My Mother’s Passing
After my wife and I got married, my mother and I were not getting along well. My brother was getting married (he had been married once before). When I met my brother’s fiancée, I could tell that she had a drug background that she was lying about. My brother, working in the US and needing a VISA (an objectionable underlying motive for marriage) rushed into marrying her. I formally opposed my brother’s second marriage because I did not think he was making the right choice. For that, my mother told me that she did not actually approve of my wife, and told me that I was not a productive member of the family.
However, we then heard that my mother’s cancer had taken a turn for the worse in the fall of 2009, (it had reappeared in her liver and she was quickly succumbing to it). My wife and I came home often to help her. I worked at doctoral courses during the week and my wife and I cared for her on the weekends with my sister. As I stayed with her before her passing in hospital, I reflected on the broken relationship we had. Thankfully, in the time in hospital leading to her passing, we were able to reconcile, and she reaffirmed her faith in Christ, passing in peace. I remember the words well when the former pastor of Hope Community Church came for a visit. He read Psalm 23 to her and gently asked, “Susan, you know that the Lord is your Shepherd, don’t you?” To which she smiled, nodded faintly, and a serene look came over her despite the pain she was in. She died at Christmas time in 2009. We had to have the funeral the day before Christmas Eve. I remember that year the whole family, my brother, sister, my wife, and myself all sat around a Christmas tree without any gifts.
Her passing caused deep pain in the lives of my older brother, younger sister and I. We found out that my mother, before her cancer returned, had gotten involved with dangerous people. It seemed that before her cancer was really bad, she was the mistress of one of the mafia in town, something that she only vaguely alluded to before. When her cancer was taking a turn for the worst, she borrowed several hundred thousand dollars from him in order to do a radical medical treatment in Europe. The medical treatment did not work. However, the mobster, concerned now only with recovering the money he gave, came to us expecting us to pay our mother’s debt.
I spoke with this man several times. My impression of him was that he was a terribly wretched man. So obsessed with making money that he no longer enjoyed life. He had multiple homes, but lived in his office, a collection of sports cars, but drove his company truck, a beautiful wife and kids that hated him – all from his unstoppable obsession with making more money. I remember going to meet with this man’s representative to stand up to him and tell him that I was not going to pay him anything. My wife gave me the strength to do this, and, to the man’s surprise, she gave him a good piece of her mind. After I told him that I was not going to give him any money, we were worried that he would come after us. However, in an interesting act of divine providence, he became embroiled in a police investigation.
Christmas has been a difficult time every year. For several years after my mom’s passing, I would re-experience that day in the hospital. I remember her choking on her liquid filled lungs, such that I remember almost fainting at the sound of coffee percolating at Christmas the next year. However, over time it has gotten easier, mostly because I have my children to celebrate Christmas with. These good memories have helped heal the painful ones.
Now, my brother found within a few months after my mother’s passing (which itself was only a few months after his wedding) that his wife was a drug addict, who ran off with quite a lot of his and his company’s money. She got caught with a DUI with possession of controlled substances, and went to prison. However, she also stole a doctor’s certified prescription notepad before running off. I got a call around that time from my brother. Apparently a DEA SWAT team raided his house in the middle of the night, looking for this notepad, rushing into his house while he was in his underpants. My brother admitted that he wished he listened to me. In our conversations in the months following, I talked him through getting his life back into God’s purpose, which also meant going back to church. He eventually listened, and he has been going ever since.
Working, School, and Marriage
My wife and I bought our first home in Bradford and had our first son, Rowan, in 2011. I was working full-time as a doctoral student, half-time as a student pastor at Bradford Baptist, a TA several hours a week for some courses at Wycliffe College, and the following year, I took on a 10 hour per week job of coordinating a soup kitchen. My wife, who then went on mat-leave, used her year off to upgrade her teaching degree from a B.C.S.E. to a B.Ed. Those were extremely tiring times. Money was short and my wife and I got on each others nerves. We both realized we had to rely on each other to get through it all.
I loved doctoral course work. I decided, since I had already spent five years at an evangelical Baptist institution, that I would take courses people as different from me as possible. I studied liberal theology at the United Church college (reading Schleiermacher). I studied Catholic theology with Jesuits (reading Hans Urs von Balthasar), postmodernism with postmodernists, Barth with Barthians, etc. I took deconstructionism, psycho-analysis, critical theory, and philosophical hermeneutics. I studied theologians like Pannenberg and Barth more closely. In my spare time, I read several books by Jurgen Moltman. I studied philosophers such as Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Ricoeur, Adorno, Derrida, and Foucault. I took a lot of my courses at the Institute for Christian Studies, and loved their philosophical rigor and Christian radicalism.
Working at the Gathering Spot soup kitchen was one of my favorite places to work. As I often tell people, it is amazing how having meal with schizophrenic individuals once a week kept me sane. It kept me sane because I realized the insanity of our consumeristic, “normal” lives. I was often taught that those in poverty are lazy free-loaders, and of course there are those, but I found that the homeless are homeless well before they find themselves without a roof over their head. Most of the people that came to the Gathering Spot were abused, abandoned, often disabled. They were people that needed hope just as much as they needed a meal, just to get by. Some of the best nights of my life was coming back to Bradford on the bus after singing Karaoke with a 63 year-old man with the intellectual age of a 13 year old that thought was “the next Celine Dion”; or, talking with people who told me, because I was a pastor, how much they hated the church, but after months of listening to them and encouraging them, they would then come to me wanting prayer or an encouraging word from Scripture.
Of course, working at the Gathering Spot made for some of the saddest rides home on the bus also. One cold night in January a man came in after the food was all gone, freezing. Embarrassed we gave him scraps we scrounged up. I sat with him before he left and he said that he was going to try to get into one of the shelters. I prayed him through trusting in Christ for salvation, which he accepted and left. I went home that night feeling terrible, because I wanted to go with him personally, but I was not able to. The next day, I found out that 30 homeless throughout Toronto were found frozen to death.
I was also ministering at Bradford Baptist Church, a Fellowship Baptist Church, while I was fundraising to eventually launch a church plant in a nearby town. I loved working at Bradford Baptist. However, the plan for church planting with the Fellowship came to an end as I met with the association leader at the time, who was a self-described fundamentalist. I spoke about the need for church planting, and he turned the conversation to doctrine. He knew that I supported women in ministry, and he thought that was unbiblical. I told him that I used to hold his view, but after thinking and reading about it, and asking myself, “Could I be wrong?” I now see support of women in ministry to make better sense of the sweep of the Scriptures. He responded, “I don’t need to ask myself whether I could be wrong, I have the Holy Spirit.” This of course implied that my years of studies had quenched the Spirit in me. So, I pleaded with him that Christians needed to work together despite their differences and further the Gospel, rooting ourselves in God’s character, like the love of the Trinity, rather than on secondary things like gender roles. He replied – and this is what he said verbatim – “Gender roles is more important to the Gospel than the Trinity. And, Spencer, if you ever speak opening about this, I will cut your funding.” Now, he meant all this quite politely. He, like any other fundamentalist is a product of a way of thinking, one that sees church unity only possible by unquestioned conformity and exact uniformity of doctrine. I get that way of thinking about unity, but I just don’t think the early church was that uniform (James Dunn’s Unity and Diversity in the New Testament changed my paradigm on that). Unity for me is now seeing Christ in those different from me, working to understand and encourage people in the different places they are at in the journey of faith. When I got home, I told my wife that I was going to start looking to minister with a different Baptist denomination. That led me to start pastoring in the CBOQ. I think the grass has been greener.
Before taking the position of pastor at the First Baptist Church of Sudbury I proposed my dissertation on the narrative theology and baptist vision of James Wm. McClendon, jr., a progressive Baptist, who passed away in 2000. The dissertation pushed me to investigate my Baptist roots more, coming to appreciate Anabaptism, New Lighters, Black Baptists, and the Social Gospel, although not uncritically. The Anabaptist insistence on Christocentric, communal interpretation I found to resolve many interpretive problems I wrestled with. The lens of non-violence, while some might write off as naive, I consider so essential to God’s enactment of the Kingdom of Heaven through the (Non-Violent) Cross, our witness in a world exploding with violence and hate. The Baptist “New Lighters” like John Smyth (the first Baptist) or Henry Alline (the first Baptist in Canada), believed that Scripture speaks anew in every age of the church. I feel the Spirit is speaking afresh today. While I had previously condemned liberals, I found in the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, E. Y. Mullins, Walter Connor, Martin Luther King, etc. voices that passionately cared about Scripture and living a Christ-like life, but had been labelled and dismissed without warrant because they saw Scripture saying something different from the main stream. I found myself just as appreciative of Charles Spurgeon and Oswald Chambers as I was of John Clifford and William Newton Clarke. I became convinced that this was the way forward, to seek appreciation of all streams of Baptist life, even if they do not want to affirm each other or even affirm me. I love and appreciate too many brothers and sisters on either side of the spectrum to demean their faith. Although it really hurts every time a conservative person tells me that they don’t think I am an authentic Christ-follower just because I don’t believe in doctrine x, y, or z. Such is the plight of the moderate, neither liberal nor conservative, attempting to use the best from both.
Conclusion (For Now)
I think of my faith much like a mosaic. My life has been a series of events very different from others. It involves a lot of brokenness, a lot of stuff that was never “supposed to happen.” Things have gotten fragmented. However, there is something beautiful in what God has done in my life and those around me. The broken fragments come together, fragment by fragment, for those that see more than just pieces, and it shows a picture of redemption and reconciliation, promise and providence: a picture of a faithful God. This picture is of a God that encountered me in my despair as a teenager, failure and doubt through my years in high school and college, was with me in times of pain and discouragement, and now, has equipped me to be picture of grace to those around me.