PART ONE – QUESTIONS ON THE WAY Chapter 1. A System for Everything

They tell me that the first technically produced vehicle in which I ever took a ride was a cradle. I remember it well from much later and from the outside. It had oak panels all around it, like the washstand in our upstairs bedroom. I can’t remember how it felt to be rocked back and forth and back and forth inside that cradle. To tell the truth, I really don’t want to remember. The very thought of such a rolling, rocking motion queasies my stomach and makes me a little dizzy. Neighbor girls who came in “to see the baby to bed” would sing over me the traditional cradle song:

    Rock-a-bye baby in the treetop,
    When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
    When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
    And down will come baby,

This well-meant but terrifying lullaby must surely have kept me awake. It probably prolonged the rock and roll routine. It certainly couldn’t have done much to increase my affection for cradles.

In my opinion, such contraptions were always rather useless as a means of transportation. After so much time and energy had been expended in rocking me, where was I? Right where I had started my journey. At least, when I woke up, that’s always where I found myself.

Clearly for a go-getter like me there was no future in riding a cradle. As soon as possible, therefore, I gave up my sideways rocker for a wooden, horse-headed kiddie-kar called “Burley,” after one of my father’s favorite Clydesdales. I had never seen the real Burley. He had been sold before my arrival, when my folks sold their farm and moved into town. I always thought he had been a blue horse, because the color of my Burley’s flanks came from pasted-on blue paper. His wooden wheels squeaked mercilessly and my mother was always at my father to oil them again.

Burley wasn’t much of a jumper. He would get stuck in the cracks of our front walk. He rumpled the hand-hooked rugs on our living room floor. Burley and I mostly satisfied our urge to travel by galloping around the kitchen table, roaring full tilt behind the big wood stove, then out around the table again in glorious sweeping figure eights. Eventually the monotony of never getting anywhere despite our best efforts convinced both Burley and me that we should give this up as a career. I wonder what happened to good old Burley?

Not long after my squeaky horse retired, my other ambitious plans for travel had to be cancelled for a few years. Something went wrong with my heart. From birth? From the flu? Who knows? The doctor gravely warned my folks to keep me resting as much as possible. Maybe I’d grow out of it. For years at bedtime Mother carried me upstairs on her back. To occupy my other resting times on the kitchen couch, she would read to me. We soon ran out of the usual children’s stories and started into travel tales and poetry. Though I was lying there quite still, my mind learned the joys of roaming in faraway places. When I could read for myself, books became my wings to the world.

Since I had to spend so much time quietly indoors, our house was thoroughly explored. In the kitchen there was a “crazy drawer” full of household junk—all those little things that might come in handy some day. Mother had her own kind of women’s odds and ends stashed away in sewing machine drawers and such places all over the house. From these concentrations of treasure I made up my own toys and games. There were boxes and trunks way back in closets and cubbyholes. Toward Christmas I knew where my gifts-to-be were hidden away. To this day I could walk in the dark along our glassed-in back porch, put my hand unerringly on the latch of the woodshed door, go down the steps and along the walkway to our two-hole catalog-reading room. The layout of our house is imprinted forever somewhere in my muscles.

For me the cupboard behind the kitchen stove was the heart of the house. Mother had done her first wood-graining paint job on those hidden doors. Behind them she stored her household chemicals and medicines. I can still smell those liniment bottles and the other unidentifiable odors that leaked from small brown paper packages.

On two lower shelves she stored a collection of books that were too shabby to put in her front room bookcase: old school textbooks in subjects such as arithmetic, history, geography, geometry and poetry, plus a doctor book, Bible stories and others. Somewhere in those books there was something about everything under the sun and beyond. From within that warm, aromatic hideaway, under the clean-smelling laundry draped over the fanned-out arms of an overhead clothes-drying rack, all the earth and heaven itself began to open up for me. I still subtract by adding, the way I learned from my Dad’s old arithmetic book. Geometry was fascinating for me long before I reached high school.

But I must confess that the geometrical diagrams were not nearly so interesting as the illustrations in the doctor book. I never looked at that medical volume if anyone else was around. Somehow it felt sinful to gaze openly upon details of anatomy that were normally covered by skin or tastefully concealed beneath the underwear in Eaton’s mail-order catalog.

A few larger books lay on their sides. The thickest was about the Bible and its teachings. It was well illustrated by dramatic etchings and line drawings. These pictures imprinted themselves on my young mind and supplied me with the basic imagery by which I interpreted what I heard in Sunday school and church.

Mother had been a schoolteacher, so she encouraged my search for knowledge in those old books. She found new ones for me and helped me with my questions. I was impatient to learn all there was to be known about everything. Just about every intellectual road which my mind has traveled since childhood began in that cozy nook behind our kitchen stove. It was my secret university—my gateway to the world of learning and beyond.

My father bought the first Chev car in Stayner. The roads were so poor and the tires on that car were so thin that he seldom drove the Four-Ninety anywhere except to the beach four miles away for an afternoon picnic. On the narrow roads we had to pass horse-drawn buggies and wagons very slowly so that skittery horses wouldn’t panic. Every year more and more carloads of relatives would show up on weekends for a beach holiday based at our house. Mother was a good cook and her flock of hens dwindled away steadily as the summer wore on. The rooster hated cars, I’m sure—also the airplanes which now and again spluttered low overhead, driving his terrified biddies shrieking and flapping into the dusty safety of the henhouse.

I walked a long mile or so to school with my books and sandwiches in my school bag. Somehow, despite dire threats from my mother, I could never come directly home from school. In the spring there were streams and swamps to explore, with clumps of violets and secret nooks of exquisite wild strawberries. In the fall there were beechnuts to be gathered and wild apples from out-of-the-way fencerows. In the winter there were rabbit tracks to follow in the snow. Most of the farmers who jingled to town in horse-drawn cutters and sleighs would let me ride on their runners. After school the best hills for sliding down had to be visited. Most winter afternoons it was almost dark when I got home. Too often I was soaked through to my skin, having broken through the thin ice on some pond. Mother warned me “for the last time” about my wet and wandering ways. On one of the darkest of those late afternoons, she stripped off my sodden clothes and plied me with far-from-gentle strokes of my father’s long heavy razor strop. That cured me of my delinquent tendencies—for a while.

My problem was how to visit all the interesting things that lay in every direction when there wasn’t enough time to get there and back between meals and other family events. The solution to my problem lay in gaining mobility. My birthday roller skates quickly took me to the end of every sidewalk in town. The unexplored countryside lay just beyond. I followed the creeks and found choice fishing spots and swimming holes. I learned where the kingfishers and sand swallows nested in high, sandy banks. I found clumps of wild asparagus, fence corners full of luscious morels, and the inevitable tangles of red raspberries. In my mind’s eye I can still see myself climbing the great leaning willow trees and shooting cattail spears out into the marshy bogs at the red-wing blackbirds. They just kept on swinging out there on the bushes in complete safety, taunting me with their saucy “o-ka-lee!”

I can’t go back anymore to those beloved old haunts. My swamps have all been filled up for building lots. The willow-lined streams on whose banks I used to lie and watch the ways of the crayfish, now run in big concrete conduits under busy streets. The real map of my home town doesn’t hang in the planning office. It is indelibly scored into my memory and into the secret places of my spirit.

After the roller skates came my first bicycle—a gift from my brother Leighton. My range for exploration now became much much wider. I learned the layout of the district for miles around. Once I biked to the beach all alone and built a large raft from driftwood and fallen trees. It floated me successfully, so I hoisted my bed sheet for a sail. To my consternation, the craft immediately took off for the open horizon of Georgian Bay. That was when I learned that you have to be able to steer a sailing craft. It wasn’t exactly the leisurely sight-seeing voyage along the shore that I’d been counting on! With the water getting deeper every second and my ability to swim remaining constant at about fifty feet, I decided to abandon ship. I barely escaped with my life and my bedsheet. But I had a nice lunch afterwards, and by the time I got home the sun and wind had dried my clothes.

The town’s baseball games were held in a big sandy area where there had once been a fairground. Since there were no seats, I used to watch from astraddle my bicycle. But that’s hard on the back, so I decided to build a civilized backrest for my bicycle seat.

My father had quite a collection of hand tools. With those tools he could make almost anything. He knew how to move impossibly heavy timbers and cast-iron stoves. When faced by some difficult problem in mechanics or carpentry, he’d think for a while, whistling lightly through his teeth. Then he’d grin confidently, nodding his head, saying, “There’s always a system for everything.”

For some reason Dad didn’t want to get involved in designing my bicycle backrest. Across the lane from our place a neighbor had set up his own hobby shop with machine tools. I spent many happy hours in that shop observing how woodworking was done. Several times old Jess had helped me fix my bicycle. Together we designed a first-rate backrest, complete with springs. One fine day I astonished the good folk uptown by cycling down Main Street comfortably leaning back on my new backrest, my arms serenely folded across my chest. Henceforth I watched the ball games in somewhat conspicuous comfort.

I saw that tools could be the keys to a very desirable world. When people asked me what I was going to be, I told them, “An airplane mechanic.” I didn’t think my heart condition would allow me to fly.

School was always easy for me. Although I always managed to preempt a back seat on the first day of school, sooner or later the teachers would inevitably insist on moving me up into a seat directly in front of them. Since I usually finished my work before most of the other kids, I would spend the extra time in little unauthorized) but harmless projects.

Once during a slack period in grade six my imagination began to sparkle when I noticed the resemblance between my long wooden pencil box and the hull of a sailing vessel. Working under my desk with my pocket knife, I quickly drilled three well-spaced holes in the box’s narrow sliding lid. When the teacher was looking elsewhere, I cut paper sails, slotted them and slipped them onto three pencils—masts to fit into the holes in the lid. At the top right corner of my desk there was an opening for an inkwell. I threaded a longish string up through it and led it over to the far end of my pencil box where the sliding lid held it fast. Shortly I was able undetected to mount the three masts with their full spread of sails. And a lovely sight it was! The other students were obviously impressed. As I waited for the teacher to look up, I held the string taut under my desk and applied myself diligently to checking my arithmetic.

Now the picture of a majestic square-rigger driving through the waves moves most people quite deeply. But somehow the spectacular voyage of my tall ship, undriven by wind or water, across my desk to its final position projecting far out over the aisle, didn’t impress my teacher as deeply as I would have wished. Such extracurricular projects, however, were undoubtedly educational: they certainly increased the number of hours I spent at school.

Although I liked school, the teachers far too often failed to enlighten me about things I really wanted to know. When you bend your rubber eraser over double, why does it spring back and straighten again? Because that’s the nature of rubber. Why do things fall when you let go of them? Gravity. What’s gravity? It’s what makes things fall. Birds fly south for the winter because they have an instinct. What’s an instinct? It’s what makes birds fly south for the winter. Big deal, school!

Later came geometry. In that subject you have to prove everything from axioms. What are axioms? The math teacher explained that axioms are things you take for granted and don’t have to prove. Why not? Because they are obviously true. Not to me they weren’t! That one about parallel lines never meeting never made much sense to me. Anyone could see that railway tracks did meet somewhere off there in the distance. The art teacher even taught us to draw rails converging on a point. Who was right, the geometry teacher or the art teacher?

The world of geometry is inhabited by “imaginary” lines that were supposed to have no width. More problems for me. I had never seen a line entirely without width. In fact, if it had no width, how could anybody see it? Those marks on my ruler that told off fractions of inches were certainly printed wide—I didn’t know whether I should tick off the length of a side at the beginning of the black mark, or in the middle of it, or at the far side of it. I guess I mixed them up a bit, so my squares never came out perfectly square.

Imaginary lines were particularly troublesome when it came to circles. What was “the circle” anyway? Was it the white disk inside the black circumference line, or was it the edge of the white space outside the line? Or was it a narrow cut somewhere between the inside and the outside of the line?

T-he enormous number of such unanswered questions convinced me that I should never become a teacher. What if I had somebody like me in my class asking me about such things?

All told, our little high school “library” amounted to ten short shelves in a cabinet with two glass doors. Some progressive souls in our town, however, had organized a civic library. Enough books had accumulated to fill the walls of two rooms in a small house. My mother, an avid reader, was an advisor to the library board. She was always pressing the Stayner town council to give more support to the library. I loved that little library, such as it was. It had a little bit of everything, though not much of anything.

Once, by interlibrary loan, a big book about startling new physical theories of matter and energy became available. I borrowed it and waded in. I didn’t quite understand what I was reading, but I did learn that the “solid” world around me consisted mostly of empty space, thinly populated by tiny buzzing balls called atoms. These teensy-weensy items whizzed around their nuclei like the earth going around the sun.

I found it quite upsetting to realize that I myself was full of holes, and that my chair really consisted of mostly nothing zipping about in imperceptible circles. My eraser was alleged to be all asquirm like a sackful of little pigs. I could understand the principles of levers, pulleys and wedges, and also the kinds of ideas I had picked up from my brother’s Popular Mechanics magazines. But I wasn’t quite prepared to cope with whirling atoms. If nothing ever stands still, the very clearest and sharpest marks anyone could print on my/ ruler would actually have to be fuzzy. Geometry had turned out rather badly for me, and now physics had started to wobble. What can you really believe? Who can you believe?

Once the library also received a handful of books on modern astronomy. The immense reaches of space began to fascinate me. What kind of vehicle could be built to explore the other planets? On winter nights when I was tramping home from choir practice through the crisp frosty snow, I used to trace out the constellations in the sky and dream that some day I would have my own telescope. I wondered whether the stars might possibly be like atoms in, say, God’s fingernail. At any rate, the stars are right there to be seen. You can believe in stars! So I decided to become an astronomer.

Around Christmastime I began to wonder whatever happened to the Star of Bethlehem. So I read in the Bible about the Wise Men, those astronomers from the East, following that star to where Jesus lay in a manger. I was astonished to realize that for them the miraculous star was only the means to an end. With them the discovery of Jesus apparently rated much higher in importance than the star itself. The story of the star simply disappeared into the story of Jesus, who himself was later called “the morning star.”

I looked up all the references to stars in the Bible. I got into the story of how God created the world. Now I added more problems to my growing list. At school they had taught me that the world was billions of years old and that all kinds of plants and animals had come and gone before people ever appeared on earth. But the Bible said that all this had taken only a few days—less than a week.

So I talked with our minister and he gave me things to read that showed how Christian thinkers have tried to handle conflicting stories of creation. I didn’t have enough facts to make up my own mind intelligently. But one thing was entirely clear. All the fossils, whenever they may have lived, were dead. And all the people who had ever searched out fossils or taught about fossils had either died already or would some day die. Jesus, however, had risen from the dead and still lives. Whoever is in charge of the universe is apparently behind Jesus, for he had backed up the truth of what Jesus had believed and said. By bringing Jesus back from the past and gone, God had stamped his approval on the way Jesus had lived. So I began to be more interested in learning about Jesus than about the origins of stars and fossils. There seemed to be more future in him.

One night I had an extremely vivid dream. I was walking along a ditch beside the railway track near my secret patch of extra-large, delicious wild strawberries. Suddenly all hell broke loose on the other side of the tracks. The tall buildings that had somehow come to be standing there were all on fire and crumbling. Women were running out into the street, shielding their babies from flaming debris and falling embers. In my dream, to get away from the rain of fire, I threw myself down into quicksand muck in the ditch. As I sank into dark oblivion, drowning in the mud, I found myself in complete peace, saying, “I know whom I have believed and that he is able to keep me in this day.” I later found these words came from the apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy.1

In the morning when I awakened, the sparrows were cheeping in the climbing rose outside my sunlit bedroom window. Blessed little birds! I was quite surprised to find myself still alive and in this same lovely world, not in some other. I lay there thinking. Since early childhood I had been facing the prospect of an untimely death from heart valve problems, yet in my dream I had died peacefully. I realized that somehow during my sixteen years I had come to entrust my life to Christ. From then on the church fellowship became the center of my social activities.

In his Christmas sermon that year our minister reminded us that we had prepared to give Christmas presents to everyone important to us. Then he asked us what we were going to give to God for Christmas. In the back row of the choir, I told God that I had nothing to give him but myself, but I would give myself if he’d have me.

After the service our minister was deeply moved to hear that his sermon had led me to decide to become a minister. He warned me that I’d have to finish high school with enough subjects to enter university, and that it would take four years of university and three of theological college before I could be ordained.

After lunch I told Mother that I had decided to be a minister. She was washing the dishes at the kitchen table and I was drying them. She burst into tears—both happy and sad. We were into the worst days of the Depression. Dad had been without steady work for a long time and had used up almost all his savings. Mother couldn’t see how we could possibly finance seven years of higher education. In simple faith I told her that if God wanted me to become a minister, he’d provide the money.

Now that I had an educational goal, schoolwork became very important to me. To qualify for university entrance and for scholarships, I had to write government examinations in five subjects that were not taught in our little three-teacher “continuation school.” I worked hard at those subjects on my own. When the results came out, the University of Toronto offered me more scholarship money than I really needed. Apparently God was right in there doing his part.

So off I went to university. Throughout four undergraduate years I always had money, enough and to spare. I majored in philosophy, because it dabbled in everything from science to art. My courses took me through much of the history of Western thought. How people’s ideas about the world have changed through the ages!

By third year, I realized that in a thousand lifetimes I could never learn all there is to be known. I would have to settle for a very sketchy digest version of the world and its story. My natural curiosity gradually turned into a serious search for a worldview that would be respectable, believable and adequate. This intellectual and spiritual journey has been the story of the rest of my life.

I quickly learned that not everything written in books or spoken by a professor is necessarily true. I tried to make a personal declaration of independence. Even at university, altogether too many shaky opinions and too much meaningless nonsense was being retailed as knowledge. As each great system of thought came up, I believed in it. Though each in turn impressed me for a time, none of them agreed with the others. Besides, no single one of them fitted at all points with my own experience of the world.

My old high school problems with geometry and physics lived on in my mind, and hordes of their relatives kept moving in with the old-timers. Philosophy opened up new points of view for me, but solved nothing.

My religious beliefs, along with other convictions, were strained to the breaking point under the tests of critical reasoning. One morning, as was my custom, I was kneeling at my bedside to pray. Suddenly I felt silly. Maybe nobody was listening there but four walls! I rose from my knees thinking that I had just prayed for the last time. When I was about to close the Bible on my desk, I noticed that it lay open at those strong words in Ephesians about putting on “the whole armor of God” and, “having done all, to stand.”2 Some of my philosophy professors had been alcoholically ruining their lives. I had even lectured for a while in one class, filling in for a prof who was in hospital “drying out.” On seeing Paul’s words I decided right then that I would rather be “wrong” with Paul and live a strong life of purposeful faith and service, than be “right” with my philosophical mentors. Some of them didn’t seem able to commit themselves to anything much except their irrational faith in reason—and booze.

A teaching fellowship was offered to me and considerable pressure was applied to persuade me to become a philosophy teacher. But in the back of my brain a powerful still small voice reminded me that I had once said, “If God wants me to be a minister, he’ll provide the money.” Since God had magnificently kept his part of the bargain, I went on to theological college, on the side taking postgraduate studies at the university.

Formal theological study brought me many new problems. Systematic theology largely explored the places the concept of God occupied in all those philosophical systems which I had already abandoned. Many eminently respectable theological statements could be supported only from within long-outmoded views of the world. To me, too many high-sounding words seemed slippery and meaningless. Too much of what I was hearing sounded like a wind-blown voice from a great distance. The teachers were always answering questions I wasn’t asking, and I seemed always to be asking questions which nobody was answering.

Something somewhere in my educational experience had gone sadly askew. All of us there in the college were in the faith, but we weren’t communicating with each other. We seemed to have no common basis for understanding or agreement on the meanings of venerable old words.

On Saturday afternoons my friend Bert and I sometimes went with the residence gang to watch college football at Varsity Stadium. On one significant Saturday, two girls came and sat down beside us in the bleachers. I have forgotten which teams were playing that afternoon, but I believe that a game was actually played—between the four of us, at least. When the football game was over, we went to a nearby restaurant. We introduced each other, including some personal background. As each bit of information about one of the girls was disclosed, it immediately flew to my mind and stuck there as a nail leaps to a strong magnet. Her name was Kay.

In the back of my mind I had collected some general notions about the kind of woman I would like to marry. The more I learned about Kay, the more she seemed to fill the bill. Being a decisive, logical person, I promptly told her so, there in the restaurant: “You’re just the girl I’ve been looking for.” Later she told me she thought I was “fresh” and not to be trusted. Nevertheless the next evening we went to a concert together and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Feelings quickly became mutual. After four years around the campus together we were married.

My graduation gave me little satisfaction. There were still too many unanswered questions. I knew however that if I waited until all my questions were answered before I began to give what I could to God’s people, I’d never get around to doing the work of a minister.

The presbytery ordained me up in the hill country at Creemore, Ontario, near Stayner. Four congregations now looked to me for spiritual leadership. There were great people in those hills—God’s people—my people. Mostly in farming and small businesses, they were very traditional in their outlook. The church was the center of their lives and communities.

Things were much the same around that part of the country as they had been in former days—the simple virtues and the hushed-up vices. A few of the boys had gone off to the war. As for me, upon university graduation I had tried to volunteer for two of the armed services. When the doctors listened to my heart they shook their heads and wrote down “Category E.” I was a reject.

Nevertheless I still had a worthwhile task. The people were quietly upset by the reports of what was happening in Hitler’s Germany and fascist Italy. Rumor had it that Russian communism was creeping into every country. The most Christianized peoples on earth were at each other’s throats. The world was being sucked into the vortex of an insane struggle that nobody understood. We were all caught in a meaningless, uncontrollable storm, and we desperately needed a shelter from the blast. My job was to keep faith, hope and love alive despite the worldwide destruction.

Everybody else’s problems became the problems of my own soul. Within me I fought to reconcile the existence of rampant evil with the sovereignty of the all-wise, all-good, all-powerful Creator God. As cities overseas crumbled under the bombs, I had to keep myself from falling apart and help others to do the same. My people and I prayed and wondered together. We worked and worshiped together. We cared for one another and were sure that, in spite of all, God is love.


1. 2 Timothy 1:12.
2. Ephesians 6:11,13.