In the depths of his wife’s pain, Miles Finch remembered the stories and one by one he wrote them down.
Finch, 74, had plenty of poignant and humorous recollections from his 37 years as pastor of New Life Christian Center in Polson. The chance to pen those stories came about in an unusual way.
For five years, Finch’s wife, Karen, experienced back pain so severe the only measure of daily comfort was when her husband would rub her back. While she was seeking treatment for a couple of herniated disks, a physical therapist injured a nerve in her back that caused the unrelenting pain.
The Lakeside couple had just settled into retirement on the west shore of Flathead Lake when Karen’s affliction became the focus of their daily lives.
“We were looking in all kinds of directions for help,” Finch recalled. “In one month we made 12 trips to the E.R. My rubbing and reading to her seemed to help.”
They now smile and refer to that time as their “house arrest.” About a year ago another physical therapist — the sixth one Karen has seen — found a solution and she’s been slowly on the mend.
During that time of confinement, Finch would write early in the morning and late at night when his wife was still in bed.
“It started as an adventure we could have together at home,” he said.
He read the stories to his wife and to his brother-in-law Eugene Peterson, famed author of “The Message” translation of the Bible. Peterson lives next door.
“Eugene wanted to listen to all of them, and a pattern emerged,” Finch said. “It took on a life of its own.”
The 24 true vignettes became a book called “Somewhere By Chicago.”
It begins when Finch, a Fuller Theological Seminary graduate, gets a call to apply for the pastoral post in Polson.
“Miles, where did you say? Montana? You’re going to MONTANA? Where’s that? Somewhere by Chicago?” Finch wrote in the book, recounting a colleague’s take on the remote calling.
In most cases Finch used his parishioners’ real names — with their blessing. A few names have been changed to protect their identities. With a front-row view into their lives, he shares the often hilarious accounts of people such as Blossom Cooper, Marge Plank, Wild Bill Bentz, Barney Johnson, Frank Lefthand and even then-Polson Mayor John Dowdall.
“I prayed for a church that would include all kinds of people,” Finch said, “but God’s answer was ridiculous.”
There were truly painful stories, too, and Finch penned those as well, but didn’t include all of them in the book.
“It would’ve given a negative cast,” he said.
One of his favorite stories came about six months after the Finches were “ensconced in a newly painted parsonage.” JoAnne, their immediate neighbor and a church member, stopped by to confide in Finch’s wife about how the congregation came to choose Finch over a couple of other candidates.
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, Karen, but when Miles preached on his Sunday, none of us understood a single word he said,” JoAnne said. “He was the worst preacher of the three, but when we prayed about your coming we all just ‘felt good’ about it. We felt you were God’s will somehow.”
Finch still laughs about how much work he poured into that introductory sermon, and the kinds of questions they asked afterward that had nothing to do with his seminary study or proficiency in Greek and Hebrew.
“So much for my Hebrew! So much for my five months of agonizing study on Psalm 32,” he wrote in his book. “The big-game hunters and farmers and lumber-mill workers of Polson Assembly of God church weren’t looking for Hebrew conjugations. They wanted someone to conjugate life.”
In the chapter called “Descent into Helplessness,” Finch gives a brutally honest account of some of his early struggles as a pastor, joking at first about how he and Karen began with 29 “bona fide” members, and “by working real hard for three years, I got it down to 13!”
It was a desperate time financially and spiritually for the struggling congregation.
“The congregation was confused, too, because they thought they had sensed the will of God,” Finch wrote.
At some point, though, he saw the light, a moonbeam from heaven, so to speak.
“I had lost the perspective of prayer,” he said. “I was depending more on myself.”
Once he realized he was “descending into complete and obvious helplessness,” the nature of his prayers changed. As the modern proverb puts it, he let go and let God.
And in doing that, his ministry and church “turned around on a dime.”
Finch’s core values and rural roots weren’t so different from the lives of many of his parishioners. He was born in Miles City, the 12th and last child of a ranch family.
He remembers feeling “the weight of sin” at an early age, though. At age 8 he was pulled toward the Bible with a hunger for Scripture. He considers that his first conversion to God.
“I sensed God’s presence and tasted the cleanness of heaven,” he recalled about that boyhood experience.
The pastor of their Miles City church was Charles Jackson, the father of famed Lakers’ basketball coach Phil Jackson.
“He loved to preach from the Old Testament ... his demeanor appealed to me,” he said.
Finch’s real epiphany came in 1953 when he cheated death twice in the same week. He was 15 and had just gotten his license when he narrowly missed a head-on collision as he topped a hill doing 55 mph and came face to face with a ’52 Cadillac in the middle of the gravel road.
A few days later, “a horse almost kicked off my head,” he said.
“I was wavering in my faith at that time, so right then I went into the hay mound and had a second conversion of will. I gave myself to God.”
Finch first met his wife-to-be at a junior high Bible camp in Hungry Horse. They noticed one another, but it would be years before their paths would cross again.
Karen’s mother, the late Evelyn Peterson, had pioneered a church in Bigfork. After Finch’s family moved to the East Lakeshore area in 1954, they ran into one another again and dated some in high school, but broke it off when they planned to go to different colleges.
Instead they both wound up at Seattle Pacific University.
“The first year we ignored each other,” Karen said. But when she needed an escort for a spring dance, her old friend Miles stepped up to the task, and some time later they were married.
Their first child, a son, was born with spina bifida and died at 5 1/2 months. The loss was devastating.
Finch had gotten a degree in psychology, but felt he needed theological training, so he attended Fuller Theological seminary, graduating in 1966. He served as a student pastor in Bigfork for two years during his time at seminary.
The couple had two more children, Kevin and Kimberly, and now have six grandchildren, too.
Though Finch’s book was published in 2009, it’s just now that he’s been able to start marketing “Somewhere By Chicago” and contemplate a sequel.
“Even though retirement hasn’t gone the way I thought it would, I never saw [Karen’s pain] as her problem,” he said. “It was our problem. That woman gave me 200 percent and gave the church 200 percent and I can never pay her back.”
Finch said they’ve felt buoyed by more than 150 people in Polson who pray regularly for them.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that splashed over on me,” he said. “It was bigger than both of us, but God helped both of us. In acceptance lies peace.”
“Somewhere By Chicago” is custom-published by an Amazon.com-related company. It is on Amazon.com or can be ordered from the author for $14.99; payments may be sent to Bonmot Media, P.O. Box 682, Lakeside, MT 59922. The book also can be ordered by calling Finch at 844-2720.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.