Help Along the Way
Where would I be without the love, support, and friendship
of these and others?
By Jan Paulsen
For me, three people in particular stand out among the many who have helped me along the way.
The first is my mother. She was a soft-spoken, gentle person—I never heard her speak harshly of another person or speak words in anger. Yet at the same time she possessed a deep, unwavering faith. It was a straight-forward, unqualified belief, grounded in a strong sense of loyalty to her Lord and the church.
FORMATIVE YEARS: The author (left) enjoys a family outing with his parents and siblings.She was baptized as a Seventh-day Adventist just a few months before I was born; my father and his brother had already joined the church sometime before. These were the depression years of the 1930s, a time when Adventism grew in northern Norway. Itinerant Adventist evangelists often spent the winter—six to eight months—in one area and established a church.
My mother’s parents were evangelical Lutherans who belonged to a conservative group, the Laestadian movement, which still exists today, mostly in the northern parts of Norway, Finland, and Sweden. They were followers of a nineteenth century Swedish revivalist Lars Levi Laestadius, whose emphasis on austerity and plain living led his followers to adopt strict religious practices. In my grandfather’s home there were no flower pots in the windows, no whistling, no wearing of neckties. I remember as a child sitting with my grandparents at the breakfast table struggling to eat my porridge without sugar—a luxury forbidden by my grandfather. But when he had finished and had gone outside to his chores, my grandmother would say, “Now come … ,” and she would bring out the sugar. My grandfather’s life was strongly driven by his religion, but I knew early on that it was a form of religion I wanted no part of.
In spite of this my mother, like my grandmother, preserved a warmth and a sweetness that infused her life and the lives of those around her. She taught me the value of faithfulness to God and to His church, and she taught me to pray. And that was the beginning of my Christian journey. As I look back I realize that my mother led me to an experience of salvation—a sense of the saving presence of Jesus Christ in my life. She helped me discover the importance of keeping my faith simple—not in the sense of being simplistic, but of nurturing a relationship with Christ that is not overburdened by complexity.
The second person who profoundly shaped the course of my life was a schoolteacher—my fifth-grade teacher, O. K. Naerland. He had traveled to the far north of Norway to help start a church school in my hometown of Narvik, teaching a dozen grade-school students in a one-room school adjacent to our church.
CLASS ACT: The author’s fifth-grade teacher influenced many during his career. Pastor Paulsen is in the back row, third from right.I was not a good student. During the war years my family had evacuated to the country and my education had been erratic at best. And even after returning to Narvik I had not done well during the few months I spent in the local public school. In one subject especially—arithmetic—I had done very poorly. I had little self-confidence, and that was related—whether cause or effect, I’m not sure—to the fact that I stuttered badly.
Yet under the care of this patient, kind teacher, something changed. The local school authorities kept up periodic checks on our church school to assure themselves that academic standards were high enough. During one visit by school inspectors, toward the end of the first year, my teacher gave me a math problem to solve on the chalkboard in front of the class. These inspectors knew well how poorly I had done in this subject in public school, and now they were amazed at the change in me! A year later I finished the seventh grade with the top mark in arithmetic in the town’s schools.
Around this time I also began to feel a strong attraction to the ministry. Some in my church said, “You, train for the ministry? With a stutter like that?” But my teacher encouraged me. I have no recollection of him ever putting me down or saying, “You can’t do that.” At a critical moment in the life of a 12-year-old boy, my teacher taught me not to accept limits that appear, at times, to be overwhelming. He cared enough to recognize and develop the potential in his students. He taught me what can be accomplished with proper attention, focus, and application. And he taught me a lot about self-confidence; about reaching out and moving beyond that which seems to confine you.
Some years later another teacher—this time a seminary professor—also played a formative role in my life. Ted (Edward) Heppenstall was one of the leading Adventist theologians and teachers of his generation, whose influence is still felt in many ways in our church today. Not all have agreed with him 100 percent of the time; his theological approach sometimes met with mixed reactions. Yet, to me, he was in many ways a father figure.
THEOLOGIAN TO THE PEOPLE:Edward Heppenstall challenged and inspired many students and pastors during his long career as a pastor and college professor.I first met Heppenstall and his wife, a Norwegian woman, when they visited Norway in the summer of 1955. He had just been appointed to teach at the seminary, then located in Washington, D.C. I was 20 years old and had plans to go to Emmanuel Missionary College to finish my last two years of college before moving on to the seminary. It happened that Heppenstall and I were both booked on the same boat from Oslo to New York City. Maybe it was our common link to Norway, or perhaps it was the time we spent together on the journey to America, or simply the fact that he was such a caring person, but a bond developed that was very important for me.
Heppenstall was a challenging, provocative teacher. My first two years in the seminary were a period of intense discovery—a time when I began to find a real sense of joy and fulfillment in pursuing theological study. But Heppenstall could unsettle you. He did not necessarily state things in the historic, traditional way. I remember going to his office one day midway through the term and saying, “Dr. Heppenstall, you have destroyed everything I have believed about the sanctuary and you’ve given me nothing in place of it.” It was probably an arrogant thing for a student to say, and yet it was provoked by honest frustration. He replied, “Jan, remember—the sign of a mature mind is waiting until all the evidence is in.” And he was right. As the term wore on, more started to fit together. Not everything he said I could accept in exactly the way he stated it. But I honor him for the fact that he took his students down difficult paths of study—paths that are necessary for those who wish to function effectively as a minister. He did not shelter you from alternate ways of looking at things. He was profoundly loyal to our church and he would do his best to pull everything together into a structure that could be defended from the Bible. More than any other person, he stimulated me to search Scripture for myself.
I see a certain symmetry between what I learned from my mother and what I received from Heppenstall. My mother helped me experience salvation. Ted Heppenstall helped me understand it. And there lies the bridge between faith and understanding that I believe is so important. If our faith is merely intellectual—even though we can explain it, defend it, even teach it to others—it is incomplete. We must also have the experience of faith, that sense of utter security that can come only from an uncomplicated trust in the goodness of God and in the sureness of His promises.
It is good for each of us to look back along the path we have come, to recognize individuals God has placed in our way. We see certain relationships that have shaped us and challenged us, people who have provided anchor points for our spiritual development. Many of us will find that those who shaped us the most are people we encountered early in our journey—in childhood. We’re reminded how important it is to care for our young people, especially in the preteen years when the character and mind are so pliable, so vulnerable; when supportive words can carry such lasting significance.
As we reflect, we find new assurance of God’s presence in our lives, of His constant working through circumstances and relationships to keep us close to Him, and to keep us moving forward toward His future.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.