Re-post: Sunday School Picnic, Anyone?

When I was a boy, the annual Sunday School picnic was a highlight of the summer for our modest sized church in Saskatchewan. From the day its date was announced in June I lived in expectation.

I recall that one year, I prayed in my boyish way that it wouldn’t rain on that day. The day before the event seemed iffy, but it didn’t rain after all. A rained-out picnic would almost have ruined my summer, so I felt.

Sunday School picnics are probably not enthralling to today’s children like they were to me and my friends eighty years ago. Our church was small and our town’s activities were limited after school was out for the summer.

Today there is so much more to create summer excitement — swimming facilities, little league baseball, camping activities, and sports events, for example. This is to say nothing of personal diversions like television, smart phones, Netflix and other streaming services. Who needs picnics?

It’s not that the thirties of the last century were completely without excitement. Still, the Great Depression and the Dustbowl together generated the nickname of “the dirty thirties,” and our parents were in survival mode to “make ends meet.” In summer months we mostly had to generate our own entertainment.

I remember that one summer, the picnic was held at Woodlawn Park in the wide valley two miles straight south of Estevan. It had swings, and teeter-totters, and a place to swim. The Souris River formed its southern bounds.

On the bank of the river — which I remember as less than two hundred feet wide — there was a diving board and in the middle of the river there was an anchored raft, easily reached by swimmers. On a hot afternoon they splashed and bobbed like corks around this raft, and shouts of excitement filled the air.

The park was set in a large grove of trees, which was not usual for the Prairies, and they made an appealing setting for our picnic. The gathering there was like a large family. Some people who were only slightly connected to the congregation attended and increased the numbers.

There were games (like three-legged, and gunny sack races) and other contests for all ages. And there was pick-up softball for the older kids and young adults.

There were things to laugh at too — like the grunting, sweating, red-faced adult contestants who gave their all in an attempt to win the tug-of-war. Or the girls who fell in a heap while attempting to hop to the goal line with legs confined in a gunny sack. Even sedentary onlookers cheered as racers, each balancing an egg delicately on the bowl of a tablespoon, headed past them for the finish line.

The minister was always called upon to bless the food. During those hard times in the 1930s the food was simple but satisfying and special when served at picnic tables out of doors. Open air and brisk activity awakened hearty appetites.

At the end of the afternoon we had ice cream which almost by itself made the event outstanding. Ice cream back then was not an everyday treat.

It still seems to me that such a picnic can do something for a modest sized church community that more spiritual activities can’t. Bible studies, prayer meetings, and picnics each have their place.

They contribute to bonding between churchgoers. Many quiet people become involved. Children possibly benefit the most, as they make brief connections up and down the age scale, with parents, the middle-aged, and even grandparents of their chums. Everyone mingles under a Summer sky.

Maybe a picnic wouldn’t work today. But plan one like I’ve described here, and I’ll be there! Just don’t ask me at this point in my life to take part in the tug-of-war!

Photo credit: cwwycoff1 (via

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Why Does Historic Methodism Teach the Doctrine of Prevenient Grace?

The Bible quickly introduces us to the story of Adam and Eve — created by God, placed in a perfect setting, and given a task to perform. They were forbidden only one thing; they were not to eat the fruit of a particular tree; but many others were accessible in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 1,2)

They violated the one prohibition, and in doing so they placed themselves in rebellion against the Ruler of the universe, the God to whom they owed their existence and their ideal surroundings.

Where should the story go from there?

We can imagine two possibilities. First: In response to such disobedience the Lord God might have struck with fire all he had created, wiping it out. The second possibility: The Lord God might have turned his back on the couple, leaving them forever estranged from Him.

But possibility three is what actually happened: The Lord God came walking in the garden searching. He confronted the pair with their offense and then clothed them with animal skins. Thus begins a wondrous story of salvation.

In essence, God initiates by making himself known to sinful mankind and seeking them out.  This is called prevenient grace.

A Seventeenth Century Dutch scholar named Arminius was foremost among those who brought the term forward, and later Eighteenth Century Oxford scholar, John Wesley, and his followers embraced this understanding during a great outpouring of God’s saving mercy on the British Isles.

John Wesley wrote: “It is God who takes the initiative first to provide for our salvation in Jesus Christ and then to enable us to respond through prevenient grace.” The Apostle John writes that Jesus was “the true light that gives light to everyone” and that “We love (God) because he first loved us” (John 1:9 and 1 John 4:19).

“Prevenient” comes from a Latin word that means preceding in time or order; coming before, or anticipating. In Christian thought it is used to speak of the manifestations of God’s grace that precede repentance and spiritual awakening. Wesley presented it as “all the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God which, if we yield to them, increase more and more.”

Thus, prevenient grace is the grace that initiates our salvation. It is the grace that prompts a little child’s first sense that there is a God above, and gives that child its earliest awakening to moral responsibility.

That is, God initiates the search for sinners whom Jesus died to save and He offers them hope. As one doctrinal statement has it, “This [prevenient] grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our first transient understanding of having sinned against God.”

Luke tells us about Zacchaeus, a man rich but of apparently shady character, motivated by greed as a tax collector. He attempted, out of curiosity, to see Jesus close-up and to do so he climbed into the branches of a Sycamore tree. But Jesus saw him and called him to come down.

Jesus then went to his home as a guest and the crowds responded by muttering that Jesus had gone to be a guest in the home of a sinner. But Luke reported the move more positively.

After being with Jesus for some time that day Zacchaeus, in a great burst of generosity, pledged half of his wealth to the poor and also stated his intention to return fourfold to any he had cheated.

Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus at the end of that day were as follows: Today salvation has come to this house…. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.

We cannot come to God on our own initiative because as simmers we are dead in trespasses and sins. It is by prevenient grace that we are first awakened and called.

As the Apostle Paul writes: but because of his great love for us God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions —  it is by grace you have been saved: (Ephesians 2:4,5).

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear,

The hour I first believed.

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Photo credit: Kasia (via

Re-post: The Mother of Methodism

Susanna WesleySusanna Wesley is sometimes referred to as the Mother of Methodism. She played no active part in the movement but raised the sons, John and Charles, who led it. She was an unusually intelligent, gifted, and attractive woman. There is ample historical evidence to bear this out. While still in her teens she knew Latin, Greek and French. As a youth she had steeped herself in theology. She was also a deeply involved mother. She stands high among the women of the Eighteenth Century.

She gave birth to 19 children in 21 years, although only ten of them lived to adulthood, seven girls and three boys. Along with her husband, she raised this family in an impoverished parish in the county of Lincolnshire, on the eastern side of the England north of London. It was the Fen Country, an area that had to be repeatedly drained because it was surrounded on three sides by rivers that periodically flooded. Most people of the area were rude and illiterate and did not take well to “intruders.” Some of them were vicious in their attacks on the Wesley household, both verbally and physically. This was the environment in which the Wesley children were raised.

Susanna’s husband, Samuel, was brilliant, a serious scholar and a faithful vicar, but a man who was not skilled in avoiding conflict. Nor did he handle the family’s sparse income well. And he did not seem to have strong child rearing instincts. She herself confessed to son John that, “’tis an unhappiness peculiar to our family that your father and I seldom think alike.”

So what were Susanna’s rules for raising the ten children who lived? John asked her for them and she complied in a long letter. Years later, July 24, 1732, he incorporated the letter into his journal. Her rules are detailed and fascinating.

For example, in raising children she notes that “the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper.” (Two centuries later James Dobson qualified the idea by saying children’s wills must be conquered without wounding their spirits.) Her rationale for this first principle? She writes, “religion is nothing else than doing the will of God, and not our own” and explains that “As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatever cherishes this in children insures their after-wretchedness and irreligion.” That is why she was determined at the outset to insist on obedience as a first principle.

She also explains that she taught the children to be courteous in speech, to cry softly, and, at the same time, she enforced the rule that they would never get anything they cried for. She taught them to pray, and to distinguish the Sabbath from other days. (Remember that she came from devout Puritan stock). She explains that she created her own schoolroom in which the children were taught to read. She insisted that “no girl be taught to work (sewing, scrubbing, etc.) till she can read very well.” Illiteracy was widespread in the community but not in the rectory. Later the girls were taught to work with the same application and thoroughness.

Some students of the Eighteenth Century complain that children were treated as though they were no more than little adults. There may be some truth to that. Thus, they argue that Susanna’s rules are unacceptable for us today. But that is not always the response of those in our day who become acquainted with them.

Some years ago I was invited to be the speaker at a Baptist Parent-Teacher meeting. I decided I would introduce the audience to Susanna Wesley’s rules for child rearing, so I made copies as handouts. Even so, I was apprehensive that modern parents might react negatively because present ideas and practices for child-rearing are much more permissive. So I decided that I would distribute the Wesley rules, use them as the basis for my talk, and then gather them up afterwards.

The parents, mostly mothers, were fascinated and would not hear of it. They were avid about keeping their copies. My apprehension dissolved. It was as though Susanna’s words spoke to a felt need in the midst of today’s uncertainties about child-rearing.

Good child rearing practices are not a guarantee that children will make the wisest of decisions when they reach adulthood. And environment does have a bearing on how children come to their maturity. There were disappointments in the Wesley family especially among the girls. But these cannot diminish the mark Susanna Wesley left on the world through her devout and careful child-rearing practices. Her three clergymen sons, Samuel, John, and Charles, bear witness.

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A Great Honor Bestowed at Age 90

greenvillecollegecrestA great honor has recently come to Kathleen and me. Greenville College, the school at which I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English 63 years ago, has bestowed the honor. My impulse is to share the details with my readers but I must first tell you about the college.

Greenville is a Christian liberal arts college. In September it is to become Greenville University. The school was founded in Greenville, Illinois in 1892, by ministers and members of the Free Methodist Church. Greenville, a city of 7000 on Interstate 70, is about 50 miles east of St.Louis, Missouri.

Today the college has 1600 students and offers more than 50 majors. It was smaller by far when I was a student long ago, but it continues with the reputation of providing solid higher education and sending a significant number of students to graduate school and then onward to lives of character and service.

I graduated from GC in 1953 at 27 years of age. With three small children in tow, Kathleen and I then went on to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky for a three year program of pastoral education. Only eight years after I graduated from Greenville I was brought back from Western Canada to be the pastor of the college and community church. The new church building was just across the street from the campus, and this move began for us a 13-year, wide-ranging pastoral ministry.

Later, at 48-years-of-age I was voted into the bishop’s office for a period of service that lasted 19 years. Kathleen and I took that election with full intent to treat it as another though broader pastoral assignment. Our life’s commitment to the pastoral office did not flag.

A few months ago, 63 years after my graduation and 42 years after completing my 13 years as pastor of the Greenville Free Methodist church, President Ivan Filby asked me a question that took me by surprise: Would my wife and I consent to have the college name a renewed School of Theology, Philosophy and Ministry after us, and would I also be agreeable to having a Chair of Pastoral Theology and Christian Ministry established in my name?

Needless to say, we were astonished and felt deeply honored at the same time. On several occasions during our Greenville pastorate we turned down invitations to other enticing Christian ministries. I refused such offers in order to continue as a local pastor. So we said yes to President Filby’s inquiry.

Now to the formal inauguration of the Donald N. and Kathleen G. Bastian School of Theology, Philosophy, and Ministry. It occurred just three weeks ago, on October 5 and 6. For months Linda Myette, Vice President for Advancement, and her staff, had been working diligently to put together a two-day program of celebration of this event. In addition to the school, the Donald N. Bastian Chair of Pastoral Theology and Christian Ministry was to be established.

So, on October 4 members of our family converged on Greenville. Kathleen and I and two Greater Toronto children Carolyn and Don with spouses, Doug and June, traveled together. Son Robert and wife Jan drove from the Chicago area. Two grandchildren, Charis and Zach, also drove from there. A grandson, Jonathan, and great granddaughter, Rebekah, came from Pennsylvania. It all turned out to be the experience of a lifetime for all of us.

Among many wonderful moments of the two days, here are the three highlights for me and for Kathleen as well.

First, to start the celebration we listened to heavenly choir pieces in chapel, and afterwards I preached the sermon to an attentive student body. The text: But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all things needful will be added as well. For me and for Kathleen, that verse summarizes the life we have attempted to lead, and I believe the students received it as a challenge from the Lord for their lives too.

img_2712A second highlight was the ribbon cutting and the uncovering of the large plaque at the front door of the school of theology, announcing the new name of the school housed in the JKL building, a gift to the college made by Don and Esther Jones.

A large group of friends, family, and community gathered outside to hear the greetings, comments and proclamations. The ribbon cutting made us feel we will always be a part of Greenville.

Third, I had been asked to be guest lecturer for a one-hour class of about 20 ministerial students. My subject: The Pastoral Vision. It was a joy to break down the pastoral task into three main components: Ministry of the Word, pastoral care of persons, and administration, and to illustrate these assignments from a long life of ministry. The class was alert and engaged and afterward we enjoyed a special luncheon with them. What a privilege to connect and share with a coming generation of likely pastors.

Please share with us in giving all glory to God for the possibilities launched on this occasion.

And join Kathleen and me in praying for the students of Greenville University, rejoicing with us in the faithful service of President Ivan Filby and his wife, Kathy, as well as the faculty, staff, administration, and trustees of this greatly loved institution!

We Celebrate God’s Providence and My Sixtieth

GreenvilleA few days ago, we were in Greenville, Illinois, celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of my graduation from Greenville College. In a real sense, it was Kay’s and my 60th — but that’s another story. Greenville is a small city of 7000 halfway down the State, and the college, established there in 1892, is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church.

It was 62 years ago that we arrived on campus from Canada — Kathleen and I, our nearly three-year-old daughter, Carolyn, and our soon-to-be-born son, Donald. I was there to finish two years of college leading to a B.A. in English literature.

GC is a small institution, measured against the huge universities across the land. It has an enrollment of 1200, but it functions as a rock solid institution of higher learning with active commitment to the Christian faith.

Our circumstances back then could not have been more limited. Arriving in a car we had bought in Detroit, we three landed with one suitcase and a bulging briefcase. We moved into the kitchen-less upstairs apartment I had engaged only weeks earlier.

Before leaving Canada we had shipped a second hand steamer trunk packed with wardrobe for colder weather, baby equipment, and other household necessities. But the trunk went to Pennsylvania by error and was not traced until the chill of winter was approaching. We lived out of that suitcase until the trunk arrived.

There had been a certain desperation in our move. We were 25 years old with a growing family. We knew that time was running out for me to finish the two years needed to make me eligible for graduate school.

Greenville College is vastly more developed today than it was in 1953. The campus is twice the size because of a recent gift of adjacent property plus added other contiguous lots. The library is much larger, the soccer and football fields to my knowledge didn’t exist 60 years ago, the Bock Collection of art is a treasure, and the music offerings are greatly broadened. Excellence in academics pursued under Christian auspices is still held as the standard.

For me, among the highlights of the Homecoming of 2013 were the college choir concert, the homecoming chapel on Friday morning and the Alumni Dinner on Saturday evening. At that chapel, three outstanding alumni were honored – Daniel Jensen, history professor for several decades; Gary Pierson, a young lawyer, recognized for outstanding achievement among alumni under 40; and Dennis Spencer, executive vice president of Lagardere Unlimited Media and Events, the organization that sponsors televised events like the tennis open, and the company that gave media oversight to the recent Boston Marathon.

During Spencer’s chapel address, he advised that when faced with a moral decision, we should “Do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason.” Spelled out, it was a morally elevating challenge delivered into an age too much infected with relativism — the idea that morality is elastic and all individuals have the right to stretch or shrink it according to their own whims.

Every listener from the youngest freshman to the oldest alumnus must have been nudged to remember that Christians hold to a universal truth that life has a solid moral core of absolutes from which moral decisions are to be worked out.

Speaking into the narcissism of our times — though not mentioned by name — and its easy escape from personal responsibility, Spencer also emphasized that mature leadership requires us to own our mistakes as well as claiming our victories.

Later at a splendid alumni banquet Dr. Ivan Filby, newly elected Greenville College president, spoke extemporaneously of his vision for his presidency. At Greenville College’s core is to be the ongoing emphasis on academic excellence, charactered living, and breadth of vision for life, but above all he pledged his earnest commitment that all students will be called to a “life-changing encounter with the living Christ”.

The weekend gave ample opportunity for the members of my class present to mingle and recollect. Of the original 90 classmates who graduated in 1953, 18 had returned, counting some spouses.

Kathleen and I see now what we could not have seen with the same degree of clarity 60 years ago – that God governs and guides in the affairs of his children through all of life’s ups and downs. It’s called “providence” and we left campus full of gratitude for the guiding hand of God — first to Greenville College back then and from GC into a life of service for the Lord.

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Of Harmony and Hope

QuartetOn this past weekend forty-nine men from across the continent, including Canada, converged on The Free Methodist Ministries Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, for two days of singing and remembering. It was a first for the Free Methodist Church. A Male Quartet Convention!

To attend, our only requirement was that at some earlier time we had sung in a male quartet – either during college days or on the Light and Life Hour radio broadcast or even with a home-grown male quartet from a local church. Men were there who had sung in college quartets as far back as 1942.

The Nomads from Greenville, Illinois, five singing men, added variety to the event by harmonizing for us twice. And in the foyer of John Wesley Church where we later convened there were enlarged pictures mounted here and there showing some of our faces in younger days, and also how male quartets of former years dressed — matched suits, ties all knotted alike, pocket handkerchiefs each displaying four peaks, and even the same haircuts. Individualism had not yet made its influence fully known to male quartets.

The idea for the event originated in the mind of Marvin Zahnizer, retired history professor from The Ohio State University. The Marston Memorial Historical Center sponsored the event, and Cathy Fortner, the director of the Center, took the project on and with tenacity made it happen.

Retired conference superintendent Bill Cryderman formed the men into a massed choir, David Anderson of the Roberts Wesleyan College music faculty, presided at the piano, Jo Ann Noble, emeritus professor from Greenville College, added organ interludes, and retired pastor, Ron Robart kept the gathering on schedule.

We sang, and we sang. But not without a break at which Professor Zahnizer presented a fully researched and fascinating paper on the many stages of male quartet singing throughout American history.

As our two days together progressed, the sanctuary of John Wesley Church rang with music produced by nearly fifty male voices. For example, the rollicking “I Want to Be There When We Crown Him King of Kings.” Then, the solemn, “Remember Me, O Mighty One” And, the moving “Jesus, What a Friend of Sinners.” And more.

By the afternoon of the second day this choir’s voices filled the sanctuary with refined cadences, both robust and rich. And 29 women who had come along with their men as observers were the first audience to hear this music – soon to be available, it is hoped, on DVD. On one occasion as they sang, my wife passed a Kleenex to a friend nearby, as her tears flowed.

As Kathleen and I drove toward home in Canada we kept reviewing the event with joy. The music created by nearly fifty men played again and again in our memories. Some of the wonderful words kept coming to our minds and we shared them.

Driving the 570 miles we tuned into the news on the radio. What we heard there was of a much different tone. A nation was waking up to governmental blundering and deception. There were angry words. We heard again and again the questions for which answers are yet to be extracted.

But nothing on the radio could smother the words of Christian hope we had sung over and over again at this male quartet convention. The Psalmist, however ancient, could have given this gathering of mature men the very theme for the occasion: “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 104:33).

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A Tribute to a Noble Life Not Yet Fully Lived

Light and Life ChurchI delivered my last Bible study here at Light and Life Park in Florida this past Sunday night, and Kathleen and I and our daughter, Carolyn, are now packing to leave for points north on Thursday morning, April 11.

The pastor of Light and Life Park where we spend our winters, Reverend John Hendricks, is about to retire after 58 continuous years in pastoral ministry. He will preach his retirement sermon on April 28.

I have long considered the pastorate a high and holy calling, and John Hendricks is a prime example of a life’s response to that calling. He has lived it out week in and week out, in honorable fashion for such a long spread of time.

Because Kathleen and I will not be present for his last Sunday, I shared with the congregation at the outset of my evening Bible study last evening the following tribute:

Not only does Pastor John manifest nobility and faithfulness as a pastor, but he is also, by the grace of God, the most multi-talented pastor I have known. He could have chosen any one of several careers. For example, he could have been a teacher of English, sharing freely with college classes his love for words and his mastery of language. He could have chosen a career in music, either as a performer or a director, and his inborn vocal talent and musical soul would have served his audiences well.

He could have been a thespian; his marvelous memory would have made him equal to the challenge of many roles. He could even have been a comedian, using his wit, his comedic flare and his natural sense of timing to delight audiences near and far.

But, by the grace of God, and in the mystery of that grace, during his early youth John responded instead to an inward call of God to the pulpit and the parish. In so doing, under the Spirit’s anointing he made the above combination of gifts the servants of the Gospel to congregations for a lifetime.

While for various reasons other ministers have sometimes shifted to other assignments, he has stayed and shared this set of gifts with local congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ across a pastoral lifetime. In doing so he has blessed more souls than we can number.

Now, we will follow him and his wife Bobbie with our prayers as they look forward to opening the next chapter of their life together. May they enjoy the provident care of a God who has blessed them to date in abundant ministry. And by the same grace that drew John to the pastoral life, and Bobbie with him, may our Lord favor him with continuing opportunities to use his gifts to the extent his passions prompt and his strength allows.

Benediction: May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen!

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On Wesley’s Journey to True faith

I’ve been reading again about John Wesley – 5 feet 3 inches tall, 126 pounds, Oxford University Greek instructor, failed missionary to the New World, and father of Methodism. I’ve decided he deserves more attention than his spiritual children sometimes give him.

From his early 20s onward he was a man of what appeared to be great piety. This stood out in contrast to the widespread godlessness of his generation. He organized his days around times of prayer; along with companions he served the sick and the poor; he attempted to manage his time as a spiritual trust; and he even made the perilous journey to America, as he reports in his journal, to work out his own salvation. However, on the latter point, even the piety did not conceal his lack of evangelical faith.

His passage from England to Georgia aboard the Simmonds revealed inner uncertainties about his salvation. Even though he and three traveling companions carried out with great diligence religious duties daily aboard ship — conducting worship, teaching the children, giving Christian counsel — his journal shows that several times during a series of bad storms he felt afraid to die.

He became aware of this by the example of 26 Moravians also on board. These were devout Christians from a community called Hernhuth in Germany. On one occasion they had just begun a service of worship aboard ship when a storm broke over the vessel. The 26 German Moravians continued singing while many of the 80 or so English passengers screamed in terror.

This fortitude in the presence of mortal danger did not escape John Wesley’s attention and he inquired of their leader: Were his people not afraid to die? He was assured they were not. Were the women and children not afraid, he asked further? Again, he was told they were not.

When the ship arrived at Savannah, Georgia, Wesley approached the Moravian pastor, a Mr. Spangenberg, and engaged him in conversation. He asked him if he would tell him what he found wrong in him — like an accountability partner. Here was a further hint not so much of deep humility as of self-preoccupation.

The pastor responded, “I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?

Spangenberg noticed that Wesley, this Oxford-trained clergyman, seemed perplexed. So he asked further, “Do you know Jesus Christ?”

Wesley paused and then answered, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” To which Spangenberg replied, “True. But do you know he has saved you?” Wesley responded, “I hope he has died to save me.” Moments later Wesley tried to make his answer more convincing but of that effort he writes in his journal, “I fear they were vain words.”

In spite of his great learning, his apparent piety, and his willingness to go abroad on Christian mission, something was missing. He lacked that assurance of salvation which the Moravians had and which Spangenberg knew was a key witness to a genuine faith.

Assurance was something Wesley could not talk himself into. Nor could his closest associates have convinced him. This inner assurance could not be reasoned or argued into existence. It was a certainty to be given by the Spirit of God to his own inner being – his own spirit — in response to sincere repentance plus the full trust of himself to the saving mercies of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:14).

That conversation with Pastor Spangenberg took place on February 7, 1736. Not until May 24, 1738 did John Wesley fully understand and completely surrender to the truth that salvation is by faith alone – the renunciation of one’s sins and the full transfer of one’s trust from oneself to Jesus Christ. And when he exercised that faith the Spirit gave him the inner witness of his salvation and his ministry took on a new spiritual quality, sanctioned by God’s power in unusual ways.

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The Little White Church on Third Street – Part 5

(Not the actual church.)

(Fifth in a series of reflections on the church of my boyhood)

When I was a boy, the annual Sunday School picnic was a highlight of the summer. From the time its date was announced I lived in expectation.

On one occasion as the date approached, I prayed in my boyish way that it wouldn’t rain. I would have viewed a rained-out picnic a tragedy.

Sunday School picnics are probably not enthralling to today’s children like they were to my generation seventy-five years ago.

Today there is so much more to create excitement – swimming lessons, little league baseball, after-school activities, sports events, to say nothing of personal diversions like cell phones, DVDs, texting devices, and even television and the Internet.

Not that the thirties of the last century were devoid of excitement. It was only that options to stir the imagination were more limited. Where I lived, in Estevan, Saskatchewan, during the Great Depression and the “dirty thirties”our parents were truly in survival mode to “make ends meet” and in summer months we mostly had to generate our own excitement.

For example, during one period of my childhood we boys found discarded automobile tires a challenge. We rolled them through the back alleys of Estevan, pumping them to keep them upright, running bare-footed alongside them. We must have imagined them as some sort of magic mount.

Another summer the device of choice was a metal hoop approximately ten inches in diameter that we rolled along with a special stick. The stick was about three feet long and shaped like an inverted T. The top of the T was at the far end of the stick to keep the hoop upright and rolling.

So, back then the Sunday School picnic was exciting and added novelty and pleasure to the summer. It was one of the most important events of the season for us.

One summer the picnic was held at Woodlawn Park beside the Souris River. The Park was in a wide, shallow valley and was two miles straight south of Estevan. It had swings, and teeter-totters, and a place to swim. On the bank of the river — which I remember as little more than one hundred feet wide — there was a diving board and in the middle of the river a raft, easily reached by swimmers. On a hot afternoon swimmers bobbed and splashed like corks around this raft.

The river and the park, set in a large grove of trees, was exceptional for the Prairies, and made an appealing setting for a picnic. It was like the gathering of a large family there. Some were enticed to come who only seldom attended church .

There were games (like three-legged, and gunny sack races) and other contests to try the skills of all ages. And there was pick-up softball. This was for the older kids and young adults.

There were things to laugh at – like the grunting, sweating, red-faced contestants who gave their all in an attempt to win the tug-of-war. Or the girls who fell in a heap while attempting to hop to the goal line with legs confined in a gunny sack. Even sedentary onlookers cheered as racers, each balancing an egg delicately on the bowl of a tablespoon, headed past them for the finish line.

Despite the hard times of the 1930s the food was good though simple. And the open air and brisk activity awakened hearty appetites. The minister prayed and we then pitched in. At the end of the afternoon we had ice cream which almost by itself made the event memorable.

It still seems to me that a picnic can do something for the church community that more spiritual activities can’t. That’s not to disparage services like prayer meetings. Each has its place. But, looking back, I would say that an event such as a picnic makes its own contribution to church life. Many become involved. The people mingle and bond in the outdoors. And the joy of believers eating together in God’s great out-of-doors refreshes both body and soul.

Children and younger people especially get two distinct benefits. It is good for children to make vertical connections to those younger and older. For healthy social development children need more than pals and buddies their own age. They need social interaction with the middle aged, the parents of their friends, even their chums’ grandparents.

And children benefit from being recognized by name in an embracing community, even chatted with by people of all ages. This helps them to become comfortable with their place in community. They belong. What could contribute better than a church picnic to their healthy social development in a positively Christian setting?

Maybe picnics such as I went to wouldn’t work today. But plan one like I’ve described here, and I’ll be there! Just don’t ask me at this point in my life to take part in the tug-of-war!

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The Little White Church on Third Street – Part 4

(Not the actual church.)

(Fourth in a series of reflections on the church of my boyhood)

I’m aware that childhood recollections become distorted with the passing of time. In memory, hills become higher than they actually were, people taller, big black dogs scarier, and happy moments more enthralling with the advance of years.

At the same time, for all of us there were moments of childhood that were so riveting –- either for better or for worse –- that they seem to be reasonably trustworthy memories, however far into our past they take us. It’s with those two realities playing against each other that I recollect events centered around the little white church on Third Street in my home town of Estevan, Saskatchewan.

My memory of the ministers of that period is, I think, reasonably clear. I can name several of them without turning to any reference material. There were C.B. Garrett (whom I believe I remember when he was a district elder and visited Estevan), D.S. Wartman, a Rev. McGugan, a Rev. Benny Smith, and a Rev. Ansel Summers. Tenure of ministers back then was quite short.

When I was four or five, and as the congregation was leaving the Sunday morning service, I recall that at the door Rev. Garrett bent down to me, shook my hand and asked, “Donnie, do you love Jesus?” Who could forget that? The Wartmans were noted for their meticulous attire when in public — he always dressed in a black suit, a white starched shirt, a black tie, and well-shined black shoes; she in a black dress with a white collar. I’ve heard since that in those hard times suits got shiny from long wear. Even so, they kept their public attire impeccably neat and clean.

I remember Rev. McGugan (note the Irish name) for his unusual allusions when preaching. I recall his saying, “Some people are so low they could walk under a snake’s tail with a high-top hat on.” Or, “Some person could no more sing than a whipperwill could tune a banjo.” Why would that sort of thing lodge in a child’s mind? I have no recollection of what his sermons were about.

Rev. Ben Smith was from England which it seemed to me gave him special status. I was entering adolescence. His English accent made what he was saying seem important. As a boy, I remember only one thing he said. It was said in humor about a person that was so tight that “he could squeeze a nickel until the kings head had lockjaw.” (King George V was reigning sovereign at the time and his image was on one face of the five-cent-piece.)

Rev. Ansel Summers was near retirement when he was assigned to Estevan. I remember he was a happy man with frizzy white hair. His petite wife’s hair was a radiant white with a slight tinge of blue. She was quite lame because she had been stricken with polio before good medicines for the condition were available. She had a radiant countenance. It was she who invited me to the altar the night I was converted.

What I recall in general about these men is that they were earnest and they preached with passion. Given the severe limitations of the times they must have been filling the pastoral role out of a strong sense of calling. Seventy-five years ago on the Prairies they had no ministers’ pensions to look forward to.

As I try to compress into a montage my cherished but spotty memories of my church experiences when I was from five- to fifteen-years-of-age, especially with regard to the ministers of those years, here’s what I come up with: I remember those ministers best and with warmth who seemed most aware of my existence. I know now from decades of experience that some ministers have a greater knack at paying attention to children than others.

I remember also that I was taught to regard ministers with respect because they were important persons in my life and the life of the community. I think regard for authority figures was more pronounced then than now.

Perhaps my best recollection from those years is that the ministers made the Gospel of salvation clear. It was a simple gospel. I learned early that little boys do bad things for which they need forgiveness. Sometimes this created heavy conscience issues. I learned that Jesus had paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to cancel out my sins. Perhaps this was also brought home or at least enhanced by the very simple “flannel-grams” used in Sunday School. But it was preached too. I learned that I had the freedom to say “yes” or “no” to the gospel call but that each decision had long-term consequences. Freedom and responsibility were presented as heavy burdens to bear. I believe all this fed into my conversion at 16-years-of-age.

The fact that I can recall these minister’s names and something important about them indicates that they made a significant impact on a growing child’s life. That must still be one important way to measure a minister’s effectiveness.

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