Joy and Suffering: A Sermon for my Dad’s Funeral

September 3rd 2013
Text: 1 Peter 1:3-9

I’d like to begin by thanking you all, every single one of you, for coming today for this very special service, as we give thanks to God for my Dad’s life and commit him into God’s care and keeping.

Dad asked me a few years ago if I would preach at his funeral, and when I said yes, he told me that the text was to be 1 Peter 1:3-9. He didn’t go so far as to actually write the sermon for me, but I know that he would have wanted two things to stand out front and centre: the good news of Jesus Christ, and the note of joy.

But I don’t want to start with the note of joy. I want to start by acknowledging the suffering of the past few years. Most of you know that Dad has suffered with Parkinson’s Disease, as well as scoliosis, and multiple other health issues. Life has not been easy for him, and it hasn’t been easy for my Mum; as the months and years have gone by, Dad has lost more and more control and more and more dignity, as more and more parts of his body have declared independence from his brain. And although my Dad was a man of great faith, he was also a human being, and he would have had to be superhuman to have never asked himself the question, “Why me?” I know that he asked that question, and I know that he had to cling hard to his faith as he lived with ever-increasing frailty in the last few years.

So I don’t want to ignore this reality, because I think that Christian joy does not ignore this reality. A joy that ignores this reality is a very fragile joy, a joy that can only survive by working very hard to keep certain questions locked away – and those questions have a tendency to break out of prison and come back to trouble us. So it’s important to name the suffering that Dad, and Mum, have gone through over the past few years, and to honour it, and to take it seriously, because a Christian joy that’s worth its salt is a joy that takes every part of life seriously.

Peter certainly takes it seriously in the passage from his letter that we read this afternoon. The Christians he was writing to were going through a time of suffering for their faith in Christ; it would have included ostracism, economic hardship, and in some cases imprisonment and death. Maybe some of them were asking the question, “Why me?” Maybe some of them were even asking the question, “Is it worth it?”

Peter takes this suffering very seriously in this passage. After telling them about the wonderful blessings that they are receiving because of Jesus and his resurrection, he goes on to say, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (v.6).

‘All kinds of trials’. There it is, right in the middle of our reading, just as the trials are often found right in the middle of our lives. Peter doesn’t try to pretend that they don’t happen. He doesn’t try to pretend, as some Christians do, that if you just put your trust in Jesus all your problems will go away. He doesn’t try to pretend that there are no difficult questions for us to struggle with.

What he does is to set the trials in the context of the big picture of the Christian life. Let me briefly explore with you what Peter does here. In this passage he deals with the two components of the Christian life: joy, and suffering. Or, another way of looking at it would be to say that in this passage he gives us both hope for the future and strength for the present. In verses 3-5 Peter says,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed at the last time.

So this hope that Peter is talking about is unashamedly a future hope. He uses the illustration of a wonderful inheritance that is waiting for us. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these days inheritances aren’t as wonderful as they used to be! Jesus talks in the gospels about the mistake of trusting in treasure on earth, “where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). These days those moths and vermin and thieves often take the form of stock market crashes and the collapse of interest rates, so that what we assumed were good pension plans and secure savings accounts turn out to be a lot less secure than we thought!

But like all the writers of the New Testament, Peter points ahead to a day that God has promised. As we look around now we see a world full of sorrow and suffering – with joy and happiness too, yes, but also so much that is evil and broken. But God has promised that this is not the last word. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – and the gospel promises us that one day God will answer that prayer. Even now, God is quietly at work transforming the world by his love, and the love of his people. That work is still far from complete, but one day it will be completed.

Peter promises us that we will see that day. Like all the writers of the New Testament, he believed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ wasn’t just about Jesus; it was about us, too. Life after death isn’t just about the survival of the soul in a place where there are no bodies. It’s much better than that. In the New Testament a believer who has died is often said to have ‘fallen asleep’. Why ‘sleep’? Because sleep is temporary; even a teenager on a Saturday will wake up eventually! When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (John 11:11). And this afternoon Jesus wants us to know that although his friend Bob has fallen asleep, one day Jesus is going to come and wake him up!

Yes, the kingdom of God is coming, and when it comes in all its fullness, God will raise his people from the dead and they will enjoy it with him forever. I have absolutely no idea what that will look like; I expect that it’s far above anything I can conceive or imagine. But Jesus has promised it, and he invites us to believe it, and to live by it. If we accept that invitation, we can never live as if suffering has the last word, and we can never live as if death is final.

But how can we know that we’re going to be part of that glorious resurrection? Peter mentions two things: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new birth.

Death looks final. I was not present at my Dad’s death, but I have been present at the deaths of others, and it certainly looks final to me. And when the disciples of Jesus saw his battered body taken down from the cross on Good Friday, they all assumed that it was the end of the story. Even on the Sunday morning, when the reports started to come in of strange happenings at the tomb, they responded as you and I would have responded – skeptically. It took a lot of persuading, and a few resurrection appearances of Jesus, to convince them that it was true: love really was stronger than death, and evil hadn’t had the last word after all.

But having been persuaded, the disciples’ lives were transformed. Never again would they be afraid of tyrants who said, “Do as we say, or we’ll kill you!” They’d seen their master tortured to death on the cross, but three days later they’d seen him alive again, so what was there to be afraid of? Even the last enemy, death, turned out to be a toothless tiger after all.

So we know that we will be raised, Peter says, because Jesus was raised, and he has promised that one day we will share in his resurrection. But Peter also talks about the new birth. This is how the power of Jesus’ resurrection invades your life and my life.

Birth is a huge change in the life of a baby! And God wants to bring a huge change into our lives too. When he created us, he had a dream for us – a glorious dream. The glory of God is a human being fully alive, free from evil and sin, reaching out and achieving all that God has planned for us. This is impossible without the help of God, so God gives us the gift of a new birth to help us in that process of transformation.

In the New Testament this new birth is often associated with three things: faith, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They don’t always happen at the same time, and they don’t always happen in the same order!

My Dad was baptized when he was a little baby, and his parents took him regularly to church as he grew up. But Dad sometimes talked about a very special week, Holy Week 1954, when his faith came alive in a new way. On each day of Holy Week, St. Barnabas’ church had special early morning services; Dad went down to those services with my grandfather, and each day the scripture readings spoke to him in a powerful way. That week changed his life, and I’ve heard him speak about it more than once as a new birth. Later, in 1971 in Southminster, he experienced for the first time a powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit. He said it felt like standing under the waterfall of God’s love, and the water wasn’t just running over him but running into him as well, touching even the deepest parts of his soul with the love of God.

We’re all different, so we all experience these things in different ways. But the common thread is transformation. Jesus experienced transformation as God raised him from the dead, and now we experience transformation as God brings us to the new birth and gradually changes us so that we become more and more like Jesus.

And, hard though it is for us to think of it, suffering has a part in this. It did for Jesus, and it does for us as well. This is how Peter puts it:

‘In all of this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in various kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (vv.6-7).

I once heard a story about a little girl who was taken to see some sheepdog trials. She enjoyed watching the dogs running around and herding the sheep, but she was quite surprised to discover that there was no judge sitting with a black robe and a wig. To her mind, the word ‘trial’ always included a judge and a jail sentence! She learned that afternoon that ‘trials’ don’t always include the threat of punishment; sometimes they are about exercising our abilities and discovering what we can do when we’re put to the test.

Suffering can be like that; it can drive us into the arms of God, teach us to rely on his presence and his strength, and help us grow in faith. Certainly no one in their right mind seeks suffering, but this passage teaches us that in God’s good purposes, suffering need not be wasted; it can teach us wisdom, and patience, and reliance on God, and compassion for others.

And so even in the midst of our suffering there is joy. At the end of our reading Peter says,

‘Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy’.

This joy of knowing Jesus is a golden thread that runs through the pages of the New Testament. In one place Paul says, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). This is lovers’ language, isn’t it? A young couple, very much in love with each other, might say, “Yes, our life has a lot of hardship, but our love is enough to carry us through”. And that’s what Peter is saying here: “My dear Christian friends, you are going through great suffering right now, but in the midst of it all you’re finding that Jesus is enough; knowing him and walking with him day by day is giving you a sense of joy that no trouble can touch”.

I know that my Dad believed this, even though his faith was severely tested by his suffering; this is the faith in which he lived and died. By God’s grace, I hope to live and die in that faith myself, and I hope you do as well. So let us pray that God will keep us in that faith now and always. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Off to the U.K. again on Sunday evening.

Marci and I are going back to England on Sunday evening for a three week visit. This was originally planned as a visit with my Mum and Dad to help my Mum celebrate a birthday of some significance, but it was not to be; as most of my friends will know, my Dad died on August 12th, and his brother John died three days later. So our first week of holiday will include my Dad’s funeral (at which I am to preach) on September 3rd and Uncle John’s funeral on September 5th. After that we hope to have some holiday time, help Mum celebrate her birthday, and visit with some other friends and family.

We will be spending most of our time in beautiful Oakham, where my Mum lives, but will have a couple of other short trips as well.

Here’s a picture of Oakham that i took in May 2009.

IMG_0339

More about my Dad

I want to go into a little more detail about my Dad.

As I said in a previous post, my Dad, Robert Eric Chesterton (‘Bob’), was born in Leicester, UK on December 5th 1931. He was the third of five children of George Edgar Chesterton and Dorothy Mary née Hodkinson. My grandfather’s occupation is listed on Dad’s birth certificate as ‘Electrical Engineer’s Draughtsman’, but he worked for over fifty years for a watch and clockmaking company. He had previously served as an infantryman in the First World War, during which he was captured and spent nearly two years as a P.O.W.

My grandparents were both musical and artistic; they both painted watercolours (I have some of their paintings in my possession), my grandfather played the violin, and they both enjoyed listening to classical music. These interests were successfully passed on to my father, who always loved drawing and made his living for twelve years as a commercial artist. He could hammer out a tune on a piano, but his main instrument was the voice; from a very young age he always sang in the church choir, and I remember in the 1970s that he could sing and teach any of the four parts – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. I remember him saying that his voice never broke, it just added extra range!

Dad’s parents were regular churchgoers and when they moved to Abingdon Road when Dad was quite young they started attending St. Barnabas’, Leicester, the church where my parents were eventually married and I was baptized. My grandfather served as a churchwarden there and during his term of office he would cycle down to the church every morning to pray Morning Prayer at 7.30 with the vicar.

Dad left Gateway School at the age of 16, worked for a while and then did his National Service in the Royal Air Force from age 18-20. He worked as a radio operator and my Mum recalls him saying that he sat out in a radio hut in the middle of an airfield, where he was often visited by local girls who liked chatting with one of the boys in blue. In those days, of course, two years’ national service in the armed forces was compulsory for every young man in the UK, but my Dad’s family had a particularly strong military tradition as my oldest uncle John and my youngest uncle Roger both served in the Royal Navy for extended periods of time, well beyond the requirements of national service.

After finishing his national service my Dad went to work as a commercial artist in the advertising business. He worked first for J.E. Slater of Kibworth, and later at H.T.H. Peck Sox and Stockings. Those were of course the days before the use of photographs in advertising, so I suspect that Dad spent a lot of time painting legs! He had a very steady hand and I remember that he took pride in being able to paint letters in a straight line without the use of a ruler of any kind.

Dad was always involved in the Boy Scout movement, first as a scout and a rover, then as a leader and eventually as Assistant Scout Master with the 91st Leicester Scouts. I have his copy of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys – an older edition, with delightful pen and ink drawings that I know my Dad would have appreciated.

Church youth groups also loomed large in his life. There was a lively Anglican Young People’s Association at St. Barnabas, with weekly meetings with a varied program, including spiritual, social and service events. It was at that group that Dad first met Shirley Ann Taylor in 1954, and before long they started courting. There was a nearly seven year age difference between them, and this may have been one reason for the hesitation both families felt about their relationship. Dad’s father was a skilled worker, a draughtsman, while my Mum’s father was a bus driver, and Abingdon Road was certainly a little more classy than Woodland Road, where the Taylors lived; this may account for some of the hesitation Dad’s family felt. As for my Taylor grandfather, who was a very practical man, Dad told me later in life that initially he had not been happy about his daughter marrying an artist.

However, Bob and Shirley persevered. Dad cycled once a week down to Scout meetings, and Mum arranged that she would always be walking her Grandpa Reynolds’ dog at the time; the result was a lot of conversation and a very dejected dog! Eventually they got engaged, and they were married on May 19th 1957; Dad was 25 and Mum 18. They had two children; me (Timothy Arthur) on November 1st 1958, and my brother, Michael Charles, on August 20th 1960.

Our family lived in Woodland Road, first at number 1 and later at number 3; my Taylor grandparents lived across the road at number 8, and my great-grandfather Reynolds (Mum’s mother’s father) lived at number 20. When Mike and I were little boys my Mum’s younger sister Carole often babysat for us; she was courting Alan Hewitt and we were quite involved in their courtship! I remember that Dad’s place of work was quite close to a railway yard, and during his lunch break he would often go down and draw pencil sketches of the trains, which he then gave to Mike and I to adorn our bedroom wall. The houses on Woodland Road were quite small; it was late nineteenth century industrial revolution row housing (quite like Coronation Street, actually!), and my Taylor grandparents were quite unusual in owning theirs as most people were tenants (indeed, at no point in their married life did my parents ever own a home of their own).

Now I need to backtrack a bit. As I said earlier, Dad had been brought up as a regular churchgoer, singing in the choir and attending the youth group. However, he experienced a personal spiritual awakening in Holy Week 1954; he attended daily morning services with his father at St. Barnabas, and he told me that the readings spoke powerfully to him during that week, as well as the communion services. Later in life, he always looked back on this week as his conversion experience.

As a result of this spiritual awakening Dad looked around for an avenue of service and before long, after conversation with the vicar of St. Barnabas’, he was put forward for lay reader training. Unusually, the vicar of St. Barnabas’ began to use Dad as a lay reader from very early on in his four-year training period, and he also served in other churches in the city and in the villages outside Leicester; Mum tells me that in his ten years of lay reader ministry he led services and preached in seventy different churches in Leicester Diocese. Soon he began to think about ordination; he went for his first ACCM (‘Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry’) selection conference for ordained ministry shortly after his marriage, but was turned down on the grounds that he was newly married and needed to get used to that new situation first. I think it needs to be said that in those days ordination was definitely a middle-class, university-educated preserve, and it was quite unusual for a working class boy like my Dad, who had left school at 16 and made his way in the working world for some years, to think of becoming an ordained minister.

Early in 1960 the Lee Abbey evangelism team came to St. Barnabas’ Church to lead an evangelistic mission; Mum thinks it may have lasted as long as two weeks. Mum and Dad offered their home for use in evening meetings, team meals and so on. In those days Lee Abbey was associated with the Keswick ‘Deeper Life’ movement, and it was through the Lee Abbey team that Dad first heard the term ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, a term that would come to fruition in his life twelve years later in Southminster. Mum says that the mission had a huge impact on Dad’s spiritual life and led to a far greater emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, indwelling believers and giving them power to serve and to be holy. One of the leaders that week was Leslie Sutton, of whom Dad spoke with great fondness for the rest of his life.

In 1962 Dad again went to an ACCM selection conference, and this time he was accepted. By now of course Dad was 31, and I want to point out again how unusual this was in those days, when most ordination candidates were single men straight out of university. Very few theological colleges in those days made any allowance for married men, but one that did was St. Aidan’s, Birkenhead (near Liverpool). Mum and Dad had very little money, so Mum stayed in Leicester; she went out to work in a toy shop while my grandmother across the road looked after Mike and me, while Dad went to St. Aidan’s for two years (in those days in the Church of England ordination candidates over the age of 30 could be ordained after two years of training). I remember that my artist Dad used to design elaborate calendars that Mum could use to help us boys know how long it would be until our Dad came home for a vacation. I also remember him bringing home a large Bible story book for us, a book I poured over after I learned to read (although the water colour illustrations were also impressive).

Dad was ordained as a deacon in September 1965, and we left Woodland Road for Kirby Muxloe where he served his first curacy. The village of Kirby Muxloe was close to the new housing estate of Leicester Forest East and during Dad’s time as curate the new church of St. Andrew was built there. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the pews at St. Andrew’s with my Dad standing in the pulpit giving a children’s sermon, which he illustrated by drawing a picture of Thunderbird 2 from the Gerry Anderson ‘Thunderbirds’ TV show (we had no TV at home in those days, but I remember watching it at my grandparents’ home!). In those days clergy customarily dressed in sober dark colours, but Dad asked Mum to knit him brightly coloured sweaters that he wore over his clerical shirt. He always wore his clerical shirts with the sleeves rolled up (was this the scoutmaster in him coming out?), giving the impression of a man of action. It was also at Leicester Forest East that he learned to drive and bought his first car; he celebrated getting his driver’s licence by driving home and backing the car into the brick gatepost of our house. Cars were strongly built in those days, but the gatepost was demolished!

Mum and Dad had know the Rev. Jack Sperry, a well-known Arctic missionary from Leicester, for some years, and it was through Jack’s influence that they offered themselves for missionary service in the Canadian Arctic, travelling by sea to Canada in 1967 and then up to Cambridge Bay in the Kitekmeot region of the central Arctic. However, this was not a happy experience for Dad and Mum and for us two boys. Mum said later that they had been misled about the schooling situation and were not aware that after one year I would have had to go out to the residential school in Inuvik (aged 10), and she was not prepared for this to happen. Also, in those days Inuktitut was the spoken language in the community and Dad quickly discovered that he was not a linguist. They therefore left Cambridge Bay after just over a year and returned to the UK, where Dad served his second curacy at St. Thomas’ Church, St. Anne’s on Sea in the Diocese of Blackburn.

In December 1969 Dad was appointed as vicar of St. Leonard’s Church, Southminster, Essex, where he served for six years, his longest parish appointment. The time in Southminster was especially fruitful for Dad, as it was here that the Lee Abbey influence came to full fruition; he encountered some Pentecostal Christians, began attending a weekly prayer meeting with them, and in Holy Week 1971 experienced a personal infilling or ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. This began his involvement in what was later referred to as the ‘charismatic renewal’.

Dad had a powerful ministry at St. Leonard’s, and during his six years there the church grew and many people committed their lives to Christ. Small groups were started (then known as ‘home meetings’) for prayer and study; contemporary services were introduced, and – oh how revolutionary! – eventually a guitar group was formed to accompany singing (I was a member of it!). The Fisherfolk were then writing and introducing their folk-influenced worship songs and many of them found their way into the worship at St. Leonard’s. It was during these years, on March 5th 1972, that I committed my life to Christ at my Dad’s prompting, and I was one of the many who took my first steps in prayer, Bible reading, witnessing and ministry under my Dad’s guidance.

During our time in Southminster an older single lady, Flo Almeroth, came to join our family; she was a gifted organist and eventually became the organist at St. Leonard’s. She continued to live with Mum and Dad until her death in 1990.

Our family was on the move again in December 1975; it was back to Canada for us, to Ashcroft in British Columbia, where my Dad became the rector of Ashcroft and Savona. He served there for two years, during which time I left home and went to Toronto to train as an evangelist with the Church Army in Canada. The rest of the family left Ashcroft in early 1978, spent some months working in a Church Army project in Manitoba, and then returned to England in the Fall of 1978.

For the rest of his ministry my Dad would serve short, three to four year periods in various parishes; he was described by an older minister as a ‘nutcracker’ who would bring new life into moribund congregations and then hand them over to someone else to do follow-up, while he moved on to the next one. I often describe my Dad as a gifted pastoral evangelist who left a long line of newly committed Christians behind him, some of whom are in ordained ministry today. He was an evangelical and a charismatic and had little interest in liturgics or in the institution of the church. Ethel Chapman, a deaconess in the Diocese of Chelmsford, once said of him that ‘the trouble is that Bob is a missionary at heart, and that’s a dirty word to most people around here!’ But this never bothered Dad; he was a maverick his whole life long and had little interest in fitting into the system!

I should say that in his ministry Dad continued to use his artistic and musical gifts. Choirs and music (both traditional and contemporary) were always a strong interest, and later in his ministry he wrote many songs and hymns, chiefly personal in nature, some of which were used in worship in his parishes. As I mentioned before, he also used drawing and art as tools in children’s ministry. In this way he enjoyed using his artistic imagination to serve God and communicate the gospel to people of all ages.

After his return from Canada in 1978 Dad served parishes in the dioceses of Manchester, York, Lincoln, and Birmingham, some with as many as four points. In 1993, after twenty-eight years of full time ministry, his health began to break down and arthritis took its toll. He took early retirement in 1994 and he and Mum moved to Oakham, not far from Leicester where they had both been born. Thus began one of the most rewarding periods of Dad’s life; he held licences and had ‘permission to officiate’ in three dioceses, Leicester, Lincoln, and Peterborough, and was able to serve in parishes that were between clergy as well as helping out colleagues who needed extra assistance. One of those parishes was St. Mary’s, Ketton, a few miles east of Oakham, where Dad had a particularly fruitful two-year period of ministry. mainly on Sundays but also midweek from time to time.

Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2005, followed by scoliosis of the spine and several other health problems. It therefore became necessary for him to retire completely from ministry. As long as he was able to drive, he and Mum continued to attend St. Mary’s, Ketton regularly; however, after he gave up his driver’s licence in 2009 this became more difficult for him.

People often said to my Mum how lucky she was to have two fine Christian sons, and her reply was always ‘Luck had nothing to do with it!’ After some years in sales my brother Mike began to work for TEARfund (‘The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund’) and has worked with them in donor relations ever since. He is married to Jeanette and they make their home in Manchester; they have two children. I of course joined the Church Army in Canada and served with them as a parish evangelist for twelve years before being ordained; like my Dad, I did not go through a standard seminary-style education program! I married Marci and we have four children and one grandchild, Noah. Dad took great delight in Noah, though he was only able to travel to meet him once; it was one of his great sadnesses that declining health made it impossible for him to visit ‘Mister Noah’ more often.

As the years went by Dad’s condition deteriorated and he became more and more debilitated. He had a horror of being institutionalized and my Mum cared for him at home. Eventually, like many Parkinson’s sufferers, he became almost immobilized and had difficulty with basic bodily functions, including talking and swallowing. My Mum became his full-time caregiver, and she was the only person who was with him on the evening of August 12th 2013 when he died – truly a blessed release for him. I was on my way to see him, but I don’t begrudge him those twenty-four hours; his suffering had been intense, and I’m glad he is now at peace.

This is a tribute, but my Dad would be mortified if I gave the impression that he was some sort of stained-glass window figure; one of his favourite sayings in the Southminster years was ‘This church is for sinners only!’ He was a living and breathing human being with strengths and weaknesses and besetting sins like everyone else. He freely admitted (and those who knew him well also knew it) that two of his besetting sins were impatience and bad temper. He once told me “I’m not a patient person, so God has made me wait for most of the important things in my life”. He first heard of the baptism in the Holy Spirit in 1960 during the Lee Abbey mission at St. Barnabas’, but it was not until 1971 that he himself experienced this blessing. He sometimes tried to move too fast in parishes, rather than taking time to build as much consensus as he could, and if he thought he was right about an issue he could be stubborn and scathing toward people who opposed him. My family’s standard way of having a disagreement was short, sharp and intense; we yelled at each other and got it all out, and then half an hour later it was forgotten. Most of the time. Sometimes, of course, it was not.

Dad once said to me, “We were always afraid that you would turn away from Christ” – to which I replied, “After my conversion I never once considered not being a Christian, but I was not always going to be your kind of Christian”. When I was a teenager in Southminster all my friends had long hair and dressed according to the prevailing hippy culture, but I was not allowed to do this, which I resented. ‘Pop music’ was also looked down on, which was hard for me as I was kind of fond of it!

My Dad was never what would be described as a theological liberal, but in his younger days he was certainly ahead of his time in his style – he was friendly and informal, he promoted modern liturgies, modern translations of the Bible, and folk-style worship music. Later on, I observed that he became more conservative, particularly with regard to the issue of the ordination of women, which earlier on he had supported. This became a point of tension between us, especially after I moved to the Diocese of Edmonton in 2000 and worked under the leadership of Bishop Victoria Matthews. Dad was also quite conservative on the subject of homosexuality, which led to considerable heartache for him when our daughter Sarah ‘came out’ in 2005, and later married Lynn in 2010.

My ministry was not a carbon copy of my Dad’s, and we had differences of theological emphasis, of style, and of politics. He happily served in an ‘established church’, where I became more counter-cultural and was later strongly influenced by Anabaptism. He tended toward the political right, whereas I was more to the left. In one of his parishes he also served as an R.A.F. chaplain, but I eventually became a Christian Pacifist. He always wore a clerical collar, while I have always hated any sort of a uniform and enjoy dispensing with clerical collars and robes and ecclesiastical titles. Most importantly, he had mainly short term appointments in parishes (although I note that one of his happiest and most fruitful appointments, in Southminster, was also his longest), whereas I moved more and more in the direction of long-term ministries (my last two parishes have been eight and a half years and thirteen and a half years respectively, and the latter is still ongoing).

Nonetheless, I have no doubt that, despite these differences, my most important convictions about Christian life and parish ministry have come from my Dad. Like him, I don’t think that sacramental initiation – baptism and confirmation – is enough; I think people need to experience personal conversion and commitment to Christ. Like him, I value extemporary prayer and personal Bible reading. Like him, I have little interest in the institutional church and don’t think a synod office can save a single soul; I think that parish renewal is more likely to be accomplished through prayer and fasting and personal evangelism than by mission action planning and institutional rejigging. Like him, I am low-church and informal in my approach to worship; I find elaborate ceremonies and choreography a distraction from the presence of God, and I find a simple liturgy much more effective in helping me to focus on Christ and experience the work of the Holy Spirit.

Like my Dad, I enjoy visiting and personal contacts with individuals, and find that one-on-one conversations, rather than programs, are by far the most effective way of touching people’s lives. Like him I emphasize preaching, and like to promote small groups for discussion and Bible study. Like him, I enjoy building bridges between Christians of different denominations and don’t get too hung up about differences in our traditions. Most of all, like Dad, I believe that my calling is to advance the work of the Kingdom of God one heart at a time, by calling people to personal conversion and discipleship and helping them grow as followers of Jesus.

So this is my tribute. I of course owe my life to my Dad and Mum, and they were partners in creating the Christian home in which I grew up. But in God’s providence it was my Dad who prompted me to give my life to Christ as a young teenager; it was he who taught me to pray and read the Bible; it was he who introduced me to small group prayer and study, who encouraged me to play my guitar in worship and who taught me my earliest worship songs; it was he who encouraged me to offer myself for service in the Church Army. It was Dad who modelled for me what the life of pastoral evangelism could look like. And if, like my Dad, I can leave a trail of changed lives behind me, I will feel that my ministry has fulfilled the intention for which God called me to it in the first place.

Robert Eric Chesterton, December 5th 1931 – August 12th 2013

My Dad died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease on Monday evening at his home in Oakham, Rutland. I was about to leave Edmonton for Oakham in the hopes of spending a few last days with him, but I can’t find it in my heart to wish that he had waited a few more hours for me. He had been suffering for a long time and I would not have wished even one more hour of that on him. I’m glad that he’s now at rest.

Dad was one of five siblings, the children of George Edgar Chesterton and Dorothy Mary Hodkinson of Leicester, U.K. After leaving school he did his national service in the R.A.F. and then worked for some years as a commercial artist. He married Shirley Ann Taylor on May 19th 1957 and they had two children, Timothy Arthur in 1958 and Michael Charles in 1960.

My Dad studied at St. Aidan’s College, Birkenhead from 1963-65; he was ordained in Leicester in 1965 and served in a number of parishes in England and Canada. His longest appointment was as vicar at St. Leonard’s, Southminster, where he served from December 1969 to December 1975; it was in Southminster that he was first touched by the charismatic renewal which had a huge impact on his life and ministry.

Dad was a gifted pastoral evangelist and left a trail of newly committed Christians behind him. I know this, because I am one of them. It was on my Dad’s prompting that I gave my life to Christ on March 5th 1972; he was the one who first taught me to pray and read the Bible, he introduced me to small group fellowship, lent me countless helpful books about Christian living, and modelled evangelistic pastoral ministry for me. It is because of him that I am in ministry today, and although my ministry is far from being a carbon copy of his, I have no doubt that many of my deepest convictions about this calling came from him.

My Dad began to suffer significant pain from arthritis while still a relatively young man, and this was one of the factors in his decision to take early retirement at the age of 62. After his retirement he and my Mum moved to Oakham in Rutland, where he continued to have fruitful ministry leading worship and preaching in various parishes in interim situations, including St. Mary’s, Ketton, where he and my Mum made their church home in his last years.

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on”

‘”Yes”, says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them”‘ (Revelation 14:13 NIV).

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Places I’ve lived

I was born in Leicester, England, in 1958. When I was very small we lived in Woodland Road; we lived on the corner at number 1, and then a bit later we moved next door to number 3. My Taylor grandparents lived across the road at number 8, and my great-grandpa Sam Reynolds lived at number 20. Here’s a recent shot of Woodland Road, taken in December 2011. When I lived there no one had a car.

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This is the house we lived in, at number 3 (with the white wall):

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In 1965 my Dad was ordained, and we moved out to Leicester Forest East where he served for a couple of years as a curate (assistant minister). Here’s the street we lived on, Kirloe Avenue:

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In September 1967 we left England and went all the way to the wilds of the Canadian Arctic, where my Dad served for one year as missionary in charge of St. George’s Anglican Mission, Cambridge Bay. When we lived there it was a community of about 600 people. Today it is much bigger. Here’s a recent shot.

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We returned to England in October of 1968, and my Dad served his second curacy at St. Thomas’ Church, Lytham St. Anne’s, Lancashire. Here’s an old photo from 1968 of St. Anne’s pier; that was about the time we lived there.

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We lived in Lightburne Avenue, in a house a bit like this (we were at number 16; this is next door, at number 18):

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In December 1969 we settled down for a few years, as my Dad was appointed vicar of St. Leonard’s, Southminster, Essex; the next six years were very happy ones for me, as I made good friends, learned to play guitar, and became a committed Christian. Here’s a recent picture of Burnham Road in Southminster, looking north toward the High Street:

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When we first moved to Southminster we lived in a big old vicarage dating back to the 18th century; it was set in the middle of a field (nowadays it is totally surrounded by houses). Here it is:

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After a few months, however, we moved into a brand new vicarage where we lived for the next five years or so, from 1970-75. This is a photo of that vicarage taken in 1987 (these days it’s surrounded by houses too!):

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In December 1975 we were on the move again, as my Dad accepted an appointment as rector of St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Ashcroft, B.C. This picture of the rectory (with Dad and Mum and me) was taken in 1977 I believe.

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I left home in September of 1976 and spent the next two years at the Church Army Training College, 397 Brunswick Avenue, Toronto.

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After I finished my training in 1978 I was posted to Angus, Ontario where I spent a year trying to plant a church (a job, alas, I’d never been trained to do!). I don’t have a photo of the tiny rented house I lived in, but here’s an aerial view of the town.

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While I was there I met a wonderful young woman, and in October 1979 we were married. A week later we packed our VW Beetle and drove west to Arborfield, Saskatchewan, where I spent the next five years serving the Anglican churches and communities of Arborfield, Red Earth, and Shoal Lake. Here’s a shot of Arborfield, taken from the west. You see the grain elevator? That’s where the town is:

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My normal Sunday in my Arborfield days included three services and 150 miles of driving, about half of it in gravel. Here’s the little church at the Red Earth First Nation (which has since been replaced):

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And here’s the house we lived in, in Arborfield:

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In August of 1984, after five years in Arborfield, Marci and I headed north to the Arctic with the two children who had been born to us in Saskatchewan, Sarah and Matthew. We spent four years, 1984-88, in Aklavik in the Mackenzie Delta. Here’s Aklavik:

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And here’s the church and mission house:

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In the summer of 1988 we (the four of us, plus Jacqui who had been born while we lived in Aklavik) moved even further north, to Holman (now called Ulukhaktok), where I believe I was the third most northerly Anglican minister in the world. Here’s Holman:

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And here’s our mission house:

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In the summer of 1991, after seven years in the Arctic, the six of us (Nick had been born while we lived in Holman) moved to Valleyview, Alberta, where for the next eight and a half years I would be the rector of the Anglican churches in Valleyview, Fox Creek, Goodwin, and New Fish Creek.  More long Sunday drives (it’s 50 miles from Valleyview to Fox Creek, and 32 from Valleyview to Goodwin)! Here’s our rectory in Valleyview:

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And here’s St. Anne’s Church, right beside the rectory:

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We lived in Valleyview from September 1991 to January 2000, when we made our final move (to date!) to the city of Edmonton, where I became the rector of St. Margaret’s Church. We have now lived here for thirteen and a half years. I don’t appear to have a good photo of our house, but here’s the church:

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And here’s a nice shot of our city centre skyline (several miles from where we live!):

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