Worldly: Part 3

mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Leaving the Mennonite Brethren church is a momentous life event. Either you are in or you are out.  When I left, it didn’t seem possible to say, oh, I’ll stay in the church and be partly worldly and explore all my questions about pantheism and existentialism in the context of the gemeinde.  But it’s not easy to leave the church and keep your toe in, either.  This is a historical approach, of separation from the world. This was maybe largely due to the fact that as Mennonites dispersed across Prussia and Russia, their host countries didn’t really want them to mingle with the general populace, infecting the peasants with their virulent memes of pacifism, Biblical literacy, and religious self-determination. This was not a problem, because the Mennonites themselves saw that it was easier to be themselves if they stayed away from the fallen world — and maybe also because the book-reading Russian Mennonites saw themselves as superior to the illiterate Slavic cultures.  Many Mennonites employed Russian laborers, but they didn’t necessarily treat them like full human beings. (This was not going to help the Mennonites later during the Russian Revolution, but that’s another story.)

Part of Russia’s approach to keeping the Mennonites contained was to restrict the amount of land they could occupy. By the early part of the twentieth century, this policy  resulted in the division of  the approximately 110,000 Mennonites in Russia into an elite landed and a discontented, proletariat, landless class, because there just wasn’t enough land to pass on to the kids.

So here we have the Russian Mennonites at the turn of the Twentieth Century, living with the uneasy tensions of Frisian/Flemish, worldly/spiritual, land-owning and landless. As the Russian Mennonites struggled internally with their own polarities, they began to experience the effect of similar class struggles in society at large. They were directly impacted by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the German occupation, the destructive impact of the Red and White Armies, and the Makhno Occupation, with its continuous climate of violence, plunder, confiscation of property, starvation, bloodbaths, epidemics, and rape.

I don’t know any details of the suffering Rhoda says her family experienced during this time, but I can imagine that there are parallels with my own. For more than half a century before the Russian Revolution, Mennonites had been leaving Russia for Canada and the US, in response to the political and economic upheavals that had been going on for even longer. During the German Occupation, my mom writes, the Mennonites, who were of Dutch origin, were German-speaking and thus were labeled “’agents of Germany’ and ‘enemies of the state’. They were forbidden to use the German language in the press or in public assemblies of more than three persons or face a fine or prison term. From November 1917, until the German occupation troops arrived in March 1918, roving bandits robbed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered the Mennonites.  The leader of these bandits, Nestor Makhno, claimed that his molestation of the Mennonites was due to a Mennonite employer’s earlier mistreatment of him.

Mom writes that after the German troops withdrew from the Ukraine, “complete lawlessness ensued, with a civil war between the Red and White armies and an uprising of peasant anarchist forces competing for dominance at the same time. . . The area where the Mennonites and other Germans lived in the Ukraine was the territory   most affected by the civil war between the Reds and the Whites.” The village where my grandparents lived, Rosenthal, “was an ideal location to station troops because it was situated in a deep and broad valley, but its farm land was located on a high plateau, affording an almost limitless view of approaching forces in all directions except south.” The windmill owned by my great-grandfather sat on top of this high plateau. The Red/White front passed through this area about seventeen times in the next few years, and even across our family’s yard, giving the family “a  front-seat experience of the war with bombs flying over their house and  dead soldiers  in their backyard with arms and limbs shot off,  empty eyes staring at the  crows overheard waiting for the furor to stop.” Mennonites in Russia personally saw members of their families, friends and neighbors killed, tortured and raped. They spent time in prison because they were Mennonites. Many of their homes were destroyed. Members of their families were arrested and never heard from again. They lived in fear.

Almost every Mennonite decided to leave Russia for Canada; Canada finally opened its doors to approximately 20,200 Mennonites between 1923 and 1929. A sizable percentage of those who were able to go to Canada were Mennonite Brethren (including my grandparents and Rhoda’s grandparents). These immigrants experienced further trauma as they uprooted themselves from the Ukraine. The members of the Janzen and Funk families had called the Ukraine their home for about 130 years. Rhoda’s grandfather, Jacob K. Janzen, was an educated professional with a large family to support. My grandfather was a clerk; his family had owned a successful flour mill.  Now they were expected to become farmers, for that was what the Canadian government wanted them to do.

These immigrants had survived four years of world war followed by four years of revolution and counter-revolution. Their farms, villages, schools, businesses and homes of the Mennonite colonies had been a theater of conflict for the fronts of the two armies. They had survived typhoid fever and smallpox epidemics, periods of famine.

Now they were in Canada, being encouraged to learn English and assimilate into Canadian culture, which most of them did, although not without great soul-searching. For hundreds of years, the Mennonites had been living separately from their cultural milieu – first in Prussia and then again in the Ukraine.  A consistent concern of theirs was how to be more “spiritual”, and less “worldly”, and here in Canada, with its openness and freedom, their daily life was shot through and through with worldliness, in the form of media, popular culture, public education and the loss of their cultural languages of Low and High German.  (In 1922-27, several thousand very conservative Russian Mennonites who had come to Canada in the 1870s immigrated further, from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, into Mexico and Central and South America, in a desperate bid to preserve their language, cultural and religious identity, objecting strongly to their children being Canadianized in the public schools.)

When the Mennonite Brethren immigrated to North America, their issues came with them. The Frisian/Flemish polarity fell away with the emergence of a new form of class consciousness: the newcomers vs. Mennonites who had come to Canada from Russian earlier. Relationships between the two groups were strained. The Kanadier viewed the newly-arrived Russian Mennonites as “too proud, too aggressive, too enthusiastic about higher education, too anxious to exercise leadership, too ready to compromise with the state, too ready to move to the cities, and too unappreciative of the pioneering done by the Kanadier. As far as the Russlander were concerned, the Kanadier were too withdrawn, too simple-minded, too uncultured, too weak in their High German. . . too afraid of schools and education.” (Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada: 1920-1940.)

Rhoda’s father, Edmund. Janzen, and his wife were both Russlanders.  In my own family, my mother was a Russlander who grew up in a Canadianized home, because Blaine Lake did not have a Mennonite Brethren church. My father, Walter William Wiebe, was a Kanadier who grew up in a Russlander community (and absorbed their values).  I grew up in Russlander communities in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, before moving to Hillsboro, Kansas in the early 1960s, the place where my father died.

In Hillsboro, settled in the late 1800s by Russian Mennonites, our family struggled to figure out how and who to be. We swung between the values and practices of the conservative Russlander culture we had known in Canada, and the temptations of the American Mennonite Brethren culture.  I could see by the names on the tombstones in the Gnadenau church cemetery that these people who had died in Hillsboro, Kansas, were my people:  Janzen, Wiebe, Funk.   But — Hillsboro Mennonites were so…worldly!

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen

New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.

Worldly: Part 2

mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

I was immediately charmed by the bold way in which Rhoda launched into a discussion of body parts and secretions. To be honest, it reminded me of those late-evening chats round the dinner tables of my childhood, when the adults got raunchy in a diasporic Mennonite flavor of Low German, a language that seems to have grown directly out of the earth.  I guffawed at Rhoda’s brittle, brilliantly funny sentences, causing people in nearby seats on the plane to crane their necks to see what was so hilarious. I cringed when she described her interactions with some of her relatives and in-laws.

Of course, Rhoda’s story is uniquely her own—a visit back to her Mennonite family and the community in California in which she had been raised, after her handsome husband Nick left her for a guy named Bob whom he had met on gay.com.  However, as I read on, I began to get the feeling that  Rhoda’s back story intersects mine. I saw similarities:

  • dramatic and drastic flights from our Mennonite Brethren roots
  • ability to whip up dinner for ten with an hour’s notice
  • puzzling early choices in men
  • happy-go-lucky academic demeanor
  • quest for meaning
  • ultimately, respect for and participation in the values and principles of our parents

When I got home from my trip to Portland, I emailed my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, to tell her about this book. Of course, she knew about it. Being the leading Mennonite feminist writer means she’s always got her finger on the pulse of Mennonite literature.

Not surprising. It’s a fun parlor game among Mennonite Brethren people to dig up these kinds of family connections. In fact, given the small gene pool, it’s not unusual to discover that you are related to another person in more than one way (Come to think of it, at the funeral of my husband’s grandmother Ruth this past summer, I discovered that my paternal aunt Susie was married to the grand-nephew of the man who married my husband’s grandmother’s sister. Was that fun for you? If so, you may be a Mennonite Brethren.)

Some of the details in this essay are drawn from an extensively-researched history of my grandfather Jacob Funk, which my mom is writing. The history of this side of my family begins with the August 1, 1789 arrival of 20-year-old Frantz Peter Funck and his young wife Maria at Kronsweide, near Zaporoschye,  South Russia, in the first group of Mennonite immigrants from Prussia. I also dug up a history of my grandmother Anna Janzen Funk, which mom wrote awhile ago. From these pages, and a few other sources I had handy, I was able to delve into the history which Rhoda and I share.

I already knew that some time in the 1500s, some of our Dutch ancestors read the Bible for themselves, and felt led to disobey the state church (and thus, the state) and re-baptise themselves as adults. These rebels, our great-etcetera grandparents, were from the Flemish and Frisian areas of Holland. For their effrontery in claiming freedom of thought and action, they were burned at the stake, roasted on a slow fire, tied to the stake, drowned, buried alive and otherwise persecuted. (Read the Martyrs Mirror if you want to know more, but I warn you, it’s scary.)

The Mennonite survivors fled to the northern lowlands of Germany and the Danzig area, which later became Prussia. Here they lived from 1540 to 1790. They learned German, which became the language of God and Mennonite culture — Low German in daily life, and High German in church. Non-conformity to the “world” was important, both in their material and spiritual practices. They honed their spiritual approach, sometimes squabbling between themselves over culturally-related expressions of what exactly non-conformity meant. The Flemish Mennonites saw themselves as an elite, progressive group, and considered the Frisians low-brow. These two groups took their class consciousness and divisiveness with them to the Ukraine, where they migrated after an1786 invitation from Catharine the Great. Here they continued the great debate over how best to live a spiritual life.  Frisians accused the Flemish of being worldly in their choice of clothing; the Flemish said the Frisians were less than spiritual in their style of houses and furnishings. They differed in their modes of baptism: the Frisians sprinkled, the Flemish poured. Who walked closer to God? was the question.

A small but fervent group of restorationists seceded from the mother Russian Mennonite church around 1860, calling themselves Mennonite Brethren. They considered themselves the true believers, as opposed to their cold, non-believing, worldly Mennonite neighbors. This group considered themselves really spiritual – when they baptized, they dunked the entire person!

My grandfather remembered these early Mennonite Brethren as intense people who tended to think that they were better than others. They were vigorously evangelical. They promoted an inward spirituality, spontaneous preaching, exuberant singing, and  religious services of spiritual renewal. They believed that salvation was a personal experience which could be known and celebrated.

Rhoda and I grew up drenched in Mennnonite Brethren-ism. Her grandfather, Jacob Kornelius Janzen, joined with the Mennonite Brethren soon after the group formed.  Not long after, my grandfather Jacob Funk also joined the MBs, because he agreed with their theology. My father was a Mennonite Brethren pastor. My mom is a famous Mennonite Brethren writer.  Rhoda’s dad, Edmund, was for some years moderator of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

When I was growing up in the MB church, it seemed to me that the folks in the church had an idea that they had a good handle on the truth, and the other branches of the Mennonite church were not as close to God.  The GCs, or General Conference Mennonites, weren’t rigorous enough in their beliefs or practices, I learned. The GCs might go to heaven when they died, but then again, who could be sure.

In1984, 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.

Whoa! that’s a lot of stuff to think through. I thought and thought and after several years concluded that maybe by the end of my life I might have some understanding of some of it. I couldn’t honestly say that I believed it all, or even substantial sections, or even one full sentence.  Who or what exactly is “God”?   What does “eternal” mean?  Isn’t blood sacrifice a little. . . extreme?  What about that nice Jewish boy in school…was Jesus not interceding for him, then? Seemed kind of picky of Jesus…no, I am not going to put in a good word to God for Howard, because he doesn’t believe in me. Yet I had said that I believed the whole Confession of Faith when I was baptised at 15.

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.”

Well, I left the MB church, at the age of 19. I don’t know when Rhoda left, but I am guessing that confession of faith didn’t resonate with her either.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen

New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.

Worldly: Part 1

mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

  • What is “Mennonite” about Rhoda Janzen?
  • Which part of her is the Little Black Dress?
  • After a Mennonite woman has worn the Little Black Dress, can she really go home again?

I will address these three questions in this response to Rhoda’s book.

First, please bear with me while I give you a lot of background on myself and Rhoda and our genetic and cultural relationship. What follows may seem like a long string of “begats” but knowing this information might be interesting and useful. And some people have mentioned that the historical information Rhoda gave in her book was too sketchy. So here goes.

My red-haired grandmother, Anna Janzen, was part of the radically revolutionary religious group of Anabaptists called the Mennonites. Anna was born March 15, 1895, in a village in the Ukraine, in Southern Russia.  In 1923, Anna and her husband – my left-handed, vigorous grandfather Jacob Funk – immigrated to Saskatchewan with their two young girls, Annie and Frieda, avoiding the two undesirables of either being wiped out entirely, or disappearing into a labor camp in Siberia. Arriving with nothing but twenty-five cents and a debt of $468 to the Canadian Pacific Railways, they stepped of the train in the small prairie town of Rosthern. They soon moved to an even smaller town, Laird, where my mother, Katie was born, at a cost of $14, then the big city of Saskatoon, then back to the sticks of Bruno, where my Uncle Jack was born, and finally, Blaine Lake, a slightly bigger dot on the map, where my Aunt Susan came into the world. Throughout these moves, Jacob Funk pursued a career in the grocery business and tried not to think about the events he had witnessed in the aftermath of March 1917:  beheadings, stabbings, shootings, typhoid epidemics, rapes, mass burials, hunger, anarchy and general panic. It was enough now, to be in Canada, safe, and free.  Having been ordained as a deacon/evangelist in Russia, he also preached in the Mennonite Brethren churches in Saskatchewan.

My mom, Katie Funk, married Walter Wiebe (also the child of Mennonite Brethren immigrants, who had come to Canada in 1917). I was Katie and Walter’s first child, a little ray of sunshine, chubby, energetic and interested in everything.

My red-haired grandmother, Anna, was part of a large extended family. When her grandfather, Kornelius Janzen died in 1896, he left each child an inheritance. I don’t know what Anna’s father Franz did with his money, but it is recorded that Anna’s uncle Jacob Kornelius Janzen used his inheritance to study theology in Germany.

After Jacob K. had finished his theology studies and was back in Russia, he became a Mennonite minister, and from 1912 to 1920 he also was the highly-respected housefather of the Bethania Mental Hospital in Alt-Kronsweide, Chortitz colony.  From 1915 to 1920 my grandmother Anna Janzen Funk worked as a cook at Bethania, where she became good friends with a young woman named Tina, who was working at Bethania “for the Lord”, as a volunteer, and not for wages as my grandmother was. On a clear spring day, March 30, 1920, Anna’s uncle Jacob K. Janzen married Anna to Jake Funk, a co-worker at the hospital.

Three years later, in July, 1923, Jacob and Anna Funk immigrated to Rosthern, Saskatchewan, Canada. Jacob K. stayed behind in Russia with his wife Martha and their children, Jacob, Siegfried and Walter. Martha died, and Jacob K. married his children’s nursemaid, Katherine Quiring. This was Tina, my grandmother’s friend at Bethania.  Tina and Jacob K. had another four children, Martha, John, Waldemar and Edmund.

A few terrible years later, (Rhoda’s book marks it as 1925 although the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encylopedia Online has it as 1927), Jacob K. Janzen, Tina, and their seven children immigrated to Laird, Saskatchewan. My grandparents were living in Blaine Lake, a town full of Russian Doukhobors, which was not far from Laird as the crow flies.

(Doukhobors were kind of like Quakers, in that they believed “The church is not within logs, but within ribs”. My grandpa was chosen to run the OK Economy Store in Blaine Lake because he could speak Doukhobor Russian fluently, among other languages.)

A trip from Blaine Lake to Laird could not be taken as the crow flies. My grandparents would get in the Buick and drive south through the Indian Reserve and then take the Petrofka Ferry (there’s a bridge there now) across the Saskatchewan River, head east to Waldheim, and then north again to Laird.  In winter, there was no need for a ferry. You could drive right over the river on the ice. The whole trip is about sixty kilometers.

My mom says “Our family often visited (Jacob K. and Tina and family) in summer and they came to our place in Blaine Lake by horse and caboose in winter. We were poor but they were poorer.” She mentions the challenges Jacob K. Janzen faced in his transition from being an educated, well-to-do professional in Russia, to being a novice farmer with seven children to support.  All the immigrants were supposed to be farmers; my maternal grandfather was lucky to have had an uncle, D.A. Schellenberg, who had come to Canada earlier, who offered him a job in his grocery store. (My paternal grandfather was not so lucky. A poet, musician, and sensitive soul in Russia, he became an anxious, terribly inept Canadian farmer. Their family was so poor that as a teenager, my father couldn’t have his burst appendix removed. Somehow he survived, but a few decades later, when I was fourteen years old, a massive jelly-like tumor coalesced around the site of the trauma, and killed him.)

But back to the story of Jacob K. Janzen.  In the early 1940s, he moved his family to a fruit farm near Grimsby, Ontario. He became one of the ordained ministers of the nearby Vineland Mennonite Brethren Church. His youngest son, Edmund, married Mary Loewen, and in the mid-1960s, they had a daughter, Rhoda.

Leaping ahead, in her forties, Rhoda Janzen published a book, mennonite in a little black dress and all hell broke loose. It was reviewed in the New York Times and the Mennonite Weekly Review, and became the talk of the Mennonite blogs. Hurt feelings were aired. Controversies swirled. Some people didn’t like Rhoda’s generic approach to describing Mennonite beliefs and culture.

My friend, Ruth Baer Lambach, a woman of Mennonite origin, who incidentally is also my (Mennonite origin) husband’s double second cousin, gave me the book to read on flight from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, on my way to my granddaughter’s fourth birthday party.  At the time, I didn’t know that Rhoda was in any way related to me, but knowing that she was writing about the experience of being a Mennonite, I was interested.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen

New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.

In our bodies

Enjoying the snow in London, Ontario

“It is in our bodies that redemption takes place.” – M.C. Richards

In What Mennonites Believe, by J. C. Wenger, I read that it is the “Holy Spirit that graciously leads the new believer to higher ground spiritually and nudges him to respond to new understandings of God’s will”.  (I am re-reading this book to stay in touch with my Mennonite Brethren roots).

On the other hand, I also read that “Christians are weak because of their human nature (the ‘flesh’ with it’s evil tendencies). So Christians need worship for their own strengthening and upbuilding.”

This latter kind of thinking and believing has got me into much trouble in my life. Hating my “‘flesh’ with its evil tendencies”, I discovered myself hating myself, for the spirit is in the flesh and the flesh is in the spirit.

The way I see it, in all of us, matter constantly becomes spirit and spirit constantly becomes matter, and the whole process is holy.

When my soul finally breaks away with its “incommunicable load of consciousness” (Tielhard de Chardin, in his Phenomenon of Man), the sacred flesh will become cosmic trash, ready for recycling.

Everything is holy.

Shining each day

At the age of 19, I left the Mennonite Brethren Church, and began my quest for my soul, my place in the world.

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.

To me, almost all of the theology of my childhood was that loose matter which I then cast forth. I did not do it all that carefully, as Woolman instructed, but I cast it forth.

I deeply desired to have a life with integrity, and a spiritual life with meaning for ME.

I decided that I would not read the Bible any more, except for the words spoken by Jesus. I was given an icon of Jesus which I kept on the dashboard of my car for a few months, during which time I made a dedicated effort to realize that elusive personal relationship with Jesus that I had been urged to have as a child. But all my prayers and pleadings to Jesus led to nothing but a vague feeling that I was being superstitious. I quit praying in any formal sense, and stopped thinking about Jesus.

For more than a decade after I left home, my relationships were short-term and tumultuous, because although I was optimistic, lively, helpful, and charming, I was not a responsible person. I was self-centered, and emotionally volatile. I had a son, who I gave up for adoption. I took a lot of drugs. I learned about the philosophy of Be Here Now, from Ram Dass, Timothy Leary and their followers. I lived with a wonderful Mennonite man for a year, left him to travel with another man for a year, and then lived with a third man for three years, before marrying a fourth man, someone from Guatemala with whom I had very little in common. In fact, we did not even speak the same language.  When our son was seven, my husband and I separated, with violence and anger.

My life was a mess. I was ashamed of my failures. More than anything, I wanted to know how to love and be loved.  I began attending the unprogrammed Wilton, CT Monthly Meeting, where I encountered Quakers who seemed to have good skills for behaving in loving ways with one another. No one pushed me to have one kind of belief or another.  I didn’t have to believe in Jesus Christ as conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary,  living a holy and sinless life, crucified for the sin of humankind, risen from the dead, hovering around until that moment when—surprise! I’m back here on earth to judge the living and the dead and my judgment on you is…BAD JOANNA!  These Quakers were kind to me, and didn’t give me any of that jargon, and did not expect any of it back from me. That was such a relief. In that loving space, I could relax and start to be who I was. I started to believe that I could find that rock that the Quaker John Woolman spoke about, somewhere.

I explored other spiritual resources. I read Maria Montessori, who said we must “become incarnate with the help of (our) own will.”  Rainer Maria Rilke urged me to “Will transformation. Oh be inspired for the flame in which a Thing disappears and bursts into something else.” I began a practice of yoga which I continue today. Once in awhile I attended the United Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, where my second son was confirmed.  I studied A Course in Miracles. I went to an anger management workshop. I joined a group which used the techniques of Alcoholics Anonymous to deal with sexual intimacy issues.  I learned from a former student of Margaret Mead’s, Dana Raphael, that we have a need for each other. Such a simple truth. A former Jesuit priest, Dr. Dean Dauw, kept insisting to me that human intimacy can be a great evolutionary process, until I listened.  I was encouraged by my doctor, Paul Epstein, to take responsibility for my life, and my relationships.  Despite all this great help that I was getting, I was still lonely, not connected with others, often depressed and anxious.

On November 9, 1988, I read the words of Jesus in Matthew 7: 7-8: “Ask and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

That day, I read these words and I believed them.

I said, to whoever was listening, “I’m asking. I am in need. I want to change my life.”

What happened next was that in the deepest part of my self, I knew I was forgiven.  I had real hope that I could transform my way of being in the world. I wrote in my journal, “I can let go of the past. I can be healed of all the pain and the hurt and will be stronger and more beautiful as a result. Life is wonderful. It’s marvelous. I am trembling at it all.”  I wrote down my prayer, “Dear God, I offer up to you all my pain, hurt, fear, anger, frustration and confusion. Please give me peace, surround me with your love and send some grace into my life.”  I wrote, “I forgive myself for all the pain I’ve caused, for even the things I didn’t mean to do.”

The following year, at a seminar at Kripalu Yoga Center, a teacher called Vasudev was talking about how we could show our light to other people.  “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,” he said, smiling. A grey-haired woman in the audience picked up the line and began singing; in a few seconds the whole auditorium of about 90 persons was alive with song:

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.

A little self-consciously, but by and large joyously and with real meaning, I joined in the singing. I remembered singing it in Sunday School so many years ago, but now it made sense to me. I saw that one of my purposes of being on this earth was to be a vehicle for light and love.  I was already starting to see that I was naturally shining more clearly in the world as I was working to clear away the clutter of shame, guilt, and fear, and the baggage of old theology that didn’t serve me.

When the song was over, the audience rippled with laughter.  I thought, Grownups don’t sing such simple pledges of love to Jesus.  What does this mean for me, exactly?  But I laughed, too.

After that, Vasudev talked about how the waters of eternal life nourish us in being vehicles of light in the world. He explained this in Joseph Campbell’s words, who says we are given “invisible means of support” when we are “following our bliss”.   At the end of the day, Guru Desai added, “Act in love, but don’t get attached to the results.” That seemed like good advice.  I felt charged with positive energy and motivated to be a light in the world. I believed that I would get the help I needed.  I felt happy.

My loneliness and despair had led to insight and illumination. In Marion Woodman’s words, my ego had begun to establish a creative relationship with the inner world, and release its own destiny.

Of course, right away I started having problems being a vehicle for light and love. My neighbor came over drunk and ruined my son’s birthday party and I got angry.  I was still getting involved with inappropriate men. I got into arguments with my boss.  And so on and so on. I felt hope and despair when I remembered some words by Tielhard de Chardin which I had read many years earlier: “In every organized whole, the parts perfect themselves and fulfill themselves.”  “. . . we can only find our person by uniting together.”  “Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.”

When I read what  Isaac Penington said in 1667, “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.”, I knew I wanted to BE light and love in the world, to express love through my body, in the physical world, and connect in a real way with other people.  But I also knew my skills in that area were shaky, and my growth was much too slow.

In 1996, I found an organization which taught the principles and skills of intentional loving, which also was very focused on helping people live in their bodies.  That organization, Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center, in the Catskills, was a place where all psychological and spiritual paths were honored. They taught me spiritual disciplines that finally helped me open my heart. Experienced, compassionate facilitators and an intentionally loving community of fellow seekers respectfully helped me unblock the stuck places and claim my joy, my passion, my sexuality, and be the incarnation of Christ in every day life.

Shalom Mountain was founded in the 1960s by a man named Jerry Jud, who is now over 90 years old. He and his wife developed Shalom Retreats as a process for exploring the transformative power of loving community within the local Church. At that time he was deeply steeped in the life of the Church. Over 17 years, he had pastored two very large churches, but he saw that people could be in a church for fifty years and not know anybody. And they could not be known either, because the process in a church does not make intimacy possible. The church is scared of sex and the body, and the body is our vehicle through which we travel through this planet.  At the same time, he saw the power of agape, or unconditional love. He really believed it when Jesus said that the greatest commandment is that is you shall love your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself,’ … as yourself.  But how do you do that, exactly?

Jerry took the sayings of Jesus on the topic of love and summarized them in a few principles:

The Principles of Loving

  • More than anything else, we want to love and be loved.
  • Love is a gift.
  • Love is a response to need.
  • Love is not time bound
  • Love is good will in action

From studying the words and life of Jesus, Jerry also compiled the Skills of Loving, and started giving retreats to teach these skills to clergy and their wives. The Church found that the power of these retreats was more than it could handle, and Jerry took his retreats out of the Church, and opened them up to everyone.

The Skills of Loving

  • Seeing:  I do not look over or through you. I see you in your uniqueness.
  • Hearing: I listen to what you are saying.
  • Honoring of feelings and ideas: I recognize and affirm your right to feel and think as you do.
  • Having good will: I will you good and not evil. I care about you.
  • Responding to need: If you let me know what your needs are, within the limits of my value system, I will not run away. I will be there for you.

I have been going on Shalom Retreats, and have been involved with Shalom Mountain, since 1996.  I have used Jerry’s Skills and Principles of Loving as a guide for becoming an intentionally loving person. I use the word “becoming” deliberately, for it is a process of continual learning—sometimes pretty difficult learning.  I continue to take up my bed and walk. In practicing these skills of loving, I am being Christ in the world. This is what the second coming means to me. Having seen the light of love, it’s my joy to share it.  I feel good when I do. When I don’t, I know I am forgiven.

I have returned to Quaker Meeting, and now am attending Evanston Friends Meeting in Illinois.  In my involvement with the Meeting I have had the opportunity to worship and practice my skills of loving.  Synthesizing what I have learned and giving it back to the world in words is something I especially enjoy. So it’s been a real pleasure to write these last two blog posts, which will be a talk which I intend to give at Quaker Meeting in the upcoming week.

Come Lord Jesus

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.

Walking Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa Labyrinth

Santa Rosa Labyrinth at Evanston Friends Meeting

Today I facilitated a labyrinth walk at Evanston Friends Meeting, where I attend.  About twenty-five people walked the sacred path with me, and afterwards some of us went to eat Thai food together nearby.

Santa Rosa Labyrinth pattern

Santa Rosa Labyrinth pattern

The handsome portable canvas labyrinth is in the Santa Rosa pattern, and was created by my friend Evelyn Ward de Roo, who lives in Ontario, and is an interior re-designer.  She loaned the labyrinth to me until we see each other this coming March. I am planning another walk at Friends Meeting in March, and possibly another for my friends with the Evanston Home Educators.

Labyrinths (not to be confused with “mazes”), have been used in spiritual practices by many cultures, for thousands of years. The Christian world’s use of labyrinths began in the Middle Ages, as a symbol, and even substitute for, longer, more expensive and dangerous pilgrimages to Jersusalem.  The Roman Catholic church selected seven pilgrimage cathedrals to become focal points for pilgrims. The walk into the labyrinth in many of these cathedrals marked the ritual ending of the physical journey across the countryside. It served as a symbolic entry into the spiritual realms of the Celestial City.

Melissa West has written a book called Exploring the Labyrinth, in which she says, “The labyrinth’s ancient power derives from the fact that it is an archetypal map of the healing journey. The walk itself is a potent physical metaphor for the journeys of healing, spiritual and emotional growth, and transformation. In walking the labyrinth, we start at the perimeter. The path of the labyrinth, like any journey, has its own twists and turns, sometimes drawing near to and then away from the center . . . It is only by keeping to the path, step by step, twist by turn, that one arrives at the physical center of the labyrinth, which signifies arriving at the center of our own livs and souls. Reaching the center of the labyrinth represents reaching the center, not only of our own hearts and spirits but of the goal we seek:  Spirit, release from emotional or physical pain, a solution to a challenging problem or creative task, the unobstructed self. Walking the labyrinth can help people step foot once gain on their own paths, helping them to remember their own lives as spiritual journeys.”

Today, as I was walking along between the painted purple lines I thought often of my friend Evelyn,  visualizing her on her hands and knees, painting the lines.  The walkers bunched up frequently and I felt a little stressed, and even a bit panicky, wondering if I had lost my way by stepping around people, and scared that I wouldn’t get to the center of the labyrinth. But I kept walking, and I did reach the center, which was sort of anticlimactic. On the way out I kept thinking of the lines from Antonio Machado, “Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.”