I had a mostly pleasant childhood, much of it spent out of doors in nature. I can remember sitting on the dirt beside the thick hedges that bordered the white frame parsonage in Hepburn, Saskatchewan. I would take the tiny peas that fell off the caragana hedges, and arrange them in patterns, by color – red, maroon, green, brown. I can still remember how the moist little seeds smelled when I peeled them out of their pods. I worshipped the pale violets, treasures I found in the pastures, made altars of violets. I climbed trees, collected the eggs from the hen house. I learned to read and write.
From an early age, my mother and father, Katie and Walter Wiebe, taught me their mythologies.
Before we ate every meal, we bowed our heads and chanted together:
Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed. Amen.
After dinner every night, mother or daddy would read from the Bible, or from My Utmost for His Highest, a book of daily devotionals by Oswald Chambers, and then we would talk about what we had read, and sing, and pray together.
My parents were evangelical, pietistic Christians who valued family solidarity, conservative ethics, pacifism, poetry, Christian literature, and education. They believed that salvation was a personal experience which could be known and celebrated, conversion, or new birth, being one of the most developed aspects of Mennonite Brethren theology. My parents believed that being saved releases a person from the conviction of guilt, and gives him or her a sense of peace with God and people, and provides direction and purpose.
We were a Mennonite Brethren family with raw memories of the Revolution in South Russia, from where my grandparents had immigrated in the 1920s. When I was very young, the monsters in my mythology were not the Wicked Witch of the West, or the evil stepmother. The monsters that haunted me, waking and sleeping, were the devil, Nestor Makhno, and Jesus. The devil, because he was powerful, mysterious, and seductive. Nestor Makhno, the Russian revolutionary, because his peasant army had killed so many of my ancestors, and had burned down my grandparents’ beautiful Dutch-style windmill, and by my understanding, had personally forced them leave their idyllic village in the Ukraine and come to the cold northern parts of Canada and start over, with nothing. And Jesus seemed like a monster to me because he wanted to come into my heart, which to my childish, literal mind seemed unspeakably intrusive and creepy. In church, they sang about being washed in Jesus’ blood, which grossed me out.
I had difficulty understanding what mother told me, that Jesus was a living person, deeply interested in me.
One day, Mother asked me if I would like Jesus to come into my heart.
I said yes, not feeling like I had much of a choice.
Mother prayed with me, the Saskatchewan prairie wind tossing our hair as we stood in the back yard with our eyes closed and hands folded. I felt anxious.
I expected something to change, but things weren’t different afterwards. I didn’t feel anything unusual inside me. I wasn’t sure where my heart was but I thought it was somewhere under my lungs, which at that age is what I thought was the name for those two little buttons on my chest, which in adult women often grew to be very large. I had a Sunday School teacher whose lungs lapped over her belt, in fact.
I liked very much the song we used to sing in Sunday School:
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam
To shine for him each day,
In every way try to please him
At home, at work, at play.
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam!
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for him.
I could imagine myself being a cheery little sunbeam, glowing with good will. In fact, this matched my generally optimistic approach. However, my Sunday School teacher was still always trying to get me to be saved, which confused me no end, as I thought I had already done that with mother. People in the church also often expected me to talk about my personal relationship with Jesus, which confounded me even more.
But I listened carefully to how everyone talked about these things and so when the time came, some years later, I told Pastor Razlaff that I had been raised to newness of life and had received the Holy Spirit, and so he dunked me under the water backwards and I was baptized.
At the moment, though, all I could think about was that my white dress was now going to be plastered against my breasts, and that he would see that. I was anxious because I knew I should have been pledging to serve Christ and instead I was worrying about whether my dress was too see-through.
My mother would say to me, I wish you the presence and power of Christ’s Spirit, but it seemed to me that she was talking in code. What did that mean?
As an adolescent, sometimes I would go around town with my friends, handing out gospel tracts.
“IS JESUS CHRIST YOUR SAVIOR?” the tracts blared on the cover. Inside, they said, “People do not go to hell for their sins. They go to hell for rejecting Jesus Christ. You must put your COMPLETE faith in Jesus and you will be saved of your sins.” I felt anxious because I wasn’t at all sure that I had put my complete faith in Jesus. I had a familiar Bad Person feeling. Sometimes I looked at pictures of Jesus and tried to imagine a tiny version of him floating around inside my organs, in his robes, and I would try to tell him the deepest feelings of my heart. Did that mean that I had a personal relationship with Jesus, as my Mennonite Brethren Sunday School teacher had talked about it? Was Jesus in my heart now? Had Jesus answered any of my pleas, cries, requests, inarticulate groanings, even once? How come I never heard anything back?
The Mennonite Brethren town of Hillsboro, Kansas we moved to when I was 14 was more rural, and worldlier than the MB culture we had known in Canada, although these Kansas Mennonites had come to North America several generations earlier than our family. There was still no question that the most important thing was to have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and to have a personal relationship with him. You should have a family altar every day, maybe several times a day, go to church often, be good, and read the Bible a lot.
However, from there on, things became fuzzy. If I was to be faithful to Jesus, would it be OK for me to now wear store-bought skirts and sweaters, nylon stockings and high heels, jewelry and makeup, like the other girls in my Sunday School class? They seemed worldly to me, they way they teased their hair into bouffant beehives. But hopefully, it was OK now, and I could become fashionable.
Our family didn’t have a television set and never listened to popular radio. But some of my new friends got up early to do farm chores before coming to school, singing along to Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline on KFDI, and the Beach Boys, Crystals, Shirelles and the Chiffons on KEYN. They talked about what they had seen last night on The Beverly Hillbillies, Candid Camera, and The Ed Sullivan Show. Mom thought carefully about these new cultural influences, and used her discrimination to make choices about where we would engage, and where we would hold firm to our family’s values. She filled in the low-cut bodice of my new, K-Mart party dress with frothy chiffon trim. She bought the family a television set and we watched Star Trek. We attended football games, and afterwards, talked about how silly we felt when we joined the others in cheering out loud.
Over the years, my Mother eventually became my best model as I tried to figure out how followers of Jesus did things. Trying to figure out how Jesus wanted me to live was overwhelming to me, but it was easy to use my mother as a guide, and so I did.
In fact, in 1984, my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, wrote a book, Who are the Mennonite Brethren, which included an outline of the 1976 Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith. Jesus Christ, the Confession says, is the eternal Son of god, sent by the Father to reconcile a sinful humanity to himself. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary, and lived a holy and sinless life. He was crucified and died for the sin of human kind and rose from the dead. He is now with God the Father, interceding for all who believe in him. He will come again to judge the living and the dead and to establish his eternal kingdom. Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible. He is the mediator between God and humankind. He came to redeem the human race from the judgment and power of sin and to reconcile men and women to God. Through his death on the cross, Christ became the sacrifice which was sufficient to atone for sin and which established God’s new covenant with humanity. The Holy Spirit lives in every Christian and transforms him or her into the image of Christ. He empowers the believer to follow Christ and to be an effective witness for him. The Christian is expected to live in fellowship with God and other believers and to join a local church at baptism. He or she helps to build the body of Christ with spiritual and material gifts. Nurtured through the Word, fellowship and prayer, the believer grows more Christlike and glorifies God by being a witness for him in everyday life. All followers of Christ continually need the forgiving, chastening and cleansing grace of the Lord. The fruit of the Spirit is increasingly evident in the believer’s life, especially in relationships with other people.
At the conclusion of the chapter discussing the MB Confession of Faith, mother quoted a MB theologian as saying, “If there are articles in our Confession that a person cannot accept, then he or she should find a church with those teachings he or she can fully agree.” Mom said, “These words may sound hard, but it is important for all Christians to find a church home where they are comfortable with the teaching, with the approach to the Word of God, and with the ministry of the church.”
And so at the age of 19, I left the Mennonite Brethren, and began my quest for a new relationship with Jesus. Along the way, I encountered the Wilton, Connecticut Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. There, in the profound silence of that simple room with its tall windows and its arc of plain benches before a stone fireplace, I heard the words of John Woolman: “Dig deep, … carefully cast forth the loose matter and get down to the rock, the sure foundation, and there hearken to the divine voice which gives a clear and certain sound.” That made sense to me.