My year in Baptist Heaven: BLTS Remembered

BLTS class photo

I graduated from Strathcona High School in 1971.  I have a few scattered memories from graduation night.  The speaker was the Dean of Pharmacy (or something) and the said “old deans never die; they just lose their faculties.”  That’s memory number one from that night.

My second memory is strolling out to the track with my friend Richard Sherbaniuk.  Richard was a track star and I guess he wanted to say goodbye.  We jogged for half a lap and then he turned on the jets.  I did my best to keep up, but it felt as if I was standing still.  But I didn’t care.  High school was over and I was thrilled.

My third memory is driving out to the lake for the obligatory grad party.  Normally, I wouldn’t have been there, but a girl who was new at Strathcona asked me to invite her so she wouldn’t show up alone.  She disappeared as soon as we got to the lake house which was a relief.  Having never been to a high school party I was curious about what happened at these affairs.

Not much, it turns out.  Everybody got as drunk as possible as quickly as possible.  The next step was to fall asleep or get violently ill.  I had a glass of wine and a beer, then took a walk down to the lake.  It was about three in the morning.  The lake was still as glass.  Suddenly the whoosh of wings cut through the silence and I witnessed a flock of Canada geese flying about a foot above the water.  I took this as a sign from God.  What it signified, I had no idea.  Maybe it didn’t matter.

My parents told me they would pay my tuition if I would enroll at the Baptist Leadership Training School in Calgary.  Having nothing better to do, I agreed.  This was one of the best decisions that has ever been made on my behalf.

Founded in 1949, BLTS was the brainchild of Ronald Watts.  My parents had been good friends with Ron and his wife Fancheon in the early 1950s and, like everyone else, couldn’t say enough about this remarkable couple.  Between seminary and founding BLTS,  Watts served my father’s boyhood church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

BLTS had been housed in a lovely old three-story home for several years before a proper facility was constructed.  When I arrived in the fall of 1971, the building had a downstairs dorm for boys and an upstairs dorm for girls.  There was a lovely lounge, a spacious eating room and the school was located a block from the scenic Elbow River.

BLTS was consciously designed to compete with the fundamentalist-dispensational Bible schools that had been springing up across the Canadian prairies and the American Midwest since the 1920s.  The simple goal was to train laypeople for work in the churches.

By the time I arrived, Ron Watts had resigned to become the General Secretary of what was then called the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec.  But Ed Milton, the sweet-spirited music director and assistant principal, was still a fixture.  Ed wore his hair long and slicked straight back, as if the 50s and 60s were warring on his skull.  He made singing fun and, though I’m sure he was frustrated much of the time, he was always upbeat and enthusiastic in front of the students.

Replacing Watts was Dr. Samuel J. Mikolaski (D.Phil, Oxon).  Dr. Sam, as he was affectionately known, possessed a doctorate from Oxford University, and if you ever forgot that salient fact he would periodically remind you.

Sam mikolaski
Samuel J. Mikolaski

Born in Serbia in 1923, Mikolaski emigrated to Canada with his Eastern Orthodox family in 1927.  I don’t recall the precise details of the family’s conversion to evangelical Christianity, but it was dramatic and left its mark.  Dr. Sam’s graduate work was in patristics (a fancy word for the study of the early church fathers) and he was the first honest-to-God theologian I had ever encountered.

Prior to accepting the job as BLTS principal (for which he was grossly over-qualified), Mikolaski taught for nine years at the Southern Baptist seminary in New Orleans along with Clark Pinnock (a fighting fundamentalist who mellowed over time) and Frank Stagg (who would become my favorite professor when I arrived at Southern Seminary in Louisville four years later).  Sam left New Orleans in 1969 to become pastor of Edmonton’s Braemar Baptist Church and, two years later, became the second principal of BLTS.

A walking compendium of theological, philosophical and historical facts, Mikolaski could be painfully formal and, even when he flashed an ironic smile, he seemed to be enjoying a private joke the rest of us were too dense to grasp.

But I loved listening to Dr. Sam. He knew his stuff cold and was full of surprises.  He once referred to the newly constructed Husky Tower as “the phallic symbol of Calgary” and called A Clockwork Orange “the best sermon against behaviorism I have ever heard.”  And Sam Mikolaski introduced me to biblical history.

I didn’t enter BLTS as a biblical illiterate, but Dr. Sam was the first person to organize all the Bible stories rattling around in my head into an historical framework.  Learning that, shortly after the glories of Solomon, Israel split north and south, was enormously helpful.  But the real eye-opener was the exile in Babylon.  For the first time I understood, albeit dimly, that most of the Old Testament was written to explain why God allowed Nebuchadnezzar to have his way with his chosen people, his Holy City with his glorious temple.  I didn’t put all of this together during my year at BLTS, but I left with enough theological Lego pieces to start building on my own.

I loved my year at BLTS.  It was no longer weird to be born again; we all were, or at least we thought we were supposed to be. Some of us could be inconsiderate, or downright mean, but we all knew we were supposed to love each other and we worked hard to make it happen.

Most of us had grown up in Sunday school, so we blossomed in an evangelical hothouse.  That’s only true as a generalization.  As I learned subsequently, some of my classmates were wading through some very deep emotional water at the time.  Sad to say, I was largely oblivious.

The students were a diverse bunch.  We had a few mature students in their mid-twenties who raised the behavioral bar for the rest of us.

I now realize that one of my classmates was on the autistic spectrum, a fact that added an awkward layer of richness to our experience.

One guy joined us a month or two into the year.  He had done some time for blowing up a police car with dynamite while high on LSD (this was 1971, after all).  He had become a Christian in prison and, when he clearly posed no threat to society, was allowed to re-enter the free world.  He is now a Baptist bureaucrat.  Go figure!

As you might have guessed, there was enough sexual tension to keep things interesting, but the staff worked overtime to keep things under control.  The school had been tainted by scandal the previous year.  BLTS was next door to Altadore Baptist Church and we used the sanctuary for morning chapel.  It was there, right in front of the altar, that a couple had been discovered making out (or worse–the details were always deliciously vague).

About half the class coupled up at one time or another, but few of these relationships ended in wedded bliss (as a matter of fact, I don’t think any of them did).  Chad and Nancy Stretch from Prince Edward Island were engaged when they arrived and married shortly thereafter, but the rest of us weren’t that serious.

Our house parents, Mom and Dad Delicate, had been a fixture at BL for a long time (how long, I have no idea).  Dad Delicate was Mr. fix-it and everybody’s friend; Mom was a firm disciplinarian with a tender heart.  They had an apartment on campus, right next to the boy’s dorm, and if things got out of hand, Mom Delicate would set things to right.  She saw and heard many things that a mature woman should never be exposed to.  She lost her temper a time or two, but she never lost her twinkling sense of humor.

Delicates
The Delicates at a costume party

Ed Milton served as choir director and singing was a big part of the experience.  Every weekday started with chapel services which were typically student led.  I can still remember Paul Pierce pretending to be a drunk while Bob Krahn played his guitar and sang Johnny Cash’s Sunday Morning Coming Down.  When I sang Paul Simon’s Blessed no one suggested that the line “blessed are the cheap hookers” might not be appropriate for chapel.

Fairest Lord Jesus had always been the BLTS hymn and Uncle Ed Milton taught us to sing it in parts from memory.  The song is forever etched in my brain.  We were encouraged to create little musical ensembles and I was part of the folk group.  We had a repertoire of five or six songs which we sang in dozens of little churches in the course of the year.

horsey sweater
Me and my horsey sweater

I didn’t feel awkward at BL; at least not as awkward as I had felt in high school.  Like half the boys, I wore my hair down to my shoulders and I transformed the “horsey sweater” my mother had given me for Christmas into a personal trademark.

We were all given CB (character building)  duties like washing dishes, setting the table and cleaning the bathrooms.  Every morning one of us would get on the intercom and gently remind our brothers and sisters to rise, shine and give God the glory.  I once played the Beatles’ Good Morning (complete with barnyard noises) at peak volume.  No one was amused.

Naturally, we were all expected to do “deputation work” in local congregations.  I had the good fortune to end up at First Baptist, Calgary, one of the few flagship congregations in our tiny denomination.  The dignified, soft-spoken Harold Mitten was pastor and I loved his preaching.  He made the faith sound sensible, desirable and right.

I was walking by the sanctuary one morning, on my way to Sunday school, when I heard Neil Young’s Four Dead in Ohio, blaring from the sanctuary.  The kids making the music called themselves Gepetto and they were doing a remarkably good Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young impersonation.  Hearing that song in church was strangely therapeutic. It blended, if only for an instant, secular and religious sides of my world that normally lived in awkward and unresolved tension.

Denomination pastors filled in for Mikolaski and Milton, teaching practical courses in public speaking, Sunday school teaching, “Baptist distinctives”, church history, as well as Old and New Testament.  The course on Christian education dealt with the sticky “age of accountability” when young people were old enough to understand the gospel and “follow Christ in the waters of baptism”.  Twelve seemed to be the magic number, although, for the spiritually precocious, eight wasn’t too young.

The only course I remember in some detail was taught by a maverick pastor named Bob Roxburgh. Bob told us the church must change radically if it hoped to speak to a changing society.  Roxburgh distinguished between gesellschaft churches, (organizations characterized by top-down bureaucracy), and gemeinschaft churches, (organisms rooted in personal relationships).

Someone sneezed while we were taking our end-of-course exam and I said, “gemeinschaft“.  My sense of human has always been . . . quirky.

The course on “sects and cults,” taught by Norman Archer, was a big hit.  We learned why the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons were wrong about practically everything. Unable to pick up on social cues, and taking all the love-talk too literally, our on-the-spectrum classmate attended a Mormon church and was so impressed by the nice people he encountered there that he brought some of them for lunch one day.

Dr. Sam was not pleased, but he didn’t tell us why.

Early on, Dr Sam announced that everyone who had earned at least a B-plus average in high school would be expected to participate in a weekly seminar.  He handed me a short article from a scholarly journal and told me to summarize it for our first meeting.  I wandered over to Elbow Park, plopped down in the grass, and perused the document.  (I was wearing a striped muscle shirt and when I returned, Dr. Sam ordered me to change into something more appropriate.)

When we all gathered in the classroom, Dr. Sam asked me to summarize the article.  It was about the need for “sky hooks” on which Christians could hang the foundational truths of the faith.  When I was finished, Dr. Sam opened things up for discussion.  We all just sat there, scared to death of saying something stupid.  That was the end of the seminar idea.

Music was a big part of BLTS.  We didn’t have a lot of virtuoso talent, but almost everyone grew up singing so we good and loud.  Several of the kids had participated in the youth musicals like Tell it Like It Is and Natural High that were popular in the late 1960s.  The Jesus People were on the cover of TIME and evangelicals were imploring young people like us to get high on Jesus instead of dope.

Pass it On was a show-stopper from Tell it Like It Is and, at BLTS, it was a big favorite during our regular sing-alongs.  The song ended on a triumphant note:

I’ll shout it from the mountaintops
I want my world to know
The Lord of life has come to me
I want to pass it on.

Some of the kids could witness to dramatic conversion experiences, so lyrics like this felt genuine.  Because I was still waiting for my Damascus Road, rapturous lyrics (whether penned by Fanny J. Crosby in the 19th century or Kurt Kaiser last year) always sounded forced to me.  The people at the churches I knew appeared to be normal human beings.  If they were inwardly aglow with the spirit they were keeping it well hidden.  So why were we pretending to be aquiver with religious ecstasy?

By Christmas break we were so sick of Pass it On that, when our on-the-spectrum friend requested it, we all groaned.

folk group
The folk group

The folk group I belonged to performed I Wish We’d All Been Ready by Larry Norman, the very first Christian rocker.  The macabre lyric viewed the world through a post-rapture lens:

Life was filled with guns and war
And all of us got trampled on the floor
I wish wed all been ready
The children died, the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish wed all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
How could you have been so blind
The Father spoke, the demons dined
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.

Larry Norman says he wanted to highlight a side of Christianity that never gets mentioned in Church.  This stuff was certainly not mentioned in the churches I had grown up in (although that was about to change).The folk group was practicing I Wish We’d All Been Ready one afternoon when Dr. Sam strolled by.  He stroked his chin thoughtfully as we sang, and I was sure he was going to tell us to trashcan the song.  Instead, he gave us some pointers on presentation.  “You should pause between each line,” he said, “so people really listen to what’s being said.”Dr. Sam didn’t grow up with Rapture theology either, and he certainly didn’t learn it at Oxford.  But he had made his peace with the rapture-tribulation-second coming-millennium chronology of dispensational theology because, he decided, the millennium was a literal reality.And Dr. Sam was a biblical literalist.  During his Oxford years in the 1950s, Logical Positivism ruled the academy.  Propositions that could not be proven empirically were commonly regarded as nonsense.  But how were Christians supposed to prove that God created the world, or that Jesus rose from the dead?  Biblical texts concerned with the end of the world were particularly problematic.  How could you provide empirical evidence for the rapture, the tribulation, the Second Coming or a literal thousand-year millennium?The radical skepticism Sam Mikolaski encountered at Oxford forced him to choose between reason and revelation.  Dr. Sam believed in reason, but you either accepted the biblical worldview or you didn’t.  And if you accepted the biblical worldview, Sam reasoned, you couldn’t pick and choose between what was literal and what could be dismissed as mere symbolism.

Uncle Ed Milton, our vice principal, told me years later that he and Sam Mikolaski were oil and water.  With an M.Div from McMaster Divinity School, Ed and was no theological slouch.  He had been taking some courses at the University of Calgary and one of his professors introduced him to some fresh ideas about the atoning death of Jesus.  When Ed shared his new ideas with Mikolaski a chill wind blew through the room. “Oh Ed,” Sam responded, “that was all settled in the fourth century.”

Ed Milton resigned as vice principal at BLTS at the end of our year and Sam Mikolaski survived one more year before moving on.  Most of us were oblivious to the personal and theological differences between Uncle Ed and Dr. Sam.  I enjoyed working with both men and remember them both fondly.  In fact, I never would have known about Dr. Sam’s dogmatic side if he hadn’t assigned a research paper near the end of the year.

I was supposed to write about the prophet Isaiah.  Having little interest in the subject, I found a book in the school library, translated the author’s ideas into my own words, and handed in the semi-plagiarized result.  The book (likely purchased by Ron Watts back in the day) reflected the standard view that Isaiah chapters 1 through 40 were written by a prophet of the 8th century BC, chapters 40-55 were composed by a “second Isaiah” during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, and chapters 56-66 reflected a “post-exilic” context.

This was all new to me.  I had never devoted any thought to the authorship of Isaiah (or any other book of the Bible,) but I didn’t find these new ideas disturbing, or even interesting.  I was a kid wanting to dispense with an assignment as quickly as possible.  Whatever the book in the library said, I was down with it.

Dr. Sam was not amused.  “Re-write this Mr. Bean,” he said as he handed my paper back, “and, this time, there’s only one Isaiah.”

I spent a few minutes editing out the bits about Isaiahs two and three and re-submitted the paper.  But something about this encounter bothered me the more I thought about it. Surely the guy who wrote the book in the library knew what he was talking about.  Why didn’t Dr. Sam sit me down, sketch out the range of opinion on the subject, and explain why he preferred the one Isaiah theory?  Could belief be dictated from on high like that?

It is quite possible that Mikolaski realized the merits of the three Isaiah hypothesis but believed that the vagaries of advanced biblical study would erode the faith of a neophyte like me.  When you start moving the boundary markers of the faith, where do you stop? After a while, you might start doubting everything, especially if you are an ignorant and naive nineteen year-old.

Our year at BLTS ended in a blaze of pathos and glory.  We loaded up the bus and went on a lengthy tour of Baptist Union churches. The tour was exhausting, exhilarating and emotional.  We had never felt so close to one another, yet we knew it would be over far too soon.

And it was.  Now the decision I had postponed by enrolling at BLTS could no longer be evaded.  What was I going to do with the rest of my life.

One thought on “My year in Baptist Heaven: BLTS Remembered

  1. I remember you sharing a good many years ago the one-Isaiah three-Isaiahs encounter with Dr. Sam. I wondered whether I was misremembering or if you were going to share it in you piece. Glad you shared it. Sam spoke at chapel at NABC when I was there, and then met with faculty in the faculty lounge. I was not impressed with his dogmatism. Did he, like Pinnock, become more open in his later years?

    Good reflection. Thanks for sharing.

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