Thursday, August 16, 2012



Mary and I drove along the once familiar roads because my big sister, Joyce Long, was celebrating her 80th birthday in the gym of the Listowel Baptist Church.
It was supposed to be a surprise with family and friends but there was a picture and notice in the paper. That's the nice way things happen in Ontario towns.
My big sister took me into the church kitchen to meet the "babysitter" for the day, a congregation member taking her turn to watch the church while there was an outside function.
"She was one of the ladies who prayed for you," Joyce said.
I was stunned. I didn't really know that there was a church in Listowel praying for my recovery during my three months in four hospitals in the spring of 2011.
Joyce, my sister Joanne, and I started our church life in the tiny Baptist church on the north hill of Chesley, a town of 1,800 near Owen Sound. Our church would have fit into the gym in Listowel. We didn't even have a washroom or hot plate. There was a big mortgage and we had to share a minister. The Downings were most of the choir. And now Joyce went to a big church with no debt and three ministers. And a congregation that prayed for a profane back-sliding journalist who watches the Gaither Gospel Hour on TV instead of going to church.
Later, Joyce introduced me to another lady who had prayed for me. And I tried to explain to her that I wasn't much for church these days after a boyhood when my sisters and I lived with Dutch grandparents who read a chapter of the Bible (but not the Songs of Solomon) and knelt in prayer after every meal.
It was overkill. And I couldn't get over some of the murderous and strange acts of the Old Testament. So Mary looks after church going for the family, faithfully attending mass and ignoring my youngest son Mark (who is founding his own religion) and my views on the Bible after extensive reading.
My boyhood has marked me, however, The Toronto Sun became famous for the replies at the end of the published letters because no big paper then did it. One day I met a minister who commented that I must have been raised in a Christian home because often the replies I wrote had a Biblical flavour.
As I drove back to the Big Smoke from Joyce's party, I kept thinking how moving it had been to meet people who prayed for my recovery without knowing anything about me.
I was telling about my humbling experience to friends who now live in Warkworth. Connie and Glen Woodcock. Connie is a great columnist and Glen, the Sun's former Associate Editor, has a big band show on Sundays on 91.1 FM and writes knowledgeably about cars.
Both are active in the Anglican church in Campbellford. And after I told them about Listowel, they told me, for the first time, that they had their church pray for me in the Intercessionals which are a nice part of the Anglican service.
I was touched again. Maybe I had survived and then learned to walk again because of forces beyond my understanding and beliefs. After all, deep down where my childhood nestles, I do believe that prayer works,  even if I now wear the crusty facade of a heretic.
Connie said that they had also prayed for Hec Macmillan, for nine years the mayor of Trent Hills (which includes Warkworth and Campbellford.) Macmillan has recovered from a savage bout with esophageal cancer which has transformed his life, his eating ( a noted hand at barbecues who can no longer eat his ribs) and carved his weight in half. And Hec had come to their church to thank them.
So I set off to see Hec at his service station in Campellford which has the cheapest gas in town.
I almost didn't recognize him behind the counter until he spoke to me.
I told him that I was moved by the news that after his recovery, he and his wife, who hadn't been great churchgoers, had attended each of the seven churches in town to give thanks for the prayers. Now that was something I hadn't done.
Hec said that I had got only part of the story from the Woodcocks. The Macmillans had gone to services at every church in his sprawling municipality over the pleasant hills of Northumberland County
Some 27 in all. They had even waited for the little church in the hamlet of Trent Hills to open for the summer months.
And Mayor Macmillan has a story to tell, with some tears. There is a mystical edge to it but then he is entitled since he beat one of the new and growing killers of the murderous cancer world.
He says that he never really believed in anything before until he had tangible proof.  Then came his surgery and the ordeal of intensive care that no survivor ever forgets.
.As he told Pete Fisher, his friend and reporter at the newspaper Northumberland Today,  "I got shown something that I can't explain. I can't prove it, but I can say that nobody will ever convince me that the power of prayer doesn't  exist or that it doesn't work."
The mayor says that he wasn't overly religious before all this but he has always believed in God.  Now his Sundays have been transformed. "I haven't missed a Sunday at church since I got home and I go to a different church every Sunday because there were so many people pulling for me, I don't know how to repay them.
But Hec Macmillan being Hec Macmillan, and the mayor, found a way this spring to honour the churches even though he has always been a believer in the clear division between church and state. He gave his Mayor's Civic Pride Award to all the churches, faiths and congregations of his municipality.
The minister at the Campbellford Baptist Church, Lionel Pye, was pleased at the honour and said it had been a "priviledge" to pray for the mayor. We're delighted that the Lord heard our prayer and answered our prayer.''
Those are the words of my youth, when all I was allowed to do was pray and read the Bible and everything else was the work of the devil. Words I haven't though of for decades.  But they now have a new meaning, thanks to the prayers of strangers.
And I have churches to visit.

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