Where Do Babies Come From?

When I was growing up back in the thirties and early forties of the last century adults did not talk to little children about where babies come from. Society was still quite Victorian.

If there had been a birth, a tiny infant would just turn up in a mother’s arms at church. Children were of course curious but were discouraged from asking questions, and simple answers were not offered.

If a child did ask where babies come from there was always the story of the stork with a baby wrapped in a diaper suspended from its beak. Storks made the deliveries. We children knew very early that it was just a made-up story.

I recall coming in from play one day when I was seven and finding my much older married sister, Ruby, sitting with my mother in our living room.

Mid-afternoon visits were not common so on the side I asked Mother why she was here. I was told her ankles were swelling and Dr. Creighton was coming to see her. That was all. Not many weeks after that I learned that she had a baby and that, at my young age, I was an uncle. It was all so mysterious.

Like any child I had a natural curiosity about such mysteries so I worked out my own theory. For one thing, I noted that it was usually the mother who carried the infant into our little church on a Sunday.

I learned also by listening guardedly to adult conversations that the baby’s existence was in some way connected to the mother’s recent visit to the little hospital on Fifth Street.

So, here was my theory: When a woman goes to the hospital for any reason, after she gets well and is about to be discharged, the hospital gives her a baby to take with her. I saw it as a going away gift that she could keep. I never went so far as to address the preceding question of where the white-clad nurses got the babies to give away in the first place.

My explanation satisfied me for a while and then it fell apart. Mae Darion was a single woman who worked for our family. At one point she was admitted to the hospital on Fifth Street for an undisclosed reason. Meanwhile, Mrs. Elliott from the west end of town was also admitted.

Both Mae Darion and Mrs. Elliott were discharged about the same time. But as I listened in on adult talk I learned that the hospital gave Mrs. Elliott two babies and Mae Darion none. I didn’t think that was a fair distribution of prizes. My theory collapsed.

I don’t think I was greatly cheated by being kept in the dark about these fundamentals of life in my earlier years. There was plenty of time in growing up to fill in the blanks and get a sensible understanding of reproductive processes.

Yet, unfortunately, children who aren’t instructed by adults near them may be driven by their curiosity to gather information from less trustworthy sources on the playground — sometimes helpful but usually crass.

This whole subject is in my thoughts these days because three days ago two of our grandchildren, Robyn and Richard, journeyed home from a Toronto hospital with a beautiful baby girl — Naomi Grace Junko Hicken. Two older brothers, Joshua (seven) and Alexander (four), had been well prepared and received Naomi joyfully even before parents and baby left the hospital.

In the weeks before Naomi’s arrival, Robyn tells me, there were plenty of questions, especially from the four-year-old. This was one of them:What was I before I was born? Was I air?” Robyn gave age-appropriate answers to this and other questions, but always made the point that all human life is from a God who loves us even before we are born and always will love us.

We have recently welcomed two more great- grandchildren, Isabel Grace Bastian and Eleanor Jane Ellis, and are already eager to welcome another at the end of the summer. In the months that follow, for Joshua, Alexander, and eventually Isabel and Eleanor, there will be many more curious questions for parents to answer.

And while we respond to the flow of down-to-earth questions little children ask about the biological origins of human life we must be sure to help them to ask and receive the fundamental God-is-our-creator answer that undergirds all others.

When the prophet, Jeremiah, announced his call to the prophetic office he began with the word as he had heard it from God: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5a). What security that assurance gives to young or old who embrace it — God created us, loves us, and knows us altogether!

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Photo credit: R Hicken

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Something Wonderful Happened After a Doctor Phoned a Pastor

The phone call (several decades ago now) was from a doctor, a member of the congregation I was pastoring. He had just informed his patient, Cedric (not his real name), that there was no treatment — neither surgery nor medications — to arrest his advanced bone cancer metastases.

After breaking the news gently to Cedric the doctor had asked if he would like to see a pastor and Cedric, somewhat shaken, had replied yes, so the doctor was phoning me to make an appointment for him.

But when the time for the appointment came, Cedric did not show up. I was not surprised. I had learned a bit more about him and thought prayer with a pastor was one of the last things he would have been interested in.

He and two other unmarried brothers lived on a farm a few miles from town. The three were reclusive and I learned that they wouldn’t have seen the inside of a church more than a half dozen times in their lives. I asked a church member who knew the area well if I should I go to the farm to look him up. He advised me not to.

But a few weeks later during a visit to another church member in the hospital, I saw Cedric’s name on the patient list near the entrance. He was in room five in the bed nearest the door.

When I introduced myself I could see he recognized who I was. There he lay, the head of his bed raised slightly and a Bible open and face down across his chest.

We conversed briefly about the words he had been reading from John’s Gospel, and before I left him I asked if he would like to open his heart to the Lord Jesus. He nodded in the affirmative, so I prayed a short prayer of repentance and faith, which he repeated after me.

It was my custom, after I had visited with two or three parishioners, to sit in the car in the parking lot for a few moments to review in my mind each visit before driving away.

That day I had mixed feelings about my visit with Cedric. I didn’t even know him, nor he me. Why didn’t I make the first visit just a friendship visit ending with a short prayer? Had I been too hasty? Was he really ready for that new believer’s prayer? I was hard on myself.

But a day or so later when I visited him again I could tell he was waiting for me to come. That began, as I recall, a string of visits across two months, as his body wasted away. First he was moved to a single-occupant room. Then, as his condition advanced, he was placed on a Stryker frame.

It became evident to me that, in that initial prayer weeks before, he had experienced God’s love and forgiveness. Due to his weakness, our visits were short, but they were enriching to both of us.

One day as I approached him I asked, “What are you thinking about these days, Cedric?” He responded matter of factly, “I’m thinking about dying.” That prompted a short but faith-enriching conversation. He obviously had the assurance of eternal life through a living faith in Christ.

The next time I saw him he said, “I would like to be baptized.” I replied that I would come back the next day to do this. There was a reason for one-day delay. In a close-knit community I wanted to be sure I was the main pastor if not the only pastor ministering to him. I didn’t want to invade another pastor’s territory for church services.

On my next visit, I said to a nurse, “Cedric tells me he wants to be baptized.” She understood immediately and provided me with a small basin. Then she offered a white towel, saying, “You may use this to wipe any excess water from his head.”

There the two of us were alone in the room, one strapped to a Stryker frame, the other holding a small basin of water. There was no instrumental music, no congregational singing. After a few words of instruction I raised my voice slightly and said, “Cedric, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I wiped the excess water from his forehead. After a short prayer I left him.

The next day I made my last visit. As I bent over his bed he said in little more than a dying whisper, “Yesterday was the most wonderful day in my life.” He was referring to his baptism.

I had Cedric’s funeral. His brothers were there. I told his story. I expect to see Cedric again.

Photo credit: nerissa’s ring (via flickr.com)

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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 flickr.com)

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How Powerful Are Genes and Family Influence?

I lost both parents 52 years ago this past Christmas season. My mind travels back to ponder ways I am like them due to the genes we share and my long exposure to their influence throughout childhood and youth.

As a young man, I was not wise enough to ask my parents many questions and write their answers down to save family lore. But their children (three older siblings, a ten-year lapse, and then me and my younger sister, Eunice) retained enough insights to patch together often-repeated highlights of their early days.

As well, Carol, our niece by marriage, has shown keen interest in our family history and her research has added to what we know.

My parents came to Canada from Lancashire, England, choosing to settle on the sparsely populated prairies in the West. My father arrived alone in 1904, one year before Saskatchewan was declared a province.

Imagine the resolve and courage my father and mother must have shown. At 20 years of age and not long married, Dad left my mother behind, boarded a ship in Liverpool, and sailed across the vast Atlantic Ocean to Halifax at the eastern ship approach to the young country of Canada.

In Halifax he boarded a train of turn-of-the-twentieth-century vintage and endured what must have seemed an endless journey of two thousand miles into something like oblivion—the unknown and largely unsettled prairies of Western Canada.

He landed in Roche Percee, where there was a developing coal mine in the southeastern region of what was about to be incorporated as the Province of Saskatchewan. His design was to put his coal-mining skills to work and thus provide for the arrival and support of his wife, Esther Jane (née Millington). She was able to join him five months later.

He had good reason to begin his life in Canada as a coal miner, because back in England at fourteen years of age he had been taken into the Lancashire coal mines to work full time with his father. This was permitted by law, and so by the age of 20 he was well qualified, having spent stretches of six years underground, digging coal.

Although he had completed only five weeks of schooling before being taken out of school permanently, he soon graduated from coal mining in Saskatchewan to become a market gardener and later a merchant. In today’s parlance we would say he had no education at all and few “marketable skills.” But he had ideas and vision and endurance.

He was also intensely motivated. This showed to the end of his life. Hard work was a challenge, not an insult or imposition. I remember him as restless, always moving, thinking of other possibilities. To the best of my knowledge he wanted to get out of the rut of the working poor. It was that, I believe, more than anything else that pointed them toward Canada.

His behavior and interesting brogue never let his family forget that he was a Lancastrian by birth and acculturation. In one sentence he might speak of the ’air on his ’ead. In the next his subject might be the hair in the hatmosphere. He never confused the patterns.

For my mother’s later journey to join him she had the association of some other family members. But she also had the added challenge of an ocean storm that kept the ship rolling in rough seas and the passengers secured below deck for several days. Then she had to face the same tedious railroad journey into the far reaches of the developing Dominion of Canada.

My mother’s family also was poor but she had a certain sense of propriety in her manner. She was the disciplinarian of our home. She had the notion that children should obey always never be “cheeky” with adults, and believed that laziness was an offense and would be sure to lead to the poorhouse. She read the Bible to us daily and I think that’s where she got some such ideas.

As immigrants from England to Western Canada, they had no savings to fall back on and no family behind them to rescue them. They knew that if they were ever to come to a place of reasonable security it would be by their own ingenuity and hard work.

I look back on their homesteading venture as noble. They were not complainers, but occasionally they gave us glimpses into how exacting their pioneering life had been. Once my mother spoke of a time of drought early in their days in Canada when she walked three miles across the prairies to the nearest neighbor to exchange turnips for a few carrots so there could be some variety in their diet. All of this helps me to understand why they lived so frugally right up to the end of their lives.

When I think of the early chapters of their lives as immigrants I am filled with awe at their courage and determination to establish themselves in the New World. They both lived to be 83. With a few weeks more than six years of education between them, they established themselves as self-supporting, responsible citizens.

If they were alive today they would blush to learn that I write this way. They were humble people, aware of their imperfections and those of their offspring. But God had put in them a flame of energy to achieve and they exercised it with a will. I treasure their heritage.

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Photo credit: foundin_a_attic (via flickr.com)

The Picture on Our Dresser and the Memories It Awakens

On the dresser in our bedroom stands the only professional picture Kathleen and I have from our wedding 71 years ago this coming December 20. In this black and white photo, we stand before the photographer’s backdrop, Kathleen’s gloved hand firmly clasping my arm. Often, when I’m in the bedroom I pick the picture up and ponder it with gratitude and amazement.

Imagine: two 21-year-olds launching a lifetime enterprise on shoestring resources but strong in their love for each other and confident God would lead them. At that time, easy divorce, living together unmarried and same-sex marriage, had not yet complicated the matrimonial landscape.

Our special day was in no way lavish. If in color the picture would show Kathleen in a brown satin dress, half-calf in length, with a corsage of eight talisman roses. I wear a dark blue suit with a white boutonniere at the lapel.

The wedding was in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in the home of Muriel, Kathleen’s sister. For the simple ceremony we stood under an arch that Mel, my best man, had tacked together from lathe I purchased at the lumberyard. The arch was brightened by colored streamers.

The simple ceremony was followed by a chicken dinner for the twelve who were present. Afterwards there was some merriment and teasing over the whereabouts of our suitcases. We had hidden them the day before in a locker at the railroad station. (Kathleen’s younger sister coaxed my best man to deliver up our secret and the key.) After we retrieved our sabotaged luggage from the locker we started for Toronto.

The 70 miles to Toronto was to be followed by a two-day train ride to Saskatchewan where I would introduce my bride to my parents, my younger sister and my older brother and his wife.

Unknown to us, however, additional family — two older sisters, their husbands and children — had decided to make the trip from British Columbia by car to meet the bride. This created a housefull. The number almost overwhelmed Kathleen but after a few minutes of family decorum mingled with ill-concealed curiosity, warm welcomes and affirmations were extended.

Imagine: a “honeymoon” composed of a two-day train ride there and back, plus a bride’s first introduction to a family, and this all set in a week of bone-chilling winter weather. But Kathleen and I had each other; we were together in a thrilling new bond. The Bible says, we were “one flesh,” a new unit in society. As I gaze at the photograph the whole event comes flooding back.

It was universally thought back then that marriage would mean children and of that we were aware. But in those winter days that thought was remote because we were enthralled with our union pledged to be ours for keeps. That was as it should be.

Ten days before our first anniversary we welcomed our first child, Carolyn. Then in time came Donald and Robert and John David. During John David’s first year we learned bit by bit from a gentle pediatrician that our baby had serious brain damage, likely from oxygen deficiency during a long delivery. He would need institutional care.

There followed three stressful years for the family and especially for Kathleen whose motherly commitment to be sure John David got loving care was boundless to the point of exhaustion. Even feeding him three times a day was an ordeal. By his third birthday we surrendered him to the care of an institution suited to his needs, and we grieved.

Our other three children grew up and married. Then, in time, seven of their children grew up and six of them married. And by this coming spring, the grandchildren in turn will be at different stages of raising 12 great grandchildren.

Including children gained by marriage as well as by birth the two 21-year-olds pictured alone on our dresser will have become a small branch of humanity numbering 32 — three teachers, two editors, two engineers, two doctors, a pastor, a nurse practitioner, financial researcher, advertising clerk, financial consultant, nurse, artist, computer specialist, and social worker — each adding their own tone to the mix making family events colorful and pleasant.

I put this snapshot together hoping that it will come to the attention of some young man today who feels badgered by the pervasive anti-male and anti-marriage sentiments afloat in our culture. He may feel badgered even to the point of avoiding serious female companionship with a possible future in mind and in doing so he may be limiting the enrichment of his own destiny.

Consider a Christian perspective. Masculinity is much more than a social construct. It and fatherhood are gifts from God. As the Bible says, God created them “male and female.” We believe the gift is given to be directed, nourished and mastered and — if God wills — to be invested in a marriage and family filled with imagination and hope.

Photo credit: Ted Rabbitts (via flickr.com)

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A Few Words From My Wife, Kathleen (By Invitation)

When I married Don, I knew that he was heading toward some form of ministry as a life vocation, but I didn’t know for sure the specific form it would take. I knew only that he was a ministerial student and would have several years of education to finish.

I also knew from the start that I should support him in whatever work he felt called to do. That was the way most wives felt back in the forties of the last century.

I was a primary school teacher when we were married and he was a student and staff member at Lorne Park College west of Toronto, Ontario. After we lived there three-and-a-half years, we moved on to Greenville College in Illinois with our two-year-old daughter, Carolyn, so Don could finish his final two years of college. From there, we moved to attend Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, for another three years of education.

By then it was clear that the focus of his ministry was to be the pastorate. In fact, for his three years of seminary he was assigned to be pastor of the Free Methodist church in Lexington, nearby, and that’s when I got my first taste of what it meant to stand with him in that sort of ministry.

Besides caring for the three little children we had by then and taking as much of the burden of the household as I could to free him to study, I made myself available to teach Sunday School and often entertained seminary students on Sundays so they could canvass the community in the afternoon with my husband.

When we went to our second church, the Free Methodist church in New Westminster, British Columbia, I discovered what standing by my pastor husband really meant. He led the church in a growth spurt that meant new prospects most every Sunday, new programs to meet the needs of a growing congregation, and lots of social entertaining in our parsonage to get to know newcomers and otherwise promote fellowship and community.

One aspect of our experience stands out in my mind. We both worked hard at our assignment and my husband did lots of evening calling to follow up on new prospects and care for other pastoral duties. This usually involved two or three nights a week. During these times, I was at home alone with our four little children.

It wasn’t that we didn’t have time together. He was home for the noon and evening meals most days. We had simple, inexpensive, but good tenting vacations together with the children. We certainly were in touch with each other in the social life of the church.

But one night when my husband was out calling and I had put the children to bed and the house was quiet, I found myself wondering, “What is this all about anyway? I don’t like being alone so much in the evenings. There’s got to be more to life than this.” Television hadn’t yet arrived at our house.

After musing about this for some time I suddenly said to myself, “When I free my husband to be out doing the Lord’s work like this, I am really a part of that call he’s making. It is my ministry too.” That set my heart at rest. I never after that had the same feeling of personal deprivation about releasing him to work in the harvest field of the Lord.

And such mutual service has enriched our nearly 71 years together. The latter of them since our retirement have been progressively less public but still committed to service as opportunities have come.

Recently, after going through a file of thank you notes gathered across the years, I felt grateful to God for the privilege of ministering in this way.

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How Kathleen First Experienced God’s Holiness

My wife was seven years old and known as Kathleen Swallow, when her father died from complications after surgery. This left her widowed mother with six children, the seventh two months from birth, and the now-destitute family on a mortgaged farm in the dustbowl of Saskatchewan. It was 1933.

Her mother’s unmarried brother, Uncle Ossie, an engineer on the New York Railroad, wrote that if she would bring the family to Niagara Falls, Ontario, he would move from across the river in New York State and provide a home for them.

So, after going through the hectic details of auctioning off the farm while caring for an infant and six other children, this forlorn mother and children boarded a train for Ontario.

On that long and tedious trip a United Church missionary on board befriended the family. She was also traveling to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and volunteered that when the family was settled she would make sure they got to church.

Church had played no great role in the Swallow family on the prairies although occasionally in their rural community farmers arranged for the use of a one-room schoolhouse in order to attempt a simple service – a reading from the Bible and a few thoughts about that Scripture given by one of the men.

The missionary kept her word. When the family had settled in the dwelling provided by Uncle Ossie she came and took the five oldest of the seven children to the St. Andrews United Church where she herself attended.

Kathleen describes the experience as follows: After Sunday School all five were gathered up and led to the sanctuary where they sat quietly side-by-side waiting as the congregation formed.

To them, the church was a place of wonder, the large and beautiful sanctuary a new experience, so they waited in expectation.

The organist played softly as the congregation gathered. Worshipers entered and sat without conversation, waiting for the choir to appear in the the chancel.

The robed choir processed in and remained standing in the choir loft. The minister then entered, going directly to the central pulpit. Then the organ swelled, the congregation stood, and choir and congregation sang together,

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.

Holy, Holy, Holy, merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

She recalls that the service always followed this same sequence. And her response, she remembers, was the same each time -– she, by that time an eight-year-old — was awestruck and reverent as she was aware of God’s holy presence.

Kathleen recounted all of this to me one morning recently after breakfast when we read Psalm 99 together. That psalm brought back to her the never-to-be-forgotten sense of holy awe she felt at eight years of age in that Niagara Falls church.

Psalm 99 is about the kingship of God. He is king over all the earth so let the nations tremble, the psalmist proclaims (verse 1). Also, He extols, the king is mighty and he loves justice, (verse 4).

But what caught Kathleen’s and my attention as we read that morning was that amidst these elevated affirmations about God, the great king, the psalmist proclaims one particular attribute of our God and then repeats himself twice.

Of God, the eternal king, he declares: he is holy (verses 3, 5 and 9).

The word for holy or holiness occurs more than 830 times in the Old Testament. At core it means to be separate, or set apart. Applied to God, it signifies that he is separate from and transcendent over all his creation. To reflect this, some speak of the “otherness” of God.

Holiness is God’s quintessential attribute. He is all-knowing and merciful and all-powerful, for sure, but undergirding all God’s other attributes is his holiness.

When the Niagara Falls congregation sang, Holy, holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty the holiness of our God is what the hymn invoked in an eight year old. And that is what the eight year old experienced — though in an elementary way — but cannot forget 85 years later.

Photo credit: David (via flickr.com)

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