I could feel my heartbeat picking up. A couple of weeks earlier my family and I had moved to London, Ontario, where I was to begin as the Christian Reformed Campus Minister at Western University and Fanshawe College. It was the summer of 1995 and most students were not yet in class. From my office window I could see part of the university campus, the size of a small city. How was I going to have any voice in this huge institution? I asked myself.
The one answer that kept coming back to me was, Start by meeting the university president. I would have preferred a different answer, but there it was. Figuring that if I called to make an appointment it would be too easy for his assistants to put me at the bottom of whatever list they had, I decided to just go. That’s why the elevated heartbeat.
I flattered myself a little by recalling how the Apostle Paul couldn’t wait to meet the Roman emperor of his day. He was probably over the moon when he got an all expense paid ticket to Rome (Acts 25). However, I was no Paul, and of course, the president was no Caesar. Still.
Caesar probably didn’t have his staff pour afternoon tea for his visitors. That, though, is what awaited me as I was ushered into the president’s office. Soon we were talking about the relationship between public institutions and religion (a term I usually resist using when it comes to Christianity properly understood).
Since that time, it seems to me that other stories of mission in the Bible, like the account of Paul’s journey to the court of Caesar, have replayed in my life.
A bit of background before I say much about other replays. This background involves three minor miracles.
Around a decade ago, it was time for me to leave Christian Reformed ministry. For reasons that probably say more about me than about the church, ministry experiences in the denomination that ended well seemed to elude me. And each ending was very hard on my family.
By this time my wife and I had been living in Nova Scotia, my “home” province. She was a faculty member of Kingstec, a Nova Scotia Community College campus in the Annapolis Valley. Myself, I was at loose ends, looking for next steps.
The first of the three miracles saw me become the part time pastor of a small United Church. This was an irony because I don’t like the theology and polity of that denomination. But the people of Emmanuel United Church welcomed me for a wonderful nearly seven-year stay. We grew in number.
During that time, a second miracle: A Baptist Church in our community called me. (I was able to serve with the two churches at the same time.) This too was an irony because growing up in Calvin Christian Reformed Church and Calvin School, both in Dundas, Ontario – and both very good places – I had learned that one thing we were not (after Roman Catholic) was Baptist-Evangelical. Too much emphasis on free will, which, is somewhat true. Nevertheless I had five and half years of wonderful ministry with the caring people of Pereaux Baptist Church. I left, not because of any unhappiness. Rather, I needed to concentrate more on outreach and evangelism in “the Valley.”
During all those experiences I was a chaplain with the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, youth corrections. The third minor miracle was how I ended up walking through the doors of the Waterville Youth Centre, not by design but by chance. I was invited to chat for an hour with the deputy superintendent who, a year later, became my supervisor.
And now for the other replays. I didn’t like the correctional environment at first. To me it was intimidating. But I went ahead and shaped the ministry to the best of my ability. About three months into the work a youth asked me, “Chaplain Mike, can you baptize me in the pool?” I realized right away that I had to say two things. “Yes.” And, “Let me figure out how we are going to do that.”
I developed a six-part program called Introduction to Life and Faith: essentially covering three questions: What do God’s people believe? How do the followers of Jesus behave? And, what do God’s people do together? Plus a section on the meanings of baptism which are all connected with the God’s-people-going-through-water accounts in the Bible. Because over 110 youth went through the program, I’ve probably baptized more young people by immersion than any of my Baptist pastor friends in the region!
Here’s the thing. Isn’t this story of the youth who approach me for baptism another replay? This time the story that was re-manifested is the account of the Ethiopian official and his encounter with Philip outside Jerusalem close to twenty centuries ago (Acts 8).
I have heard convicted youth sing God’s praises hundreds of times in “jail” as I lead them in songs. Some make a point of telling me they sing them when they are on their own. One time two youths told me that they found a way to communicate between cells, which is against the rules, reading and talking about the Bible. (I haven’t told anyone.) Staff occasionally say to me, Your chapel is the only church I go to. Often I have the opportunity to support staff in their challenging roles. Again, isn’t this a replay of what Paul experienced while he was in prison? Singing praises with inmates when he was jailed and supporting the jailer who thought all his prisoners had escaped (Acts 16)?
One day I came to the realization that if you have been chased by the police, arrested, hauled into custody, interrogated, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced, then you have more in common with Jesus than I do. And there are probably as many killers and crooks in the Bible as there are saints. Often they are one and the same. Moses (second degree murder). David (conspiracy to commit murder). Matthew (collaborator). Not to mention prostitutes and scheming psychics. These are things I love sharing with the Ministers of Justice and their entourages when they pay visits to the youth centre.
Lean and nimble outreach
And lastly, concerning the new outreach work I alluded to: the Presbyterian Church in Canada has provided some funds to open an office and worship space in downtown Kentville, Nova Scotia. Once again, we seem to be re-enacting the script of others who have moved forward with God’s mission: The Apostles who journeyed where doors opened, likely into Asia as well as North Africa and Southern Europe. The Apostle Paul renting a meeting hall to teach all who would come (Acts 19).
I don’t want to be careless with these parallels. But I think we should recall that Jesus himself carried out his work without the benefit or baggage of a large supportive establishment, among ordinary people outside synagogue and temple walls, generating a lean, missional community equipped to change the world one person, clan, enclave and nation at a time.
The Brilliant News of Jesus Christ is for people in the jails of Canada just as it was for the jailed of Paul’s time. It was for the philosophers of Athens who Paul met, and it remains for the children of Athens with whom I rubbed shoulders in London for a decade. The Good News of the Kingdom of God was for the residents and business owners of every town, city and countryside that Jesus visited. And it is absolutely for those among whom we live today.