Who are the must-reads?

Seth Godin had a great blog post on Thursday about knowing who the must-reads are in your field. It ended with these words:

We would never consent to surgery from a surgeon who hadn’t been to medical school, and perhaps even more important, from someone who hadn’t kept up on the latest medical journals and training. And yet there are people who take pride in doing their profession from a place of naivete, unaware or unlearned in the most important voices in their field.

The line between an amateur and professional keeps blurring, but for me, the posture of understanding both the pioneers and the state of the art is essential. An economist doesn’t have to agree with Keynes, but she better know who he is.

If you don’t know who the must-reads in your field are, find out before your customers and competitors do.

Too much doing, not enough knowing.

So the question is, for us pastors, who are the ‘must-reads’ in our field? And how do we decide?

The reason I ask this question is because we have a fair amount of latitude in our work. An old clergy friend of mine once told me that you can do the absolute non-negotiable tasks of an Anglican parish priest in about 24 hours a week. If you work twice that many (as many of my colleagues do), you have a certain amount of freedom in deciding how you’re going to spend the other 24 hours. And many of us will tend to spend it on projects and tasks that interest us, rather than asking ‘What would be of most benefit to my parish?’

Do we make decisions about our reading the same way? Instead of asking ‘Who are the must-reads to better equip me to do the work God is calling me to do in this parish?’ do we ask instead, ‘Now, what would I most like to read next?’ ?

I suspect that’s how we often make that decision. I know that’s true of me.

So my questions are:

  1. Who are the ‘must-reads’ for us as pastors?
  2. How do we decide who goes on that list?
  3. How do we make sure that we don’t neglect the classics that have stood the test of time in favour of the ones who happen to be making the waves today?

Please discuss…

Posted in Books, Pastoral Ministry, Reading | 4 Comments

The Three Baptisms (a sermon for Pentecost)

This morning as we celebrate the baptisms of Doug and Gideon, I want to think with you for a few minutes about the word ‘baptism’ and what it means. Jesus actually uses the word ‘baptism’ to refer to three different experiences that Christians have, and all three are important.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ originally had a very simple meaning: to dip, or to immerse. It wasn’t necessarily in water; ancient Greek chefs made pickles by ‘baptizing’ them in vinegar, and if they’d had fondues, they would have used the word ‘baptizo’ for that as well! When it comes to water baptism, Jesus is obviously using the word literally for dipping or immersing people in water; the other two meanings are metaphorical, but no less important.

Let’s start with baptism in water. We know that Jesus commanded his disciples to do this. In Matthew 28:18-20 he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.

The early Christians obeyed this particular command to baptize right from the beginning. In our reading from Acts today we heard of the Holy Spirit filling the followers of Jesus; a crowd was attracted, and Peter preached the good news of Jesus to the crowd. Later on in the chapter, some of the people were convinced by what Peter said, and they asked, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, ‘“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”…So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added’ (Acts 2:38, 41).

So the act of becoming a Christian in the early church always included not only the inward actions of repentance and faith, but also the outward action of being baptized. Some people think of this as strange, but in fact it isn’t strange at all. We humans have always used physical signs in this way. We don’t just say hello to each other, we shake hands as well, and some people will formalize a deal by shaking hands on it. At a wedding we don’t just promise to love each other, we join hands, give and receive rings, and exchange formal kisses. Athletes attending the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games carry the flag of their country, and they know it’s not just a piece of cloth; it has a very special meaning to them. These are just three examples of our human tendency to use physical signs and give them a much deeper meaning.

Baptism in the early church was such a rich symbol that all sorts of meanings were discovered in it. As we’ve seen, Jesus connected it with becoming disciples; it was a sort of enrolment in the School of Jesus. It was also an obvious sign of cleansing – washing away sin and evil through God’s forgiveness, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, and starting a new life with Christ. Paul also talks about it as a sort of death and resurrection, and immersion was a particularly good symbol of that: going under the water was like dying with Jesus to the old way of life, and coming up out of the water was like rising with him to the new way of life. Sometimes in the early church, new Christians would symbolize that by taking off their old clothes before being baptized, and then putting on new clothes when they came out of the water.

Sometimes people denigrate symbols, but I think that most of us know how powerful they can be. For instance, many of us in church today are wearing wedding rings. There’s no law that we have to do this, but we choose to do it – we choose to wear on our fingers a symbol of our love for our husband or wife, and our commitment to them. I think that most of us would agree that these rings are very important to us. Yes, they are a symbol, but we’d never say, “They’re just a symbol”. We know how powerful that symbol is, and what it means to us.

Baptism is like that. It’s so powerful a symbol, in fact, that the New Testament often talks about it as actually accomplishing what it symbolizes. For instance, in John chapter 3 Jesus says ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5); baptism with water is seen here as an essential part of the process of new birth. And in Galatians Paul points to both faith and baptism; he says, ‘For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’ (Galatians 3:26-27).

So the Holy Spirit uses two things – our faith, and the act of baptism – as a means of bringing us to new birth in the family of God. This is true, even though faith and baptism might be separated chronologically. A baby might be baptized, and then later on come to faith in Christ. An adult might come to faith and then later on be baptized – perhaps even after many years! But the two things belong together theologically; neither of them is complete without the other. Peter didn’t just tell the crowd to repent and believe in Jesus – he told them to be baptized as well. But on the other hand, we don’t just baptize people – we ask them questions about their faith as well.

So this is the first baptism – baptism in water. But there’s a second way Jesus uses the word ‘baptism’: he talks about baptism in the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, chapter 1, we read these words: ‘While staying with (his disciples), he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And in verse 8 he goes on to say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

In the next chapter, as we read this morning, the Day of Pentecost arrived and they were all together in one place, when suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a mighty rushing wind that filled the whole house where they were sitting. And they saw little flickering tongues, just like flames of fire, resting on each one of them. And then all of them were aware of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and they found themselves speaking in different languages that they hadn’t learned before, speaking about God’s mighty acts of power.

This was obviously a very powerful experience that changed their lives – a real encounter with the Spirit of the living God. But it was not the only time they experienced this. Two chapters later – and we don’t know how much time had elapsed in between – they were meeting after some of them had been imprisoned and flogged for preaching about Jesus. In their place we might have prayed for safety, but they didn’t – they prayed for boldness to keep spreading the message of Jesus, and they asked God to keep confirming it by sending signs and wonders. And then we read that, ‘When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31).

So this is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. A person being baptized in the Holy Spirit is being immersed or plunged into the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is not just a fanciful metaphor. Many people who have had these powerful experiences of the presence of God report that this is exactly what it felt like: they felt as if they were totally surrounded and filled with the love of God and the power of his Spirit.

What’s it like to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? I suspect there are many different answers to that question. To some people it’s probably the same sort of dramatic experience that these early Christians had. To others, it may be something quieter and less tangible, but it’s obvious its happened because of the changes in their lives. I still love the way my dad described it to me years ago; this is what he said:

On Shrove Tuesday 1971, I was part of a prayer group and all the members knew that I was waiting, in obedience to the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Two of the group asked me if I would like them to pray with me. I agreed and they prayed but nothing happened. I was trying to will myself into the experience but that isn’t how it happens. So, in my heart I prayed, “Well, Lord, I’ve waited twelve years, I can wait longer, if that’s what you want”. And that was what the Lord was waiting for… And so it happened. My heart was bursting with a joy and peace and love I had never known before.

The way I would describe it is that it’s like standing under a great waterfall but the water not only cleanses the outside but pours through the whole body, soaking and enriching every cell. It’s realizing that every drop of that water is the Spirit’s power filling me to overflowing with the love of Jesus.

So you see, it’s not just something that happens in the pages of the Bible. I’m sure there are probably hundreds of thousands of people around the world today would who would testify that they, too, have experienced what Jesus promised: baptism in the Holy Spirit.

But here’s the thing: water baptism is within our control, but baptism in the Holy Spirit is not. Only God can baptize people with the Holy Spirit, and only God can decide what form that baptism will take – whether it comes with deep emotions or not, or whether it’s accompanied by miraculous acts, like those early Christians suddenly finding themselves speaking in languages they’d never learned. Jesus told his church to baptize people in the name of God, but he told them to ‘wait’ for baptism in the Holy Spirit. We can’t make it happen; we can only wait for it, praying that the Holy Spirit will fill us, and that God will make us open to whatever it is he wants to do in us by the work of the Holy Spirit.

So we’ve talked about baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit. But there’s a third way the word is used in the New Testament: the baptism of suffering. In Mark chapter ten, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, come to him with an audacious request: ‘“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”. But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able”. Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared”’ (Mark 10:37-40).

Jesus is referring to the cross, of course. On the cross he would drink the cup of suffering on our behalf, and he would be plunged or baptized into suffering, just like a ship in a storm being overwhelmed by the waves. This baptism is like the ‘taking up our cross and following Jesus’ that Jesus talks about elsewhere. To be baptized is to be baptized in the name of Jesus, and not to be ashamed to own that name.

And not everyone is going to be glad that we own that name. Around the world today many of our Christian brothers and sisters are persecuted for following Jesus. In some countries it is a capital offence to convert to Christianity, and everyone knows it. In many of those countries, if you obey the command of Jesus to be his witnesses, you will be thrown in prison and possibly executed as well. Here, in the tolerant west, we don’t suffer that sort of persecution, but I would suggest to you that if we obey some of the more controversial commands of Jesus – loving our enemies and praying for them rather than pouring hatred and violence on them, for instance – we will also experience some of the scorn and derision that followers of Jesus have always experienced.

So I want to say to all of us who have been baptized, and especially to Doug and Gideon who will be baptized in a moment, that in our baptism we take the name of Jesus Christ – we are called ‘Christians’ – and Jesus calls us not to be ashamed to own that name. Of course, he’s not asking us to be self-righteous, as if we were saying “I’m a Christian, so I’m better than those who aren’t”. That would be completely foreign to the spirit of Jesus! But equally, he’s calling us to walk into those situations where we know that the name of Jesus is not respected or honoured, and not to be ashamed or fearful to say, “I’m marked with that name; I belong to him”.

Let’s go around this one last time. In the New Testament there are three experiences that Jesus describes with the word ‘baptism’.

Water baptism is something we do in obedience to him. Through faith and baptism we become followers of Jesus; we are washed from sin and born again into the family of God. Once it’s done, it doesn’t need to be done again; Paul says in Ephesians that there is ‘one’ baptism. In joyful obedience to that command of Jesus, we will baptize Doug and Gideon this morning.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit isn’t something we can do; it’s something we can pray for and wait for. And I hope that all of you will pray for it and wait for it. If you’ve never experienced anything like it, I hope you will keep on praying for it. Don’t try to make it happen; don’t try to manufacture some sort of powerful emotional experience. None of that works, because it’s not real. True baptism in the Holy Spirit is a gift of God. And unlike water baptism, it is repeatable; as we’ve seen, the early Christians experienced it more than once.

Baptism in water is something we do; baptism in the Holy Spirit is something we pray for and wait for. But the baptism of suffering is something we’re ready for. We don’t go looking for it, and no one in their right mind asks for it. But when it comes our way, we accept it – I’d even go so far as to say, we accept it with joy, like the Christians in the book of Acts, who, we’re told, ‘rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name’ of Jesus (Acts 5:41). It’s not a sign that we’re doing something wrong; it’s an inevitable consequence of faithfulness to Jesus in a world that does not recognize his authority. So when we experience it, let’s ask God to strengthen us to endure it, and to be faithful to the one who has called us to follow him as baptized Christians.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Posted in baptism, Following Jesus, Sermons | Leave a comment

Meadowvale (Revised): Chapter Two

I’ve gone through the ‘Meadowvale’ story over the past few weeks and done a rewrite. I will be posting the revised chapters here over the next few months, at the rate of about two a week. The originals are still on this site (go to ‘Meadowvale’ in the sidebar) in case you want to compare! I hope you enjoy them.


The next few weeks were busy. I signed a one-year lease on the house, and Will kept his promise to drive me into Saskatoon to look at second-hand furniture stores. We picked up a few pieces to furnish my place, and I also bought a used 1979 Chevrolet Nova – a little more car than I had been looking for, but Will nodded his approval and said “I know it’s not a Honda or a Toyota, but it’ll stand up pretty well to winter driving around here, especially if you travel on the back roads at all”.

In those three weeks before starting work I spent a lot of time walking the streets of Meadowvale. I had always enjoyed walking, and in my teenage years and on into my university days I had been accustomed to going for long walks out in the Oxfordshire countryside. I quickly realized, however, that rural Saskatchewan in the early 1980s was not set up for country walking in quite the same way; there were no real footpaths, and if you walked along a gravel highway you got choked with dust every time a truck went by. So I took to walking around town every morning, learning to find my way around the streets, locating the grocery stores, the bank and the post office, and the coffee shops (one at the ‘greasy spoon’on the highway, the other in the back of the Co-op store).

I also got Will to sit down with me and run through the curriculum materials I would be teaching in my classes. Some of the set books were familiar to me, but there was some Canadian literature that I didn’t know, and so most nights I sat up late, reading and catching up. When I felt familiar enough with the curriculum and the materials, I began to make some plans and construct some lesson outlines. I was actually feeling quite apprehensive about the beginning of classes; it was true that I had worked as a student teacher in three different schools in the Oxford area, but this was my first real teaching job, working in a foreign country with a culture completely different from the one I had been raised in. I kept my apprehension to myself, however, wanting to give an impression of confidence and competence when I was with Will.

Will also introduced me to two other teachers who were, unsurprisingly enough, relatives of his: Sally’s nephew Don Robinson, who taught at the high school, and Don’s wife Lynda, who was at the elementary school. “Don’s mom Rachel is my older sister”, Sally explained to me; “We’re both Weins’ by birth. Don’s her oldest boy; he and Lynda taught in the Arctic for five years after they finished university, but they’ve been back in Meadowvale for three years now”.

“Does everyone come back to Meadowvale?”I asked with a grin.

“We wish”, Will replied; “A lot of people are moving to the city these days”.

“You were never tempted?”

He shook his head; “It works well for some people”, he replied, “but it’s not for us”.


As Sally had suggested, Will and I got out our guitars a couple of times and jammed along with each other, getting used to each other’s styles. As he had said, he was a basic meat-and-potatoes strummer, comfortable with songs with a simple chord structure, and he also had a fine singing voice. His country repertoire was entirely new to me, but I could see right away that he got a lot of pleasure out of the songs. As for me, I had been playing guitar since my early teens and had been strongly influenced by some of the best fingerstyle players in the English folk revival – people like Nic Jones, Martin Carthy. Davy Graham, and John Renbourn. Will listened as I played a couple of songs, and then he said, “You’re probably a better guitarist than anyone else in Meadowvale. Do you play any Simon and Garfunkel stuff?”

“I started out with them, actually. My best friend Owen Foster learned at the same time as me; their songs were the first ones we tried to learn. We tried really hard to sound like them, but later on we got more interested in traditional music”.

“Did you guys play in a band or something?”

“We were a band, I suppose, or a duo, anyway”.

“Did you do concerts?”

“We played at open stages, and later on we got a few gigs at coffee shops and pubs and little folk clubs”.

“I’m impressed! Do you still like some of that old Simon and Garfunkel stuff?”

“I do”.

“I know a few of their songs; would you like to try some?”

“Absolutely”.


Labour Day was September 6th; school started the week before, and I was immediately plunged into the busyness of being a first-year teacher in a foreign country. When I had gone to school back home we had all worn formal uniforms with jackets and ties, but here the uniform seemed to be torn jeans and old tee-shirts. This was one of the aspects of the Canadian system that I enjoyed; I had always preferred dressing informally, and was relieved that there was no requirement that male teachers wear ties in Meadowvale School, “although you can if you want”, Will told me, “and we don’t want you wearing jeans on the job”. Will himself seemed to specialize in check shirts and baggy sweaters, although occasionally he exerted himself and put a tie on.

The kids in my classes, especially in the higher grades, were not much younger than me, and of course it was sometimes a challenge to exert discipline. In the first few weeks I often felt at a loss to know how to control them, but gradually I found my way, starting to relax a little and participate in the give and take of classroom banter. I had become an English teacher because of my admiration for George Foster, my friend Owen’s father; he had taught me in high school and helped me fall in love with great writers like Shakespeare and Dickens, George Eliot and Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and the Brontë sisters. He had a masterful way of controlling a class, but of course he was more than a few years older than me; nonetheless, I tried to take my inspiration from the way he had conducted himself. I was still in touch with him, and from time to time I wrote to tell him how things were going and to ask for his advice in certain situations. He always wrote back promptly, and his letters were full of encouragement.

All through the late summer and early Fall, Will and Sally invited me for supper at their house at least once a week. I protested half-heartedly that they didn’t need to spoil me, but the truth was that Sally was an excellent cook and I enjoyed their company. I was getting to know them a little better now, and the better I knew them, the more I admired them. I was a mild introvert myself, but Will was a gregarious extrovert and was always introducing me to new people when we were out around town. He was especially glad to introduce me to relatives, of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply, most of them with Mennonite names like Weins and Thiessen, Toews and Janzen, and many, many Reimers as well. Sally was less outgoing than Will, but just as happy to have company in their home. Will told me that she worked part time as a bookkeeper for several local businesses; “She’s pretty good with accounts and that kind of stuff”, he said with a grin, “which is lucky, because I’m not!”

Will and Sally were not just cultural Mennonites; they were believers too. I had noticed from the beginning that they always said grace at mealtimes, and from time to time they alluded to the fact that they had been to church on Sunday. I had been raised in a non-churchgoing home; my father was an atheist and my mother – though I thought she might have enjoyed going to church from time to time – would not defy his will. However, my friend Owen was a Christian and he and I had often had conversations on the subject, so I was not put off by Will and Sally’s religious beliefs, although I never raised the subject with them.


And so the warm Saskatchewan summer turned to Fall, the leaves turned from green to yellow, and the farmers were frantically busy in the fields getting the crops in. One Saturday in late September Will asked me if I would like to go out with him to his older brother Hugo’s farm; they were working on the harvest and could always use an extra pair of hands. Actually I realized pretty quickly that this was just another example of Will’s gregarious spirit, because he was driving the grain truck, and all I did all day long was sit beside him in the cab and listen to his stories.

Hugo’s farm was located about fifteen miles north of Meadowvale, just north of the narrow Spruce Creek. The farmhouse was a spacious two-story building with red siding, and barns and other sheds behind it. Hugo was taller than Will, but he had the same curly hair and grey beard; his son Corey was helping him with the harvest, but I saw immediately that although he had his father’s looks, he did not have his big farmer’s hands. “He’s not really a farmer any more”, Hugo told me with a smile; “He’s an accountant. Still, he likes coming out here and getting his hands dirty from time to time!”

Corey smiled and said, “Speaking of amateur farmers, where’s Joe, Uncle Will? Wasn’t he supposed to be out here today?”

“I guess he had a surgery of some kind come up at the last minute”, Will replied.

“Any excuse to avoid some real work, eh?” Corey said with a mischievous grin.

At noon we went back to the farmhouse for a soup and sandwich lunch prepared for us by Hugo’s wife Millie. I noticed that there were some horses out in the paddock behind the house; Will saw me looking at them, and he asked me if I was a rider.

“No, never had the chance”, I replied. “I suppose you are, though?”

“I don’t ride very often these days, but when I was a kid I rode a horse to school, on account of our farm being about four miles from the schoolhouse”.

“You must have learned when you were very young, then”.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t ride. My kids like it too, especially Joe and Kelly. One of those horses over there is actually Kelly’s horse; she’ll likely spend some time out here when she comes home for Thanksgiving”.

“Does Hugo have other children too?”

“He’s got four altogether, but his daughter Brenda lives down in Saskatoon; she and Kelly are pretty close. You met Donny this morning; he’s the youngest. The oldest is Erika; she’s married to John Rempel. Their farm’s about four miles from here; I’m guessing they’re busy with the harvest today too”.

“What about Corey; does he live in Meadowvale?”

“Yeah, he started a little accountancy business in town a year or two ago; Sally helps him out from time to time. He and Joe are cousins, of course, but really they’re more like brothers; they’ve been best friends since they were little boys”.

“Are they the same age, then?”

“Joe’s six months older than Corey, but they were in the same year through high school, and they shared an apartment when they were in university too”.


“So what do you think of it so far?”Owen asked when we were talking on the phone.

“It’s all strange, but I like it”, I replied.

Owen and I had been friends since my family had moved to the village of Northwood when I was eleven. Owen had been raised in the village, and he knew all the countryside around like the back of his hand. Our friendship started out as the friendship of two boys who liked going for bike rides and rambles out in the country; later on it also became a musical friendship, as we learned to play guitar together. In our late teens we had performed together, first at our school and later in other places, and this had continued when we had gone up to university in Oxford in 1977. Owen was more outgoing than me, and he was the one who first suggested that we go out to a pub to play at an open stage night. I had been dubious about it, but he was determined, and so we had taken the first step into the folk music community of Oxford. Before long we had a name, ‘Lincoln Green’, and much later we were joined by a third member, Wendy Howard, who also liked traditional folk music and had a soaring voice that audiences loved.

Owen and I had been calling each other once a week since I arrived in Meadowvale back in August; we also wrote regularly, and I had sent him some photographs of my new home town.

“Any snow yet?”he asked.

“No, in fact it’s been quite mild, although Fall is definitely progressing. Will and Sally keep warning me that one day the snow’s coming, though. How about you; what have you been up to this week?”

“Well, I met a girl I rather like, actually”.

“A girl?”I was mildly surprised; Owen was an extrovert who had many friendships, male and female, but he very rarely singled any of the girls out for special attention. He had dated from time to time in a casual manner, but as far as I knew – and we were very close friends, so I would have known – he had never had anything like a steady girlfriend.

“Yes, her name’s Lorraine Hutchinson and she’s an artist”.

“An artist?”

Owen laughed; “Are you stuck in repetition mode today?”

“Sorry! Where did you meet her?”

“At church last Sunday, actually. She was new and she ended up accidentally sitting beside me. We got talking and I asked her out for lunch afterwards. I’ve seen her a couple of times since then; she only lives a five minute walk from me”.

“What’s she like?”

“She’s pretty, and she’s talented. She’s spent the last three years at art school in London, and now she’s moved to Oxford to live with her sister. She’s trying to make a living as a water colour artist, and meanwhile she’s working at a coffee bar in the city centre”.

“Does she like walking?”

“Yes, and music, though she doesn’t play”.

“Sounds like she’s got the potential to become a definite distraction, mister medical student”.

He laughed; “Don’t worry, I’m not getting seriously distracted”.

“Have you heard from Wendy?”

There was silence on the line for a moment, and then he said, “Haven’t you?”

“No”.

“Well, I heard that she’s moved to London, and that she and Mickey are back together”.

“You must be joking!”

“I’m not; I had it from Sue Morris”.

“Well, Sue would know”.

“I’m surprised you haven’t heard from her, though”.

“I wrote to her, but she hasn’t replied. That doesn’t really surprise me, though; you know how things were between us”.

“I know”.

“But London, Owen – that doesn’t make sense! She was all set to start studying for her doctorate at Merton”.

“I know; I found it hard to believe, too”.

“What else did Sue say?”

“Not much, actually; I bumped into her on the High one day, but we only talked for a couple of minutes”.

“Is she still in Oxford?”

“No, she was just back in town for a couple of days”.

“Where’s she living now?”

“London too, so she said”.

“Right; I think I remember her saying she was going to do her doctorate at King’s”. I was quiet for a moment, and then I said, “I can’t believe Wendy and Mickey are back together; not after all that happened between them”.

“I know”.


The next day, a Monday, I stopped at the post office on the way home after school and found two letters in my box. When I got home I made myself a cup of coffee, took it into the living room, and sat down to read.

The first letter was from my mother.

Northwood, Oxfordshire
September 27th 1982

Dear Tom:

Thank you for your letter of September 19th that I received yesterday. Letters seem to be taking about a week to get here; I assume it’s the same in the other direction as well?

I’m glad that school is going well and that you’re enjoying the new friends you’re making. I was glad to hear your stories about the Reimers and it really does seem as if you’ve been very lucky to have such a supportive principal. I was also very glad to receive the photographs you sent; they give me something to visualize about your new life.

You asked after Becca; well, what can I say? She’s still very, very hurt, Tom; hurt that you planned this move for so long without telling her, when she looked up to you so much and loved you so very dearly. Of course, your dad and I are still hurting from that as well, but I think it’s worse for Becca. Yes, she’s received your letters, but she hasn’t read them; she tore them up and threw them away. I know it will be painful for you to hear this, because, unlike your dad, I don’t believe you did all this specifically to hurt us, and I know you well enough to be sure that your little sister is still very special to you. But you need to know how things stand. By all means continue to write to her, and I’ll pass on your news as well, but don’t expect to hear back from her, at least, not in the short term.

As for your dad, he hasn’t mentioned you since the day you left. I know that what he did to you the last time you saw each other will make it very, very difficult for either of you ever to be reconciled to each other. This is very hard for me to watch, because I love you both. He knows I’m writing to you, and I think that secretly he’s happy to have news of you. But I don’t think you’ll hear from him yourself.

Rick is fine and very busy; the new term at Oxford has just started and it looks like he’ll have a lot to do. He moved back into college last week, and he stayed in town last weekend to get some work done. As far as I know he’s still seeing Alyson, but she hasn’t been out here with him for a few weeks.

I bumped into Owen in town last week and he was kind enough to invite me out for a cup of coffee. He told me that he hears from you and that you talk on the phone regularly. I was very glad to see him and I’m glad that the two of you are keeping in touch – not that I didn’t think you would, of course. I’m sure you know how lucky you are to have such a friend.

Well, I’m writing this in the kitchen and your father will be home from work soon, so I’d better close and start getting the dinner ready. God bless you, my dear son, and keep you safe in that faraway land. Write soon, please, and tell me everything that’s going on.

With love,

Mum.

I put the letter down on the coffee table beside me, took a sip of my coffee, and then got up from my seat and went over to the far wall, where I had hung a couple of framed photographs. One of them was of my sister Becca, twelve years younger than me, who was just starting high school this Fall. She had long dark hair and blue eyes, and she had a cheeky grin on her face as she looked up at the camera. I had taken the photograph myself a few months ago, before I had broken the news to the family that I was moving to Canada.

I went back to my chair, sat down again, and opened the second letter; it was from Wendy Howard.

Camden Town, London
September 26th 1982

Dear Tom:

Your letter has been forwarded to my new address here in London. I know you’ll be surprised to hear that I’m back at University College. I’d been planning to study for my doctorate at Merton, as you know, but a couple of circumstances intruded, and I made the decision to change my plans and come back here.

You’ll be even more surprised to hear that I’m back with Mickey and we’re living together. I know, you’ll want to give me a lecture about how he’s a junkie and I should steer clear of him. But he’s changed, Tom, he really has; he’s not doing drugs any more, and he’s really cut back on his drinking. He’s got a good job as a photographer with the Daily Telegraph, and he’s playing music a couple of nights a week as well. The long and the short of it is, I still love him, and I’m glad we’ve worked things out.

But that means I need to apologize to you; you were so kind to me when Mickey and I broke up, and I think I may have led you on a little. I don’t know whether or not you were feeling anything for me, but if I misled you, I’m truly sorry. I’ll always be glad that we were friends.

I’m glad Canada is working out well for you; it sounds very exciting.

Love and best wishes from your friend,

Wendy

I read the letter through again, then folded it and put it down on the coffee table. I sat there in silence for a long time, sipping my coffee and remembering the many long conversations Wendy and I had enjoyed in my flat in Oxford back in the spring, as well as the eighteen months when we had made music together, with Owen and I playing guitar, Wendy singing the lead, and the two of us harmonizing for her. I glanced across at the photographs on the wall again; there was one there of the three of us, taken after an open stage at the ‘Plough and Lantern’ pub where Owen and I had first met Wendy almost exactly two years ago.

Eventually I got up, crossed the room to the shelf where I kept my LP records, took out a record from my collection, and put it on my player. It was Anne Briggs’ first solo album, and as her clear unaccompanied voice began to sing, I wandered out to the kitchen, took some food from the fridge and began to prepare supper for myself.

Posted in Fiction, Meadowvale (Revised) | Leave a comment

Which enemies?

As a Christian pacifist, I regularly get asked, “So what should we do about ISIS, then?” Years ago the question was “What should we have done about Hitler, then?” but it’s basically the same issue.

I’m sure those are very important questions, but I think there are more urgent ones for most Christian pacifists to consider.

We have this human tendency to jump straight to the huge issues. and they are huge, but the thing is, I don’t face them every day (well, actually, I don’t face ISIS any day, but I understand that if I lived in the Middle East I’d have more of a sense of urgency about the question). And it’s not that the huge issues aren’t important; it’s that sometimes they can be a tempting distraction from the slightly smaller issues, that I do face every day.

For me, making decisions about ISIS isn’t a daily occurrence. But every day, I have to decide what to do about the family member who ignores me. About the driver who cuts me off in traffic. About the work colleague who seems to think it’s their calling to make life difficult for me. About the church member who talks about me behind my back.

When I think about what “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you” means, maybe I should start a little closer to home. And maybe Matthew 18:21-35 would be a good scripture passage to meditate on.

Posted in Big Questions, Following Jesus, Thought for the Day | Leave a comment

Tommy Emmanuel plays ‘Close to You’

If I could play like Tommy, I would call myself a guitar player!

His website is here.

This song, of course, is by Bert Bacharach.

Posted in Great Guitarists, Guitars, Music | Leave a comment

Is it just about rewards and punishments?

The other day I was having lunch with an agnostic friend. He’s the kind of agnostic friend who pushes me to give honest answers to real questions, and I like that.

We’re both quite involved in trying to make things better for the least fortunate people on the planet, and somehow (I can’t quite remember how), we got to talking about why we do that. And then he said something that completely floored me. He said, “I can see how being religious would be a real help there, because you believe that after you die, you’re going to be rewarded for the good you’ve done. That would be a really effective motivator”.

The reason those words surprised me so much is because I can’t honestly remember the last time this entered my mind. If the truth be told, I never think about eternal rewards when I’m contemplating doing some good deed. And conversely, when I’m being tempted, I never motivate myself to avoid temptation by thinking about potential eternal punishments. To be honest, I actually don’t find that to be a very effective deterrent.

So what do I think about? Why do Christians try to put the teaching of Jesus into practice, if it’s not out of a desire for heaven or out of fear of hell?

I can’t speak for all Christians, but for myself, I can say this with some certainty: it’s because I genuinely believe that Jesus is right. I believe that the way of life he taught and demonstrated – love of God and neighbour, not storing up too many possessions, forgiving and being reconciled, caring for the poor, speaking the truth, faithfulness in marriage and so on – is the best and most rewarding way to live. And I believe that as more of us follow Jesus and learn that way of life, then life will get better for everyone and everything on planet earth.

Jesus taught us a short way of expressing that, in the form of a prayer. It goes like this: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.

That’s why I follow Jesus. It’s not because of rewards and punishments. It’s because I’m convinced that on the day that prayer is fully answered, life on God’s green earth will be a dream come true. And I want to be one of the ones who helps make that happen.

Posted in Big Questions, Following Jesus, Thought for the Day | 2 Comments

Meadowvale (Revised): Chapter One

I’ve gone through the ‘Meadowvale’ story over the past few weeks and done a rewrite. I will be posting the revised chapters here over the next few months, at the rate of about two a week. The originals are still on this site (go to ‘Meadowvale’ in the sidebar) in case you want to compare! I hope you enjoy them.

I first looked down on the Canadian prairies in the summer of 1982, from a window seat in the big wide-bodied jet that was flying me from London to Saskatoon. The weather had been cloudy over the Atlantic, but it began to clear as we crossed Hudson Bay, and by the time we were beginning our descent into Saskatoon I was looking down on a patchwork quilt of perfectly rectangular fields: deep green, golden yellow, and lavender blue. I had been brought up in the English countryside, where no road runs straight and where very few fields are regularly shaped, and what I was seeing below me was as alien as a lunar landscape.

I was moving to Saskatchewan after five years at Oxford University, where I had got my English degree and then trained as a teacher. One of my fellow-students was from Toronto, and he had told me that the small rural communities on the Canadian prairies were always looking for teachers. After pumping him for more information I made some inquiries, and eventually I applied for some jobs. I was pleasantly surprised by how many positive responses I received, and eventually I accepted a position as a high school English teacher in the town of Meadowvale, Saskatchewan, about eighty miles northeast of Saskatoon.

When I looked up my new home town on a map, I was surprised to see how isolated it was. Once again, I was used to the English countryside, where rural communities are only two or three miles apart. The Canadian prairies, as far as I could see, were wide open spaces, and distances of twenty or thirty miles between communities were common. Public transport also seemed to be rare; there was a railway line running through Meadowvale, but passenger service was non-existent, and bus schedules were very hard to discover from the other side of the ocean. Fortunately for me the principal of Meadowvale High School, Will Reimer, offered to drive down to Saskatoon and pick me up. “It won’t be a problem”, he said when we were talking on the phone a week before my flight; “I’ve got to run some errands in the city anyway, and your plane lands in the afternoon, so I’ll just go down in the morning, do the things I need to do, and then pick you up on the way home”.

“How will I know you?”I asked.

“I’m short and a little chubby, and I’ve got a thick grey beard. How about you?”

“Tall and thin”, I replied, “with long dark hair and a scrawny excuse for a beard. I’ll tell you what, though – I’ll be the one with the guitar case”.

“A guitar player, eh?”

“Yes”.

“Me too. Acoustic or electric?”

“Acoustic”.

“Right – I’ll look for the closest thing to a hippy folk musician in the airport”.

I laughed; “That sounds just about right”, I said.

“See you next week, Tom”, he replied.


He was waiting for me in the arrivals lounge after I cleared customs; as he had said, he was short and a little chubby, with thinning curly hair and a thick grey beard, wearing a short-sleeved check shirt and jeans. I approached him through the crowds, pushing a baggage cart in front of me with two suitcases and a guitar case, and he smiled and held out his hand. “Tom Masefield, the guitar-playing hippy, I presume?”he said.

“That would be me”, I replied as we shook hands. “You must be Mr. Reimer”.

“Please, call me Will. I get ‘Mr. Reimer’all year long from the kids, and since a good number of them are my relatives, it gets a little wearing after a while”.

I was surprised; “Are you from Meadowvale yourself, then?”

“Yes, born and bred there. I taught someplace else first, but eventually I came home. Are you hungry?”

“Not really; they fed me well on the plane”.

“Right then, we’ll get going. It’s only about an hour and fifteen minutes to Meadowvale. We can drop your stuff off at your place, but Sally’s cooking supper, and she told me to insist that you come and eat with us”.

“That’s very kind of you, but you don’t…”

He shook his head; “Like I said, she told me to insist!”


We emerged from the airport building into a wall of heat; I was arriving in Saskatchewan in early August, and the temperature that day was in the eighties. “This is a bit warmer than it was when I left home”, I said as he led me across the road toward the parking lot.

“Did you come all the way from your home today?”

“No, a friend drove me to Heathrow last night. It was overcast and drizzling when I left this morning”.

“We could use the rain; the ground’s pretty dry, and the crops are suffering from it”.

“Is it always this hot?”I asked as he led me down between the rows of cars and trucks.

“Quite often – our weather tends to be very hot in summer, and very cold in winter. It’s dry, though, as you can tell”.

He led me to what looked like an enormous car, although I realized later that it was actually only mid-sized compared to some of the vehicles on the road in rural Saskatchewan in 1982. It was a station wagon, and he lifted up the tailgate and stowed my suitcases and my guitar case in the back with plenty of room to spare, even though he already had a few boxes and packages of his own. “Right”, he said with a grin, “Climb aboard, and we’ll be on our way”.

The temperature inside the car was stiflingly hot, and we quickly rolled down the windows. “The air conditioning’ll kick in pretty quick”, he said as he started the engine; “By the time we get out of town it’ll be more comfortable in here. What time is it back in England right now?”

I looked at my watch and said, “Almost ten o’clock at night”.

He grinned; “You might want a nap before supper, then – or even on the road, maybe! Is there anyone you need to call today?”

“No; I’ll ring my mum tomorrow to let her know I got here safely; she’s an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of person, so she’ll probably be getting ready for bed just about now”.

“What sort of family do you have?” he asked as he pulled out of the parking spot and steered  the car toward the exit.

“Father and mother, one brother and one sister”.

“Do they all live pretty close together?”

“My sister’s twelve years younger than me, so she’s still at home with my parents. My brother’s a student in Oxford”.

“You’re the oldest, then?”

“Yes. How about you?”

He grinned; “I’m one of eight”.

“Eight?”I exclaimed.

“Yeah, we had big families in the old days in Saskatchewan. My wife Sally’s one of seven, so family gatherings are pretty enormous”.

“And do you have children too?”

“Yeah, but Sally and I weren’t so prolific; we had three, just like your mom and dad. My oldest is Joe; he came back to Meadowvale last year to work as a vet. Kelly comes next; she finished her nursing training a year ago and she’s working in Jasper”.

“Is that close?”

“No, it’s in Alberta, in the Rocky Mountains”. He pulled up at the exit, paid for his parking with a smile at the attendant, and then pulled out onto the road. “It’s a little different from this”, he said, gesturing with his hand at the big prairie sky. “It’s about a ten or eleven hour drive from Meadowvale”.

“Wow – a ten or eleven hour drive in England would take you the length of the whole country!”

“Yeah, things are a little more spread out here”.

“You mentioned three children?”

“My youngest daughter Krista’s just started working on her master’s degree in Edmonton, at the University of Alberta; she wants to be a wildlife biologist. But right now she’s working for Parks Canada in Jasper for the summer and staying with Kelly. How about your brother; what’s he studying?”

“Law; he’s following in my father’s footsteps”.

“A lawyer, eh?”

“I’m afraid so”.

“You weren’t tempted yourself?”

I shook my head; “It never interested me”.

He gave me a sideways glance as he pulled out onto a major road. After a moment he said, “The airport’s on the north side of the city, so we have to go around Circle Drive to the east side and then take the highway northeast toward Meadowvale”.

“How big a city is this?”I asked, grateful that he had changed the subject.

“About a hundred and sixty thousand”.

“Is it the capital of Saskatchewan?”

“No, that would be Regina. There’s a fair amount of rivalry between them, as you can imagine. I went to university here, so of course I’m partial to Saskatoon”.

“Is it the usual thing in Canada for people to go to the nearest university?”

“Not always, but it is pretty common. You went close to home too, right?”

“Yes, I was actually born in north Oxford, but when I was eleven we moved out to a village about ten miles south. I liked Oxford, though, and I always wanted to go to university there”.

“It must have been hard to get in; Oxford’s one of the top universities in the world”.

“I was lucky, I suppose”.

He grinned across at me; “Luck had nothing to do with it, Tom Masefield”, he said; “I’ve seen your academic records, remember?”

“I suppose you have”, I replied awkwardly.

“It’s not every day that a little country town like Meadowvale lands a teacher from Oxford University. You’ve caused quite a stir on the staff”.

I shook my head; “I hope not”.

“You’ll be fine; we’re just pleased that you agreed to come”.


We followed Circle Drive around the city, headed east on College Drive, and then turned northeast. The landscape was more open than anything I had ever seen in my life; not flat exactly, but wide and spacious under an enormous blue sky. We passed huge fields with crops that I would later come to know as wheat, barley, canola, and flax, with farmhouses and farm buildings surrounded by stands of trees. “Windbreaks”, Will explained when I asked him; “The original settlers probably planted them. The wind can blow pretty cold in the winter time”.

“How cold does it get?”

“Occasionally we’ll get down to minus forty. Usually it sits around minus twenty”.

I shook my head; “How do you survive?”

He laughed; “We live in warm insulated houses, and we drive cars with good heaters. It’s not like the old days”.

“What did you do in the old days?”

“When I was a kid growing up in Spruce Creek, we drove cutters in the wintertime – horse-drawn sleds. We wore the warmest clothes we had, with blankets over our legs and feet, and we warmed up stones on the wood stove and wrapped them up in blankets to put on the bottom of the cutter to keep our feet warm”.

“Where’s Spruce Creek? I thought you said you grew up in Meadowvale?”

“It’s all part of the R.M. of Meadowvale. Spruce Creek is a district about fifteen miles north of town. My parents were Mennonites who came here from Russia in the 1920s; the Mennonites liked to keep themselves to themselves, speak their own language, run their own schools and so on, so they all settled around Spruce Creek. I went to school in a one-room log schoolhouse out there during the Second World War. I’ve still got relatives who farm out there”.

“How old is Meadowvale?”

“Not very old, by your standards. Oxford dates back a long way, I expect”.

“Nobody really knows how old; my college was founded in 1427”.

“Yeah, well, Meadowvale’s not quite that old. The first homesteaders settled in the area around 1908, we think, although there were trappers and missionaries travelling through before that. The village was officially founded in 1922 and it became a town in 1928”.

“Where did the settlers come from?”

“All over. The first ones came from Britain, but there were French and Metis pretty early on too. The Mennonites started coming in the early 1920s, and after that there were Ukrainians and Polish and Chinese and a whole bunch more. It’s a real melting pot”.

“How big is it?”

“Depends how you count. You could just count the people who live in town, but then you’d be missing out a whole other group that live on the farms in the R.M.”

“What does R.M. stand for?”

“Regional Municipality”.

“Right. So how many…?”

“About two thousand in town, I think, and maybe another three or four thousand on the farms around. They all shop in town, of course, and the kids come in to the schools and play hockey on the local teams, so we count them as being part of Meadowvale”.

“Hockey?”

“Canada’s national winter sport”.

“Ah – ice hockey”.

He grinned across at me; “Right – you have field hockey in the old country, don’t you?”

“We do – it’s a girl’s sport”.

“Our hockey is definitely a guys’sport”.

“No girls allowed?”

“Well, there are girls’teams in some places, but that’s a little adventurous for a town like Meadowvale”.


I fell asleep about twenty minutes into the trip, and I didn’t wake up until I felt the car beginning to slow. The front seat was a bench seat without much of a headrest, and my neck was stiff. “Ouch”, I said as I sat up.

“A little sore?”

“My neck. How long did I sleep?”

“About fifty minutes. We’re just getting to Meadowvale now”.

I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and squinted ahead. About half a mile down the road I saw three grain elevators standing tall against the clear blue sky with a railway line running beside them. Between the elevators and the highway was an Esso station with its distinctive oval sign, and just beyond it I could see a car dealership, its parking lot full of half-ton trucks. Off to the left I could see houses under the trees. “So this is Meadowvale?” I said.

“Welcome to your new home”.

“Does every town on the prairies have these grain elevators?”

“Every town on a railway line does”.

“Why a railway line?”

“Farmers truck their grain into town and sell it to the grain companies that run the elevators. After that it’s shipped out by rail”.

“Oh, right”.

“Those are the old style elevators, made of wood. We’re starting to see some bigger ones in some places, concrete ones, grain terminals they call them. There’s one a few miles west of here, run by Cargill, an American company. I expect in a few years these old wooden elevators will be a thing of the past”.

“They look quite impressive”.

He nodded; “I’m kind of partial to them myself”.

He steered the car left off the highway onto a service road leading into Meadowvale, passing the Esso station on our right. “There’s a greasy spoon joint by the Esso”, he said; “That’s where people go for coffee and the occasional meal out”.

I laughed; “A greasy spoon, did you say? Is that descriptive of the menu?”

“Trust me, your arteries will feel the impact for hours afterwards. Do you want me to take you straight to your place, or would you like to drive around for a few minutes?”

“I wouldn’t mind a drive around, if you’ve got time”.

“All the time in the world; I’m a school principal in the middle of the summer break!”

We crossed the railway tracks, turned right, and then turned left onto what I saw immediately was the main street. The buildings were low and flat-roofed, with signs I didn’t recognize: ‘Fields’, ‘Zellers’, ‘McLeod’s’, ‘Blackie’s General Store’. We passed a bank and a post office on our left. “Is there just one bank in town?”I asked.

“A bank and a credit union, which is a prairie socialist version of the same idea”.

I grinned at him; “Are you a prairie socialist?”

“Now, now, Tom; you’ve only known me for an hour and you’re asking me about my politics already?”

“Well, you asked me about my family!”

“True enough; that’s almost as risky, isn’t it? Well, I suppose I am something of a prairie socialist. The prairie socialists were in power in Saskatchewan until May, but we just elected a Conservative government, which some people in town seem to think is a good thing. Perhaps you do too?”

“I couldn’t really say”, I replied; “I do know that I’m no big Margaret Thatcher fan”.

“The Iron Lady’s not your cup of tea, eh?”

“Not really”.

“Here’s the elementary school on our right; then comes the playing field, and our school’s a bit further along, just beyond the field”.

The elementary school was an older building with grey siding and a flat roof. The high school, in contrast, was a smart looking two-storey brick building with large windows, its roof sloping to one side. “That looks new”, I observed.

“Five years old; it replaced a frame building that nearly blew down in a prairie blizzard a few years ago”.

I laughed; “Pretty old?”

“Built in 1946, in the worst of the postwar construction era. This one was built by prairie socialists, though, so it might not do much better, so the local Tories say”.

“It looks pretty good to me”.

“I’m glad you approve. Your classroom’s on the ground floor, over on the west corner there”.

“I’ll look forward to seeing it”.

“Not tonight though, I’m guessing. Are you just about ready to have a look at your new home?”

“I think so”.

We drove around several blocks of comfortable looking houses sitting on spacious treed lots with colourful gardens. “This looks pretty smart”, I observed.

“Well, it’s the nice part of town. There are some poorer streets, but overall we can’t complain. Our place is over on the west side of town, just before the little creek that we dignify with the name of the Welsh River”.

“The Welsh River?”

“Yeah. One of the earliest settlers was from Wales, and he named it, so we’ve been told. It runs down the west side of town, then bends around to the east, runs under the tracks and the highway, and empties into Robert’s Lake, which some local folk call Welshman’s Lake, on account of the fact that Robert Williams, that early settler, had his homestead on the north side of the lake. Also, sadly, he drowned in that lake, which is quite an achievement given that it’s only three feet deep”.

I looked at him incredulously; “How can you drown in a lake that’s only three feet deep?”

He grinned mischievously as he turned a corner to the right. “Well, bear in mind that this happened in 1935, when I was all of four years old, and the story’s had forty-seven years of embellishment since then, but my dad used to say that Robert and his wife had been fighting, and he was drinking it off with a friend. Old Robert had a little sailboat, which was considered to be very eccentric around these parts, and he and his friend went out on the lake and then got into an argument. A few punches were landed, and then they got to wrestling, and they capsized the boat. The other guy made it to the shore, which wasn’t hard in three feet of water, even if it was muddy on the bottom, but old Robert was as drunk as a skunk, so he drowned. So I’ve been told, anyway”, he concluded.

“Are there lots more stories where that one came from?”

“You don’t believe me? I’m mortified!”

I laughed. “Oh no, I believe you!”I replied; “It just strikes me that small towns are the same the world over; they’re full of real characters and unlikely stories”.

“Isn’t that the truth? Well, here’s your place”.


We pulled up in front of a small single-storey bungalow with off-white wooden siding, a shingled roof with a brick chimney, a small porch on one end and a free-standing garage at the other. There were two white-framed windows at the front of the house; I knew from the floor plan he had sent me that one was the living room and the other the kitchen.

“Want to come and have a look?”he asked.

“Absolutely”.

We got out of the car, and I realized immediately that the air conditioning had hidden the fact that it was still stiflingly hot outside. We got my suitcases and guitar out of the back, and then he led me up the path to the porch. Unlocking the door, he led the way inside, through the porch and into the small kitchen; it had yellow-painted walls and white cupboards, with counter space on the front wall, a sink under the window, a stove and refrigerator. “There’s a small basement downstairs with a freezer in it”, he said.

“This looks pretty nice”.

We passed through into the living room; it had blue walls and a carpeted floor, furnished with a chesterfield, a recliner, and a coffee table under the window.

“I thought you told me it was unfurnished?”I said.

“Well, it is, but we thought you’d need a few days to get yourself some furniture, so Sally and I asked around…”

I shook my head; “That was very thoughtful of you, Will”.

“It’s no trouble. When you get your own stuff, the owners will be glad to take these things back”.

He showed me the two bedrooms and the bathroom; the place had obviously been refinished recently, and it was spotlessly clean.

“So who owns this?”I asked.

“My cousin Ron Ratzlaff – well, actually, I should say, Ron’s married to my cousin Margaret, my Uncle Helmut’s daughter. It used to be Ron’s mom’s place, and since she passed away five years ago he hasn’t had the heart to sell it. Actually, your predecessor rented from him as well”.

“Really? That’s a coincidence!”

“You could say that, or you could say it’s all part of the Meadowvale hospitality”.

“This is amazing, Will”, I said. “You’ve gone far beyond the call of duty here; I never assumed it was part of my principal’s job to help me find a place to live, and furnish it, and pick me up at the airport”.

“Well, it’s not every day that little old Meadowvale gets a teacher straight from Oxford; we’ve got to do our best to make you welcome”.

“Well, you’ve certainly done that”.

“There are a few basic foodstuffs in the cupboard and the fridge, and Sally told me to tell you that tomorrow after you’ve unpacked she’ll be glad to show you the grocery stores and give you some advice about shopping in Meadowvale”. He looked at me seriously; “If you don’t mind me asking, are you okay for cash? I know moving’s expensive, and your first pay cheque won’t come until the end of October”.

“I’m fine, thanks”, I replied; “I worked at the village pub through the month of July, which earned me a bit of money. And then, my dad’s not short of two pennies to rub together, as the Irish say”.

“He gave you a little help, then?”

“In a manner of speaking”, I replied, avoiding his gaze.

“Well, I’ll leave you to settle in and get unpacked, then”. He glanced at his watch; “Four-thirty. Shall I pick you up at six for supper?”

“Please, Will, I don’t want to impose…”

He shook his head; “Sally told me to insist, and I’ve learned that the wisest thing is just to go along with what she wants!”

“Alright, and thank you very much”.

“Not at all. See you in a while”.


Sally Reimer turned out to be every bit as warm and friendly as her husband. She was taller than him, with a thin face and blonde hair streaked with grey, and when I followed Will into her kitchen she greeted me with a smile and took my hand in both of hers. “You must be exhausted”, she said; “Did you have a nap?”

“I did, actually”, I replied; “I unpacked one suitcase, but then I sat down in the chair and closed my eyes, and woke up when Will knocked on the door”.

“Never mind; we won’t make you stay late. I just thought that after a long flight it would be so much better if you didn’t have to cook for yourself”.

“Thank you; I hope you didn’t go to a lot of trouble”.

“No, actually I just made a couple of salads, and Will’s going to barbecue us some chicken out the back. It’s still warm, so we can eat out on the deck if you like?”

“That would be great”.

“Right, I’ve got some coffee made, Will’s put some beer in the fridge, and there must be a couple of bottles of wine around here somewhere. What would you like?”

I laughed; “Well, I think coffee would be useful right now, since I’m only half awake, but I’ll reserve the right to accept that beer with supper if I may?”

“Absolutely”, Will replied; “Grab yourself a coffee, Tom, and let’s go out the back and get the barbecue going”.


Will and Sally had a spacious back yard, with a wooden deck behind the house and a large vegetable garden in one corner. We ate on a picnic table on the deck, with a large poplar tree giving us shade from the evening sun. Sally had made a potato salad and a green salad, Will had barbecued chicken, and there was ice cream for dessert. When we were finished Will went into the house and brought out a second round of beers, and we sat back in our seats, feeling pleasantly full. “Thank you”, I said; “That was just perfect”.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it”, Sally replied. “We like having company, and now that the kids are all grown up and gone we don’t get to share as often as we’d like”.

“Your son lives in town, you said?”

Will nodded; “He finished vet school last year and came back here to work. When he was a kid he used to hang around with Ivor Greenslade, our town vet; Ivor always said that he’d be glad to take Joe on when he finished his training. So that’s what happened; there are actually three of them working there now, and they’ll probably be looking for another one before too long, because Ivor’s just about ready to retire”.

“So Joe would be a couple of years older than me, then?”

“He’s twenty-six”, Sally replied. “He’s just got engaged, actually, to a girl he met in Saskatoon”. She smiled; “What about you, have you left a girl back home?”

I shook my head; “I like them, but I don’t seem to be able to get them to like me”.

“I’m sure that’ll change as time goes on”.

Will took a sip of his beer. “What sort of music do you play?”he asked; “Are you into this punk rock stuff?”

“Not really; it’s pretty popular back home, but it doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m a traditional folk musician; I play old folk songs from generations gone by”.

“Right, so a little older than Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, then”.

We laughed, and I said, “Dylan actually learned some traditional stuff from Martin Carthy back in the sixties in London, and so did Paul Simon; he picked up ‘Scarborough Fair’from him”.

Will nodded; “I know a few traditional songs, actually; wasn’t there one that Traffic did – ‘John Barleycorn’, or something like that?”

“Yes, and ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’was based on another traditional song called ‘Lord Franklin’”.

Sally said, “You must bring your guitar over here and play us some of these songs, Tom; Will loves getting together and jamming with other musicians”.

“Tom’s probably a much better guitarist than me”, Will replied; “I’m just a meat and potatoes strummer”.

“What sort of music do you play?”I asked.

“I like old fashioned country songs, although I can manage hymns and classic rock songs too, at a stretch”.

“I’ve never heard of hymns being played on guitar”.

“Well, they probably don’t sound very good, unless they’re old gospel songs, but my mom plays the piano a little and she likes playing hymns, and she likes it when I play along with her, so I learned a few to make her happy. And I like old fashioned mountain music – stuff like the early Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie songs. Doc Watson played traditional songs, too – I’ll bet some of them were from the old country, like the stuff you play”.

“I’ve never heard of him”.

“He’s more of a flat picker, although he can finger pick, too”.

We were silent for a moment; I was beginning to feel very weary, and I knew that after I finished my beer I was going to have a hard time staying awake. “So, what’s the schedule for the start of school?”I asked Will.

“Well, you’ve got about three weeks to settle in before we get the staff in to start the year. Are you going to get yourself a car?”

“It looks like I’m going to need one”.

“You’re looking for something used, probably?”

“Yes – I’ve got some money, but not a lot”.

“Well, you can pick something up at the Ford dealer on the highway, but you’d probably get a better deal in the city. I could run you in to have a look, if you like; I could borrow Joe’s truck and we could go look at some second hand furniture stores too”.

I shook my head; “You don’t have to do all this, Will…”

Sally laughed; “He loves company, Tom, and he likes making road trips, too”.

“Well, that’s true”, Will replied. “I do think you’d be better looking for a car in the city. Henry Pickering – he’s the Ford dealer here – mainly carries half ton trucks, plus a few big eight cylinder gas guzzlers, but you’ve got the look of a guy who might like a slightly smaller car”.

“I’m not used to big cars”.

“I guess not. Be careful, though; don’t get something too small, because the roads here get pretty bumpy, especially on the gravel, and really small cars tend to get shaken to bits on them”.

I yawned; “I should probably take a closer look at the curriculum pretty soon, too”, I said.

“We can do that any time you like”.

I put my half-empty beer glass down on the picnic table. “I’m sorry”, I said, “but I just can’t finish this. You folks are starting to swim across my field of vision!”

They laughed, and Sally said, “Take him home, Will! I’ll take him shopping in the morning!”

“No, really, I’ll be fine”, I protested.

“You’d be better off just to do as she says”, Will replied; “she’s a pretty smart shopper and she knows where to get all the good deals”.

I shook my head as I got to my feet; “You people are amazing!”

“We aim to please!”Sally said with a smile. “See you in the morning, Tom; thanks for coming over”.

“No – thank you!” I replied.

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