Saturday, June 22, 2019

ON THE OCCASION OF RJC GRAD, 2019 by George G. Epp, Class of ‘60

This promises to be another busy weekend on the Rosthern Junior College campus. Thursday, a grad of ‘70 came to the campus museum to borrow photos pertaining to her grad year for a display at their decade-reunion Saturday. On Friday, a couple of the Grads dropped in; the most fascinating display for them was the sports-jackets rack; both visitors are into volleyball. The annual musical (Rice/Weber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat this year) plays on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Grad ceremonies, the traditional highlight of the weekend, happens on Sunday afternoon. And then the all-night grad class dinner and following party that promises to leave everyone involved exhausted.

Grads are scratching their names into the bricks on the museum exterior, a tradition dating back to the ‘60s. I enjoy chatting with the grads as they scratch away with, usually, a three-inch nail and a bottle of water. I’ve suggested that a Dremel tool would make a good pencil, but access to one appears to be a problem. I ask them about their aspirations for the future, their short and long term plans, how they’ve experienced their high school years—typical old-person questions. I don’t ask them what’s motivated them to go to all the effort of scratching their names and attendance-years into a brick; I know why they do it.

Alumni come by, not so much to experience and learn from displays in the Mennonite Interpretive Centre or in the historic chapel, but more often to find their brick among the many, a search that can take a while since there are hundreds by now. There’s something about names indelibly displayed that proves to all and sundry—and to ourselves—that “I am somebody, and I was here.” Furthermore—seems to me—to see one’s name in such a large company brings back that feeling of belonging, of having been a part of something immensely significant in our lives. RJC has always had the power to create community, community that abides like the scratches in bricks. Good schools do that . . . deliberately. Grads reunite every ten years; my 6th grad reunion happens next year, my daughter’s 4th, my father’s would be his10th if any of his class were still alive to make the trip.

To you, the Grad of 2019, bon voyage . . . I’ll guard your brick while you’re away. See you in 2029.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Fathers Day Reflection

My Dad's Dad
My daughters' dad

Finish this sentence: My dad was a _____________.

Normally, I think, our first choice relates to vocation, avocation or career. My dad was a firefighter, farmer, teacher, railroad engineer, preacher, dentist . . . you get the point. Not often would we fill in the blank with a personality trait: funny man, angry man, gentleman, kind man, honest man . . . you get where I’m going with this. And yet, because we generally have only one dad, it’s probably not for what they did to earn a living, but what they were to us that’s of significance.

My dad could laugh so hard the tears would stream; he could listen to a Back to the Bible appeal on the radio with the same effect. A product both of the conditions of his time and his father’s life and situation as he grew up, my father’s options were limited, vocation wise. First a teacher . . . a role for which he wasn’t well suited, then a farmer—equally not a match for his personality and talents—meant there would be no point in writing his history on the basis of career achievements. Never developed a new strain of wheat like Seager Wheeler, never wrote a book like Pierre Berton, never preached a memorable sermon like J.J. Thiessen.

But then, most of us men who become dads have made our peace with boundaries we wistfully accept; raising children, being a faithful, supportive companion and partner to the woman who is their mother often means that motorcycles or fishing/hunting obsessions or any number of open-road choices have to be foregone, unless we’re one of those “accidental dads” who feel trapped into a role by circumstances they’re not ready or willing to accept. Penitentiaries are full of youngish dads who learned how to conduct their lives from an “accidental dad.”

When it comes to our most poignant memories of our dads, it’s got a lot more to do with how they were when we were together day to day than with what they did after leaving the house in the morning. Did we feel protected when dad was nearby? When we talked, did dad actually take time to listen to what we were saying, or what we couldn’t say yet? When dad pursued his passions, did we feel included or abandoned? Did we love to be with him or did we feel a need to tread carefully lest we provoke something in him we probably wouldn’t understand? Was meal time happy, maybe even hilarious, or was it tense? Was our dominant sentiment a wish to please dad, or a strategy to appease or circumvent him? When we needed correction, how did dad deliver it? How did it feel? Did dad play with us, or was he our disconnected chauffeur to play-dates with others?

Perfection in dadness is as rare as hen’s teeth, I imagine, and woe to us if we evaluate our dads unjustly. Like everyone, dads are vulnerable to disease, to disaster, to depressions and anxieties, to treachery or unkindness they may not deserve. Good doctors make mistakes that kill people, skilled airline pilots make errors in judgment with horrendous consequences and caring dads mourn over their failures, echoed, as they may see it, in the unhappiness of their partners, their sons or daughters. An obstinate determination to withhold forgiveness may create a cycle of unhappiness that can reach through generations.

My dad wasn’t perfect. But one thing about him remains like a gold nugget in my heart. He loved me without condition. He forgave my lapses in judgment (and there were more than a few) and he guarded the bridges between us while others were blowing up theirs. I didn’t value this as much as I ought, but I do now.

It’s been 43 years since my dad died. I’ve been many more years without him than with him. As I contemplate the meaning of dadhood and sonhood today, I rejoice in the sheer blessing of having had a dad who never left me until his dadwork was done. Rest in quiet peace, Dad. RIQP.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

An invitation to a banquet.

Found Art

A precis: “Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come . . . For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

No doubt you—like I—have a whole repertoire of much quoted scripture passages that we don’t “quite get.” Like “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, any sin and blasphemy can be forgiven. But blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” Google, Yahoo or Bing can find any number of explanations that, taken together, will possibly confound more than enlighten.

The parable of the wedding feast is the angriest, bloodiest of all the parables. On its face, it simply seems to say that although God through Christ is inviting many to the heavenly feast, most reject the invitation and will suffer for it. Also, anyone that attacks the appointed “invitation deliverers” are warned that they will suffer mightily for it. And then there’s the part about the invitation to all and sundry—anyone who’ll come—and the one man who slips in through this general invitation, perhaps because he’s hungry. He too will be punished mercilessly.

A heavenly feast where the principals are wading up to their ankles in apocalyptic blood, some might say.

But it’s a parable, not a history and there’s plenty of evidence in the gospels that Jesus’ parables went over the heads of even the disciples (See Mark 4:13, for instance), one argument for guessing that some writers might have reported inaccurately what Jesus actually said. My difficulty arises when Jesus’ reported actions or words appear to be inconsistent with his character and role, (applying just one of the tools of textual criticism).

The parable obviously became an orally-transmitted Christian, early-church legend, the retelling of which appears in similar but slightly different versions in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). And if you or I have a problem grasping the reason for the wedding-feast parable, we’re probably not helped by Jesus’ reported answer to the disciples who want to know why he preaches to the crowds in parables: “The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that (quoting from Isaiah), ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.’”

Would a teacher ever speak to a class in code so that only his pet few could follow what he was teaching, and doing so with the purpose of preventing the befuddled rest from understanding it and perchance becoming educated?

Interpretations are plentiful regarding “what this means,” what the “secrets of the kingdom” that only the disciples must know might be. I could launch into my own interpretation but I’ve become aware that my interpretations primarily tend toward what’s called “confirmation bias,” finding in a passage a meaning that’s consistent with my personal theology, what I hope it means.

Was Jesus really preaching in code to prevent “those on the outside” from understanding? Was his speaking in parables actually a strategy of exclusion? Can this parable be squared with the one about the good shepherd? the prodigal son? the treasure hidden in a field? It’s hardly surprising that such questions would arise when parables and passages are read 20 centuries removed from the context in which they were written and supposedly understood . . . at least by some.

But as followers of Christ’s life and ministry, we must settle finally on THE MESSAGE AS WE COMPREHEND IT, or else abandon the project. Hopefully, we learn how to prevent our sinking into the abyss of frustration over the barrage of know-it-all, often-fundamentalist explanations which are, in effect, little more than attempts at consolidating preferences, a whittling away at parables like the wedding feast until they’re compatible with a specific, often-inflexible theology.

A world where love, justice, mercy finally prevail would be like a wedding feast. We ought not abandon the hope that such a banquet is possible; that the alternatives can only lead to unhappiness. This hope urges us to drop what we’re doing, accept the invitation, take a seat at the table.

That’s how I’ve chosen to puddle my ignorance, whittle-down the wedding feast parable to fit my homemade theology. What’s your version, your take?

Sunday, June 2, 2019

What gain have the workers from their toil?

Mennonite Heritage Museum
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil (Ecclesiastes 3: 9-13).”

Ecclesiastes’ author (the preacher? philosopher? son of David? all three?) expends a lot of ink in the early chapters to make the point that work as hard as we might, death can make of it all a big disappointment. I’m reminded of the abandoned, collapsing fences and barns we see beside the roads and highways of Saskatchewan; people once toiled to build what were proudly erect edifices that are now nothing but nuisances to be left to decay or be ripped up and discarded. The philosopher characterizes all this labour as vanity, as a chasing of the wind.

This week we buried a friend who “took pleasure in all his toil.” Jim was the kind of guy who could build model airplanes using mainly found materials, find a way to attach a camera and take aerial photos of the community . . . long before drones. He could build a metal lathe, meticulously machining all the gears and chisels and slides and wheels to precise tolerances. He could fix virtually anything, could build a house including all the plumbing and wiring.

As museum curator, I’ve set myself the task of memorializing some of the inventive achievements of Jim’s life, a life which the preacher might have characterized as vanity if he had been there to witness his spent body being lowered into the cold ground. I doubt that Jim ever read and pondered Ecclesiastes at any depth; Jim was dyslexic, had a hard time wrestling meaning from the written word. But understanding the mechanical, including the mathematical calculations and calibrations necessary to do the mechanical or the electrical, these things he aced and from this “toil,” took a goodly measure of happiness.

Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” It’s an Ecclesiastes-like comment, and probably valid. But neither Thoreau nor the preacher end with “that’s just the way it is.” Thoreau found happiness in simplicity and a bonding with the natural world; the preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes found his contentment in the inevitable goodness of God. Neither conceded that quiet desperation and vanity are the governing principles of a short life lived. “. . . it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil,” says the preacher.

To toil at work that provides satisfaction is never vanity, even if in the end that toil goes unrecognized, its “product” abused or unappreciated. It’s a gift that blesses its recipient’s short life. To determine to change the world is one thing, but to denigrate the gift that gives pleasure may be just plain stupid. Isaiah 22:13: “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.” It’s not license for self-indulgence, more a cry for balance, more of an antidote to the dieting maxim, “If it tastes good, spit it out!”

All who are obliged for survival to do mundane, mind-numbing work should probably take a page from Jim’s manual: take up art, grow a garden, build a model train landscape, felt an owl, buy a horse and learn to ride, swim the English channel, refinish a very old table, cook and bake food that schmecks. Then enjoy what you’ve accomplished.

Or build a metal lathe from found material. Goodbye, Jim . . . and thanks.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Energy from above - solar panels on a church?

Our congregation is meeting over a bag lunch today to decide whether or not to pursue the possibility of covering the south-facing roof with solar panels. Obviously, the work and expense that that would take, the possible compromise to the roof, the appearance of the structure as it is mean that there needs to be a compelling reason to proceed with such a project beyond saving money. It would take years of reduced power bills to recoup the cost of such a project.

The compelling reason for considering the solar-panel proposal must link to our overall convictions regarding our calling as a congregation. Whether or not that calling includes earth care will certainly weigh in on the discussion. It’s possible that some of us will see environmental concerns to be overblown, their urgency exaggerated in comparison to, say, economic challenges. Some will probably express the view that climate change is potentially so great a threat to human, animal and plant life that to do nothing to alleviate EMC’s carbon footprint would constitute reckless unconcern for the welfare of the vulnerable. Some may even find passages in their Bibles that seem to reinforce one or the other viewpoint.

I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re even discussing the possibility. Although Christian congregations see themselves as integral to a “church universal,” to a conference or diocese of like-minded Christians—with some reservations—local Mennonite churches tend to function as independent fellowships. They respond to local conditions, are influenced by the conversations that surround them, are limited or not by economic considerations unique to their current memberships. In our case, it’s not a directive from a conference that determines whether or not we do the solar panel thing; it will be decided by us, paid for by us, maintained by us.

Saskatchewan is largely dependent on fossil fuels for generating electrical energy; our solar panels would reduce that dependency by a tiny, tiny amount. “All this effort to make so negligible a difference” must obviously cross people’s minds as it does in the Canadian population generally. The fact that we’re considering it speaks volumes about the obvious though: many, many entities doing their little bit makes for a “big bit” and, possibly, our faith compels us to risk doing at least our tiny bit.

We used to sing from gospel hymnbooks emphasizing the transitory nature of our lives on earth. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” If life on earth is nothing more than a burden to be borne while awaiting life in heaven, Jesus probably wouldn’t have done so much physical healing, wouldn’t have told the parable of the good Samaritan, would probably not have insisted that we feed the hungry, etc. There is only one place and time for us to make a difference, and that’s in the short span of our lives on earth. And making a difference is at the core of Christian religion, isn’t it? And the beneficiaries of the difference we make are our neighbours, aren’t they?

As you may have guessed, I’m in favour of the solar panels, and of planting more trees on church property, and of using compostable or reusable utensils at pot lucks, and of cremation instead of burial, and of turning our surplus land into gardens and orchards, and in organic agriculture. I hope I’m also prepared to sacrifice what’s needed to help all of us transition to a greener economy in a just and merciful way.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Evil is not a thing, maybe

Today, I’m pondering the speculations of theologian N.T. Wright on the nature of evil in Chapter 6 of Surprised by Hope. I don’t think I’m alone in the puzzlement that inevitably assails non-theologians or amateur theologians or “ordinary Christians” when reading “the great ones.” Nevertheless, we probably all have understandings/misunderstandings of the great theological concepts, impressions that shape our images of us in the world, us under God, us with our neighbours.

Most head-scratching for me is how past and current theology seems never to have abandoned the reliance on treating evil (or heaven, or hell for that matter) as a thing, or spiritual forces as personalities. Unless, of course, our sages have and continue to assume that belly-scratching pew sitters can only understand the God of whom Jesus spoke as a loving but intolerant, bearded man on a heavenly throne. 

Emmanuel Kant is supposed to have said that “only a scholar is qualified to evaluate another scholar’s work,” or words to that effect. I would argue that a scholar who can’t make his/her insights accessible to others is not a serious scholar or theologian at all, but a scholastic-hobbyist in a scholars’ or theologians' hobby-club. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t all of us strive toward greater and greater understanding by being active, life-long learners, but surely the onus for building the bridge lies mainly with the scholar.

But back to the nature of evil. Obviously, Wright bases his writing on his interpretation of scripture, but variances in what, for instance, Biblical eschatology actually says have dogged the history of the church. Consider the following for a moment as an alternative understanding to that of Wright on the nature of evil:

Dark is not “a thing.”i Light is the thing, and when light is insufficiently present, we call that quality, dark.

Drought is not “a thing.” Rain is the thing, and what we call drought is a shortage of life-giving rain.

Hate or indifference are not “things.” Love is the thing, and what we call hate or indifference is a failure of love.

Crime is not “a thing.” Justice and mercy are the things. In their absence, criminal behaviour happens, and we erroneously give it recognition as “a thing.”

By the same token, evil is not “a thing” (and Satan is not an immortal personality, is not an alternate god): Goodnessii is the thing and when it’s in short supply, things we describe as evil fill the gap. 

Does such a viewpoint add anything to our understanding of the Christ’s redemptive life and death? When we conceptualize evil as a thing external to us and our lives, it fogs up our perception of what really happens in a world full of life, full of interacting humanity. When we anthropomorphize (visualize as a personality) Satan, we make of him an alternate, competing deity. 

Monotheism—worshiping ONE God and only one—is critical in our struggle toward “goodness,” toward the kingdom Christ sought to initiate.

I repeat, evil is not “a thing”; (Satan is not a person, is not an alternate God): Goodness is the thing and when it’s in short supply, things we describe as “evil” happen. 

Sin is not a thing either; it's a condition. Disobedience to the precepts of good (God) results in actions we call sinful. Men don’t rape women because they’re tempted by Satan; they rape women because, either slowly or suddenly, they’ve succumbed to the abandonment of justice and mercy (goodness, to the prophet Micah) in favour of physical and/or mental gratification. 

The question of why there exists a shortage of the knowledge of goodness is well put. The further question of why we abandon justice and mercy when they are most needed is equally concerning. The nurturing of goodness is the 100% content of our discipleship to Christ, after all, and a mere 50% commitment to insisting on it as the gateway to the kingdom will obviously open the door to the demise of goodness as a someday, worldwide, ruling principle. Half-hearted parenting, schooling, politicking will most likely generate even less than 50% commitment to justice and mercy and . . . and the progression is obvious. I think it’s most commonly called corruption.

But the story is bigger than this. An article in The Walrus poses the question of whether the world is getting better or worse. By my estimation where justice and mercy, where goodness are concerned, our world has made substantial progress. 148 countries struggled against smallpox outbreaks in 1850; in 1979 there were none. Slavery was legal in 193 countries in 1800; in 2017, in only 3. World-wide literacy in 1800 was around 10%; In 2016, it stood at 86%. In 1816, only 1% of the world’s population lived in democracies; by 2015, 56% had slipped the bonds of dictatorship. (Bruce May, “Two Revolutions,” The Walrus: March, 2019) None of these advances came without many people living out impulses for justice and mercy. 

A sure defense against that which we call evil is the overwhelming of it with goodness, with justice and mercy. Evil is easily defeated because God (Good) is a thing and evil isn’t. Fill the pail with goodness and there’s no room for anything else in any case. (And vice versa, of course.) It needs no scholar to tell us this.iii

iI’m using “a thing” as its used in social media banter to mean that a meme or claim is a figment of someone’s imagination and is unattached to reality.
ii“Goodness” here is shorthand for what the prophet Micah in 6:8 says it is, namely a love of mercy, practicing justice and walking humbly before God. You might also include in the term the characteristics of love enumerated by Paul in
I Corinthians 13: 4-8a. The spirit God lives in these attributes.
iiiI find the filling of our children’s lives with books and sports and plain old attention by parents in order to “keep them out of trouble” provides an excellent analogy here.

Friday, May 10, 2019

To love or not to love the world

Where in the World??

"He owns the cattle on a thousand hills . . ."
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life (possessions?)—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (I John 2: 15-17)

It seems evident that at the time of the writing of the John letter, his audience was a young church struggling to survive, almost as a Jesus-cult under siege. The letter draws severe lines in the sand regarding conditions of faithfulness, even using the term “Antichrist” to refer to those who have left the fold (1 John 2:18 & 19). Acknowledging what audience the writer(s) had in mind is critical; modern-day Christians not experiencing persecution, not looking toward an imminent rapture should probably not read this material as if addressed to them. That would be too much like reading a wilderness survival manual and attempting to apply its methods to life in downtown Saskatoon.

We can, of course, be mightily reinforced regarding key principles of faith through the John letter if we recognize its position in time, place and context. A skilled reader of a wilderness survival manual can likely gain some bits of understanding about himself and fellow 21st Century Saskatonians, but not by cutting down a neighbour’s hedge and building a shelter on the lawn with the sticks.

The writers and the addressees of the John letter expected Christ’s literal return in their lifetimes. The “being prepared” for the event was therefor urgent to a degree and in a fashion that is not the case today. Neither do such severe lines between those who are in and those who are out exist today, at least not where I live. The John letter repeats a ubiquitous New Testament admonition to refrain from conformity to “the world,” and says that what is meant by “the world” includes “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life.” A life of severe self-denial and obedience is emphasized throughout, in preparation for the final judgment. Laying aside sex, beauty and pride of life makes perfect sense when the ship you’re on is sinking, or when the apocalypse is quite possibly scheduled for next weekend.

We latter-day followers have no need to apologize when our discernment leads us to embrace the essence of early-church distinctives while re-visioning the substance so that it might speak to our time. Attempts to apply literally the rigours of the John letter (and letters of Paul and the gospels themselves) have too-often resulted in Cult-like retreat into isolation and a piety based on a new version of legalistic, ritualistic thinking. Trading in the courageous, often risk-taking discipleship implicit in following Christ into the world has too often been traded in for the assurance of personal security at the judgment seat. It’s not a competition!

In such “saving of life,” the losing of it predictably follows. Conservative Christian colonies have been no more successful than liberal Christianity in keeping “ the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” at bay; fundamentalist Christianity in North America consumes pornography at the same rate as the general population, Mennonite colonies in Mexico and Bolivia have had to deal with rape, incest, even drug-running to a greater degree than exists among their more liberal cousins in North America.

The Western church has failed to promote and practice rigorous, scholarly study of the scriptures on which it purports to base its everything. We are putting Christ to shame with our neglect in this area, demonstrating again the wisdom in that old adage1 that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”2

And, liberal Christianity has failed to defend itself vigorously. In part, it is what it is because it follows a liberal (in his time) theologian in Jesus Christ, who fought tirelessly against the stultifying orthodoxy of his time. That human perfidy should struggle against the freedom Jesus pronounced is regressive and unworthy of His sacrifice. (I’m reminded of a line in Loving Arms. If you like this song in country style, the Dixie Chicks do it HERE): “Looking back and a-longing for the freedom of my chains.”

The mandate of the church doesn’t rest in the comfortable, born-again pew. It rests in the reinterpretation of the cry for mercy, justice and peace in each time—in our time. Clear in the gospels is the message that however we understand heaven, it’s where peace, justice and mercy live, and Jesus’ “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a prayer and a longing that should shape discipleship. Remaining disengaged from the grand project—with whatever talents we’ve been endowed—is tragic.

What is “the world” to you, to me? By all means, we need to read the John letter, alongside, maybe, “Go ye into all . . . the world?” And, of course, The Sermon on the Mount, and . . . and . . ..

1The 'little learning' version is widely attributed to Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744). It is found in his An Essay on Criticism, 1709 and I can find no earlier example of the expression in print:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.’” -

2  For example, in his book, Surprised by Hope, N.T.Wright delves into the meaning of resurrection and death and points out that in our hymnody, our conduct of funerals, our wrestling as Christians with the our mortality, it’s evident that we have largely grown up with garbled views of what the gospels and the early church understood about life after death (See Chapter 2). He also makes the point that how we understand death and resurrection makes a big difference in how we live our lives, from where we derive hope. By implication, these confused and confusing views are passed on to each generation as we conduct Sunday Schools, prepare sermons and curricula, write about issues in our periodicals. It matters.