Saturday, September 3, 2005

Remembering Elmer

In the fall after I finished high school, I was enrolled in the Radio, Television & Journalism program at Lambton College in Sarnia, Ontario. A family I had known as a kid, Elmer & Betty Johnson, invited me to rent a room in their basement, and I soon arrived in my rusty '73 Corolla, ready to start life as semi-independent young adult.

When I arrived at the college, I ran into some friends I had known in elementary school, and discovered that we had all become aspiring musicians. And most significantly, they had a working band that was in need of a bass player.

I had been playing bass for almost two years at this point, so I was reasonably confident that I could pass muster, but the bigger question (in 1981) was the fact that I was a Christian, and this was a "secular" band that played at dances and nightclubs (a big no-no in those days, when most churches -- including mine -- still thought Keith Green was too worldly for using drums and electric guitars).

As far-fetched as that sounds now, it was a legitimate struggle for me at the time; how could I possibly justify playing in such a band, and still call myself a Christian? I would read the Gospel of John and see repeated examples of Jesus going to all the wrong places and hanging out with the wrong people, and I started to wonder why more Christians weren't doing the same thing.

The elders at my church had no struggle at all: they condemned the idea and later instructed the youth at our church to shun me until I "saw the light". When I brought two of my bandmates to our youth group, they were treated so judgmentally that they never returned.

In the midst of my own wrestling with this question, there was a knock on the door of my basement bedroom in the Johnson house. It was Elmer, with Betty hovering just behind him.

In his usual soft-spoken, but very direct way, Elmer cut to the chase: "Rob, do you really believe that God has called you to join a band that plays at dances and in bars?"

Weary from the repeated arguments I'd been getting from well-intentioned people at church, I replied, "Yes, believe it or not, I'm pretty sure God is calling me to this."

Locking his gaze to mine, Elmer emphatically said, "Then go do it. And don't worry about what other people say about you. You have to obey what you believe God is speaking to you."

Betty chimed in, "If you'd like, we can ask you the day after any gigs you have, how you conducted yourself, if that would be helpful to you." (Anyone who has met Betty knows that it's virtually impossible to lie to her.)

I felt such a sense of relief and support from both of them. "Yes, I'd like that. Please feel free to ask me any questions at all; I'd really appreciate it."

And thus began the first of many ventures into being salt and light in the musical subculture.

When we were travelling through Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Elmer's son, Brett, who informed me that Elmer had passed away due to post-surgery complications. We were, of course, unable to attend the funeral, and so I was unable to share any stories about Elmer at that time.

I was really touched by the wisdom and helpfulness of Elmer and Betty during that turbulent time in my late teens, and am still very grateful for their input and example to me during that year at Lambton College. Like all of us, Elmer was "stumbling heavenward" as the old song says, and I'm sure he has just recently heard the words "well done, good and faithful servant... Come and share your Master's happiness." (Matthew 25:21)

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