Those who go before us

I picked up the local newspaper on Thursday morning, harrumphing about why most of the front page was given over to the deaths, within hours of each other, of Hugh and Joan Nees, a local husband and wife in their 90s, who had been married for 67 years,  I still think it is a sad reflection on what newspapers have come to, but I subsequently found the story reported in major international papers.  As it happened the couple were people I had had some contact with.

Hugh Nees spent his working life as a Baptist minister.  Most of that time was in moderate-sized churches, all of them out of the main centres. But he also spent nine years in Wellington, from 1966 to 1975, a General Secretary of the Baptist Union.  I met him because my father went into ministry in 1969, through an unconventional route.  In those days, young men became ministers after three or four years of training at the New Zealand Baptist Theological College in Auckland.  Dad had applied there some years earlier, but was turned down because of me –  training wasn’t for men with children.  Instead, Dad responded to an advert in the Baptist from the Kawerau Baptist Church.  He got the job, and we shifted north – from very European Christchurch, to very diverse Kawerau.  The church didn’t pay –  Mum and Dad got the manse, and for the rest he and Mum worked other part-time jobs.  Dealing with militant unions at the mill on the one hand, and things like a tangi soon after arriving, meant it wasn’t the easiest initation.  But I always recall Dad speaking highly of the support he received from Hugh Nees.

The Baptist Union in those days had few staff, and few pastoral support structures.  But I recall Hugh coming to visit, sharing dinner in our small manse.  Often enough in the course of a career, the influence of one man can be very important –  in ways the doer might scarcely recognise.  I think Hugh Nees was one of those people for Dad.  Ayson Clifford, Principal of the theological college was another, when a way was finally opened up for Dad to do theological training in the 1970s.

I didn’t have much to do with Hugh myself.  But he grew up in this area, and was a part of one of the forerunner congregations to the church I’m part of.  When we were without a pastor a few years ago, Hugh preached on several occasionsfor modern tastes.for modern tastes  I recall a wry, slightly acerbic style.  And I recall his observation that he’d been glad I was leading the services on at least a couple of those occasions –  I think our tastes in hymns, and a slightly more structured service, must have coincided.

As the family noted in the media accounts, Hugh and Joan Nees were secure in their faith, and their hope in a risen Saviour.  I thank God for lives of ministry and witness, and that hey are now numbered among the great cloud of witnesses of whom the writer of Hebrews speaks.

One of now-obscure hymns in The Baptist Hymn Book is “In Heavenly Love Abiding”, sung to the tune Penlan.   For modern tastes, perhaps it is a little 19th century in its expression,   and is perhaps better sung at times darker than the passing to glory of disciples at such a great age.  But I reproduce it here because I reckon the whole song –  like many of the older hymns – is an expression of the faith in which we are called to walk through life.  Discipleship is about taking up our cross, and following Jesus, through the bleak moments and the easier times:  My hope I cannot measures, my path to life is few, my Saviour has my treasure, and he will walk with me.

1 In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here: the storm may roar about me; my heart may low be laid; but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed?

2 Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack; His wisdom is forever, His sight is never dim; His will forms each endeavor, and I will walk with Him.

3 Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been: My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.

And, finally, a verse of a hymn we sang often in the Baptist churches of my youth:

My faith, it is an oaken staff,
O let me on it lean!
My faith, it is a trusty sword,
May falsehood find it keen!
Thy Spirit, Lord, to me impart,
O make me what Thou ever art,
Of patient and courageous heart,
As all true saints have been.

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