December 22, 2013
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Lloyd looked around the table at the leaders of Stokely Free Church. He and Annie had arrived that afternoon, and a few of the families had gathered at Ned’s place to meet the prospective pastor. Lloyd tried to remember names: Ernest and Evelyn Cooper; Arthur Cripps; Philip and Anna Clarke; Henry Padbury. He knew Rachel Busby was supposed to be there, but she was home with her mom, Virginia, who was ill. Rachel had invited Lloyd to come and meet his mom the next day.
Dinner had been wonderful – Alice’s farm food was good and plentiful. The questions had been good too and had led to some interesting discussion. But now Lloyd interrupted to ask the people around the table to tell a little about themselves and their church. Lloyd formed the impression of people who knew each other well, loved each other deeply and cared about Christ and his work.
His other impression was that the missing Rachel Busby and Virginia Townsend were key people in the life of the church. “Rachel and her husband Roger invited us. That was back in ’13.” “But about that time Virginia invited me over to tea and opened her Bible to show me what God thought about my behavior. And she was right. . . .” “We also have a ladies missionary society. The ladies go to Virginia’s house every week to pray.” “No, that was one of the girls from the college who Rachel and Virginia were taking care of . . .” “We don’t normally get involved in those things, but Virginia wrote a great letter to the editor . . .” “The Girls Brigade doesn’t meet at the church building. They meet at Rachel and Virginia’s place.”
The dinner party broke up early so that Lloyd and Annie could get a good night’s rest. The next day Lloyd preached at a morning gathering. After a light lunch the congregation gathered again, and heard Ned’s testimony to Lloyd’s early days as a Christian, and Lloyd’s testimony of his time at Toronto Bible College. This was followed by an extended time of questions and answers. The next thing on the agenda was a ladies tea, to which Lloyd was not invited. He prayed briefly with Annie that her time with the ladies would go well, and then followed Rachel’s directions to the little bungalow she shared with her mom.
Before he could lift his hand to knock, Rachel Busby opened the door and invited him in. “Welcome, Rev. Robins. Come in! My mom is so glad you’re here.” Lloyd stepped through the little entryway into the sitting room where Virginia Townend was struggling to get up. Lloyd said “Good morning, Mrs. Townend, please don’t get up.” Rachel said “Now, mom, I told you not to get out of that chair.” Virginia turned toward Rachel “And I told you that I would be polite to this young man if it killed me.” She extended a hand to Lloyd “Call me Virginia, Rev. Robins.” “And call me Lloyd, Mrs. Townsend.” “Oh posh,” she said, “please sit.”
A moment later Rachel whisked back into the room with a tray of tea things in one hand and a huge plate of pastries in the other. “I know you must be hungry after all that jawing. Just let me get the pot and we can all sit down cozy together.” Lloyd watched Virginia ease back into a lovely Victorian chair with some obvious pain. She must have been a tall woman in her youth, and though a bit stooped, she was still striking with vivid white hair, a gleam in her dark eyes and a ready smile.
Virginia and Rachel began with the same questions he had been answering, but Virginia quickly turned serious, asking with a penetrating stare, about his walk with the Lord, view of Scripture and ideas for the church. Rachel softened the interview with questions about his marriage, what it felt like to be a new parent, and what Annie thought about the manse. After a while Lloyd said “Rachel, Virginia, can I ask you to tell me about yourselves? I know you are both widows, yet you seem to have real joy and you are obviously very involved in your church.”
Rachel and Virginia looked at each other, and Rachel said “I suppose that's only fair. I'll let mom go first.” Virginia took a sip from her tea, “I was born in the little village of Rusthall, in Kent, where my father was rector of St. Paul’s. He was a godly man and he taught us children the faith at an early age. I think I first believed in Jesus at five or six while reciting the catechism. There was no school for girls in Rusthall, so my daddy taught me everything from how to read, to Greek and Latin, to the classics. When I was a teen we moved to Cheltenham, and I finished up at Cheltenham Ladies Academy. I would have loved to pursue further education right off, but our new church was not prosperous and there were no funds.”
Fortunately for me, one of the boys from the town had attended Oxford. He became a public school teacher there, but he had taken an interest in me, and it wasn't long before Theodore Townsend came back to woo me away from my father's heart and home. We married in 1876 and Rachel was born in 1878. She was the joy of our lives, but her birth was very difficult, and it was clear I would not be able to have any more children.
So when she was in school my husband graciously offered to allow me to attend Somerville, the Women’s College at Oxford. I had a great love for languages and literature, and my husband had a small inheritance from his parents. I jumped at the chance to further my education. I was the only married woman with a child attending the college, though Rachel’s sweet nanny, Mrs. Milligan made it easier.
I found the studies fascinating. Tutors would come down from the main Oxford colleges and teach the girls courses. Several of them were renowned scholars. I took Literature from Dr. Napier and Greek from Dr. Jowett just before his death. Though Oxford did not yet offer women degrees, I had a grand time. Rachel interrupted “she took first in her class.”
The only trouble we had in Oxford was with the church. Many of the rectors had adopted a modern critical approach to the Bible, imitating the German theologians. And so my husband began a quest to put men in our pulpits who firmly believed the Word of God. He was ahead of his time, of course; the threat did not become visible to others for years. Whether Teddy could have made a difference we’ll never know, because he died, with nine others in a train derailment in Essex.
I had lost my parents just a few months before, I was frustrated with my church, concerned about Rachel's teen years, and now left empty, half of me gone. For a long time I lived in a deep darkness, isolated from the friends who tried to console me, and even from dear Rachel. But then I did the only thing I could do. I reached out for Jesus - and found he was already with me. He took my hand and gradually led me from dark to light, from despair to hope. I learned to love him in a new way when he was all I had against the darkness. After a while, when Rachel went to Oxford High School for Girls, I regained enough of my equilibrium to want to reengage with society, and I was accepted as a teacher at her school.
Lloyd was fascinated. Rachel added “Mom also reengaged in church. She began to teach ladies studies, organized the choir, gave devotionals at the school chapel, and later formed a literary group, studying the classics in light of God’s’ word.”
“And how did you do through all this?” Lloyd asked. “When my father died, I was as devastated as mom. I lost a friend, mentor, and a great example of God’s love. While struggling to regain my equilibrium, I discovered that my love of learning was less intense than mom’s. I didn’t have her crazy desire to know everything. I did, however have a love for teaching. So when the time came, I decided to forgo Oxford and went to the University of London teaching program in 1894.
It was challenging: I had to learn to depend on Jesus alone for comfort and strength. At mom’s urging I attended a dissenting church, the great Westminster Chapel where G. Campbell Morgan was just beginning his ministry. I had never heard preaching like that. I hope you are as good as he is, Lloyd.
“I’m afraid I’m nowhere near to claiming that,” Lloyd said.
Rachel went on “I got involved with their young people’s ministry and made many friends, a fair number of whom are now on the mission field. One of my friends was a medical student at Kings College London, Roger Busby. Over the years he became quite attached to me, and mom liked him. The day I graduated he proposed. In 1900 we came down here to Stokely to join old Dr.Williams in his practice. We started attending Stokely Free shortly after we arrived, and I’ve been here ever since. We soon had three daughters: Anne, Dot and Kathleen.
Virginia broke in. “But of course in going to London and then here, Rachel was abandoning her poor old widowed mother. I decided I was not ready to give up on life. So I went to my old tutor at Somerville College and asked how I could get involved at Oxford. I began as interim librarian in 1901 but soon became a tutor in Classical literature.
“You taught at Oxford?” “Yes, for almost twenty years.” “And got her Doctorate, and an endowed chair.” “I loved it,” Virginia said. “Apart from my marriage and my daughter, the years I spent at Oxford were the chief joy of my life. I poured myself into several generations of students and young believers. I hope I enabled them to find something of discernment, truth, beauty, and something of the reality of their Christian faith.” Rachel broke in “Not a week goes by mom doesn't receive a letter from one girl or another thanking her for her impact on their lives.”
“And so,” Rachel went on, “we thought, our mourning was comforted and we had become useful again to the kingdom. Roger and I watched our daughters grow and become fine young women, embracing Jesus and enjoying the beauty of life. Then came the war. Though my daughters were not directly involved, many of my former students were. Our joy became tempered with grief as we planned memorial service after memorial service for young men who lie buried someplace in an unmarked graves in the muddy fields of France. Roger helped where he could, of course. He provided treatment several days a week at the invalid hospital in Reading. The girls got involved in the Salvation Army, and helped with services in the hospital and at the local Army camps. The Salvation Army was wonderful in those years, and not a few of the boys came to saving faith.
Finally in 1918 the end seem to be in sight. The Americans had come, and their contribution seem to tip the balance, and the long years of trench warfare began to draw to an end. But in May 1918, as all this was going on, Roger began to report that a new strain of influenza had begun killing many soldiers. At first it seemed like ordinary influenza; Roger thought the soldiers had been weakened by their time in the trenches. The disease seem to die out during the summer, but a new more deadly strain appeared in October. Soon most of the soldiers in hospital, much of the staff, and the surrounding towns sickened.
We tried to take precautions, to keep away from each other, and to isolate the girls, but in the end it was no good. Except for Roger, all of us got sick. Somehow he avoided it, despite the long exposure. I was not very sick, but wasn't the same with my girls. Anne was 19, and would have headed off to college that fall. Dot, a few years younger, had a boy who was showing keen interest in her. And Kathleen, my baby, was only 14. All three of them contracted the most severe form of what was now called Spanish flu. And despite everything Roger and the nurses at the hospital could do, one by one they passed on.
Virginia interrupted, "Oh, it was a terrible time. The students at Oxford were dropping like flies. We older people seemed less susceptible. But we had to shut down the college, and I came to Stokely just in time to witness the deaths of my three beautiful granddaughters.”
Rachel said: "It broke Roger’s heart. He had so much invested in medical science, yet he saw that in the end it could do nothing to save them or the others. I don't know what the death toll in the town and the camps was, but it was hundreds.”
And so, we mourned. All three of us – together, and yet often in deep and silent isolation. I remember Christmas that year, just six weeks after they died. I had always taken great comfort and joy from the image of Christ being born into our darkness. But in 1918 there only darkness. Mom did not return to Oxford, but stayed with Roger and me in the new year. We tried to help each other. By April or so we began, we thought, to gain a new footing. Then the unthinkable happened. A new round of this terrible scourge burst forth on the town, and more people died. Finally Roger, who had seemed immune, caught it as well. He only lasted a week.
Virginia nodded “My poor Rachel had lost everything. Husband, girls, and most of her reason for living. Scripture tells us but those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted, but that comfort was slow in coming.”
Rachel agreed “I struggled to sense the presence of God in anything. And at any moment when I did sense his presence, I responded to him in anger. I wondered how he could do this to me, and how he could claim to be a good and loving God if he did. I rebuffed all attempts of others to comfort me. I'm sure their words were kindly meant, but at that moment I could not receive them. I wouldn’t even talk to mom, but she had the sense to mostly be quiet, take care of me and pray for me.
In the end, it was Jesus who rescued me. It was at Christmas, and I had convinced myself it would be an even blacker Christmas than the year before. But in thinking about my own darkness, I kept remembering that the incarnation was light coming into a very dark place. I began to desperately want that light. And I found it. I found that Jesus could indeed comfort me, and I began to find healing for my broken heart. One specific moment stands out to me from that Christmas of 1919. I was unpacking our Christmas things, and I came across the three stockings I had made years before for my three baby girls. Naturally I broke down into familiar angry tears over all I had lost. “How could you take away what I most loved?” And it was almost as if I heard his voice saying “I also gave away the one I most loved to rescue those you loved and the broken world you live in.” I came to realize that any sacrifice I was being called to make, was small compared to the sacrifice God himself had made, the sacrifice that Jesus had offered.
It was a turning point, and I began again the long slow process of reengaging in life, and in the work of the church, God’s work in the world.
Virginia broke in “And now, ten years later, we’re involved up to our ear lobes. The Lord has been gracious not only to comfort us in our losses, but to pour out his love on us so that we can pour it out on others. Why just last week, Rachel . . .”
Rachel interrupted “Oh Lloyd, look at the time. We’ve got to get you back to the church for the evening service.”