A Letter I Didn’t Expect

Earlier this year I got an unexpected letter from Maureen. She wondered if I would remember her because I had neither seen her nor heard from her in more than 50 years. She identified herself as a 67-year-old grandmother.

I replied that I did remember her well as a quiet but active member of the youth group of the New Westminster Free Methodist church in British Columbia when I was pastor there back in the fifties of the last century.

Her letter explained that she and Shirley and Betty, all high school members of the same youth group, had been together in New Westminster for the fiftieth anniversary of their graduation from high school. They spent time together and talked a lot about that church youth group and the interest Kathleen and I had shown them during that era. We were young ourselves, in our early thirties.

They were sure, her letter said, that our influence had kept them out of trouble and helped them to grow up through the teens into adulthood unscathed by forces appealing strongly to young people that otherwise could have been seriously damaging.

We have our own precious memories of those pastoral connections. Call them the other side of the story.

Soon after our family – my wife and I and four little ones – arrived from seminary to be the church’s parsonage family I realized that the young people were beginning to skip Sunday evening services. I saw it as a trend.

I said, to myself: if we can’t hold the young people when we ourselves are young, who can we hold? The question prompted a plan. I announced in a Sunday morning service when the young people were present that after services on Sunday nights the youth of the church would be invited to our home next door. We called it “Fireside” even though there would be no fire.

They came. Arlene played the piano and they sang choruses. They enjoyed one another in the informal, homey setting of our dwelling. Sometimes they asked me questions. Sometimes they fell into discussion among themselves. We served them refreshments.

We recall that there were times when some were not eager to leave. All of this went on during most Sunday nights after that during our five years of service in New Westminster. Our home must have seemed to them like a refuge.

Now, more than half a century later Maureen is reminding me.

Maureen lives on Vancouver Island, Shirley is in Georgia, and Betty is still in New Westminster living near the church. I have had e-mail contact with Maureen and Shirley. I may see Betty next week when I fly to Vancouver to pay a visit to our son, John David, who lives in a group home in Surrey.

When the Lord permits life-time pastors to live well into their eighties as he has permitted us to do, they find themselves wondering from time to time: to what degree has our ministry been effective, even worthwhile? The question is not asked depressively or as John the Baptist might have asked it in prison. It is asked reflectively. It is an element in one’s pondering the meaning and fruit of one’s life.

Then comes a contact like Maureen’s letter. And in recent years there have been other’s like it, not all from people who were young when we were among them. It has made us realize how deep are the connections that pastors develop with their people. Pastoring is surely like planting seed that may seem to disappear underground but then germinates many decades later.

I see in this renewed contact a message that all pastors could take encouragement from. (And lay people too.) There are fruitful periods in the pastoral life, but also periods of scant hope. From time to time there are temptations to ask: “does what I’m doing really matter?” Pastors carry the treasure of the gospel in earthen, flawed and vulnerable vessels, and they sometimes are tempted to give up too soon. When the seed is planted, even if not yet germinated, there is hope.

In the Psalms, when the exiles returned to their neglected and battered homeland to recover the overgrown fields and hope once again for a harvest, the Psalmist reminded them:

“Those who sow in tears/ will reap with songs of joy./ He who goes out weeping,/ carrying seed to sow,/ will return with songs of joy,/ carrying sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5,6). The promise is good for laity too who are seriously engaged in the Christian cause.

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