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The Conversation: 'God Had His Hand On Me'The Conversation: 'God Had His Hand On Me'

The Conversation: 'God Had His Hand On Me'

A self-described 'dipstick' who still isn't sure why God chose him, Paul Henderson has spent the past four decades making the ministering of the Gospel his goal in life.

Paul Henderson
20 minute read

With only 34 seconds left in the eighth and final game of the 1972 Summit Series pitting Canada against the Soviet Union, Paul Henderson scored the goal that not only won the tournament and lifted hockey-mad Canadians from desperation to ecstasy but that also stands, 40 years later, as a defining moment in our history. Yet three years after his elevation to national hero, Henderson knelt and prayed for Christ to enter his life. A self-described "dipstick†who still isn't sure why God chose him, he has spent the past four decades making the ministering of the Gospel his goal in life. Convivium publisher Peter Stockland spoke with him by phone earlier this autumn.

Convivium: You were in Israel a while ago on one of the Canada-Israel leadership trips. How did you find that?

Paul Henderson: It was amazing. We covered the whole country. We were there for a week. It was incredible. On the Mount of Olives, I could picture Jesus there with his disciples; and then around the Sea of Galilee, all the New Testament stories came to life: Bethany and all those places. I really enjoyed being at the Sea of Galilee.

C: I found it was important to be there, yet we know that our faith is not geographical. Our faith transcends geography. Somehow being in that place makes you, paradoxically, feel closer to the faith. Did you experience that?

PH: What stuck out for me was the humanness of Jesus. The fact that he had to walk around that dusty road, he got dirty, he got tired. You wonder where he spent the night. We stayed in beautiful places. Jesus didn't have those. I understood his humanness a lot better by being there. I was standing where he lived. I could picture him standing on the shore asking, "Did you catch any fish? Maybe you should throw the net out on the other side.†Almost playing with them.

C: In your new book, The Goal of My Life, you talk frankly about your life, and at the beginning there's this description of you being born in a sleigh in a snowstorm on the ice of Lake Huron. I thought to myself: How Canadian is that? You couldn't make that up as a Canadian story. The guy is born in a snowstorm on lake ice and goes on to score the most famous goal in hockey history. But you were born into that ethos, that time in small-town Canada, when, if you needed to go out on the ice of Lake Huron to get to the hospital, that's what you did.

PH: The interesting thing about that, when we got to the hospital, my grandfather handed me to a nurse. Her name was Dixie Bell. On her 90th birthday, I met her for the first time up in Kincardine. She was in a home. She told me she remembers it. She said, 'Paul, there was blood all over you, and straw. We had to take the straw, off of you. You reminded me of the baby Jesus born in a manger. You were covered in blood and straw, and I gave you your first bath. I know all about you.' Imagine that. Ninety years old and I reminded her of the baby Jesus.

C: She might also have said you reminded her, minus the straw, of an NHL player coming off the ice after a tough playoff game, covered in blood and no teeth. I was really struck by your very moving description of your father dying at 49. You discuss the importance of fatherly affirmation and the dilemna that caused you. There's that scene where you describe him being your coach in minor hockey and telling your teammates "just get out of Paul's way.†It seems you adopted that as a mantra for life, but the difficulty it caused you as a young boy in the dressing room with your teammates... How did you deal with that?

PH: It was really embarrassing. I sat there, and I just couldn't look up; I remember looking down and thinking, 'Dad, how could you embarrass me like this in front of my friends?' Another coach could have said it. Your dad can't say that about you. I was ticked off and when we got in the car, he knew that I was upset. I vividly remember looking out the window because my dad was not much of an affirming guy. He was always, 'you've got to do better' and would point out mistakes. Yet I knew he was proud of me, because he wouldn't let me off the ice a lot of times. Even though I was embarrassed by what happened, I was thinking, my dad thinks I'm pretty special. My dad thinks I'm better than the whole team. It was years later, when I became a Christian and read a book by Robert Lewis called Authentic Manhood that I began to understand. Lewis says it is so important that fathers affirm their sons as God did to Jesus. I was good at hockey; that was what dad was saying. He was saying, I'm really proud of you and I love you. Maybe that is where all my confidence has come from. I have always been a confident person, saying 'I can do it.' I'm not sure that it didn't come right from that instance right there: my dad thinks I'm good. If my dad thinks I'm good, I must be good.

C: There is a very explicit Christian message and parallel in that, isn't there? God loves the world. Christians measure God's love by the fact that He gave His son and called humanity not to get out of His way but to be in His way, to follow His way. The message is similar, isn't it?

PH: After you start looking into what Christ is, you recognise that you think that you are a really good person. Then you get into the Bible and you realise how badly you have missed the mark. But He still loves you anyway. He is willing to forgive. I did nothing to deserve God's love. It was totally unconditional. Even after I became a Christian, I really tried to be a godly man. But I'm not the most patient person in the world and I catch myself with 'Oh Lord, thank you for your grace.' I love that old hymn, 'Nothing in my hand I bring / simply to the cross I claim.' I think that I understand that I am God's child. I finally woke up one day and recognized that my wife, who is also a Christian, is God's daughter. And I'll tell you what, I have three daughters and if you don't treat my daughters right... you can say anything you want about me, but if you hassle my daughters, you are in trouble. I thought, Eleanor is God's daughter and that helped me to understand and get a grasp of God's love. He forgives us, but He holds us accountable, too. You should love your wife the way Christ loves the Church.

C:You say in The Goal of My Life that you are a product of your generation. If a young person today were to say 'I am a product of my generation,' what would some of the distinctive differences be from what made you a product of your generation?

PH: You would have to ask somebody who grew up in this era. I know when I grew up, and I understand that. But you get two generations removed like I am from the kids today... It seems to me there is a sense of entitlement and they want everything right now. But I want to be careful saying this because on the other side of the coin, I see wonderful things going on that are very proactive. This 'we' thing they have going on, trying to help each other out, I love that. I love that there are so many kids doing very productive things. My generation was a generation that ran away from the Church. I think the Church didn't know how to identify with us. Church became boring as all get out. I remember going to church and saying, 'This is the most boring place in the world.' I didn't see any real role models, so I walked away from the Church. So did my generation. Most of my buddies I grew up with had no interest whatever. Their kids are one step further removed unless they became Christian and changed the legacy, which Eleanor and I have been able to do. Our kids are devout Christians and our grandchildren went to Christian schools and understand the value of that.

C: Would you say that applies to all denominations?

PH: I've got four Catholics in my men's group who walked away from the Church. They were altar boys and they left because they just couldn't relate to it. Now I've got them into the Bible. They'd never read the Bible. Now they say, 'Now I understand why they do that.' They are still Catholics. We never try to get them to leave Catholicism. But they are coming to know God in a personal way. They will tell you, 'We went to church out of guilt' or 'We were forced to.' Now they go back to the Church and say, 'Okay, now I understand it.' Fortunately, we have some really good priests now who relate to where they are. I think there are a lot of people who believe in God but have never seen a positive expression. I think that is why our ministry has done so well. You go to church, you can't ask any questions and you might say, 'Hey, I don't agree with that.' You get into a small group and you can say, 'I don't understand that, tell me about that.' You start having a dialogue. I find Catholic guys, once you get them to understand who Jesus really is and how He loves you, understand He wants to have a relationship with you. That's why you have to get up in the morning and read His word and ask God to speak to you. It is exciting when these guys come alive, and they make great leaders, too. I think the Catholic Church is starting to understand that now a lot better than it did. I grew up in the United Church, and I had no clue what it meant to walk with the Lord.

C:How do you respond to the reality that, while we've spent decades watching Christians back away from their faith, we now see high visibility of other religions. Many Muslims, for example, are publicly proud and very open about what they believe and about their attachment to their faith. What's going on there?

PH: You are going to have to ask somebody a lot smarter than me to figure that one out. The problem is that the older I get, the more questions I have. I think people need role models. They need people who live the faith who they can look up to and see that it's relevant. They need people to show them how to handle the tough situations. I think we haven't done a very good job of mentoring young people. Everybody wants to have a mentor, wants to have someone who will show them the way. I think we have lost that. There are so many temptations for kids today. I think it is a lot harder to be a Christian today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The culture today saturates us with everything that is ungodly. You turn on your television, 90 per cent of it is absolute garbage. Guys get so addicted to video games they lose a sense of what is really important. I'm not trying to make excuses for them. It's a different world today. A very difficult world. My sense is that in some Muslim communities, it goes too far the other way. There is no freedom, or not enough. I think what we need to come back to is an understanding that with Christianity, in its pure sense, you have a choice of how you worship God, how you do your quiet times, where you give your money, what missions you support. What Christ offers you is freedom to experience God's peace. I have had cancer for three years now, and I can tell you that because of my faith I have never had any fear, any angst whatsoever, because I know where I am going. The Bible talks about the peace that surpasses all understanding. I get up every morning and say, 'Lord, I just want to be your person; I ask you to fill me with your Holy Spirit; anoint me.' Then I just go out there with a great sense of confidence to try to live with a real sense of freedom. I enjoy a good apple. I enjoy my wife and driving down a road where there are autumn trees. They are just fabulous. We praise God that He would create a world and have these beautiful colours – yellows, rusts. But that is just an awareness of who God is. If you can understand that and just let God come into everything – your marriage, your relationship – the joy of the Lord will blow you away.

C: I was touched reading that you and your wife celebrated 50 years of marriage on November 10. Congratulations. I don't know if you saw the Statistics Canada numbers that came out earlier this year, but it seemed pretty clear that people celebrating 50 years of marriage will be few and far between in the years ahead. What does that say about where we are headed?

PH: I think we Christians need to do something about that. People need to be taught about marriage before they go into marriage, especially as Christians. Christians are not any different from any other people. The world we live in is an instant world; give it to me now or I'll go somewhere else. People need to learn to ask, 'What can I do to help other people become better husbands, better fathers?' That makes a huge difference. You know there are people who separate and get divorced, but in our men's groups, it is one in 25 guys. In society, it's, what, 40 per cent? If you can move from four out of 10 to one out of 25, that's doing something.

C: It's a question of having those supports and that mentorship around you?

PH: Exactly. Having people to help you through it. Every couple goes through tough times, I don't care who you are. Eleanor and I, we weren't even Christians, but we knew that this was a lifelong commitment. When we got into trouble, we were never going to have the option of divorce. So we went in with that. Then when temptation comes along, you think, 'No. I can't do that. I made a lifelong commitment.' If you married the wrong person or someone is having affairs all the time, that marriage is going to finish. I know there are things that put tremendous pressure on a marriage. I never condemn anyone who gets a divorce because, well, until you walk in their shoes.... But I think there would be a lot less divorce if people really took the vows seriously. Before you get married, you say to the Lord, 'I am making a lifelong commitment here – is this the right person?' You obviously talk about it with each other. Eleanor and I have never once mentioned divorce. It was never on the table. If you don't have that option, you work it out. When you go through the tough times, you come out the other side stronger.

C: Would you agree that society just doesn't accept, much less reflect, those values?

PH: On television, you never see two people married for 50 years. There's always one of them having an affair. Most of them are not even married. This culture today... as people get into marriages, they get discouraged with their partners. They are comparing fantasy to reality. They watch these programs and these wild love scenes and think, 'I don't have this. I better go get some of this.' There are so many sad tales. Eleanor and I speak at various conferences; we know so many people who, if they had to do it over again, would never have left their first marriage. The grass always looks greener on the other side. But the grass is greenest where you water it most.

When you talk about culture, there is an insidious poison out there. Hollywood today is a joke. A marriage is a matter of months or weeks. The Kardashians... it is just a joke. People see this, they say, 'I wasn't happy.' I wasn't happy? There is nobody who has ever been married who is happy all the time. It's an unreal expectation. Your mate will never make you happy all the time. God's standard is giving. The best advice you ever get is just to love and cherish your life. If both of you do that, you get back in spades.

C: There is a necessity to value the past without being a prisoner to it?

PH: That's why I think the Bible is timeless. The Bible is more relevant today, in 2012, than at any time in history. The only problem I have with the Bible is that, with it, you lose seeing the person's face, hearing the tone of their voice. The [Bible] story that used to bother me all the time was the story about Jesus' first miracle. His mother comes to him and says, 'Listen, we have a problem here.' And he almost disses her. He says, 'I don't want to spend my time here like this.' It almost sounds disrespectful. I'm reading a book by John Eldredge called Beautiful Outlaw. I highly recommend it. He asks us to stop to think about this for a minute. We know Jesus loved His mother. He tells us that we are supposed to respect our parents. So Eldridge says Jesus probably winked at her when he said that, with a smile on His face. Now I understand this! I see this in a totally different way. Because she turns away and says...

C:'Do what He tells you.'

PH: Yes. I never thought about that before. As Christians, I think we have done a terrible job sometimes of getting a real nuance of the Scripture, of who Jesus really was, how He acted. It's why I hate emails, especially if you are talking about anything important, because they can be misunderstood. People say, you offended me! But if they see the smile on my face or hear the tone of my voice, they know I haven't offended them.

C:I feel the same way about the Samaritan woman at the well. I can't read that passage without visualizing Our Lord with a smile playing at the corner of His lips, taking the mickey out of her a bit. And even the passage you mentioned, I had a problem with it for a long time, too, because, as you say, it sounds so disrespectful. Then it suddenly dawned on me that what He could really be saying is: 'Who me? You want me to do that now? I'm not ready yet.' Much the same way that you went to your dad and said, 'Dad, I don't know if I should try to make the NHL. I don't know if I'm ready for it. I don't know if I can do it.' We can read those things in the Gospels and then, later in life go: ah, yes, got it at last.

PH: That's why I get so excited. God says: 'Get to know me.' I have been a Christian since 1975 and I've been on an absolute burn. Some days I say I am just starting to get a grasp of who this person really is. I could do this for the next thousand years and I still wouldn't fathom the depths of God. But I think that is the exciting thing about Christianity: it's vital, it's alive, it's growing! I understand God in a deeper way. After mentoring and reading books, I say, 'That makes sense now.' When you first get into the NHL, you figure you know it all. Then you get your clock rung three times and you think, 'I have a lot to learn.' As soon as you get teachable, you start asking advice, you don't get clocked that much anymore.

C:Leo Boivin doesn't hammer you when he catches you with your head down. That's an amazing description in the book of you thinking you could use your rookie speed to blow past the old veteran, and Leo just laying you out cold.

PH: I was so cocky then! You just mention his name and it gives me a headache.

C: You also discuss in The Goal of My Life the incident in the 1972 Summit Series when Bobby Clarke gave Valeri Kharlamov the twohander that broke his ankle and how your opinion changed over time from being ecstatic that it helped Canada win to seeing it as something you would not agree with now. I found that passage a real meditation on wisdom. My sense is that you were trying to express how wisdom comes about, wisdom in the Biblical sense of going deeper into life.

PH: Exactly. You wish that when you become a Christian, God would plug you in and you would get it all right. But that's not the way God operates. It's all about getting to know Him. That's why He created us – He wants us to get to know him.

C: It is unfortunate that your reflections on your changed understanding of the Clarke-Kharlamov incident were misconstrued by a reporter, created controversy and caused ill-feeling on Bobby Clarke's part. Isn't that a failing of our understanding of wisdom?

PH: The press. If they can interpret something the wrong way, they will. If they can cause hassles or controversy, they will. The reporters who flew on the plane with us [in 1972], we respected them. They had a job to do. But they respected us. There are very few players who have respect for reporters or reporting today. There are maybe individual reporters that a player can speak to. But you have to be so careful what you say. That guy who reported my comments took them and made them out to be something they should never have been. It was garbage.

C: And it interfered with what you were trying to communicate about how we change, how we grow, how we deepen our understanding.

PH: That is a lifelong project. That's why I spend time with God every day. I did this eulogy today. I got up this morning at five o'clock and probably spent half an hour praying, 'Lord, give me the right words; help me not offend anybody.' The older I get, the less I trust myself, but the more I trust God.

C: Who found whom? Did you find God or did He find you?

PH: He was always there, but I wasn't listening. He said, 'Okay, you go your way.' In 1972, I had no interest in God. I think He gave me everything. But I looked around and said, "There is something missing.' Everybody's path is different. God knows what is going on. I look over my life and I think God had His hand on me way back then and I wasn't in the mood to listen. Thank goodness that He is a loving God and a patient God. When He knew that I was ready to be teachable, then He got into my life and it was still two years before I said, 'Lord, I really understand this and I want to become a Christian.' The good news about the way I did this is that I spent two years thinking about whether Jesus was real, whether there was a God. March 12, 1975, is the day I invited Christ to be my Lord and Saviour. I put that stake in the ground and I have never had a moment of doubt since. There are a lot of things that I don't understand – like some of the tragedies that happen to good people or small children. But I have never once stopped to think, 'I wonder if God is real? I wonder if He loves me?' That is just a given. I did not start well. I did not become a Christian until I was 32. But I want to finish well. That, to me, is living every day in a manner worthy of pleasing the Lord. If you can do that, you are going to finish well.

C: You are certainly known in Canadian history as the guy who finished better than anyone who has ever played hockey. When I was much younger, I prayed one day, 'God, tell me how I can serve you.' This voice in my head said, 'I thought you would never ask.' You have to ask, don't you?

PH: No matter where you are, what you do, you can be an incredible witness for the Lord. I have known people who owned businesses, are in construction, are teachers, and they are incredible role models for the Lord. When the door opens, and they get a chance to speak about spirituality, they go through it. I'm always looking for a door where I can very gently see if this person is interested in talking about spiritual things. You don't need a profile to do that. I do have this profile, and people come and engage me in a conversation. I will be having a conversation with somebody and I am saying, 'Lord, this is an opportunity. Please open the door so I can talk about you.' I usually ask permission: 'Can I ask you a personal question?'

They say, 'What kind of question?' I say, 'Can I ask you where you are? Your spiritual life?' Anybody can do it. I have trained a lot of guys who have become Christians in my groups. There are tremendous witnesses out there. I know a guy in particular, he wouldn't let a day go by that he wouldn't talk to somebody about Christ. He thinks it is the greatest thing that ever happened to him

C: In encouraging people to live religious faith in public life, you must remember it's not about you. It's about them and about God. It's not about you converting them. It's about their hearts. Is that right?

PH: No question about it. I finally realized that it's God's work, not my work. He uses us and that's the dumbest plan He ever had in His life as far as I'm concerned. Using dipsticks like me. But He does say that we are to be His ambassadors. That's the only plan there is. When I look at the 12 disciples that He chose, if I had been in His place, I don't think I would have chosen any of them. But God looks at the heart. God knows what's in the heart. I think everybody as a Christian has that responsibility. Everybody has different gifts. One of the gifts that God has given me is the gift of evangelism and discipleship... encouragement, exhortation. You get in a group with me, my guys, they know they better not come back and not have their verses memorized or their homework done. It is very important to do that. If you are going to do it, let's do it well. I tend to be pretty aggressive that way. My wife, on the other hand, if she were leading a group, would say, 'If you feel like memorizing your Scripture, it would be really nice.' She is just gracious and kind and gentle and patient. If anybody isn't feeling well, she will sit and talk, put her arm around them. My focus is to move people forward.

The good news is, God says, 'Don't compare yourself to anybody else.' If I were to compare myself to Billy Graham, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. That's the wonderful freedom of being a Christian: you don't have to be like anybody else. Remember 1 Peter 4:10: 'As each has received a gift, to one another ministering it, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.' We are all different.

C: A question I've saved for last comes from a wonderful quote from your great friend Ron Ellis: 'Those years with the Toronto Maple Leafs were tough: we didn't win a lot of games, we missed the playoffs a lot.' As a lifelong Canadiens fan, when I read his comment about those losing Leafs of old, I thought, 'Not much changes, does it?'

PH: [Laughter.] Well, you haven't exactly had much to cheer about in the last few years, either.

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