What’s the Church for?

Over at Seth’s blog yesterday he was referring to the question ‘What is school for?’ I think there are far too many churchgoers who have never asked themselves the question ‘What’s the Church for?’ Church leaders tend to avoid it too.

To some people the answer seems obvious. Church is for Sunday morning: running inspiring worship services that hold my attention and don’t go on too long. Church budgets seem to bear this out too; just count up the dollars that go, directly or indirectly, to running Sunday morning (or whenever you have your main worship service). Factor in that a good proportion of your pastor’s time goes to preparing for worship each week.

Other people might say, ‘the Church is there to help me in times of need’. Counselling is expensive, but at the Church, it’s free. And sometimes churches ‘help’ people (i.e. people call up with financial needs, real or spurious, with the expectation that the church will have a fund somewhere that they can draw from).

Still others might say, ‘the Church is there to provide rituals to mark the major transitions of life’. Christen our kids when they’re born. Marry them when they get older. Christen their kids when they have them. Officiate at funerals when people die.

Well, okay, but where does Jesus fit in? Where does the Gospel fit in? Why did God think the Church was a good idea? What was in God’s mind when he decided to call people together to be the Church? (If Church is not somehow the plan of God, we may as well quit now, don’t you think?)

I have two things to say about that question. First, the New Testament tells us that Jesus spent a lot of time announcing ‘the good news of the kingdom of God‘ – that is, the reign or rule of God. Despite appearances, the real ruler of planet Earth is not Google or Microsoft, Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama, Halliburton or Monsanto. God is the true king, and although he has allowed humans free will, he will not allow the human tendency to screw things up to go on forever. Every single one of us is accountable to him, and the day will come when he will set the world to rights and heal all its hurts. In fact, he has already begun that process through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and that process continues to this day. The Church exists to serve God’s Kingdom, to model of it for the world around, and to spread it to others.

Second, the way the Kingdom spreads is through the transformation of human lives by holistic discipleship. What is ‘holistic discipleship’? It’s simply this: human beings learning to follow the teaching and example of Jesus in every part of their daily lives – not just church and family life, but work, leisure, finances, politics, community activities and so on. The New Testament says, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord of all'; that means no part of my life can be outside the sphere of his Lordship.

The Church exists to announce the Kingdom of God, to invite people to become disciples of Jesus, and to help them learn to practice that in their daily lives. There are many other things we do, of course, but they are all secondary to this. And when we’re evaluating ourselves, this ought to be the question we ask: ‘How are we doing in our primary work of spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God, making new disciples for Jesus, and helping those disciples put his teaching and example into practice in their daily lives, so that the world can be transformed?’

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Meadowvale (Revised) Chapter Three

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.

Funnily enough, by early October I had still not met Will and Sally’s son Joe, even though he lived and worked in Meadowvale. I knew all about him, of course; I knew that he had taken his veterinary training at the University of Saskatchewan, after which he had moved back to Meadowvale to work with Ivor Greenslade and Shauna Reed at Meadowvale Veterinary Clinic. I knew that he was engaged to be married to Ellie Finlay, a dental assistant from Humboldt who he had met in Saskatoon while they were both in university. I knew that Ellie was a bluegrass fiddle player, and that although she was still living and working in the city she planned to move up to Meadowvale in the new year, when she was hoping to get a job with the local dental clinic. And I knew that Joe and Ellie were planning on getting married in the spring. I knew all these things, because Will and Sally had told me about Joe and Ellie, but I didn’t actually meet them until Thanksgiving.

On the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend I stayed in my classroom a little later than usual so that I could finish up some marking. It was a ground floor room, with large windows the full length of the outside wall, individual desks in rows facing the front, a large green chalkboard behind my desk, and bookshelves off to one side. I was gradually working my way through a pile of student assignments on my desk, a cup of lukewarm coffee at my elbow; I had lost track of time, and when Will slipped into the room I looked up from my work and was surprised to discover from the clock on the wall that it was after five-thirty. He perched on a student desk in front of me and said, “You’re working late tonight”.

“I didn’t realized what time it was; I’m nearly finished”.

“I’m just about to leave, so you’re the last one here; do you want to lock up when you go?”

“Of course”.

He put his hands in his pockets and said, “Listen, are you doing anything special this weekend?”

I shook my head; “No”.

“You’re not going out for Thanksgiving supper with friends or anything?”

I grinned apologetically; “This whole Thanksgiving thing is new to me”, I said. “I didn’t even know what it was about until I started hearing people talking about turkey and pumpkin pie”.

“You don’t have Thanksgiving in the old country?”

“Harvest festivals, but no big family gatherings or turkey dinners”.

“Would you like to come over to our place for Thanksgiving supper on Sunday night?”

“Please, Will; you and Sally have been really kind to me, but don’t feel you have to invite me yet again”.

“No, no, it’s not like that at all; Sally told me this morning to ask you over. Of course”, he continued with a smile, “it might be a little overwhelming for you”.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it’ll be a pretty big gathering”.

“How big?”

He frowned thoughtfully, obviously going over the guest list in his head. “Well, let’s see: Sally and me, and Joe and Ellie, and Kelly came home for the weekend from Jasper today, and Krista will be coming from Edmonton tomorrow. Then I think Sally’s brother David and his wife Anna, who don’t have any kids of their own to cook for, and Sally’s parents, and my mother…”He smiled and nodded at me; “I think that’s everyone”, he said. “How many is that? Eleven? Twelve? And then there’s you, if you say yes!”

I laughed; “I hope you’ve got a stretchable dining table!”

“We’ll be fine; would you like to come?”

“I don’t want to intrude on your family gathering, Will.”

“Don’t be silly; we’d love to have you over. And you’d finally get to meet Joe, too!”

“Well, that would be good; it seems a little weird that I still haven’t run into him”.

“He’s been going down to the city a lot to spend time with Ellie, and of course he has to be on call some weekends too”.

“Right; that makes sense”.

“So we’ll expect you, then? We’ll eat at six, but come a little earlier, say about four-thirty or so?”

“All right –thank you very much. Is there anything I can bring?”

“No – just bring yourself”. He glanced at his watch; “Well, I should be heading for home”, he said; “You’ll be sure to lock everything up when you leave?”

“Of course”.

“Sunday at four-thirty, then?”

“Right; thanks, Will”.

“No problem”.

There was a light rain falling late Sunday afternoon as I parked my car on the side of the road in front of Will and Sally’s house; there were already three vehicles in the driveway, two of them half-ton trucks. The living room curtains were open, and I could see Will standing behind the window; he saw me walking up the driveway and greeted me with a cheery wave. I followed the cracked stone pathway around the side of the house into the back yard.  The back door opened as I approached, but to my surprise it was not Will standing there, but a young man of about my own age, with longish blond hair and a crooked nose, dressed comfortably in jeans and a faded green University of Saskatchewan sweatshirt; I recognized him immediately from the family photographs on Will and Sally’s living room wall.

“You must be Tom”, he said in a quiet voice, holding out his hand. “I’m Joe Reimer”.

“I’ve heard a lot about you”, I replied, shaking his hand. “It’s good to finally meet you”.

“You too; come on in”.

I followed him into the house, kicking off my shoes in the stairwell and climbing the three steps into the kitchen. I could smell the turkey cooking in the oven, and as I entered the room Sally turned from the sink, wiped her hand on a towel and said, “Come on in, Tom; you’ve already met my son Joe?”

“He just introduced himself”.

“Good. Coffee?”

“Yes, please”.

She poured coffee from the carafe into a glass mug and handed it to me; “There you go”, she said.

“Thanks, Sally”.

Will came wandering into the kitchen area, greeted me with a smile, and said. “Come on through, Tom; I’ll introduce you to the others. Not everyone’s here yet”.

I followed him into the dining area, where he introduced me to his mother and Sally’s parents, who were sitting at the table drinking coffee together. Will’s mother, Erika Reimer, was lean and wiry, and her eyes twinkled as she smiled and shook hands with me; he had told me that she was eighty-two, but she looked at least ten years younger, and in her jeans and check shirt she was as far removed as possible from my image of the traditional Mennonite grandmother.

“How long have you been in Canada?”she asked me in a heavily accented voice.

“About ten weeks, actually”.

“I’ve got a few years on you, then; I’ve been here since 1924!”

We both laughed, and she said, “Is your principal looking after you well enough?”

“He’s been very helpful, thank you”.

“That’s the way it should be. Are you a good cook?”

I grinned and shrugged my shoulders; “In a basic sort of way”, I replied.

“Well, if you ever feel like a good home-cooked dinner, you come over to my place, okay?”

“She means it”, Will added, “and she is a superb cook. Tom, come on down and meet the youngsters”.

I followed him down a couple of steps into the sunken living room; it had a big picture window on one side, and was furnished with a couple of large chesterfields, some easy chairs, and a coffee table in the centre. There was a large TV on a stand in one corner, and on the inside wall there were framed photographs of Will and Sally and various other family members. Two young women were sitting in one corner of the room, talking to each other; Will introduced them to me as “My daughter Krista, and my future daughter-in-law Ellie”. Krista, who had long blonde hair and a mischievous grin, shook my hand and said, “So you’re the famous Tom Masefield!”

“Yes, I am”.

Joe had followed us into the living room. “My other sister Kelly’s just having a shower”, he explained; “She was out walking this afternoon and she wanted to get cleaned up before supper”.

“How long is she here for?”I asked.

“A few days, actually”, Will said. “She arrived on Friday and she’s not going back until Wednesday”.

“That’s a nice break”.

“Yeah, she set it up somehow by combining stat holidays and days off. Have a seat, Tom”.

“Thanks”, I replied, sitting down on one of the chesterfields beside Ellie.  She had dark hair pulled back into a thick braid, and she was dressed comfortably in jeans and a red tee-shirt. “I hear you’re a musician”, she said with a smile.

“Yes; I’m a guitar player”.

“Ellie plays the fiddle”, Joe said, glancing at her affectionately.

“So I hear”.

Krista gave me a grin; “That’s quite the accent!”she observed; “We’re not used to hearing Englishmen around here”.

“I’ve noticed there aren’t too many others in town”.

“There was another teacher from England a few years ago”, Joe said quietly; “He taught us social studies when we were in high school”.

“Oh yeah”, Krista replied,  “I’d forgotten about him! What was his name?”

“Crawley”, Joe said; “We used to call him ‘Creepy Crawley’. What happened to him, Dad? He was still here when I left for university”.

“He moved to Edmonton a couple of years after you graduated”, Will replied.

“And then there’s Mrs. Robinson”, Krista said; “Have you met her yet, Tom?”

“No; who is she?”

“She’s an old lady; I think she came here in the 1930s, but she sounds like she just got here yesterday”.

“Sally’s sister Rachel married one of her sons”, Will added.

I heard a door opening in the hallway, and a moment later a young woman who was obviously Krista’s older sister appeared in the entrance to the living room. As I got to my feet she said, “No, don’t bother to get up; I’m Kelly Reimer”.

We shook hands formally; “Tom Masefield”, I replied.

“Masefield?”she said thoughtfully; “Isn’t there a poet…?”

“Yes, John Masefield”.

“Is he the guy that wrote ‘I must go down to the sea again…’?”

“‘…to the lonely sea and the sky’- yes, that’s him”.

“Are you related?”

“Not that I know of”, I replied with a smile, “but it’s a long time since anyone’s asked me that!”

“Well, I like his stuff”.

She was seriously lovely, with blue-grey eyes and long blond hair still wet from the shower, dressed in faded jeans and a simple white sweater. She had the sort of face and figure that no man ignores easily, and I found it hard to take my eyes off her as she sat down on the floor opposite me with her back against the other chesterfield. Her brother was sitting beside her; she looked up at him with a grin and said, “Get me some coffee, will you, Joe?”

“Right away!”he replied with a grin, getting to his feet; “Can I bring you anything else? Some cookies, or maybe some caviar?”

We all laughed, and then as Joe disappeared around the corner into the kitchen Kelly looked across at me and said, “Dad’s been telling us all about you. Oxford University; that’s kind of classy for a place like Meadowvale”.

I shrugged; “I was born there, so I didn’t think about it very much”.

“It must be a fabulous place”, Kelly said; “all those old buildings and history! Was it a tough university to get into?”

“I suppose. I’d always hoped to be able to study there when the time came; I was very lucky”.

“I’m sure luck had nothing to do with it”, she replied as her brother came back into the living room, carrying a cup of coffee for her; “You must have been a good student”.

I shrugged my shoulders again, feeling a little embarrassed; “I suppose so”.

“Does your family still live there?”she asked, taking the mug from Joe’s outstretched hand with a smile and moving over a little to make room for him to sit down on the chesterfield behind her.

“My parents live in a village about ten miles south of Oxford”.

“And do you have brothers and sisters?”

“One brother who’s currently a university student, and a little sister who still lives at home with my parents; she’s twelve”.

“So you’re the oldest?”


“What made you decide to move to Canada?”

I looked away, taking a sip of my coffee; “I met someone from Canada in my college”, I replied; “He told me about it, and it sounded interesting”.

“I just find it hard to understand why someone would move from an incredible place like that to come to Meadowvale, Saskatchewan”. She smiled and glanced around at her family; “Well, we like it here, but it isn’t normally considered one of the most popular destinations for immigrants from Oxford!”

“Kelly, give the man a break!”Joe exclaimed; “He’s only just met you, and you’re already questioning him like it was some sort of inquisition in here!”

She smiled apologetically at me; “You’ll have to forgive me”, she said; “I tend to be a little direct”.

“Just a little”, Joe observed with a mocking grin.

Everyone laughed, and Kelly turned and took a playful swipe at her brother. He dodged her blow and caught her wrist with his hand. “Now don’t try this again”, he said; “You know you’ve never won”.

“Children, children”, Will said reproachfully; “Not in front of the company, please!”

“And not with a cup of coffee in your hand, either”, Joe added, wagging his finger at Kelly; “You’ll spill it on the rug, you know!”

Kelly glanced at me; “Is your brother as annoying as mine?”

“Well, as I said, I’m the oldest, so he probably thinks I’m the annoying one”.

“Is he studying at Oxford too?”

“I’m afraid so; he’s at Balliol College though. I went to Lincoln; I don’t know if you know anything about the Oxford colleges?”

“Not really; they all sound kind of magical to me”.

I shrugged; “They have their magic, I suppose. When we lived there, we sort of took them for granted”. I looked over at Krista and said, “So your dad tells me you’re studying wildlife biology”.

“She’s studying caribou”, Kelly replied.


“I’m doing a masters’ thesis”, Krista explained; “There are four small herds of woodland caribou in Jasper National Park, and Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service have been warning for a couple of years now that the populations are in danger. I’m doing a study to investigate whether or not that’s true”.

“Do you think it’s true?”

She smiled sheepishly; “Are you asking Krista the scientist or Krista the lover of wild animals?”

“Does it make a difference?”

Joe laughed; “Krista the scientist will tell you that she hasn’t got enough evidence yet to decide one way or the other. Krista the lover of wild animals will tell you that introducing human beings onto the earth was one of God’s more questionable decisions, and that whenever humans and wild animals come into contact, wild animals suffer for it”.

“Which is usually true”, Krista replied defiantly.

“Do you know why the populations are at risk?” I asked her.

She shook her head; “I’ve got hunches, but at the moment that’s all they are”.

“So you’re not just writing a thesis for its own sake, then?”

“What would be the point?”

“Some would say, to get a master’s degree”.

“Can’t I make a difference in the world as well?”

Kelly looked across at her sister, and I saw the affection in her eyes; “I sure hope you can”, she replied.

Sally called us to the supper table around six; by then her brother David and his wife Anna had arrived, and as I had not met them before I had to answer the same questions about how long I had been in Canada and where I had lived in England. I found myself sitting between Joe and Kelly, and when we had all taken our places Will, who had an enormous turkey on a platter in front of him, asked us to join hands. “Shall we sing something, since we’re all here?”he asked.

“How about ‘We thank thee Lord, for this our food?’”Sally suggested.

“Wonderful”. He glanced at me and said, “We’ll sing it through a couple of times, Tom, and you’ll soon catch on”.

They started to sing, and I suddenly realized that this was not your average family singalong, with half the members barely able to hold a tune; these people sang a cappella, in four-part harmony, and they were obviously well-practiced in it:

“We thank thee, Lord, for this our food;
God is love, God is love.
But most of all for Jesus’ light;
God is love, God is love.
These mercies bless, and grant that we
may live in peace and reign with thee.
May live in peace and reign with thee;
God is love, God is love”.

The tune was a simple one, and the second time around I was already humming along to it, following Joe as he sang the tenor part. When the song ended Will smiled; “Amen”, he said, picking up a carving knife. “Who wants some turkey?”

“That was beautiful”, I said as he began to slice into the bird. “Is that a sort of family tradition?”

“It’s a Mennonite grace”, Sally explained.

“Of course”.

Kelly grinned playfully at me; “You know of course that we’re a hot-bed of religious fanatics who wear black clothes and drive horses and buggies?”

“So I’ve been told”, I replied with a smile, “although I haven’t seen the horses and buggies yet”.

They laughed, and Will’s mother said, “Hey, it’s not so very long ago that we used to get around all winter with horse and cutter”.

“I remember those days, all right”, Will said, “and going out to milk the cows at forty below in the winter, and cutting wood”. He winked at me; “It was a tough life”, he said with a grin.

“Oh yeah”, Kelly said, “walking for miles every day to a one-room schoolhouse”.

“Uphill, both ways”, Joe added with a grin.

“I didn’t walk”, Will retorted. “As you all know, I rode a horse”.

“That was up in Spruce Creek, right?”I said.

“Have you been up there?”Will’s mother asked me.

“I was up there a few weeks ago, when we went to help Hugo with the harvesting”.

“That was where we settled when we first came from Russia”, she said; “That was our homestead”.

“I remember Hugo telling me that”. I looked around the table and said, “Well, since I have a table full of Mennonites here tonight, there’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask ever since you told me about the history of this town, Will”.

“What’s that?”he asked.

“What brought the Mennonites here in the first place? I mean, I know they came from Russia, but why did they come here?”

Will turned to his mother; “You want to tell Tom the story?”he asked.

“Of course”, she replied. “Yes, we came from Russia; as Will’s probably told you, we were trying to get away from the Bolsheviks. They didn’t like Mennonites, or any Christian people for that matter. Thousands of people disappeared. Anyone who could get out, got out. My husband and I were lucky; we had relatives in Canada, so we came over here in 1924. But we didn’t go to Waterloo where most of our relatives lived, because the government was giving land away for free out here, so we came to Saskatchewan and homesteaded. All you had to do was settle on the land, clear a few acres and plant a crop, and within a couple of years they gave you the title to it”.

“Was there anyone living here back then?”I asked.

“My cousin Hermann Paetkau was here two years before us; he was the one that sent us word about this place. He was already homesteading when we got here. And the English and the French were already here, of course; they came about ten years before us. But they settled around Meadowvale, and we stayed in Spruce Creek. We didn’t speak any English at first, but my husband and I made sure to learn”.

“What language did you speak – Russian?”

“No – we spoke Low German for every day, and High German in church on Sundays”.

“Right – Will told me the Mennonites had originally come from Germany and the Netherlands. That’s quite something, though, to keep a language alive in a foreign country like that”.

“Well, we wanted to keep our faith”she explained. “We lived simple and peaceful lives, far away from the world, speaking our own language and following our own customs. In those days everyone believed that was the only way for us to be true to our Christian faith”.

“What about you, Tom?”, Joe asked quietly; “Were you raised in any sort of religious faith?”

I shook my head; “Not really; my dad’s a strong atheist, and we were never encouraged to go to church. My best friend’s a Christian, though; he and I have talked about it from time to time, especially in the last couple of years. But I really don’t know much about Mennonites at all, except the whole horse and buggy and black clothes image Kelly was talking about, and since I’ve met your mum and dad, I’ve realized that may not be an accurate stereotype”.

“Different groups of Mennonites have taken different approaches”, Sally observed; “The group we belong to doesn’t put such a strong emphasis on outward signs like clothing and language”.

“You people are definitely going to scare Tom off”, Kelly protested; “All this stuff about Mennonite culture and history!”

“Hey, I’m the one that asked the question!”I replied, smiling gratefully at Will as he passed me a plate of turkey. “It’s true that my dad’s an atheist, but I don’t necessarily share his views on that particular subject”. I smiled ruefully; “My dad and I disagree about a lot of things”.

“Fathers and sons”, Joe observed with a mischievous grin, looking across at his father.

“You send them to university”, Will replied, “and they grow up to stick their hands up the rear ends of cows”.

“Hey”, Sally’s father retorted from the other end of the table, “I seem to remember you doing your fair share of that when you were little!”

“Yes, but Joe does it by choice!”Kelly observed, smiling playfully at her brother.

“Some people like math, some people like cows”, Joe replied.

“This is a fine conversation to be having with the turkey!”Sally exclaimed.

“Sorry, Mom”, Joe replied, “although Dad was the one who started it!”

“I haven’t seen a lot of cows around here”, I observed; “Are there many?”

“There are quite a few actually”, Joe replied. “We do a lot of work with cows and horses at the clinic, but we have a lot of small animal work, too”.

“Are you busy?”I asked.

“Oh yeah; I could easily work seven days a week if I wanted to. There’s a lot of travelling involved, of course, because, funnily enough, most people would rather not load their cows and horses onto trailers and bring them in to the vet’s office – at least, not if they can help it!”

I laughed; “I never thought about that!”I said.

Supper was huge; the main course was big enough, and everyone had second helpings, but then after a break of about half an hour Sally brought out pies: pumpkin, apple, and Saskatoon berry. “Anyone ready for some dessert?”she asked.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly!”her brother David replied with a grin, holding his stomach.

“But you will!”his wife Anna said, smiling at him affectionately.

“Who made all these pies?”I asked.

“Mom and I made most of them”, Sally replied, “and then Kelly brought a couple with her from Jasper”.

“I thought I should make something to add to the feast”, Kelly said.

Fresh coffee and tea were served, the pies were carved up and shared, and the conversation continued at the table until after nine o’clock. I was content to sit on the edge of the family circle and listen, enjoying the sense of warmth, and the knowledge that they were entirely happy to have me there.

Eventually Sally and her mother got up and cleared the table; the older folks moved into the  living room, but the younger Reimers stayed at the dining table. “Do you like to play Scrabble?”Kelly asked me.

“I do, actually”.

“Excellent. Are you ready to be massacred, Joseph Reimer?”

“Comin’right up”, Joe replied. He bent over beside a cupboard, opened a drawer and took out a Scrabble set.

“Is this another family tradition?”I asked.

“This is serious business”, Krista replied with a grin.

“Too serious for me”, Ellie added apologetically; “I let them persuade me to play once, a couple of years ago, and they totally wiped the floor with me, so I’m really glad that you like Scrabble, Tom!”

“Clear the decks”, Joe said, taking the Scrabble board out of the box; “This is my year; I can feel it coming”.

Will was coming around the corner with an empty coffee cup in his hand; “Let not him that girds on his armour boast himself as he that puts it off”, he said.

“What the heck is that, Dad?”Kelly asked.

“A quote from the Bible, of course”, he replied with a grin. “Don’t let me interrupt the slaughter, though; I’m just on the way through to fill up my coffee cup”.

The three Reimer siblings were definitely serious Scrabble players, and they were good at it, too; they didn’t use any words that I didn’t know, but they certainly used words I’d never seen in a Scrabble game before. It quickly became obvious that the real competition was between Joe and Kelly; Krista and I held our own, but we were not up to their level. The score was close right to the end, but eventually, after about forty minutes of intense play, Joe won by using all the remaining letters in his hand to form the word ‘dyslexic’and go out.

“Unbelievable!”Kelly snorted; “How long have you had the ‘x’and the ‘y’?”

“About half the game”, he replied with a self-satisfied smirk; “I had a hunch they might come in useful”.

“That was a bit of a gamble”, I said.

“Hey, nothing ventured…”

“How about a rematch?”Kelly asked defiantly.

“Not competitive, now, are we?” Joe replied.

“Me? Surely not!”

Joe laughed and said, “Last time we played, we only had one game, and you totally annihilated me, so I think I’m just going to cut my losses and savour my brilliant victory tonight!”

Joe and Krista got up and went into the living room to join the others; I was just beginning to think that I should be on my way as well when Kelly gave me a smile and asked, “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“I really am. Your mum and dad have told me a lot about you all, so it’s really good to finally meet you”.

“Yeah, Dad’s mentioned a few things about you, too”.

“You keep in touch, then?”

“We do. You’ve probably noticed already that my dad’s kind of gregarious, and Mom and I are pretty close, too”.

“I can see that”. I shifted a little in my chair and said, “So tell me a bit more about Jasper; I know it’s in the Rocky Mountains, but I don’t really know anything about it beyond that”.

She smiled, and I saw a faraway look in her eyes. “It’s a wonderful place”, she said. “It’s in a pass through the mountains, where the Athabasca and Miette rivers meet. When I stand on the balcony of my apartment in town, I can see mountains wherever I look. There are beautiful green lakes, and deep gorges and waterfalls, and great hiking trails; it’s a wonderful place to see wildlife, too – caribou, moose, bears, elk, wolves…”.

“Are any of those animals dangerous?”

“Bears are dangerous, so when you’re hiking you have to keep a sharp lookout for them. And if you go far enough off the beaten track there’s a chance you might see a cougar, but I never have. Moose are usually okay as long as you keep your distance and don’t startle them. I’ve never run into a moose on a hiking trail, although I have seen them on the sides of a lake when I’ve been canoeing. It’s a great place for canoeing, and trail riding, and skiing as well. Do you ski?”

“No – I’ve had the opportunity a couple of times, but I’ve never been brave enough to try it”.

“I was a cross country skier before I moved to Jasper, but now I’ve started downhill skiing as well”.

“I like walking a lot”, I said; “We had great footpaths back home, but here there doesn’t seem to be anything like that”.

“No – Saskatchewan’s pretty much a car culture – or, I should say, a truck culture. I like walking and hiking, but I’m in a minority. Are you a hiker, then?”

“I suppose so, though I’m not really sure where exactly walking turns to hiking! When we were teenagers, my best friend Owen and I would often spend the whole of Saturday walking out in the country, and we kept that up when we were in university. Sometimes we went further afield; Owen’s family used to go camping in the Lake District – that’s a mountainous area in northwest England – and I often went with them. The views there are pretty spectacular, although probably not by your standards”.

“Show me some pictures some time, alright?”

“Alright, but fair’s fair – I’d like to see some of yours, too”.

“Next time I come home I’ll bring some. But now it’s your turn; tell me all about Oxford”.

“What do you already know about it?”

“Well, I’ve read some of Colin Dexter’s Morse novels, and I’ve read a bit of C.S. Lewis, too. It’s quite old, isn’t it?”

“The college I went to was founded in 1427”.

She grinned; “Right – pretty old, then!”

“There are some colleges that go back to the 1300s”, I said. “Oxford is different from some university towns, in that the individual colleges are older than the university. Tutors and lecturers are attached to the colleges, but the university oversees the whole thing and sets exams and runs the science labs and all that stuff. Not that I know a lot about science labs; my degree’s in English Literature”.

“You didn’t do a teaching degree?”

“I did a BA in English and a postgraduate certificate in education”.

“Right. And you were also playing folk music in a band, Dad tells me”.

“Yeah; Owen and I had been playing guitar together since our early teens, and a couple of years ago we met a girl with a fantastic voice who joined us”.

“Are you famous?”she asked playfully.

“Hardly! We had lots of fun, though”.

“What’s the teaching like at Oxford; are the classes big?”

“The lectures are big, but the tutorials are small”.

“What are tutorials?”

“You meet once a week in groups of two or three students with your tutor; one of the students will have been assigned an essay, which they read, and then the tutor critiques the essay and encourages everyone else to chime in”.

“No kidding? I’ve never heard of anything like that before”.

“Well, it works alright with arts and humanities, but I don’t think they use it so much in the science courses”.

“I guess not”.

Joe wandered back into the dining area and sat down with us; “Is she still interrogating you?”he asked with a smile.

“I don’t mind”, I replied.

“How are you finding Meadowvale, Tom?”he asked quietly.

“It’s good; it’s different from what I’m used to, of course”.

“A little challenging to get into for an outsider?”

“A bit, but most people have been really welcoming. Sometimes people just forget that there are lots of things I don’t know about. I know they don’t mean to be unkind, though”.

“No”, he replied; “people are just used to each other, and it takes them a while to get comfortable with a newcomer”.

“Your dad and mum have been great”, I said; “I’ve had supper here at least once a week since I got here, and when I was setting my house up they couldn’t have been more helpful”.

“Where do you live?”Kelly asked.

“In a little rented place over toward the highway”.

“Ron Ratzlaff’s place?”

“That’s the one”.

Kelly nodded; “I know where you live, then. Maybe I’ll come over tomorrow and take you out for coffee”.

Joe grinned; “She’s really shy, my sister!”

“That would be fine”, I said; “I’d enjoy that”.

“Actually”, Kelly added, “have you discovered Myers Lake yet?”

“No – what’s that?”

She grinned; “It’s a lake!”

We laughed; “Sorry”, she said, “but I couldn’t resist that!”

“No need to apologize”, I replied; “I walked right into it!”

“It’s actually a regional park about seven miles north-east of here. The lake is a great place to see waterfowl in the summer, but what I like are the walking trails. There are several miles of them; they run along the shore and off into the bush. Of course, the poplars and willows are bare by now, but there are some spruce as well. And once the snow comes you can go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing up there”.

“I’d like to see that”, I said.

“Well, tomorrow’s a holiday; why don’t I take you up there?”

“I’d like that”.

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

Reality is not simple

A couple of weeks ago we elected a new provincial government in the province of Alberta, and the new cabinet was sworn in on Sunday afternoon. They lean to the left, which is rather unusual, given that their predecessors, the Progressive Conservatives, had been in power for forty-four years. Here in Alberta, we don’t exactly have a history of favouring socialism. All sort of jokes about flying pigs and the climate of hell were making the rounds of social media for a few days.

The new government, of course, wants to make income taxes more progressive, to increase the corporate tax rate, and to put the minimum wage up from ten to fifteen dollars an hour over a three year period. It can point to economic studies showing the benefits of these ideas. Of course, conservative-minded people can also point to studies backing up their opposition to these ideas. Economics, it turns out, is not an exact science. Equally intelligent people can take diametrically opposed positions on what will work and what won’t. People who disagree with me are not being malicious (much as I would like to think they are!); they look at things differently, that’s all. Their points of view seem self-evident to them – just as my point of view seems self-evident to me!

It’s the same in the field of medicine. I, as a layman, would like to think that every illness has a prescribed course of treatment that will always, infallibly, produce a good result, but of course, reality is far more messy than that. There are many illnesses for which we do not yet have a satisfactory cure. And many of the cures that we do have work some of the time, but not always. People are different; drugs or surgical procedures will not always produce the same results in different bodies.

This seems to be the way it is on planet earth; we like to think that knowledge is cut and dried, black and white, clear for all to see, but in fact, it’s not. Scientists will tell you that human beings and human societies – not to mention wider ecosystems – are incredibly complex. Climate, ecological systems, economic principles, family structures, human personality – they all seem to be far more complicated than we had ever imagined.

People sometimes get impatient with complexity in the area of religion. “Surely, if there’s a God, he’s simple and straightforward”, they say. “All these complex theological ideas can’t really have anything to do with God, can they?”

Why not? If God invented matter – if he dreamed up DNA – if he designed all the millions of different species currently existing on earth – if he created the vast distances of inter-stellar space – and, for that matter, if he knows every single human being he has ever created on this pin-prick of a planet, and even knows our thoughts – well, he must be far more complex than we can ever imagine. For from making him too complicated, theology is probably erring on the side of being overly simplistic.

If there is a loving and powerful God, how does he balance his desire to see his good and wise plan for his world come to fruition, with his complimentary desire to honour the free will he has given to his creatures?

Where did evil come from? Was it somehow created by God? If not, is it possible that something else exists that was not created by the Creator of everything? And if evil was created by another creator, why did that other creator want to create evil? Was that other creator made by the one true God, and if so… well, you get the problem!

If God is a God of love, why does the world appear to have been set up in such a way that life forms prey upon each other, and the stronger and more savage usually win the day? ‘Nature is red in tooth and claw'; if nature is our guide to ideal existence, why do we think it’s good and honourable to care for the weak and the old rather than put them out of their misery, as nature does? So in what sense are God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are…understood and seen through the things he has made’? (Romans 1:20).

These are complex questions, and the God we believe in must be bigger and more complex than anything we can imagine if he has the answers to them. But then, as one of my teachers used to say, “God being the almighty creator of the universe, and you being one of his creatures, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are a few things in the mind of Almighty God that you can’t understand!”

Isaiah expressed it long ago when he spoke on God’s behalf:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8-9 NRSV).

Or, as a very wise Christian theologian once said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God”.

Nonetheless, we are called to try our best to understand it. Jesus told us that we ought to love the Lord our God, not just with all our heart, but also with all our mind. We are thinking beings, and often we get ourselves into trouble by not thinking things through carefully enough before we act. “Measure twice, cut once” is the carpenter’s rule. “Think carefully before you speak or act” ought to be ours.

But there is a limit to our thoughts, and all thoughts of God will run off into mystery sooner or later. At the end of the day, there comes a time to close the theology books and say our evening prayers to the God we will never fully understand – because, if we did, we would be equal with him, which is obviously impossible. And so we bow before him and pray as the psalmist taught us:

‘O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like a weaned child that is with me.

‘O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore’ (Psalm 131 NRSV).

Posted in God, Life, Thought for the Day | 1 Comment

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?”


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?”


“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,


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,


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