The last few weeks have been very difficult for Cathy and I; we have gotten a glimpse of the “valley of the shadow of death.” Yes, death touches us all, but the closer it comes to us, the more challenging it can be. Maintaining an eternal perspective is the key when walking through these times.
First, our friend and former neighbour, Marlene Baker, lost her physical battle with cancer. When we last visited home (Newfoundland), we spent some time with Gerald and Marlene and they were actually the last two we saw because we have not been able to return due to the pandemic. It was difficult to lose such a good friend.
Speaking of the pandemic, two days after Marlene’s passing, Cathy’s first cousin, Mitch Ball, only 48, took his last breath after being on a ventilator for two weeks. I had never met Mitch but it’s a shock when someone younger than yourself loses his life without really having the ability to say good-bye to his parents, wife or children.
A week later, Cathy’s Aunt Flo, who was 88, had a heart attack but thankfully, was able to say good-bye to her family. When our kids were younger, we would visit during the summer and we have so many fond memories of her over the years.
One day after Aunt Flo’s passing, the tragic accident of our friend Ralph Benson occurred. I graduated from Bible college with Ralph in 1985 but we were more classmates than friends. Almost 10 years older than me, he was a married student living off-campus. We both went into pastoral ministry, had seen each other through the years and most recently, enjoyed a few deep conversations. I respected Ralph because I saw in him a heart after God, truly caring for people.
Honestly, in his death, I gained more respect for my friend and his ministry. At the funeral, his son, Adam, told how his own three-year-old son asked the question, “Why did Poppy have to go to heaven?” The response provides such an eternal perspective: “Poppy’s work for God on earth is done, now Poppy’s work continues in heaven” (my paraphrase).
I appreciated hearing from Ralph’s children and in-laws. One described him by saying despite his being a pastor, “he was not a subscriber of religion.” That explains to me why he was able to accept this son-in-law into the family, who had fathered a child before meeting and marrying Ralph’s daughter. He displayed not only a father’s heart but also a pastor’s heart by welcoming not only a new son, but also a grandson. That is more of a challenge when a pastor is subscribed to religion. How many relationships have been severed or hindered because of religion?
One of the things shared at the funeral was how he accepted people even when they messed up. The words shared by Evangel’s Administrative Assistant was, “He helped me understand grace.” Ralph demonstrated the love of Christ, shared the truth of the good news, but he led with grace in order to infuse life-changing truth. Generally, the church is more known for “preaching the truth” and if you don’t line up with that truth, you are an outsider and remain that way until your behaviour lines up with that truth. When a pastor leads with grace, the church learns to accept people as they are, with all their failures and mistakes. Grace provides the time needed for the truth to penetrate lives providing the opportunity to change.
Thank you Mike Freake for sharing your heart at the celebration of Ralph’s life. He said Ralph “was stubborn about people – he gave people a chance and God did the work.” In that regard, he refused to institute policy because situations were so different. Mike, you revealed so much about his heart as he pastored Evangel in Gander for the past 19 years especially that he preached grace for the first 6-7 years!
“He wanted to rebrand the church – A heart for people.” Ralph clearly understood that the church was not meant to be only a place that believers gather to worship. “He wanted this building to be constructed not for a congregation, but he wanted this building constructed for a community.” The church building is a place of worship but this was never meant to be the limit of its work. Its energy, focus and resources are to be on meeting needs in the community: a furniture warehouse, a place to meet socially, to exercise, even to provide housing for many who may have financial difficulty. It was refreshing to hear that while believers may be gathered for worship, others are also in the building for different reasons. “Everyday of the week there are classes happening, sports, community exercise groups, people of all faiths and no faith in the building.” How cool is that? This is not a typical Sunday morning in a church building, because the church is clearly not subscribing to religion either.
Let the church be the church! If church buildings are only being used for religious activities like Sunday gatherings and mid-week prayer, are we really being the church? Our buildings should function for the community as much or more than it functions for its members.
I have to be honest, I felt a profound heaviness over Ralph’s passing; it was certainly a most unexpected death, but after watching his home-going service, my spirit was truly lifted, especially when I saw what became his favourite t-shirt – “65 and fully alive!” He explained to his grandchildren that he was never going to die! The accident on May 9th shifted Ralph from the land of the dying to the land of the living. He is now truly alive! We may feel that his work on earth is complete but I get the sense that it will continue on through countless others who have been well equipped with the same spirit that Ralph Benson possessed.