Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Crowns Before the Throne

The twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and                     worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne (Revelation 4:10).

The topic of leadership is one that my thinker has never abandoned, even during the twenty years of prime professionalism (?) spent on the highways and byways of Canada and U.S. My enneagram scolds considerably about a certain driven-ness, which of course contributed to the mental condition which necessitated those many miles in my big truck. The memories of those years are precious (I think there’s a song about that), and there have been trucking tidbits here, there, and everywhere in these last several years of blogging.[i]

Having been in a position of leadership for at least half of my working years, that word still casts a long shadow for me. When I hear it spoken, whether in political or ecclesial context, I notice it usually elevates heart rates, pumping with enthusiasm, sentiment or lament. Leadership is a tender and a scary topic. Even historians who have provided the course materials for college or university education may be harbingers of information or lament. Those of us who are baby boomers, who have lived the good life after World War II, speak with considerable candor and freedom, opinions spoken either eloquently or ignorantly depending on education and political leaning. This morning my wife and I read an excellent little article “Complaint or Lament?”[ii] a reminder especially for people of faith, that complaining and trash talk only makes us part of the problem, while lament is the better way to be honest. Good reminder especially for us in our Western society. We live in democracy unless of course would-be dictators start getting elected. It's important to recognize we can think and talk about leadership from the vantage of the ‘good life.’

Recent events worldwide suggest that even thinking or talking (relationships) are stressed, or in fact under threat. Government is probably the first thing that comes to mind; its form oft-times the hue and cry of competing ideologies so boisterous that the moderate voice seems muted, not necessarily because anybody is doing the muting, but because the moderate perspective is kind of boring - does not make good media clips. So we live in an interesting world. Russia is no longer communist, but present form of government is a dictatorship; North Korea and China are still communist, but also ruled by dictators – not pure communism as per Karl Marx; [iii] The United States is still a democracy, but the latest several presidential elections would suggest that noble character and clear-headedness is no longer a worthy platform to get elected on. Opponents are vilified and the populace is joining the smear. The British Commonwealth of Nations, still a monarchy, with individual countries selecting government by touted democracy! Given, however, the vulnerable state of democracy in many countries, the B.C.N. also not immune! Furthermore, the Monarchy is no longer an inspiring guiding force. Given this worldwide government phenomenon, democracy contains no guarantees. 

Government by capitalist motif does not work, as argued by Marx many years ago, and government by socialism also not the ideal, as repeatedly demonstrated in last century or so in democratic countries. Therefore, we have a dearth of leadership models in the political realm. Is it perhaps better in the ecclesial? [No: I shall go here a bit, but be warned my bias is obvious]. Ecclesial is also a story of human structuring. Ecclesial is structure created to represent faith. Canada's current commonwealth monarchy is our political knit with ecclesia. Church of England, the King’s church (sentimentally the Queen’s church, Anglicanism), is the guiding light for Canada, and its purified version (Episcopalians, Wesleyans, Revivalists) for the United States. This faith identification is actually North American colonialism. How about the Indigenous? African Americans? 😞 South America similar colonialism with the ecclesial equivalent being the Roman Catholic church. Institutions, whether political or ecclesial, therefore are not the bona fide!

The limitation of institutions is spelled out in the Old Testament of the Bible. The called-to-faith people (read Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses …) are restless. The Judges are in charge - kind of - but there is corruption (investigations? court cases?). There is a yearning, “then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ “(1 Samuel 8:4-6). In order to address these problems, Samuel is called upon. Interesting about Samuel, his required leadership is not just one role. He heard God calling him as a young boy, that got him a priestly role, but more than that, also recognized as a prophet. My Google search gives me, and adds a little more, “Samuel served as an important transition from the era of judges to the eventual monarchy used to govern the Israelites in the ancient history of Israel.” Interesting also, it is elders speaking to Samuel, and also interesting, they speak honestly, tell him he’s old. Something needs to be done (I know some fellow elders of President Biden in the U.S. trying to say same thing to him). Needless to say, a further reading of the O.T. suggests that Samuel’s apprehensions were well advised. This was not a saving moment of O.T. history; it is a teaching, warning, learning moment. Many a later king forgot their leadership responsibility and began serving their own interests.

It would be foolish for me now to attempt proposal of a reasonable and believable system of government. It is however not foolish to note something about leadership. Genuine leadership reaches up and beyond, definitely beyond religious or political systems. It encompasses the whole variety of components and contributions. Leadership is an organizing principle required among all peoples (meaning even us colonialists, indigenous, and immigrants). Veterinarians and horticulturists will tell us there is order and leadership also present among animals and plants. Our indigenous brothers and sisters know all about that. Multi-talented Samuel 'got it', thick-tongued Moses at a burning bush (Exodus 3:1), spoken to Isaiah in the temple (Isaiah 6), and it is announced to Jesus (Matthew 3:17; Luke 12:24), and fully recognized as one of the gifts needed in the community (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). 

It has been, is, and will be. Something old, something new? And something bigger, larger than any might have foreseen. Another sentence from our devotional writer, "human institutions lack the transforming power to save the world." Hopefully we will not be so busy arguing about the politics or the ecclesia that we miss the parousia (a seminary word, not a trucker's word πŸ˜†). 

Nobody can ignore the end. Note the epigraph at top. At the end of time, all earthly thrones, kings, presidents, along with all of us earthly citizens, must bow before the One seated on the throne

[i] “Seniors and Elders,” November 3, 2022.

[ii] Graeme Lauber, “Complaint or Lament?” ReJoice! July 17, 2024.

[iii] Karl Marx, Das Kapital (Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meissner, 1867).


Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Lesson from a Pen

Some months ago I was in our local library totally engrossed in a book, when the author hit upon a point I just needed to record somewhere. No pen!  Looking beside me I noticed I was in company of a young lady fully dressed in ‘modest clothes’ including hijab. Sensing English would be no problem for this young lady, also aware that most kids do not carry pens these days because it’s all laptops or ipads or devices, I asked her anyway. “Excuse me, would you have a pen I might borrow? I need to make note of something.” There was a shy smile, a dig into her purse, and in short order I was hard at work with pen and paper. She had what I needed. When my note-writing was done I elected not to disturb her, merely positioned pen close to her for obvious easy retrieval whenever, and I continued reading. Half an hour later (approximately) she was gone, pen still exactly where I had put it! Well, dear old thinker kicks in. This was not exactly a cheap pen. Should I chase her down somewhere perhaps among the library stacks to try to return the pen … or maybe just keep it? 😏 I chose the latter. This young lady had probably left the pen as a gift for this old man!

A deliberate gift? I am reminded of a recent incident on similar topic. One of our neighborhood shop owners provided free repair service for a vacuum cleaner which had been donated to a refugee family which my wife and I were involved with. He chose on the spot to add his charity to what he recognized as our charity. Takat is an occasion of charity which must not be passed up, as he explained to us. It is the third pillar in Islam and he ‘must do it’ if he wants to enter heaven! We now have some extra appreciation for one another as neighbors in this our community of Midnapore. I decided the young lady with the pen was probably on same page as our shopkeeper neighbor. I was a Takat recipient!

This is happening precisely as my retirement contains a considerable amount of involvement with immigrants, South Sudanese, Syrians, Ukrainians and others entering into our urban neighborhoods. Even as we try to discern good ways to facilitate hospitality for newcomers to our communities, I cannot but observe a caution which characterizes us Christians. We screen immigrants, we evaluate church programs and budgets almost like we evaluate politicians and our tax dollars. They are scrutinized against our personal comfort, making sure we do not waste money on bad causes. Fundraising has become the work of professionals, with financial advisors and stewardship consultants to help us not squander our wealth, still looking to retain as much as possible for - who knows what? This morning’s Bible reading was about the guy storing up treasures, and then at the end of his days, God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ (Luke 12:20). Nothing new here, even for those who hardly ever read their Bible.

Stewardship is important for all of us hard-working faithful folk, and slowly I am learning that it's more than what each of us do with total assets or profiles, or whatever it is we call our money. Both the Quran and the Bible point to the importance of the ‘collection’ being not for patronage, but more akin to tithing. Patronage maintains the power and prestige of the patron through public giving of gifts, granting prestige (often advertised as sponsors) to the patron and of course material assistance to the other. Tithing, on other hand, is more a matter of redistribution of that which belongs to Allah – God. "Ay, there is the rub", as Shakespeare said once upon a time. This vantage requires neighborly thinking, private interests deferred to community.

I have now finished reading that book which required the note-taking - done reading but the contents not forgotten! [i] Fascinating, creative and oh so well written, this lifestyle/environment/stewardship topic is larger yet than I had it figured until now! The book is about Indigenous wisdom, Scientific knowledge, and the teachings of Plants. Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author, is a mother, scientist, university professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, New York State. Her book does not posit Christian or Indigenous or Muslim religious theology, but actually engages all of these and posits all of us on this Mother Earth needing to observe giant cedars and strawberries and animals as our oldest teachers. We, us human beings, have a reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. The great disaster, according to her, is that we have forgotten to listen to our teachers and the consequences are now all around us. She has left me with a big big big topic, quite akin to the Luke 12 passage quoted above.[ii] The things we have gathered or accomplished, whose will they be?

Even as Dr. Kimmerer leaves me with her prophetic discomfort there is also an undeniable winsomeness in her tone which is easy and hope-filled. She writes like a plain old fashioned mother, my mother even! Mom always had a living room full of potted plants. In her last several years she would sit in her living room chair, with flowers and greenery that breathed life and pleasure for any of us who might want to come and sit a while. And it was also an 'unofficial fact' which my siblings and I whispered about, mom listened to and she spoke with her plants!

I cannot but smile, still thinking of the young Muslim lady in the library who left her pen on my table. It's nice to think she was probably committed to the Takat picture which included my convenience rather than merely her own.

[i] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).

[ii] And also akin to another read on similar topic, Steven Charleston, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015).

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Crying Help

It is not too often that inspiration is received at AGM’s (Annual General Meetings). After an almost lifetime of dutiful attendance and/or reporting at these things I confess my expectations kind of minimal. Surprise, I just caught some inspiration that will not go away, and it happened smack dab in the middle of such an assembly here in our city of Calgary. And it was not a church meeting! It was more than that! It happened May 30 at duly announced annual meeting of Calgary Interfaith Council.

This one was labeled as AGM Plus. 'Plus' was the only variable from announcement of previous meetings, anticipated agenda the usual review of the year’s activities and a look into some plans for the following year. With respectful attention to this year’s hosts, shoes were removed and head coverings donned, normal protocol at the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Sikh Centre. The full dinner served compliments of this community could not be ignored; perhaps that was the Plus? Delicious!

And the inspiration? It came along after the delicious meal, after land acknowledgement and opening prayers, once down to business at hand. Our Chairperson, Dr Harjot Kaur Singh, addressing the group regarding last year’s events, included account of some ‘extra meetings’ necessitated shortly after the October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel which then led to Israeli retaliatory attacks on Gaza which we see, read and hear about every day. Given CIC's purpose statement as drawn up in 2017 "to build a more just and respectful Calgary through: Deepening relationships across faith traditions; Celebrating diversity; and Learning from and about each other," Dr. Singh spoke clearly about mandate for the Board to “sit with one another” even amid the stress of differing faith representatives to do exactly what is the declared purpose. I remember her words, “Just when we realized we were getting nowhere with our resolve, we received request from our Mayor to join in.” The mayor attended an interfaith prayer meeting. It was an offer of help, and obviously also asking for help, herself experiencing political pushback thanks to a ceremonial decision she had made. This is what became the impetus, a new atmosphere for faith leaders to provide important municipal leadership. In short order they became a working team, and a helpful statement emerged.[i]

Needless to say the surprising civic involvement of this Interfaith Board has stimulated a spiritual throb not only in the interfaith community but also municipal politics in this city. I think of a passage in my sacred text (as my Bible gets labeled in these circles): Galatians 5:9 A little yeast leavens the whole batch..." Faith communities of considerable variety seem to be pleased with this positive neighborly witness. Indigenous, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, B’hai and others of our interfaith community are collaborating. Community agony is better than community anger. Together we are sharing a Calgary-based message with our city and with national and indeed international neighbors.

These faith leaders are to be commended. They sat down because they knew they should, and even as the differences loomed high among them our mayor got involved, and it then became what can only be described as a sacred gathering. It is people of faith in a timely manner claiming what is at the heart of us all. Inspiration on this occasion was slightly beyond the good planning. I call it Holy Spirit power.

Once again this is a season of politics in Alberta. The New Democrats (NDP) are selecting a new leader in preparation for the 2027 election. Tonight one of the candidates was hosting a Q and A session. Very experienced and very impressively she fielded questions from all corners and walks of life. But one question she failed on. Asked about her take on present day Antisemitism and Islamophobia, she became unfocused and diplomatic. I suggested in Zoom chat that she check out the statement recently created by Calgary Interfaith Council – definitely better than the political strategies touted by politicians and media every day; definitely closer to the answer! 

Why not ask Yahweh, Allah, Creator God to perform that wonder working yeastly power instead of forging another armaments deal. Interfaith has the Faith answer.

[i] Ryan, Jessica, March, 2024.

Friday, May 3, 2024

An Overlap of History

It was billed as another learning tour to rural Alberta. This second occasion after an earlier visit to Two Hills and surrounding community contained a suggestion from our group leaders. “Why not utilize our carpool time as a bit of mix and match, ride in different cars going place to place.” Good idea. So five repeaters of the first trip and nine first timers became the mix. It’s a new day and a new group. Who says a second tour must be repeat of the first?

The main reason for this second excursion was at invitation of the people we had visited last time. Our first visit to these immigrant Mennonites was a get-to-know-you occasion. And now we had the invite to come again, meaning that the first was not a big intrusion, just a short visit with good memories. Kommt wada, a common statement of welcome among Low German Mennonites.

Most of us in this tour group are urban Mennonites. We are those who have adapted to ‘ways of the world,’ including higher education. Education does interesting things. To our rural hosts we are probably characterized as ‘the learned ones.’ We the visitors probably do not see ourselves in so generic a way. We are a mix of school teachers, preachers, administrators, and medical professionals including nurses and a doctor. From our vantage our hosts may be perceived as the ‘unlearned ones,’ whose migrant lifestyle has recently landed them in Alberta! [i] That also would be oversimplified. They too have variety, unique stories and a unique lineage which brings them here. Besides faith practice and a history of moves and economic interests, politics will be waiting in the wings even if we don’t immediately posit those questions!

History has always received a bit of thumbs down among my cronies, probably because most of us in the education pursuit were pointing toward careers, useful things like teacher training, health care either nurses or doctors (the really smart ones😊), technology or business. History was kind of a long-haired pursuit for those who didn’t care for useful education!  Anyway, however it got labeled, my undergraduate journey favored some history options, making it a minor just below the major, religious studies, which eventually led to my calling (Career? My interests a little out of the ordinary among all my practical minded friends). Yesterday on that tour, we were a bunch of those early students now 50 or 60 years later, visiting businesses, churches, and schools operating with that minimal education perspective which we had fought our way out of. Now they were our hosts! There is something Back to the Future about this. We the old educated ones marveling at all the things being accomplished by those who may or may not have completed eighth grade.

The discipline of history also has specialties. Among both amateur and professionals there are those who know how to spell out details; others more inclined to notice and describe themes that come out of those back-there details along with implications for present and future. Although not a professional nor even quite an amateur historian, I recognize my own interpretive yen, and probably why I am an eager participant in this second visit. As a preacher, and as one whose faith journey started in and among the Old Colonists of the Russian Mennonites, I find it natural to observe and perhaps identify a few trends here. Still the nescheah as per nickname when I was a kid, here goes; a few thematics (?) from this thinker.

Diligence. It was everywhere. We visited a factory; owner and C.E.O. with no academic or techno education, but incredible qualifications and confidence. He knows his business, knows what needs fabricating and why and how to do it and who should do it. Our tour started with this hospitable owner, a cheerful plant manager and many welders and cutters and painters and foremen and office personnel. I saw no Union or Health and Safety (HSR) representatives – seemingly unnecessary when everybody is on same page about best and safest way to get things done (wages were not a talking point). We visited churches, three rural locations; our hosts all church leaders who had taken time off their day jobs to serve as our tour guides (no pastoral salaries here). This fact was cordially and matter-of-factly stated only in response to one of our questioners, not to make a political or theological point. Although I did not take a survey, I know beyond a doubt that us visitors are of similar mindset. Mostly retirees, we also represent diligence, some good track records of expertise and success, whether in education, social services, business, medicine. Good work is more important than the wages we make. Not too many freeloaders here!

Pride. Although Mennonites often poke jokes at one another about being proud of our humility, I saw pride everywhere, not only in the Q and A sessions, but when conversing in our cars moving one place to next in our tour schedule. We speak about our children in their professional and other pursuits, possibly not mentioning the ones we grieve about. We review our career paths making sure it is understood, and if perceived safe to the listening ear, perhaps some reference to a disappointment or two. The underbelly of diligence among Mennonites is that failures are hard to deal with. We prefer successes. One hosting minister spoke with deep pride about his sixteen-year-old son who recently successfully managed his business (11 employees) on their farmyard for two weeks while he attended a church convention in Mexico. Myself a Saskatchewan farm boy, I marveled at his son, I ‘got it’ easily. [ii] Also I remember an additional feature of this topic. In my day, among those ‘adult’ responsibilities our parents made sure we didn’t get too proud of our great accomplishments. Come to think of it, I should have asked this dad if his son knew he was proud of him. 😏

Still a common characteristic, we try to live our lives responsibly, church prayer requests usually limited to safety for somebody on a trip, the sick and the dying, and praise God for a son or daughter who just got a PhD! [Admittedly there are differences here. In these rural churches, the Old Colony and the Rheinlander do not go into such sharing time during worship at all!] Whatever the worship style, I maintain that stoicism is standard fare among most of us Caucasian Mennonites. We do not mention the mentally ill or failing marriages or spiritual doldrums. All of us have things to learn from our black or brown brothers and sisters in Africa or Latin America, sometimes addressing illness or the evil one right there in the worship service!

Also some surprises! One of our hosting bishops spoke with considerable candor acknowledging ongoing problems with alcoholism and addictions in their midst. This was honest humble communication. Spirit-led leaders know it important to think about and learn from one another regardless how sophisticated or simple we are in our urban or rural faith communities. This is a challenge faced by faith communities of all traditions. 1 Thessalonians 5 has something to say about that, And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them (:14)Homegrown honesty can do all of us proud.

Preachers. As already noted these rural ‘brothers’ are minimally educated, but invested with considerable authority, totally committed and serving the felt needs of these rural churches. The Old Colony this year have a baptismal class of 43 all set for Pentecost, the Rheinlander and Kleine Gemeinde also with sizable groups. These three groupings, quite in character with denominationalism everywhere, also have slightly different theological emphases (O.C. baptism is the way to salvation and church membership, Rheinlander a rite “upon confession of faith in Jesus as Savior” also followed by membership, Kleine Gemeinde a similar faith confession but I do not know membership implications). All of these churches are full every Sunday - something for us visitors to think about, possibly even talk about in our carpool rides back to the city!

Most urban Mennonite churches, along with the mainline churches, in varying degrees are suffering a credibility gap. Baptismal classes? Is that a thing of the past? Many of today’s young adults admit to spiritual openness but find no faith invitation in their parents or present-day educated church leaders. Ouch! Visiting these country cousins is an occasion of humble confession especially for those of us in faith communities more aligned with today’s progressive theology while slowly forgetting the rites of Christian faith. When we don’t have those faith celebrations we look for consultants and webinars to help us understand things rather than seeking the Lord’s guidance. Bring back the catechism.

Protestantism, which emphasizes authority residing in the pulpit, is becoming a go-to among Mennonite churches, meaning that even while faltering we look for a good preacher as the solution. Therefore churches at this time are vulnerable to this subtle and compromising shift. Many in our midst do not know that we are neither Catholic or Protestant. [iii] Hiring the right preacher is a Protestant pattern which we have incorporated into our urban professional mindsets. We need to read some history about that. A visit among these country cousins has been a good reminder of what the church is all about.

The early church began after an outpouring of the Spirit on that fiftieth day after Easter. That outpouring is available still but comes only as we the faith community bow in humility before the Lord our God, whether that be in Edmonton, Toronto, or Two Hills. One scripture on topic comes from a hardy fisherman become disciple become the Apostle Peter: To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).

These visits have been a great opportunity for urban and rural Mennonites to learn from one another, and to claim all that God has availed for us. We have much in common. Praise the Lord!

[i] I described something of that first trip in an earlier blog almost a year ago, Froese, Jacob (2023) “Solutions Outside the Lines,” Thoughts from my Room, June 17. Available at:

[ii] “Extensions Beyond,” Ibid. April 20, 2024.

[iii] Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Waterloo, ON: Conrad Press, 1978). See also first in a podcast series, Loewen, William. "Martin Luther and the Niesinck Convent" (S1E1), Free Radicals Podcast, 2 Jan. 2024, 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Extensions Beyond

When I was a young farm kid learning the mysteries of life, I became aware of ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary farming was kind of tidy and seasonal. It was a couple of cows with either milk or cream shipped, certain fields seeded with oats and wheat or barley, some acres summer-fallowed each year, and of course all dependent on lots of rain and minimal grasshoppers. Buildings and yard maintenance was important for some and not so much for others. That was our neighborhood.

This was not quite the way of our farm. Our operation was this plus lots of other things (not quite as normal)! We were also a mixed farm but a little more mixed up! 😏 Included was some cropland and some pastureland, some beef cattle, a modest herd of dairy cows, a chicken coupe and a pen with some pigs in it. Even at a young age I could tell that our mixed farm was deliberate. My parents’ early beginnings had been on prime land. When my two younger brothers and I were still preschoolers our parents decided to sell that property at optimum price and with those funds purchased the place which thereafter was home for us and the further nine brothers and sisters who came along in due time. This marginal stony land would accommodate mixed farming along with a sideline custom hay and straw baling operation. Main purpose here of course was to keep this growing family very occupied – occupied and out of trouble! It was not good to have a high energy labor force with nothing to do.

In hindsight I now recognize most features of this mixed farm operation quite in character of our dad, and recognizable in yours truly as well as several of my siblings! Innovation is more interesting than routine. For example, a three-ton farm truck is generally envisioned as a grain truck. On our farm the three ton was that and considerably more! It was the transportation for hay and straw bales to the city of Saskatoon, where dad had a contract to provide that needed commodity for certain feedlots. True to market economy, of course he knew that the more we could supply the better the feedlot owners liked it, the larger the cheques for services rendered. The fewer the loads the lower the transportation cost, hence an obvious impact on profit/loss of this operation. And yes, in keeping with Mennonite farm management in those days, the labor was free! 😏

This is where the extraordinary came in. Dad designed and built a maximum legally allowed rear extension to the bed of our truck. After only a few loads with this beginning improvement, a bigger plan emerged. With help from my uncle’s welding shop, our three ton received a full over-cab structure with posts coming up from each corner of front bumper. Now we hauled 365 bales per load instead of the mere 200 previously. Dad's truck became somewhat trademark in the neighborhood. Not only did he now haul the biggest payloads, but his oldest son (me) became known as the kid who could. This sixteen-year-old with a new drivers’ license would drive these top heavy loads into the city, much to the envy of my high-school friends and occasional scrutinizing looks from police officers as they would pass on the highway. Younger brothers were my passengers not at all intrigued by any of this because they were the laborers – essential in the loading and unloading of these payloads!

Looking back threescore and some years, I now see this as characteristic of many things going around. There are ordinary routine things, and there are the slightly extraordinary; both methods part and parcel of life. I think of my favorite sport, last game of the season, Edmonton Oilers lost 5 – 1 to the Colorado Avalanche, both teams with secured playoff spots. It was mostly a game of chance, in that the top-ranked players did not play! Suddenly the sheer joy of hockey seemed missing. Top rank McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Hyman, etc. were spectators with occasional camera flicks to see how they were making out in the luxury suites. Meanwhile on the ice, other good players like Darnell Nurse, Corey Perry, Ryan MacLeod, etc. did their duty to complete last jot and tittle of an 82 game season – ordinary players doing the required thing?πŸ˜– I am irritated. Boo to coaches or management for this strategy to either spare the elite for the upcoming playoffs or to visibly reward the extraordinary. Usually we hear much ado about teamwork even in professional sport! Right now I’m confused. Why this elitism in addition to all the million-dollar betting ads this last season? I can’t quite tell whether hockey is for the Bet99 crowd or for those fans who can still afford tickets to the games. I wish professional sport would continue as a celebration of the mix, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Recently I read an old book. Very old actually, so old that even though a one-time bestseller, now hard to find in libraries (finally got it in eBook). In His Steps by Charles Sheldon [i] is about a church service disturbed by a poor man who hobbled to the front, gave a woebegone testimony, fell over and died! The pastor, himself in shock, interpreted this as a divine disturbance. He resolved to begin speaking in subsequent sermons about “What would Jesus Do?” It was unusual and it began a revolution, not only in his church but surrounding community. In this case the stirring reflect on WWJD became a revolutionary equalizer of ordinary routine and extraordinary actions. Theme of this book is that each of us, whether we are perceived as ordinary or extraordinary does not much matter; the important thing is to reflect on the soul-searching Jesus question in all of life's occasions. Interesting about the equalizing is that in this case even the elite business owners and newspaper editors simply re-motivated themselves to act in the best interests of all. Their lives were changed, as well as those impacted by new decisions and relationships. It has been a good read, relevant and applicable even for this day a hundred twenty-five years later.

This morning I had a nice conversation with my barber. A long-standing business in our community, owned by a Muslim family, in early easy conversation this time as I sat down in his chair I felt free to start with something other than weather or state of my hair. I asked whether they are Sunni or maybe Shi'ah. "Just Muslim" was his pointed reply. Ah, I identified with that retort, “Okay I think I get it. Me, I am a Mennonite, but really the important thing to me, I am Christian.” "Yes, yes", he enthused. Now we understood each other on that point, relationship at a deeper level even though we have 'done business' for several years. Conversation went on into various things, also blending into more neutral as other customers came in. Somehow we recognized there was no need to go into major splitting of theological hairs, just like I wish us Christians would not need to be constantly occupied with our doctrinal/liturgical/political/declarations. Being human we share a commonality worth claiming. There are ordinary and extraordinary farmers, ordinary hockey players and good hockey players and indeed some extraordinary. Mercifully all essential in the great variety in God’s garden.

One thing the barber and I did not agreed on. Are we slaves (his point) or are we children of God (my point)? - kind of unusual topic for a barber shop, but it beats reviewing the weather. Next time.

[i] Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps (Chicago: Advance Publishing), 1897.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Raising High End Money

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves (Matthew 21:12).

Recreation and Sports and Charity and Fundraisers are being rolled into one ball of wax. As indicated in previous post, I have a little more to say on the topic of charity and love. By now I am aware it may just be a little more of same, raising a few hackles even, so why bother? Why? Because I trust my readers to come along a bit more. With modified ambition here goes, some observations out of an ordinary routine activity - and then - a little more.

Last evening, watching a hockey game on my television I get hit three times. The phone rings; the solicitor knows my name, speaks to me as though we are old friends, and then I notice she’s reading from a script, collecting money for a very noble cause helping to feed children going to school hungry, not in Africa or Asia, but in this good country of Canada, coast to coast. Nobody is spared. “Could I donate $500.00 or perhaps 300 or $250.00?” I respond with my perspective, namely that I am aware of the challenge she speaks of, member of a church which is connected to a worldwide service agency, quite concerned also about children in Gaza right now not only hungry but also victimized by war, and I participate in community interfaith charity, also personally know a few refugee families who occasionally need emergency help. “$100.00? Every bit helps.” Perhaps she was not listening to me. I explain a little more clearly she’s talking to the wrong guy. It’s more than just your phone call. Then she ‘gets it’ and thanks me for my time.

At intermission Gene Principe the Oilers' Sportsnet reporter explains the 50-50 pot of $1,400,000 (something like that) going to Edmonton Community Foundation. He interviews gently a mother and daughter who are benefiting from this wonderful charity. Quite touching, and I like 50-50’s, used to buy tickets in small-town Saskatchewan hockey games. Maybe one of these days, πŸ˜― but then I remember I cannot even afford a cheap seat ticket to a game anymore.

Then to add insult to injury, once-upon-a-time world’s best hockey player–become-gambler Wayne Gretzky appears in a commercial for Bet99, and almost on cue there's Connor McDavid and Austin Matthews, showing their high-priced faces in support of the American BetMGM to get a foothold in Canada. The Montreal Gazette recently had a feature article “Sports Betting tarnishes the Integrity of Every League.”[i] I agree with this article.

So this is kind of spectatorly - me in front of my boob tube and not every detail fact checked! I am a hockey enthusiast probably thanks to all the stickhandling back there on the Saskatchewan farmyard outdoor hockey rink. Ever still loving the game, I am however no longer a fan of current trends in professional hockey. So here I go, this waxball of money, maybe charity, and hopefully not too far afield of the love of God. In the previous post I made a  distinction between that love and charity. Love of God is huge, so huge that it cannot be fully encapsulated by us, because its source is beyond, deep in the heart of our Creator, the one who so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son (John 3:16), the very One whom we celebrate and give thanks for in Holy Week. 

This love of God is larger than charities, the things we try to do, and most certainly not only the christian thing to do. Charity, community service, and good works are required "things to do" by people of many faiths and traditions. As a Christian (born-again even) I am becoming convinced this love is larger than the tithes and offerings we give in our Christian churches, larger than all we try to do or understand "beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell" (a favorite hymn from an old hymnal).[ii] The positive of this large love inclusive charity is that it can get multiplied (50/50?) and good things are accomplished even if people do it for differing faith or non-faith reasons. The negative is that we Christians begin to slip into calculation mode, being very careful stewards because after all it's the responsibility of everyone in this world (gotta get the total picture)! And so we become cautious, with attention going to charitable status of the receiver, etc. etc. We check with financial advisors rather than our hearts. And yes, those irritating solicitors will probably keep on calling. πŸ˜”

The last several years have provided much challenge not only for churches and faith-based organizations, but everyone in our communities. With the steady influx of refugees, a new reality is upon us. Many churches in the last half-century took pride in 'missions giving.' Missionaries would return on furlough from Africa or Asia to tell us of challenges, opportunities and blessings 'over there,' and wealthy church goers would feel good filling the offering plate for 'foreign missions.' Today foreign missions is different. It's no longer out there. It now means getting to know the families in multiple housing complexes in our cities including the challenge of new style of communication in brand new family systems. It may mean an occasional Christian father who needs to pay a visit to his other wife and family back there, while this wife deals with their teenagers' activities and gangs and other things in this city! It's not just about finding a nice church home for our new immigrant friends here. I'm guessing missionaries often chose not to tell us about these cultural stretches because it might negatively impact the funds collected in our churches. Multiculturalism is both a reality and a challenge especially in anti-immigrant political environments. Mission work now includes bridge building, and lots of it in our local communities, requiring lots of phone calls, lots of mis-spelled texts and short-notice meetings and e-transfers and surprise transactions, not just cheques or dollars in the offering plate. "Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:35).

Many of our charities are now almost in same category as the ‘not for profits’ who are in and among all of this. While it is complicated we do not now have the luxury of closing eyes nor examining each ingredient within these 'balls of wax.' The kingdom of God includes missions, and missions is here AND abroad. Even as I point out these intercultural challenges, I confess to a further surprise (and I may be the old-fashioned one here). I see our worldwide faith-based organizations, service agencies, colleges and seminaries, all into new fundraising methodologies, most of them hiring donor relations personnel, a small part of whose job is to relate to potential donors. The major part of their time is spent organizing walks and races and fundraisers, and learning tours and golf tournaments and competitions and photo-shoots and shin digs with famous people, 50/50’s, etc. The love of God may be clearly evident here. It may also be kind of optional. 

Jesus, the son of God, incarnation of God's love, bids us be careful of the ideas we deal in, and do not even try it without relating to one another. [iii] Fully aware of Passover ceremony and religiosity and the cost before him, Jesus entered the Temple Courts and expressed it clearly to the money changers doing business right there (Matthew 21:12). My prayer is that our mission efforts and neighbor relations and mission dollars may be clearly and simply rooted in the love of God.

[i] Jack Todd, The Gazette (Montreal, PQ), October 27, 2023.

[ii] “The Love of God”, Mennonite Hymnal (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1969) #538.

[iii] "Strangers to Neighbors," the theme for 2023 - 2024 Calgary Interfaith Council.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Desperado Charity

Retirement does interesting things to us. One of the things I have discovered in the last several years is that a certain style of living just comes with you no matter what your age. Longtime psychologists like Erik Erikson[i] and recent theologians like Richard Rohr's[ii] stages of life notwithstanding, there are some things that are a given. These are as natural as the DNA which may determine color of skin, shape of nose, or type of hair you have – or don’t have! My style of living has always and continues to include an affinity with down-and-out people. How one lives with an affinity makes for some more 'thinker material.'

An affinity, so it seems to me, is not something to work at or try to learn. It's just there, or else comes very naturally! At best I can identify my affinity as something I observed in my dad in how he related to his younger brother. Dad's youngest brother broke all the rules. Within their Mennonite Old Colony belief system which included his older sisters and brothers who participated in churchy auswanderungs to safe pioneering places like Mexico or LaCrete or Fort St John, this brother joined the air force! He signed up for reasons of wanderlust, probably no more patriotic to his country than any of his siblings. My dad was a diligent hard working farmer, him and mom raising their large brood on our dairy farm. After the war our adventuring uncle would come along and regale us impressionable farm boys with all kinds of interesting tales of adventure. Dad would listen too, but I could tell by look in his eye that he knew a large amount of this to be considerably embellished b.s. Already weathered by years of experience with this kid brother, dad would nonetheless treat him kindly, even offering our place as temporary abode while uncle sorted out marriage and family and job or unemployment issues, which was common lot for many soldiers now looking for what to do next.

I too have a heart for the ones at the edge. Always an awareness during my years of pastoral ministry and to this day I naturally notice the homeless guy(s) occasionally sleeping in a corner of McDonald’s or other fast food joints. I do not pity, in fact even recognize my inner chagrin at possible bad choices that may have led to this circumstance, but if eye contact available I say hello, and even some conversation if there is interest. I believe there is a considerable variety in all of us created beings rich or poor, and it is inappropriate to paint in categorical brush strokes. Anyway, a caring attitude, which may be a DNA feature, a Psalm 139 feature "For you created my inmost being" (:13), may also be nurtured by how one grows up (Heredity? Environment? A related topic). 

And it may be recognized by others. I am a member of Calgary Interfaith Council. Each year we have some sort of charity drive. Almost by default, several times I have been handed a bunch of ‘gift cards’ to hand out at my discretion to any homeless types whom I may deem as appropriate recipients. This comes simply because the group has recognized a certain connectedness without ever having made a pitch for it.

I suppose it is because of an affinity for people at the edge that I find myself thinking a little more about some words related to that (the thinker again)! Charity and love are both translations for the Greek word agape. Seems to me that the charity version is not popular any more, maybe because everybody is seeking to point out the love and the inclusiveness of God, rather than fearfulness (eg 1 Corinthians 13:12 the old King James Version reads “now faith, hope, and charity” and the New King James and every version thereafter “now faith, hope, and love”)It appears to me that charity is a more circumstantial value-laden word than love. Not being a linguist nor scholar of languages, I resist going into an analysis, but this does not keep me from rendering an opinion! 😏

My opinion is that charity, even though a nice word, has sort of a limiting connotation. I remember once upon a time as a young seminarian in 1978 I traveled with my longsuffering wife and our three children all the way from Saskatoon, SK to Wichita, KS pulling our tent trailer behind her brother's van to participate in Mennonite World Conference and gain one final course credit towards my graduation from seminary. We had a/c in the van but not in the trailer and July temperatures hovered around 100 Fahrenheit. We did not have sufficient funds for campground fees. A fellow seminarian from the area offered their place as a parking spot for trailer and kids. His wife was not pleased with his hospitality towards this beggarly Canadian. We encountered a few hail storms during the next two weeks – my wife enduring this 'holiday' each day spending much time with the kids at a local swimming pool while I attended classes in an air-conditioned college amphitheater! Oh shame. The two week stay ended amiably, but for us the difference between charity and love became quite obvious. In this example charity might be described as love under obligation.

For the last several years I have become acquainted with refugees, as a part of retirement committee work (things we do to assure ourselves we're still useful). Many refugees are affected by PTSD and deeply connected to political and family circumstances ‘back home.’ Several of these are now friends amiably unreservedly declared  – not quite to die for, but almost. πŸ˜ In due time I have come to realize every single encounter, social or worship or business, includes a reference to certain hundreds or thousands of dollars which would accomplish this or that project. Even a hint of promise to ‘look into it’ is followed up next visit with “did you talk to…?” These are in fact very convincing concerns presented to someone (me) in this country not necessarily well-to-do, but obviously with good connections here there and everywhere. The irony is that my connections, namely my friends, the people of my church or my denomination become cautious, “what's he up to now?” some even quickly looking the other way when I come along.

Obviously there is a far reach to the topic of love, and a little tightening of the nerves when one thinks charity. There is another angle on this which deserves a hearing. I shall present something of that in next blog. As I think ahead to that, I am reminded of a scripture which once impressed itself on me in a Greek Readings class in seminary. Also it brings to mind a dear professor (RIP Dr. Gertrude Roten) who impersonated its very meaning. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18a). Thinking about this, even as I continue in relationship with new friends and with old friends, I hope and pray that we may learn some more about charity .. and love.

[i] Erik H. Erikson, Life Cycle Completed (New York: W.W.Norton, 1998).

[ii] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2011).