An Interview with the Van Essens
This interview is with a retired minister of the Free Reformed Churches of North America (FRCNA), the Rev Henry Van Essen and his wife, Engelina. It took place in their home on Thursday, August 11, 2010. Rev and Mrs Van Essen live in a ‘granny suite’ that’s part of the home of Walter and Marsha Van Essen, in Mitchell, Ontario, Canada. The interview was conducted by Rev Joel Overduin, pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Mitchell, Ontario.
1. First of all, congratulations on reaching a very significant milestone in ministry – 50 years! You are still able to minister in our churches, and we are grateful to the Lord for that. Most people see you only on the Lord’s Day when you visit the congregation to preach. Can you tell us a little about your daily life? What is an ordinary week like in your life? Do you have a daily or weekly routine? Do you have particular goals that you aim for?
Mrs Van Essen: Our days are more or less the same. We have our mealtimes at a set time, and we have a warm meal at mid-day because that’s when I have the strength to prepare it. And for the rest, in the morning, we have breakfast, and afterwards, our quiet time. The rest is household cleanup. And my hobbies . . . They are many . . . quilting, dyeing my own materials, spinning, other hand work, designing my own wall hangings. There is no time to say, what can I do today? I feel there is never enough time to do the things that I want to do. My goal is to keep busy, because if you keep busy, it gives you a bit more satisfaction. I keep moving, that keeps me as nimble as possible. I’m never bored.
Rev Van Essen: My daily routine includes the three meals, the quiet time, the walk. For the rest, I read for preparation for sermons or Bible study. Or just in general, whatever subject has my interest at that time. I’m always short of time too . . .
2. Well, we know that you did not start out in the FRCNA but in the Reformed Church of America (RCA). Can you tell us a bit about the transition to the FRC? When did that happen? How did that go? Not only that, but what was new for you? What did you really appreciate coming into the FRC? What took some time to get used to?
Rev Van Essen: When we retired from Exeter RCA we moved to a granny flat with Walter and Marsha in Chatham. But the connection with the Chatham RCA was less than satisfying. So one Sunday in 1996 we walked into the Chatham FRC. That was a very positive experience. It became our church home over the next year. Then we decided to become personal members. About nine months after that, the Chatham consistory asked the External Relations Committee (now Interchurch Relations Committee) for permission for me to preach in Chatham. After I was examined by the committee, I was given permission to preach for three months. Chatham then had to decide whether to call me as a minister in retirement. They held a straw vote before Synod, which indicated that yes, they wanted to call. So I went before the FRCNA Synod in 1998 and was approved to be called by Chatham to be a minister in retirement. I was installed in August of 1998. What was new? The Psalter was new, the King James Version was new, and especially the procedures at Synod were new. On that last point, in the RCA, we very strictly followed Roberts Rules of Order and the Book of Church Order. It’s different in the FRC. What I especially appreciated coming into the FRC was the freedom to be myself in the pulpit, and the discovery that actually there was so much common ground in our approach to the relationship to the Lord. I felt very comfortable in the congregation . . . we were truly brothers and sisters. I could say something to one of the members about spiritual life, and they would know what I was talking about.
Mrs Van Essen: I found the change very difficult. Because you have your whole life worked for one denomination. You have entertained the missionaries. You know so many people. New programmes that came in you worked on. Then, after all that, you change, and you don’t know anybody. I felt lost sometimes. Now, it didn’t take long, because the people are very friendly. But I remember the first Church Day. You are there with all these people. And you don’t know anybody. A few Chatham people, that’s it. That’s changed now, of course. I feel very much at home in the churches now.
3. When our young people make confession of faith, one of the questions consistories will ask them is: Who is the Lord Jesus Christ to you? Can both of you tell us how you would answer that question today?
Mrs Van Essen: I can be very short and to the point: The Lord Jesus Christ is my Rock and my Salvation. He has led me all my life, and it grieves me when I think about how much I fall short in serving him.
Rev Van Essen: Well, I am also very short. The Lord Jesus Christ is my only hope from day to day, and after the last day. And I am still getting to know him. I’m comforted by Paul who said: ‘that I may know Him’ (Phil. 3:10). For instance, this morning, I was reflecting on that, and I have a book here on Eurabia. It turns out that since the oil crisis of 1973, especially France and Germany made a liaison with the Arab world so that they wouldn’t get the oil crisis anymore, and they have leaned the Islam way, also with animosity against the USA. This has been going on since 1973! And that explains also their position on the Iraqi war. And then I think, Here is the Lord Jesus who is King over all of this. He oversees it all. He is involved in it. Well, he becomes so much larger than my personal Saviour. I don’t minimize that. But who is he really?
4. At your anniversary evening, Mrs van Essen shared the story of your meeting and courtship leading to marriage. Probably all of our readers would be interested to hear about that. Can you repeat that account for us?
Mrs Van Essen: Well, in 1957 I immigrated to Canada and I arrived in Hamilton by train the last day of that year. After church there was a New Year’s Eve get-together at the home of one of the church members. It was a typical Dutch party, with lots of singing, games and olie bollen. Next to me sat a young man. After the introduction and some talk, he told me that he was going to seminary in Holland, Michigan. What an opportunity to test him! Teasingly, I stated that I believed in heaven, but not in hell. Wow! How would he handle that? To be honest I don’t remember exactly, but that remark was the cause of a good talk. At the end of the evening, he asked me to continue the conversation by writing. And we did. Eight months later, we were married, convinced that the Lord had brought us together.
5. This next question is for Pastor van Essen: Can you summarize for us the way your wife has helped you in the ministry?
Rev Van Essen: Well, she’s always been there for me. Always supported me in any moves we made. Mind you, we always talked about that. I was a little bit too pushy sometimes. We were very tight financially, but with her sewing, she kept us clothed. She helped me get ready when I had to go to meetings. I was gone a lot during the first twenty years for synodical and classical work, and she was the solid rock at home. She always ‘sang with me from the same page.’
Rev Overduin: When you moved, you were always immediately on the ‘same page’?
Mrs Van Essen: I need more time to think it through and to get used to the idea. My husband is much more spontaneous. He says, this is what we’re going to do. But I say, what about this or that? But you pray about it together, and separately, and slowly on, the thing grows. When we moved to Scotland, for example, I could say: I’m ready now.
Rev Van Essen: A year before we made the decision, I talked to her; we still were in debt from studying. So, well, we would sell our furniture, keep the cutlery and small stuff. We had just bought a new couch. She said, ‘but not the couch.’ Later on we joked about that: ‘Lord, you can have everything but the couch!’ But in the fall of 1968 it came back to me, again, on a Saturday morning, and I said, I’ll talk to Engelina on Monday if it’s still with me. And so I did, and she said: ‘I’m ready.’ No couch!
Mrs Van Essen: Well, just imagine, to trust the Lord so much that he will provide!
Rev Van Essen: We were still in debt at that point, but when we left, we had the tickets, the debts paid off, and enough money for a year to live. I remember when we had made the decision, I asked about the student loan, but nothing was available. On the way home from the bank (it was 13 miles), it came to me that the Lord is much more willing to give than we are to ask, so I left that with the Lord. And we came home from Europe debt-free.
6. A question for Mrs van Essen: You have, for the most part, sat under the same minister for more than 50 years. As a minister’s wife, you don’t have the privilege of hearing a new minister for a while. For whenever your minister accepted a call, you went with him! As the saying goes, ‘The wind has always blown from the same direction.’ Has that been a challenge for you over the years? If so, how has the Lord helped you through that challenge?
Mrs Van Essen: No, it has not been a challenge. It’s good to hear other pastors preach once in a while, but I’m very content with my own pastor.
Rev Overduin: You mean your live-in pastor! What about when you hear repeats?
Mrs Van Essen: You never hear everything that’s been said the first time. I don’t mind to hear a repeat. I always pick up something. There is a blessing every time I hear a sermon again.
7. Another question for Pastor van Essen: Many people have commented on your long sermon themes. In fact, your outlines on the whole tend to be different from ‘traditional’ FRC sermon outlines. When people comment on that, they comment with appreciation. Can you tell us something about your themes and outlines? What’s the process that leads up to a sermon for you?
Rev Van Essen: Well, I’ve never been a series preacher. I might start in a book, and then after three or four weeks, it peters out. At the same time, I have always been a text preacher, not a topical one. Preach the Word, whether it suits or not. What happens with me is that a verse or passage gets a hold of me, and won’t let go. I begin to dig into it – language, background, commentaries. Then there comes a moment when I feel kind of saturated and I don’t need to read anymore. But that’s when the strenuous work begins. I ask myself: What is the message of this text or Scripture passage? What is the Lord saying? Another question that follows, What does it have to say to us today? So, what message can I bring? Our professor of preaching taught us that the theme has to be a complete sentence with at least a subject and verb. We were to sum up the whole sermon in one sentence. That is often quite a struggle. I may walk around with that struggle for some hours or overnight. It means that all the info has to come together in one logical framework, that one sentence. That sentence also contains the points which are meant to go logically from a to b. That’s how I come to a sermon.
Rev Overduin: Back when you were under the pressure of every Sunday having new sermons, how did that go for you?
Mrs Van Essen: The children would say: Dad cannot get rid of his egg, like a chicken! That’s a Dutch expression.
Rev Van Essen: I did a lot of visiting. I did all the house visiting. Somebody told me early on, the sermons are found in the congregation. So there would be this or that event or experience, or else in personal devotions, something would come, and I’d be stuck with that, and struggling with that. I know that the first time in Exeter in the ’70s, I had a study in a little room in the church, and the organist would already be playing before the service, and I’d be scribbling the last things down before I go to meet the consistory.
Rev Overduin: Would you recommend that?
Mrs Van Essen: No, because it’s also a question of how you spend your time. If you do too much visiting, you don’t have time to prepare your sermons. That’s the task of a wife too, you know, to keep him focused on his work.
8. What are five lessons you have learned in your ministry over the years? No doubt you could mention many points, but if you can summarize them in terms of five points, perhaps one point per decade of your ministry. They don’t have to relate only to ministers but can be for all Christians.
Rev Van Essen: The first one wasn’t too difficult – 1960-69: Do not leave your little ones fatherless.
Rev Overduin: You mean your children? Do you speak that with any sense of regret?
Rev Van Essen: I would say that with the first two children, I don’t remember them growing up. I was gone every night. And Saturdays were sermon days. When we went to Scotland in ’69, I finally had time for the kids.
Mrs Van Essen: Those were the best years of our life, in Scotland. We had no telephone, no car. My husband was gone for the whole day, but he came home for supper and at night he was home. The weekends were for our family. On Sundays we went along if he preached somewhere. Otherwise, we’d all sit together in church, and in the afternoon, go for a family walk.
Rev Van Essen: During the years 1973-80: Do not run ahead of the consistory and congregation. I’ll illustrate it this way. Towards the end of those years at a congregational meeting, one man got up. I had my plans with regard to outreach, etc., but he said to me before everyone: ‘You know how I see things, We’re the train, you’re the engine, you’re pulling us uphill, you’re doing a good job, but if you leave, the whole kit and caboodle will go down again.’ Well, this proved true in the ’80s. I came to the point that I would put the ball into play. If the consistory and congregation didn’t pick it up and run with it, then it was no go. Maybe that was too passive an approach, but I treated this as a spiritual thing . . .
During the 1980s: It’s very difficult to change the direction of a congregation. They’re heading in a certain direction, and to turn them around . . . I always had a goal, a direction I wanted to go. But the congregation is going in another direction. When we lived in Maitland, it was a very easy-going congregation. They wanted growth, they wanted me to come and teach them how to grow the church. So I came, but they didn’t change one bit. We were living near to the St. Lawrence River, right where it was a mile and a half wide. If the ships had to be stopped before Montreal, they had to anchor where we were. So they would slow down 7 to 8 kilometres before they were going to drop anchor. They came in very slowly, and then dropped anchor, and then very slowly with the current, they would turn around. It’s a long, difficult process. It’s like that with a congregation. It’s very difficult to change the direction of a congregation.
Then just a general comment: Faithful, yearly experiential catechism preaching is extremely helpful to keep the congregation on the right path. It influences the thinking and understanding. The skeleton remains intact. I preached the catechism early in my ministry, but that fell away in the RCA. The last six or seven years of my active ministry, I took it up again.
Finally, I’ve come to realize more and more that the Lord God directs and develops each of his ministers according to his own plan and purpose, every one differently. So, accept yourself as he leads you. I can get very frustrated – wish my memory was stronger, or that I read faster. But that’s not me. At the same time, I find it amazing that the Lord has carried me through. I’ve never had to get in the pulpit and say: I have nothing to say. It may not always have been the greatest, but there are always people who can do things better and differently.
9. From the perspective of an older minister, with much experience behind you, are there concerns in the churches, generally, that you would wish to highlight and call us to address?
Rev Van Essen: I was already told in seminary that the greatest challenge for a congregation is the conversion of the next generation. Not that that generation is so bad, but because they grow up in the church, and under the gospel, and just accept as a matter of course what they are taught. And the challenge is that you want people to come to struggle with their faith and not take it for granted. You want them to question themselves, their way of thinking, living, whether they are truly following the Lord Jesus Christ. I would say it along the lines of the first FRC minister in Canada, Rev. Tamminga, Watch out for the spirit that says: ‘We have arrived.’ Watch out for presumptuousness.
10. Pastor van Essen, you recently had the privilege of baptizing your first great-grandchild in St. Thomas. Can you tell us briefly what thoughts went through your mind on that occasion?
Rev Van Essen: Some thoughts were: In the first place, the faithfulness of the Lord God from generation to generation. All our grandchildren continue to worship the Lord and walk within the covenant. And now the Lord reaches one generation further. I find this amazing. Second, most likely, I won’t see this girl become a teenager. Third, you wonder what kind of world, what kind of country, what kind of church this girl will see as an adult.
11. Finally, the Lord has given you fifty years in ministry. While we hope and pray he will give you still more years, we know that you will not receive another fifty years. What do you look forward to when you think about the future, not only in terms of this life, but also in view of what comes after? Is it a struggle as an older couple, even a ministerial couple, when thinking about the future? Any comments or guidance you can give to others who are older and all of us who may some day become old may be helpful.
Mrs Van Essen: We know about our future, where it lies, yet we don’t. We can’t imagine it. But nothing keeps us from trusting him who is the Giver of Life. So, you look forward, because the Lord has promised to be with you, and in the meantime, I’m busy. You cannot go and sit and wait for that. Because the Lord still gives you the days. If I pray that he will give me the energy to get things done, I have to trust him that he will, and then use the time and strength that he gives me. At the same time, sometimes I wish there was more longing to be with the Lord . . . because then I will see him face to face.
Rev Van Essen: For me it’s different. What I long for in relation to the hereafter, is that I’ll finally be rid of my old self, and I’ll be a new person.
Mrs Van Essen: We are more aware of the fact that we live by the day, we’re people of the day. We are more aware of our age.
Rev Van Essen: There’s a temptation to say at our age, Well, there is so much about the Lord and his work that we don’t know, but I’m not going to worry about that because soon I’ll be on the other side, and everything will be as clear as a bell, so why struggle here when it will be given in fullness there and then. But Paul said it would be better for the churches if he would remain with them. I wouldn’t be that presumptuous. But nevertheless, by the grace of God and through the working of God the Holy Spirit, I have been granted the opportunity to deal with many aspects of faith and life. I’ve been persuaded by people that the Lord is still pleased to use me for the edification of fellow believers. That tells me that it continues to be my calling and duty to continue in that work as long as physically and mentally possible. That is a great privilege, but also a great responsibility, to bring the eternal Word into the world of today. In order to do that I will also have to know what is going on in the world. Our professor told us, ‘Preach topically, and you are done in two to three years. Preach the Word and you never get done.’ He was so right. I’ve only just begun. I know I could go any time. But I can’t do anything about that. My hope is in the Lord.
Rev Overduin: You’re still preaching every Sunday?
Rev Van Essen: So far, yes. Sometimes, I’ll be honest, I think it’d be okay if it’s not every Sunday anymore, because I don’t have the energy that I had five years ago or ten years ago.
Mrs. Van Essen: I would agree. But let me repeat the words with which we closed our presentation on the anniversary evening: ‘Together we may serve, together we may come before the throne of grace, and together we may stay under the shadow of the Almighty and with Psalm 91:2, “I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and fortress, my God, in him I will trust.”‘
Taken with permission from the October 2010 issue of The Messenger.
Free Reformed website: www.frcna.org
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