John Marsh suffered a stroke which became more serious until he died on June 9 with his family present. He specialized in interim ministries. His friends sponsored a website at www.johnnmarsh.com
John Marsh and I began our ministries about the same time (1982) and therefore met for the first time at a retreat meant to give us a boost into what were considered adventuresome churches, his in Edmonton and mine as a circuit-rider in Montana. The retreat was in a beautiful wooded place near San Francisco. John and I walked one of the trails, leaving behind a boisterous bunch of pot-smokers who were blowing off steam. We were not stuffy but we were serious and didn’t want to waste time being silly.
It was a period when the Canadian congregations in particular were exploring environmentalism and I was preaching on that subject, by this time in Saskatoon. John formed a publishing subsidiary in the congregation, the Moosemilk Press, and gathered some of my sermons into a book, “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke.” It was a great success and sold out, but is still on the used book market. I’m grateful to him and his committee.
When the CUC ministers met in Halifax, that romantic seaport city, John and I walked the bookstores together, talking at high speed the whole time. He was able to preserve the virtues of a child without being childish.
Another vivid time was visiting the Marshes when their boys were small. I’m not a piano player but I sat with one boy using the noise of the keys to make a story: plinka-plinka for rain, smashing with fist and forearm for a storm, picking out a little melody for a fawn exploring the forest.
But the peak moment of friendship was when John and Alison were married on a Saturday and left immediately on their honeymoon. I was asked to preach the next morning at the regular service. Saturday was a blow-out event but the next morning everyone showed up in the pews, all bright and happy. I invented a call-and-response: after I described each high point of the celebration, the congregation was asked to repeat: “And we got up the next morning and came to our church.” They repeated it laughing and proud of their minister and his new wife.
On another occasion of preaching in Edmonton, I had us listening to Paul Winter’s song about a moose walking and we all got up and moose-walked to the music. I remember preaching about Persephone and the bright red kernels of the pomegranate she ate that brought us seasons. I gave everyone red beads to make it vivid but had beads left over so somewhere in the Edmonton lawn are the leftover beads. When John came to my Saskatoon installation, he brought a gift, a wooden letter opener still on my desk. These are the objects of material culture we shared.
John Marsh’s classic back east background was a mystery to me. Likewise, I was left behind by his interest in food, since my idea of a recipe is a peanut butter sandwich. He was always open to different styles and cultures in every aspect so I valued learning from him. We shared experience with theatre. He was able to combine a child’s open-eyed vision of the world with sophistication and learned consideration. I value his moral carefulness and generosity of heart beyond that of any other UU minister I know. It is undying.