Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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The Making of a Prairie Preacher

June 25, 2010 Articles

I was proud to be a preacher’s kid in our Pentecostal church community in Saskatoon. When asked, “Are you Hilmer’s son?” I answered with a strong“Yes.” While our church was regarded as outside the mainstream, school friends and neighbours didn’t seem to think the term “holy rollers” applied to us. We entered into life at school and found Saskatoon a place to call our own.
Dad was a son of the prairies, born into a Swedish Mission Covenant Church in Manitoba. In his early ministry, he and his brother Henning came in contact with Pentecostals and soon joined their ranks. Though he was a pastor, Dad didn’t have a church; he superintended the fifty or so churches scattered across Saskatchewan. Whether he was home or not, Elim Tabernacle was the gravitational centre of our family’s weekly life. Sunday included Sunday School and morning and evening services. Friday night was youth service. Regular evangelistic meetings ran for a week at a time, and for many a night the Stiller family was there.

Pastors were poor, so when they came to visit their “bishop” they ate at our table and slept in our beds. They were family. Mom and Dad allowed us to sit and listen to their stories and heartaches. We watched as our parents lovingly took their broken and bruised lives, massaged their sore muscles, built back their spirits, told them of their importance, and then sent them on their way back to the small churches, hoping they could find significance and service in the harsh soil of their communities.

In the 1940s and 50s, a heresy stirred in the Pentecostal ranks, crushing many a congregation. “Latter Rain” was its name, a term gleaned from the Old Testament prophet Joel. It mixed a strong and simple faith with naiveté and religious hyperventilation. To use D.G. Hart’s phrase, it was a “spiritual greenhouse.” The bizarre behaviour and biblical exegesis of the splinter group made mainstream Pentecostals seem downright irenic. The epicentre of this movement was in the newly-built Saskatoon Bethel Bible Institute.

By 1947, the division had become so contentious that Reverends George Hawtin and P.G. Hunt, both teachers at the school, moved to a new enterprise called Sharon Orphanage and Schools in North Battleford. A year later dad was elected denominational head of the province. After some fifteen years serving Saskatchewan congregations, church leaders saw him as the kind of person they needed to lead in the turmoil.

Dad took up the task of bringing healing to a theologically divided and emotionally hurting community. Having survived the demands of the Depression, the abuse of the drought, and the patronizing glances and snide remarks of fellow church leaders, would this sectarian, Bible-thumping, tongues-speaking group survive?

An evangelist was “holding meetings” at a downtown Saskatoon hotel, hosted by a local independent minister. I was in my mid-teens and interested in learning for myself whether the report was indeed true that when the evangelist was “Spirit-anointed” oil would appear on his hands. Neither the summer exhibition nor the winter carnival could match such claims. It was time to check it out. So my friend and I decided to attend. However, when I heard the evangelist include my father in his list of those who were “servants of the devil,” I got angry.

The local minister knew whose son I was. (I had tried earlier—without success—to date his daughter.) Seeing my agitation, he asked the evangelist to step aside and told the audience, “Bow your heads.” He then proceeded to recount the Old Testament story of a group of teenagers who were killed by a bear when they ridiculed the prophet Elisha. He continued: “A young man made fun of my preaching and died within a few days.” With that warning he pronounced that my friend and I would die within a week.

My friend and I were considered celebrities, at least until we lived past the prophesied day of doom. Dad, however, saw it as his issue. I was to leave my father’s battles to him, not shoulder them myself. For a decade and a half, Dad steered this little denomination down a new track of thoughtful ministry, seeking to build a community that found its place within the wider community of faith.

There is a question I wish Dad were alive to answer. Each Christmas Eve, he encouraged us as teenagers to attend Catholic mass. Remember, this was the 1950s in the rural world of the Midwest, and we were Pentecostal to boot. Our eschatology, wrapped up in Dispensationalism, viewed Rome as the “Mother of Harlots.” So why did Dad see going to mass as not only permissible but valuable? I suspect he viewed the wider church of Jesus Christ as important. As odd and troubling as the variant theologies of “liberal” or Roman churches might have been to us, he knew our little church had grasped only a part of truth. He wanted his children to see the wider agenda and workings of the Spirit.

It was in this world that my desire and will to serve in the wider church found its beginning. One night, as Mom and Dad were about to turn out the lights, I walked into their bedroom and said, “I’ve decided to go to Bible college.” They had never asked me about my future, but assumed I would soon choose.

That decision came out of years living in the shadow of my father. Three memories linger. The first was Living Waters Camp. Built on Manitou Lake, near Watrous, it was a lake with high salt content and a specific gravity of 1.06 that makes one buoyant, much like the Dead Sea does. I suppose only Pentecostals had the optimism to construct a camp by the lake with such a high mineral content and call it “Living Waters.” Aboriginals called it the “Lake of Healing Waters” because of its curative powers.

Promptly after school was out in late June, I’d take the train to get an early jump on fixing up camp with Dad, along with many of his pastors, a few weeks before it opened. Dad was the cook, and for his “boys” he spared no expense for the best of daily fare. We loved to hear the stories, laugh at the jokes, and feel the loving banter as they worked together.
Then camp came. I looked forward to this gathering—friends from across the province, missionaries with stories and films, and preachers by the dozen. It was the only place to be, for there I could hear at least three sermons a day. I loved the power of the words. The stories of God’s grace lifted Bible stories off the page. Dad was careful in whom he invited to preach; Pentecostals had their fair collection of carnival barkers. Prairie folk at the time had little besides the radio to instill a discerning mind, but they knew Dad’s choices of preachers could be trusted.

One evening, the power of the message and presence of the speaker left me deeply moved. I went out behind the Tabernacle—with its wood shavings—and said yes to the Lord. That night Brother Spence had spoken. A missionary to China, he had been interned by the Japanese during the war. Now in his eighties and walking with a cane, that night he sang:

When I’ve gone the last mile of the way,
I will rest at the close of the day.
I know there are joys that await me
When I’ve gone the last mile of the way

Then he announced he was returning to China. My prayer behind the Tabernacle was, “Lord if you are calling this old man, then the least I can do is to give you my life.”

A second memory came from my travels with Dad on his Sunday church visits. We’d head off early Sunday morning, down gravel roads, across current-driven ferries into towns where congregations would be waiting to hear “Brother Stiller.” These Sundays were often special days; thanksgiving, church anniversaries, or dedications. In Mennonite or Ukrainian communities, the church lunch afterwards was enough to hold the attention of any teenage boy worth his salt: perogies, hulubtsi, smoked sausage, kovbasa, chicken cooked in a thousand ways, salads of all kinds, and desserts of unbelievable goodness.

It was there that I listened to Dad speak in sermons. It was more than words; it was a distinct expectation that we would hear from the Lord. I watched Dad as he brought people to a moment of faith. They were there to touch “the hem of the Lord’s garment.”

In our small and socially marginalized prairie churches, nothing was as important as the sermon. We came to church to meet with and hear from God. We didn’t argue over whether the Bible was true or not, we simply believed it was. More importantly we wanted to know what it said. Not surprisingly, the sermon occupied the most important time of the service. In time I wanted to preach more than anything else.

I learned preaching not just from our denominational pastors and evangelists, but from our wider evangelical world. Youth for Christ spread its presence in the late 1940s. As I child I went with my mom and siblings to the Saskatoon Arena on 22nd Street to hear Charles Templeton, the Canadian who, like his counterpart Billy Graham in the United States, founded a national YFC movement. Every second Saturday night, at the YFC rallies in the Apostolic church at 19th Street and Avenue G, we heard more preaching. Our family ritual on Sunday morning included the radio broadcasts of Charles E Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” from Long Beach, California and Alberta premier E.C. Manning, in “The Back to God Hour” from a theatre in downtown Edmonton.

My irrevocable call to the ministry came when I least expected it. It was the last spring of high school, and time to decide—would I follow my older brother Cal into university? Dad was home that weekend, and we were hosts to a missionary couple, Henry and Florence Koopman.

Years earlier, Henry Koopman had been attracted to missions in Africa, but our denominational mission board had decided he didn’t have what it took and so turned him down. Determined, he sold his small farm in Asquith and bought a one-way ticket to West Africa, arriving with no mission agency as sponsor and no one to meet him. Some years later, he met Florence Fleming in Africa and they were married.

That morning when he preached, I was less than impressed. His antique double-breasted suit didn’t pass the scrutiny of a seventeen-year old who worked in Caswell’s Men’s Wear, which sold the finest haberdashery in the city.
Later, as we concluded our traditional Sunday dinner, Dad said, “Brian, I want you to take Brother and Sister Koopman to their various appointments and then bring them to church tonight.” I choked; my plans were to hang out with friends, not escort primitive missionaries. But there it was: I was more told than asked. At least I had Dad’s car for the afternoon.
After the Sunday night evangelistic service, I drove the Koopmans north on Avenue A to Bethel Bible Institute. Part way there, Brother Koopman asked, “Brian, drop me off here and take Sister Koopman to the school.” After leaving her at the school, I circled around to see what this was all about. Parking back in the shadows, I saw this missionary—one who in his early days was not seen to be of missionary value for our church, but now one of its career missionaries—talking to an inebriated man leaning against a telephone pole. He had seen him on our drive and had chosen to complete the day with ministry to someone I hadn’t even seen.

I sat and watched. I could see them in conversation, wondering how the man understood Henry Koopman’s strong Dutch accent. But words may not have mattered. Eventually the missionary pulled out his wallet, slipped some money into the man’s hand and left. I waited as he walked north. Then turning the corner to return home, I knew why I was there. I was brought face to face with my own smallness. While his preaching skills were not to my liking, I now had seen deeper into what mattered. I had been soundly rebuked by my superficial analysis and inflated sense of calling.

I sat outside our two-story white house with black trim on 816 Rusholme Road, caught between the competing dynamics of self interest and authenticity. “If this man could serve in Africa,” I finally reasoned, “then the least I can do is prepare for ministry, wherever it may lead.”

That night I went into my parent’s bedroom and announced, “Mom, Dad, I’m applying to go to Bible college.” They only nodded. They seemed to have known all along.