After a Sad Day in Ottawa: Reflections by Willard Metzger

Will Metzger at Mennonite Church Canada offers these thoughts in response to yesterday’s events on Parliament Hill:

After a Sad Day in Ottawa

Like many Canadians I find myself in a place of sadness following the senseless violence in our capital city. I resonate with the voices that lament the sense of loss for our peaceful context. I share the anxiety of how this act of violence might result in our day to day affairs being weighted with new forms of fear through heightened security measures. 

I feel sad. I feel a loss. 

I mourn that the life of another can be disregarded so easily – and an innocent father is gunned down. 

I mourn that the rhetoric of revenge is seen as the best way to re-establish a sense of calm and confidence. 

I mourn that religion has become so tainted that the Loving Creator can be grossly misrepresented by acts of violence. 

I mourn that our global family is divided by systems of defence and self interest rather than a common commitment of seeking the good for all.  

I pray for mercy. I pray for healing. I pray for peace. I pray that the good in all of us may triumph over the tendency for evil in each of us.

I don’t want people to die having to defend me. I don’t want people to die trying to get the public’s attention. I don’t want people to die seeing each other as enemies. Surely as a global family we can find new and better ways of working for the common good of the earth and all its inhabitants. 

I will mourn for awhile. My prayers will feel heavy for awhile. My heart will ache for awhile. 

May the light of God’s love blind hatred and revenge and give us all a vision for the dawn of a new day filled with the power of a love for all our neighbours. 

A prayer in response to the events on Wednesday, Oct. 22

Ottawa, Ontario

-adapted from a prayer received from Ottawa Mennonite Church

Our God,

We call you Light of the world, but today we feel the weight of night.

We call you Wisdom, but today we have so many unanswered questions.

We call you Prince of Peace, but today we feel surrounded by violence.

We call on you in our fear, our disbelief, our sadness, and our helplessness.

Hear our cries.

Hold us as we remember the sounds, images, and experiences of Wednesday.

Hold the families of all those killed and injured in our capital city.

Hold families around the world who experience violence and instability.

Remind us to hold each other as we gather in our homes, schools and workplaces in the coming days.

May we seek your wisdom as we try to respond to the questions of our children, which echo our own questions. Why do people kill each other? 

We are people shaped by your story of peace. May our responses to the events in our capital city be formed and informed by this identity.  

May we seek your light as we find our way through the dark. 

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayers.

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Conversion and Growth (a sermon for October 19th on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

Today we start a series of New Testament readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which was written to a group of people who had only been Christians for a very short time – perhaps only months. Paul and Silas arrived in the city of Thessalonica in about 50 A.D.; they came there from Philippi, where they’d been thrown in jail because of their missionary activity. But they were stubborn, so they set right about spreading the gospel again. They found a Jewish synagogue, and for three successive Sabbath days they went there and shared the good news of Jesus with both Jews and Gentiles; they pointed to the Old Testament texts that suggested that the Messiah had to die and rise again, and they said, “It’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth; he’s the Messiah”.

Some people believed them – a few Jews, and many, many more Greeks – and so a little church was formed. But the Jewish leaders got jealous and formed a mob; they tried to find Paul and Silas, and when they couldn’t, they found Jason, who had been hosting them, and they took him and a few other Christians before the city council. ‘These guys are breaking the emperor’s laws!’ they said; ‘They’re saying there’s another king, called Jesus!’ So the other Christians quickly sent Paul and Silas away for safety, and the young church had to face a time of persecution without the help of their founding missionaries.

We know that Paul was worried about his new converts and he tried to get news about how they were doing. Eventually he took the risk of sending his young assistant Timothy back to see how they were doing. When Timothy returned, Paul was overjoyed to find that all was well, although the new church did have a few questions they wanted to ask him. So right away, Paul sat down to write them a letter, one of the first letters he ever wrote, and that’s the letter we read from this morning.

It can be hard for us to connect with this letter, for two reasons. First, the people Paul was writing to had a definite ‘darkness to light’ conversion experience. Most of them had been worshipers of idols, but when they heard the message Paul preached, they left their false gods behind and turned to the one true God who had been revealed to them in Jesus. They would have agreed with John Newton’s words: ‘I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see’. But many of us haven’t had this sort of experience. We’re followers of Jesus, but we came to it much more gradually; perhaps we’d even say we’ve been following him our whole life long.

Secondly, their church was very different from ours. Paul uses the Greek word ‘ekklesia’, which we translate ‘church’, but which actually meant a gathering, or even a town hall meeting. Their church had only been in existence for a very short time – probably less than a month – when Paul had to leave it behind. There were probably only a few of them, and I expect they met in the round in someone’s living room. They had no organization, no priests, no access to any written scriptures, no liturgies or anything like that. All they had was faith in the one true God, commitment to his Son Jesus Christ, a real experience of the Holy Spirit, and a shared memory of the things Paul had taught them by word and example. And you know what? That was enough; the whole world, Paul said – slight exaggeration, perhaps – was telling the story of their conversion.

What can we learn from them today? I suggest two things. First, we can learn what a Christian conversion might look like, and second, we can learn what Christian growth looks like.

First, what does a Christian conversion look like? The classic description of Christian conversion is the one I already quoted: ‘I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see’. John Newton, who wrote these words, had been a godless sailor and slave trader, but he had a gradual conversion experience which started when he went through a horrendous storm at sea, and eventually he came to faith in Christ and commitment to him. He would have identified strongly with the metaphor Jesus used of a ‘new birth’; that would have been a good way of describing what he had experienced.

For many of us in our church today, perhaps, our experience was not so clear cut. Some of us have had moments of epiphany when it seems like our eyes have been opened to new truth about Jesus. Some of us can identify decisive moments in our Christian journey, others perhaps can’t. So does the story of the Thessalonians have anything to say to us? Yes, it does.

Try to imagine what their conversion was like. Their city was full of temples to the Greek and Roman gods – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Ares and the rest. Every civic event would begin with a sacrifice to the gods. Almost all the meat sold in the marketplaces would have come from animals that had been offered in sacrifice in the temples. The trade guilds held their meetings in the temples and started with worship of the gods. Even farmers planting fields went to the temples to pray that the gods would grant them fertility; not to have done that would have been as nonsensical to them as refusing to buy crop insurance would be to farmers today.

To them all this worship of idols seemed good and right and true. To be asked leave all this behind would be as if a preacher today told us we had to give up our cars, computers, and cell phones. Most of us would have a hard time imagining how we were going to live our lives without those things.

So what happened to these Thessalonians? Look with me at verses 9-10:

For the people of those regions report about us the kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

This was their conversion story: they turned away from false gods, and put their faith in a true and living God who had been revealed to them in Jesus.

Now you may not think it, but today we are surrounded by false gods. All of them are calling to us, demanding that we trust them, give them our loyalty, and make sacrifices to them. There’s the false god of money and possessions, which often demands that we sacrifice our time and our relationships so that we can have all that it offers. Closely related to it is another false god called ‘success’. A third false god is called ‘nationalism’, and sometimes it asks us to sacrifice our lives and the lives of our enemies to its thirst for blood.

For some of us, the desire to be liked and respected by others is a kind of false god. Maybe we feel insecure inside; maybe we’re not sure who we really are. But if we can just get others to like us and approve of us, we think that ache inside will go away. So we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, sacrificing our true selves as we try to be what others want us to be. But it never works. False gods never can deliver on their promises, because they aren’t real.

We Christians believe that there is one true God, who one who created the universe and everything in it. But we also believe that he came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. We believe that Jesus is our most accurate picture of what the one true God is like. So conversion is a process of turning from false gods to the one true God, and giving our allegiance to his anointed king, Jesus the Messiah.

The Thessalonians made that decision at their conversion, but they probably had to keep on making it. Every day when they walked through the marketplace the voices of the false gods would be calling them back. And it’s the same for us today. Think of the false god of materialism. It has its priests – the advertisers who spend their lives trying to make us discontented so we’ll buy more stuff. “If you just buy this”, they say, “You’ll be happy; you’ll finally find what you’re looking for”. And so you and I need a daily process of conversion – turning away from the lies the false gods tell us, and turning back to Jesus and the Father he has revealed to us.

What are my favourite false gods? What are yours? John Newton’s friend William Cowper wrote a hymn about them once; one of the verses goes like this:

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne
And worship only thee.

So this passage shows us first of all what conversion looks like: a continual process of turning away from the lies of false gods, and putting our trust in God our Creator, the God Jesus has revealed to us. Secondly, it shows us what Christian growth looks like. Look at verses 2-3 with me:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s first hearers were probably largely illiterate, and Paul knew that he’d probably be moving on pretty quickly to start new churches in different cities. We can see in some places in his letters that he was pretty good at developing little summaries to help new Christians remember the important things about their Christian faith, and one of those summaries was this little triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’. We’re probably most familiar with it from 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love’. We find it here in a different order: ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. These new Christians were like newly-planted trees; they needed to grow, but grow in what? In these three cardinal virtues: faith, love, and hope.

First comes faith. To Paul, this means believing the promises of God and trusting the God who made the promises. Paul liked to tell the story of old Abraham in the book of Genesis; he was a wrinkled old man and his wife was long past child bearing age, but God promised him descendents, and Abraham believed him, and God credited it to him as righteousness. But this faith wasn’t just a feeling ; God commanded Abraham to leave his home in Haran and go to the land of Canaan, and Abraham obeyed and went.

Likewise in the New Testament, we can think of Jesus walking on the water, holding out his hand to Peter and saying ‘Come’. The feeling of faith wasn’t enough; Peter had to take the step out of the boat, risking a soaking! Or we think of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus; it says ‘Jesus saw their faith’, but what he actually saw was the action that their faith prompted.

True faith always leads to action; it leads to a changed life. A few months ago my cardiologist said to me, “Mr. Chesterton, you can get off these blood pressure and cholesterol pills in a couple of years if you want; it’s all to do with getting serious about diet and exercise”. I believed her, too, but belief wasn’t enough; I had to put into practice the things that she said. Those changes were the evidence of my faith in her. And I guess that when it came to the Thessalonians, the evidence of their faith was that they didn’t go to idol temples to offer sacrifices any more.

What is the evidence of my faith in Jesus? What’s the evidence of your faith in Jesus? If we were on trial for our faith, would there be enough evidence to convict us? And how can we grow in our ‘work of faith’? What’s the cutting edge, for you and for me?

Faith comes first, but the next thing Paul mentions is love. Faith is directed toward God and Christ, but love is directed toward others. The Greek word for love that Paul uses is ‘agapé’, so he’s not talking about feeling love for someone; he’s talking about a way of life in which we do what’s best for others, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s what Jesus is doing when he washes his disciples’ feet, or when he gives his life on the cross for us.

It’s an active virtue; Paul talks about our ‘labour of love’. In the early church, it sometimes meant sharing their possessions with each other, rich members helping poor members so that all were equal. This is the love that brings neighbours together to build barns for each other; it takes people into hospitals and jails to visit the sick and the prisoners. It took Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for lepers; it takes other people to work in AIDS clinics or to cook meals for church members who are sick. All of this is serving others in the name of Christ.

In his first letter John says, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). People today are tired of empty words; they want to see actions. What is our labour of love? What’s mine, and what’s yours? What are we doing to actively love others? How can we grow in this?

Faith is directed toward God and Christ; love is directed toward other people. Hope is the third thing, and it’s directed toward the future. In the Creed we say, ‘Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead’, and in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. In other words, we know that there’s still something lacking in our experience of God’s plan in our lives; even though we know and follow Jesus, there is still a lot of evil in the world, and in us as well. Those early Thessalonian Christians experienced that; they’d only been followers of Jesus for a few weeks, and they were being persecuted already! What kept them going through that? Paul pointed to their ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’.

Studies of concentration camp inmates have shown that those who can hang onto their hope have a better chance of survival. We Christians are called to be people of stubborn hope, because we believe that if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, then nothing is too hard for him. We believe his promise of a better future, so when the present looks dark, we can still have joy in him. And so we don’t give up on people, because we know that God hasn’t finished with them yet.

Is this you? Is this me? Are we people of stubborn hope? And how can we grow more steadfast in our hope?

Let’s go around this one last time. First, the false gods are all around us, and they are tempting us all the time. Some of their lies are frankly incredible; I think of the cult of celebrity, which is nonsense when you think of how many celebrities are in rehab, or are jumping from relationship to relationship; why on earth do we want to be like them? And so our Christian life is a constant process of naming their lies for what they are, and then turning once again to the one true God who Jesus has revealed to us. What is your favourite idol? What is mine? How can we be steadfast in turning away from them and turning to Christ? How can we help one another to do this?

Second, our Christian life is about growing in faith, love, and hope: the faith that changes our lives, the love that shows itself in hard work to help others, and the stubborn hope that keeps us serving God and loving people, because we believe in God’s future. Which of these three characteristics are we strongest in? Which do we need to work on? How can our brothers and sisters in Christ pray for us and help us grow in faith, hope, and love? Let’s take a moment of silence to think about those questions, and then we’ll pray.

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Meadowvale (a prequel to ‘A Time to Mend’): Chapter 31

Link back to Chapter 30

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.


“People are talking”, Will said to me.

He and I were sitting out on his back deck in the cool of a late August evening, drinking iced tea and watching Sally and Kelly picking raspberries with Emma in the garden patch at the back of the yard. Sally had called me mid-morning with the usual invitation; “Will’s barbecuing tonight”, she said, “and he says he needs you to help him finish off the three beers in the fridge!” So we had wandered over to their house late in the afternoon after Kelly got home from work; it had been a very hot day, and we were all dressed in shorts and tee-shirts, but now in the evening the mosquitos were coming out, and Sally had found long-sleeved shirts for the raspberry pickers to wear. There was a citronella candle burning on the deck, but Will and I still found ourselves swatting at the occasional mosquito.

“Talking about Donny, you mean?” I asked.

“Yeah – and Brenda and Gary, of course”. Brenda and her children had moved up to Meadowvale the week before, and for the time being they were staying out at Hugo and Millie’s farm while Brenda looked for work.

I sipped at my iced tea; “Small towns can be cruel sometimes”, I said.

“They don’t mean to be. Well, maybe they do when it comes to Donny”.

“I don’t imagine he’ll ever move back here”.

“I wouldn’t think so”.

I glanced across at him; “Were you talking about people in general, or a specific group of people?” I asked.

“Church people”.

I nodded; “I had heard something about that, but I’m not really connected to the older crowd, at least, not since your mum died”.

“It’s not just the older crowd. And I don’t think they’d talk to you about it; there’s a general feeling in the church that you and Kelly are supportive of Donny”.

I stared at him; “Are we dividing up over this, Will?” I asked.

“I sure hope not”.

“Me too. I’ve learned a lot about Christlikeness from the people in our church; I’d hate to think that was going to change after all these years”.

He sighed, and sat back a little in his chair. “They’re just people, Tom. They’ve been reading the Bible all their lives, and they’ve always thought this is wrong, and of course they don’t really understand it either, and they’re scared of it”.

For a moment I didn’t reply; I was watching Emma holding an empty ice-cream pail in her hand and dropping raspberries into it as she picked them. Eventually I said, “What do you think? You’ve never told me”.

“I think that I love my brother and I love my nephew”.

“I’ve never doubted that”.

“I’m not happy that people are getting all bent out of shape about this, but do I think it’s okay for Donny to be living with a gay partner? Probably not. I think the Bible’s pretty clear about it, and I don’t think I can find a way to wiggle out of it, although I sometimes wish I could”. He looked at me; “What about you? What do you think?”

“I don’t know what to think. I’m a relatively new Christian compared to you guys, and I wasn’t raised on all these Bible passages. When I was a boy in school we never heard about homosexuality, and when we did, it was all derogatory – I hope to God there weren’t any closeted gay kids in my class, because if there were, they would have heard some pretty nasty comments. At university it was a little different, but still, I think a lot of people were uncomfortable with it”.

“Did you and Owen talk about it when you were in university? You guys had all kinds of discussions”.

“Yeah, but not about that. Of course, in the past couple of months we’ve had conversations about it”.

“What does he think?”

“Well, he goes to a strong evangelical Anglican church; they take the Bible pretty much at face value, as far as I can tell. Not that I’m against the Bible; Kelly and I read it together every night, and we’ve both been doing some extra reading lately, too”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah”. I frowned; “This whole thing with Donny has made me realize that there’s a lot I don’t know about the Bible, even though I’ve read it all the way through two or three times since I became a Christian. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the Old Testament over the past few weeks. Rob’s lent me a couple of his commentaries; they’re pretty heavy going, but I’m getting a lot out of them. It’s slow reading, though. And Kelly’s been reading the Bible like crazy ever since the kids started coming round to our house on Sunday nights”.

“I’ll bet they raise some tough issues”.

“Sometimes they do, but it’s all good, Will; those kids are one of the best things that ever happened to Kelly and me”.

“I hear Dan really likes that group”.

“That’s what he says, and that really amazes me; he’s almost the last kid I would have thought would want to be part of anything like that. But he keeps on coming back, and he brings more questions with him every time”.

“Might be something to do with the fact that you two love those kids, and they all know it”, he replied.

“Well, I guess that’s true, Kelly especially”, I said, watching my wife with her hair tied back under her ball cap, her arms and legs brown from a summer spent outdoors, laughing with Emma as they picked raspberries together. I shook my head; “It’s still kind of amazing to me, the way that group just came at us out of left field, when we weren’t really looking for anything like that”.

“Kind of like an answer to prayer, though”.

I nodded; “It really is”.

“Kelly gets to be the clan mother”.

“Yeah, and it’s not like she’s trying to make herself believe that they’re really her kids or anything; she knows they’re not”.

“I know. It’s like being a grandparent”, he said with a grin; “You’ve got all this love inside you, and you get to pour it out on them and spoil them rotten, and then send them home again so their parents can deal with the consequences!”

We both laughed, and I said, “Yeah, I guess that’s true with that group, although Beth’s over at our place a lot more often than the others”.

“She’s a sweet kid”.

“She really is. I think if Don and Lynda put her up for sale, Kelly would pay top dollar for her”.

He laughed again; “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Much as Bethie loves you two, she’s pretty devoted to her mom and dad”.

“And her grandma”.

“Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? Rachel can be a little severe sometimes, but Bethie doesn’t seem to bring out that side of her”.

We were quiet for a moment, each thinking our own thoughts. I sipped at my iced tea, held the glass in my lap, and said, “Eleven years since I moved here, and I still get overwhelmed sometimes by the size of the family I married into”.

“Your dad’s family’s on the big side, too, isn’t it? Doesn’t he have three siblings”.

“Yeah, and they all have kids, so it’s not that I haven’t got cousins. But our families were never close; well, even my own brother and I aren’t very close! But here, Kelly’s close to aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and so on, on both sides of the family; sometimes it feels like I’ve got at least twenty brothers and sisters in law!”

“You seem to enjoy it”.

“I do, to the point that when I go back to England it feels strange to be so isolated. I guess I’ve become a Reimer at heart”.

“Don’t tell Becca that”.

“She knows it; in fact, she’s the one that first pointed it out to me. Not that that means anything to her and me”.

“Yeah, you guys are kind of like Erika and Donny; they’ve always had that older sister and little brother thing going”.

“I thought about that earlier in the summer”. I frowned; “You know, it’s not that we’ve ever ignored Erika, but she and Kelly weren’t really close”.

“Not like with Brenda”.

“No, but over the past few weeks that’s changed. Kelly says it’s kind of like she’s seeing for the first time what an outstanding person Erika really is”.

“Erika never makes a fuss, but she always does what needs to be done. She’s been like that every since she was a kid”.

“Yeah, I can see that. She and Kelly have been spending a lot more time together since the family reunion. Not that Kelly’s neglecting Brenda or anything”.

“Does Brenda know what she’s going to do yet?”

“She’s been asking around at various businesses in town; she’s got a good head on her shoulders for that kind of thing. I think she’s been talking to Blaine at the Co-op, actually”.

“About the Deli?”

“I don’t know”.

“I sure hope she finds something”.

“She’s going to need an income; divorce doesn’t come cheap”.

“No”.

“Mind you, Glenn’s going to represent her and I’m sure he’s not charging her his full rate”.

“I don’t know if he ever does; that man’s too honest to be a rich lawyer”.

“Yeah”. I paused, and then said, “How are Hugo and Millie doing, Will?”

“It’s been a tough summer for them”.

“Yeah”.

He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “When Hugo and I were growing up, I don’t think we knew a single divorced person. I’m sure there were unhappy marriages, but you never talked about that stuff; you kept it in the privacy of your own home. And, of course, we never heard about homosexuality, and we certainly didn’t know any gay or lesbian people, or at least, if we did we didn’t know they were gay or lesbian. Now, of course, times are changing, and Mennonites divorce a lot more often. Still, I sometimes wonder whether my brother feels like Job”.

“Charlie used to say, ‘Troubles come in tribes’”.

He laughed softly; “That’s right, he did say that. I miss that old geezer”.

“Me too”.

“But getting back to Hugo and Millie, it’s ten years this past May since Corey died, and I don’t think they’ve really ever gotten over that. And now, in short order, a marriage breakup, and a son who’s a gay man”. He looked across at me; “Hugo’s walking like he’s carrying a fifty pound weight on his shoulders”.

“I’ve noticed that”.

“Although”, he added, “I have to say, he and Millie are really glad Donny’s talking to them again. Much as they struggle with this homosexuality thing, they’re relieved to be in regular contact with him”.

“I can imagine”. I was quiet for a moment, and then I said, “It’s strange, isn’t it? Just a few verses from the Bible causing so much grief to people”.

“Some people would say it’s more than a few verses; it’s all the teaching about marriage and family too”.

“Yeah, I know; I’ve had this conversation with Rob”.

“You and Rob have talked about this?”

“Yes”.

“How did that go?”

“Okay, I think. He doesn’t want this to become a big issue, but he thinks it might be difficult to stop it. I find that curious, personally, given that Donny’s not even a member of our church”.

“No, but he used to be, and all his family are”.

“Guilt by association? That’s a little harsh, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. Mennonites have their darker side, Tom. Have you ever heard of the ban, or shunning?”

“No”.

“I’m glad. It goes back to the sixteenth century; it was all part of the Anabaptist desire to have a church that really practiced holiness. Of course, discipleship and sin were always seen in community terms in our tradition; we’ve never really been into minding our own business, you know! The ban was something that happened when someone in a congregation fell into some notorious sin and refused to repent; they would be excommunicated, and the whole congregation would be told to avoid them and have no contact with them. In some traditions, that even included requiring the family members of the person to stay away from them”.

I stared at him; “That’s unbelievable”.

“Still, it’s based on passages in the gospels. ‘If he will not listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector’”.

“I suppose, but I still find it hard to believe that Jesus…”

“I know, and for the record, I agree with you. The point I’m making is that we Mennonites have always had our dark side; we’re flawed and imperfect human beings, like anyone else”.

“I guess I haven’t seen much of that since I’ve been going to the church”.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that”.

“So you’re asking me to cut them some slack?”

“Maybe”. He frowned thoughtfully; “The thing is, Tom, I know that Donny needs all the help he can get, and so does Erika. And I know that much as Hugo and Millie struggle with Donny being gay, it really hurts them when church members are talking about it behind their backs. So please don’t get the impression that I’m saying you and Kelly shouldn’t stand beside them on this; I’m not. Sally and I are standing beside them too, and we’d be disappointed if you weren’t with us”.

“We’re with you”, I said quietly.

“I know. I’m just saying, don’t be surprised if this gets messy, and if some hurtful things are said. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and that includes members of Meadowvale Mennonite Church. And it just might be that you and Kelly are about to get some practice in loving those who despitefully use you”.

“Point taken”, I replied.

“And maybe, just maybe, all of us are a little bit right and a little bit wrong on this issue, and we all need to be open to learning more – and, more importantly, to loving more”.

I looked at him for a moment, and then I said, “I don’t often say this, but you are a wise man, Will”.

“Now you’re giving me a big head”.

“No, I don’t think so”.

At that moment Emma ran up the steps to the deck, came over to me and showed me her ice cream pail, full to the brim. “Look how many I picked!” she said with a grin.

“Wow; there’s enough there for all of us!”

“That’s the plan”, Kelly replied, coming up the steps behind Emma; “We’re going to take them in and run them under the tap, and then serve up raspberries and ice cream. Think you can handle that?”

“If I’m pushed”, I replied with a smile.

She leaned over and kissed me gently on the forehead. “Big enough push?” she asked.

“Well…”

She bent and kissed me on the lips; “How about that?”

“Well…”

Will laughed; “Will you guys please get a room?” he said.

Kelly straightened and grinned at him; “What’s the matter, Dad – are you seriously trying to tell me that you and Mom never shared the occasional passionate embrace in front of your kids?”

“Oh yeah!” Sally exclaimed on her way through the door into the house. “Come on, let’s get these raspberries washed up!”


That September, Darren Peterson moved to Meadowvale. He had earned a good degree from Yale and spent a year teaching at a high school not far from New Haven, but he had always known that eventually he would want to move to a small town, and something about his visit to Meadowvale for his grandfather’s funeral had awakened in him a desire to explore his family roots in Saskatchewan. Also, as he said to me a few weeks later with a smile, he had never forgotten how much he enjoyed the singaround at our house.

Pat Bellamy, who had taught chemistry and biology at our school for over twenty years, had retired at the end of June and moved to Vancouver Island, where her husband had wanted to move ever since he retired as our bank manager two years before. “It’s not that Pat’s not a good teacher”, Don Robinson said to me once, “It’s just that she has an incredible talent for seeing the cloud that’s attached to every silver lining”. We had all contributed to a retirement gift for her, and some of us had prayed fervently that we might find someone to take her place who would make the science labs a more cheerful environment for learning.

Will had told me early in the summer that Darren had got the position, so I was not surprised to see him at the school on the first working day of the year. I had arrived a little earlier than usual and had stopped by Don Robinson’s room for a few minutes for a chat before heading into the staff room to get a cup of coffee. There were already a few teachers gathering there, and I noticed Darren immediately; he was sporting a new goatee, and his curly hair was cut a little shorter than I remembered. He gave me an easy smile when he saw me; we shook hands, and I said, “Somehow I wasn’t surprised to hear that you’d applied for Pat’s job”.

“No, I think I knew when I left after Grandpa’s funeral that I’d be back”.

“Just bio and chemistry, though – not music”.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do informally. I know there’s already a music teacher on staff, but I can always help out”.

“How are your mum and dad?”

He shrugged; “Okay, I guess”.

“Not too happy about your move?”

He shook his head; “We had some tense conversations”.

“Yeah?”

He looked down; “I guess this was never really in their plan for me”, he said quietly.

“So they had a plan for you?”

“Oh yeah”.

“Maybe it didn’t really involve being a high school teacher in the first place?” I said quietly.

“No, I think they’d have been happier if I’d got a master’s and a doctorate and joined them at Yale or some other Ivy League school”.

“And I imagine your mum has a hard time figuring out why you wanted to move back to the small town she spent so much time wanting to leave”.

He frowned, looked at me and said, “Tom, was my granddad really that bad?”

I thought for a moment, and then, choosing my words carefully, I said, “I think that everything your mum has ever told you about Charlie was probably true, but it wasn’t the whole story. He knew he’d failed her, and in his better moments he wished he could fix that, but when you’ve been digging yourself into the same rut for over half a century, sometimes it’s hard to get out of it”.

“You liked him, didn’t you?”

“I really did. I miss him a lot”.

“I wish I’d known him better; I kick myself now that I didn’t just take the initiative and come out here to visit him”.

“Darren, you made a real difference to the last few weeks of his life”.

“Did I?”

“Yes, you did. I wish you could have seen the look on his face when he showed us your letter and told us about talking to you on the phone. You’ve no idea how much it meant to him that you’d gotten back to him”.

He looked at me for a moment, and then he said, “Thank you, Tom”.

At that moment I saw another familiar face entering the staff room. “Let me introduce you to another old friend of mine”, I said as the newcomer came over to us. “This is Leanne Collins; she’s going to be our new senior high Math teacher”.

Leanne and Darren shook hands, and then she turned to me with a broad grin on her face and said, “I’m going to have a hard time not calling you ‘Mr. Masefield’!”

Leanne and I gave each other a warm hug, and then I said, “I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear that you’d got the Math position; I’d always suspected that you’d come back here eventually”.

“You two have known each other for a while, then?” Darren asked.

“I’m from Meadowvale”, Leanne said; “Tom was my senior high English teacher”.

“Ah – have you been teaching somewhere else?”

“Yeah; after I got my degree I taught in North Battleford for four years, but I’ve wanted to come back here for a while. How about you; where are you from?”

“New Haven, Connecticut, but my mom was born right here; Charlie Blackie was my grandfather”.

“No kidding! I don’t think I knew Charlie had any kids”.

“My mom left Meadowvale years ago, and we weren’t back very often”.

“Are you staying at Wilf and Mabel’s?” I asked Leanne.

She nodded; “For now anyway; I was thinking of getting a house of my own, but they’re both slowing down a lot, and Grandma needs some help around the place”.

“Do you think they’ll be able to keep the farm much longer?”

“That’s the big question”, she replied; “Grandpa doesn’t want to discuss it at the moment, but of course, it can’t be put off forever. My Grandpa’s seventy-three”, she explained to Darren; “He’s been a farmer all his life, but his arthritis is really bad now, and he’s having a hard time keeping up with the place”.

“He doesn’t have any kids waiting to take it over?” Darren asked.

“Unfortunately no, so leaving would mean selling the place, which he’s reluctant to do”.

“Do your parents live around here?”

Leanne hesitated for the briefest of moments, and then said, “My dad died ten years ago; he and I were living with my grandparents at the time. My mom lives out in Alberta”.

“I’m sorry”, he replied awkwardly; “I really shouldn’t have…”

“Don’t worry about it”, she said; “My story’s no secret in this town”.

“I hear you’re renting Ron Ratzlaff’s place, Darren”, I said.

“Yeah, I am. Will’s been really kind to me; he found me that place to rent, and put a few pieces of furniture in it, although I’ve got some of my own too, of course”.

I grinned; “This sounds exactly like the story of my arrival in Meadowvale eleven years ago; I rented that place, too, and Will and Sally took me under their wing and helped me out”.

I noticed Don Robinson slipping into the room; “Staff meeting starts in five minutes, folks”, he said in a loud voice, “So grab your coffee and come on down”.

“Have you met our Vice-Principal yet?” I asked Darren.

“No, I don’t think I have”.

I waved Don over to where we were standing. “I call him the Heir Apparent”, I said with a grin; “Don, this is Darren Peterson, our new Chemistry and Biology teacher. Darren, Don Robinson, who teaches Social Studies and also moonlights as our Vice-Principal. He’s been here as long as the grass has grown and the rivers have run”.

“You’re getting a little long in the tooth yourself, Tom Masefield!” Don replied as he shook hands with Darren. “Good to meet you, Darren; you’re the Yale grad, right?”

“Yeah, that would be me. Do I dare ask why Tom calls you the ‘Heir Apparent’?”

“Because he’s the only one around here who thinks it’s a done deal that I’ll become the principal when Will retires”.

“Is Will retiring soon?”

“Well, he just turned sixty-two; in theory he could retire at any time, but he’s made it generally known that he plans to go on until he’s sixty-five. By which time there will be at least one other credible candidate around here, a guy from Oxford by the name of Masefield”.

I laughed; “I’m a lousy administrator and you know it, Don! Anyone who’d appoint me principal of this school would have to be more than a little crazy!”

“Ah, but things can change in three years, as I keep saying”. He turned to Leanne with a smile; “Well, here’s a familiar face!” he said.

“Nice to see you again, Don!” she replied; “Like I said to Tom, I’m going to have a hard time to remember not to call you ‘Mr. Robinson’!”

“Well, if I really was the Heir Apparent, I would of course encourage fear and trembling in my presence, but since I’m just the Social Studies teacher and part-time Vice-Principal, I’ll encourage you to call me ‘Don’!”

“I’ll try to remember that!”

“Okay, folks”, he said; “let’s grab our coffee and head on down”.


Years later, when she was a teenager, Emma had Darren Peterson as her biology and chemistry teacher. “The thing that makes him such a great teacher”, she said to me one day in her grade 12 year, “is that he really, really loves science. When you’re doing chemistry experiments in his class, it’s like he’s seeing the results for the first time, even though he’s probably seen them hundreds of times before. And when he’s explaining things to you in bio, he sounds like he was Charles Darwin on the voyage of the ‘Beagle’, you know, making all these amazing discoveries about how life works and then coming back to share them with the class!”

Emma knew by the time she was eleven or twelve that she wanted to be a nurse, like her mother, and at that age it was certainly Kelly’s influence that was attracting her to the idea, but I know that it was due to Darren’s excitement about his subject that she came to be fascinated with the human body and how it works, and that fascination stayed with her. When I asked her years later about Darren’s influence on her choice of careers, she nodded and said, “He was certainly one of the best teachers I had in high school. Well, after you, of course!”

“Are you sure he came after me? You did become a nurse, not a writer or a poet or an English teacher!”

“True enough, but you did succeed in making a guitarist out of me”.

I shook my head; “That was your initiative, not mine. You’d been watching me pretty closely since you were two or three, and you weren’t even nine years old when you first came to me and asked me to teach you to play”.
 “I remember that. That was when you bought me that kid-sized guitar”.

“You were pretty excited about that”.

“Yeah, I can still remember you helping me make the chord shapes with my hands. You and Beth”.

“She taught you quite a bit”.

“You were both good teachers, Dad”.

“You didn’t seem to need much teaching; you had a pretty good idea of what you wanted to play, and after a while, I just got out of the way”.


Darren’s arrival in Meadowvale introduced a new element into the music that Ellie and I were making. We had been playing together as a two-person band for five years now, and our repertoire was a good blend of Ellie’s bluegrass songs and my traditional English and Irish folk music. The two of us had both grown as musicians; we had come to appreciate and enjoy each other’s styles, Ellie had become much more confident as a singer – she had a beautiful singing voice – and she had begun to write songs of her own, which we were including in our repertoire. We had also become good friends, a friendship cemented on the car rides between Meadowvale and Saskatoon when we were going down to play at open stages or gigs. During the summer we usually played at several agricultural fairs and country gospel gatherings around our area, and we had become quite well known.

Ellie was very excited about Darren’s arrival in Meadowvale; she remembered his mandolin playing at the singaround at our house two summers ago, and a couple of Saturdays after school started the three of us got together at Joe and Ellie’s house to have a jam. Kelly and Joe watched the kids in various places in the house and the yard while Ellie and Darren and I sat together in the living room for a couple of hours, drinking coffee and playing songs together.

“You’ve got an amazing repertoire”, Ellie said to him when we were packing up the instruments. “How old did you say you were?”

He laughed; “Twenty-four”.

She smiled at me; “The same age you were when you moved here”.

“Yeah, and he’s living in my old house, too”.

We laughed, and she said, “Seriously, Darren, you’ve been playing mandolin and banjo for what, four years, now? Don’t tell me you tried to play bluegrass songs on the piano before that?”

“I did, actually”, he replied with a sheepish grin, “but they didn’t sound as good as my Bach or Mozart stuff, so I decided to buy a mandolin”.

“Pretty nice mandolin”.

“Yeah, I was lucky there. At the time my parents didn’t know it would lead me to the Appallachians and away from their master plan for my future, so they were happy to help me buy it”.

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Kelly, who had slipped into the living room to listen to the last couple of songs we played, said, “Something else you and Tom have in common”.

“Oh?”

“Tom’s parents helped him buy that guitar he’s playing”.

“That’s right”, I replied; “I got it second hand from a guy I knew in a folk club in Oxford, but still it’s a Martin, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford it if Mum and Dad hadn’t helped me with the money. Well, Mum mainly, although I suspect she extracted a little money from Dad to help”.

“Are you guys going to play together some more?” Kelly asked.

Darren looked at us hesitantly; “I don’t want to push my way into the thing you guys have going”, he said. “You’re an established act, and…”

Ellie and I looked at each other, and I saw in her face that she was excited by the thought. “Why don’t you join us for a couple of gigs and open stages”, I suggested to Darren, “and we’ll see how it goes?”

“Well, if you’re sure”.

“As I said, let’s give it a try”.


Kelly and I went out for a quiet supper for our ninth wedding anniversary in the middle of the week before Thanksgiving. True to form, Will and Sally invited Darren to join them for Thanksgiving dinner on the Sunday night, “Unless you’re doing something with the Blackies, of course”, Will added.

Darren shook his head; “They’re still a little awkward around me. They don’t quite know what to do with the fact that I don’t drink”.

“Period?”

“Yeah, I’m a teetotaller”.

“That’s not something you hear very often”.

“Well, it’s the way I was raised, I guess. I think Mom got put off years ago when Grandpa was still drinking, and she just had a real phobia around it, so we never had alcohol in the house. I tried it a few times when I was a teenager, of course, and I even got drunk with the guys once, but it never really did anything for me, so in the end I decided I was quite happy without it”.

“Fair enough”.


There was certainly no alcohol served with Thanksgiving dinner at Hugo and Millie’s house that year; Donny had spent September in a thirty-day treatment program, and in the ten days since he got out he had attended three or four A.A. meetings. Hugo and Millie had invited him to bring Alan up for Thanksgiving dinner; it would be the first time Alan had visited Meadowvale or met any of Donny’s family except for Erika, and Erika told us ahead of time that there was a certain amount of apprehension on both sides. “It’s a stretch for Mom and Dad, of course”, she said, “but they love Donny, and they’re really trying hard to understand him. And it’s a stretch for Donny and Alan, as a gay couple going out into the wilds of conservative rural Saskatchewan – conservative Mennonite rural Saskatchewan, that is”.

“How about you and John?” Kelly asked gently.

Erika shook her head; “Do you mind if we don’t go there, Kelly?”

“Of course not. Do you mind me asking, are Donny and Alan staying over?”

“No, they’re driving back to the city. There isn’t really room at Mom and Dad’s, with Brenda and the kids still being there, and…”

“And I expect it would be even more of a stretch for your mom and dad to give them a room, with a double bed”.

“Yeah, I think so”.

Kelly and I glanced at each other, and then I said, “You don’t talk about it specifically, Erika, but it’s obvious that it would be problematic for them to stay at your place too. Another time, let them know that they’re welcome to stay with us”.

“Are you sure?” she asked softly. “You know there might be trouble in the church if it gets around, right?”

“Not with everyone”, Kelly replied; “There are a few people who are getting bent out of shape about it, and some others who are struggling, and then there are people who think the law of love overrides all that”.

Erika was quiet for a moment, and then she stepped forward impulsively, kissed Kelly on the cheek, and gave her a hug. “I appreciate this”, she said, “but I want you to think very, very carefully about it. Tom, you’re involved in music ministry in the church, and the two of you do an amazing job with those young people, including my son. You need to think very carefully about whether you want to put all of that at risk. Donny and Alan aren’t asking for a place to stay; it’s only an hour and fifteen minutes to Saskatoon, and it’s no problem for them to drive home after a visit here. They know you’ve been supportive, and they appreciate it, but I don’t think they’d want you to be on the receiving end of any sort of nastiness as a result of something like this”.

“You’re really worried about this, aren’t you?” Kelly said.

“I honestly am. I’m the one in the church who’s most identified with Donny right now, and there have been things said – mainly behind my back, but a couple of times to my face. I don’t regret anything I’ve done, and I’m not about to leave the church over it, but it’s not a comfortable place to be. You two do a lot of good in our church, and I want to see it carry on”.

Kelly was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Well, we’ll think about it, as you say. But meanwhile, do you think Donny and Alan would come up a little early on Sunday and come over for afternoon coffee with us?”

“I’m sure they’d love to do that. Shall I give you Donny’s email address?”

“That would be great”.


And so it was that Donny and Alan sat with us around our kitchen table on a rainy Thanksgiving Sunday afternoon; Erika came too, and she brought her two youngest children, eleven year old Katelynn and eight year old Dustin, who both disappeared in the general direction of Emma’s room as soon as they got in the door. We heard lots of laughter and the occasional bang or crash, but when Alan looked at me quizzically I said, “Experience would seem to indicate that if one of them gets hurt, one of the others will run out here pretty quickly and let us know about it, and if they don’t, it’s better to leave them to it!”

“Ah, right!” he replied with a grin; “The voice of the seasoned parent, I see!”

Alan was tall and thin, with longish blonde hair and glasses and a quiet demeanour. “It’s a pleasure to meet you”, he had said to Kelly and me when they first arrived; “I’ve heard so much about you”.

“All good, I hope?” I replied with a grin.

“Of course!”

We sat around the table drinking coffee for an hour; Kelly took the lead in asking questions, and as I watched her, I found myself reflecting that she had become much more gentle and tactful about it than she had been when we first met. We discovered that the two of them had gotten to know each other when Donny, or ‘Don’ as Alan called him, first came to work at the Sheaf, and things had slowly gone on from there.

“What about you two?” Alan asked us; “How did you meet?”

“Well, you know that I teach English at Meadowvale High School”, I said.

“Yeah, that’s what Don told me”.

“Well, Kelly’s Dad’s the principal, and he’s rather gregarious”.

Kelly laughed; “That’s putting it mildly!” she added.

“Anyway, he and his wife invited me over to their place for more meals than I can count when I first got here from England eleven years ago. One of those meals was Thanksgiving. Kelly was home from Jasper, where she was nursing at the time, so that’s when we met – October 10th 1982, eleven years ago yesterday”.

“Congratulations”, Alan said.

“Thank you”.

“You’ve gotten quite involved in the Mennonite church here, Don tells me”.

“Yeah, I have. I suppose you’d call me an adult convert”.

“That’s not very common, is it? These days the stories you hear are mostly about people leaving churches, and churches shutting down”.

I shrugged; “I’m not enough of a culture watcher to be able to comment on that. I wasn’t raised in a churchgoing family, but I had a very good friend from high school who was a Christian, and he and I had some good discussions in our school and university years. And then when I met Kelly, I discovered she was on a spiritual journey too”.

“Yeah, I’d left the church for a few years”, Kelly said, “mainly because of questions about science and faith, but I wasn’t finding life without God particularly satisfying; I was hungry for some sort of spiritual element to my life, I guess”.

“So we kind of made that journey together”, I said, “and it ended up with both of us getting baptized early in 1984”.

“Did you find that spiritual element?” Alan asked Kelly.

“Yeah, I did – or rather, I rediscovered it. I’d often had a sense of God’s presence in nature when I was younger, and I’d never really stopped believing in God”.

“It was a little different for me”, I said; “My dad’s an atheist, and he and I had a difficult relationship when I was in my teens and early twenties. Well, I suppose I should be honest and say that we still do. But I think that in my high school and university years, having conversations about Christianity with my best friend was an act of rebelliousness on my part!”

We all laughed, and then Kelly said, “Why do you ask, Alan?”

“Curiosity, I guess. I suppose I’d call myself ‘spiritual, but not religious’; I believe in God, but I’m a little vague about what I mean by that word, and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have ever had any sort of experience of God. Don, of course, was raised in church”.

“Although I haven’t been for quite a while”, Donny said. “People like us don’t exactly get the welcome mat put out for us when we try to go to church”.

“Have you actually been turned away?” Kelly asked softly.

“To be honest, I haven’t really tried; there’s so much noise made in Christian circles about homosexuality being an abomination that I really don’t feel like taking the risk. I have to admit that I miss it, though”.

“Yeah?” Kelly asked.

“Yeah; it’s nice to have a community that supports you in that kind of thing. Of course, when you start experiencing some dissonance between the community’s values and your own, that’s when it gets more complicated”.


A couple of weeks later I was talking with Rob Neufeld after our evening study group at the church, and the topic of Donny and Alan came up. A few people had already left to go home, and a couple of others were clearing up the room where we held the study; Rob and I were in the kitchen washing the dishes and the coffee pot.

“I hear Donny and Alan were in town”, he said to me.

“Yeah, they had Thanksgiving dinner at Hugo and Millie’s, and they were over to our place for coffee for an hour or so in the afternoon”.

“How was it?”

“It was good; Alan seems like a nice enough guy, and they were easy to talk to”. I was washing out the glass carafe of the coffee maker; I rinsed it off and put it on the drying rack, and said, “I don’t hear very much about what’s being said; is it causing trouble?”

“There are people who aren’t happy. John Rempel is definitely one of them, but he’s not really part of the congregation right now. Old Peter Janzen isn’t happy, and neither are George and Elizabeth Penner and John Redekopp”.

“John’s pretty influential in the church”.

“Yes, he is”.

“What exactly is bothering them, Rob? I mean, Donny’s not a member of the church, and all that’s happened so far is that Erika’s kept up her relationship with her brother, and he’s been visiting at Hugo and Millie’s, and once at our place. What are they worried about?”

“I guess they worry that our church is going to compromise its position that homosexual acts are sinful”.

“Is that our position?”

“Well, historically, that’s the view Mennonites have taken. I suspect that not everyone agrees with that, but nothing’s been changed, and if anyone tries to change it, I can’t see anything but trouble ahead. We’re not a tradition that handles diversity of opinion well, Tom; it’s the Achilles heel of the Anabaptist movement. So often we’ve made an idol out of the quest for the pure church, and of course, too often ‘the pure church’ becomes ‘the church that agrees with all my opinions on morality and ethics’”.

“But what exactly would constitute ‘compromising our position’? Being kind to people who are different from us?”

He dried the carafe with a towel and replaced it on the coffee maker. “I think some people would have issues with that, yes”, he replied. “They would point to scripture passages about avoiding every appearance of evil, and ‘come out from among them, and be ye separate’, and so on”.

“Are we talking about the ban, or shunning?”

He gave me an intense look; “You’ve been reading about Mennonite history, have you?”

“Will was telling me about it”.

“General Conference Mennonites haven’t practiced the ban, or shunning, for a long time. Still, there’s a cultural memory of it, but I don’t think anyone in our church has a taste for that sort of thing”.

“I’m glad to hear it”, I replied, dropping a handful of wet teaspoons into the drying tray.

He picked up one of the spoons and began to dry it. “Look, Tom”, he said, “I don’t want this to become an issue between you and me. When it comes to my view on homosexuality, I accept the traditional position that homosexual acts are sinful; that seems to me to be the plain meaning of the biblical texts, and I can’t find a way to wiggle around that. But I fully believe that there is such a thing as a homosexual orientation, and that there are people who live with that, through no choice of their own”.

“How do you square that with the idea that homosexual acts are sinful; is God just being mean to those people?”

“No, of course not, any more than he’s being mean to people who have congenital illnesses. This is a broken and imperfect world, and we can’t read God’s original creation intention out of what we see around us. But what I really want to say, Tom, is that I’m with you and Kelly in wanting to be welcoming and supportive of Donny and Alan, and personally, I think everything that you and Kelly and Erika have done – and Hugo and Millie, too – is right and good”.

“Thanks; I’m really glad to hear you say that”.

“But there is going to be trouble. I’m sure that sooner or later someone’s going to raise the issue of what you and Kelly are teaching in the youth group”.

“The youth group that’s not a youth group, you mean?”

“Yeah, I know where you’re going with that, and I take your point, but not everyone will see it that way”.

“I understand”.

“I just want you to know that I’m going to do everything in my power to hold this church together, while at the same time not compromising my own convictions on both sides of this subject. But it may not be possible for me to hold it together; I’m just one person, and in our Mennonite church polity I don’t have the power to dictate what’s going to happen about this”.

“Yeah, I understand”.

I was pouring out the dishwater now, and he was drying the last of the coffee cups. “Can I ask you something?” he said.

“Of course”.

“Where do you stand on this now?”

I ran some water into the sink, rinsing out the soapsuds. “I’m sitting firmly on the fence”, I said. “Like I said to Kelly and Erika when it first came up, I’ve read the Bible through two or three times since I became a Christian, and I know what it says about gay and lesbian sex. But I have questions, too; I don’t know if the writers knew that there are some people who are born that way, and I don’t get the sense from the texts that they were talking about committed monogamous relationships. And I also notice that the Bible writers don’t seem that interested in the subject; it doesn’t exactly come up very often. Much less often that lending money at interest, or caring for the poor and needy”.

“Point well taken, and I think I agree with you on that. How does Kelly feel?”

“I think she’s on the same page as me”.

“Forgive me for asking this, Tom – it’s going to seem like I’m prying my way into something that’s none of my business – but have you discussed this issue with the kids that come over to your place?”

“No; it hasn’t come up”.

“And if they raise it, what do you plan to say?”

“Well, as you know, we don’t tend to be in the habit of making pronouncements with that group; we have discussions, and of course Kelly and I share our own opinions, but they get discussed just like everyone else’s”.

“I’m sure they respect your opinions, though”.

“Yes, they do”. I frowned; “How do you want me to answer that question, Rob?”

“Well, I’m certainly not asking you to pretend you’re certain about something you’re not certain about, especially in a group that’s entirely your own, and has no official connection with our church”.

“But a lot of people see it as the church youth group – we know that”.

“They do. I guess I’d expect that if you were asked, you would state your own views, but I’d like it if you would also put the case for the church’s traditional view, and do it in a respectful way”.

I thought for a moment, and then I said, “That would mean that you would have to spend a little more time with me explaining the church’s traditional view”.

“I’m happy to do that, Tom”.

“Okay”.

Posted in Fiction, Meadowvale | 1 Comment

Preliminary thoughts on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This is not a sermon; this is my preliminary thoughts on the passage I hope to preach on this coming Sunday. I post them here in case they are helpful to others too.

The founding of the Thessalonian church is recorded in Acts 17.1-9. There we read that Paul and Silas, fresh from their experience in the Philippian jail, had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia and arrived at Thessalonica, ‘where there was a synagogue of the Jews’. Paul went there as was his custom, and for three successive Sabbaths he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise on the third day, and asserting that Jesus is in fact the foretold Messiah. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, and so did a large number of ‘devout Greeks’ (i.e. ‘God fearers’?), including some prominent women in the community.

But the other Jews became jealous of Paul & Silas’ success (no doubt they themselves would have claimed loftier motives!), and they formed a mob; they couldn’t find Paul and Silas, so they attacked Jason’s house, where the apostles had been staying, and dragged Jason and some of the other brothers before the city council; they accused them of ‘acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying there is another king named Jesus’ (which gives us a good insight into what the apostles’ message actually was – a proclamation of the ultimate Lordship of Jesus). So that very night the brothers and sisters sent Paul and Silas away to Beroea.

So what we can say for sure is that their ministry in Thessalonica was very short, perhaps as short as three weeks. It was enough, however, to plant a self-governing and self-supporting church based on the message of Jesus as King and Messiah.

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

This is a standard Greek-style greeting, but Paul has modified it by adding distinctly Christian elements. The Thessalonians might see themselves as ‘the ekklesia (‘assembly’) of the Christians in Thessalonica’, and they would be right; their geographical location is indeed in Thessalonica, the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia. But they have a primary location which is even more important: they are ‘the ekklesia of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘In’ is not just a location, but an experiential connection; yes, they are Thessalonians, connected by history and culture to their race and people, but more importantly, they are Christians, connected by grace to God the Father and his Son Jesus the Messiah, God’s anointed King. This is in fact their primary identity now.

Greek letter writers wished their hearers ‘eirene’ (‘peace’), but Paul characteristically adds ‘charis’ (‘grace’) first. This is God’s unconditional love, which could not be bought or earned, but is poured out on us as a free gift through Jesus and his death and resurrection: this is the greatest experience that Paul can wish for his Thessalonian friends, that they would know themselves to be loved unconditionally by a God who gave himself for them on the cross. And the result is ‘peace’ with God and with others.

2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Here is possibly the first time that Paul uses his familiar triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’, or, in this case, ‘faith, love, and hope’. One assumes that, in planting churches which are going to need to be self-supporting and self-governing, in an illiterate age when very few people would be able to read the Jewish scriptures or any rudimentary written records that the apostles might leave with them, Paul has given some thought to developing memorable summaries of Christian essentials for his new disciples to memorize and practice. This is one of them – the so called ‘three theological virtues’.

Faith is first – it means, to Paul, both believing the promises that God has made and trusting in the God who made the promises. In Galatians (written probably either shortly before or shortly after this letter) he pays a lot of attention to the idea of faith as ‘believing what you heard’, but we know that this is not just intellectual assent but also a life-changing commitment. If I believe what my doctor is saying to me, I will put into practice the things she says. And so Paul talks in Galatians about ‘faith working itself out through love’, in Romans about ‘the obedience of faith’, and here in 1 Thessalonians about ‘your work of faith’. Faith and works, in other words, go together. In Mark 2:5 Jesus ‘saw the faith’ of the four friends by their action of bringing the paralyzed man to him for healing, and Peter demonstrated his faith by the action of getting out of the boat and walking on the water to Jesus (Matthew 14:29). So faith always shows itself in action – sometimes strenuous action – hence ‘your work of faith’.

Faith is directed toward God (or Christ), but the next theological virtue, love, is directed toward people: ‘your labour of love’. ‘Love’ here is ‘agapé’, so it is not a feeling but a way of life – sacrificial love – the love that does what is best for the other, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not – the love that Jesus shows when he washes his disciples’ feet, or when he dies for them on the cross. And so this also is an active virtue; it leads us to ‘labour’. In the early church, it often took the form of Christians sharing their possessions with one another, helping those among them who were poor, bearing one another’s burdens and so on. This is the love that causes people to rebuild barns that have burned down, visit the sick and the prisoners, care for lepers, work in AIDS clinics, take meals for those who are sick, and generally serve others in the name of Christ.

The third theological virtue is hope: your ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. If faith is directed toward God and love to one another, hope is directed to the promise of the future, when the Lordship of Jesus Christ will be revealed to all. At the moment it is hidden, known only to those who believe in him and follow him, but this state of affairs is only temporary. So these Christians can be ‘steadfast’ in the persecutions they are experiencing right now, because they believe God’s promise about the shape of the future. They also believe God’s promise about their own future: whatever happens to them, they are safe in Jesus (Paul will expound on this a little more in 4:13 – 5:12).

4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

The rest of the passage focuses on the Thessalonians’ experience of conversion, which was fresh in their minds and Paul’s mind too. What is the essence of conversion according to Paul? Well, the essentials are at the end of the passage: to become a Christian is to ‘turn to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’.

This is a very Jewish message; Isaiah would probably have cheered for it! The whole of Isaiah 40-55 resonates with the idea that Yahweh the God of Israel is the one true God, the creator of heaven and earth, who was not made by human hands like false gods of wood or stone. His is higher than us, his thoughts and ways are higher than ours, and we cannot possibly understand him unless he reveals himself to us. So true conversion is to turn from anything less than this – a lesser god than the creator of all, a more tangible god than the invisible Lord of the universe – and to put our faith in the one ‘living and true God’.

Idols, of course, were everywhere in Thessalonica; the city would have been full of temples to Greek and Roman gods; the trade guilds would have had their meetings there, the meat in the marketplace would have been offered in sacrifice to the gods, and civic occasions would have begun with acts of worship to the gods. So for Christians to throw away their idols would have been tantamount to modern Christians throwing away their computers and smartphones – most people would not have been able to conceive of life without them. This was a real act of faith on the part of the new Christians: to give up tangible gods they could see and handle, and instead to worship an invisible God who has been revealed in a person they have never met: Jesus.

So for us contemporary Christians, conversion means turning away from the false gods of our own day: money and the things it can buy, success, sexual prowess, youth, nationalism, the good opinion of our contemporaries, and the many other idols that tempt us – the things we turn to for help when the chips are down. Whatever it is that we put at the centre of our lives other than the true and living God, conversion means removing that false god from God’s throne, and turning resolutely to the one true God who Jesus has revealed to us.

‘The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee’ (William Cowper).

The false gods do not satisfy, because they can’t deliver what they promise. However the subtle thing here is that Jesus does not satisfy immediately either, because at present his kingdom is still in conflict with the kingdoms of the world, who do not recognize his lordship. So Christian faith is future-oriented; we’re not only to ‘turn’ but also to ‘wait’ – ‘to wait for his Son from heaven’ (10a). As Bono sings, ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ – I’ve grasped it in Jesus, but I haven’t experienced it fully yet, and so I wait for the day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

This is conversion. Now – how did this happen? Well, Paul says, it wasn’t just as a result of evangelical razzmatazz – a clever preacher putting on a good show. No – ‘our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’ (v.5a). How does Paul know this? He knows it because of the miracle of conversion: these people who had been raised and steeped in idolatry have turned their back on all that they have known and loved, and instead embraced an invisible God and a Messiah they have not seen, and even though their conversion led to their being persecuted, they were still full of joy in their new faith. This is not ultimately explainable by human effort, Paul says; it can only be attributed to the power of the Holy Spirit.

And so, Paul says, ‘you became imitators of us and of the Lord’ (v.6). The primary imitation, of course, is of Jesus, but once again, the new converts know little of Jesus and they can’t seen him. They can, however, see the evangelist who is sharing the gospel with them, and they can see the sort of life he or she lives. And so it is very important that the evangelist truly models their life on the teaching and example of Jesus. The evangelist is an acted parable of Jesus Christ to his or her converts, making visible and tangible the sort of life that Jesus lived and calls us to live. So we who are in Christian ministry need to make sure that our way of life communicates the reality of Jesus, and not just our words. This is how new Christians grow – not primarily by attending classes, but by watching the discipleship of older Christians, and by imitating it.

This is the miracle of conversion – people who were steeped in idolatry have turned away from it, and have chosen instead to worship the one true God revealed to us in Jesus, and to wait for the coming of his Kingdom rather than putting their hope in the tangible blessings promised by false gods. They have received this word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; they have devoted themselves to imitating Christ, and they are learning the way of faith, love, and hope. And this story has been told elsewhere; people in Macedonia and Achaia have heard this story of conversion and have been inspired by it. And this has made Paul’s job easier; when he preaches about Jesus, people know what happens when someone becomes a follower of Jesus: ‘You know, just like those people in Thessalonica!’

Okay, time to look at what the commentaries have to say…

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On Avoiding the Dangers of Prosperity (a Thanksgiving sermon on Deuteronomy 8:7-18)

I don’t very often announce titles for my sermons, but today I want to do so. My title for today is ‘On avoiding the dangers of prosperity’.

It might come as a big surprise to you that prosperity can be dangerous. It certainly isn’t a message that our politicians want us to hear, because they are committed to the position that prosperity is a pure and unadulterated ‘good thing’, and must be cultivated at all costs. Our economic masters don’t want us to hear it either, because their entire strategy is to encourage in us an attitude of discontentment with our current level of prosperity, so that they can sell us more things.

Nonetheless, when I read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, it sometimes sounds to me almost as if he’s talking about radioactive materials; they can do a great deal of good if they’re used properly, but you have to be extremely careful how you handle them if you want to avoid being poisoned. And the authors of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy have the same viewpoint. To them the prosperity of the nation of Israel is a blessing from God for which they give thanks, but it also has potential dangers. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it? That’s the theme of our Old Testament reading for today.

First, let’s get the context. The Hebrew slaves have been set free from their bondage in Egypt, they’ve received God’s commandments at Mount Sinai, and they’ve then spent forty years wandering in the Sinai desert. They are now standing on the borders of Canaan, their promised land. Their great leader Moses is an old man and is about to die, and he has gathered the people together to give them what you might call his ‘Last Will and Testament’. Deuteronomy is presented to us as a sermon preached by Moses, in which he restates God’s laws to the people and encourages them to remain faithful to their God. Listen to what he says in verses 7-9:

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.

No doubt this sounds pretty mouth-watering to the Israelites as they stand on the borders of Canaan. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses outlines for them in the following verses. They might go into the Promised Land, settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land and then get so used to it that they forget it’s a gift from God to them. As verse 17 puts it, they might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’.

Today, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we may need to guard against a similar danger. Despite our recent economic woes, we still live in one of the most prosperous societies that has ever existed on the face of the earth. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around ‘standard of living’ have increased exponentially.

When I was a little boy, going out to a movie was a big thing. We were not very well off financially and it wasn’t something we did very often; I remember going to see ‘Bambi’ and ‘The Sound of Music’, but that’s about it. We also didn’t have a TV in my home, but my grandparents did, so part of the fun of going across the road to visit them was being able to watch Fireball XL5 or Thunderbirds on my grandparents’ TV (in black and white, of course)! But nowadays, being able to watch TV shows or movies on demand on the Internet is taken for granted, and people feel deprived if they can’t do it. Also, when I was a little boy one bathroom per house was the rule, and in hotels you assumed you’d have to share a bathroom with others. Not so nowadays! And so it goes on – microwaves, personal computers, smart phones – all these very new things have become part of the standard expectations of most people.

I enjoy these things, I give thanks for them, and I don’t relish the thought of living without them. Nonetheless, from a spiritual point of view, not all is well with this picture. First of all, in this prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. And second, of course, not everyone shares in the prosperity. Twenty-five years ago the average CEO of a large American corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.

Our Old Testament reading for today points out this danger to us, and gives us three strategies for dealing with it.

Strategy number one is to ‘Remember’. When I first came to St. Margaret’s nearly fifteen years ago, we did a number of ‘Meet the Rector’ evenings at which we used an exercise called the ‘Four Quaker Questions’. Two of the questions were “Where did you grow up and what were the winters like?” and “Describe the house you lived in? How was it heated?” So we spent time sharing stories about our roots with one another. A couple of things were very interesting to me. Firstly, many of us grew up in circumstances much more humble than those we now enjoy. Second, many of us have very fond memories of those simpler times.

Moses’ first strategy for the Israelites to protect themselves against the potential dangers of wealth is to remember where you’ve come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, he says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.

Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt, in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”.

The interesting thing is that the people for whom the Book of Deuteronomy was written had no personal memory of the slavery in Egypt or the desert years of Israel. In writing these stories down and passing them on, the authors of Deuteronomy were encouraging the cultivation of a kind of ‘ancestral memory’. The same thing happened when Israel celebrated the Passover every year; they re-enacted the night before they left Egypt, so that the younger generations could, in a sense, enter into the experience for themselves.

Those of you who have visited Fort Edmonton Park will probably have seen the house Premier Alexander Rutherford lived in during the early part of this century. The interesting thing to me was that many of us in this congregation now live in larger houses than the Premier of Alberta lived in less than a hundred years ago! I think that Moses would encourage us as a society to remember where we have come from. Our present standard of living is not something we enjoy as a human right; most people on the face of the earth do not, in fact, enjoy it. It is a privilege, and it should lead us to thankfulness to God.

And that brings us to Moses’ second strategy for dealing with prosperity. Verse 10 says, ‘Bless the LORD your God’. In other words, we are to continually thank God for all the blessings we have received.

Thankfulness is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to cultivate it; I believe we live in a culture that has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. Instead we’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments of course provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.

Thankfulness is an antidote to this. The way Moses tells it here, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. He doesn’t say, “Feel thankful”; he says, “You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (v.10). Thankfulness, in other words, isn’t a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words, you see, have the power to transform us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.

This isn’t just about saying grace at our daily meals – although that’s important. It also includes making a habit of including a good dose of thanksgiving in our daily prayers, and pausing often during the day to say “Thank you” to God. It includes experiencing the truth behind the words of the old chorus: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done”. I challenge you to do that: count your blessings, name them one by one. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Do it until it becomes a habit. It’s a habit with the power to change our hearts.

So Moses has given us two strategies to guard against the dangers of prosperity: we’re to remember where we’ve come from, and we’re to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. The third strategy is to keep God’s commandments. Look in verse 11: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, in this passage, is not a way of buying blessing from God; rather, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received.

But I have a question: which commandments are we talking about here? When we hear the phrase ‘God’s commandments’, we tend to think in terms of the Ten Commandments and other laws about personal morality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the Law Moses was commanding the Israelites to obey was much bigger than the Ten Commandments. It is embodied in the first five books of the Bible, and it includes not just laws about personal morality but also laws about building a just society.

For example, when you were harvesting your field you had to leave some grain standing at the edges so that the poor could glean a living from it. You had to let the land lie fallow every seventh year and rely on God sending you a bumper harvest in the sixth year. When you sold land, you had to offer it first within your own family so that equality of wealth between families was preserved. And every fifty years the Year of Jubilee was celebrated. In this year all land was to revert to its original owners, all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free. The ideal was equality; that society as a whole should prosper, and not just individuals in it.

My point in bringing this to your attention is not to suggest that we should revive the entire Jewish civil law. Rather, it is to remind you that God’s law has never been solely about personal morality; it also requires that we work toward the creation of a just society, where the rights of the poor and vulnerable are protected.

Today at St. Margaret’s we gather to give thanks for all the blessings we have received from God. Moses encourages us to cultivate this habit. We ought to verbalise this as often as possible – both to God and to others. So let me encourage you to be intentional about growing the habit of thankfulness. My observation, over thirty-six years in pastoral ministry, is that people who make thankfulness a habit are happier people who enjoy their lives more.

But the other side of thankfulness is to show our gratitude by making sure others also enjoy the fruits of prosperity. Today at St. Margaret’s we’re doing this by our offering of non-perishable food items for the Food Bank. We’re also doing it by our special offering today for our World Vision child sponsorship fund.

But of course it can’t end there. We’re encouraged in the Scriptures to move through our lives with our eyes wide open, ready to see the needs of others and look for ways to help them – not just in our community, but in the world at large as well. This is another way we show our thankfulness to God for all the blessings we have received.

Prosperity can be a blessing, but we have to handle it carefully. We have to remember where we have come from; we have to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we have to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, we have to learn to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being poisoned by it! May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us to use what has been entrusted to us according to the will of God.

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Meadowvale (a prequel to ‘A Time to Mend’): Chapter 30

Link back to Chapter 29

This is a work of fiction; I haven’t yet finished it, and it will probably get revised after it’s finished. 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.

 

Hugo and Will were born three years apart: Hugo in 1928, Will in 1931. Both of them married good women: Hugo married Millie Friesen in 1952, and Will married Sally Weins in 1954. Both couples made good marriages, and both raised their families with love and patience, encouragement and wisdom. I know this for a fact; I know Will’s family intimately, of course, because I married into it, but Joe, Kelly and Krista were very close to their cousins Erika, Corey, Brenda and Don, and over the years I saw a lot of them too. Don was in my English classes for the first couple of years I lived in Meadowvale, and I saw a lot of Erika and Brenda as well, especially Brenda, who was Kelly’s closest friend after her brother and sister.

All of that being the case, it was remarkable how Hugo and Millie’s kids seemed to be ‘born to trouble as the sparks fly upward’, as the Book of Proverbs says. In Will and Sally’s family, Joe, Kelly and Krista all did well in post-secondary education and enjoyed a lot of success and satisfaction in their careers, although Kelly and Krista both chose to take long breaks from working while their children were small. They all made good, lasting marriages, and so far (I write in 2014) the children of those marriages are also doing well. It is true, as I will recount in due course, that Will and Sally lost one of their children, just as Hugo and Millie did, and that the pain of that loss stayed with them until the end of their lives. But on balance, as Wilf Collins said long ago, Will was ‘damn lucky in his kids’.

Hugo and Millie’s children, on the other hand, tended to struggle. Erika’s marriage to John Rempel was always difficult; not that Erika complained about it or even hinted to anyone that there was trouble, but it was obvious to most people that she had married a man who would never be satisfied, a man who would always be pushing himself and his children to work harder, longer, and faster. Of course, he had his redeeming qualities, too; he was not a malicious man, he could be generous to a fault, and as his father-in-law got older he was always ready to help out when help was needed. But it seemed to me, as the years went by, that John and Erika were living increasingly separate lives. John worked all day, every day, from daylight to dark and beyond, while Erika worked part time at the town library, raised her children, drove them to hockey games and figure skating competitions and friends’ birthday parties and sleepovers, and, in the little spare time that was left to her, visited with her parents and kept in touch with her younger brother. She and Brenda were not close; Kelly told me once that they were very different temperamentally and had always clashed, ever since they were little girls. However, Erika had a special fondness for her baby brother, who was twelve years her junior, and when he was going through his own struggles she was the one in the family who tried hardest to keep up her contact with him.

Corey, of course, had died tragically during my first year in Meadowvale, and I knew that Hugo and Millie still kept that hurt buried somewhere deep inside them. I very rarely heard them talk about him, and neither of them ever mentioned him in conversation with me, but each year when the anniversary of his death came around I noticed that they were especially gentle with each other, even more so than normal. Something else that I knew, because Leanne Collins told me about it, was that for several years Millie sent Wilf and Mabel a little handwritten note on that date, assuring them of her thoughts and prayers. Mabel kept those notes, and after she died Leanne kept them in her turn, and years later she showed them to me. By then Leanne had trained as a teacher and come back to Meadowvale to work; she had her own demons to deal with, of course, but she became a very good teacher, one of a number of younger teachers who I was happy to call my friends in my later years in Canada.

As for Brenda, when she was a teenager she couldn’t wait to leave Meadowvale. As a young child she had loved life on the farm, but later she began to dream of bigger and better things, and she married a man who shared those kind of dreams. She and Gary Nikkel got married when they were both twenty; like her, Gary had been raised in a churchgoing Mennonite family, but he had a good head for business on his shoulders, like his brother-in-law Corey, and his definition of success in life included a healthy chunk of financial prosperity. They had already moved to Saskatoon two years before they got married, where Gary studied for his Bachelor of Commerce degree and Brenda supported them by working at a local Tim Horton’s, rising in four years to become its assistant manager. In 1982 they bought their own Tim Horton’s franchise, and from that point on it became the centre of their lives.

Like Kelly, Brenda had always wanted to have children, but she and Gary had not thought clearly about how this would fit into being co-owners of a business which demanded long working hours from them both. They eventually had two children, Ryan in 1983 and Jessica in 1988, and in both cases Brenda took as much time off as she could after the babies were born, so that she could give them her full attention. It was while the children were young that she was gradually reconciled to her farm upbringing; naturally, she brought them home regularly to spend time with their grandparents, and something about bringing them back to the farm seemed to awaken old feelings in Brenda. She began to imagine a life in which she and her family lived in Meadowvale again and ran a business there, a life in which her children could spend a lot of time on the farm where she herself had been raised. But she did not share those thoughts with her husband, because Gary was totally committed to the business he already had. He loved Brenda, of course, and he loved his children, but running a coffee shop is demanding, and it can so easily suck in all the time an owner can give it, and more besides. And so Gary and Brenda, who had wanted the same things when they first got together, gradually realized that they were seeing the road ahead differently from each other.

As for Don, or Donny as he was known in the family, he never quite seemed to fit into the world around him. He never complained and was always ready and willing to help his dad with the farm chores, and in fact he became quite good at that sort of thing, but his heart was never really in it. He was an excellent student in my English classes, and it was obvious to me that he had the literary temperament in a big way; he loved reading novels and poetry, and his tastes were eclectic and wide-ranging. I thought I was a dedicated reader, but sometimes when I talked to Donny I was astounded at the number of books he could get through in a week. He was socially awkward and never seemed particularly interested in girls, but he could lose himself for hours in the world of an absorbing novel, whether it was a classic by Charles Dickens or a contemporary story by Hermann Wouk.

When he graduated from high school in 1984 he went straight down to Saskatoon to take a degree in English, and of course he did very well at it. But the rest of his life was not going so well. He was a loner and did not find it easy to make new friends in the student world, and as time went by he discovered the pleasures of solitary drinking to ease his sense of isolation. An evening at home reading a book or working on an essay gradually came to include of necessity a bottle of wine, and when he could afford it Donny would gladly drink the whole bottle in an evening. Since his second year he had been working as an editor at the Sheaf, the University of Saskatchewan student newspaper; after he graduated, he went to work there full time, but by then he was a serious drinker, and a major part of his income each month was being spent to support his habit. Gradually, the family noticed that they were not hearing from him very often; he had not given them a home address, preferring that they contact him at the Sheaf, and he rarely answered phone calls and letters from them. Erika suspected that something was going on, but it wasn’t until several years after his graduation from university that the rest of the family learned the full story of the struggles Donny was going through.

 

People in rural Saskatchewan love family reunions. I’m not sure why it took me so long to clue in to this; they were happening long before I arrived in Meadowvale, and they continued to happen year after year, with ever-increasing frequency, especially after modern communications technology made it easier to get in touch with far-flung family members. Perhaps the fact that Kelly and I often went away on holiday in the summer time made it easier for me to miss what was going on; also, it took a while for the Weins and Reimer families to get with the program and start organizing things. But early in 1993 some people in the Reimer family decided that it would be good to have a family reunion, and when Will heard about this, he immediately volunteered to organize it. He enlisted Kelly’s help, and all through the spring they were busy tracking people down and sending out emails and letters to invite everyone they could think of who was descended from the original three Reimer siblings who arrived in Meadowvale in 1924 – Dieter and his brothers Helmut and Werner – or who had married into the family. The third weekend in July was chosen for the event; local family members who could offer accommodation volunteered bedrooms, or spaces in their yards or on their farms where RVs could be parked, and reservations were also made at the local motel and the town campground.

“How many people are we talking about?” I asked Kelly one day.

“Well, with our branch of the family – descendants of my grandpa and grandma Reimer – we’ve invited a hundred and four people”.

“A hundred and four? That’s unbelievable!”

“Don’t forget that Oma and Opa had eight children, all of whom married, all of whom had children, and their children married and had more children, and so on”.

“I suppose so”.

“And then Helmut and Werner had big families too, so – well, depending on how many people actually come, we could have around three hundred people”.

“Where are we going to put everyone?”

“Don’t forget that a good number of them already live around here, or close at hand anyway”.

“True enough”.

“And Krista and Steve and the kids are staying at Steve’s mom and dad’s, and Brenda and Gary and their bunch are staying here”.

“Right, that’s eight out of three hundred”.

“You want to take some more?”

I laughed; “Probably not”.

“Becca’s welcome, too, of course”.

“I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear it!”

Kelly grinned; “Do you think she’ll know what’s hit her?”

“Actually, she’s rather fascinated by our enormous family; I think she’ll find it quite intriguing. What are these three hundred people going to be doing all this time, by the way, and where are they going to be doing it?”

“Well, for a start we’ve rented the community hall, and we’re going to have a huge genealogical tree on one wall, and as many photos as we can gather. There’ll be lots of food and drink, and a couple of formal meals, and probably some dancing and storytelling, and some people are organizing a softball tournament at the ball diamond, and I expect some folks will want to go to church on Sunday morning, since we are Mennonites after all”.

“And some of you are still Christian, too!”

“Yes, some of us are! And talking of dancing and music, I was wondering if you and Ellie…?”

I laughed; “I could have seen that one coming!”

“But you’ll do it, right?”

I leaned forward and kissed the end of her nose. “You know I’ll do anything for you, Kelly Ruth”, I said softly.

“Aw, you still say the nicest things!” she replied, kissing me back.

 

The following Friday, when I came home from work in the late afternoon, she said to me, “I’ve got something very exciting to tell you about”.

“Oh yes?” I came into the kitchen and bent down to give Emma a hug. “How was your day, Em?” I asked.

“Good! And tonight Jake and Jenna are coming for a sleepover!”

“Are they? Do you plan to do any sleeping?”

“If we get tired!”

I straightened up, grinned at Kelly and gave her a kiss; “What’s this very exciting thing?” I asked.

“Well, Dad and I wrote to a couple of people in Russia to let them know about this family reunion, and today Dad got a letter back from Justina Wiebe”.

“Now remind me – who is Justina Wiebe?”

“Her grandfather was Cornelius, who was Opa Reimer’s older brother – he was born in 1885, and he was killed in the First World War. His wife and most of his children died of starvation in the famines in the early twenties”.

“Right, I remember now; there was one survivor from that family, right?”

“Yes – Justina’s father Abraham; he was taken in by his uncle Johann and his wife Lena. Their family was sent to Siberia for a while, and Abraham went with them; when they got out they settled in Omsk, which is where Justina grew up”.

“And where is Omsk again?”

“North of Kazakhstan, in central Russia. It’s actually further away from Chortitza than we are from Toronto, if you want some perspective”.

“They did some travelling, then”.

“I get the sense that they were always trying to stay one step ahead of the GRU”.

“So have you read the letter?”

“Not yet; my German’s not really up to it, and Dad says that Justina’s isn’t all that good either; I get the idea that they don’t use Low German very much any more”.

“You were hoping someone would come from Russia, right?”

“Well, in my wildest dreams, yes, but it was never more than a faint hope; I don’t think any of them are especially wealthy. But Dad’s going to translate the letter so we can read it out at the reunion, and he says Justina’s sent some pictures, too, so we can make them into slides and include them in the slide presentation”.

I could see the elation in her eyes, and I smiled at her and said, “You’re not excited about this, by any chance, are you?”

“Smart ass! You know I am!”

I kissed her again, and then I put my arms around her and said, “And so you should be. And who knows – one of these days you might get to meet some of these people”.

 

There was a welcome supper at the community hall on the Friday evening, although some of the people – especially the younger ones – were not arriving until the Saturday. The weather was warm and sunny during the day, but in the evening we could see the storm clouds starting to gather, and we knew that later that night we were going to get a classic prairie thunderstorm. Fortunately very few people were camping in tents, although there were a lot of RVs and fifth wheels parked in various driveways in Meadowvale and the farms around. Hugo had three RVs parked out at the farm; his guests included his youngest two siblings, Peter and Helena and their spouses, as well as a few of their children and grandchildren. No one had known for sure whether or not Donny would come for the event, but he showed up fairly early on the Friday night; apparently he had arranged at the last minute to stay at Erika’s house. Will’s oldest brother Karl had all his children home for the weekend, including his oldest son James and his family.

Will was the Master of Ceremonies Friday night, and he gave an official welcome to all the out of town guests, but apart from that there wasn’t much organized in the way of entertainment until Saturday. However, this was obviously not an issue; people sat around the tables long after they had eaten their fill, talking with relatives they hadn’t seen for years, and the young kids ran around outside until the thunderstorm drove them all back into the hall. I was glad to see John and Erika there; I hadn’t been quite sure whether or not John would come, but he wandered around the hall with his wife, greeting people he knew and allowing Erika to introduce him to those he was meeting for the first time. Their oldest son Dan had decided not to come, but their other three children were there with them; thirteen year old Jennifer and eleven-year old Katelyn were soon mixing with the other kids their own age, but the youngest, eight year old Dustin, stayed close to his parents all evening and eventually fell asleep on his mother’s lap while she was talking to one of her Uncle Karl’s daughters.

As I had expected, Becca had a great time. She had arrived from England three days earlier, and had been sticking pretty close to home while she got over her jet lag; Joe and Ellie had been over for coffee with her, but so far no one else from Meadowvale had seen much of her. Will and Sally gave her a warm welcome as always, and before long she was wandering the hall, chatting with people she knew; I saw her at one point sitting with Krista and Steve, and later in the evening Hugo and Millie were giving her a guided tour of the huge genealogical chart we had put up on one of the walls.

Donny Reimer had come into town with John and Erika that night; it was the first time I had ever seen him obviously drunk. I had noticed throughout the evening that he was making short work of the bottle of wine he had brought with him, and by the time the meal and the welcome speech were over he wasn’t feeling any pain at all. He wasn’t belligerent or rude, but his words were slurred and he kept bumping into people when he moved around the hall, and eventually he sat down on a chair in the corner and went to sleep. I noticed Hugo and Millie looking at him from time to time, and I could see from their faces that it was the first time they had seen him like this as well.

By the time we had cleared away the dishes and cleaned up the hall for the night it was after ten o’clock. Brenda had called earlier to tell us that she and her family would be late, and in fact it was just after eleven o’clock when they finally pulled into our driveway at home. To my surprise Gary was not with them; Brenda was driving their car, with ten year old Ryan in the front seat beside her and five year old Jessica asleep in the back. By then, of course, our Emma was fast asleep, and Becca had gone to bed too; we got Brenda’s children settled for the night, and then I went to bed myself, recognizing the signs that Kelly and Brenda were planning on a late night visit. When I kissed Kelly goodnight the two of them were sitting at the kitchen table with a pot of herbal tea between them; Brenda looked up at me apologetically, but I shook my head and told her not to worry, I had expected that they would be up talking for half the night. “Don’t forget about the pancake breakfast”, I said to Kelly.

“It lasts ’til eleven o’clock, right?”

I laughed softly; “Are you planning on getting there at five to eleven?” I asked,

“Well, maybe not quite that late”, she replied.

 

I drifted into wakefulness a couple of hours later; I was lying on my side in the bed, and I could feel the warmth of Kelly’s body behind me. I screwed my eyes up to focus on the numbers on the digital clock on the beside table; 2:05 a.m. After a moment I got up quietly and went down the darkened hallway to the bathroom. Brenda’s kids were using Emma’s bedroom, Emma was sleeping downstairs in the basement with Becca, and Brenda was in our spare room.

When I returned to bed Kelly rolled over to face me. “Are you sleeping okay?” she asked softly.

“Fine, but you obviously aren’t”.

“No”. She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Can we talk for a minute?”

“Is something wrong?”

“Yes”.

I rolled onto my back and put my arm out for her, and she moved close to me and laid her head on my shoulder. “What is it?” I asked.

“Gary left Brenda and the kids this week”.

I was astounded; “He left them?” I exclaimed.

“Yes”.

“Wow!”

“I know”.

“Did you have any idea…?”

“I knew they’d had disagreements, but I didn’t realize how bad things were between them; Brenda’s been keeping a lot of things to herself. I guess she was trying to be loyal to her husband and not talk about their private business with other people, but I wish I’d known she was having such a rough time”.

“What’s it all about; did she tell you?”

“I think it started because she wants to spend less time at the shop, and more time at home with her kids”.

“I remember she took time off with them when they were newborn, like you did”.

“Yeah, she insisted on that – four or five months, for each of them. I didn’t realize, though – she never told me – that Gary wasn’t happy with her taking that long; it meant he had to hire people to do the things she normally does at work. The coffee shop business is pretty cut-throat; Gary seems to think that his profit margins are too thin”.

“I knew he was a little compulsive about work, but…”

“Brenda used to be, too, but she’s changed over the years”. She paused for a moment, and then she said, “She’s actually been wanting to sell up and move back to Meadowvale, maybe see if there’s a business they could run here. She says they’d make a huge profit if they sold the franchise, enough to give them a good start on something around here”.

“I’ve noticed that she’s been warming up to the place again over the past few years”.

“Yeah, but Gary hasn’t. Apparently they’ve had some fights over it”.

“Serious enough for him to leave her?”

“Well, that’s not the whole story”.

“Oh?”

She gave a little sigh; “Apparently there’s someone else”.

“You mean another woman?”

“Yeah”.

I shook my head; “I don’t know what to say”.

“There’s not much to say; Brenda’s really upset”.

“It’s amazing that she came up this weekend at all”.

“She’s going to be staying for a while, I think”.

“Do Hugo and Millie know?”

“She’s going to talk to them tomorrow; she’s going to ask them if she and the kids can stay out at the farm for a couple of weeks. She knows we’ve got Becca here and she doesn’t want to crowd our visit”.

“It’s too bad about the timing”.

“Yeah, but don’t feel bad about it, Tom; I can spend time with Brenda just as easily if she’s at the farm, and we can still make our trips with Becca”.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes”.

I was quiet for a moment, thinking about the times over the years we had visited with Gary and Brenda, and the time at the hospital after Kelly’s surgery, when Brenda had come to sit with me, and how she had held me and comforted me when I was so upset about Kelly’s cancer.

Eventually Kelly spoke softly; “I remember when she and Gary started going out”, she said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that story; they must have been pretty young”.

“They were high school sweethearts; they got together in Grade Eleven, and right from the beginning they were dreaming of getting out of Meadowvale and moving to the city. She worked at a Tim Horton’s all through the time he was doing his degree – I’m sure she helped him pay for it. They got married really young, back in 1978, when they were both twenty; they bought their Tim Horton’s franchise in 1982, the summer before you and I met”.

“Sounds like they were pretty much on the same page in those days”.

“They were, but having kids changed Brenda. I don’t think it changed Gary very much, though”.

“How long has this affair of his been going on?”

“A few months, and I guess it’s more serious than an affair. Apparently he’s moved in with this girl”.

“Does Brenda know her?”

“She’s one of their employees”.

“This just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah”.

“How are you doing?” I whispered.

“Not very good”.

“How long have you been in bed?”

“About half an hour; I don’t think I’ll be sleeping for a while, though”.

“Do you want me to get you a cup of herbal tea or something?”

“No thanks, Tom; Brenda and I drank a couple of pots of tea. I think I’d better leave it alone now; I’m sorry I woke you up”.

“No, don’t worry about it”. I thought for a moment, and then I asked, “Does she want Becca to know?”

“She’s fine with that; she knows it would be really awkward for us if we were all wandering around in the morning and Becca didn’t know what was going on”.

“I’ll wake her up with a cup of tea in the morning and fill her in”.

“Okay. Now you go back to sleep, and thanks for being here for me”.

I turned on my side to face her and kissed her on the forehead. “You know that I will never, ever betray you, right?” I said.

She kissed me gently on the lips; “I love you”, she said.

“I love you too, and I always will”.

“Thank you”.

 

I got up around six-thirty and went for a walk, feeling the weariness in my bones and knowing that I was going to be even more tired later in the day. The air smelled fresh and clean after the night’s rain; the mosquitos had enjoyed it as well, and I was glad of my long-sleeved shirt as I walked around the edge of the town. There were still some clouds hanging around, but the sky was clearing from the west, and I thought the chances of fine weather for the afternoon’s softball tournament looked pretty good.

When I got home I was surprised to see that Becca was already up, although she was still wearing her pyjamas; she was pouring boiling water into the teapot as I came into the kitchen. “You beat me to it”, I said; “I was going to bring you a cup in bed”.

“I think I’ve lost the ability to sleep in”, she replied, putting the lid on the teapot and taking two mugs down from the cupboard. “Call it a casualty of five years of university, and it’s going to get busier during my house officer training”. She grinned at me; “Anyway, I thought we might be able to snatch a few minutes together before the kids woke up; I knew Kelly wouldn’t be up for a while”.

“Em’s still asleep, is she?”

“She was when I got up, anyway”.

“Well, she was up quite late; maybe she’ll sleep in a little”.

“What’s it like outside?”

“The mosquitos liked that rain last night”.

“Tea in the kitchen, then?”

“I think so”. I held out my arms to her; “You want a hug, small one?” I said.

“Always”.

We held each other tight for a minute, and then she said, “Kelly and Brenda were up late last night”.

“Yes, I need to talk to you about that”.

She stepped back and looked at me quizzically; “Something wrong?”

“Let’s pour the tea, and I’ll tell you”.

She took a teaspoon and stirred the tea a little in the pot, then poured milk into the bottom of the mugs, filled them up with tea, and handed one to me. We sat down across from each other at the kitchen table, and she said, “What’s up?”

I told her what Kelly had told me during the night, and she listened without comment, although I saw the anger in her eyes and knew that she was remembering her own experience years ago and feeling an instinctive sympathy for Brenda. When I was finished, she shook her head slowly; “Bastard!” she said forcefully.

“Yeah”.

“Hugo and Millie’s family are going through some times, aren’t they?”

“You saw Donny last night, did you?”

“I did; I think John and Erika practically carried him out at the end of the evening. I don’t think I knew he had a drinking problem”.

“I’ve heard rumours about it, but this is the first time I’ve seen it”.

“I wonder what that’s all about?”

I frowned. “Donny’s never felt confident in social situations, and he’s always been a loner, but then, when I was his age, so was I”.

“Not really much point speculating, is there?” She took a sip of her tea and cradled the mug in her hands; “What do you want me to do, Tommy? Am I in the way here? Do you want me to move over to Joe and Ellie’s couch and give Brenda some space”.

I smiled at her; “You are the world’s best little sister, you know!”

“Thanks, but I don’t mind, if you think that would be best”.

“No; Kelly and Brenda already talked about that. Brenda’s going up to Hugo and Millie’s today and she’s going to ask about staying there for a week or two”.

“Have they got room? Sounded like their place was pretty full when I was talking to them last night”.

“They’ll find the room. Don’t worry about it, Becs; the last thing Brenda wants to do is to put you out”.

 

Brenda and her kids got up around nine; by then Emma was up, and Kelly emerged just before nine-thirty. We walked over together to the pancake breakfast at the community hall, with Emma and Becca walking out in front. Emma had turned seven the previous December; the older she got, the more people remarked on how much she looked like her mother, and now that her hair was long like Kelly’s, the resemblance was even more marked. She and Becca were walking hand in hand, chatting away with each other, and Brenda smiled at me and said, “I think someone’s glad to see her aunt again”.

“Yes, they’ve had this thing going for a few years now”.

“It’s nice to see”.

I glanced at her; “Brenda, I’m really sorry about this business”, I said quietly.

“Thanks; I’m sorry I dumped it all on you guys while you’re enjoying a visit with Becca”.

“No, no need to be sorry; she’s the last person in the world to worry about that”.

“I know, and I appreciate it”.

“What are you going to do?”

She glanced over her shoulder; Kelly was walking a few yards behind us with Ryan and Jessica, holding hands and laughing with them.

“I haven’t really thought that far ahead yet”, Brenda said; “We’ve got a house and a business, and the kids have got schools and friends. If it was just me, I’d move back up here and look for work, but I’ll have to really think about it. I told Gary I’d be gone for a couple of weeks and he’d need to figure something out at work; I guess we’re going to have to find a way of splitting that business, or he’s going to have to buy me out or something. We’ll be lucky to get away without lawyers, and that’s going to cost a mint, of course”.

“It’s over, then?”

She nodded, and I saw that she was hardening herself against the hurt she must be feeling. “He told me he’s done”, she replied; “I got the idea he’d made his mind up, and there was no going back”.

 

Kelly and I weren’t really softball players, but several of her cousins were, and so we sat in the bleachers for a couple of hours in the afternoon, watching teams from the various strands of the Reimer family compete against each other. Brenda had gone up to her parents’ farm for a while, and Becca and Emma had gone swimming at the outdoor pool. Kelly was enjoying the opportunity to visit with relatives she hadn’t seen for ages, and I was content to sit on the edge of the conversations, putting a word in here and there; I recognized some of the people, although there were many I was meeting for the first time.

There were over three hundred people in the community hall for the banquet that evening; we sat at a long table with some of Kelly’s cousins from Saskatoon, the children of Will’s younger brothers Frank and Peter, none of whom we saw very often. Kelly was the master of ceremonies for the evening, and so when the meal was over she got up behind the podium, tapped the microphone, and smiled at everyone as the conversation in the hall died down. She had put on a light summer dress for the occasion, and her hair was tied back behind her neck in concession to the heat in the hall.

“Good evening everyone!” she said; “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Kelly Masefield, and I’m Will Reimer’s daughter. Many of you have had letters or emails from me, and it’s good to see so many faces here tonight. Dad and I have been working for months on trying to set this up, so it feels really good to stand up here and see you all. Are you having a good time?”

There were cheers and applause from everyone, and she grinned and said, “Great! Now, don’t worry, we aren’t going to bore you with long speeches tonight, because we know that the most important parts of any family reunion are eating and visiting! In a minute my dad’s going to get up here and we’re going to show you a slide presentation, and Dad’s going to do a very short family history in connection with the slides. Later on, when the food’s all done, we’re going to clear the tables and move them aside, and we’ve got some live musicians here to play for our dance. But before we do all that, I’ve got something very special to share with you”.

I saw her stoop down and pick up a paper from the shelf below the podium; she straightened up, smiled at everyone again, and said, “This is a message from my second cousin, Justina Wiebe. Justina lives about seven thousand miles from here, in Zaporizhia, in the Ukraine, which is the city that my grandparents knew as Alexandrovsk; in their day it was situated just across the Dnieper River from Chortitza, the Old Colony, but of course the city’s grown since then”.

She paused for a moment, and Karl’s son James, who was sitting at the front of the hall with his family, called out, “Are you going to tell us how she’s related to you, Kelly?”

“Thank you, James – yes, I will. She was born in 1938 in Omsk in central Russia. Her father, Abraham Reimer, was the only surviving member of the family of Cornelius and Anne Reimer; Cornelius was killed in the First World War in 1915, and his wife and most of his children died in the famines in the Ukraine in the early 1920s. Cornelius was my Opa Dieter Reimer’s older brother, so that’s how Justina is my second cousin. Here she is”.

Kelly pushed a button on her remote control, and a slide appeared on the screen behind her. It was a photograph of a woman who looked much older than fifty-five; her white hair was cut just above her shoulders, and she wore an old-fashioned print dress. She was standing beside a man with a thick grey beard, dressed in a dark suit and tie. “This is Justina and her husband Abram”, Kelly said. “Justina and my Oma Reimer used to write to each other from time to time, and so we wrote to her to tell her about this family reunion. She sent us a letter and asked us to read it to you; the letter was written in German, and my Dad and Uncle Karl have translated it into English. Here it is”.

Kelly looked down at the letter in front of her on the podium and read out loud:

“‘My dear cousins Will and Kelly:

“‘I was very touched to get your letter telling me about the Reimer family reunion in Meadowvale for the families of my great uncles Helmut, Werner, and Dieter. I am happy to send my greetings from far away Zaporizhia, only a few miles away from the place where they were born so many years ago.

“‘It may be that some people listening to this letter will not know the kind of life we have lived here, so I will try to tell you the story of my family. My grandfather was Cornelius Reimer, brother to Helmut, Werner, and Dieter; he served as an engineer in the Russian Army and was killed in battle in 1915 when my father Abraham was only two. After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother and her children were taken in by Cornelius’ parents, Peter and Anna Reimer, who had a good farm in Rosenthal. However, after the war ended there was anarchy, famine, and persecution, and many people died of starvation or were killed by bandits or arrested and taken away and never heard of again. The only survivor of the family was my father Abraham, who was taken in by his uncle and aunt, Johann and Lena Reimer. My father always said that Johann and Lena were like guardian angels to him; they had five children of their own, but they not only looked after him but also his cousin Thomas, the son of my grandfather’s sister Gertrude Konrad; he also had lost his whole family in those troubled times.

“‘Johann and his family, along with Abraham and Thomas, were arrested and sent to Siberia for five years 1927-32; in those days the Communists were very suspicious of any sort of contact with the west, and Mennonites were seen as enemies because of their religion, and because of their German language and German names. Even receiving a letter from a relative in the West could put your life in danger at that time. They spent five years in hard labour, but then in 1932 they were released and they moved to Omsk, where Johann found work as a hospital orderly. There my father Abraham met my mother Vera Oblonsky, and they were married in 1935; I was born in 1938, and my brother Vasily followed in 1940. My father was a factory worker all his life. He had abandoned any sort of Christian faith, mainly, I think, because he was afraid of what the Communists would do to him and his family.

“‘To make a long story short, Johann and Lena moved to Stalino, now called Donetsk, in 1938, and sadly were killed in the bombing there during the Second World War in 1943. As for me, I married my husband Abram Wiebe in 1959; he is a schoolteacher, and although his family background is Mennonite, we now attend a Baptist Church. We made the long move from Omsk to Zaporizhia in 1969; we had the sense that the local authorities were going to move against Abram because of his faith, and we wanted to get as far away as we could. God has blessed us with two sons, Adam who is twenty-seven and Aleksander who is twenty-four. Adam works as an engineer in Kyev, and Aleksander works in the oilfields in western Ukraine.

“‘My husband and I had to be very careful about expressing our Christian faith until very recently; over the years several of our pastors have been arrested and taken away by the police, and one of them has never been heard of since. It was also very difficult for us to get university education for our children because we are believers; sadly, both of our boys turned away from their faith in order to be able to get ahead in the world. Now, however, things are getting easier, as we have glasnost and perestroika, and there is more openness and freedom to practice our faith, for which we thank God.

“‘I should also tell you that I am in touch with the descendants of my father’s cousin Thomas Konrad, the son of Gertrude Reimer, who I mentioned before. Thomas had two sons, Alexander and Nikolai, both of whom are married, and there are four grandchildren,  all of whom are doing well. Nikolai was a pilot in the Russian Air Force for many years and now flies commercial airliners for Aeroflot; he tells me that he sometimes flies to Toronto and Vancouver, although I see on the map that those cities are far away from Saskatchewan!

“‘Unfortunately it is not possible for us financially to visit you over there in Canada for your family reunion; we would however be very glad to hear from any of you. I apologize for my very poor German; we use almost always Russian now, and I rarely have a chance to speak the language my father learned as a boy. Also, if any of you ever wish to visit the land where your ancestors were born, you would be more than welcome to stay in our home.

“‘My husband Abram joins me in sending greetings to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And again, I thank my cousins Will and Kelly for keeping in contact with us. Our love to you all, dear family in Canada.

“‘Justina’”.

 

Kelly folded the letter, and for a moment there was silence in the hall, but then someone started clapping, and within seconds everyone had joined in. Kelly nodded and then stepped back from the podium; turning and looking up at the screen which still held the images of Justina and her husband, she raised her hands and joined in the applause. Becca, who was sitting beside me, leaned over and said, “That was an amazing letter!”

“I know”.

“Did you and Kelly know about all that history?”

“Most of it. Justina wrote to Oma Reimer from time to time, and after Oma died Karl made copies of the letters to give to Kelly. But they were all in German, of course, and Kelly only knows a little, so she had to get her dad to translate them for her”.

“Will speaks good German, then?”

“He speaks Low German, which is what Mennonites always used for everyday conversation; it was the spoken language in the house when he was a little boy. I’m told it’s got some significant differences from German as spoken in Germany today”.

The applause had died down now, and Kelly turned back toward the people in the hall. “Okay”, she said, “I’m going to ask my dad to come up here now and guide us through the slides. I’ll be back in a while, folks”.

 

One of Charlie Blackie’s old sayings was “Troubles come in tribes”, and I knew what he meant. I had not talked to Hugo and Millie since the beginning of the weekend, but I could only imagine what they must be feeling, with Donny’s drinking problem in full view on Friday night, and then on Saturday the news that Gary was having an affair and had left Brenda and the children. But the full tale of the weekend’s trouble was not yet complete.

Brenda and her kids were not in church the next morning, and I thought I could guess why; rumours were already spreading like wildfire through the family gathering, and I thought she probably wanted to avoid having to answer the same questions over and over again. John Rempel stayed home too, as did his son Dan, and I suspected that Donny was still in bed at their place as well, sleeping off another evening’s drinking. But Erika brought her three younger children to church, as she always did, sitting with her mum and dad in the pew behind John and Ruth Janzen and their children, and Beth and her grandma Rachel. Rob and his family were leaving on their holidays in a couple of days, but he preached a fine sermon as usual that morning, and the music and the prayers were inspiring as well. What with our usual churchgoers and the visitors from the family reunion, our church was full, and many people stayed for coffee in the hall afterwards.

During the coffee hour, when people were chatting together in little clusters, Kelly and I found ourselves standing beside Erika; Becca and Emma were over on the other side of the room with Joe and Ellie and their kids. Erika looked around, and then spoke to us in a quiet voice. “I need to talk to you guys about something”, she said; “Can I maybe come over for a while this afternoon? I know there’s still a lot going on with the reunion…”

Kelly shook her head. “Don’t worry about that”, she said; “Most people are going to start leaving after lunch, and anyway, Tom and I were thinking of having a quiet afternoon with Becca and Emma”.

“Oh, well, I don’t want to intrude, then”.

Kelly frowned and put her hand impulsively on her cousin’s arm; “What’s wrong, Erika?” she asked.

“I’d really rather not talk about it here, Kelly”.

“Okay, well, come on over in the middle of the afternoon, if you can”, Kelly said. “We’ll be in. If we don’t answer the door, knock louder; we might all be asleep!”

 

Erika was thirty-nine that year, and I realized that afternoon as she sat at our kitchen table that she had some lines around her eyes I hadn’t noticed before. I had turned thirty-five myself in April, and Kelly was going to catch up with me in September, and I reflected that in the eleven years since I had moved to Meadowvale we had all had a lot of growing up to do, and Erika not the least.

“Where’s Emma?” she asked as Kelly poured tea for us.

“Becca took her out swimming for a while”, Kelly replied; “She told us they’d be gone an hour”.

“Those two sure get along well, don’t they?”

“They do”.

Kelly took her seat at the table with us; I could see the tiredness in her face as she put her hands around her tea mug. “Are you okay?” she asked Erika.

“Yeah, I am”.

“Things are alright at home?”

“Yeah”. Erika was quiet for a moment, and then she looked at Kelly and said, “I want to talk to you guys about Donny”.

“He’s having a tough time”, Kelly replied.

“Yes, and I probably know more about it than anyone else in the family. Donny and I have kept in touch, you see. Oh, there was a time when I didn’t hear from him for a while, but then I went down to Saskatoon one weekend about a year ago, and I found him”.

“You two have always been close”.

“Yeah, especially when he was little”. She was quiet again, looking vacantly into empty space; Kelly waited patiently, sitting as still as a statue at the table, her eyes never leaving her cousin’s face. Eventually Erika looked across at us and said, “I’m going to need your help with this one, and Joe and Ellie’s too. You guys are steady, and you’re wise, and there’s really no one in my family like that”.

“I think you come pretty close”, Kelly replied softly.

“I try”, Erika said. She frowned; “The thing is, I know where Donny’s living in Saskatoon, and he’s not living alone. He’s living with his boyfriend”.

For a moment neither Kelly nor I said a word; I had the sense that a light had suddenly been turned on, and a lot of things I had seen but not noticed suddenly became clear to me. And then Kelly reached across and put her hand on Erika’s arm; “Donny’s gay?” she asked.

“Yes”.

“How long have you known?”

“About a year”.

“Who else knows?”

“I told John last night”.

“You’ve kept this to yourself for a year?”

“Yes”.

“Oh, Erika”.

I saw the tears springing suddenly to Erika’s eyes, and she covered Kelly’s hand with her own. “Thank you”, she said, “for not going ballistic on me”.

“John…?”

“John had a harder time with it. Of course, he was angry with me for keeping it from him this long, but it wasn’t my secret to tell, you know?”

“No, of course not”. Kelly frowned; “Why have you decided to tell us about it today?” she asked.

“Because Donny wants Mom and Dad to know. He’s desperately lonely; he wants to be able to come home and be open about who he is. And he needs help, too, although he won’t admit it. His drinking has really gotten worse this year; he was drinking when I first visited him and Alan in Saskatoon, but not like he is now. He’s not ready to admit it yet, but Alan wants him to get help, and we really need the family on board with that”.

“What’s Alan like?” I asked.

“He’s a great guy, a couple of years older than Donny; he’s a graphics editor at the Sheaf, which is where they met, of course”.

“How long have they been together?” I asked.

“A couple of years”.

“How long has Donny known that he’s gay?”

“He says he knew it when he was fifteen, but of course he struggled against it, especially with us having such a strong Christian upbringing. We didn’t hear many positive sermons about homosexuality when we were growing up”.

“I don’t remember any sermons about homosexuality, actually”, Kelly said.

“There were a couple, after you stopped coming to church. Do you remember Pastor Henry?”

“Henry Block? The guy before Rob?”

“Yeah; he felt the need to preach on the subject a couple of times”.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about it at the church since I’ve been going there”, I said.

“No”, Erika replied, “but that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions on the subject. The older ones will be staunchly traditional, although they won’t all feel the need to condemn it in the old hellfire and brimstone manner. Some will take the ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’ line; I’m guessing that my mom and dad feel like that”.

“Mine too”, Kelly said softly; “They’ve talked about it occasionally”.

“What about Rob?” I asked.

“Rob doesn’t have a judgemental bone in his body”, Erika replied, “but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take a traditional view. I’m guessing that Rob still thinks the Bible is pretty clear on the subject; he just thinks Jesus is in the business of saving people, not condemning them”.

“So what do you want us to do, Erika?” I asked.

“Donny’s absolutely terrified of telling Mom and Dad; he desperately wants them to know, but he can’t face the thought of being the one to break it to them. So I’m going to need to do that, and I’d really appreciate it if you guys would come with me”.

“What about John?”

She shook her head decisively; “It can’t be John. He can barely reconcile himself to the fact that there’s a gay man in his house right now”.

“It’s as bad as that?” I said.

“Yeah, I’m afraid so”.

“What do you think?” Kelly asked.

“About homosexuality, you mean?”

“Yes”.

Erika gave a heavy sigh; “I wish I knew, Kelly. I’d always assumed that the traditional view was right, but then last year I found out about Donny, and I’ve been struggling with the whole thing ever since. I find some of the things the Bible says a little hard to take, I guess, but it’s the Bible, isn’t it, and aren’t we supposed to take it seriously?” I saw the tears in her eyes again; “Donny’s my little brother”, she said in a shaky voice, “I’ve loved him like crazy ever since he was a baby. I have to stand by him, Kelly; I really do”.

“Of course you do”, Kelly replied. She looked at me; “What do you think?” she asked.

My thoughts were spinning around in my head, but when Kelly’s eyes met mine, I had a sudden moment of clarity. “I’ve read the Bible through two or three times since I became a Christian”, I said, “and every time it mentions anything like homosexuality, it seems to be against it. On the other hand, I notice that it doesn’t seem to be describing monogamous relationships, and also that it doesn’t actually mention the subject very much – I’m guessing maybe six or seven times? Not as many times as lending money at interest, which we all seem to have reconciled ourselves to. So I suppose what I’m saying is, I honestly don’t know, but if I’m going to make a mistake, I’d rather make it on the side of love than of condemnation. So yes”, I added, reaching across for Erika’s free hand, “we’ll come with you when you talk to your mum and dad”.

Erika looked at us for a moment, and I saw the emotion in her face. “You guys are the best”, she said, shaking her head slowly; “I was pretty sure you’d take it like this, but – oh God, Kelly, you have no idea how much of a relief it is to have told someone about this, and to have had this kind of response”. She squeezed our hands; “Thank you”, she said. “Thank you so much”.

“No need”, Kelly replied softly. “When do you want to do it?”

“Well, not this weekend, anyway. Dad and Mom have had so much loaded onto their plate since Friday…”

“Later this week, then? Tom and I are taking Becca and Emma to the mountains in a few days”.

“Let’s do it this week for sure, then. Donny’s going home to Saskatoon after supper tonight”.

“He’s driving himself?”

“No – I’m driving him. I went down to get him Friday night, too”.

And so, a couple of nights later, we left Emma with Becca and went out to Hugo and Millie’s after supper, having arranged with Erika that we would meet her there about eight o’clock. It was still daylight, of course, it being the middle of July, but Brenda was in the process of putting Jessica to bed, and Ryan had gone for a sleepover at a friend’s house. Hugo and Millie were a little surprised to see us, but Millie made a pot of coffee and we sat around their kitchen table, talking quietly until Brenda came back to join us. Then, looking down at her coffee cup, Erika said, “Actually, it’s not an accident that Kelly and Tom are here with me tonight; I asked them to come. There’s something I want to talk to you about, and I wanted them to be here for the conversation”.

Hugo frowned, and Millie gave Erika a quizzical look; “Is everything okay, honey?” she asked.

“I’m fine, Mom. This isn’t about me, it’s about Donny”.

“Donny?”

“Yes”. Erika reached across and covered her mother’s hand with her own. “You remember that time when we didn’t have a home address for him – when we were writing to him at the Sheaf?”

“Yes”.

“Well, I got suspicious about that; I knew there was something he was hiding from me, and it wasn’t just that he had a drinking problem. So I went down to the city one weekend last year and searched for him; I knew a few people he knew, of course, and I made some quiet inquiries until I found out where he was. So I went to his apartment, and that’s when I discovered that he wasn’t living alone”.

“You mean he’s living common-law with someone?” Millie asked.

“Yes”, Erika replied; “He’s living common-law with a guy called Alan Chambers. He’s Donny’s boyfriend”.

For a long moment there was absolute silence at the table; Millie put her hand to her mouth, and Hugo stared incredulously at Erika, his face pale. Eventually Brenda spoke up; “Donny’s gay?” she exclaimed.

“Yes, he is”, Erika replied.

“You’ve known about this for a year?”

“Yes”.

“Did John know?”

“I told him Saturday”.

“You’ve carried this around by yourself for a year without even telling John?”

“It wasn’t my story to tell, Bren”.

“I suppose not, but it must have been an awful burden to have to keep it to yourself”.

I saw the tears spring to Erika’s eyes; “Yes”, she said, “it wasn’t easy, but I didn’t think I had a choice”.

“You’re awesome, you know”, Brenda said, shaking her head slowly; “I hope Donny knows how lucky he is to have a big sister like you”.

Erika smiled gratefully at her; “Thank you”, she whispered.

Hugo cleared his throat; “Are you telling us this on Donny’s behalf?” he asked.

“Yes. He wanted to tell you, Dad, but he was too scared”.

“How long has he been with this guy?”

“A couple of years”.

“And this is why he’s never wanted us to come to his apartment?”

“Yes”.

“Is this why he’s been drinking so much?”

“I don’t know how to answer that one, Dad. I think it’s probably part of it, but that’s a bigger issue”.

Millie got up from the table and went over to the kitchen window, staring out into the yard. After a moment she turned around, and I saw that there were tears in her eyes too. “Erika, how long has he known this about himself?” she asked.

“He says he’s known it since he was fifteen, but of course he struggled against it for years”.

“Since he was fifteen?” Hugo asked incredulously. “He’s carried this around for twelve years, and he’s never told us about it?”

“Dad, he’s been terrified that you would reject him; surely you can understand that?”

I suddenly realized that Hugo was struggling to control his emotions. “Reject him?” he whispered, shaking his head; “For the first time in a long time, I feel I’m beginning to understand him”.

Erika got up, went around the table, knelt down beside her father, and put her arms around him. Millie came up behind her husband’s chair and put her hand on his shoulder, and then we were all quiet for a few minutes as we listened to a sound I had not heard since Corey’s funeral ten years ago: the sound of Hugo crying.

 

A couple of days later we went to the mountains, and so we were away the following weekend when Donny came up to visit his parents again. Erika was with them for part of the time, and after we got back she told us that Hugo and Millie had spent most of the time listening to Donny as he gradually found the courage to open up to them and tell them his story. “I know they’re struggling with it”, she said; “They’ve always taken those Bible texts at face value, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. But the bottom line is that they love him, and at least he knows that”.

Kelly reached across our kitchen table and put her hand on Erika’s. “Brenda’s right, you know”, she said softly; “You are an awesome sister”.

“Thank you”.

Kelly shook her head, her hand still on Erika’s. “You know that Brenda’s always been my best friend, and I know you two haven’t always seen eye to eye”.

“Sister stuff”, Erika said; “It’s not that we don’t love each other, you know”.

“I know that, but I also know that I’ve realized these past few weeks what a brave and loving person you really are, Erika. And I’m not just talking about what you’ve done for Donny”.

I knew instinctively what she meant, and I saw that Erika did too.“I love John, you know”, she whispered.

“I know you do”, Kelly replied; “Why wouldn’t you?”

Link to Chapter 31

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How God Reveals Himself to Us (a sermon on Psalm 19)

Imagine a great sculptor who has been working for a year on a sculpture; it was commissioned by city hall, and it will be located in front of the building for the public to enjoy. The day finally arrives; the people gather around the sculpture – which is covered by a veil – the mayor and council members make their speeches, and then the sculptor steps forward and pulls a string. The veil falls to the ground, and the sculpture is revealed to the public in all of its glory for the first time.

If one of the New Testament writers had tried to describe a moment like that, the word he would have used for it is the Greek word ‘apocalypse’. We’re used to hearing that word in the titles of films like Apocalypse Now, and we forget what it means in the original. In our English New Testament, the word ‘apocalypse’ is usually translated as ‘revelation’. Something that was hidden from us before has now been revealed. That’s an apocalypse, a revelation of God to us.

We can’t discover God with our five senses, and therefore the ordinary scientific methods of research don’t work when we’re trying to get to know God. In fact, we could never discover anything about God at all, unless God had decided to reveal himself to us. Our psalm for today, Psalm 19, shows us two ways in which God is revealed to us, and then ends by giving us a hint about how we ought to respond to God’s revelation.

But before we dive into it, let me remind you what we’re reading here. Even though the book of Psalms is printed in our green service books for convenience, it’s actually a book of the Bible, and so you’ll also find it – in a slightly different translation – in our pew bibles. So the psalms are the oldest part of our service; they were in fact the hymns and songs that the Israelite people used in worship when Jesus was attending the synagogue. When we pray the psalms together we’re adding our voices to the prayers and songs that were used by the Old Testament people and by Jesus and his earliest disciples. Personally, I find that a very moving thought.

So let’s turn again to the psalm we read a few moments ago, Psalm 19; we’ll use the translation in the Book of Alternative Services, which is actually a pretty good one for this psalm. Let’s look first a verses 1-6, where we’re taught that God reveals himself to us through the things he has made.

Stories about experiencing the presence of God through nature are as old as humankind and almost as universal. Speaking for myself, I find that when I’m hiking in the mountains and I’m confronted with the beauty and majesty of God’s creation, I get a really important perspective on what God is like. As I’ve said before, I tend to do a lot of my praying in small rooms, and so I can very easily slip into thinking of God as ‘a being who lives in small rooms’. But then I climb a mountainside, and I’m brought face to face with the grandeur of God – God’s sheer ‘bigness’, if you like – and my own relative smallness. In the truest sense of the word, it’s an awesome experience.

Perhaps the writer of Psalm 19 had a similar experience, which he has recorded for us in verses 1-6. Maybe one night he went for a walk under a clear, starlit sky. This was ancient Israel, remember, so there were no street lamps! Perhaps during his walk he sat down on a hillside and spent half an hour just looking up at the night sky. Of course, he didn’t know astronomy as we do today, but still, the majesty of what he saw brought a sense of awe and wonder at God’s creative power.

Perhaps the next day he went out again at dawn and was captivated by the experience of sunrise. The sun seemed to leap into the sky so enthusiastically – it reminded him of a wrestler jumping into the ring, or a bridegroom emerging from his wedding chamber with a new spring in his footsteps! All of this, too, taught him about God’s creative power.

What does the writer learn from contemplating God’s creation? In verse 1 he tells us that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. When I lived in the Arctic I discovered that the word ‘glory’ is a tough one to translate into central Arctic Inuktitut. The word that’s often used in the prayer book is kaumanek, which means something very close to our English word ‘shining’. I think this is actually a pretty good translation. After all, when you experience ‘shining’, you know that a source of light is present. And in the same way, the writer is telling us, when we experience creation we know that the Creator is present. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of the mountains, or the vast distances of the ocean, or the glories of a prairie sunset – when we look at this as believers, we get a sense of the power and majesty of the Creator who could make all this. The creation is a sign of God’s glory.

Hebrew poetry often uses parallelism: that is, the second line says the same thing the first line does, but in a slightly different way. So it is in this verse: we read that ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork’. ‘Firmament’, to the ancient Hebrews, simply meant ‘the dome of the sky’, but it’s God’s handiwork – in other words, his creativity – that I want to focus on. Every artist puts something of themself into their work, and every picture tells you something about the artist who created it. What does creation tell us about God? Let me respond by quoting to you some questions from Philip Yancey’s book I Was Just Wondering:

‘Why are there so many kinds of animals? Couldn’t the world get along with, say, 300,000 species of beetles instead of 500,000? What good are they?

‘Why is it that the most beautiful animals on earth are hidden away from all humans except those wearing elaborate scuba equipment? Who are they beautiful for?

‘Why is almost all religious art realistic, whereas much of God’s creation – zebra, swallowtail butterfly, crystalline structure – excels at abstract art?’

God is undoubtedly the most prolific creator we know. In fact, I sometimes get the sense that God enjoys creating totally useless stuff, just for the fun of it! Does that idea do something to the way you think about God?

So the first half of Psalm 19 shows us God revealing himself to us through creation. This is often how people first get a sense of the existence of God as well; many of us had our first experiences of God through the natural world. But by itself this is not enough. It gives us that vital sense of the glory and creativity of God, but doesn’t give us God’s wisdom for daily living. It doesn’t tell us how we ought to live our lives to reflect the glory of God in the world. For that we need the second source of revelation the psalmist is going to tell us about: God reveals himself to us through the things he has said in the scriptures.

We can learn a great deal about people through observing them. We can learn whether they are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, old-fashioned or up-to-date. We might even be able to learn something about what they do for a living, or about their religious beliefs. But if we really want to get to know someone, sooner or later we’re going to have to talk with them, and listen to what they have to say. A person’s words reveal their thoughts in one of the most intimate ways we know.

The Old Testament writers all believed that God has spoken to his people through what they call ‘the Law and the Prophets’. In them, God has not only revealed what he is like but also what he wants us to be like. The Hebrew word that we often translate ‘Law’ is ‘Torah’, which actually means something like ‘instruction’. In Psalm 19 it is described in several ways: God’s ‘law’ and ‘testimony (v.7), his ‘statutes’ and ‘commandments’ (v.8), and his ‘judgements’ (v.9).

The psalmist thinks that the people of Israel are the luckiest people on earth, because God has given them this Torah. In verse 7 he points out that it gives them ‘wisdom’ – in other words, it teaches them the appropriate way to live in any given situation. In verse 8 it brings them ‘light to the eyes’ – in other words, it helps them to see the path that God has set before them. It brings revival and joy to the human soul, and it warns them of ways of behaviour that are dangerous for humankind.

For me, the most telling of these sentences is the end of verse 11: ‘in keeping them’ – that is, God’s commandments – ‘there is great reward’. Listen to that sentence carefully; it’s a bit different from the popular view. The popular view is ‘Well, keeping the Ten Commandments is tough, but you’ll get a great reward’. But that’s not what the writer says. He doesn’t say ‘For keeping them there is great reward’, but ‘in keeping them there is great reward’. In other words, it’s not “Well, if I learn to be unselfish on earth I’ll get a great reward in heaven”. No; the writer’s view is “As I learn to live in unselfishness, I’ll gradually discover that here and now it is the most rewarding way of life”. The good life that God reveals to us is its own reward.

You see, these commandments aren’t an arbitrary set of rules God has revealed to us. Some religions do really seem to believe this. Muslims, for instance, believe that many of the pleasures they think of as sinful in this life will in fact be given to them as rewards in the next life. The Muslim writer Yahiya Emerick says ‘Nearly all the pleasures of Earth are regulated or even forbidden for a Muslim, so their reward for obeying God in this life is guilt-free indulgence in the next’.

On this view, you see, these things aren’t really wrong in themselves – if they were, they would be forbidden to us in the next life as well – and the only reason for avoiding them in this life is to be able to enjoy them in the next. But the Biblical view is different. These things are harmful for us. In warning us about them, God is doing us the biggest favour imaginable. And in describing the ideal godly life for us, God really is showing us the most rewarding way of living.

For us Christians, of course, this revelation doesn’t stop in the Old Testament scriptures. John calls Jesus ‘the word of God’. He embodies God’s speech for us; his life is a concrete embodiment of the Torah. His teaching brings out the deeper meaning of the Old Testament commandments, and he sums them up for us in his two great commandments to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we faithfully follow Jesus, we are living out the deepest meaning of God’s Old Testament Torah.

So we have these two sources of revelation, the works of God and the words of God, creation and scripture. And we need them both. We need to look for God in creation to get a sense of God’s grandeur, God’s ‘bigness’ if you like, and the sheer fun that God takes in artistry for its own sake. But we also need the scriptures for clarity about God’s inner thoughts and God’s will for us as human beings. Perhaps temperamentally we all tend to incline toward one or other of these sources of revelation, but I would encourage you to seek a proper balance between them.

However – and this is the final thing – we also need to consider our response to what God shows us and says to us. In our Sunday services, after we have heard God’s word proclaimed to us, our response is to say ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’, and to ask for God’s forgiveness and strength to do better. In other words, God’s revelation often makes our shortcomings clear to us, and encourages us to ask for help to learn the new way of life.

 That’s what we see in verses 12 and 14: ‘Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults… Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’. The writer recognizes his own faults, and he asks God’s help to avoid them in the future and to live an acceptable life.

This is the purpose of God’s revelation, in creation and in scripture. I’m told that in the intelligence community they sometimes talk about the ‘need to know’ principle – you won’t be told something just to satisfy your curiosity, but only if you ‘need to know it’ to be able to do your job properly. Well, there are a lot of things we’d like to know that aren’t in the Bible – the answer to the mystery of evil, for instance – but God doesn’t seem to think that we ‘need to know’ them in order to live our lives properly.

We don’t go to Scripture to satisfy our curiosity about everything. We go to seek God’s wisdom for our daily life. Let me close by pointing you again to the prayer in verse 14: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’. I suggest that whenever we go to God’s revelation, either in his works or his words, we go with that prayer. That’s the way to get the most benefit from what God reveals to us.

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