Repost: Reviewing Life’s Difficult Decisions from a Distance

Kay and I were 35 and serving a growing church in Western Canada back in the 1950s. After five years of rich ministry there we received an unsolicited phone call from a conference superintendent inviting us to come and serve a congregation in the mid-western United States. The church was a broad and challenging field of service and included large numbers of college students. He said that he and his committee were sure we were a match.

The invitation created conflict. We loved the people where we were and they loved us. The growth of the church was strong and exciting. We also loved the city and our children were settled in a good school. Why, then, might we accept? Because the challenge of this invitation also had its strong pull. I had even told a favorite professor while in seminary that I was interested in being a college pastor someday. Here, it seemed, was the opportunity.

Day after day I wrestled with the invitation. Kathleen did the same. We talked over the pros and cons. We committed the issue repeatedly to prayer. In the end, Kathleen entrusted the decision largely to me with one stipulation: our profoundly disabled son, John David, would not have to be moved. He was happily situated and well cared for in a nearby institution.

The dilemma we struggled with was not about furthering my career. I was ordained for a lifetime of ministry and we were trying to live out a calling — a vocation — not merely a career. The decision had to be in harmony with a divinely-approved plan. In our denomination a conference Ministerial Appointments Committee assigns ordained personnel to their place of service, while moving from one conference to another is more of a personal decision.

One morning I went from my study into the sanctuary of the church and knelt by a green pulpit chair. I had to decide. In that moment of anguish, with resolute finality, I believed I knew the answer. We would go. I told Kathleen. I phoned to inform the conference superintendent.

We weren’t prepared for what followed. When we told our congregation and leaders of our conference we became acutely aware of the strength of the bond between us. There was grieving to the point of tears on both sides. We felt forlorn and bereft, as did our congregation. I now question from a position of greater maturity: Could we have broken the news better? More gradually?

In my distress, I phoned the superintendent who had invited us. I told him I had given his committee my word and would not break it but asked if he would release me from my commitment. He would not, he said, because his Appointments Committee was counting on my coming. That closed the door with a thud.

My turmoil was so overwhelming that I walked the streets of our city seeking relief from a kind of deep suffering. Kay and I both lived with this anguish for several weeks.

Then, with the furniture we had put up for sale beginning to disappear, the reality of our move became tangible. Finally, on the day of our departure, two members of our congregation took us and our three children, Carolyn, 12, Donald, 9, and Robert, 7, to the train for our trip across Canada. We would stop a few days with family in Ontario and then enter the United States at Detroit to buy a used car there and start the 400-mile trek to our new field of service 250 miles south of Chicago.

We grieved painfully for at least a year: first for the loss of our beloved and lively congregation, then for the loss of an urban environment we had come to love and the beautiful landscape of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia ringed by mountains.

And it took us that same year to become comfortable with a less active college church congregation in a very different community. But we see all of this now as the inevitable stress of making a major change. And, painful though it was, we also see it as God’s will for us at that time.

That move began a thirteen-year ministry at a college center with many heart-to-heart interactions, many lifelong friendships, countless treasured memories, and numerous ministry connections and responsibilities locally, across the continent, and beyond. We still hear from people speaking of the help they received in their Christian journey during those years, or at this or that crucial time of decision. Some were students back then and now are grandparents living in retirement.

Knowing God’s will is a mysterious undertaking. As we pore prayerfully over the issues and dilemmas of life, we do not always arrive immediately at a sense of certainty that introduces calm and security. Sometimes, in fact, we only see clearly, weeks, months, or even years later, that we have made the right decision.

And it is some comfort to know that even when we must proceed without a clear answer to our prayers for guidance, or when in our humanity we choose less than the best path, our Lord can confirm our decision or redeem our blunders or missteps. His Spirit is available for every need, and his Providence is a great consolation to those who sincerely attempt to live in obedience to him by faith.

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Photo credit: deargdoom57 (via flickr.com)

How Family Values Dispelled the Shadows

On Tuesday, March 17, Kathleen and I got into the carefully packed Honda van of our daughter Carolyn and son-in-law Doug and headed south from our driveway in Brampton, Ontario. Daughter-in-law June followed close behind in her car carrying breakable items.

Kathleen and I were being driven to our first overnight in our new dwelling in Mississauga, Ontario — Walden Circle Retirement Centre.

This was according to a plan that had gradually formed out of many family conversations. Our children had done their research. Jan, Robert’s wife, and her siblings had recently moved their 92-year-old father into a similar community in Kingston run by the same organization; his move had proved successful.

During the prior several months, our children had discussed the possible move among themselves, and with us. They believed the time had come for us to give up the responsibilities of maintaining our home. Their recommendation was persistent but not pushy. The decision would be ours, they said, and if we chose to remain in Brampton, they would do what they could to help us keep up that living arrangement, though this did not appear to them the better option.

As we traveled southward along the busy highway — minutes behind the moving van carrying some of our furniture — we talked freely, though with periods of silence when it seemed a hundred thoughts jostled one another.

There is in all of us, to be sure, an age-related lack of appetite for major change, and especially so at age 94, the age my wife and I have reached. And there is less energy for the hundreds of decisions involved in selling a home and moving. We testify that to time-weary seniors it all seemed a daunting assignment. Why not rest in place?

But in discussions our children assured us that they would take over the whole momentous task though relying on our counsel for details. Their assurance that they would take over the sorting, dispersing to family, selling, and moving us was no empty promise. Three children and their spouses turned out to be an enterprising team. The energy they expended was amazing and tireless.

When we finally agreed to “take the plunge,” our daughter, Carolyn, became the manager of the project. She lived near us and ran countless errands. She and Doug, with initial input from Robert, helped us select and interview realtors, took us to appointments, and accommodated the questions of others who came and went. Doug was the packer and advisor to keep us intact with the world via cable and internet.

Daughter-in-law June volunteered to find the buyers for whatever furniture and furnishings were to be sold. She had skill and experience in this sort of task. As a bonus she bought and assembled by herself a simple transparent glass-like desk for me to use in our new setting.

Our son Don found professional movers, oversaw one or two electronic glitches with grandson Jonathan Gonyou, took on the task of dispersing my many books and helped get the house ready for closing. Robert and Janice had found the specific Mississauga community that would suit our needs and were invested in the details of the move by telephone.

All of this energy and consultation diminished our apprehensions a little at a time and smoothed our path. Praise God for their every contribution. Our God is the giver of every perfect gift right down to the energy to attempt hard tasks. Facing the task pushed us toward shadow land, but family values, in full display, have dispelled the shadows.

Memories that Awaken Great Gratitude 

Kay and I look back on our 72-year journey together with wonder and amazement.

For five of our first eight years I was a full-time student and she, a teacher, was a staunch supporter of my ongoing education.

Both aged 21, Kathleen and I took up residence as newlyweds in a one-room apartment across the Queen Elizabeth Highway from Lorne Park College, a denominational school west of Toronto. It is no longer extant, but its mission has been redirected into the Lorne Park Foundation.

I was an LPC student, attending for two reasons: to catch up on some needed academic credits, and also to take voice lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, eleven miles into the city.

After six months as a married couple I was invited to work part-time for the college while still taking classes. The back seat of our rusted 1933 Ford easily held everything we owned to make the relocation a half mile or so along the QE going west. That introduced us to the ground-floor apartment below the boys’ dormitory.

Kay and I agreed that I would have to finish at least a bachelor’s degree after leaving Lorne Park College. This would be necessary in order to feel qualified for any kind of a ministry assignment, whether as a singer (my ambition at the time) or youth speaker.

Kay, who came from a family that valued education, shared my concern deeply, so we began looking hopefully at Free Methodist denominational colleges in the USA.

Then, something unusual happened. Early in August a former LPC classmate named Jim phoned to say he was taking his girlfriend back to Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois, and invited me to go along.

It would be a 1300-mile round trip — two days to travel and one day on campus. Kay approved the idea, and I gladly accepted the offer.

The Greenville campus was deathly quiet that August of 1951, but with gentle promptings from a professor friend, Watson Tidball, I fell in love with the place.

Before leaving to return to Ontario and with no way to run this by Kathleen, I made a snap decision that we would return to GC a few weeks later. I felt so sure of her likely response that, before leaving the GC campus to return to Canada, I rented an upstairs apartment for us.

I arrived back from the visit to announce enthusiastically to Kay that we were going to Greenville. This sounds impulsive, I’m sure, but if decisions are judged by their outcomes it was one of the best of our shared life.

At first Kay was understandably startled by the thought of such a sudden shift, but she quickly agreed to the plan and pitched in to prepare for the move.

Everything seemed to be in place for going except a financial plan. My tuition would be covered partly by a scholarship from Canada. But finances for basic living were another matter. In the late 1940s money was scarce even for the best of planners and hardest of workers.

But I thought that in the Greenville area I would be invited to sing or speak in churches or youth groups just as was happening in Ontario. I learned too late that it would take a few months to become known in a new area. We would be nearly destitute during those first few months.

Nevertheless, we sold our car and packed all our belongings in a second-hand steamer trunk, sending it on ahead by rail. We said our farewells and, with our three-year-old daughter, Carolyn, and our yet-to-be-born second child, Don, we rode a Greyhound bus the 200 miles to Detroit where we bought a used Ford and drove the additional 400 miles to Greenville in Central Illinois.

We arrived in Greenville just after the noon hour. The apartment was awaiting us — unfurnished. In top gear, by nightfall I had bought a used refrigerator, bed, dresser, and kitchen table and chairs — all second-hand.  Watson and a friend of his lugged the big items up the outside stairway into the apartment for us.

Two years later and two months before graduation another surprise burst upon us: The Dean of Free Methodist students at Asbury Seminary, Dr. Curry Mavis, was on the Greenville campus and sought me out to tell me of an available student pastorate that would make a seminary education possible, culminating in a Master of Divinity degree. He was urgent. Up to that moment, Kay and I had not thought of seminary training as in any way possible.

Carrying “our” precious bachelor’s degree and now three young children (Robert having joined us six weeks earlier), we moved to Lexington Kentucky, 300 miles to the southeast. There we managed to begin our seminary experience while living in two rooms of a grand old, until-then vacant house that was being restored into apartments (with no indoor heating except the kitchen oven as cold weather began to threaten).

Four months in that building plus two more moves into low-income housing saw our little family cared for while I shared rides for the twenty miles to the seminary three times a week for three years. Kay’s unwavering support and care for the children enabled me to complete three years of seminary work and graduate better prepared to understand the gospel in greater depth and proclaim it while caring for God’s people. My graduation was a hallelujah occasion.

At age 94, we look back with amazement across the decades, still rejoicing at the providences that opened before us, as they outweigh by far the inevitable hard times and disappointments that turned up often enough along the way. We give hearty thanks to God for his mercies and feel deep gratitude as well to family, teachers and professors, church leaders, parishioners, colleagues, and friends who have cheered us on to a fulfilling life of pastoral ministry.

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A Moving Experience

Son Don was kind enough to send this out to family and friends this week, and I thought I would share it with you, as Kay and I get settled in our new surroundings.

This note is to let you know about our parentsrecent move 40 minutes away from their home in Brampton, ON, to an apartment in the Walden Circle Retirement Community, Mississauga. The apartment includes a main room, a bedroom, and a den. Currently, their food is brought to them, because, courtesy of the Coronavirus scare, and the fact that they have come from outside, they are in isolation for two weeks. (I joked with them that they were under house arrest like Saint Paul in Rome, but with better room service.) 

My siblings and I are pleased that Mom and Dad are now in a safer and less isolated place. After their incarceration,” they will be able to take part in many activities and meet new friends. There is even a kitchen area where Mom can bake her wonderful bread, if she so chooses. Dad continues to work on his weekly blog, justcallmepastor.com, and both he and Mom keep in touch online and by phone with their children, seven grandchildren (plus six more by marriage), and thirteen great-grandchildren.

This move brings Mom and Dad full circle. Their first home after their wedding in 1947 was one room over a garage in nearby Port Credit, across the QEW from where they are now. Dad was attending Lorne Park College, a Free Methodist Bible school/high school. From Lorne Park they moved to Greenville, Illinois; Wilmore, Kentucky; New Westminster, BC; back to Greenville; Toronto; and then Brampton. Furthermore, the chair in Wesley Studies in their name at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto is funded by the Lorne Park Foundation, which is what the school became after closing in 1966.

Mom and Dad have had several health challenges over the past few years but did extremely well to live independently in their own home up to 94 years of age and are looking forward to getting to know their new community.

Re-post: An Exchange of Smiles at Walmart

It was mid-afternoon and I was pushing my grocery cart toward the exit of Walmart when a middle-aged woman entering the store flashed me a big smile. I suddenly realized that I had been smiling at some pleasant thought and she must have thought I was smiling at her. Or perhaps she was just saying she was happy, too.

My observation is that not much smiling goes on in grocery stores. After all, there’s a lot to think about while shopping, like comparing the costs of two brands of paper towels or two different grades of eggs, or checking the calorie count of whole-grain Cheerios. And while you are doing all this, you have to make sure your grocery cart doesn’t get in the way of other shoppers.

(Someone should do a study about smiles in a grocery store. What percentage of shoppers smile at fellow shoppers in any one afternoon? What is most likely to prompt smiles? Do people who smile spend more or less money on average? Some pollster could figure out how to frame the questions. Anyhow, news reports citing such statistics would be a welcome relief from the poll results for presidential hopefuls we are treated to daily.)

Maybe an additional reason I don’t smile enough when I work my way down a shopping list in the grocery store is that grocery shopping is a relatively new experience for me. I’m still awkward at it. I’ve taken it up only since retiring and I’m not as patient and discriminating about it as Kathleen is. I sometimes bring the wrong thing home (like apple juice instead of apple cider vinegar).

Back when I was an assigned pastor I had a self-imposed rule that I would not run errands like grocery shopping during working hours. Some of my pastor friends thought this was too rigorous but I had a reason. During working hours I was on duty. I knew that the high-school principal couldn’t take time off during the day to slip away to a grocery store for a couple of items she forgot the night before. And the vice-president of the bank couldn’t slip out for half an hour to get a dozen eggs. These people were on duty. Why shouldn’t working pastors consider themselves on duty also?

It is true that a pastor’s work sometimes beckons during hours when others are finished for the day. Even so, it may not appear professional to parishioners that their pastor is pushing a shopping cart at 10 a.m.

The context of my self-imposed regulation during pastoral days was my strong work ethic — not a slavish one, not a compulsive one, but one exercised with a robust joy in making time count and in letting my people know that I took my assignment seriously.

That same thought brings me joy in setting myself a working schedule during retirement years — though one not so rigorous — and that may well be why I was smiling as I headed out of Walmart.

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Photo credit: Rupert Taylor-Price (via flickr.com)

A Mistake or Providence?

Although the word “providence” is itself not a word in the Bible, we use the term generally to reflect God’s loving care of the universe he has created and which he continues to sustain.

But as laypersons we also use the term in specific and personal ways. We use it to speak of God’s extraordinary gracious interventions in our lives.

Take, for example, the story of Ruth in the Old Testament, told in the book named after her. She was a Moabite, widowed from her Israelite husband. She insisted on relocating to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi.

As a result of her decision, she eventually married Boaz, and the two of them became the grandparents of David, king of Israel. Her story shows that bad things may happen (Ruth’s widowhood and alienation), but providentially they may also lead to good consequences.

A story I heard a while ago reflects events that were alarming yet turned out to bless wondrously.

As the story goes, on a certain Saturday night a pastor was working late at his church. He decided to call his wife before leaving for home. It was about 10 p.m., but his wife didn’t answer the phone.

The pastor let the phone ring many times. He thought it was odd that she didn’t answer, but decided to wrap up a few details and then try to phone again a few minutes later.

When he tried again, his wife answered after the first ring. He asked why she had failed to answer earlier. She said that the phone had been quiet all evening. They agreed that it must have been a fluke.

The following Monday the pastor received a phone call at the church office. It came in on the phone he had used the previous Saturday night. The call was from a stranger who wanted to know why the pastor had called on Saturday night.

The pastor was puzzled until the caller said, “My phone rang and rang Saturday night but I didn’t answer it.” The pastor remembered calling his wife and realized he must have called the wrong number.

The man interrupted the pastor’s explanation, “That’s okay,” he said. “Let me tell you my story. You see, I was planning to commit suicide on Saturday night, but before I did I prayed, ‘God, if you’re there, and you don’t want me to do this, give me a sign now.’” At that point my phone started to ring. I looked at the caller ID, and it said, ‘Almighty God.’ I was afraid to answer!”

The reason it showed “Almighty God” on the man’s caller ID was that the church the pastor was serving was called Almighty God Tabernacle.

Was that “wrong number call” just a coincidence or a providential interruption to show grace to the caller? My readers can ponder and decide…

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Photo credit: Dejan Krsmanovic (via flickr.com)

The Light Is Shining, the Memories Are Bright

December 19, 2019

Dear Family and Friends Near and Far:

Christmas greetings in the name of God’s Incarnate Son. He came to bring the light of salvation to this sin-darkened world. He is the focus of our Christmas celebrations!

Five days earlier than Christmas Day Kathleen and I will celebrate our 72nd wedding anniversary. It is not our custom to celebrate lavishly, but we will recall together the providence by which the Lord has guided and protected us over this long stretch.

We are still in our own home in Brampton, Ontario. Doug and Carolyn live two blocks away and are wonderfully attentive, Don and June are across the huge metropolis of Greater Toronto and they keep in touch with us by phone, email, and their visits. Whenever I request it June makes a long drive to pick me up to convey me to Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church in Toronto for Sunday service.

Bob and Jan are in Downers Grove, Illinois, working hard at Bastian Voice Institute. They and their two married children, Zach (wife Lisa) and Charis (husband Ben) call regularly and send us pictures of three thriving little ones. Beside our seven grandchildren we now have thirteen great-grandchildren.

Our son John David is well cared for in a group home in Surrey, BC.

Why do I go to church alone? In recent months Kathleen has not been making the trip because of spinal problems. This makes walking any distance difficult. She gets around our home with a stair lift plus a rollator on the main floor and a second one upstairs.

But she is still the lovely lady I have lived with and loved for more than 72 years. The high point of our days is our morning worship together after breakfast. Sometimes it’s almost like going to church, but we would prefer to go to church together and we hope that day will come again.

To give Kathleen a break, I’m able to produce a simple, healthful breakfast for us, and often a similar evening meal. Kathleen, true master of the kitchen, prepares our primary noon meal. Daughter Carolyn often sends up enticing food.

For ten years I have been writing a weekly blog published on Monday mornings. On its way it goes for a check-up to insightful sons Robert and Don. Here’s the address: justcallmepastor.wordpress.com. It’s a small effort to spread the light of Christ and it keeps my mind active. I am thankful for the help of a large computer screen, large print Bible, and magnifying lights.

In October we went with Doug and Carolyn to Robert and Jan’s home in Downers Grove. It was intended to be a five-day visit counting travel time. Sensing something wasn’t quite right, Lisa (cardiology nurse practitioner) arranged for me to see two different cardiologists.

The result was a near-emergency and very high-tech replacement of my aortic valve. What a difference in my energy and movement! Robert also took me to a hearing specialist and I came away days later with much better hearing aids that have reconnected me to society. The visit of five days in Downers Grove turned out to last three weeks.

It seems unbelievable that I’ve been retired from active ministry in the church for 26 years. But I’ve kept busy. Until the last few years I had preaching invitations. I have also written two books. Until about three years ago I had the privilege of teaching a large Bible class at Light and Life Park, in Florida. What wonderful memories Kathleen and I have of our many winters in Lakeland!

We are deeply grateful to God for all of the days of our lives. Christmas brings the memories to the fore. Anniversaries do also. God’s mercies to us are countless! And each day we review the Gospel, listening to it afresh and sharing it as opportunity permits.

And for our friends we also give warm thanks. The light of this life is fading but we are not walking in darkness; we have the light of life — the Risen Christ!

The Bastians, Don and Kay

A Love That Is Still Fresh … 73 Years and Counting

While sorting through some of my papers recently I came across this poem celebrating young love. I wrote it several years ago. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I still feel this way about Kathleen after 73 years of marriage.

Found

You found me.
Or was it I found you?
Whatever.
We are found.

It was gradual, it was instant,
Enticing, teasing, surprising.
Our finding overtook us, came upon us
Slyly, gently, with a rush.

But was it luck? freakish? odd?
Mere nature acting out?
No, more, much more.

The hand that guides us,
God’s hand, touched us,
Nudged us gently in sleep-robbed night,
Shed light on eyes deeper than sight,
And said found!

And now we stand side by side,
Hearts pounding, eyes aglow from candles near,
Hand touching hand gently,
And say with awe:
God be praised!
We have found each other!

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Photo credit: RichardBH (via flickr.com)

My Father’s Heavenly Tenor Voice

Music figured prominently in the worship of the small congregation where I grew up, even though all singing was a cappella — without musical accompaniment.

Visualize a white clapboard Norman Rockwell sort of building in Saskatchewan back in the 1930s and 40s.

Children sang simple songs, still meaningful to this day:

Jesus loves me! this I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak but He is strong.

On Sunday mornings, the congregation used hymn books without printed music. In spite of this limitation, traces of bass or alto might be heard rising here and there, and the singing was full-throated.

To begin Sunday-morning worship the pastor might call the congregation to stand and sing and they would respond with conviction.

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!

On Sunday evenings we sang gospel songs from a book entitled Worship in Song. It had a variety from simple choruses to the more complex gospel song that I remember began:

Wonderful grace of Jesus,
Greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it,
Where shall its praise begin?

Lines from some of these Christian songs remain with me even at age 94. They linger in my memory and may come forth spontaneously at any moment of the day.

One song, along with the circumstance in which I heard it, is etched indelibly in my mind. It was a song I heard my father sing.

My father attended morning and evening Sunday services with my mother and younger sister and me although he was not at the time a full-fledged believer. He honored Gospel values although at times he struggled to give himself fully to a faith in the Lord Jesus that brings deliverance.

Still, by the grace of God, one Sunday evening his hunger to belong to the Lord compelled him to “go forward” to the altar. It was his turning point.

The next morning I awakened very early to the sound of his stirring up the coal-fired cook stove in the kitchen. I slept in the adjoining room. As he fed the fire, I heard him singing in a lovely tenor voice that I don’t think I was aware of before that time.

It was a new song on the market with a line about Jesus calling a blind man to him and delivering him of his blindness. My father’s singing was beautiful to hear.

It was a simple song that I believe rose up like a tendril of worship from a humble kitchen until it was heard at the Throne and became part of the music of the spheres.

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Photo credit: Rory (via flickr.com)

A Renewed Heart, Full of Thanksgiving

Last week I shared that I was scheduled for a high-tech, trans-arterial replacement of a critically malfunctioning heart valve. The doctors threaded a delivery catheter through my blood vessels to deploy a new valve inside the top of my heart.

Thanks be to God, that procedure went very well, last Monday morning. After two days, I was released from hospital to be with Kathleen at Robert and Janice’s home, along with daughter Carolyn and grandchildren Zachary (Lisa) and Charis (Ben).

Recovery has been rapid and I feel tremendously better than I have for a very, very long time. I feel “repaired” and renewed. Energy I had not had for a year or two is returning, and my family tell me I look better than I have in several years.

My “spiritual heart” is overflowing with thanksgiving for a return to health. Equally… I am profoundly moved by the many expressions of support and the prayers on my behalf. My extended family and many friends in Toronto, Greenville (Illinois), Florida, and in the Free Methodist Church more broadly have been extraordinarily generous to me during this time.

After routine postoperative visits this week, we are planning to return to Canada next weekend. And I plan to resume my weekly blog the week after that.