I was totally surprised by the intensity of my emotional reactions this morning. My brother sent me an email which brought me back to my roots and to memories long buried.
I grew up on a farm in Rosemary Alberta. It’s been years since I have been physically or emotionally back home. That rural community seems to be a part of my distant past. I have been thoroughly urbanized, quite content to live in the biggest city in Canada. At times, in my life, I have reflected on how growing up on a farm, and attending the Rosemary Mennonite Church, helped shape my work ethic, my values, and my spiritual journey. Realistically I am no longer emotionally connected to the place of my growing up.
I had uncles and aunts and cousins whom I felt close too living in the area. They provided strong family bonds. My grandfather was the Aeltester (bishop) of the German-speaking immigrant church (I was 4 years old when he died). Now I have only 2 cousins left in the Rosemary area. The family connections have thinned.
Some years ago, I felt some inner turmoil while I was in a rather heated letter writing debate with a few folks from the Rosemary church who were very distressed about my openness to Christian gays in the church. The Rosemary Mennonite Church has more recently left the embrace of the Conference of Mennonites In Alberta, supposedly over this issue. I am aware that the theological and ecclesial gap between my growing up church and I is rather large.
Yes, emotionally these Rosemary roots have thinned and faded. Until this morning. My brother sent me notice of Alvin Lepp’s death. Alvin Lepp was 10 years older than I. But I felt I knew him quite well. I have memories of him in the left back row of the church choir, which my father conducted, face lit with pleasure, singing in his deep bass voice. When I came back to Rosemary from college one summer and formed and conducted the male choir, he was an enthusiastic and very affirmative singer. It was Alvin who bought our family farm, a year after my dad’s death and after my mother realized that she couldn’t run the farm by herself. He it was who remodelled our old house and made other improvements to the farm.
And it was Alvin who played a very significant role in a very momentous episode in our family story. Our indigenous adopted daughter, at 19 years of age, was looking for her family roots. It was Alvin, because of his “mission” work on behalf of the Alberta Conferences of Mennonites on the Siksika nation, who had the personal contacts and relationships there that helped our daughter almost immediately get into contact with her birth mother and larger birth family. Thank you, Alvin from the bottom of our hearts.
Emotionally I am back in Rosemary this morning. Alvin’s funeral will be this afternoon. I wish I could be there. I give thanks for the roots I have in Rosemary, Alberta. And I ponder how our “roots” still keep us connected in invisible ways to the place of our beginnings -- long after we think we have left them behind. Do any of you identify with having tenuous, and yet strong roots to home?
'‘Tis a New Year. We have laid the old year to rest, with some regrets, but with a feeling that there was more to celebrate than there was to wish away. I basically don’t make New Years resolutions. Either I am too lazy to make them, or maybe realize that I won’t keep them anyway. But, based on my experience a few weeks ago, I am pondering the need for some remedial social awareness. I have never really followed youth culture, and need to confess that I am totally out of touch with the realities of that world – technologically and musically. Can someone my age really change? Should someone my age make any resolutions at all?
My burning light moment of “out of touch-ness” happened several weeks ago. I confess that I had no clue. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe I just got stuck in the past. Maybe I’m just oblivious to the contemporary scene. I had no clue who I was playing hockey with.
Our son Mark invited us over for a visit in Kitchener. We wanted to catch up on the trip Rachel and Mark had just returned from – a trip to Europe to visit their daughter Lorena who is studying in France. Mark specifically invited us for a Tuesday visit. Tuesdays is when he plays hockey with a bunch of other clergy – an ecumenical group of hockey enthusiasts. They play in Tavistock every Tuesday morning. Mark invited me to play hockey with them.
I soon realize that I am by far the oldest one there – most retired clergy know when to hang up their skates. But I am warmly welcomed anyway. Coming to the arena I did notice a big black vehicle and several people in official looking uniforms – maybe guards of some kind. I payed no attention. The comaraderie in the dressing room was welcoming. These clergy though are mostly quite young. What am I doing here? One of these young clergy is quite exuberant. He is in the far corner. At one time he even starts singing. I like the spunk these soon to be teammates on the ice show.
We warm up on the ice. Then I’m told that they always start each game with a prayer. Maybe clergymen also need to remind themselves that they should not get overly competitive. This young man who had started singing in the dressing room now launched out in a loud, enthusiastic prayer. Time to play hockey.
These young clergy are way faster than I am. It turns out that I am on the same team as the “singer-prayer”. He is actually a rather good hockey player. He scores a few goals. I don’t.
The game finishes. Mark and I head back to Kitchener, chatting happily, feeling good about the physical exertion just expended.
Sometime later I get an email from Mark. “Do you know who we were playing hockey with yesterday? Do you know who the “prayer” was? It was Justin Bieber.
My only consolation in not recognizing Justin Bieber was that Mark didn’t recognize him either. Maybe I need to include my son in a joint program (resolution?) to include remedial social awareness in “our” journey into 2019.
There are reasons to fear what is happening in our world. Democracy seems to be at growing risk. Violence is producing more and more refugees even as our world becomes more and more afraid of them (but what power do refugees really have to make us afraid)? The United States government is partially shut down over a wall – a wall to keep refuges out. Christians too are hesitant about, or resistant to, welcoming refugees who are fleeing for their lives. It seems that an anti- immigrant sentiment is growing around the world, including in Canada. Why are we so afraid?
Surely the Christmas story offers prospective and hope to this fear of refugees. The basic story line of Jesus has him being born in a stable in Bethlehem to poor parents, and almost immediately becoming a refugee in Egypt. Here are my thoughts.
What if – what if Egypt had built a border wall (I suppose if they could build pyramids, they could build a wall), or had met Joseph and Mary and Jesus with chariots and spears drawn. What if Egypt had said a loud “no” to this Jewish family, and sent they back into the cruel arms of King Herod? Would Jesus even have survived? Would there even be any “Christians” today?
What if – what if our Canadian government had said “no” to those fleeing for their lives from Russia in the 1920’s? I would not be here then. I am a Russian Mennonite whose father fled Siberia and was welcomed by Canada in 1927. Three of my uncles didn’t make it and were murdered. What if our government had closed its doors to my family, as it did to that ship of Jewish refugees in the 1940’s? We were, after all, German speaking – an enemy people, and we were from a Communist country, another enemy people. And we were Mennonites, a strange – and pacifist – sect of Christians. Would any of us who have a Russian Mennonite background even be here today?
What if – what if the indigenous peoples of North America had said “no” to us settler peoples, had not allowed us in. But how could they have known that we “whites” wouldn’t be satisfied with co-existence and partnership. How could they have known that many would be hell bent on control and domination. Would any of us “whites” even be here now if our earliest peoples had said “no” to us?
But there is a bigger what if. The above what ifs assume that we humans can control what happens in our world – the strong supposedly protecting those who are deemed weaker, but really solidifying their own power. The story of the birth of Jesus declares that God enters our world with vulnerability and love – a power far greater than all the armies and walls of the world. A few wise men, foreigners even if not refugees, thwart power mad Herod. The Egyptians (wouldn’t they have seen Jews as enemies?) did offer sanctuary to this Jewish family. God was protecting the vulnerable.
I confess that I do carry anxieties and fear about what is happening politically in the United States and here in Ontario. But I want to re-orient my spirit to the good news of the birth of Jesus – the Messiah. I want to hear the angels singing “Do not be afraid.” What if I would put my trust in God’s powerful love.
My wife is trying to persuade me to start writing blogs. “Writers write blogs,” she says,” so start doing what writers do”. But am I really a writer? I’m a retired pastor. I do admit that I have always enjoyed crafting and writing sermons. But surely people don’t want sermons as blogs.
My grade 12 English teacher saw no hope at all in my writing ability. I thought I had written a cute, creative piece. It came back covered in red. Likewise my first essay in college. I must have been sleeping through all the classes where I was supposed to learn the rules of grammar and good English. And yet there has been an urge within me to write, to express myself in words, to find a way to push myself to try to articulate feelings and ideas and faith.
Last week I was asked to preach the sermon at our church. My first impulse was to go to my file of old Advent sermons. I have some dozens of them – over 50 years worth. So much easer to select and repeat. I couldn’t do it. I realized again that I love the writing – the wrestling with a text and a context, finding words and stories and images and emotional tones that might connect with a particular worshipping community. That is exhausting work, but also deeply satisfying.
I thought, when I retired from pastoral ministry, that my serious writing days were over. There was a sense of relief that I no longer needed to face the rather daunting task of writing sermons to meet Sunday morning deadlines - no matter that in the long run this had energized me. Now I could put my brain into neutral and just relax, and - do what?
'Tis my wife who reminded me that I have always enjoyed writing – she claims I am even rather good at it – and that I have considerable experience and insights into pastoral ministry and about what makes for a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation. These might even be worth writing about. “Why don’t you write another book”? If writing a sermon is always daunting, writing a book is just crazy daunting.
My emotions forcefully resisted the idea of starting another writing project. “Retirement is for relaxing – and doing nothing”. So, I relax and do nothing – and can’t stop thinking of scattered ideas that I might want to write about. Eventually I plunge into it, and a book eventually emerges. It even gets published.
And now my wife is encouraging me to start writing a blog. And I resist. And yet. . .?