This is the third and final 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 as well as his faithfulness in his family life, I want to end by looking at his ministry as pastor and church planter.
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.
Tom was a workmanlike expositor, faithfully committed to explaining the biblical text.
Tom’s initial focus in working among the 85 percent of the people in Montréal whose mother tongue was French was to offer free French New Testaments. . . . One man who started reading first the New Testament and then the entire Bible was Charlemagne St-Onge. He was contacted by door-to-door visitation but was already being influenced by local Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eventually he asked both Tom and the Witnesses to come to his home and talk out in front of him their respective understandings of what the Bible teaches, allowing him to ask questions. At the end of the marathon meeting, Charlemagne St-Onge decided that what Tom was teaching was better grounded in Scripture than what the Witnesses were saying. He asked the latter never to return, and in due course he and his wife trusted Christ wholly and were baptized in early 1943.
He was not a great strategist; he was simply a pastor committed to the gospel, to evangelism, and to principled integrity.
In Drummondville, the [Mennonite] Brethren began their work some time after Tom had arrived, and for quite a number of years they systematically visited all of the French-speaking members of the fledgling Baptist church in an effort to win them over. The appeal was not only theological (they held that they operated with an ecclesiology more in line with the New Testament documents) but cultural and nationalistic: theirs was an exclusively French-speaking work. The problem was only exacerbated when one of the few Baptist pastors who was a French-speaking Québecker “defected” to the Brethren side and gave guidance to the Brethren cause in Drummondville. Tom tried to guard his own flock, but he scrupulously avoided any temptation to play the sheep-stealing game himself.
[Because of political trouble] Many missionaries [from the Belgian Congo] returned home for a while. Some of them were Americans, of course, and the most experienced of them brought with them knowledge of both a tribal language and of French. Under the influence of Belgium, French was the language of education in the Congo, especially advanced education. Some of these missionaries, looking around for another francophone part of the world where they might serve until they could return to the Congo, began to think of Québec. A handful came north, and their arrival infused some of the long-standing missionaries and pastors with fresh hope. By and large the French churches were holding their own, but not much more. It was a time of slogging perseverance rather than advance or even the frisson of dangerous opposition. These former missionaries to French West Africa might not know the nuances of Canadian culture, but if they were fluent in French it surely would not take them too long to integrate and then put their shoulders to the plow.
Not one of them lasted more than six months. As a high school student, I saw myself as more than equipped to venture opinions on just about everything. So I asked Dad why none of them had the courage and stamina to stick it out.
Always the meekest of men, Dad replied rather mildly, “Don, you have to understand that they have been used to serving in a part of the world where they have seen much blessing. They are used to considerable crowds, they have built clinics and hospitals, they have seen many people converted and helped to train pastors to teach them. Then they arrive here and find everything to be interminably slow. How are they likely to read this, except to conclude that they must have misunderstood their call to Québec since no fruit seems to be forthcoming?”
“So,” I replied, “why don’t you go to some part of the world where there would be much fruit instead of staying here and producing so little?”
Until then the conversation had been casual. Now he wheeled on me and said rather curtly, “I stay because I believe God has many people in this place”—referring, of course, to the encouragement God gave to Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:10). This was one of many times when Tom grounded his perseverance in the doctrine of election.
[Part of his journal entry for Nov 9, 1959:] “Prayer, the main source of strength of all, must find its necessary time in the early hours of the day, in the evening, around meal hours, without intruding on this ministry of teaching, preaching and visitation. Yet it must undergird all the ministry.”
The longer I have spent getting to know pastors in many small and medium-size churches (and some larger ones!), the more I have become aware of the chasms of discouragement through which many of them pass. The reasons for such discouragement are many, but some of them, at least, overlap with Tom’s self-doubt, guilty conscience, sense of failure, long hours, and growing frustration with apparent fruitlessness. . . . We should recognize that Tom’s journal entries expressing deepest anguish frequently have the texture of biblical lament. Tom never stands in judgment of God; he never curses God. In his gloomiest moments Tom ends up with a cry for help.
The Montclair church was beginning to slide. The young man who was the pastor was constantly whipping the people. Still worse, from Tom’s perspective [now an assistant pastor at the church], was his mishandling of the Word of God. Tom’s style was to be astonishingly non-confrontational about most things, but any serious mishandling of Scripture would almost always spur him to confront the individual. . . . By July the numbers in the church had gone down dramatically. According to the church minutes of 18 July 1973, the pastor announced that he was resigning, effective 2 September 1973. He said that the finances were becoming too difficult, but that above all he thought the “main problem” was “our spiritual standing as a church,” and announced a day of prayer for 27 July. Astonishingly, the pastor then asked “Mr. Carson” to speak up and say what he thought. The minutes record, “Mr. Carson then pointed out to the pastor that the people needed to be fed from the Word, not scolded.”
[Part of Tom’s journal entry for Nov 19, 1973:] “Today I prayed at length that the Lord would help me to become a soul-winner. I told him, in effect, that I would prefer to be able to talk about Jesus in order to attract men and women to him than any other thing. But I know I am fearful.”
[Part of Tom’s journal entry for Nov 20, 1973:] “Today the Lord answered my prayer. Mrs. L. came by to say a simple hello. She had been absent for three days owing to the death of her aunt, who died at age eighty-five. In the course of the conversation she casually mentioned that she hoped everyone would go to heaven when they died. I told her of the two ways Jesus talks about, one leading to perdition. And then I preached Christ. At the end I suddenly realized that God was giving me an opportunity to become a soul-winner. This evening P.L. phoned with some questions. . . . [At the end of the conversation] I gave her the hours of our services for her and her household. O God, you are so good to me.”
[In the final years of Tom’s life, after his wife passed away] Scattered through the journals of his last two years of life are lines like these: “Keep me from the sins of old men”—some of which he details: a tendency to gravitate toward watching television, the temptation to look backward instead of forward, sliding toward self-pity, easy resentment of young men. “Develop, as a senior, a prayer ministry: God has given you the time for it.” “God had a plan to take Mum home and a plan to leave me here.” Within the last year of his life, Dad thanks God that all his children love God more than he does. This was a sensationally inaccurate evaluation, of course, but a man who thinks such things is not likely to be alienated from his children, as so many fathers are.
In his journal entry of 21 August 1991, 4:47 a.m., written half in English and half in French, Dad talks about his deepening experience of God during the previous few days, especially his heightened awareness that all of his acceptability before God turns on the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He writes out, from memory (I have made two or three corrections), the words of a classic hymn:
Alas, and did my Saviour bleed,
And did my Sovereign die!
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I!
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut His glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.
Here will I hide my blushing face
When His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness
And melt mine eyes in tears.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe.
Here, Lord, I give myself away—
’Tis all that I can do.
Help me, dear Saviour, Thee to own
And ever faithful be;
And where Thou sittest on Thy throne,
Dear Lord, remember me.
The building of the Gatineau church was used for the memorial service: it was much bigger than the Montclair building, and it was packed. Charisse, one of Joyce’s daughters and the oldest of Dad’s grandchildren, sang “Find Us Faithful.” “That was Grandpa,” she said. At the wake, the quiet testimonials seemed unending. One young woman who was an attaché at one of the African embassies said that not long before, she had been in intensive care for over a month with postpartum complications. She was in a comatose or semi-comatose state, unable to communicate. She said that “Mr. Carson” had come in every day, sat with her, read Scripture to her, and prayed with her. I found no record of these visits in his journal. During Dad’s final stay in the hospital, this woman prepared a room in her home for him in the hope that he would be discharged and that she would have the privilege of nursing him back to health. Another couple spoke with both Joyce and me. They had been having severe marriage problems and were on the brink of divorce. For two years “Mr. Carson” visited them every week and took them through a Bible study on what a godly home and marriage look like. With tears in their eyes, they expressed profound thankfulness for his godly investment in their lives. Some of these visits are briefly alluded to in his journals, but one would never guess from the entries what had gone on. Why should such matters be reported? Tom was simply serving as an ordinary pastor.
In so many ways Tom Carson was an example for faithfulness to God in life and ministry. May many pastors learn from his example and imitate his godliness, even as he imitated the Lord Jesus Christ.