Extraordinary Ministry by an "Ordinary Pastor" (pt 2)

This is the second post quoting snippets from D. A. Carson’s book about his dad, Tom Carson – Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson. Having previously highlighted Tom Carson’s personal character and devotion to God, I now want to show something of his faithfulness in his family life.

Here I am simply offering some quotes from Dr. Carson’s book. I hope they encourage you to buy the book and read and profit from all of it. I also hope it will encourage you to greater faithfulness in your life and ministry.

Meals were for conversation as well as for food, and while topics were suitably diverse, they often became theological. Dad liked to explain things. Usually family devotions took place after the evening meal. Everyone had to have a Bible because each person read a verse, turn and turn about, invariably starting with Mum, until the chapter or other unit was finished. Older friends remember little Jimmy, still in a high chair, holding his Bible, required to “read” his verse when his turn came around by repeating the words, phrase by phrase, as another member of the family read them out to him. This part of the exercise was inviolable, regardless of visitors, including friends from school, all of whom had to be given a Bible and participate by reading his or her verse as it came up. Most often Dad led in prayer; sometimes it was Mum; rarely it was everyone in the family.

Following family devotions, if Dad was not too busy we could prevail on him, when we were very young, to stand on his head, using an old green pillow, and then help us to do the same. This could end in squeals of laughter and assorted silliness. Less often time was set aside for games. Dad loved these times. He was pretty competitive, but we soon learned two things: play by the rules (and if these were in dispute, we had to look them up), and be a good sport. No one would cheer more enthusiastically if someone else won than Dad. Sunday afternoons, even if Dad was preaching that night (as he almost invariably was), found him reserving time, often while Mum was having a rest, for a wide variety of knowledge games: Bible trivia, historical trivia (“When was the Battle of Hastings?”), and so on. Years later when his first grandchildren came along (Joyce’s girls), Grandpa could be found carefully teaching them how to play Monopoly or some other game.


For all her wisdom, Mum was spectacularly uncoordinated and never played sports with us. Dad taught us to skate, swim, catch a ball, play table tennis, and the like. . . . When the older two children had left home, Jim, still in high school, took up wrestling and proceeded to demonstrate his developing skills by practicing on his fifty-year-old father. He ended up breaking his Dad’s little finger, leaving it crooked for the remainder of his days. Dad would use that finger to point out things in documents, inviting people to ask the inevitable question, “What happened to your finger?” He would take pride in explaining that his son did that to him while wrestling.


Music was important. We sang around the piano, usually in English, sometimes in French. Usually Dad played, until Joyce outstripped him. I doubt that there was a single song in Sankey’s hymnbook that we did not know—all twelve hundred of them.


Despite extended illnesses in the family, which sometimes cost huge amounts of money that we did not have, Dad and Mum would pray, and somehow the money would come in, to the last cent. Dad and Mum made no big deal of this; they were simply quietly grateful. I think they were afraid to enlarge upon the fiscal pressures, partly because they did not want their children to grow up complaining that they were poor, and partly because they wanted their children to grow up simply expecting God to provide what was necessary. Self-pity and greed were to be eschewed at all costs. . . . My recollection of Dad in all this is that he was characterized by disciplined and unwavering gratitude.


Dad was always quick to criticize any speech or behavior in his children that seemed to tarnish God’s glory, question his wisdom, or make light of his Word; yet almost always he did so without ultimatums or threatening outbursts. One Saturday we were both weeding a flower bed. I was in first year of high school, I think, and going through my first poetry-writing phase. I wrote for my own amusement but sometimes printed the results in the school newspaper. Observing the worms as I was hoeing, I thought it would be fun to write a poem in the first person from a worm’s point of view. I composed it in my head on the spot: a worm appreciating the warmth of the sun, squeezing through particles of dirt, etc. My last two lines were, “I saw the spade flash in the sun: / Woe is me! I am undone.” I thought it was hilarious and could hardly wait to print it at school. I interrupted my weeding long enough to recite it proudly to my father. He kept on weeding, said nothing for a minute or two, and then quietly asked, “Are you quite sure you want to print a poem that applies to a worm the deepest reflections of the prophet Isaiah when he was afforded a vision of the transcendent God in all his glory?” “It’s just a joke,” I protested. But I never printed the poem.


Shifting blame from himself was something Tom never did. If he felt he had been unfair with any of his children, he was the first to confess it.


[As Tom’s wife is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and continues to decline, he writes in his journal:] “I must really get a hold of Margʼs needs. Love her. Here I must interject. Oh, I have so much to learn about really loving my wife. [I cannot follow the path of] R.S. [whom he has been counseling] who insists it is impossible for him to continue to love his wife: there is nothing between them. Itʼs over. The thought comes to mind: Does God ever ask His children to do that which is impossible for them? Then if He asks me—no, tells me—to love my wife, then, if I am really ‘saved,’ really a child of God, I can, with all the resources of what it means to be saved. Or if He tells me, as a wife, to submit myself to my own husband, then I can—or I am not a Christian. And this goes—God help me—for everything He has outlined for His children.”


As Mum descended lower into the abyss of Alzheimer’s, Dad lost a soulmate with whom to converse. When she began to lose her motor skills, Dad would half pull her to her feet and walk backward, drawing her along with his hands, to get her to walk the short distance to the bedroom or bathroom. She would teeter back and forth, yet prove very slow about putting a foot forward with each teeter, and thus a five- second walk became a twenty- or thirty-minute exercise. The tasks multiplied. External ministry just about evaporated: Dad’s ministry was looking after Mum. And not once, not once, did any of his children hear a single note of selfpity or a muttered “This isn’t the woman I married” or any such thing. We cannot recall a single time when he lost patience with her. He sang to her a great deal and found a funny side to almost everything.


[W]hatever his own struggles, Tom was certainly not neglecting his own family.


Jim’s final reflections on Dad in the home are worth recording: When all is said and done, what image stands out most of all? It is of Father laughing. A big hearty smile, eyes crinkled up, face red, shoulders raised. He had the best laughter lines of anyone I’ve ever known. Whatever hurtful memories there may be, they are overshadowed by these thoughts. He could laugh at almost anything, especially including himself. And the second thought is of him talking or singing to himself as he would go about doing things, or messing around in the basement.

O Lord, make more pastors like Tom Carson – dedicated to your work, but sacrificially loving towards his family, as you would have him to be.

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