Sunday, July 28, 2013

From Whence Shall my Help Come?

Syrian Refugee Family - Lebanon

From Whence Shall my Help Come?
On the Lebanese side of the border with Syria, this very morning, a mother is nursing a newborn in a grimy tent huddled alongside hundreds of other grimy tents in the dust bowl that is a UN refugee camp. She watches her baby boy feed hungrily, notices that his cheeks are growing fatter even as her own body is dwindling, victim of refugee rations and the loss of appetite that comes with living in constant worry and fear. And she can't help but wonder if bringing this child into a world of war and madness isn't itself madness, and if someday soon, this baby boy will be nothing more to the warlords than cannon fodder.

            But she is just one casualty among the thousands rendered helpless and lost by the civil war in Syria. For all wars have at least these 10 things in common:

1.     principles of justice, honour and fairness are set aside when men resort to arms to settle their differences. The first victim of war is truth,

2.     food is stolen from the mouths of children to pay for guns and bullets,

3.     patriotism becomes the highest ideal and soldiers are lauded as the saviours of the nation,

4.     nothing is sacred any longer except an unconditional dedication to the cause of the conflict,

5.     dissenters to the military option are branded as traitors; prophetic voices must be silenced,

6.     good men turn into haters, trained to see the opponent as demonic and worthy of death,

7.     combat soldiers come home wounded, disappointed and, often, ill with an illness they pass on to their families and friends, their neighbours and the nation they thought they were defending,

8.     compassion for the vulnerable is set aside; power has bigger fish to fry than the needs of the poor,

9.     atrocities are disguised in euphemism: rendition, collateral damage, ordinance, just war,

10.  neighbour is turned against neighbour as every expressed opinion is met with suspicion,

            And in every war that ever was, women have sat in dirty places that are not their home and have looked down at nursing sons and wondered; for what madness have I given birth, for what unholy future am I nourishing this man child? Prophetic voices have been ridiculed, sidelined or thrown into wells where no one will hear their witness. It's in the nature of the beast we call war.

            As Mennonites, we are well-placed to speak up for all the men and women raising children in refugee camps. We too have been refugees. Our spiritual heritage has taught us what an abomination it is to take another person's life, even in battle. We have no Jeremiah among us, but we have our prophetic voices: John Howard Yoder, Rudy Wiebe, David Schroeder, Menno Simons who declared to us that true evangelical faith finds its Christ-like form in the feeding of the hungry and the clothing of the naked.

            The body of Christ has many parts; we have been assigned a role as that arm of Christ that looks out for the weak and the vulnerable, that speaks to power, urging them to make choices that don't resort to weapons of murder and destruction, that proclaims that history teaches us that there is no just war.

            In parts of our Mennonite community these days, flags are flying at the fronts of churches, the rhetoric of winners and losers is gradually replacing the humble admonitions of the Sermon on the Mount, the creation model is giving way to the economic, patriotic model. 

            We too have begun to find our prophets’ messages uncomfortable . . . and have been tempted to throw them and their rantings down the well.

            For the sake of the mother and child in the Lebanese refugee camp if for no bigger reason, we dare not be silent in times like these.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A reflection on old things

There's an old spinning wheel in the parlour

Ancient Walkman
I spent this afternoon in the Mennonite Heritage Museum, ostensibly to show visitors around, answer questions about Mennonite history here in the Saskatchewan Valley. As sometimes happens, there weren’t any visitors and I had time to ponder the purpose of museums and heritage sites, places where people can come and learn what the past was like.
               Yesterday was different. I spent time with a couple from Quebec who knew very little English. The man wanted to ask questions about Mennonites but he couldn’t say the word: “What is Memen . . . Nemmeno . . .” and I would finish his sentences, except after a few of these exchanges, I was having trouble saying the word myself! They stayed for about twenty minutes, walked through the various rooms and thanked me, tipped the museum a dollar and were gone on their way to Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg and eventually, Quebec. “We have a beautiful country,” the man said, and I agreed.
Almost a dozen people wandered in and out yesterday. A delightful young couple were overjoyed to find a picture of the girl’s  grandma in an upstairs display room. The girl drew a happy face after her signature in the guest book.
               Meanwhile, our B & B hosted Metis people attending the annual Back to Batoche event across the river. A lady from Lethbridge was attending in order to get in touch with her Metis past so she might pass that legacy on to her young adult children. She lamented that she’d neglected to do this as they were growing up and had herself lost touch. Some of you will know from the news that at this year’s event, a long-lost bell (taken from the Batoche church by the Canadian Militia after the Battle of Batoche, then stolen and finally resurfacing) was returned and celebrated by the thousands of people at the event.
               How important is a church bell—even a silver one—in the maintenance of a cultural identity? How much is David Toews’ desk an artifact that meaningfully connects Mennonites to their ethnic and spiritual heritage? Would my life be less if the world’s last cream separator were to be thrown into the sea? Why would anyone sit in a moldering museum through a Sunday afternoon with no company except the musty artifacts of an age gone by, pictures and more pictures of our ancestors long gone?
               This is the point where I should answer the questions above, but that’s not my purpose. They say we learn history so we may imitate its successes and avoid its mistakes. Are museums and heritage places helping us to benefit from history, or are they primarily places where one can be amused by the quaintness of the “olden days” for an hour or so. My observation has been that artifacts on their own are incapable of transmitting ideas. What’s your observation been?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

As Happy as Kings

Blue Iris

Courtesy James Bernier

Courtesy James Bernier

Ferintosh, Alberta: 

On the window sill are numerous knick knacks; just outside, intensely green vines with huge leaves climb up to the roof; beyond that twin poplars and a yellow wren house; farther away, Little Beaver Lake rippling in the morning light and in the distance, the rolling yellow hills of canola. We're having coffee in the lounge and early risers are eating breakfast in the dining room: fruit, breads, eggs, juice squeezed from fruit, coffee transported from Colombia.

            As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote—albeit as a bit of doggerel for children— “The world is so full of a number of things, I think we should all be as happy as kings.”

            I worried a lot when I was a kid. I worried about my health, which wasn't great; I worried about my parents dying; I worried about the social challenges of school: you name it, I worried about it. So naturally, I came early to that great philosophical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Only for me, it was more in the form of, “What if there had never been anything?” and the corollary questions, of course: “What if I'd never been born?” and “If God made the universe, who made God?”

            And so, I was naturally drawn to Tim Holt's Why does the World Exist? Holt chronicles the history of thinkers' struggles to get a handle on this question as well as the dismissal of the subject by believers who know a creator beyond any somethings that might exist, thereby taking an easier route to a satisfying answer. I'm only half way through the book today, but far enough in to know that Holt's is a keen mind with fabulous writing skills. I'll review it on Readwit when I'm done.

            I accept that the universe suggests a starting point: if it's expanding outward, it makes logical sense that it originated from a point. The relevant question is: where and what constituted the point and what caused it to explode into matter? The speed of expansion makes the calculation of the time of the“big bang” a simple mathematical exercise.

            In the meantime, I'm awed by the beauty and variety of the things that exist to make a world. Maybe Stevenson's admonition is enough for the day: I think we should all be as happy as kings. We're pretty sure, after all, that we've been blessed with—at least—a short but intense existence in an amazing world. That's got to be immeasurably preferable to nothing.

            At any rate, I'm inclined to think so this morning.