‘On His Way Rejoicing’ – a sermon on Acts 8:26-40

A man came to a church one Sunday morning in a time of great need in his life. He’d had a well-paying job with an oil company, but had recently lost it to downsizing, and was now trying to make a living as a farmer. At about the same time, his wife had left him. He was feeling lost and alone in the world, and he knew he needed help.

He hadn’t been near a church for a long time, but he had a friend who was a churchgoer, who had once shared with him the story of his own spiritual journey home to Christ. So he decided to take his courage in his hands and go to the little Anglican church his friend attended. Now it so happened that there was a guest preacher at the church that day. One of the readings set for that Sunday was Jesus’ story of the lost sheep, and that’s what the guest preacher spoke about. The man said afterwards, ‘That was me; I was the little lost sheep, and I was coming home’. And so began a process that eventually led to this man becoming a Christian.

I know this story because I was the minister at that church – although not the preacher that Sunday – and I was the one who eventually baptized this man and became a spiritual mentor to him. But as I look back on that experience, what stands out for me is how God was at work. God worked through the friend who shared the story of his faith journey. God worked through the timing – having the man come to church on the exact Sunday when that lost sheep story was being read, and then having the preacher speak about that story. The timing was right, the Holy Spirit was at work, the people who needed to speak said what needed to be said, a welcome was offered, and a connection was made. And months afterwards, when we all gradually realized how beautifully it had been arranged, we shook our heads and marvelled at the way God works.

That reminds me of today’s reading from the book of Acts.

Let’s set the scene. At the beginning of Acts chapter 8 Saul of Tarsus arranges the violent death of Stephen – the first martyr, the first person to give his life for his faith in Jesus. Stephen was a member of a group of seven ‘deacons’ who served the Jerusalem church. His death marked the beginning of a time of persecution, and the majority of the early followers of Jesus fled the city for their lives. But they didn’t do what we might expect – they didn’t keep quiet about their faith. No: Acts tells us ‘Now those who had been scattered moved on, preaching the good news along the way’ (Acts 8:4, CEB). Please note: these weren’t professional preachers. They were ordinary Jesus-followers, moving to new towns and villages, setting up their businesses, and gossipping the gospel wherever they went.

Philip was one of these. He had been another of that group of seven deacons in Jerusalem. He went beyond the borders of Israel to Samaria. Samaria was suspect. The people there were partly Jewish but their bloodline wasn’t pure, and their religion was seen as heretical by the Jewish people in Judea and Galilee. But Philip had a huge impact there as he proclaimed the Good News of Jesus and healed the sick, and a large group of Samaritans became believers. You can read that story in Acts 8:4-25, just before our reading for today.

But then something strange happened; God told Philip to move on. I’m sure Philip must have been very surprised when he heard the voice telling him to leave the amazing work that was going on in Samaria, and go down to the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Why would he leave a place where there were many people wanting to learn about Jesus, and go off to a place where there was nobody? But nevertheless, off he went.

And what did he discover? The desert road wasn’t deserted after all. I imagine Philip walking along the road, and then hearing the noise of a carriage, or chariot, behind him. Riding in it is a man who’s obviously a person of some importance. The word ‘Ethiopian’ was often used in the ancient world to describe a black person, but in this case he seems to have been ethnically Ethiopian too. Being an important official, I expect he probably had some servants and guards travelling along with him.

Acts tells us    quite a lot about this man. Apparently he was an important official of the Kandake, or Queen, of Ethiopia; he was in charge of her treasury. So we can imagine him as a person of some wealth and power. But he’s also described to us as a ‘eunuch’. Eunuchs were often employed as government officials or servants in court circles in the ancient Near East; there was less risk of them getting up to mischief with women in the royal families. Also, since they couldn’t have children, there was less risk of them trying to overthrow their kings so they could establish their own dynasties.

So this man was a powerful royal official of Ethiopia, and he was a eunuch, deprived of the opportunity to establish a family and a household for himself. The third thing that’s very clear is that this man was spiritually hungry. We’re not told whether or not he was Jewish; we know that at that time, Jewish people could be found in many countries in the ancient near east. But we also know that there were non-Jewish people who had been attracted to the Jewish belief in the one creator God. They were called the ‘God-fearers’. Some of them went the whole way, allowed themselves to be circumcised and took on the whole Jewish law; they were called ‘proselytes’.

Perhaps this man was a God-fearer or a proselyte; we’re not told. But he had made the long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. When he got there, he may well have been disappointed. The law of Moses has a rather disturbing exclusive streak in it; Philip Yancey calls it ‘oddballs not allowed’. Eunuchs were among those oddballs; Deuteronomy 23:1 says they can’t be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, and Leviticus 17 says they can’t take part in offering the sacrifices. So the eunuch would have made the long journey from Ethiopia to worship at the temple, only to discover that he wasn’t allowed to worship at the temple. Can you imagine how that must have felt for him?

But he was determined. The text doesn’t tell us specifically that he purchased a scroll of the book of Isaiah while he was in Jerusalem, but he was obviously reading it for the first time on his way home, so it seems likely it was new to him. That scroll would have cost him an enormous amount of money – far more than a year’s wages for a day labourer. Nowadays people buy Bibles and then don’t bother to read them. Not this man! He believed this scroll was scripture from the God he was seeking, so he was reading it out loud in the chariot on his way home, trying to make sense of it. No one read silently in those days; everyone read out loud.

Wow! How nicely God had arranged everything! But it was going to get better still.

The Holy Spirit whispered in Philip’s ear ‘Approach this carriage and stay with it’ (v.29). We might have expected Philip to approach cautiously, taking his time, unsure of his welcome. Not Philip! Acts says, ‘Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah’ (v.30). He was reading from chapter 53, the Suffering Servant passage that we read every year on Good Friday. Such a good thing that Philip ran! If he’d walked, the eunuch might have been in chapter 55 by the time he got to him!

Philip and the eunuch got talking, and the eunuch asked Philip to help him understand what he was reading. This was where he’d got to in the passage:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?’ (Acts 8:32-33).

‘Who is the prophet talking about?’ asked the eunuch, ‘himself or someone else?’ Well, that question was a real gift for Philip! So he started from that passage, and shared with the eunuch the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

Looking at those verses we can see how good that news was for the eunuch. Isaiah 53 was understood by Christians very early on as a prophecy of the death of Jesus on the cross. It talks about the Lord’s servant being despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It says that all of us have gone astray like lost sheep and the Lord has laid all our sins on his servant. The passage has been a rich source for Christians to meditate on the meaning of the death of Jesus.

But the section of the passage the eunuch was reading refers specifically to the ‘humiliation’ of the Lord’s servant: ‘In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.Who can tell the story of his descendantsbecause his life was taken from the earth?’ (v.33). Think of the man who had probably been made a eunuch forcibly, being robbed of his ability to have a family: ‘Who can tell the story of his descendants?’ What a humiliation for him! And then to go all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem only to be excluded, kept away from the worship of the God he’d come all that way to seek. Another humiliation!

Acts tells us that ‘starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him’ (v.35). It’s not hard for us to guess what good news about Jesus Philip would have told him. The death of Jesus was a sign of God identifying with sinners and sufferers all over the world. The Old Testament might have said ‘oddballs not allowed’, but Jesus appears to have believed the reverse: ‘oddballs especially welcome’! One of his favourite sayings was ‘the first shall be last and the last first’. The eunuch might have been turned away at the Temple in Jerusalem, but at the cross the arms of Jesus were opened wide to welcome allpeople back to God!

Well, this message obviously fell on fertile ground. This was what the eunuch had been looking for! This rich and powerful man had a great big empty space in his heart and he was seeking a true and living and loving God to fill that space. He didn’t need telling twice! And somehow, in all that desert, at just the right time, they came to a patch of water. “Look – water! What’s to prevent me being baptized?” So they stopped the carriage, and down they went into the water, and Philip baptized him, and then the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.

This is one of the most wonderful stories in the book of Acts, and it’s full of meaning for us today. What can we learn from it?

First, what’s God up to? The baptism of this eunuch comes a few verses after the baptism of the Samaritans who became Jesus-followers. A couple of chapters later, we have the first baptism of a Roman, Cornelius – we’ll think about him next week. The message of Jesus is spreading; it started with the Jewish people, but it didn’t stop there. It went on to those heretics in Samaria – and then to a spiritually hungry eunuch from Ethiopia – and then to the enemy, the hated Romans, Centurion Cornelius and his household. And within a few chapters Paul and Barnabas are taking the Christian message far beyond the borders, out among the Gentiles who worship idols of wood and stone. And everywhere the message goes, it finds a ready hearing in the hearts of people hungry for spiritual reality.

That’s what God’s up to. We make a border and say, ‘This far the gospel can go, and no further’, but God delights in going beyond that border. People who’ve been marginalized and humiliated and excluded – sometimes by the very churches they’ve come to in their search for spiritual reality – God is reaching out to those people. On Easter Sunday we heard how the angel said to the women at the empty tomb, “(Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 6:7 NRSV). We’re always playing catch up with Jesus. We’d like to keep him in the nice, safe circle of long-time followers, but he’s always reaching out beyond the borders to the outcasts and the humiliated and the marginalized and the sinners.

And some of them are willing to go to great lengths to learn about him. The three wise men came looking for the newborn king; they’d made a long journey from the east and may have been on the road for as long as two years. Even if you didn’t have to leave home, would you put two years of your life into a demanding spiritual journey? The eunuch had come all the way from Ethiopia; that’s two thousand five hundred miles, on a dangerous road, travelling by horse carriage or chariot. You’d be surprised to discover how spiritually hungry some people are, even in today’s world. When I let them ask me their questions, instead of presuming I know what their questions are going to be, I’m often amazed at the things that come up.

I teach a one-day workshop called ‘How to Relax and Enjoy Evangelism’. I’m very serious about the title. If we understand what Luke is telling us in today’s gospel, we’ll know there’s no need to get uptight about it. God is at work in people’s lives. What we need to do is learn to walk closely with God, so that when God gives us little nudges, we’ll be able to pick them up. God knows what he’s up to in the lives of our friends and family members and acquaintances. He knows the ones whose hearts are ready for a significant conversation. It doesn’t need to be a long one; in fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t. It’s always better to end the conversation while people are still wishing you’d keep going, rather than go on and on until you’re long past the point where they start wishing you’d shut up!

Likely you won’t very often get to be the last link – the one who leads them across the threshold to faith in Jesus. More likely you’ll be a link in the chain. But if you listen to the Holy Spirit and let go of your fears, you’ll be able to be the link you need to be. And who knows; one day you might help someone to the point where they go on their way rejoicing because for the first time in their lives they’ve come to know the joy of Jesus. And if you stand close enough so that some of that joy can spill over on you – well, that will be an experience you’ll treasure for the rest of your life.

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‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 30

Link back to Chapter 29

******

My father told us he was missing the family gatherings; he freely acknowledged that they wore him out, but he also liked the fact that for the first time since Rick and Becca and I were kids, our whole clan had been getting together regularly. “It doesn’t matter if I need to go and lie down for a couple of hours in the afternoon”, he said to Becca and me one day; “You people can still enjoy each other’s company, and after I’m rested I can join you again”.

“I don’t know, Dad”, Becca replied; “Sometimes the cumulative effect of tiredness can be very debilitating”.

He shrugged; “There’s not much point in living longer if I can’t spend time with the people I love”.

“Why don’t we try it once or twice?” I suggested. “If it turns out to be too much for you, we can go back to the smaller gatherings”.

******

So we all got together in Northwood on Sunday November 14th; the plan was to have Sunday dinner at about one o’clock, spend the afternoon, and maybe stay for a light meal at tea time if my father was feeling up to it. He asked me to invite Wendy and her children as well; “As far as I’m concerned, they’re part of the family”, he said.

“I’ll pass that on”, I replied; “Wendy’s church service is at ten, the same as ours, but we should be able to make a one o’clock dinner quite easily if we don’t stay for coffee hour afterwards”.

“If you’re a few minutes late, it doesn’t matter”.

******

As it turned out, Wendy attended church that Sunday with Emma and me.

Wendy had originally invited Emma and me to join her at St. Michael’s, but I had smiled awkwardly; “Actually, I’ve got a particular reason for not wanting to go to an Anglican church that Sunday”, I said to her when we talked about it over an evening coffee at my house the week before.

“Oh?”

“Yeah – it’s Remembrance Sunday, isn’t it?”

“Of course – and you’re pacifists”. She frowned; “Don’t the Baptists observe Remembrance Sunday, then?”

“There will be a recognition of it, but Jim isn’t going to take the ‘just war’ line in his sermon – I know that, because he agrees with us on the issue”.

“You told me he’d been influenced by Anabaptism”.

“I actually think it’s more than ‘influenced’ – in his heart, he is an Anabaptist. It’s a little controversial, actually; historically, English Baptists aren’t pacifist, and not everyone in our church agrees with Jim. But there’s been a compromise; there will be prayers for peace and remembrance of those who’ve died in wars, but there won’t be any endorsement of war as a legitimate option for Christians. And the elders have agreed that Jim has a right to express his views in his sermon”.

“Has he lost people over it?”

“I think he did when he first started taking a more pacifist line, but that was a few years ago now. And it works both ways; some people have joined the church because of his views”.

“Like you and Emma”.

“Yes”.

She was quiet for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her face, and I waited, knowing that she had more to say. We were alone at my kitchen table that night; Emma had gone to bed early, because she had a 7:30 shift at the J.R. the following morning and she was still finding the twelve-hour working day rather exhausting.

“It’s a difficult issue, isn’t it?” said Wendy.

“War and peace?”

“Yes. I’ve been reading John Howard Yoder on the subject”.

“I didn’t know that. How are you finding him?”

“Dense; I have to do a lot of re-reading”.

“I know what you mean. Still, The Politics of Jesus was one of Kelly’s favourite books”.

“That’s the one I’m reading. I find Yoder annoying sometimes. but I’m having the same experience with him as I did with Donald Kraybill in The Upside-Down Kingdom – I’m finding him quite persuasive. I just don’t know what you do with the difficult issues”.

“What should we have done about Hitler, you mean?”

“Yes – or bin Laden. Not that I’m a big fan of Bush and Blair and their war in Iraq”.

“I understand”.

“How do you reconcile that, Tom?”

I thought for a moment, and then I said, “I don’t know that I’ve completely reconciled it. I’m convinced that the teaching of Jesus is clear on the subject, though”.

She nodded; “I think I agree with you on that. It’s the application I find difficult”.

“Rob Neufeld used to say that the first mistake Christians make on that issue is the way we use the word ‘we’”.

She shook her head; “I don’t follow”.

“When people ask, ‘What should we have done about Hitler, then?’ they’re using the word ‘we’ to mean, ‘We, the British’, or ‘We, the Allies’. But the Apostle Paul would never have used the word ‘we’ like that. To him, ‘we’ was primarily ‘We, the Body of Christ’, and he believed that followers of Jesus had a different responsibility. Whether we’re British or Canadian or German or Russian or whatever, our first loyalty is to Jesus and our fellow-Christians, not to our nation. And if all the people of Jesus had lived by that during the First World War…”

She nodded; “Obviously, things would have been very different”. She took a sip of her coffee, the thoughtful expression back on her face. “That does make a difference, doesn’t it? I’ve probably been influenced by my association with an Established Church with a strong connection to the State”.

“You’ve probably already discovered that Yoder doesn’t have much time for that idea”.

“Yes”.

“The thing is, Wendy, there are loose ends on both sides of the argument”.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, you’re right – the loose end on the pacifist side is, what do you do about a manifestly evil regime like Hitler’s? Do you just do nothing?”.

“That’s my question, although I have a nagging feeling that Jesus and I might have had some arguments on the subject”.

“Yes – and he might have pointed out to you that the just war people have loose ends on their side too. Imagine you’re a Christian, serving as a bomb-aimer, taking part in the fire-bombing of Dresden. You look down on the city and you know you’re aiming your bombs at innocent civilians, including tiny children, who are all going to be incinerated by your actions. Many of them would claim to be followers of the same Jesus you believe in. How do you work that one out?”

“Yes”, she said softly; “That’s a difficult one”.

“It is”.

She gave me a sudden smile. “Well – I can understand why you might not want to attend St. Michael’s on Remembrance Sunday”.

“Honestly, I have no idea what you do at St. Michael’s. Maybe you don’t observe Remembrance Sunday at all”.

She shook her head; “We do, I’m afraid”.

“I’m absolutely sure Emma wouldn’t want to go. We ran into it last year at the village church in Northwood and it made her really uncomfortable”.

“Fair enough. So why don’t I come to you, then?”

I was surprised. “Yeah?”

“Yes. I’ve been meaning to come for some time actually”.

“You know it’s not at all liturgical, right?”

“I know. It’s probably quite informal, is it?”

“Yes. There’ll be singing, praying and scripture reading, and a sermon from Jim. At least, I think Jim’s preaching. Sometimes one of the elders spells him out, but I think he’s made sure to be the preacher this week”.

“Because of the war and peace issue?”

“Yes”.

“How often do you have communion?”

“Once a month, on the first Sunday. You have it every week, right?”

“We do. I’m impressed that you know that”.

“Well, I’m not completely unfamiliar with Anglican practices”.

“Of course; I keep forgetting you sometimes go to the village church in Northwood”.

“And we’ve gone to church with Owen and Lorraine one and off over the years”.

“At St. Clement’s?”

“Yes. And I’ve also been doing a bit of Anglican reading lately”.

She inclined her head a little and looked at me curiously. “I didn’t know that. What have you been reading?”

“Some online stuff, and Claire – she’s the vicar at Northwood – has lent me a couple of good books. Plus I’ve been re-reading some of my old C.S. Lewis books”. I grinned at her; “And then there’s Jane Austen, and Anthony Trollope, and Charlotte M. Yonge, and John Donne, and George Herbert – you can’t really be an English literature teacher without picking up quite a lot of Anglican ambient noise”.

She laughed softly. “I like that phrase! Of course, it’s possible that Anglicanism has changed quite a bit since the nineteenth century!”

“I get that”.

“What’s got you interested in this?”

I smiled at her; “You have”.

“Me?”

“Yeah – I wanted to find out a little more about what makes you tick”.

She looked at me steadily for a moment, and then she reached across and put her hand on mine. “Thank you”, she said softly.

“You’re welcome; I’m enjoying it”.

“We can talk about it any time you like, you know”.

“I know that, and I do have questions I want to ask you. But I don’t especially want to get into points of disagreement – or at least, not yet. In some ways it’s a very different atmosphere from Anabaptism, and I don’t always find that easy to navigate”.

“I understand. I’ve felt the same way when you’ve talked about Anabaptism, and when I’ve been reading the books you recommended. Of course, I know both churches claim to be based on Jesus, but our historical traditions are so very different”. She smiled awkwardly; “To tell you the truth, I’ve been a bit scared of finding some hugely important difference that might threaten…”. Her voice trailed off, and she looked down at the table.

“Some hugely important difference that might threaten what’s happening between you and me, you mean?”

She nodded, looking up at me again.

“What is actually happening between us, Wendy?” I asked.

“I’m not sure”, she replied softly, “but I know that I like it”.

“So do I”.

“Yes?”

“Yes”.

“I was afraid you might be conflicted about it”.

“I am conflicted about it”.

She squeezed my hand, and we sat in silence again for a moment, looking at each other, neither of us needing to tell the other what we were feeling. Eventually she leaned forward, touched my cheek with her hand, and said, “You don’t have to stop missing Kelly, you know, and you don’t have to avoid talking about her with me”.

“I know”.

“I’m not threatened by her; I actually love her for helping to make you the person you are”.

I shook my head; “You are an extraordinary woman, Wendy Howard”.

“I don’t think so. But speaking of extraordinary, what about your daughter? How’s she going to feel?”

“She’s fine”.

“But I know how much she loves her mum, and misses her”.

“Yes, and that’s never going to change”.

“Have you talked about me?”

“Quite a while ago, actually – the night you told me about Lisa. She thought we’d gone out on a date, so I asked her if she’d have minded if we had”.

“What did she say?”

“She said she reserved the right to vet my dates, but she already approved of you”.

“That’s sweet”.

“I thought so”.

She looked at me quietly for a moment, and then she said, “Take your time, Tom. I’m not going anywhere”.

“Thank you for being so patient”.

“My pleasure”.

******

So Wendy came along with Emma and me when we went to Banbury Road Baptist Church on Remembrance Sunday. There had been a rainfall during the night, but the skies had cleared toward morning and the sun was shining as we drove to church.

It seemed to me as I looked around that the sanctuary was slightly more full than usual. Wendy remembered Kathy McFarlane from parent-teacher interviews at school, and we introduced her to Matthew and Alanna as we took our seats beside them. The scriptures and songs had been chosen to fit the theme of praying for peace, and Jim preached on a passage from the prophets about swords being beaten into ploughshares and nation no longer lifting up sword against nation; he emphasized the call of Christians to live by that vision and do what they could to make it a reality.

When the service was over people began to mill around, getting cups of coffee and tea and  chatting with friends. I introduced Wendy to a few other people we had gotten to know at the church, and I noticed Emma and Matthew off in one corner with their heads together, obviously deep in conversation. It occurred to me then that I had noticed this a few times over the last few weeks: Emma spending time with Matthew by himself, rather than Matthew and Alanna together.

But of course our time was limited because of our commitment to go out to Northwood for Sunday dinner, so before too long we took our leave of the church people and headed back to Marston. Wendy’s car was bigger than ours, so we had arranged to ride out to Northwood with them. Lisa and Colin were ready and waiting for us when we got to their house, and we quickly changed cars and headed out east to the Oxford bypass and then south around the edge of the city toward the A4074.

“So how was church?” Lisa asked her mother from the back seat.

“It was alright, actually”, Wendy replied. “A bit different from what I’m used to”.

“How so?”

“A lot less formal. No real written prayers, a longer sermon. Lots of friendly conversation going on afterwards. It felt a bit awkward to be leaving quickly, actually; most people seemed to be staying around for coffee”.

Emma and Colin were sitting beside each other in the back seat, comparing notes about college; Colin hadn’t seen her since she started her placement, so he asked her about it, and for a few minutes we all listened as she talked about some of her experiences so far on the wards. “It’s much busier than Mom’s times working at the Meadowvale Hospital”, she concluded, “but of course the J.R.’s much bigger”.

“Did your mum ever work in a city hospital?” Colin asked.

“Only when she was doing her nursing training in Saskatoon. After she graduated she went straight to Jasper, and then after a couple of years she came back to Meadowvale; that was after she and Dad met”.

“She worked for a while in the Meadowvale Special Care Home”, I said, “and then after Emma was born and she’d recovered from her first cancer experience she went back to the hospital part time”.

“But she went back eventually to the Special Care Home”, Emma added.

“Is that what you want to do?” Colin asked her; “Work with old people?”

“Maybe – I’m not sure yet. I like old people, but you get a lot of variety from working on wards, and I like that too”.

******

Becca and Mike had gone out to Northwood the night before and stayed over, and Becca had helped my mother prepare the Sunday dinner: roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, and all the trimmings. My father was looking reasonably well and he greeted us all cheerfully. We arrived at about the same time as Rick and his family, and for a few minutes there was a noisy sort of chaos in the hallway. Eric had brought his guitar and Emma had thrown hers in the back of Wendy’s car; “After dinner”, she said to him, “we can grab a few minutes in the music room”.

“Brilliant! I’ve got a couple of new songs to play for you!”.

But it was Mike and Becca who stole the limelight during dinner. After my mother brought out the dessert and passed around the coffee, Becca cleared her throat and said, “Well, we’ve got something to tell you”. She glanced at Mike, and he took her hand and said, “Becca and I got engaged yesterday”.

“About time!” said Emma with a smile of pure delight. “Is there a ring?”

“Yes there is”, Becca replied as she took a ring from her pocket, slipped it onto her finger, and then held out her hand so that Emma could see the diamond.

For a few minutes total chaos seemed to break out at the table, as people got to their feet and went over to hug Becca and shake Mike by the hand. When it was my turn I held my sister close and whispered in her ear, “Are you happy, Small One?”

“Oh yes!”

“So is there a date?” Alyson asked.

Mike shook his head; “We’re hoping for some time next summer, but we haven’t really made any inquiries yet. We’ll get started on that tomorrow”.

Becca grinned at Emma. “And you’re going to be a bridesmaid!” she said.

“Absolutely!” Emma replied.

******

Later on my father went up to his room to lie down for a while, and the young people went off to the music room to visit and listen to Emma and Eric playing guitar. Wendy caught my eye and said, “Could we walk up to the lake for a minute? There’s something I need to talk to you about”.

“Sure”.

So we got our coats and slipped out of the house. The grass was still wet and the pathway through the trees a little muddy; overhead the sky was clouding over again, and I could smell the scent of rain in the air.

Wendy took my arm as we made our way up through the orchard toward the lake. “It’s feeling a bit nippy out here again!” she said.

“It is”.

She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Well, I wanted to tell you that I had a phone call last night from Rees; apparently Mickey’s been injured in Iraq”.

“Badly injured?”

“The story is that he was travelling in a military convoy and a truck nearby hit an explosive device. He was hit by flying metal in his arm and shoulder; he was wearing a flack jacket, but one piece of metal penetrated the jacket and stuck in his shoulder, and a few smaller pieces hit his arm”.

“Is he all right?”

“Apparently he’s in hospital at the British base in Basra right now, but he’s going to be shipped home some time next week”.

“But we don’t know for sure how serious it is?”

“Not really. Rees said it was Mickey’s parents who talked to him; they said Mickey wanted Colin and Lisa to be told about what was happening”.

“How do you feel about that?”

“Well, I know it’s the right thing, but I can’t help feeling anxious about it”.

“Is he going to want to see Colin?”

“Nothing’s been said, but I’ve got a sinking feeling that he might ask for that”.

“That would be a violation of the settlement, right?”

“Yes”.

“Could that be done legally?”

“I haven’t even begun to think about that; I suppose I should talk to my lawyer”.

“If you’re nervous about it, you definitely should”.

“I’m just afraid that if I agree to let Colin go to see him once, it could be the thin end of the wedge. But then I ask myself, how mean-spirited can I be? The man’s been injured, he’s probably feeling his own mortality; what could be more natural than for him to want to see his son?”

“Are you all right?”

“I was feeling a bit rattled last night, but I was okay this morning. I haven’t really been thinking about it very much so far today”. She shrugged; “I’ll be all right, Tom”.

“Have you said anything to the kids yet?”

“Not yet; I’ve been putting it off”

“Might not be a bad idea to do it soon; that way it won’t come as a surprise if he contacts them”.

“True enough. Right – I’ll tell them tonight”.

“Do you think they’ll be okay?”

“It sounds awful to say it, but I don’t think either of them will lose much sleep over Micky being injured. I’m a bit apprehensive about Lisa’s reaction, though – every time he’s mentioned, she just gets angry”.

“That’s understandable. Do you want me to talk to her?”

“Not right away. I expect she’ll probably ring you afterwards, though”.

“She seems to like doing that”.

“I know”. She grinned and squeezed my arm; “It’s nice, actually. I know she doesn’t call you ‘Dad’, but over the last few months you’ve been the closest thing to a real dad she’s ever had”.

“I like being there for her”.

“I know she likes it too. Thank you”.

“Not at all”.

“And on another subject – Mike and Becca”.

“Yes – I’m pleased about that. I’ve always liked Mike”.

“And who knows – perhaps before long you’ll be an uncle again!”

“Perhaps I will!”

******

A couple of days later Emma was working an evening shift at the JR and Becca came over to my place to keep me company for a couple of hours. We sat in the armchairs on either side of the gas fireplace, sipping herbal tea and talking about anything that came into our heads. For a while we talked about her hopes for a future with Mike, hopes of a home and a family; at one point she gave me a smile and said, “I hope you’ll get the chance to be an uncle again before too long, Tommy”.

“I hope that too”.

She took a sip of her tea, wrapped her hands around the mug, and said, “And what about you and Wendy?”

“What about us?”

She shrugged; “I don’t mean to pry, but…”

“You’ve noticed we’re getting more friendly?”

“Something like that”.

I was quiet for a moment, staring into the fireplace, my thoughts buzzing. Eventually I shrugged helplessly; “I think I might be falling in love again, Becs, but I’m conflicted about it”.

“Not because of Emma, though?”

“No – the problem’s entirely with me”.

“How so?”

“It’s complicated”. I finished my tea, put the mug down on my side table, and said, “I like Wendy, I always have, but I also remember that the last time I tried to make our friendship into something more than friendship, I succeeded in destroying it for two decades. And then there’s Kelly; I know it’s been three and a half years since she died, but I still really miss her, and there’s a part of me that can’t get past that”.

“Have you and Wendy talked about this?”

“Last week”.

“What did she say?”

“She told me to take my time, because she wasn’t going anywhere”.

“She loves you?”

“We didn’t use that word, but I’m sure she does”.

She crossed her legs and looked at me, and to my surprise I saw a hesitant expression on her face. “There’s something I want to tell you, Tommy”, she said. “When I visited you a few weeks before Kelly died, she and I had a conversation about this”.

“About what?”

“About the possibility of you eventually coming to love someone else”.

I looked at her in astonishment; “Why haven’t you told me this before?”

“Well, it would have been rather insensitive for me to tell you about it right after she died, and it wasn’t something I wanted to mention to you on the phone or by email. If we were going to talk about it at all, I really wanted to do it face to face, and opportunities for that were few and far between. Also – well, to be frank, until now there hasn’t seemed to be any real need to mention it; after all, you haven’t actually dated anyone since she died”.

“That’s true. So what did she say?”

She looked away from me for a moment, pulling her feet up onto the chair and hugging her knees like a little girl. “This might turn out to be a bit hard for me, all right, so let me take my time”.

“Okay”.

“Do you remember that afternoon  I told you and Emma to go out to Myers Lake for a couple of hours?”

“I do; you said we’d been cooped up in the house for too long”.

“Well, after you’d gone I sat with Kelly in the living room; she kept falling asleep, but every time she woke up we would talk. I think we both knew it was probably our last chance to have that kind of talk”.

“What did she tell you?”

“She told me the kinds of things you always tell me – she told me not to get so caught up in my work that I didn’t have time for living; she told me that love is real and God is good and all those other amazing things she used to say, despite the fact that the cancer was less than a month away from killing her.

“After she woke up from one of her little naps that afternoon, we started talking about you. At first it was just a general sort of conversation, but at some point she said – and I’ll try to remember her exact words – she said, ‘Becca, we need to talk about what happens after I’m gone’.

“Of course, that was absolutely the last thing I wanted to talk about; she was my wise older sister and I loved her, and even though I knew in my heart that she was right – and as a doctor I was okay with talking about that – still, somehow that afternoon I couldn’t bring myself to face it, so I said all the usual pathetically stupid things – ‘you’re not going to die’, ‘the chemo could still turn things around’, and all that. But then she just put her hand out and touched my lips and said, ‘Don’t; we both know I’m going to die very soon, and I need to accept it so that I can make the most of the time I have left to me’.

“Then she said, ‘Becca, you’re going to have to help Tom after I’m gone’. And I said, ‘I can’t; it’s going to be such a bad time for us both’, and she said, ‘You don’t have to be strong for him – you just have to be there for each other when one of you needs a familiar shoulder to cry on and a familiar pair of arms to hold you’. And when she put it like that, I realized I could do that, so I said I would try.

“Then she started talking about Emma. She told me how happy she was that Emma and I were so close, and she hoped I would be able to help her out from time to time when she needed – when she needed an older sister…”

I had been staring at the blue flames in the gas fireplace, listening to her and picturing the scene in my mind, but now I glanced at her and realized that her eyes were wet with tears. I leaned forward and took her hand, and she pursed her lips and nodded at me, pausing for a moment in an obvious struggle to get her feelings under control. Eventually she squeezed my hand and said, “I’m sorry, Tommy; it was like she was passing the torch – asking me to do for Emma what she’d done for me – and the fact that she trusted me to do that for her only daughter was such an honour, and it made me feel that perhaps I really could do it”.

“You have done it”, I replied softly; “I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am”.

She shook her head. “I know Ellie and Krista have been with her a lot more than I have, but somehow the fact that I was a lot closer to her age…”

“Yes; she loves Ellie and Krista dearly, but what she’s got with you is entirely different”.

She nodded gratefully, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Anyway, we talked a bit more about Emma, and then she started to talk about you again. She talked about how you had made her so happy, and she knew she’d done the same for you, and she had never dreamed it was possible for a man and a woman to be so close. And then she said, ‘But now we have to pay the price, of course, and it’s going to be hardest for him, because he’s going to be left behind’. She said, ‘I know he’s going to mourn for me for a long time, and I know that’s the way it has to be, but I want you to promise me something else’. And I asked her what it was, and she said, ‘Promise me you’ll try to help him not to get stuck in the past. I don’t want him to spend the rest of his life mourning for me; if I wanted that, I’d be the most self-centred woman in creation. I love him too much for that. I want him to move on’”.

Becca looked at me nervously; “That’s what she said. And of course I protested and said that we were all going to miss her and we’d never forget her and so on, but she was very firm with me about it, and so in the end I had to give her my promise”.

We sat in silence for a long time, each of us alone with our thoughts.  Eventually she said, “I’ll say one more thing on the subject, Tommy, and then I’m done and I’ll shut up and mind my own business. It’s not for me to tell you how you should proceed in your relationship with Wendy; that’s between you and her. But you’re only forty-six; you’ve got a lot of years ahead of you, and I know you well enough to know that deep down inside you’re very lonely. Surely you don’t want to be this lonely for the rest of your life? Kelly didn’t want that to happen; she loved you too much for that. Now, after all this, if it turns out that a simple friendship is enough for you and Wendy, that’s fine. But if there’s a chance your relationship could develop into something more than that – well, I think you shouldn’t be afraid of letting that happen. God knows, you and Wendy have both had a lot of pain in your lives, and you both deserve some happiness”.

I didn’t reply, and we sat together in silence again for a long time.

Eventually she spoke very softly: “Have I upset you?”

I shook my head. “No, but you’ve given me a lot to think about”.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes”.

She glanced at her watch. “I should be going soon”.

“Mike will be waiting”.

“Yes”. She smiled at me; “It’s good to have someone to go home to”.

“Yes it is”.

“Will you be alright by yourself ’til Emma comes home?”

“Yes; I’m going to sit here and think for a bit, and then maybe get my guitar out and sing myself some old folk songs”.

“Don’t sing only miserable ones, okay?”

I laughed softly; “I promise I’ll sing some happy ones too”.

“Good”.

******

Link to Chapter 31

‘Small Church Essentials’ by Karl Vaters: Introduction

41qsejNasDL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve really enjoyed reading Karl Vaters’ new book ‘Small Church Essentials’. You can find out a lot about Karl by reading his blog ‘Pivot‘ at ‘Christianity Today’ or checking out his website New Small Church.

I need to work my way through the book again and start implementing some of the many ideas I haven’t begun to practice yet. I thought blogging my way through it might help with that. So here’s the first post, on the Introduction (pp.9-13).

In the Intro Karl makes three statements about what small churches need in order to become great (hint: in Karl’s language, ‘Great’ does not automatically mean ‘bigger’):

  1. They have to believe they can be great.
  2. They have to see what a great small church looks like.
  3. They need resources designed for great small churches.

As I reflected on these questions I saw immediately that for me, as a small church pastor, point 2 is crucial. Church growth literature and denominational authorities tend to peddle visions of what a great large church looks like, but that’s not helpful for us small church pastors. We are the ones who believe that it is more than possible to have the kind of church life described in the letters of Paul in a small church than a large church. After all, for the first two or three Christian centuries the ‘house church’ was the norm – so everything essential to church life must be doable in a large living room!

My own pastoral vision is crucial here. Do I have a vision of what a great small church looks like? In this book Karl constantly comes back to the Great Commandments (‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’) and the Great Commission (‘Go and make disciples of all nations…baptize them…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’). I would add as foundational the Great Confession that Peter makes in the Gospels (‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’). Our vision for small church greatness must focus on these essentials:

  1. Jesus is the Messiah (i.e. the king who sets us free), the Son of God.
  2. Jesus calls us to be his disciples, to make new disciples and to teach them to put his teaching and example into practice in daily life.
  3. Jesus calls us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Small churches don’t have excess time, volunteer hours, and money. We need to focus on the things Jesus is calling us to do and not get distracted.

******

A bit further on in the introduction Karl talks about the stereotypes people have of small churches: they are…

  • Inward-focussed
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousies
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

His comment is ‘That’s not a description of a small church; it’s a description of an unhealthy church’. There are plenty of small churches that are:

  • Friendly
  • Outward-looking
  • Missional
  • Innovative
  • Generous
  • Worshipful

As I reflected on these two lists, it came to me once again that it’s probably a case of ‘as pastor, so church’. Which of these lists best describes me? Am I inward-focussed, threatened by change, absorbed by petty infighting and jealousies, not reaching my community, poor at time management, with a tendency to settle for less? Or am I friendly, outward-looking, missional, innovative, generous, and worshipful?

When I look at the first list, it’s the last two that convict me. I’m not a good time manager – I know it’s one of my greatest ministry weaknesses – and I really need to work on that, while not getting sucked into time management tools that work better for large churches (later in the book Karl outlines as very helpful ‘321’ planning system that works really well in small churches). And also I do tend to settle for less – ‘good enough’ – in myself and in church life – rather than pushing myself to be better and inspiring the church to be better too.

So my take-away work from the intro is:

  1. Have a clear picture of what greatness looks like in a small church (hint: it probably centres on the Great Confession, the Great Commission and the Great Commandments) and share this with others.
  2. Work on my time-management and planning skills.
  3. Instead of ‘settling for less’, develop a regular (weekly, monthly, yearly) discipline of asking ‘How could we do this better?’ (or, alternatively. ‘What could we do that would be better than this?’).

 

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 29

Link back to Chapter 28

******

Emma and I went out to Northwood on the Saturday of the first weekend of September; the rest of the family joined us for supper that night, including Becca and Mike. Mike had moved in with Becca earlier that week and they cheerfully admitted that the flat was still a mess. “He’s not exactly a minimalist!” Becca said with a twinkle in her eye, and Mike smiled ruefully; “I’ve got rather a lot of stuff!” he said.

Sarah had started school again on Thursday, and when I asked her how it had gone she said, “Okay, thanks. I’m going back over some ground I’ve already covered, but I’ve been out of it for nine months so I’ve forgotten most of it”.

“How’s the leg holding up?”

“Mostly okay; I’m going to go easy in the gym for a bit”.

“That’s probably a good idea”.

“Yeah – the doctor told me to listen to my body, and if I start to get sore I’m supposed to ease up”.

“For what it’s worth, I think you’re amazing, Sarah Irene”.

She smiled shyly; “Thank you”.

Alyson had been watching this exchange, and a few minutes later she came over to me and said, “You’re always so encouraging with Sarah, Tom; thank you”.

“Not at all; she’s amazing. When you think of where she was nine months ago…”

“I know – it’s hard to believe she’s come so far”.

“So has Rick”.

She nodded; “Yes – and I’ve seen a lot more of him over the past nine months, too”.

******

The air was tense between Rick and Eric, and I could see that the disagreement between them was still not resolved. Eric was going into his last year of high school now; Rick had told me that his marks were reasonably good, but he had no interest at all in taking a business degree or any other kind of university education. He and a couple of friends had formed a blues band and had played a couple of times at open stages in the Oxford area; to Eric, this was what his life was going to be all about, and he refused to listen to any other point of view.

Rick was intensely frustrated, and he had let off steam with me a couple of times since our return from Canada. “I don’t understand him”, he said to me one night over a pint at the ‘Eagle and Child’. “I don’t understand why he’s not even remotely interested in having a backup plan. Blues musicians dreaming about successful careers are two a penny in Oxford; surely he can see the odds aren’t exactly in his favour”.

“Sometimes people just don’t want to see things”, I replied.

He stared at me; “So you’re on my side on this issue?”

I shrugged; “I like to think I’m not on anyone’s side. I know I’m glad Emma plays her music for fun; I don’t know how I would have reacted if she’d told me she wanted to make a career out of it”.

“Emma would never have been foolish about it like Eric; that girl’s far too sensible for that”. He smiled ruefully; “I should have taken parenting lessons from you and Kelly!”

I took a sip of my beer and sat back in my chair, stretching out my legs under the table. “Kelly was a lot smarter than me about this kind of thing. We’ve got a nephew – Dan Rempel – who went through a really rebellious patch when he was a teenager; he and his dad went head to head all the time and neither of them would back down. But Kelly had a way with Dan; I guess it helped that she wasn’t his dad or mum, and he felt comfortable in our house. John – that’s his dad – was in a confrontational rut with him, and once you’re into that, it’s hard to get out of it”.

Rick nodded; “Don’t I know it? How did they get into it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“No, not at all. John’s a farmer and he could be obsessive when it came to work. His dad died of a heart attack when he was young; I never knew him, but apparently he was the kind of farmer who works all the time and never takes a break. John took after him, and he had a heart attack too, when he was in his mid-forties. He used to ride Dan hard, and Dan didn’t respond well to that”.

Rick gave me a rueful grin; “I can hear some of myself in that story”.

“Yeah, although that wasn’t all there was to it. Have you ever heard me talk about Corey Reimer?”

“The name’s vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite place him”.

“He was Kelly’s cousin, one of Hugo and Millie’s kids. Dan’s his nephew; Dan’s mum Erika is Corey’s sister. Anyway, Corey was Dan’s favourite uncle, and he was killed in a car accident the first year I was in Meadowvale – spring of ’83. Dan took years to get over that; it was like he had this deep well of anger inside, and it just came bursting out like a volcanic eruption when he was frustrated or provoked”.

“Eric’s got that anger too. I think most of it’s directed at me”. He shrugged helplessly. “What can I say? I’ve been an absentee dad to them for years – for as long as they can remember. I can’t really blame them for being mad at me, can I?”

“There’s no point in beating yourself up over that”.

“No – but I can’t dismiss it either. It’s a factor, whether I like it or not”. He looked at me, and I saw the frustration plainly on his face. “You and Emma get on so well with my kids; I’m really grateful for that, but I must admit I envy you for it, too”.

“It’s easy for me; I’m not their dad, and I don’t have the history. And Em just has a natural sympathy for people having struggles”.

“She knows what it’s like, I suppose – not the struggles with her parents, of course, but you know what I mean”.

“I do”.

“So what would you advise me, bro?” He smiled awkwardly; “I must admit, I’ve gained a whole new respect for your wisdom in situations like this!”

“I don’t feel particularly wise, but I know what Kelly would say”.

“What’s that?”

“She’d say that you’ll never get him to listen to your ideas while he thinks you’re his adversary. And he’s not going to stop thinking of you like that unless you make the first move, and come over to his side a bit”.

“You mean I should just accept that he’s going to try to do music full time instead of going to university?”

“You don’t necessarily have to accept it, but you have to stop pushing him on it. More than that – you have to figure out what’s making him tick as a musician, and why it’s so important to him. And you have to be patient, because it’s taken him years to get into this adversarial rut, and he’s not going to get out of it fast”.

“Patience is not something I’m very good at”.

“Well, maybe now’s the time…”

He looked at me in silence for a moment, and then he nodded slowly; “You may be right”, he said.

******

Emma’s two months of playing music with Jake and Ellie had brought out her bluegrass side. I heard her playing with Eric on Saturday afternoon in my mother’s music room; she was singing one of Ellie’s bluegrass songs, and Eric was filling in a nice lead guitar part for her. I stood in the doorway and listened, enjoying the high lilt in Emma’s voice and the easy, instinctive way Eric’s fingers were moving over the strings of his acoustic guitar. When they were finished I applauded, and they both looked up and smiled at me.

“Nicely done!” I said; “I didn’t know you were a bluegrass musician, Eric!”

“That’s because I’m not! But the chord structure’s easy to follow and it’s not hard to fill in a lead part”.

“You guys sound really good together”.

“Thanks”. He gestured toward a hard-backed chair in the corner of the room; “Why don’t you come and join us?”

“Maybe later – I’ve been sent to tell you the food’s just about ready”.

******

I had forgotten how much I liked Mike Carey; I had gotten to know him a little when he and Becca came to visit us in Meadowvale the summer after Kelly’s death, and I had quickly warmed to him. He was gentle and soft-spoken, and he treated my sister like royalty. He also had a real talent for getting along with people; he had an easy conversational style, and he was an attentive listener.

His quiet voice, however, made it difficult for my father to hear him at any distance, and so we had quickly taken to seating them together at family gatherings. He was sitting on my father’s left for supper that night, and when the meal was over he was the one who noticed that when my father got up from the table he stumbled a little, and favoured his right leg.

“Are you all right, Mr. Masefield?” he asked.

My father shook his head; “My right leg’s been a bit sore for a couple of days”.

I saw Emma look up suddenly, and I knew what she was thinking. “Where’s the pain, Grandpa?” she asked.

“As I said”, he replied testily, “it’s in my right leg”.

“But where in the leg?”

“The upper leg – the femur, isn’t it?”

Becca was at his side immediately. “Let me see you walk, Dad”, she said.

“What’s this about?” he asked suspiciously.

She raised her hands defensively; “Don’t shoot the messenger – I’m on your side”.

He was quiet for a moment, and then he nodded; “Sorry – I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. But I would like to know what you’re worried about”.

“I’m worried about cancer metastasizing in bones”.

He stared at her briefly, and then nodded; “Right. Should I use my cane?”

“No – just walk to the wall and back without it”.

He did, and I saw immediately that he was limping. Becca nodded; “You need to call your oncologist in the morning”, she said. “It might be nothing, but it’s best to be sure”.

“Alright – I’ll get it checked out. Can I have my cane back now?”

She grinned at him; “I think that’s allowed”.

******

He went to see his oncologist that week, and she ordered a CT scan and a number of other tests. The results came back a few days later: he had a cancerous tumour growing in his right femur. He was scheduled for a week of targeted radiation therapy, with a possibility of surgery afterwards to remove what was left of the tumour. “But surgery wouldn’t be my favourite option”, the doctor told him; “It can take up to a year of rehab to recover after bone cancer surgery, even if it’s just limb-salvage surgery and not amputation. I don’t think you have a year, Mr. Masefield, and I don’t think you want to spend the time that’s left to you in rehab”.

Rick and Becca and I were with him when this conversation took place; he had surprised us by asking us to be present, along with my mother. By now we all knew Doctor Khoury; she was a woman of about my own age, with short dark hair and a slight accent that betrayed her Lebanese origins. She was leaning back against the edge of her desk with her arms folded across her front, and the rest of us were sitting across from her.

“So, can I ask a question?” Becca asked.

“I think we should let your father ask the first questions”, Doctor Khoury replied.

“Of course”.

She turned to my father; “Do you have any questions, Mr. Masefield?”

“Yes, I do. Under what circumstances would you consider surgery?”

“If the tumour didn’t respond at all to radiation, but I’ve got no reason to believe that’s going to happen. It might, but I’m not expecting it”.

“You mentioned amputation?”

She shook her head. “That would be an extreme alternative. In the unlikely event that I decided surgery was necessary, I would most likely opt for limb-salvage surgery, which is where we take out as little of the bone and tendons and nerves as we can. It’s more difficult and more complex, but recovery is a lot easier”.

“But you don’t think that’s going to happen?”

“I’ll be surprised if it’s necessary. I expect we’ll be able to shrink the tumour with radiation; we might even be able to eradicate it completely, although I don’t think that’s likely”.

“So what does the future look like for me, at this stage? Tell me plainly”.

Dr. Khoury nodded. “Well, we’re definitely in stage four now, and we can expect more metastases from this point on. They might be in the bones, or they might be in other places. This is what happens when lymphoma reaches stage four; cancer starts to appear in other places in your body”.

“So how long…?”

The doctor smiled. “I wouldn’t want to be too categorical about that”.

“But your best guess…?”

She shrugged. “Six months? Personally, I think that’s an outside figure, but I might be wrong”.

He nodded. “Six months, then”.

“Yes”. She gave him a sympathetic look; “So if there’s anything you really want to do, Mr. Masefield, I wouldn’t put it off”.

“I understand”. He glanced at Becca; “Is there anything else you want to ask, my dear?”

Becca shook her head. “I don’t think so; I think all my questions have been answered”.

******

He began his radiation therapy on September 20th, the day Emma started at Oxford Brookes and Colin at Oxford and Cherwell College. Each day he came into the city first thing in the morning, went into hospital for a short blast of radiation, and then went home again. By the end of the week, when he had another CT scan, he was exhausted, and when we saw him the following weekend he barely moved from his armchair, unless it was to go up to his room to rest.

It quickly became clear to us that we needed to limit the length of our visits. A gathering of the whole family wore him out in less than an hour; he could take smaller groups for longer periods of time, but still we needed to space them out to give him time to recuperate. He himself was not pleased with this development; he wanted to spend as much time with us as he could, but eventually even he was forced to admit that he did not have the energy for it. 

“I’m sorry”, he said to me one evening when he was very obviously falling asleep over supper; “You’ve come all the way out here to spend time with me, and before the meal’s even over I’m falling asleep on you”.

“Don’t worry about it”, I replied gently; “It’s not far to come, and it doesn’t hurt me to come out for an hour or two instead of a whole weekend”.

“I rather liked the weekends, though”, he said sadly.

******

Doctor Khoury told him that the radiation had shrunk the tumour but not completely eradicated it. “In the best of all possible worlds, I’d do surgery to excise it completely”, she said, “but I honestly don’t think you’d recover from it, Mr. Masefield, and I don’t think you’d ever walk again either. Like I said before, it can take a year of rehab for a person to learn to walk again after limb-salvage surgery, and I’m almost certain you don’t have another year”.

“So what will you do?” he asked.

“We’ll keep an eye on it. We’ll give you pain killers as you need them, and there are drugs we can use to inhibit the growth of the tumour. And if we need to give it another blast of radiation, we can do that. But you need to listen carefully to what your body tells you; if you feel any sort of new pain in other bones, you need to tell me right away. I’m afraid this is going to happen again, and when it does, we need to get right on top of it”.

He gave her a helpless look; “That’s not a very encouraging forecast, Doctor”.

“No; I wish I could give you better news”.

He shook his head. “It’s no one’s fault”, he replied, “least of all yours”.

******

My friends were all aware of what was going on. The Meadowvale people called or emailed regularly to let us know they were thinking about us. Jim McFarlane from our church called to find out how things were going so that he could keep the prayer team updated. And of course, I talked to Owen and Wendy almost every day.

Despite our individual busyness, Owen and Wendy and I made a point of getting together for a couple of hours once a week to play music, either at Bill’s open stage or at one of our houses; we were practising our old repertoire as well as learning a few new songs, especially Christmas music. Wendy, in particular, was enjoying this. Owen and I had never lost touch with each other through the years, and whenever we had gotten together we had always played music, but for Wendy this was a recovery of a part of her past that she had lost. Over and over again in those early weeks after our formal revival of ‘Lincoln Green’ I saw her shaking her head with a smile. “Damn! We sound good!” she would exclaim, and Owen would grin at me and say, “I think Doctor Howard’s enjoying herself!”

I was enjoying myself too, and I gradually admitted to myself that it had a lot to do with Wendy’s presence.

One night during this period I woke up at about two in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually I went downstairs as quietly as I could, made myself a cup of herbal tea and then sat in the living room with one light on, sipping my tea and thinking about what my heart was telling me.

Was it really possible that I could love someone again, after losing Kelly? I had believed it could never happen. Kelly and I had been devoted to each other, body and soul; we had found faith together, learned to be disciples together, borne a child and raised her, gone through cancer and all that went with it. We had been two halves of the same soul, and ever since her death I had felt like only half a person.

I had to admit that a part of me felt guilty, even though I knew that Kelly would never have wanted me to be lonely for the rest of my life. I recognized this inner flagellant; this was the same person who had wanted to feel guilty for presuming to be happy again, the same person who viewed every recovery from grief as an act of disloyalty to Kelly. But I knew that this would be the biggest battle to date that I had fought with this inner ascetic.

I got to my feet, crossed the room and looked at Kelly’s picture in the dim light. With my eye I traced the outline of her cheek; I could almost smell the scent of her hair and feel the softness of her lips on mine. How could I possibly love someone, after losing her? But I knew at the same moment that this reluctance I felt about moving on was nothing to do with what she would have wanted. “You loved me too much, Kelly Ruth”, I whispered. “It’s me who’s holding back; I know that”.

My eyes moved in the picture to thirteen-year old Emma, smiling at the camera between Kelly and me. “What’s she going to think?” I asked myself, but I knew the answer before the question was even finished in my mind. I knew Emma would never stop missing her mother, but I also knew that she would never want me to be lonely for the rest of my life. And I knew she liked Wendy and her children and was glad for their presence in our lives.

I went back to my easy chair and sat down again, picking up my cup and finishing the last of my herbal tea. Cradling the empty cup in my hands, I said, “So how am I going to get past this, Lord? I know I’m falling in love with Wendy again, but deep down inside I’m still in love with Kelly.

“How do I get past that? Whenever I let myself imagine a life with Wendy, another part of me won’t even consider it. It’s like an act of disloyalty, even though I know Kelly’s dead and I can never have her again”.

I shook my head slowly, feeling the tiredness in my body and knowing I should go back to bed. “I don’t know what to do”, I whispered, “so could you please help me? If I’m supposed to stay as I am, give me some sense of contentment with that. And if I’m supposed to move on with Wendy, help me get past this sense of guilt I feel. I can’t get past it myself; you’re going to have to help me with it”.

At that moment I heard a movement upstairs, and then the sound of Emma’s bedroom door and the creaking of the stairs as she came down to use the bathroom. I knew she would see the light under the living room door, and part of me wanted to avoid her questions, but I waited anyway, and after a couple of minutes I heard the flush of the toilet. I sensed her hesitation, and then she pushed the door open a little and glanced into the living room. “You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah; just wakeful”.

She came into the room, her arms crossed in front of her. “Worried about something?”

“No – I’m fine, love. Just thinking, that’s all”.

“Do you mind if I sit down for a minute?”

“Of course not; do you want me to make you some tea?”

She sat down across from me and shook her head; “I’m fine”.

“Were you sleeping okay?”

“Oh yeah”. She gave me a thoughtful frown; “Do you mind me asking what you were thinking about?”

I looked away for a moment, and she waited; I knew she would never press me to say more than I wanted to say. I sighed, looked across at her in the dimly lit room, and said simply, “Wendy”.

She spoke quietly; “Are you falling in love with her again, Dad?”

“I think I might be”.

“And you’re tying yourself up in knots about it, aren’t you?”

“I kind of am”, I admitted.

“Is it because you’re worried about me?”

“A little. Not much, though; I know you better than that”.

“Good. Not that I’m ever going to forget Mom”.

“No; neither am I. That’s my problem”.

She was quiet for a moment, and then she leaned forward and put her hand on mine. “Mom would never have wanted you to be sad for the rest of your life”.

“I know. I just don’t know how to get past it, love”.

She got up from her chair, knelt down in front of me and put her arms around me. “I love you, Dad”, she whispered.

“I love you too, sweetheart”.

“Is there anything I can do?”

I shook my head; “Hugs are good”, I replied.

She leaned back a little and smiled at me. “You’ve got them”, she said; “Any time you want”.

“Thank you”.

******

My father’s chemotherapy sessions continued; he had regular cycles of three treatments, spaced three weeks apart from each other, followed by a scan to assess the progress of the cancer in his body. In practice this usually meant that every nine weeks he had a short break from chemo while he waited for his scan.

He was scheduled to being a new cycle at the end of October, but a couple of days beforehand he asked me if I could come out for a visit by myself one evening so that we could have a conversation about his will. The days were getting much shorter by now, and the weather had turned cold and rainy. My father was feeling the cold, and we ate our supper that night on trays around the fireplace in the living room; he was wearing a thick wool sweater with a blanket over his legs, and I noticed again how frail he was looking.

My mother had been talking to Emma; “It sounds as if she’s really enjoying her classes”, she commented.

“I think so. She’s had a lot of information to absorb and the learning curve’s been steep, but she’s loving every minute of it. The down side is that it’s kind of crowded most other things out of her life. She snatches an hour or two with her cousins and her sister when she can, but she really only sees Alanna and Matthew at church on Sundays and I think it’s been a couple of weeks since she’s picked up her guitar”.

My father frowned; “I hope she doesn’t let that go. I know she really enjoys it”.

I shook my head; “I don’t think that’s going to happen. I remember Kelly telling me how demanding her training was and how it had a tendency to take over her entire life, but it doesn’t last forever. Still, I think when Emma starts her first placement she’ll be even busier; she’ll be working twelve hour shifts just like a regular ward nurse. Fortunately for her she’ll be at the JR, so she won’t have a lot of travel time to factor in”.

“Will all her placements be there?” asked my mother.

“No – in theory they could be at any training hospital in Oxfordshire”.

“And when does the first placement start?” my father asked.

“At the end of November. If it was me I think I’d be anxious about it, but she’s not – she’s actually looking forward to it”.

“If I remember correctly you took your student teacher placements in your stride”.

“That was all bravado, Dad – I was really nervous about every one of them at the beginning, until I got settled and learned what was expected of me”.

He raised his eyebrows; “You hid that well”.

I smiled; “I did my best”.

“I had no idea you were such a good actor!”

“Well, I am a high school drama teacher, you know!”

We all laughed, and my mother said, “What about Lisa? We haven’t heard from her for a couple of weeks; is she alright?”

“Oh yeah. It’s her final year, so she’s busy, and her choir’s been practising for their Christmas concert too. I grab a weekend coffee with her when I can, and sometimes she just pops over for an hour in an evening midweek. Her German’s way better than mine, so I’m enjoying the practice”.

“You visit in German?”

“Well, I don’t speak Russian!”

My mother smiled; “Is she fluent in Russian?”

“She would say no, but her instructors say she’s doing very well. Occasionally when she wants to impress me she reads me passages from Dostoevsky or Chekov and translates on sight. Of course, I’ve got no way of knowing whether or not she’s just making it up as she goes along!”

My father took a sip of his tea. “Has she made a decision yet about whether she’s going to go on for a postgraduate degree?”

“She’d like to, but finances could be an issue. She might have to take a break for a year or two and find a job to help make ends meet. Wendy helps her as much as she can, but she’s got two children in college now”.

“I know – it can be very expensive”.

******

After supper my mother made a fresh pot of tea, cleared away the dishes and then left my father and I by ourselves in the living room. We sat across from each other on either side of the fireplace, mugs of tea in our hands; we were quiet for a moment, and then he cleared his throat and said, “Shall we talk about my will?”

“Sure”.

“I want to talk about Emma and Lisa, and perhaps Colin too, because I don’t want him to be left out, even though he isn’t my biological grandson”.

“Okay – I’m sure Wendy will very much appreciate that”.

He sighed. “I’m very sorry I upset you last year when I suggested you should let me pay Emma’s fees so you could use Kelly’s life insurance money for something else. I was very insensitive about your feelings, and I regret that”.

I shook my head. “It’s behind us, Dad; no need to worry about it”.

“Alright, but let me ask you – do you still feel the same way? I’d like to help, but I don’t want to do anything at all that would upset you or make you feel as if Emma’s independence was being compromised”.

I nodded slowly. “Em and I have talked about this on and off; she’s helped me see that I was – well, I was reading past experiences into the present, and maybe not seeing that things are different now. And I know you love her and you want to help her as much as you can. That would be okay with me, Dad”.

“Are you sure?”

“I am”.

He sighed heavily; “Thank you. Thank you very much”.

“Can I ask if you plan to help all your grandchildren like this?”

“I do”.

“What about Becca and Mike?”

“If they have children eventually, I’d like to be able to help them too”.

“This could turn out to be a very expensive proposition, Dad”.

“Expense is not a concern”. He smiled at me; “You’ve never asked me about my financial situation – and that’s very much to your credit, by the way. I was quite wrong to suggest you had only come back to England to get a good share of my money”.

“Did you say that?”

“I did, actually – only a day or two after you moved back here. I feel quite guilty about that now. But anyway, let me fill you in on my financial situation, so I can give you some idea of what I can do, and what I want to do”.

“Okay”.

“My father died a very rich man, and of course my mother died not very long after him. He’d made a lot of money in the practice and he invested it wisely. He was able to leave each of his four children a sum of about three hundred thousand pounds”.

I was astonished; “I had no idea…”

“No, of course not. I haven’t made a lot of noise about it, and in fact I’ve never used that money; I continued to invest it, and in the eighteen years since he died I’ve been lucky in my investments. The three hundred thousand he left me has now become almost a million pounds. And that’s entirely separate from my own earnings from Masefield and Marlowe, which are going to be quite adequate to provide comfortably for your mum for the rest of her life”.

I was speechless; I had known he was a wealthy man, but I had never suspected anything on the scale he had just outlined for me.

“I’m going to ask Jack Marlowe to write specific language into Emma’s bequest”, he said, “stating clearly that the gift is unconditional; I want her to know that I’m not interested in trying to control her choices in any way”.

“If you feel it’s necessary, Dad – but I’m not worried about that any more”.

“Well, I’d like to do it anyway, just so that it’s clear”.

“Alright”.

“My plan is to leave her a sum of twenty-five thousand pounds, to be used for her education. If there’s any of it left over when she’s finished, it becomes an unconditional gift to her, to help her get established in her career”.

I stared at him; “That’s an enormous sum of money, Dad”.

He shook his head. “I’m in a position to do it, and I’d really like to do it for her”.

“Do you plan to leave the same amount to each of your grandchildren – and Colin?”

“Yes”.

“Dad, that’s a hundred and fifty thousand pounds, without even thinking about any kids Becca and Mike might have”.

“Yes, I know, but I can’t take the money with me, and I’d like it to do some good for my family members”.

My head was spinning as I struggled to come to terms with what I was hearing. The idea of the rest of Emma’s nursing training education being largely funded by my father was momentous enough, but there was also his subtle hint that he wouldn’t need to leave any of his investment capital to my mother. Even after estate taxes, if Rick and Becca and I were going to be splitting a million pound bequest between us, the sum each of us would receive would be enormous.

“I’m sure this is all a bit overwhelming for you, Tom”, he said, “and I realize I’m not giving you a lot of time to think about it. I want to be absolutely sure you’re okay with me doing this for Emma”.

I nodded. “I am, Dad. But I think we should ask Wendy about Lisa and Colin”.

“I understand. I’d be happy for you to do that, if you’d like to. I don’t need to be involved in that conversation unless you think it’s important”.

“Why don’t I raise it with her and then tell her she can talk to you about it if she wants to?”

“That would be fine; thank you”.

“Are you going to tell the grandchildren about it?”

“I hadn’t really given any thought to that. I wanted to talk to you about it because you had such strong feelings on the issue, and because I wasn’t sure how Wendy would feel”. He was quiet for a moment, and then he shook his head and said, “You know, I don’t think I want to talk to any of them about it. I haven’t got much time left, and I don’t want my conversations with them to be influenced by any idea of obligation to me. Perhaps you and Wendy could keep it to yourselves”.

“We could do that”.

“Thank you”.

“No, I’m the one who should be thanking you”.

He smiled at me, shifting a little in his chair and straightening the blanket over his knees. “I actually have a lot to thank you for too. You and Emma have carried a lot of burdens for our family since Rick and Sarah had their accident”.

I shook my head, but he raised his hand and said, “No, don’t downplay it. From the very first day, whenever help was needed, you and Emma were right there. I’ve seen that, and I’ve thought a lot about some of the unkind things I’ve said to you over the years”.

“It’s okay, Dad; it’s all past history”.

“It’s generous of you to say so, but to me it’s very serious”. He paused, closing his eyes and running his hand over his face. “We’ve had a very bad history, you and I, and there are lots of things I regret. I never really understood you, and I don’t think you ever really understood me either. But I ought to have tried harder to understand. As I said to you before, one thing I’m particularly sorry about is that I made no effort to come to visit you while Kelly was still alive. I look at Emma now and I realize what a remarkable woman her mother was. I’m very sorry now that I didn’t make a point of coming to visit Meadowvale so that I could meet Kelly’s family. Your mum and Becca always talk about them all, and how much they’ve enjoyed getting to know them”.

“They’re pretty special people. And I’m glad I got to meet the old timers before they died – Kelly’s grandparents, the ones who escaped from Russia”.

“I remember her talking about them”.

“Kelly was close to all of them; family was really important to her”.

“I could see that”.

“What about your family, Dad? When you were young, were you close to your brothers and your sister?”

“Arthur and I were close; of course he was only a year younger than me, and we did everything together”.

“That was when you lived in Cowley?”

“Yes, in the old house”.

“The place with three storeys, and bay windows?”

“You remember it, do you?” he said with a smile. “I thought you’d have forgotten”.

“I don’t think I saw it very much after I got into my teens”.

“No, we didn’t take you there very often. My father didn’t spend much of his time at home, actually – at least, until he retired”.

“So you and Uncle Arthur were close?”

“Yes, especially during the war. My father was off in the Navy and my mother was very busy around the house, so in the evenings Arthur and I would take our bikes and ride for miles. In those days no one had very much and we had to take our pleasures where we could find them. You and Owen actually reminded me of Arthur and me when you went tramping around the countryside together. I remember you coming back late on summer evenings, full of the things you’d seen and done. Arthur and I were like that”.

“But now you hardly see each other”.

“Yes – it’s a pity life has to do that to us”.

“You make it sound as if it’s inevitable”.

“It seemed inevitable to me”. He was quiet for a few minutes, sipping halfheartedly at his tea. Far away at the back of the house, I heard the sound of my mother’s piano.

“I know that it wasn’t inevitable, of course”, he continued. “We could have chosen a different way; I expect it seems inconceivable to you that we didn’t. But we’d come through a war, and life in this country was pretty grim in the 1950s. Everyone was working hard to try to keep their heads above water. My father worked long hours, but so did lots of other fathers I knew. Well, perhaps not quite as long as my father”, he added with a smile; “He was already quite single-minded about his work, and I admired him very much. He was also a very forceful sort of person around the house. My mother never had much to say about the way things were run; once he made his mind up, that was the way it was, and she never questioned it – at least, not in my hearing”.

“So you were always going to be a lawyer?”

“Yes”.

“Did you ever wish…?”

“That I had been able to go into some other field?” He smiled wistfully; “I was actually quite interested in music when I was a teenager”.

“Mum told me you were quite knowledgeable about classical music”.

“We had a music teacher at school who fired my interest. I had a Saturday job, and I saved my money and bought classical music records. The music teacher – his name was Mr. French – gave me good advice about what to buy. I had quite a sizeable collection by the time I married your mum”.

“Did you ever think about going into music professionally?”

“Only very occasionally. Of course, I sang in choirs in school and university. At Oriel I was in the chapel choir”.

“The chapel choir!” 

He smiled mischievously at me; “I was being somewhat inconsistent, wasn’t I? Yes, I was already moving towards agnosticism, but being in the chapel choir was one of the best ways of making music at Oriel in those days. And I loved the music, even if I didn’t believe the words. English church music is some of the most beautiful ever written – I still believe that, even today”.

I shook my head slowly; “You’ve never talked very much about this kind of thing, Dad”.

“No – I’ve never really said much to you and Rick and Becca about the past, have I? Probably because I regretted losing touch with it myself. I know your mother’s told you something about that”.

“A little”.

“I went to work for my father, you see. Perhaps things would have been different if I’d worked in a different office, but my father was only really interested in one thing and he believed you could only be successful in our kind of work if you had that kind of single-minded commitment. And it certainly worked well for him, from a professional point of view; he built a successful firm, and he was a very, very wealthy man when he died”.

“But there was a price to pay”.

“Of course, and when your mum and I were first married I was determined not to pay it. I’d accepted the path he’d chosen for me, and I didn’t regret that – I enjoyed the Law, I always did, and I was reasonably good at it right from the start. But of course your mum and I had other things in our lives that were important to us, and somehow I’d thought we’d be able to retain some balance”.

“But it wasn’t to be”.

He looked down at the fire, the wistful expression back on his face. “I blame myself for that; I ought to have been able to stand up to the pressure”.

“I’m sure it was very hard, Dad”.

He glanced across at me; “You say that from experience, don’t you?”

“I didn’t mean to criticize…”

“No, I know you didn’t”.

We were silent for a long time, sipping our tea and listening to the faint but clear sound of my mother’s playing at the back of the house. She was playing a Mendelssohn piece, one that I recognised, and I was sure my father was familiar with it, too.

Eventually he said, “Tom, can we talk about what happened before you left for Meadowvale?”

“In 1982, you mean?”

“Yes”.

“Do you need to talk about it?”

“I think I do”.

“Alright then. But before you start, there’s something I should say. You’ve mentioned through the years how upset you were that I lied to you and Mum about getting the job in Reading, and you were right; I shouldn’t have done that, and I want you to know I’m very sorry about it”.

“I expect you felt you had little choice”.

“I was sure that if I stayed in England you’d keep putting pressure on me to fall in with your wishes, and I was determined not to do that. And I was sure that if I told you from the beginning that I was thinking of moving to Canada, you’d do everything possible to put obstacles in my way. Perhaps I was wrong, but that’s how it looked from my point of view”.

“I’m sure you were right. I thought you were ruining your life, and I’m sure I would have continued to try to bring you to your senses and get you to see things from my point of view. And I’m sure if I’d known you were planning to move to Canada I would have found ways to stop you. I was quite convinced you were wrong and I was right. Actually, I still felt that way when you moved back here last year”.

“But now…?”

“No, I don’t feel that way any more. As I said to you before, it’s clear to me that you and Kelly made a good life for yourselves in Meadowvale. You were happy together, and you raised a wonderful girl”. He gave another heavy sigh. “You know, I’ve spent my whole life trying to be successful in my career and make a lot of money so my family can have a good life. Rick’s done the same thing; I taught him very well. Until recently he’s been totally absorbed in his career, even if it meant spending long hours away from his family. Now, of course, since the accident, he’s been rethinking all that, and I have to confess I’m glad to see it, even though I’m sorry it took such a horrific experience to bring him to it”.

“No kidding”.

“But you and Emma have had that kind of connection from the start. When I watch the two of you together…”

His voice trailed away and he stared off into the fire; I waited, knowing instinctively that he hadn’t finished yet. After a moment he looked up at me again. “I was trying to do what was best for you, you know? I really believed that. I thought it was important to give you some financial security, so you could have a good solid start with your education and your professional life. And I really did think that the best way you could provide for yourself was to follow me into the legal profession. I know you think it was all about building a lasting dynasty at Masefield and Marlowe, and I can’t deny that was part of it, but it wasn’t the whole story”.

“I don’t doubt that, Dad”, I replied quietly, “and there’s really no need for you to beat yourself up about it any more. We’ve both done things we weren’t proud of. Like I said, I know I shouldn’t have lied to you about my move to Canada; I know you must have been very hurt when you discovered the truth”.

“Not as hurt as you were when I attacked you with my cane. There was no excuse for me to behave in that way, no matter how provoked I may have been feeling. I’ve always had a bad temper, as you know. Most of the time I’ve been able to restrain it. I ought to have restrained it that night, too. I’m very sorry, Tom; the memory of that night has haunted me for years”.

Suddenly I was unable to speak; I looked away for a moment, struggling to control my emotions. I guessed that he was feeling the same way; out of the corner of my eye I saw him take out his handkerchief and blow his nose loudly.

Eventually I looked across at him and said, “Let’s put it behind us, shall we? We’ve both got things to reproach ourselves with from that night, but I’m glad we’re doing better now”.

“So am I”.

At the back of the house my mother had switched to Bach, and I saw him listening. “Would you like to go back and join her?” I asked.

“In a few minutes. Let’s talk a bit more first; there’s so much to be said, and who knows how long we’ve got to say it? I want to ask you about Emma. You two have always been close, haven’t you?”

“We’ve definitely gotten closer since Kelly died, but we were always pretty close as father and daughter, right back to the days when she was a little girl. In fact, I think it might have started the first time Kelly got sick. Emma was just tiny; we had to wean her from her mother’s milk so Kelly could go through her chemo treatments. Kelly’s family helped a lot, of course, but Emma and I spent a lot of time together, just the two of us, while Kelly was getting well again”.

“That must have been a harrowing time”.

“Yes, it was very stressful”.

“I remember when Becca came back after she spent that first summer with you. I remember her clearly one evening talking about how serene Kelly was, even though she’d just come through a life-threatening battle with cancer. Becca couldn’t seem to get over her serenity”.

“She had to fight hard for that”.

“Yes – I remember you talking about the depression she went through”.

“It was a very difficult time”.

“I’m sure”. He coughed a little to clear his throat and said, “Anyway, I have to say that when I watch you and Emma together I feel quite envious. I regret the fact that you and I never had that sort of relationship. More than that – I regret the fact that it was mainly my manner that was at fault there”.

“I think we’ve started making up for it in the last few months, Dad”.

“I think so too, and I’m really glad about that”.

“So am I”.

“Not that we’re never going to argue any more!” he added with a wry grin. “I’m sure I’ll still act like a stubborn old man from time to time”.

“I’m sure I’ll still act like your stubborn son, too”.

He shook his head, and I saw the tiredness on his face. “Arguing’s all right, from time to time, but I don’t want to fight with anyone any more, least of all my children; I haven’t the energy for it”.

“In the end, it’s not really important, is it?”

“No, it’s not”. He put his empty teacup down. “Well, shall we go and listen to your mum?”

“Would you like to?”

“I think so – not that there aren’t lots of other things we could talk about, but I’m getting very tired, Tom, and I’d like to go and listen to your mum playing for a few minutes before I go to bed”.

“Of course”.

“Would you mind helping me get up out of this chair?”

I took his hand and helped him to his feet. When he was standing upright, he continued to grasp my hand. “Thank you”, he said; “I appreciate you taking time to talk about my will”.

“Not at all – as I said, I’m the one who should be thanking you”.

“I’m glad we’re talking now, Tom. There are still more things I’d like to tell you about, and there are more things I want to ask you about, too”.

“I’d like that”.

“Good. Well – let’s back to the music room, shall we?”

******

Link to Chapter 30

‘Salvation through Jesus’ (a sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter on Acts 3 & 4)

Today’s reading from Acts contains a verse which some people will have found so disturbing that they probably didn’t hear anything else that was read after it. In Acts 4:12 Peter, speaking about Jesus, says “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved”.

Many people, listening to that verse, think it means “When we die, unless we have made a decision to accept Jesus, we will not go to heaven”. Apparently God has made a totally arbitrary decision to ignore all the good Muslims and Jews and Buddhists out there, and to focus instead on whether a person believes in Jesus or not. Understandably, in these days when we’d all like people of different religions to get along better with each other,  some people don’t see that as a positive message.

I actually find it quite surprising that people would interpret this verse in this way – for two reasons. First, if you take this passage in the context of the total story of Acts 3 and 4 the issue of dying and going to heaven is not mentioned at all. The word ‘heaven’ is mentioned three times in this story, but in two of them it just means ‘the sky’, and in the third one it’s the place God will send Jesus from– in what we nowadays usually refer to as ‘the second coming’ – when the time of universal restoration finally comes.

The second reason I find this interpretation surprising is the way we hear the word ‘saved’ or ‘salvation’. Again, we’ve got a long history of interpreting that to mean ‘saved from going to hell’. But that’s not the most common meaning of it in the Bible. In the Old Testament the word ‘salvation’ is almost always used in a military sense – it means ‘to be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us’, as Zechariah says in Luke 1:71. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt – they’re under the thumb of an enemy far too powerful for them – but God rescues them miraculously and leads them to freedom, and they give thanks for his salvation.

In the Gospels the word is often translated as ‘healed’ or ‘made well’. For instance, in Luke 17 Jesus heals ten lepers, but only one comes back to thank him. Jesus says to the man “Get up and go on your way; your  faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). It’s the same word root in the original language as ‘be saved’ in our passage for today. And of course in our passage the immediate context is healing; in Acts 4:9 Peter says “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed…”, and the word used in the original Greek for ‘healed’is the same as ‘saved’. So we could translate 4:9 as ‘how this man has been saved’. In other words, the kind of salvation most immediately in view in this passage is healing, not dying and going to heaven.

Okay – before we go any further, let’s remind ourselves of the big picture, because our reading gave us only a part of it. This story takes place not long after the day of Pentecost. There’s great excitement in Jerusalem; the disciples are claiming that Jesus has been raised from the dead, the Holy Spirit has come, thousands of people have become believers, and there’s a real sense of the presence of the risen Jesus in the disciple community, even though he can’t be seen.

One day Peter and John go up to the temple for the daily prayer service. They enter by a gate called the Beautiful Gate, and sitting there is a man who has been lame from birth; he’s shouting out, asking people for money. Peter says to him “I have no silver and gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6). He takes his hand and helps him up, and the man’s feet and ankles are strengthened and he starts walking and jumping and praising God.

All the people see the man, and they recognize him, and they’re full of awe and amazement.  A crowd gathers, and Peter immediately speaks to them. He makes it quite clear that this is not due to any power of their own. No, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has glorified his servant Jesus – the one they had rejected. They had asked for a murderer to be released to them and killed the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead. The resurrection proves that Jesus is not only the true Messiah – he’s also the true prophet Moses promised, the one God would send to speak to the people on his behalf. It’s in the name of this Jesus – the true prophet, the true Messiah – that this man has been healed. So Peter invites the people to repent and turn to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and what he delightfully calls ‘times of refreshing’ from God.

At this point the Temple authorities arrive and promptly arrest Peter and John, ‘much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead’ (4:2). The next day they haul them up before the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council, including Caiaphas the high priest and Annas his father-in-law – the very same council that a few weeks before had condemned Jesus to death. The Council asks them by what power or authority they have done this deed – by which they mean ‘Who do you think you are, preaching and healing our peoplein our Temple?’ Peter replies again that “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10). “There is salvation…” (deliverance, healing) “…in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:12).

The next verse is interesting: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus’ (4:13). But the man who had been healed was standing before them too – no one could deny that fact – and so all they could do was let Peter and John off with a strict warning – “No more preaching in the name of Jesus!” But Peter replied immediately, “You must judge whether it’s right for us to obey you rather than God. As for us, we can’t stop talking about what we’ve seen and heard”. After they were released they went back to the other disciples, and they all prayed to God to give them boldness to preach the Gospel, while he kept on doing signs and wonders in the name of Jesus. The answer they received was a repeat of Pentecost – the house was shaken as if by a violent wind and ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (4:31).

So what’s going on in this story?

Firstly, let’s be clear: for Luke, this story is a continuation of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. This healing of a lame man was exactlythe kind of thing that Jesus had done. And Peter had done it in the waythat Jesus did it! He hadn’t prayed to God that the man would be healed. Rather, in what appears to be perfect trust in God, he’d simply commanded the man in the name of Jesus to rise up and walk, and then lifted him to his feet. And the man had been healed, and everyone who saw it was ‘filled with wonder and amazement’.

The people would have seen the connection right away. “That prophet from Nazareth who we crucified a few weeks ago – he used to do this kind of thing, didn’t he? Now his followers are doing it in his name!” The leaders make the same connection in 4:13: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed…’ (there’s that word again!) ‘…and recognized them as companions of Jesus’. This is the power of the resurrection of Jesus: this band of ordinary, uneducated followers of Jesus continues to do and say things that remind people of what Jesus himself had said and done.

We have to be careful about applying this to our own situation today, because, quite frankly, very few Christians seem to have been given the power to do what Peter did: to speak a word of declaration in the name of Jesus, which instantly heals a person who has been lame from birth. We do hear of these things from time to time, but they are rare. But if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then it is absolutely essential that the life of the Christian community – the Church – reminds people of the life of Jesus. The love of Jesus needs to be tangible among us, so that people can see it in concrete ways. As John says in his first letter: ‘No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’ (1 John 4:12).

Is this true for the Church today? To be frank again, there are a lot of things done in the name of Jesus today that seem totally contrary to the teaching and example of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, Christians have blessed weapons of war. In the name of Jesus, Christians have given support to authoritarian governments – whose leaders live in power and luxury and do all they can to keep the poor in their place. In the name of Jesus, Christians have taken children away from their parents, stripped them of their language and culture and tried to remake them in their own image.

So what would it take in our Christian community here, for people on the outside to see the things we do together, and be amazed, and recognize us as companions of Jesus? Well, you might be surprised to know that this is already happening. People are already commenting on the practical love that happens here in this community. But let’s press on, and never tire of asking ourselves the question “What can we do to be more like Jesus? How do we put the two great commandments into practice – loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbour as ourselves – so that people have a sense that Jesus is alive, and present among us?

I’ll tell you one of the answers to that question: The Jesus of the gospels is constantly spreading the good news of the kingdom of God and calling people to believe in him. And this is what Peter and John were doing in this story. Having healed the lame man in the name of Jesus, they then told the crowd boldly that Jesus was alive and was the true anointed king sent by God to bring salvation to everyone. So if we want to be like Jesus, we will also be spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God and inviting others to put their faith in him and follow him.

Note that this is not about spreading a religious system. The Temple was a very elaborate religious system, built at huge expense by Herod the Great. Every day at the Temple prayers and sacrifices were offered. Sinners came to receive forgiveness for their sins. People came to pray for God’s help. Money changers changed the unclean Roman and Greek coins into good Jewish money so that sacrificial animals could be bought. Priests and scribes instructed the people in the name of God. It was a splendid system and no doubt Annas and Caiaphas were proud of it.

Except for this: outside this temple, at the Beautiful Gate, a beggar had been sitting for a lifetime, and the religious system had been unable to help him. Religious systems are like that: over time, they tend to take on a life of their own, entirely separate from the power and love of God. And then along comes a prophet, a rabble-rouser, a person who claims God has spoken to them. Do the leaders like this? They do not! This man is threatening their authority! He’s misleading the people! We must do away with him! Nevertheless, it’s this man, not the leaders, who seems to be able to heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind, and make the lame walk.

So spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God isn’t about spreading the Anglican brand name. It’s not about ‘my God is better than your God’. It’s about the one shining fact that the New Testament proclaims from start to finish: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

This is not about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell – we can leave that issue in the hands of a just and loving God. It’s about the fact that the same God who has spoken to everyone in every age through wise teachers and prophets has chosen at one point in history to come among us as one of us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So if we want to see the face of God and hear the word of God most clearly, it’s to Jesus that we must come.

Note: the word of God that we hear from Jesus will not always be a comfortable word for his followers! In one place in the gospels Jesus warns his disciples that because they have heard his teaching and come to know God’s will, the consequences for them if they don’t put it into practice will be much more severe. In other words, as C.S. Lewis once put it, ‘Christians are playing for higher stakes!’ And let’s not forget that in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, there were surprises about who turned out to be a sheep and who turned out to be a goat.

So as followers of Jesus we need to be content to leave the issue of people’s eternal destiny in the hands of a just and loving God. But as followers of Jesus, we’re also called to be obedient to his command that we share the good news of the Kingdom at every possible opportunity and invite people to become his disciples. Through him the salvation – the forgiveness, the healing, the deliverance – of God is poured out on all people. Like Peter and John, we get to be part of that amazing story. And two thousand years later, we’re still doing it, because we believe that Jesus is alive and that in his name everyone can receive salvation, and wholeness, and life in all its fulness.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 28

Link back to Chapter 27

******

Emma and I landed at Heathrow at around ten in the morning on August 22nd; it was a busy Sunday morning at the airport and by the time we had cleared customs it was after eleven-thirty. Becca met us with warm hugs in the arrival area; “It sounds like you had a great time!” she said as we walked out with her into the mid-day sunshine and across to the parkade.

“It was wonderful!” Emma replied.

“Look at you!” Becca exclaimed to her; “You’re as brown as a berry!”

“Well, she has spent rather a lot of time in the great outdoors”, I replied.

“Was everyone okay when you left?”

“I told you Millie Reimer has Parkinson’s, right?”

“You did; how’s she doing?”

“It’s barely noticeable at the moment, except to her and Hugo, but I know it’s worrying her”.

“How old is she now?”

“Seventy-four”.

“She’s probably had it for a while without knowing it”.

“That’s what the doctor said”.

“What about Beth?”

“Beth is kind of busy right now!”

“The baby’s taking up a lot of her time?”

“You could say that!”

“Thirteen days old today!” said Emma with a grin. “I think she smiled at me at the airport yesterday”.

Becca laughed; “Unlikely, at thirteen days, but if you want to believe that, Emma Dawn…”.

“All I can say is – me and Claire, we’ve got something special going!”

We found Becca’s car in the crowded parkade, loaded our bags and guitar cases in the back, and then took our seats inside. As Becca steered us down toward the exit I asked “So how’s Dad?”

She shrugged; “Well, you know – chemo…”

“Right”.

“I think he’s finding it harder this time, but he doesn’t say much about it”.

“He’s not in denial again, is he?”

“No – I actually think he’s making a genuine effort to be positive”.

“What about Sarah?” Emma asked from the back seat; “I haven’t talked to her for a few days”.

“I think she’s doing fine with her physio, but she’s frustrated about the pain she still gets in her leg. She can’t walk very far, and if she comes down on it wrongly, the rod sometimes really hurts”.

“They got away to France, didn’t they?” I said.

“They did – two weeks on the Côte D’Azur. Apparently it was rather nice”.

“Eric didn’t go with them though”, said Emma.

“No – he was working”.

“He and his dad are fighting again”.

“Really? I haven’t heard anything…”

“Apparently Uncle Rick’s still trying to push him toward taking a business degree, but Eric’s in a blues band now, and he’s learning to play electric guitar”.

“Rather occupying his mind, is it?”

“That’s what I hear. And Sarah told me she’s a little nervous about going back to school this Fall, what with her pain issues and all the time she’s lost”.

Becca grinned; “You know, you may have been thousands of miles away but I think you know more about that part of the family than I do!”

“Her thumbs have gotten rather a lot of exercise over the past few weeks!” I said.

“Not just my thumbs!” Emma replied; “You’ve been doing some texting too, Dad!”

“I can confirm that”, said Becca. “Some of them were to me, as well as a few nice long emails”.

“You were missed, Little Becs”, I replied softly.

“Aw – that’s nice to hear! I was afraid you might completely forget me while you were surrounded by hundreds of Reimers and Wiens’!”

“That’s the problem with having a transatlantic family”, I said; “Whichever side of the ocean you find yourself on, you’re always missing someone”.

“I expect you missed your new family too”, she said hesitantly.

“I did; I’ve been talking to them a bit. Colin’s all excited about starting at Oxford and Cherwell, and Lisa’s doing a lot of reading for her final year”.

“Along with checking on your house”.

“That too”.

“And Wendy?”

“She’s been writing a couple of journal articles, and she’s been down to Essex too; I think she just got back yesterday”. I grinned at her. “What about you? How’s Mike?”

“Well, as it happens, I’ve got an announcement I’ll make when we have a family get-together next weekend, but I want to tell you two first”.

“What’s that?”

“Mike and I are moving in together on September 1st”.

I nodded slowly; “I think I saw that one coming. Are you happy about this?”

“I really am”.

“Well then – congratulations!”

“Thanks”. She gave me an awkward glance; “I expect there might be – well – other announcements, in the not too distant future, but we haven’t really…”

“That’s good to hear too”.

“Are you going to be moving then, Auntie Becca?” Emma asked.

“No – for now, he’s moving in with me, because my flat’s bigger than his. Down the road, we might look at getting a bigger place”.

I reached out and put my hand on hers. “Things seem to be working out the way they should”, I said quietly.

“Yes they do”.

******

Emma and I had a quiet afternoon and evening at home, getting ourselves unpacked and rested after our journey. As usual I hadn’t gotten much sleep on the plane, so I went to bed early and slept through until about five in the morning, after which I was wide awake.

We went out to Northwood just before lunch time and spent the afternoon and early evening there. My father was looking tired, but he was obviously very pleased to see us. “Look at you two!” he said when we first arrived; “You look like you’ve spent the last few weeks sunbathing!”

“We spent plenty of time outdoors!” Emma replied as she gave him a kiss and a hug.

“Did you bring us some pictures?” asked my mother.

“The last lot are being developed right now”, I replied, “but we’ve got some from earlier in the holiday”.

So she made us some coffee, and we sat in the living room and poured over the photographs together. My mother recognized a lot of the people, and she made comments about them: “My goodness – Molly’s certainly growing into a little lady, isn’t she?” “Joe’s really going thin on top!” “Hugo looks well, doesn’t he?” My father particularly enjoyed the photos we had taken on our trip to Jasper, especially a couple from the top of Whistler’s Mountain; it had been an unusually clear day and the views had been spectacular.

Later on, after his afternoon nap, he and I sat together out on the patio while my mother and Emma walked in the garden.

“Are you feeling really worn out, Dad?” I asked quietly.

“I’m afraid so”, he replied, “and I don’t seem to have much of an appetite either. I hate chemo, but it is helping to keep me alive a little longer, so I probably shouldn’t complain”. He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “Some time in the not too distant future, you and I need to have a conversation about my will, Tom. We don’t need to do it today, but we shouldn’t put it off for too long”.

“Whenever you like; just let me know”.

“Thank you. It’s nothing controversial or anything – it’s just that I’ve got a couple of ideas, and I wouldn’t mind having an unhurried discussion about them with you before they get carved in stone, as it were”.

“Okay”.

We sat in silence for a minute, sipping at our coffee. It was a warm afternoon, with a very slight breeze lifting the tops of the trees in the orchard; across the other side of the back lawn my mother and Emma were strolling arm in arm, their heads inclined together as they talked.

“So Will and Sally were well?” he asked.

“Pretty well. They’re getting on, of course”.

“They’d be about the same age as your mum and me, as I recall?”

“Sally turned seventy in July, and Will had his seventy-third birthday in August”.

“Sally’s a little bit younger than your mum, then”.

“Yes”.

“They must miss you a lot”.

“They do. Sally’s a bit worried, actually; she’s afraid we might be getting rather settled”.

He nodded. “Naturally, she’d like her granddaughter to be close – especially with Kelly gone”.

“Yeah”.

“How’s Emma feeling about that?”

I shrugged; “I think her feelings are mixed. She was very happy to be in Meadowvale for a good long time, but she was glad to be coming back here, too”.

He smiled; “That’s good to hear. Not that I don’t sympathize with Sally, of course”.

“You know what that one feels like, from long experience”.

“Yes, but there’s no need for us to revive an old argument this afternoon. I’m glad you’re back though, Tom”.

“Me too”.

“I expect Emma’s going to be very busy now, getting ready to start her training”.

“Actually she’s in pretty good shape. Her enrolment and induction week kicks off on September 20th, so she’s got a bit of time yet”.

“She’ll be glad to be able to stay at home”.

“Yes – the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences is just a ten minute walk from our house”.

“Will she be doing her practical training at the JR?”

“Possibly –  but it’s also offered at the Churchill and the Nuffield, and I think Horton General too”.

“I know she’s really looking forward to getting started; she told me that”.

“Yeah, she’s quite excited about it”.

“Is she nervous?”

I frowned; “You know, I think she’s less nervous than she would have been if she’d started last September. She’s a lot more confident now about – well, about being in England, and all that goes along with that”.

“That’s good to hear. And what about you – have you got a lot of work to do to get ready for the school year?”

“I’ll need to get busy this week. Our first staff day is next Thursday – the 26th – and the kids start back the following week”.

“Are you looking forward to it?”

I grinned; “Well, you know, I didn’t have quite the long lazy summer I’m used to!”

“Of course – your summer break was a bit longer in Canada, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but our breaks at other times of the year were shorter, so it all evened out eventually. But to answer your question – yes, I like our school and I won’t mind being back”.

“I’m glad you’ve adjusted well to it, Tom. I don’t mind telling you I was a bit worried last year when you started”.

I frowned; “Why would you be worried?”

“Well, you’d only ever experienced one school, at least since you qualified as a teacher, and I know the Canadian system is different. No – I shouldn’t put it like that, should I? You told me a long time ago that in Canada each province has it’s own education system. I know the Saskatchewan system is different”.

I nodded; “There are definitely some differences – but kids aren’t really that different, and I enjoy the challenge we get at our school with the ethnic mix. I didn’t have that back in Meadowvale – or not so much, anyway”.

“I thought Saskatchewan people came from lots of different places?”

“They do, but most of them have been there for a few generations, except for a couple of Lebanese families who arrived more recently. Oh, and there’s a new South African doctor there now, too”.

“Jenna’s going to university this year, isn’t she?”

“Yes – she’s going to be taking History. She’ll be sharing a small apartment with her brother”.

“He wants to be a vet like his father, doesn’t he?”

“He does”.

“Joe must be pleased”.

I laughed softly; “I think Joe’s glad he’s got at least one thing in common with his son”.

“Oh?”

“Jake’s the one bubbly extrovert in a family of introverts. And he’s also heavily involved in team sports, which is something neither of his parents are interested in. He got some of his grandpa’s genes, I guess”.

My father smiled. “Poor Jake – I was rather hard on him when he capsized the punt”.

“Yes you were, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. He’s not the sort of kid who takes that kind of thing too much to heart”.

“He’s a year older than Emma, isn’t he?”

“Yes – he’ll be turning twenty in December, and Jenna will be eighteen in November”.

“History, you say?”

“Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see her for a visit some time in the next year or so. I think she’d like to have a look around”.

“Emma would like that”.

“Yes, she would”.

******

Wendy and I had arranged to meet for coffee the next morning at a little café on Cherwell Drive. It had rained overnight, and when I got up at seven to go for my walk the streets were still wet. Emma was already up by the time I got home; she wanted to have an early breakfast, she said, and then go out to Cumnor Hill for a visit with her cousins.

“You guys have some catching up to do”.

“Yeah, but listen – did you and Wendy and Uncle Owen arrange for that get-together tonight?”

“I haven’t asked Wendy yet. Owen and his family are definitely in”.

“Can you text me if Wendy says they can’t make it? If they’re not going to be there I’ll call Lisa about getting together later on”.

“Sure – I can do that”.

******

By about ten o’clock the skies had cleared and the sun was shining. The café was a short walk from our house and an even shorter one from Wendy’s; I was there before her but I could see her coming down the street, so I stood outside and waited. She gave me a cheery wave as she crossed the road in front of the café; walking up to me with her hands in the pockets of her jeans she smiled and said, “Hello, you!”

“Hello, yourself!”

We put our arms around each other, and for a moment neither of us said anything. We were both dressed lightly for a summer day, and I was suddenly conscious of the warmth of her body against mine.

“Mmm”, she said in a quiet voice; “I missed you, Tom Masefield”.

“I missed you too, Wendy Howard”.

She drew back a little and looked up at me, and as I returned her gaze I felt something stirring inside, something I had not felt for a long time. I leaned forward and kissed her gently on the forehead. She smiled at me again; “You caught the sun!”

“So did you; all that sunbathing on the beach, I suppose!”

“Yes – and I’ve been walking every day since then, too”.

“Are you ready for a coffee?”

“I could murder a cup of coffee!”

Inside the café the walls were painted in shades of green and off-white, and there were green cloths on the tables. In the back, there were shelves with various items of produce, and a counter along one side with cakes and other bakery goods on display. We ordered our coffee, and when it was made we took our cups over to a table beside the window. The room was about half full, and there was a cheerful buzz of conversation as we took our seats. 

“Where’s Emma this morning?” she asked.

“Gone to Cumnor Hill for a visit with the cousins; they were texting back and forth quite a lot while we were in Meadowvale”.

“Emma and Lisa too”.

“Yeah, I knew that”. I grinned at her; “You good pretty good at texting yourself, Miss Howard!”

“Yes – I appear to have gone over to the dark side!”

We both laughed, and she tilted her head a little to one side, the ghost of a smile playing around her lips. “Thanks for keeping in touch with me”, she said.

“I enjoyed it”.

“Me too”.

“So what are your kids up to today?”

“Lisa’s at work ’til supper time. Colin stayed down in Essex for a couple of extra days; I’m meeting him at the station late this afternoon”.

“Have you got anything on tonight?”

She shook her head; “Why? Are you planning something?”

“Owen was wondering about having a get-together at his place”.

“For the three of us?”

“Actually, he was thinking of our families too”.

She grinned at me; “That would be brilliant! I’ll talk to the kids and see if they’re interested, but you can definitely count me in. I take it there’ll be music?”

“I think that’s part of the plan, but visiting’s included too”.

“Of course. How is Owen, anyway? It’s been a week or two since I talked to him”.

“They were away in Normandy for a couple of weeks after school finished”.

“Yeah, he told me about that”.

“Did you hear that his band’s broken up?”

She shook her head. “No, I didn’t; is that recent?”

“It’s been brewing for a while. It’s not a nasty breakup or anything like that; two of the members have moved away this summer – one of them went back to the U.S. – and that made it rather difficult for them to continue as a band”.

She grinned mischievously at me; “Well, I must say my feelings are rather mixed about that!”

I laughed; “I know what you mean!”

“And what about your old band?”

I nodded; “We had some fun together. Mainly Ellie and me; Darren and Erin have a two year old running around now, so they’re kind of busy”. I laughed; “That’s ironic, actually”.

“How so?”

“Well, Ellie and I were playing together for a few years before Darren moved to Meadowvale – his grandfather was one of the local old timers, but his mum had moved away years ago – she teaches at Yale, actually. But Darren took a liking to Meadowvale and decided to move back to teach there in about 1992. He plays a really mean bluegrass mandolin and banjo, so Ellie and I invited him to join our band, but after a while we discovered that he wanted to be a lot busier than we did”.

“Oh right – you were young parents, and he was single?”

“Yeah, and we did most of our performing in Saskatoon, which is seventy-five miles away. So eventually we had to tell him we couldn’t keep up with it. Fortunately he was really nice about it; I think he knew our families were getting the short end of the stick. Which, as I say, makes it kind of ironic that this summer Ellie and I were the ones who were chafing at the bit and he was the one who was putting the brakes on!”

“I bet you had lots of fun”.

“We did. And lots of conversations, too – lots of really good conversations”.

“How’s Sally?”

“Sad to see us go, of course”.

“You mentioned that”.

“Yeah”. I shrugged; “Will had a good way of describing it – he said I was ‘experiencing the consequences of a transatlantic marriage’”.

“No matter which side of the ocean you’re on, you’re missing someone?”

“Yes”.

“Did you feel that way when you first moved to Meadowvale?”

“Not as much, but then, I really only had four people in England I was missing”.

“Your mum and Becca, and Owen…”

“And you”.

She looked away suddenly; “I didn’t make that any easier for you”, she said.

I reached across and put my hand on hers; “There’s no need to go there again”.

She was quiet for a moment, and then, slowly, she put her other hand on top of mine.“No, I know”, she said; “And anyway, I feel like I’m getting a second chance now”.

“So do I”.

We smiled at each other for a moment, and then she picked up her coffee and took a sip. “Mmm – that hits the spot!”

“They do good coffee here”. I wrapped my hands around my own cup; “So how’s the writing going?”

“Pretty well. I’ve got one piece almost done – on George Crabbe. Do you know the journal Literary Imagination?”

“No, I don’t”.

“It’s published here in Oxford, by OUP; lots of local scholars write for it. They’ve published a few of my articles in the past – mainly about George Eliot, of course”.

“Your writing interests are shifting now, though”.

“I think I’ve probably said all I can usefully say about Eliot, and I do actually cover eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry quite extensively in my lectures. So it makes sense to start to put a few things out there, and find out what my peers think of what I have to say”.

I smiled; “It’s a different world from the one I live in, Wendy”.

She nodded. “I know, and it’s important for me to remember that. At the end of the day if I can help a few students learn to really enjoy Crabbe and Clare and Coleridge, that’s a lot more important than participating in esoteric discussions between literary scholars. But on the other hand, since I am a literary scholar…!”

“Yes you are – and a very good one, in my humble opinion”.

“Thank you”. 

“So would an ordinary high school English teacher like me be able to understand what you’re writing?”

“You understood my books about George Eliot, and you’re already familiar with Crabbe’s poetry, so I don’t think you’d have any problems. Would you like to read my current draft?”

“I would”.

“That would be great – I’d love to hear what you think. I’ll email it to you”.

“Thanks”.

She took another sip of her coffee, smiled at me and said, “And speaking of books, I’ve been reading that book you recommended – The Upside Down Kingdom”.

“Oh yeah? What do you think?”

“Very powerful. And quite convincing, actually”.

“Really?”

“I find it hard to argue with. If you interpret the gospels in the most natural sense, that’s exactly what Jesus teaches”.

“I agree, but then I would, wouldn’t I?”

“So this is how you and Kelly tried to live?”

“That’s what we aspired to, anyway”.

“I imagine that must have led to some interesting conversations with your dad”.

I shook my head. “Most of the time we weren’t talking very much. He’s always been such a strong atheist, and he started from the assumption that Christianity was nonsense, so there really wasn’t much common ground for a discussion”.

“That must have been hard”.

“Yeah. I think we might still get to the discussion, though. I don’t know that he’s interested in exploring Christianity, but in the last few months he’s been more interested in getting to know me. That’s been nice”.

She shook her head; “Your experience was so different from mine”.

“Yeah; it must have been a lot easier to come back to Christianity when your dad was a clergyman”.

“For the most part – although, you know, he’s a bit mystified by the more contemplative side of my faith. He knows about contemplative spirituality, of course, but it’s never interested him much”. She frowned thoughtfully, tilting her head a little and looking at me. “So what’s your bottom line, Tom? What are the core convictions you’re trying to live by as a Christian?”

I smiled; “That’s a good question”.

“Sorry if I’m being a bit too direct”.

I laughed softly; “This is the former husband of Kelly Reimer you’re talking to here!”

“Of course”.

I took another sip of my coffee and thought for a moment. “I guess the starting place is something Kelly said to me way back at the beginning: ‘Like father, like son’. She’d come to the realization that if there really is a God out there, he has to be like Jesus – that was something she just knew instinctively. And that idea ‘fit’ for me immediately; I responded to it on a very visceral level. God is like Jesus, so if I want to know God and God’s will, Jesus is the place to go”.

“Hence the emphasis on literally following the teaching of Jesus”.

“Right. He said, “I am the light of the world; those who follow me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. That’s what Joe taught me: there was no point in trying to understand Jesus at a purely academic level. He’s not just an interesting Bible study topic. If you want to understand him, you have to walk behind him and do the things he says, and the things you see him doing. So Kelly and I built our lives around reading the gospels and trying to figure out what it would be like to live them out in the very different world we live in today”.

“So there’s an acknowledgement that it’s not always easy to work that out?”

“Of course. Most of us can’t literally sell our possessions and give to the poor, but we can all live with a lot less than we think we can”.

“Or in my case, how do you live a nonviolent life when your ex-husband can be a very violent man?”

“I’d be the first to admit there’s a lot of complexity around that issue, although I do think love for enemies is non-negotiable”.

“So what would love for enemies look like, for me and Mickey?”

“It’s not for me to tell you how to live your life, Wendy”.

“No, I get that, but I’d trying to get my head around what this practical discipleship really looks like when it gets applied to thorny issues – because if it doesn’t work there…”

“No, that’s true”. I shrugged; “Well, I do think you have to be safe. I don’t think loving your enemies demands constantly putting yourself in danger”.

“That’s what I think”.

“But I also think there’s a ruggedly practical take to this enemy-love business; it’s not just about warm fuzzy feelings. What’s the verse? ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he’s thirsty, give him something to drink’. I may not be able to work up a good feeling for my enemy, but I can always give him a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup”.

She smiled. “I like that – although I can’t see myself being in that situation with Mickey very often”.

“No. I guess I think the wisest word on that subject is where Paul says ‘If possible, as much as it lies in you, be at peace with everyone’. I think he’s recognizing that it doesn’t always lie in us – we do the best we can, but we can’t control the other person’s behaviour”.

“No”. She frowned thoughtfully, her eyes suddenly far away. “It’s the forgiveness piece that troubles me, Tom. Sometimes I can get there, and sometimes I can’t”.

“Yeah – sometimes that’s tough”. I shrugged; “What do your pastors tell you about that?”

“Elaine told me exactly what you just said – that forgiveness means loving rather than taking revenge, and loving sometimes just means giving your enemy food and drink, even if deep down inside you still can’t stand the sight of them. That’s what I cling to with Mickey. I know I’m supposed to love him, but I can’t often get there”.

I put my hand on hers; “I’ve never had to deal with the sort of situation you’re living with, Wendy. I can’t begin to imagine…”

She shook her head brusquely; “No – I don’t want to start a pity-party. There are people as we speak who are being bombed out of life and limb in the Middle East, while I live in my own home in relative security, with a court order protecting me”.

“Right”.

She smiled at me. “I do find it inspiring watching you and Emma trying to live out your faith; I have to tell you that”.

“Thank you”. I felt a sudden surge of emotion. “That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for – that Emma’s even more committed to following Jesus than I am”.

She smiled; “You look pretty committed to me, Tom”.

“Well, I stumble along day by day, I guess”.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Tom Masefield; like I said to you on the phone, I really like what Anabaptism’s done to you”.

“Thank you. And like I said to you, I like what contemplative spirituality’s done for you, too”.

She grinned; “It’s made me more contemplative, you said!”

“Well, it has!”

She nodded slowly; “I know what you mean, and I’m glad you see that in me. That’s what I would aspire to, anyway – to listen a lot more, and not be so quick to speak all the time. Especially when it comes to God. I love words, but I’m more and more sure that words are woefully inadequate when it comes to thinking about God and experiencing God”.

“I can’t disagree with that”.

******

In the end we decided to throw together a pot luck supper for our families at Owen and Lorraine’s place that night. Andrew and Katie were very happy to see Emma, Lisa and Colin were easy in our company by now, and Wendy and Owen and I were itching for a good sing. So we ate together, told stories about our summer experiences, poked fun at each other and laughed at each other’s jokes. And after supper Owen and I got our guitars out, and Owen looked at Emma and said, “Where’s yours?”

She shook her head resolutely; “Tonight I listen”.

He grinned at her; “I know that stubborn look on your face!”

“It’s a ‘Lincoln Green’ night tonight, Uncle Owen”.

So we sang our old songs for an hour or so, and shared some new ones too. Owen had a couple of new Celtic tunes he’d been learning, and I had brought one of Ellie’s bluegrass songs back with me. Later on Owen asked me to play a couple of Kelly’s favourite Bruce Cockburn pieces; “I love those songs”, he said, “and I only ever get to hear them when you play them”.

Eventually Lorraine made coffee and tea and we sat around chatting for a while. Emma and Katie were sitting together on the couch; Emma had her arm around the younger girl, and Katie’s head was down on her shoulder. “Someone’s getting tired”, Lorraine observed with a smile.

“Can I stay up a bit longer, Mum?”

“Course you can, darling”.

Owen looked across at Wendy and said, “We should start practicing for a gig”.

“A ‘Lincoln Green’ gig?”

“Why not? We’ve done open stages a few times now. I know Bill would give us a gig if we asked him”.

Emma spoke up; “You should do a Christmas gig”, she said quietly.

Wendy nodded; “I like that idea”. She smiled at me; “You like Christmas music, don’t you?”

“I love Christmas music – and starting now would give us lots of time to practice”. I turned to Owen; “What do you say, partner?”

He grinned at the two of us; “I say it’s time for ‘Lincoln Green’ to be a regular band again”.

Wendy nodded; “I’m in”, she said.

“Awesome!” said Emma.

“Agreed”, Lisa chimed in, “as long as it’s not on the same night as my choir concert!”

Owen laughed; “I think we can arrange to avoid that!”

******

Link to Chapter 29

Gregory Alan Thornbury: ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?’

33877924Today I finished Gregory Alan Thornbury’s brilliant biography of Larry Norman, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock. Here’s the response I wrote on Goodreads:

I was a Larry Norman fan in the 1970s and 80s but lost touch with him after that. I heard stories about his failings, but was never really familiar with his story. However, songs like ‘The Outlaw’, ‘One Way’, ‘Reader’s Digest’ and ‘The Great American Novel’ were permanently etched on my musical imagination and I continued to listen to the old albums with great enjoyment.

So I was excited when I heard about this book, and it did not disappoint. Larry Norman emerges from these pages as a real human being, one who struggles with weaknesses and failings as we all do. And yet, his influence on my life as a Christian and a musician was entirely positive, and I suspect thousands of others could say the same thing. Having heard some of the rumours about him I expected to think less highly of him after reading this book, but the opposite is the case. I will go back to the old records and listen to them again with more appreciation for the real human being who created them, and I will gladly own up to being a Larry Norman fan.

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? on Amazon.ca.

Here’s the song the book is named after:

And here’s another favourite Larry Norman song: