Today I want to do the impossible – to pay back a debt of gratitude and write a tribute to a dear friend who’s turning 60 today. Paul Patterson is the pastor and founder of our humble house church called Watershed. I and many others are infinitely blessed to have a mentor and friend in Paul.
I met Paul when I was a gangly 12 year old. He was then a young preacher and had come to my home church (North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren) to speak at the Sunday evening service. In those days, the church was my main context. We lived a “hop, skip and a jump” from our church, and I was forever walking there – traversing 2 back lanes and a street to go to girls club, choir practice, German School on Saturdays or church services (two on Sunday). As a teenager, there was “Young People’s”. It wasn’t without its dark side, but looking back, I’m grateful for this context because it pointed me toward God and I was shown God’s love by many fine people. I experienced one of my earliest “transcendent moments” there – those moments where the curtains part and you glimpse something mysterious and unshakably real.
It was in this context that I heard Paul speak. Even then, he had a gift of preaching. He has a way of being human when he speaks about God – your ears perk up and like with any good teacher, your heart and mind is evoked and you want to listen (and it’s no small feat to catch a 12 year old’s attention in a sermon). I actually don’t remember what he said…except for one thing. At the end of his sermon, he read a poem and said if anyone wanted a copy, they could get one from him at the end of the service. I took him up on it and kept it for years in a notebook of treasured, collected poems. Years later, when I realized it was lost, Paul found it for me again. The poem was called “Because God Loves Me”, and was all about the unconditional love of God.
Fast forward 10 years and I met Paul again at MBBC (MB Bible College, now Canadian Mennonite University), where Lyle and I and some others now in Watershed were students. He had come to the college chapel (and later at a fall retreat) to speak. His talks made God and the life of faith seem real and alive, without being “preachy” or pushy at all. It seemed natural that we begin to attend the small, inner city church that he pastored in the West End called Cornerstone. We’ve been blessed to have him as our pastor for almost 30 years – at Cornerstone and now at Watershed, which morphed out of Cornerstone 20 years ago.
Paul has seen me through many of life’s stages. He prayed at our wedding and prayed a blessing when we had Joel. (He has also mentored that offspring through 21 years of changes.) Paul’s guidance is what kept our marriage intact through a time of separation, which I wrote about in an earlier blogpost. He’s taught many courses on books of the Bible, delivered many sermons (and at Watershed, sermons are more like lively discussions between us all), fostered the faith of many people while talking over coffee, and written countless emails, articles and now his memoirs.
It is not easy to hold onto faith as we go through the “university of hard knocks” that life’s challenges offer us. An undercurrent of cynicism can take hold of the soul. I took the “road less travelled” when I left the larger collective Mennonite world that I grew up in, which has not been the easiest to navigate. It required some rebuilding of what I actually believed in. I’ve also struggled with a propensity towards depression and headaches, not to mention a lot of growing up to do.
Paul has seen me through all of these “side-road stages”. There’s many times where I have professed faith but have been a “practical atheist”. Yet, Paul, with his beloved wife Bev, have always encouraged me (and many others) to keep fanning the flames of faith. Paul often reminds us all that we need to “hold each other’s feet to the fire”, urging each other not to forget God. Sometimes gently confronting, many times encouraging, he has always offered an insightful and specific Word which has revived and deepened my faith, and I’m not the only one.
There’s a verse in the Bible that describes God’s word like a surgeon’s scalpel, knowing exactly what to cut out in order to heal. “God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.” (Hebrews 4:12). I often think of Paul’s help this way. Like a skilled surgeon, he often knows just where the trouble lies and what antidote from God’s wisdom that will help.
One example has been the help he’s given me with my headaches. For years, I was scurrying around, trying to find a solution. Paul has shown me the difference between being cured and being healed. Being cured of the physical symptoms is never a bad thing, but when that has seemed out of reach, he encouraged me to read a 18th century sermon, still famous, called “Crook in the Lot”, by Thomas Boston. The image is of a crooked piece of wood in the woodlot, which is like the trials life gives us. Boston described God like a loving craftsman, turning those knotted pieces of wood over and over in his hands, wondering what beautiful art could be made out of it. Paul reminded me that God is infinitely creative and can bring beauty and strength out of difficult things. To have had this invitation to trust in God’s unseen purposes has been infinitely helpful. I may not be cured, but my heart is being healed because I know God has not left me without meaning and love amid difficulty. (For an article I wrote about “The Crook in the Lot”, check out this link.)
Probably the biggest legacy Paul has given me has been some advice he gave me years ago now. Paul has always encouraged me to write. “If you want to speak from your deepest heart,” he told me, “don’t. Write it instead.” This has become my mantra as I write and write. Whether cheering on my writing, or responding to my emails, he has always encouraged my vocation. In signing his emails, he describes himself as an “Anam Cara”, a Gaelic term meaning “soul friend”.
Thank you Paul, for all your guidance over the years. You have truly been an “Anam Cara” as you have allowed God to use you. You’ve pointed me and so many others to God and to finding God in whatever circumstances we have been in. I don’t know where I’d be without you and Bev’s unconditional love, a reflection of God’s love which has stayed steady through the thick and thin of life. Many lives are infinitely richer because of your humor, conversations and love of God. I wish you a rich and very happy 60th birthday as you celebrate with us all tonight, and I hope your spirit will be encouraged and sustained in the years ahead. We all love you and are so grateful for you, Paul.