways! And also, of course, I’ll enjoy being close to Stevie again.

Mum and Dad, of course, think I should move back to Northwood for the year and save the money, but I’m too used to being on my own now. I think Mum understands that, but she’s not happy about it. And of course, I don’t know whether I’ll be staying in the Oxford area long term. My placement is for a year, after which, hopefully, I’ll be fully qualified as a GP and able to enter into a permanent position, but I’m not assuming that will be in the Oxford area, although of course I hope it will be.

So I’m going to be frantically busy for the next five weeks or so, not just the usual stuff here at A & E but all the moving preparations. I’ll try to send you a quick email every few days but you know how it gets sometimes!

Lots of love to you and Kelly and Emma,

Becca   xx oo

**********

May 31st 1996

Hi Becs:

Wow! No, Owen definitely did not tell me about that, which of course I fully understand because of confidentiality. But you’re right, it is really exciting news and I’m glad you’re going to be back in the Oxford area. Yes, you’re right, Owen’s known Ian since they were in medical school together; they used to hang around together in our Oxford days. I think they actually met at Owen’s church and then recognized each other from classes they were in.

I can imagine that your feelings will be mixed about leaving Edinburgh. I know you’ve been thinking for some time about moving south again, but that city has been your home for eight years, which, Small One, is nearly a third of your life. I’ll be very surprised if there aren’t a few tears before this moving process is complete, and if I’m right, well, that’s fine, it’s as it should be.

I think you’re right not to go back to Mum and Dad’s, by the way. You’ve moved on, you’re an independent young woman, and you’ll have your own schedule to keep up. I know you’ll get out to Northwood to see Mum as often as you can, which she’ll enjoy and I’m sure you will too.

This summer, of course, is all planned already, but I thought you should know that Kelly and I have made up our minds that next year (1997) we’ll come back to England again for a few weeks in the summer. Also – and this is very, very tentative – there has been a suggestion that Joe and Ellie and the kids might come with us, at least for part of the time. They’ve never been to England and of course they’ve heard a lot about it from me – and from you, too, actually.

We’re all fine here. Kelly’s still struggling a bit with Jackson’s death, which is to be expected. Thank you, by the way, for sending her such a thoughtful email; she really appreciated it. I don’t think she’ll be getting another horse, although she’s certainly not going to give up riding.

That’s it for me tonight, Becs. I fully understand about busyness; if I don’t hear from you for a couple of weeks I’ll just pick up the phone and give you a quick call. Love and hugs from all of us.

Tom

P.S. Kelly was talking to Krista last night and Krista mentioned how much she and Steve appreciated your emails. You’ve probably heard from them, but I thought I’d pass that along anyway. It was very thoughtful of you, Becs – thanks.  Love, T.

Link to Chapter 36.

Posted in Fiction, Meadowvale | 5 Comments

What I Will Remember on Remembrance Day

This is a repost from last year; I thought of writing something new, but realized that this still says what I want to say.

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our nation’s victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young men out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

- Wilfred Owen, 1917

Posted in Following Jesus, politics, War | Leave a comment

Be Ready (a sermon for November 9th on Matthew 25:1-13)

I’m not sure how many of you have seen the movie ‘Almost an Angel’ which stars Paul Hogan of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ fame. His character is a bank robber who gets knocked down by a car in the act of saving a little girl’s life. When he comes face to face with God in the afterlife, God says to him “You aren’t very religious, are you?” He replies, “I was planning to get very religious just before I died!” The problem, of course, is that he has died unexpectedly, without time to put his plan into effect. He was not ready.

The three parables in Matthew 25 all have to do with readiness. We might sum them up with three titles. The first parable, in verses 1-13, could be called ‘Be Ready’. The second, in verses 14-30, deals with using our gifts for the Kingdom, and we might entitle it ‘Be Faithful Stewards’. The third, in verses 31-46, is the well-known parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which we might call ‘Be a Neighbour to Those in Need’.

So today we want to look at this first parable: ‘Be Ready’. And we need to start by thinking about the wedding customs in the time of Jesus, because they were very different from our own. A wedding was a great occasion and the whole village turned out to accompany the couple to their new home. The procession would take the longest possible route so that the couple could receive the good wishes of as many people as possible. The newly married couple didn’t go away for a honeymoon; instead, they kept open house for a week, and invited all their relatives, friends and neighbours to join the celebration. There was feasting all week long – which, of course, is why the wine ran out when Jesus attended the wedding in Cana in John 2.

A man called Alexander Finlay witnessed a wedding in Palestine in the early years of the twentieth century. Here’s how he describes it:

‘When we were approaching the gates of a Galilean town I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car; when I asked what they were doing, the guide told me that they were going to keep the bride company till her bridegroom arrived. I asked him if there was any chance of seeing the wedding, but he shook his head, saying in effect “It might be tonight, or tomorrow night, or in two weeks’ time; nobody ever knows for certain”. Then he went on to explain that one of the great things to do, if you could, at a middle class wedding in Palestine was to catch the bridal party napping. So the bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and sometimes in the middle of the night… so the bridal party has to be ready to go out onto the street at any time to meet him, whenever he chooses to come… Other important points are that no one is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp, and also that, when the bridegroom has once arrived, and the door has been shut, late-comers to the ceremony are not admitted’.

This gives us some real insight into what is going on here in Jesus’ story. The ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to come, but his arrival is delayed. Five of them are prepared for that delay, but five are not.

It’s not difficult to read the main thrust of what Jesus is saying here. In the Gospels he often refers to the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast, with himself as the bridegroom. There will come a day, he teaches us – and no one knows when it will come – a day when he will come to take his bride, the Church, and carry her off to celebrate their wedding feast. As it says in Revelation 19:9 ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’. And again in chapter 21:2: ‘And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. The bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are Christian people, or at least church members. Half of them are prepared for his coming, but half are not.

Why are they not ready? It’s not hard to understand this. A certain segment of the early church seems to have believed that what we often call ‘the second coming of Jesus’ would happen very quickly, within a few years of his Ascension. With this in mind the Church was very conscious of the decisiveness of the present moment; Christians lived every day with the thought that ‘It could be today!’ But as the years went by this hope began to fade, and some began to question it altogether. This is the situation Peter is confronting in his second letter when he writes:

‘In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation”’ (2 Peter 3:3-4).

And if people felt that way in the time of Peter, how much more do we feel that way today after two thousand years of Church history!

But in fact the early Christians should not have been surprised at the delay, and neither should we. Jesus foretells it quite clearly in this parable. In verse 5 he says ‘the bridegroom was delayed’. But not everyone is prepared for the delay. Some Christians have signed on for the long haul and are prepared to be faithful over a long period of time. These folk are ready when the bridegroom arrives at midnight. Others, however, are caught unprepared.

There are three important lessons for us in this parable about readiness. Here they are.

First of all, there are some things you can’t see from the outside. On the outside these ten girls all looked alike. They were all waiting for the bridegroom; they all had lamps with them; they all got sleepy when his return was delayed. But there was one important difference between them, and that difference was decisive when the bridegroom returned: five had oil in their lamps, and five did not.

What might this mean for us? Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones was a Welsh Methodist preacher who for twenty-nine years was pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. Early in his life as a preacher, in the late 1930s, he came to Toronto for a summer to fill in at a great Baptist church for three months while the local pastor was away.

On Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ first Sunday at this church the local pastor was still there, and he led the service while Lloyd-Jones preached. In those days it was still common for people to go to church twice on Sundays, and so Dr. Lloyd-Jones announced that each Sunday he would be preaching two different sermons. In the morning, he said, he would be preaching to build up Christians in their faith, and in the evening he would be preaching evangelistic sermons aimed at helping those who had not yet found a personal faith in Christ to come to him and put their trust in him.

After the service the two pastors greeted the people as they left the church. A particularly well-dressed woman approached, and the pastor whispered into Lloyd-Jones’ ear “That lady is a pillar of this congregation; she’s been attending here for years, and a finer Christian you’re never likely to meet”. But he was in for a surprise. The woman shook Lloyd-Jones’ hand and said, “Did I understand you correctly, that you intend to preach in the mornings on the assumption that you are speaking to Christians, and in the evenings on the assumption that you are speaking to people who are not yet converted to Christ?” When Lloyd-Jones confirmed that this was his intention, she said “Well, having heard you this morning I will come again tonight”. She had never attended the evening service before; only the morning. She came every week, morning and evening, during Lloyd-Jones’ time in that church. She later admitted to him in private conversation that although outwardly she looked like a fine churchgoer, inwardly she was desperately hungry and had never discovered a personal relationship with God. Everyone assumed that since she had been coming to church for years she had oil in her lamp, but in fact she was empty inside, and willing to admit it to a pastor she came to trust.

So yes, it’s possible to sit in church week by week and wonder, “Why aren’t I getting it? Why doesn’t God seem real to me?” If you are in that situation this morning, don’t just accept it. It doesn’t have to be that way! Cry out to God to make himself known to you; press on to know and love Jesus. Don’t be satisfied with just having a beautiful lamp; make sure it has oil in it as well.

There are some things you can’t see from the outside. The second thing the parable teaches us is that there are some things you can’t borrow.

Years ago I used to work on the Red Earth Indian Reserve in northeastern Saskatchewan. I taught religion classes in the school there and so got to know the teachers quite well. One of the teachers, Freeman, was a nominal Anglican, although he never attended church and hadn’t done for years. There was a Pentecostal church in Nipawin that was quite interested in Red Earth; they had tent meetings there and would often take converts down to the river to do adult baptisms. One day Freeman was talking to me about this and he said, “What do we believe about that, Tim?” I knew what he meant, but I couldn’t escape the irony: here was a man who was asking me to tell him what his beliefs were, instead of thinking them through for himself!

In the Old Testament we read that the people of Israel were afraid to approach God for themselves. When Moses went up the mountain and they saw the thunder and lightning they said “This god is too scary; you talk to him for us, Moses!” And this has always been one of the characteristics of religion; I call it ‘the cult of the mediator’. I don’t want to do the demanding work that’s involved in developing my own relationship with God, so I ask someone else to do it on my behalf. But what this parable is telling me is that I can’t get into the kingdom on the strength of someone else’s relationship with God. I can’t borrow someone else’s oil; I have to have my own.

That’s the explanation for a troubling detail in this parable. Weren’t the five wise bridesmaids being uncharitable when they refused to lend oil to the five foolish ones? Why wouldn’t they share? But that’s the whole point Jesus is making. There are some things it is impossible to share with others. I can tell you about my faith in Jesus, but I can’t give my faith to you. You have to find it for yourself. I can’t give you my oil; you need to ask for oil of your own from the only person who can give it to you, Jesus himself.

There are some things you can’t tell from the outside; there are some things you can’t borrow from someone else. The last thing we learn from this parable is that there are some things you shouldn’t put off until the last minute. It’s said that when Queen Mary of Orange lay dying in the seventeenth century, her chaplain decided he ought to explain to her the way of salvation through Christ. So he started doing this, but she stopped him right away: “Do you really think I’ve left this important matter to this late hour?” she said. She hadn’t put it off until the last minute. She was ready.

The words ‘Too late’ are terrible words. The job is lost; it’s too late now to say that you’ll work harder. The divorce has come through; it’s too late now to make amends and try to heal the situation. The exam is tomorrow morning; it’s too late now to start studying for it!

I once heard Bruce Smith, the former director of Threshold Ministries, tell a story of a young man who said to him “I want to become a Christian after I turn thirty – but I want to live first!” Tragically, of course, some people never reach thirty. Some people die a lot younger than that – and very few of them plan to do so. That’s why the words of Psalm 95 are so important for us: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts…’ (Psalm 95:7b-8a).

The point of this whole parable is found in the last line, where Jesus says ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’ (v.13). The Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. But we don’t know when that’s going to happen, and neither do we know the hour of our own death. How ought we to respond to this situation? The answer is obvious: to quote the words of an old hymn, we ought to ‘live each day as if it were our last’.

So let’s remember the three things this parable teaches us. Let’s not be satisfied with going through the outward motions of a religious life; let’s press on to a living relationship with God through Christ. Let’s not be satisfied with second-hand knowledge of God – ‘borrowed oil’, to use the illustration of this parable. It won’t do us any good in the end, so let’s press on to know God for ourselves. And let’s not put this matter off until it’s too late; let’s make it a priority now to trust in Christ, to live as his followers, and to walk in his company every day. Or, to sum it all up in the words of my title, let’s ‘Be Ready’ for the day when Christ appears.

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