Grand Rapids, 2006
I set off for Grand Rapids at 8.25 Monday morning May 15 getting a lift with Eleri, my oldest daughter and a London pastor’s wife, who was driving their five boys to school through London traffic. I waved them all goodbye and bought my Gatwick airport ticket at Cricklewood station. It was a good thing I had started early because for some reason I didn’t get out at Blackfriars station for the Gatwick train, and so when we got to Tulse Hill the train was virtually empty and I knew I was in trouble. So I detrained and went around onto the opposing platform and got a train fifteen minutes later back to Blackfriars and then had to wait for another twenty minutes for the Gatwick connection. I arrived at the airport an hour late, but there was nothing to fear. I was immediately checked in and passed through security and still had almost an hour before the plane took off. A voice called, “Hello Pastor Thomas;” I turned and it was Jeremy Walker’s wife from Crawley, on her way to the USA to her sister’s wedding in New Jersey. She is expecting a first baby in September.
My flight was a third full and most of us had the whole row of seats to ourselves. I stretched out. We were almost an hour late leaving because of a non-functioning bulb on the undercarriage, but the flight was a dream. I was able to sit or lie in four different positions and read my books. The food was good and we got through the Cleveland, Ohio immigration and customs easily. The plane to Grand Rapids was small but fuller than the London plane and we arrived in Michigan ten minutes ahead of schedule. My case was one of the first to arrive on the carousel and a minute later Steve Renkema my chauffeur arrived and soon we were at the home of Joel and Mary Beeke with Calvin, Esther and Lydia all smiles. The Grand Rapids ‘rabbits’ as I call them are taller and more mature than the last time I had seen them in Tenby. I led family devotions, and then while Joel had a four hour consistory meeting I walked around the outside of the enormous new Seminary building. I crossed the road and called in on the Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary at the side of a lake. It is part of the Christian Cornerstone University; this impressive new building indicates the vitality of real Christianity in the USA. Next door to the Seminary and opposite the Cornerstone is a large Christian high school with well used tennis courts. What excellent players! The windows of the Seminary library overlook these courts. Grand Rapids is full of gospel; there are universities, seminaries, colleges, churches, old people’s homes, schools, book shops, radio stations, counselling centres, publishing houses which are all dedicated to evangelical Christianity.
I kept awake until 10 p.m. that Monday evening and then slept through the night until 6.30, ending my jet lag. My Tuesday class numbered a couple of dozen men; three women are also auditing the course. I taught for three hours every morning Tuesday until Friday, 8.30 until 11.30. I began this course on British preacher-theologians with three hours on Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. There is so much to say on him; so many insights and anecdotes and invaluable counsels. I felt I had told them a great deal, but I still had more to give them on the Doctor, but won’t do that now. One round-cheeked woman, Annette, sat in the front listening intently. She’d begun to attend the Heritage Church pastored by Joel Beeke three or four years ago and has settled happily into membership though she doesn’t have a Dutch bone in her body – the congregation are overwhelmingly from Netherlands’ stock. She has become a grand supporter and encourager of Joel dropping him appreciative notes. She also wrote two to me. She lives almost an hour’s drive from the church out in the country where she cares for her elderly mother. They survive on the vegetables she grows, the deer she shoots and the fish caught – through the ice in the winter months. She needs no support from any man; God is supplying her need. It was good to have her listening intently in the front row. She also came to supper at the Manse on Wednesday.
Joel Beeke gave me a conducted tour of the seminary building. It is formidable. There is one large chapel auditorium which is divided by a partition into a couple of classrooms. When these are slid to the sides 300 can be seated in the room. That is the site of the graduation on Thursday. There is a splendid book room and on this ground floor is Joel’s commodious study. Upstairs is the large and growing library with its many consoles, thousands of cassettes, magazines, a fine Puritan section which Joel has specialised in collecting. I was given the use of an office with telephone and an E-mail facility there. Henk Kleyn, the registrar, who was so helpful to me, has his office up there too.
I spent the Wednesday afternoon combing Calvin Seminary library for details on the life of Professor Louis Berkhof, the fiftieth anniversary of whose death is next year. I have been asked to give the annual Evangelical Library lecture on him next May and so I laid a foundation for that Wednesday afternoon, reading the only substantial biographical sketch of his life, and checking up on everything he had ever written – forty pages of bibliography covering sixty years of reviews, articles and books. Very impressive both in its content and the wide range of issues which Berkhof commented upon, for example, whether a Christian should belong to a trade union, should his church baptize babies who are adopted, and the Biblical attitude to war. He also wrote about 220 book reviews in Dutch and English. They have rich archives and the staff were incredibly helpful.
The second morning I spoke on Iain Murray and John Murray, but felt afterwards that I did not give time to Iain Murray’s helpful observations on how our preaching could improve. It was too biographical and not enough teaching (though this is the last week of the semester and the classes need to be a little lighter). So on Thursday morning I spoke on William Still, in the first half on his life and in the second his views on the pulpit, and that was more balanced. Still is very good in pastoring attitudes and activities. The final morning was on Jim Packer and John Stott. There are those elements of confusion with those men; what gifts and abilities; how fine much of their work, and yet sadness too over elements in their lives. I wonder did I present them aright?
There are certainly fascinating men amongst the students. Two pastors from the Free Reformed church had come down from Canada for the week. One man usually goes to the American Banner of Truth conference in Carlisle but this year it clashed with Ascension Day and his consistory have asked him to stay and preach the Ascension sermon. He saw details of this week being advertised and down he came to Grand Rapids with a colleague. They were a delight, and I got most comments and observations about the men I spoke on from him. He told me at the end that I had whetted his appetite to read more widely and return again to some of the books he hadn’t picked up for many years. Another man is 6 feet 10 inches in height and very broad. He was the unofficial chairman of the class and proposed the vote of thanks afterwards. He had been full time in basket ball and then they discovered a heart murmur, but he had been growingly disillusioned with a career in sport and inclined increasingly to the Christian ministry. Another student, Derek Baars, was blind. I asked him if he were partially sighted and he said, “I was born without eyes.” He has a fine speaking voice, very mellifluous, and he plays the piano beautifully. He has a Braille keyboard, but it is a regular laptop which he uses and it can speak back to him, and he can speed it up to some fantastic speed, hundreds of words a minute and yet the human ear, and especially his ear, can follow it easily. He seems to live very easily with his affliction, having taken it from God, and talks of it and explains things to you very naturally. I helped him in a food line explaining what was in every dish and he would say yes or no and I would put it in his plate. What an honour. He is a terrific pianist and played while we were waiting for the final Friday night service to begin and he accompanied the singing of the psalms – Joel’s church is an exclusive psalmody congregation, but it does have musical accompaniment. That is the Dutch tradition. They are a great group of men.
I began my preaching in the evenings on Wednesday night speaking from Joel Beeke’s pulpit to a few hundred who regularly attend his midweek meeting. It was a rich experience for me, sitting at the head of the table in the elders’ room, and then going around them all shaking hands with the 16 older suited men and leading them to the foot of the pulpit steps before ascending the pulpit after having shaken hands with the senior elder. I took the whole service, even the announcements; I forgot to switch on my microphone and Joel came up to remind me of that. We sang metrical psalms with an organ accompaniment. I preached my first two points and then we stood and sang a third psalm, and then we sat down and I preached the third part of the sermon. After the service was over I went down the stairs and shook hands with all 16 elders before the congregation and they waited in a group before retiring to the consistory room. I shook hands with some folk and then I wandered back into the consistory room where they were all waiting for me. One of the elders again led in prayer and I again shook hands with them all, and they with one another for the final time. It was all quite impressive and I had been nervous to begin with, and I was never absolutely relaxed thinking, “When am I going really to get going preaching?” They generally received my message with enthusiasm, especially remembering some of the illustrations and repeating them to me over the next days.
On Thursday night was the graduation, but no one wore academic gowns. There were four graduates. I spoke on Ephesians 6:20 on being an ambassador of Christ. Both Joel Beeke and Ray Lanning gave a word of exhortation to them all and Joel also gave a personal word to the four men. There was a godly happy atmosphere; no one was in a hurry to leave and conversations went on until 10 p.m. They are a terrific audience to address, full of elders, missionaries, theological students, preachers and the discerning wives of these men, let alone the godly businessmen and the elderly who have walked with God for decades. What a privilege it has been addressing such people, and on Friday night I was most relaxed speaking from Galatians 3 about Christ being made a curse for us. Joel described it as the capstone of the week which was so kind.
When we walked back to the Manse Calvin and his three cousins, who had been to the meetings, were already in the woods behind the house. Calvin the 15 year old son of Joel and their only boy is building a little fort there with lines of logs going round much of the way, and some platforms, and a tiny cabin inside the fort and a fire circle. He and his young cousins were going to spend the night sleeping under the stars. We went out to inspect the fort. It is magnificent; I remember trying to do something like that when I was Calvin’s age in our big gardened Station House in Hengoed, all ideas, and good intentions, and beginnings but running out of steam after a day or two. Calvin has done much in completing this fort. So we left them trying in vain to get the fire going; the twigs were damp after all the recent rain and the paper failed to light anything. We left then at it and went to our warm beds. They eventually had a fun beginning but by 3 they were cold and then shared a sleeping bag with one another to warm up.
The Plymouth Christian High School was holding a pancake breakfast Saturday morning at 8.00 and we went across. It is the Beeke children’s school and the money from the breakfast will make a contribution towards their summer camp which has been a means of grace in the lives of these children over many years. The breakfast was in the spacious gymnasium, and loads of happy conversations around the table ensued. Then at 10.30 I was picked up by Ray Lanning and was taken to his home in another part of G.R., an area with many blocks of old homes. He took me on a guided tour of the district and it was a perfect early summer day for walking, not too hot and yet bright and breezy. These houses have been lovingly restored. They have the traditional porches, bay windows, towers and lawns, each one different. Most of them are made of wood, though there are a few brick buildings. It was the day for garage sales and so there were many homes with long trestle tables full of knickknacks, racks of clothes, exercise machines, household and garden plants, books, records and furniture of all kinds, kitchen equipment and tools. You could fill an empty house cheaply and quickly with everything for sale. Hand written notices on the corners of streets announced the number of the house with a Garage Sale; bunting and streams of flags had been set up to draw the attention of the passers by. People travelled from one to another by car; there was a swift negotiation and on the driver went to the next port of call. The Lannings themselves had a sale and Ray and Linda had been up since 6 a.m. carting everything onto the tables or the garden for the day’s work. I stayed for lunch with them and most of their family, their oldest daughter being a few days overdue for the birth of her first baby. I came back to the Beekes for the afternoon. They returned from the graduation of Calvin College where six thousand were present in the two largest auditoriums. The speaker, Nicholas Wolsteroff, talked of the need of two eyes, one of observation and the other of compassion. The illustration came from a Dutch midwife delivering a stillborn child being asked what she had to do now and replying that she needed two eyes, one to check up on the heartbeat and blood pressure of the mother and the other to weep with her.
At 5.30 Ray came and brought me back to their home and on the way we picked up a couple of buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Linda was not well with a painful back, the condition going back to childhood tuberculosis of the spine. We sang four hymns together after supper, four part harmony. Ray gave me a Welsh New Testament and then I had to read through a section of John 20 verse by verse with him reading the English version verse by verse. That was very helpful to me showing me how much I knew the language. Then Ray drove me ten minutes to the revitalised down town area, well, ‘revitalised’ in the sense that there were multitudes of new buildings and few derelict ones, but the place was rather empty few cars and no pedestrians. There is nothing like Aberystwyth’s bustling streets. It is not lived in; it is visited. The Amway founders, De Vos and VanAndel, have given billions to the city in magnificent hotels, concert halls and sports arenas; the buildings surrounding these match the affluence. The old churches are refurbished; there are interesting statues and sculptures; the river runs through the city. Grand Rapids is a grand community full of wealth and energy. To have a guided tour with such a knowledgeable person as Ray Lanning instructing me was enlightening. It rained steadily for the last half hour but I was wearing a waterproof baseball jacket with the word ‘Michigan’ on it. I was told to remember that it is pronounced ‘Mishigun’ not ‘Mitchigun’.
Sunday Mark Chanski picked me up at 8.30 and drive me the 25 miles to the lakeside town of Holland to preach at the church he pastors, the Reformed Baptist Church. Through a remarkable series of providences they got the old Christian Reformed church building and the next door parsonage and the surrounding land for $150,000 about ten years ago. It is on a prominent highway into town and a landmark with its pillars and spire. There were 150 adults in the Sunday School which I addressed at 9.30 and then at 11 there were 300 people including many families and children when I preached again. They fed a couple of hundred at the fellowship lunch and then Mark took me to his home in the countryside for the afternoon for rest and a chat. His mother has just married Al Martin. At 6 p.m. I preached again. There was hearty singing as there is in Alfred Place but accompanied by a baby grand piano, and we sang many of the same hymns. A business consultant called Seth took me back to Grand Rapids. He has been married for almost a year, and his widowed mother who is a year or two younger than me met his wife’s widowed father and they got married nine months ago, and now these old newly weds are looking at the house for sale next door to Seth. His mother was married to a preacher who died when Seth was twelve and she home-schooled them and they all got jobs and have done well. That was a fascinating tale of God’s providence.
Joel Beeke had had a good day and had brought into membership a dozen people. He has an afternoon meeting for 40 or so people; there are three services on a Sunday but he does not preach in all of them. He was flying to Pennsylvania to speak with Sinclair Ferguson at the Banner of Truth ministers’ Conference on Tuesday and then with Mary they are flying to Cardiff, Wales, on Friday to preach for the weekend in Porth, Dowlais and Maesycwmmer. Then he goes on to Scotland and Ireland. The Maesycwmmer chapel building is a hundred yards from where I lived for a year in my late teens. To have Dale Ralph Davies preaching there six weeks ago and now Joel Beeke makes me ask, “What has God wrought?” I was awake in the night hours thinking of the duties of the next two weeks and grieving over the growing decline of the churches in the U.K. compared to these churches in the USA. The spiritual gulf between our nations is widening with secularism and unbelief moving at an increased momentum in Wales. We are experiencing days of small things, though not days of nothing at all. However, when I speak to the Christians of Grand Rapids they lament the situation there too and feel that nothing much is happening in their churches and that there are many passengers who are doing little more than attending church on Sundays.
The Puritan Reformed Seminary has a large and well-equipped book room, with hundreds of second hand books as well. So I spent an hour on Monday morning choosing half a dozen of these before leading the staff in their morning prayer meeting. At 11 Joel’s brother John arrived from Jordan Station Ontario – a five hour drive – to pick up a pile of books. He sells doors to the building industry but in a prominent corner of the shop he has book shelves and tables. Yesterday was a happy day for them in their church, when the last two of their thirteen children professed faith and were brought into membership. We went out and had some American sandwiches and soup together- pretty delicious – and then the final couple of hours were spent packing. Dr Gerald Bilkes, the assistant professor of OT and NT, took me to the airport with a couple of the students and that was an edifying short journey. The plane was half an hour late departing for Cleveland, but I had plenty of time to cross Cleveland airport and get the connecting flight to Gatwick. Flying over the vast cornfields of Ohio was impressive and gazing down on the vast inland sea of the Great Lakes. It was impossible to see the other shore from the plane.
I slept for a couple of hours on the seven hour transatlantic flight home and had a good conversation with a woman from Kansas City sitting next to me. All the connections went smoothly, Eleri finally meeting me in Cricklewood station. I drove home arriving in Aberystwyth at 3.30 Tuesday grateful for this great privilege and support of the church here in these endeavours while also blessed with a hundred good memories of the kingdom of God in the USA.
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