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Some of Those I Met Along the Road on My Journey Toward Calvary

May 5, 2012

Henri Nouwen wrote, “People who read your ideas tend to think that your writings reflect your life.” In part they do. But in large part what I write is just me struggling to work through my own stuff, trying to find my way. For I am on a journey “with the Holy Spirit as my walking stick and Jesus as my guide” (I love that lyric), just trying to find my way home to be with my Father. I know He is waiting to welcome me.
On my journey, God has sown many, many people into my life to draw me closer to Him, to help me know Him. To employ an old cliché, he brought some into my life for a reason, others for a season, others to walk with me until we leave this earth. But whether they were in my life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, all abide in spirit, for they have left their indelible mark upon me. I believe that every person I have ever encountered has contributed something to my life.
In making my selections of those to include, I wanted to demonstrate as best I could the diversity of the influences in my life. Some I knew only through their writings. Others I knew only through reputation. Some I knew personally.
Some clearly had direct spiritual input. Others affected how I look at the world. Others stood as examples of how to live in it. I know I have omitted many, but that in no way diminishes the role they have played; all have been important, for however slight a change is made during the development of a living thing, it has profound results. Something quite different is created.
I wrestled with how to order my various influences so as not to create a hierarchy of weight. Indeed, in many cases, there is no way for me to determine whether one has influenced me more than another; only God knows that. Finally I decided it best simply to put them the way they now appear, in alphabetical order.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer

     A man always thinking about thinking, Bonhoeffer displayed an intellectual openness and a self-critical intellectual integrity that I find very appealing. As Eric Metaxis put it in his 2010 biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, “He could appreciate the value in something, even if he ultimately rejected that something—and could see the errors and flaws in something, even if he ultimately accepted that something.”
For Bonhoeffer, life in Christ came to encompass all. In a lecture in 1928, he said, “The religion of Christ is not a tidbit after one’s bread; on the contrary, it is the bread or it is nothing. People should at least understand and concede this if they call themselves Christian.” Metaxis writes, “He felt that what was especially missing from the life of Christians …. was the day-to-day reality of dying to self, of following Christ with every ounce of one’s being in every moment, in every part of one’s life.”
He held to the Barthian idea that in order to know anything at all about God, one had to rely on revelation from God. He believed that the Bible held the answers to all our questions, and that it must be read not as something general, not something generally applicable, but as though God were speaking to directly to the reader; it is the personal message of God addressed directly to us as individuals, His message of love to us. Every person must hear from God, and must do what God is calling him or her to do apart from others. Bonhoeffer saw no need to defend God’s Word, only to testify to it and trust it. It needs no defense; it has power of its own.
As with others who influenced me, Bonhoeffer had a deep love for the Sermon on the Mount and it became central to his life and theology. To his eldest brother he wrote, “I think I am right in saying that I would only achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously.” Recently, John Edmiston, through his The Jesus Manifesto has taken me deeper into the Sermon.
Bonhoeffer’s writings clearly state what it truly means to follow Christ. To him, faith without works is not faith at all, but a simple lack of obedience to God. He held that action must follow what one believed else one could not claim to believe it.
He beautifully articulated the idea of the universal church, and that the church exists to speak out for all men. Jesus is the Lord of all the world, and therefore the church needs to reach out to the world, especially those who are voiceless, to do unto them as we would do unto ourselves. He believed that the church needed to grasp the power God had given it, “an awesome and frightening power that needed to be understood and used as God intended.” Amen to that.
Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to a friend, “I meet people as they are, far from the masquerade of “the Christian world”; people with passions, criminal types, people with small aims, small wages and small sins—all in all they are people who feel homeless in both senses, and who begin to thaw when one speaks to them with kindness—real people; I can only say that I have gained the impression that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than grace.” Reading these words, I knew exactly what he meant, for I too have seen this. Bonhoeffer believed, as I do, that the church is called by God to stand with those who suffer. He recognized that in order to effectively minister to people one has to enter into the lives, and to some extent the lifestyle, of the people to whom one ministers.
Bonhoeffer believed the Christian life had to be modeled. “Jesus did not only communicate ideas and concepts and rules and principles for living. He lived. And by living with his disciples, he showed them what life was supposed to look like, what God had intended it to look like. It was not merely intellectual or merely spiritual. It was all these things together; it was something more.” And so he came to believe that Christians should grow in the company of other more mature Christians.
Holding with Luther and James, who wrote in his epistle that we are to confess our sins to one another [emphasis mine], he saw the necessity of confession. This is something that has in large part been lost to the Protestant church, to do so being considered too Catholic. Like Bonhoeffer, I believe it is something that ought to be revived.
His most well known work is The Cost of Discipleship, and his most well known teaching is on what he called “cheap grace”. “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Bonhoeffer’s journey toward God was lifelong. It was not until the last years of his life that he truly considered himself a Christian. He had entered into the life of Christ, and that led him to his death. Some may take issue with his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, but I cannot say for certain what I would have done were I in his place. Ultimately it is between him and God.
While I do not hold with all that Bonhoeffer exposited, as I sift his words there is far, far more wheat than chaff. He was a great man who lived, and ultimately was willing to die for what he believed.


Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky

     I discovered the magnificence of Crime and Punishment as a young teenager. My mother, in response to my great love of reading, had purchased for me at auction a large set of the works of classic authors, among them Fyodor Dostoevsky. I did not at the time apprehend the deep spiritual themes of the work, but it stood for me as one of the greatest books I had ever read.
Later in life, as my faith in Christ developed, I returned to Dostoevsky’s writings, and read many of them. His expositions on the height and depth of grace led me to a much greater understanding.
A genius of psychological perception, he recognized the role of crisis in conversion. In the vernacular of Alcoholics Anonymous, his characters have to “hit bottom” before they can receive the gospel. Man without God destroys himself. But for his characters, the realization of saving grace is neither instantaneous nor easy.
Dostoevsky’s message to the world is clearly stated at the end of Crime and Punishment.
“He [Raskolnikov] did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.” It is through suffering that one comes to grace.
“But that is the beginning of a new story—the story of the gradual renewal of man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.” When a man encounters Christ, it is always the beginning of a new story.
When the Communists closed churches and burned Bibles in Russia in an attempt to stamp out Christianity, they made a grave error. Unwittingly they allowed the Gospel to be freely circulated in the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.


Thomas Clement “Tommy” Douglas

     I met this diminutive firebrand in the early ‘70s at a political meeting in his home province of Saskatchewan. I found him to be very affable, with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye. He had boundless energy and was a brilliant orator, a natural preacher who held his audience in the palm of his hand. There was no doubting that he truly believed in what he said.

     In 1918, as a young teenager, Douglas had personally witnessed the atrocities committed during the Winnipeg General Strike; it would affect him forever. At Brandon University, where he studied theology, he began to fall under the influence of the Social Gospel movement, which advocated applying Christian principles to social reform. Doing fieldwork for his PhD in Chicago in 1931, he was deeply moved by what he saw in the Depression-era hobo jungles. He was appalled that no one was doing much to alleviate the suffering. Out of this experience grew an intolerance for those who sat and talked about change but did nothing toward bringing it about.

     Throughout his political career Douglas was a man for the people, never forgetting that he served those who had elected him. Never one to back down from the powers-that-be, he forged ahead against huge opposition to bring improved conditions for the people of Saskatchewan and Canada. He was a man of impeccable virtue, never one to compromise his ideals to achieve his ends. His remarkable political accomplishments are well known, and I won’t enumerate them all here. Suffice to say that we have him to thank for Medicare, the Canadian Bill of Rights, old age pensions and unemployment insurance. All these reflect his deep concern for those who had fallen on hard times.

     Douglas, along with Stanley Knowles, the parliamentarian who represented Winnipeg North Center for 16 years, and who personally assisted me to find justice for some for whom I advocated, Magnus Eliason, the near-blind Winnipeg City Councillor who did the same, and J.S. Woodsworth, whom I know only through Kenneth McNaught’s biography, A Prophet in Politics, demonstrated to me that the Gospel could be put into action in the political arena without compromise. I find it no wonder that Canadians made him their choice for “The Greatest Canadian”.


Ernesto “Che” Guevara

     Some will question my inclusion of this man among those I admire. But I find the schism between those who admire him and those who revile him is almost always along the lines of political ideology; for some, Che’s Marxist leanings totally eclipse who the man was and for what he stood, and evoke unreasoned hatred. I find it remarkable that many of those who seem to take delight in portraying him as just a twisted cold-blooded mercenary, a force for evil, have no difficulty offering unquestioning support to those who commit unimaginable atrocities to advance the political system they themselves espouse. Certainly in the part of the world I now live, Che is revered as a great man. Clouded in myth, embroiled in controversy, Che remains one of the most influential human beings of the 20th century. His image (almost always taken from Alberto Korda’s iconic photograph) is portrayed more often than that of anyone save Jesus.
There is no doubt in my mind that witnessing the misery of the downtrodden peoples of Latin America, Che heard the reverberations of the Sermon on the Mount and felt compelled to come to the defense of the ‘least of these’. He eschewed a life of comfort as a doctor in his native Buenos Aires to do so. While I cannot agree with some of the methods he employed, I understand them. But in light of where I now am spiritually, I hold with the words of a sermon I recently had the privilege of hearing: “If we cannot accomplish something without compromising our faith, God does not want us to accomplish it.” It is strange Christian theology indeed that permits the use of methods that fly in the face of Jesus’ teaching to ostensibly promote the kingdom of God. The truth is that God does not need us at all to accomplish His ends.
But his methodology aside, early in my life Che came to represent standing with the oppressed against their oppressors, even unto death. He still does. He played a significant role in inspiring me to do the same.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13



     There is nothing more than Christ. No greater wisdom. Nothing more.

—Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

     ‘Nough said.


The Reverend Canon Tony Harwood-Jones

     Though I was doing well, I had left school in disgust near the end of my senior year, realizing that my dream of a future at university did not align with the economic realities of my life. I had moved out on my own and had hitchhiked back and forth across Western Canada, then returned to Winnipeg, living wherever I could find a bed. The streets of Winnipeg’s Osborne Village were an exciting place for a eighteen-year-old in 1967.
On the street one evening my friends and I encountered a young (at least not quite past that deadly age of 30), nattily dressed man with longish tousled hair, long sideburns and a moustache. He seemed way too cool to be a clergyman, but the black clerical shirt complete with a white plastic dog collar he wore said he was. He engaged us in conversation, and I found him funny and interesting. Since we had a captive clergyman, our conversation gradually drifted to Jesus and the Bible, topics to which we were by no means averse. He invited us to come to historic All Saints’ Anglican Church where he was curate. He organized a special service attuned to us ersatz street urchins. Many responded enthusiastically, and listened attentively as Tony talked about God, led us through the liturgy and served the sacraments. As the adage goes, “No one cares what you know until they know you care.” We knew he cared for us and we listened to what he had to say.
Our relationship lasted over several years. I came to realize he was, as his vicar labeled him, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, a theological conservative with the convincing outward appearance of a radical. Less than a year after I met him, he officiated at my wedding in a rather traditional service in his church. My wife and I became regular attenders at All Saints’. A personal friendship developed and we visited each other’s homes on occasion. For a time we lived in the same neighbourhood, and my wife and I would at times babysit his children. When our eldest son, Dylan, was born, Tony became his godfather. Later Dylan became a member of the legendary boys’ choir at All Saints’.
Tony awakened early stirrings of God in my life, and evoked a desire in me to read the Bible and to explore a life of faith. My journey has taken many twists and turns since that time, but I am eternally grateful to him for pointing the way.
I was thrilled to recently reconnect with Tony after many years, and look forward to maintaining a renewed relationship with this Godly man.


Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis

     Mere Christianity was an early read as I contemplated whether the Gospel was indeed credible. I couldn’t have chosen a better book. Christianity Today voted it the best book of the 20th century in 2000. Although he always presented reasoned arguments, Lewis believed that faith was less about an intellectual assent to doctrines than about a personal, transforming encounter with God.
The Problem with Pain, Beyond Personality, Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed, The Screwtape Letters, his Space Trilogy, The Great Divorce and The Chronicles of Narnia have all left their stamp on me over the years.
J.R.R. Tolkien, another of the Inklings, also contributed his Lord of the Rings series, which, although the author explicitly denied it was allegorical, I find rife with Christian motifs.


Evelyn Nordman

     My mother taught me the joy of selflessly serving others, and putting others ahead of one’s self. She was always happiest when doing so. I am grateful for her example


Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen

     Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest, and therefore in the minds of many Evangelicals has nothing of value to say to us. I thoroughly disagree. His message, that it is in our weakness that we find our strength, to my way of thinking very much reflects what Jesus had to say. He speaks into the reality of my experience.

     Nouwen speaks to me about authenticity, having the courage to share honestly my own faith and doubt, my own hope and despair, my own light and darkness, so that others may see bits of their own reality reflected in me. This opens the door to being able to effectively share the Gospel with others. This is not a form of spiritual manipulation, but rather an acknowledgement of our commonality, that we are all wounded, that we all experience the same deep needs, and that the answer to all our needs is Jesus Christ, who calls us “Beloved.” To me this is the essence of what James’ encouragement, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

     You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking.

— Henri M. Nouwen


Terry Richardson

     My relationship with Christ was forged behind the walls of Stony Mountain Penitentiary and the adjacent minimum security Rockwood Institution, facilities that are part of the governmental branch to which we euphemistically apply the misnomer Correctional Services Canada. In large, the service has little to do with correction; it is about retribution and vengeance. Prisons are warehouses into which we secrete those to whom society no longer wishes to extend the love of God, those we elect to wear the scarlet letter for us.
Remarkably it was in these gehennas that I came to experience the love of God most profoundly. It was there that I found men who were unsparingly conscious of their sinfulness, and painfully aware of their need for a saviour. It was among these men that I found the presence of God most palpable.
I spent 10 years among those men, living out my own version of prison ministry. It was at Rockwood that I met Terry Richardson, a Lutheran pastor, newly arrived to fill the post of prison chaplain. I took immediately to this man with his gentleness and strength, his mischievous wit and quick laugh, his deep love of God and his ability to pass that on to others. For the next five years he would be my dear friend and coworker for the Lord.
Terry exemplified for me the ideal prison chaplain. He loved the men whom he shepherded; they knew it and responded to that love. He lived the love of Jesus in all he did. He welcomed my contributions to the work and with constant encouragement always supported my efforts. He opened doors for me both in terms of my ministry and in my own spiritual life. He demonstrated for me how to truly look past the sin to see and love the person. He made me aware that those who worked in the prison were just as much the victims of it as were the inmates. He understood the true meaning of forgiveness. He brought new meaning to “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.”
We shared some incredible spiritual experiences, some joyous times (often accompanied by his ever-present guitar), and some very painful moments at Rockwood. I truly loved the man. It was no surprise that he rose to the position of Director General of Chaplaincy and Restorative Justice, a post from which he retired last year.


Allen and Betty Ann Semler

     Ma and Pa Semler are my spiritual parents. It was through observing their lives as I built an addition to their home almost 30 years ago that I learned what the lives of a Christian family looked like in practical terms. I found the appeal of what I saw irresistible. I had never before seen how Jesus could shape the lives of people and not just change them, but make new creations of them. In my opinion they should be the poster couple for lifestyle evangelism.
Throughout the years they have been my dear, dear friends and mentors. Betty Ann’s chatty enthusiasm is balanced by Allen’s quiet patience and unshakable trust in the Lord. In Betty Ann’s words, they have watched as over the years the Lord equipped me for the work He has given me in Haiti. They have been there for me through many struggles and a few victories, always ready with encouragement and occasionally a bit of “parental advice.” It gives me great comfort to know I am always in their prayers.


Lev Nikolayevich “Leo” Tolstoy

     Although the works of Leo Tolstoy were not my introduction to the idea that faith gives meaning to life, they articulated it in a way that resonated with my spirit.
I had read some of his works throughout my life, but my deepest interest in the man resulted from my personal research of the Doukhobors, who had settled in south central British Columbia. I took an interest in them upon moving to the Okanagan. Tolstoy used the royalties from his novel Resurrection and his story Father Sergei to finance the Doukhobors move from Russia to Canada. It was this research that led me to discover just who Tolstoy was, and to explore his deep religious beliefs.
I find Tolstoy’s theology confusing, a reflection of his lifelong agonized search for the meaning of life. No sooner would I latch on to a truth in one of his writings, than I would find he refuted it in another. The Gospel is in his writings, but it takes a lot of winnowing to find it, and even then it is not complete; Tolstoy never did apprehend the meaning of grace. Yet somehow this remarkable man’s works sustained the faith of many Russians through the years of Communism.


Klym Weremy

     I never knew my maternal grandfather; he died before I was born. But in hearing about him from my mother and her family, I formed a picture of him that has shaped some of my thoughts and attitudes.
Klym had been orphaned as a child in the Ukraine, and was brought up in a monastery. He was educated to be a priest but never took his vows. Instead he emigrated, lured by the promise of farmland in Canada. Klym took his faith and the Bible seriously, but distained the priesthood. Although he insisted his children attend church regularly, he did not. But he supported the church, and in 1906, helped build the tiny Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church close to his farm.


William Wilberforce

     I had a vague awareness of William Wilberforce throughout much of my life, but my finding the man followed a long and winding road. I remember as a child hearing a pipe and drum corps play John Newton’s Amazing Grace at a funeral service of some dignitary that was broadcast over the radio. I have searched my memory in vain to recall whose funeral it was, but I simply do not remember. But I do distinctly remember the impact of the majesty of the hymn on me. It became a favorite of mine, even though it was years before I understood the significance of the hymn.
When I did learn its meaning, and learned a bit of the history of the man who penned it, I wanted to know more. I dug up some information on Newton, whose life ranged from crewman on slave transport ships to noted Anglican clergyman, and as so often happens, my personal research spun off on tangents. One of those tangents led me to Wilberforce, whom Newton mentored, encouraging him to serve Christ in politics. At the time, the knowledge I gleaned about this great parliamentarian was cursory. But on purchasing a copy of Kevin Belmonte’s Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce upon its release in 2002, I was thoroughly taken by the depth of conviction and dedication of the man.
Wilberforce was a British member of parliament, the single most important figure in the abolition of the slave trade. Inspired to action by his Christian beliefs, he fought for 26 years, often a voice in the wilderness, introducing anti-slave trade bills year after year, until he finally achieved his goal with the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. He continued to work for the complete abolition of slavery, and in 1833, parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. Three days after hearing that it was assured of passing, he died.
Another of the man’s passions that struck a chord with me was his work advocating for prison reform. Wilberforce frequently visited prisoners, encouraging them to change their lives. Wilberforce was acquainted with Elizabeth Fry, a driving force in prison reform, and encouraged her in her work.
I have recently obtained a copy of Eric Metaxis’ Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, and it will certainly jump the long queue of books that await my reading. This man’s life has many lessons for me.
If any of you has not seen the 2006 film, Amazing Grace, consider it.


Philip Yancey

     Yancey is another author who was able to put his preconceptions aside and take a fresh look at Jesus. The Jesus I Never Knew was the first of this author’s books I read, but after finishing it, I knew it certainly would not be the last. I always appreciate an author who writes from a question rather than starting from an answer. I love his comment, “I thought I knew Jesus pretty well. But ultimately I found out that He was a person full of surprises.” Yancey is the type of person I prefer to align myself with, one who always questions rather than one who believes he/she has all the answers.
Yancey spoke to me about staying focused on Jesus rather than worrying so much about all the stuff on the periphery. For when we shift our eyes to what is on the periphery, we cannot help but take our eyes off Him.
In What’s So Amazing About Grace? the author makes a simple statement: “In sum, I would far rather convey grace than explain it.” Herein lies the crux of everything about Christianity. While understanding carries some import, the life that Jesus gives us is a life to be modeled, not to be explained. God is love and we are to reflect the love of our creator.

     One who has been touched by grace will no longer look on those who stray as “those evil people” or “those poor people who need our help.” Nor must we search for signs of “loveworthiness.” Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are.

–Philip Yancy from What’s So Amazing about Grace?


William Paul Young

     This Canadian, the son of missionary parents, appealed to both my head and my heart with his book The Shack. Dealing with difficult question of the faith, Young encouraged me to think outside the box about God, to let go of the images not contained in the Bible, but entrenched by theological tradition, and to consider other possibilities. In many ways his book affirmed my experience of the Holy Spirit in my life. It brought relationship with God to a delightfully personal level.
The Shack has been severely criticized from some quarters, but I believe for those who struggle with hurt and shame, Young is a breath of fresh air, bringing life back into the Living Word that some seem to be determined to kill by freezing it in the rigidity of their interpretations, usurping the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding us in the truth. Our conception of God, no matter what it be, is always distorted; we do not have the capacity to even come close to imagining God as He truly is. Perhaps Young’s critics could learn from Bonhoeffer that one can find value in something without accepting the whole, as well as Young’s own statement that something can be true without being real. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I find it charming that people here in Haiti routinely address God as “Papa.” That fits so well with my own relationship with the Father.


Margaret Vallance

     Margaret is a Christian counselor who has for several years now helped to keep my life on the rails through some very difficult times. She has encouraged me to recognize who I am in Christ and to be that person. Always ready with spiritual insights, she has inspired me to dig deeper and fly higher. She always makes me think. Over time counseling sessions morphed into much-enjoyed personal visits. She is a self-declared member of “my team” and a dear friend.


All writing is confession…The longing to be known fully and still loved. The admission of our own inherent vulnerability, our weakness…our overwhelming desire to be relieved of the burden of ourselves in the body of another, to be forgiven of our ultimate aloneness in the mystical body of a god or the common work of a revolution.

— Heben Nigatu

When we were given the capacity to love, to speak, to decide, to dream, to hope and create and suffer, we were also given the longing to be known by the One who most wants to be completely known. It is a longing woven into the very fabric of the image in which we were made.

— Robert Benson

One Comment leave one →
  1. Terry Richardson permalink
    May 17, 2012 8:52 am

    I read your words about me. I am surprised, blessed and deeply humbled. It was wonderful to be reminded about the Semlers. I would love to make contact with them again. Bless you.

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