I think you went to college with my son. Is your husband my good friend’s nephew? Didn’t you play volleyball at university with my pastor’s daughter? The principal at the high school where my son teaches must be your aunt. I think we could be fourth cousins.
I remember those comments being exchanged just after I was introduced to someone new for the first time. An acquaintance who was with me observed our interaction with a quizzical look on her face and said, “You two have never met each other before and within a minute you have all these connections?
I tried to explain. “As soon as we introduced ourselves we knew from our last names we were both Mennonite and so we started trying to find people we might both know. It’s called playing The Mennonite Game.”
The Mennonite Game seems strange to those who aren’t part of the Mennonite milieu. It is much like the popular six degrees of separation theory that on average we are all only six personal connections away from any other person either by acquaintance or kinship or some common experience.
Because large numbers of Mennonites used to live together in certain communities, attend the same private educational institutions, go to Mennonite summer camps, frequent Mennonite church conferences and gatherings, or do service with Mennonite charitable organizations they had lots of things in common. This meant people with easily identifiable Mennonite names could often find many connections.
The goal of this game is to see how quickly two Mennonites, meeting each other for the first time can get to know each other’s family ancestry and establish how many of each other’s relatives they know. While some participants may play this game reluctantly due to peer pressure, others seem to play for the sheer fun and challenge of it. In any case, participants likely believe that knowing something of another person’s familial ancestry helps to understand that person better.
An inventive entrepreneur named Mark Eash Hershberger has created a card game called of course The Mennonite Game.
On his popular blog, The Daily Bonnet Andrew Unger has poked fun at playing the Mennonite Game.
The Mennonite Game may become harder to play in the future since the majority of North American Mennonites now live in a variety of neighborhoods in urban multi-cultural settings. Some have taken the last names of non-Mennonite partners and many have not maintained their connections with Mennonite institutions and churches. In a generation or two, it may be almost impossible to play The Mennonite Game. Depending on your point of view that might not be such a bad thing.
Almost thirty years ago I wrote an article for my church’s denominational magazine The Mennonite called The Church Family Needs to Talk About Worship. I proposed the idea that big changes were needed in the way most churches spent their Sunday mornings.
I had led a workshop at a provincial conference for Mennonite churches about passing on the faith to children and some parents in the group suggested a hindrance to getting their children interested in faith and the church was the nature of Sunday morning worship.
They said we needed a worship experience that got children involved in more than just token ways, that got adults involved. “If we were honest,” the workshop participants noted, “most of us just zone out during the service.”
In my article, I suggested ways the church might consider changing their worship experiences.
Why do we worship in the same physical space every week? Could worship be in a park sometimes or in a shopping mall, in people’s homes, by a lake, on a skating rink, in a garden, or on a football field?
Why do we sit in pews facing forward? What if we sat in small circles facing each other so we could have meaningful conversations, share stories, do artwork, eat, pray, meditate or write poetry together?
Why do we sit still most of the time? Could we dance, play instruments, do pantomimes, clap, and walk around to different stations to do a variety of activities?
Why do we have a sermon that is a spoken lecture as part of the service? Could we replace it with dramas, films, reader’s theatre pieces, object lessons, stories, puppet shows, games, dance performances, musicals, or activities that required everyone to participate?
I had a personal motivation for writing the magazine piece about worship because my son who was 12 at the time was balking at going to church complaining, “There’s nothing to do during the worship service. It’s not for me.”
I told him I was going to write an article suggesting some changes. I assured him changes would happen eventually.
Unfortunately for the most part, after thirty years, they basically have not. Most congregations still do church the same old way.
There has been lots of talk about whether people will come back to church after such a long absence duringthe pandemic. I wonder that too. Maybe this would be a good time to try somethingnew.
The church denomination to which I belong invites women to be leaders in every area of its congregational life. My church has two ordained female pastors. Canadian Mennonite University which was founded by my denomination has a female president.
Although women are taking many more leadership roles in my branch of the Mennonite church it hasn’t always been that way.In my lifetime I have been part of a church where men and women were treated in very different and distinct ways.
When I was a child and attended my grandparents’ church the men still sat on one side of the aisle and the women on the other.
When I was a small child I never saw a woman pastor behind the pulpit. Women didn’t serve as deacons or on church committees.
I was a teenager when I heard about a young woman who attended a church in my hometown and was forced to “confess her sin” in front of the congregation when she became pregnant before her wedding. Her fiancée did not have to confess.
Once when I was a young mother I was speaking at a women’s conference at a church in my hometown and the conference organizers told me I would need to stand behind a special microphone at the front of the church because only men could stand behind the pulpit.
I still remember when I made a motion at a church membership meeting in my home church that we use inclusive language rather than exclusively male language when we rewrote our church constitution and the motion was defeated.
When I was first married they would post lists of people who would set tables and bring food and do dishes for church suppers and there were only women on the list.
I am reading a book called The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Barr. She says the idea women can’t be leaders in the church and they must assume lesser roles and be treated differently than men, isn’t biblical and it arose because the church was influenced by the patriarchal world around it.
According to Barr too many churches today, remain patriarchial and don’t give women an opportunity to serve in ways that make the best use of their gifts and talents. This is damaging to both women and the church. It is good that change is happening but in many denominations, it is not happening nearly fast enough.
Anne of Green Gables was a favorite childhood book of mine. I inherited my first copy of the novel from my aunt. I read it aloud almost every year to my elementary school students when I was a teacher. I read it aloud to my older son when he was six. Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery created a heroine in Anne that has appealed to several successive generations. Anne’s adventures have earned her fans around the world.
You may not think of Anne of Green Gables as a book where you would find spiritual insights but one of the most popular pieces I wrote when I was a columnist for the Faith Page of the Winnipeg Free Press some twenty years ago, was about what people of faith can learn from Anne of Green Gables.
“She’s glad to be a Christian”, is Anne’s remark after being introduced to the wife of her church’s new minister. Anne finds Christians a rather melancholy lot until she meets this cheerful young woman. It’s refreshing for her to encounter someone who is serious about their faith, but also takes such delight in living, and finds real joy in her relationships with others.
Anne sees a picture called Christ Blessing Little Children and wishes the artist hadn’t painted Jesus looking so serious. “I don’t believe he looked that sad,” says Anne, “or the children would have been afraid of him.” Anne envisions Jesus as someone who enjoyed life and took pleasure in his interactions with others.
“If I were a man I think I’d be a minister”, Anne declares. She goes on to say she’d be sure to pick short, snappy texts for her sermons and preach with imaginative creativity.Lucy Maud Montgomery created her lively red-headed character in the early 1900s when there was no female clergy. How brilliant to use her novel as a way to explore the possibility of women behind the pulpit. Anne goes on to ask “ Why can’t women be ministers?” She says if any work needs to be done in the church from fundraising to meal preparation, the ladies of the congregation carry out the task with energy and success. Why couldn’t they preach too?
“I don’t think it’s fair for the teacher to ask all the questions. There were lots of questions I wanted to ask”. Anne makes this observation after her first experience in a Sunday school class. She figures churches should be places where people feel comfortable asking lots of questions.
“If I really wanted to pray, I’d go into a great big field. I’d lie down and look up into that lovely sky, that looks like there’s no end to its’ blueness and then I’d just feel a prayer.” Anne makes that observation when she is trying to think of a way to address God and isn’t sure what to say. One particularly beautiful day Anne says, “The world looks like something God imagined for his own pleasure.”
Be cheerful. Enjoy life and human relationships. Appreciate everyone’s talents and gifts. Ask questions. Get out into the great outdoors to renew your soul.
Some sound spiritual advice from Anne of Green Gables.
My great grandmother was born in a Jewish settlement in Ukraine. I discovered that back in March while working on a family tree project. I found out my maternal great grandmother Margaretha Schellenberg Sawatsky had spent part of her childhood in the Judenplan.
Judenplan? What was that? I found some information online and wrote an initial blog post but I wanted to know more. Jeremy Wiebe who works for the Mennonite magazine Preservings read my post about my great grandmother and sent some books my way that provided new insights about the Judenplan.
It seems in the 1850s both Jews and Mennonites in Ukraine were experiencing a land crisis. Their populations were growing and in the case of the Mennonites the crown lands offered them as an enticement to leave Prussia and move to Ukraine were no longer adequate. This left many Mennonites landlessand if you were landless you just didn’t have much social status or influence.
To solve the Jewish problem of landlessness the Russian government decided to start a new Jewish settlement the Mennonites would refer to as the Judenplan on ten square kilometres of rich fertile land about a hundred miles west of the main Mennonite colony at the time.
However most of the Jewish families that moved there were craftspeople and business people and knew little about farming. To solve this problem the Russian government decided they needed to install mentor or model farmers in each Jewish village and figured the Mennonites who they described as “outstanding models of virtue and industry” would be perfect for the job.
Johann Cornies a Mennonite leader endorsed the plan because he viewed it as a solution for the overcrowding on Mennonite land. Ads were placed in newspapers offering Mennonites who moved to the Judenplan not only good land, but tax breaks and the right to have their own schools.
One of the people who moved there was a school teacher and farmer named Jacob Epp who kept a detailed diary that provides us with most of what we know about life in the Judenplan. Epp probably represented many of the Mennonites when he wrote he had a ‘deep personal aversion’ to living in a mixed religious community.
However for Jacob who had always only been able to rent land, the thought of owning his own property motivated him to move despite his misgivings. Something similar was no doubt the motivation of my own great great grandfather Johann Schellenberg when he too decided to move to the Judenplan.
Eventually six villages each with ten to twenty Mennonite families and twice as many Jewish families were established in the Judeplan. Essayist Harvey Dyck estimates there may have been as many as 800 Mennonites living in the Judenplan at one time.
The two groups kept their distance from one another and that wasn’t because of a language barrier since the Jewish Yiddish language and Mennonite Low German were similar enough to make communication possible. Still the Mennonites and Jews maintained their own schools, dress, religious beliefs and other social systems. Fraternization was discouraged and apparently there is no record of a single friendship or romantic liaison between a Jew and a Mennonite in the Judenplan.
The Jewish settlers who for the most part weren’t farmers ended up continuing on with their previous trades of tailoring, blacksmithing, shoemaking, tin smithing, trading wool and grain, lending money, making and selling liquor and inn keeping. They didn’t always have much time left for agriculture and so some ended up renting their land to Mennonites or local Ukrainians. The Mennonites apparently took advantage of the many convenient services the Jewish businesses had to offer.
Since the Mennonite and Jewish fields and pastures were intermingled however they needed to cooperate in farming enterprises. The Jewish farmers bristled at having Mennonites as their tutors and the Mennonites in turn complained about the weeds in the Jewish fields and how the cattle from the Ukrainian renters of Jewish property roamed around and trampled their grain.
Sometimes these resentments led to out and out conflict. In the 1870s the Mennonites sent a delegation to Odessa to lodge complaints about their Jewish neighbours who they said were being unreasonable in their demands concerning shared pasture and field land. Finally in the 1880s the Russian government tired of the ongoing resentments between the Jews and Mennonites separated their plow and pastureland.
Apparently most Mennonites who lived in the Judenplan were there only because they hadn’t been successful at their professions or farming in the Mennonite colonies. It seems the Judenplan was a bit of a ‘dumping ground’ if you will for Mennonites who were poor and lacked personal confidence. Perhaps because of their own inadequacies they blamed their Jewish neighbours for trying to cause trouble and get rid of them.
Eventually a lack of land for Mennonites became a problem in the Judenplan too. As the children of the Mennonite settlers married and had families of their own where were they to live and farm? By that time a movement had started where the Mennonite colonies were purchasing land from wealthy Russian gentry and creating new villages. One such land purchase of some 10,000 acres was called Baratov and Jacob Epp whose diary provides us with most of our knowledge of the Judenplan, left and moved to the village of Gnadenthal in the Baratov as did my maternal great great grandparents.
The Russian government’s Judenplan experiment generally seems to have been less than a success although some rather biased reports by both Mennonites and historians would refute that evaluation. The Mennonites were never able to influence the Jewish people to become successful peasant farmers and the experience further convinced the Mennonites that multi-ethnic or multi-religious communities weren’t a good idea.
I am glad my family tree pandemic project led me to learn about the Judenplan something I’d never heard of before. I just wish I had known about it when I visited Ukraine. I would have loved to have seen the site of the Judenplan village where my great grandmother lived.
The information in this post comes from an essay by Harvey Dyck called Landlessness in the Old Colony: The Judenplan Experiment 1850-1880 in the book Mennonites in Russia edited by a former professor of mine John Friesen.
In a sermon I gave last Sunday I talked about my visit to the St. Anne de Beaupre Church just outside of Quebec City. One of first things I noticed when I walked into the cathedral were these cases that stretched high up to the ceiling filled with crutches and canes and hearing aids and orthotic shoes. They were items people had left at the church after experiencing a miraculous healing there.
St. Anne de Beaupre is said to be the site of many divine healings. It began when the church was being constructed in 1658. One of its original builders had severe scoliosis and walked with a crutch. By the time the church building was complete he was able to walk independently. Countless similar miracles are said to have happened to cathedral visitors.
I do know healing can seem almost miraculous. My father was a physician, and he has told me stories of patients who recovered their health against all odds. But there can be a danger in the kind of belief in supernatural divine healing like people think has happened to them at Saint Anne’s.
Trusting in divine healing can prevent people from seeking the professional medical help they need. It can also have them put off taking the steps they should to be healthy, like quitting smoking, getting a vaccine, or exercising.It can also leave people disillusioned and bitter when God doesn’t provide the hoped for outcome.
This is not to say however that believing God is walking with you through a health crisis isn’t important. Research has shown that health outcomes can be impacted by a belief in the divine. Apparently people of faith are less stressed and anxious about their illnesses and are generally more hopeful about a positive outcome.
It seems that things work out best when medical science and religious faith walk hand in hand.
The first Scripture passage read at Prince Phillip’s funeral last weekend was a poem from Sirach 43: 11-26. Sirach is one of the books of the apocrypha, a set of Scriptures that have not always been included in the Biblical canon. I hadn’t heard this particular passage before and it was so descriptive I decided to look for some photos of mine to illustrate it.
Look at the rainbow and praise its Maker; it shines with a supreme beauty, rounding the sky with its gleaming arc, a bow bent by the hands of the Most High. His command speeds the snow storm and sends the swift lightning to execute his sentence.
To that end the storehouses are opened, and the clouds fly out like birds. By his mighty power the clouds are piled up and the hailstones broken small. The crash of his thunder makes the earth writhe, and, when he appears, an earthquake shakes the hills.
At his will the south wind blows, the squall from the north and the hurricane. He scatters the snow-flakes like birds alighting; they settle like a swarm of locusts.The eye is dazzled by their beautiful whiteness, and as they fall the mind is entranced. He spreads frost on the earth like salt, and icicles form like pointed stakes.
A cold blast from the north, and ice grows hard on the water, settling on every pool, as though the water were putting on a breastplate. He consumes the hills, scorches the wilderness, and withers the grass like fire. Cloudy weather quickly puts all to rights, and dew brings welcome relief after heat.
By the power of his thought he tamed the deep and planted it with islands. Those who sail the sea tell stories of its dangers, which astonish all who hear them; in it are strange and wonderful creatures, all kinds of living things and huge sea-monsters. By his own action he achieves his end, and by his word all things are held together.
Prince Philip was a passionate environmentalist who helped found the World Wildlife Fund and served for many years as its president. People eulogizing him in the last weeks frequently pointed to his dedication to conservation and environmental causes. Perhaps that explains why he chose this particular passage to be read at his funeral.
Bible verses were being tossed back and forth in Canada’s Parliament on Friday as the House of Commons debated a bill that would make conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people a criminal offence.
The Liberal MP for Kingston, Ontario, Robert Oliphant spoke in defence of the bill. Mr Oliphant is a gay United Church minister and he quoted Micah 6:8 in his remarks. It is a passage that refers to the qualities of justice, mercy and humility.
Conservative MP Tamara Jansen who represents Langley British Columbia and opposes the bill in its current form, used a passage from Matthew 23:27 in her response to Mr Olipant. The Matthew passage she quoted talks about people who are hypocrites and unclean.
One of the reasons I was so interested in the way the Bible was being used as justification to argue both sides in a contentious debate was because I just started an online course with Dr Heather Barkman, a religion professor from the University of Manitoba and in our first class, we learned about the origins of the gospels of the New Testament.
There are no original texts for the materials in the current four gospels. What we have are copies of texts, or even copies of copies, all subject to the errors that can occur when copying and re-copying take place. The original texts that were the sources for our current versions of the four gospels were not written by eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, but were accounts that had been passed on orally for at least forty years or more, in the case of the gospel of John close to 90 years, and subject to all the changes that can happen during such a lengthy period of oral transmission. We have no idea who wrote the original texts. They were given the names of Jesus’ followers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to lend them an air of authenticity, but those men most certainly didn’t write them.
Could some of the copies that have been found up till now be forgeries? Dr Barkman said it is entirely possible. Might other ancient copies still be found that contain different information and viewpoints. That is entirely possible too.
During the first several centuries after Jesus’ death there were a multitude of different gospels circulating about his life, each written by different people in different times for different reasons. Then in the year 393 some powerful bishops reached a final decision about which four gospels would become the stable Biblical canon, the one we use today.
Why chose only four gospels from the many available? Well, one of the bishops instrumental in that decision said it was because the wind came from four different directions. And why decide on a canon? The reason for that probably involved unifying various Christian groups and spreading Christianity for political reasons.
As I read about the debate in Parliament over the bill to criminalize conversion therapy I marvelled how the Bible remains such a powerful book. There it is, being used to defend and question new laws in the political house of a large and influential nation.
Yet, as I am learning in my course the Bible’s origins and authenticity are clearly subjects open to discussion and as one person in the course put it, the choice to accept certain gospels and their unique points of view was most likely made by “a bunch of powerful men with a political agenda.”Given those realities it is truly interesting to ponder how the Bible has maintained itself as such a source of authority by people of every political stripefor thousands of years.
Perhaps because I am a mother myself, on Good Friday I am often preoccupied with thinking about Mary, Jesus’ mother.
How must she have felt as they nailed her son’s hands and feet to the cross and she watched him slowly die? How would a mother feel watching that happen to her child?
Former Toronto Star columnist Michelle Landsberg writes in her book Women and Children First, “It is at the very moment we give birth, that we first begin to truly understand and fear death. ” Mary must certainly have experienced such fear for her child right from the beginning of her motherhood journey.
She was just a young girl when she delivered her first baby after enduring the comments of those who thought it was scandalous she got pregnant before she was married. She takes her son to the temple when he is eight days old. There a man named Simeon tells her the tribulations of her child will be “ like a sword that will pierce your soul.” Later when Jesus is a toddler, Mary becomes a refugee because powerful people want to kill her son. To save him she flees to a place where the culture, language, and religion are completely foreign to her.
Jesus is twelve when he is separated from his parents in the large city of Jerusalem. Any mother who has ever lost a child in a crowd can empathize with the heart-stopping fear Mary surely experienced at that point.
Once Jesus began his ministry Mary must have lived in constant anxiety. Her thirty-year-old son does not marry or have steady employment. He wanders around with a member of a violent guerilla warfare organization. His other followers are men who have abandoned their careers and families. He travels with a tax collector and with Mary Magdalene, whose virtue is questionable. He is often seen with Joanna, a woman who has left her politically important husband, and a rich young lady named Susanna who is rumored to be squandering her fortune on Jesus.
Mary watches her son spend time with lepers, prostitutes, adulterers, dishonest government officials and those who are thought to be demon-possessed. People gossip about Jesus. Mary overhears her neighbors whisper “he has gone out of his mind.” She knows the church leaders hate her son.
Once when she goes to see him Jesus says, “Who is my mother?” as she approaches. Mary must have been hurt. Another time he is visiting at home and makes some radical and inflammatory statements in the synagogue in Nazareth . The congregation gets so mad they drive him out of the city. He narrowly escapes being pushed off a cliff. How Mary must have worried!
Yet Mary supports her son whole-heartedly. At the Cana wedding, Jesus is hesitant to perform a miracle. “Mom why should we worry about this,” he says in John 2:4. “Do whatever my son tells you”, Mary confidently assures the servants ignoring her son’s misgivings. Jesus lives up to his mother’s absolute faith in him. He turns the water into wine. Many people’s hearts are changed as a result.
And Mary demonstrates her unconditional love for her son at the end of Jesus’ life. People are making a circus of his death. They are spitting on him, jeering and gambling with his belongings. He is hanging between two common criminals. Most of his followers have fled, denying they know him, but not his mom. She is standing right at his cross. Jesus is so moved by his mother’s loyalty that one of the last things he does before he dies is ask his best friend to look after her.
The Bible makes it clear Mary never gave up on her son. Time and time again she extended her support and care. No doubt her faith in God sustained her through the most difficult trials of motherhood.
So give a thought to Mary on this Good Friday, because sadly there are still mothers everywhere in our world who are grieving for their children’s hurt and pain. Remember too that there are also mothers everywhere who are continuing to live in hope, who like Mary, never stop loving their children unconditionally.
“I am honored to be here today to celebrate this special moment in your church’s history.” Steinbach mayor Earl Funk spoke those words on March 14 during a Sunday morning service at the Steinbach United Church. The congregation was marking an historic occasion as they became the first church in Steinbach to formally declare themselves an affirming congregation, one that is open to inclusion of 2SLGBTQ+ people in every aspect of their church’s work and ministry. The church was making a public, intentional and explicit declaration of their decision.
I know at Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg where I am currently a member, our journey to formally become an affirming congregation was a process that went on for many years after being initiated by church members who were the parents of 2SLGBTQ+ children.
As I listened to the Steinbach United Church affirmation worship service, I realized the journey had also been a long and thoughtful one for them. They processed the idea of becoming an affirming church with Sunday morning messages from special speakers, Bible studies, workshops, conversation circles, movie and discussion nights and tapping into the expertise of the Winnipeg Rainbow Resource Center and the Steinbach Neighbours for Community organizations. This culminated in a drive-by vote during the pandemic in the fall of 2020 when congregation members came to the church in their vehicles and marked ballots extended into their cars with a hockey stick in order to maintain social distance. The church members voted overwhelmingly to become an affirming congregation.
During the service on March 14th pastor Deborah Vitt spoke on the passage from 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 which talks about how the church, just like our bodies, is made up of many different parts and each deserves recognition for the contribution they make to the whole. This idea was incorporated into the statement of affirmation recited by church members declaring every aspect of their church life open to people of all ages, colors, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, marital status, and social or economic circumstances.
The music for the service was aptly chosen. One hymn suggested “draw your circle wider so no one stands alone” and another provided this encouragement. “Empowered by faith, reach out far and wide, as you journey through life filled with hope”.
In his remarks during the service Mayor Earl Funk said his parents had taught him the Biblical mandate to love your neighbour and he felt that was the mission of the church as well, to love everyone, in every circumstance, and in every time of their life. He concluded, “I am so excited to be here today and want to give words of encouragement to the United Church to continue the good work that they do.”
A visual presentation during the worship service outlined some of the good work Mayor Funk was referring to. I learned it was members of the United Church who provided the impetus to start local charities like The Steinbach Helping Hands food bank and the Agape House shelter for women and children escaping abusive home situations. The church has contributed to the work of Envision, Eden East, Anna’s House, Steinbach Neighbours for Community and many other charitable organizations.
As I watched the March 14service, I could only hope that just as the Steinbach United Church has been a role model in the past, supporting so many life- giving ministries in their community, they will be seen as a role model now once again, leading the way for other Steinbach churches to make their own public declarations of acceptance for all of God’s children.