God is my solid rock, my refuge, my protector, the rock where I am safe, my shield, my rescuer, and my place of shelter. (Psalm 18:2)

Newfoundland lives up to its nickname: “the rock.” From the heights of Grose Morne (big rock) in the west to the rocky points of Cape Spear and Signal Hill on the east coast, the island is one big old rock. Without getting into the entire geological history, the exposure of old layers of the earth’s crust worn down over years of wind, waves, and weather have given Newfoundland its unique landscape. The interior is mostly bog with smaller trees (especially compared to the rainforest giants on west coast) but the harshness and barrenness of the coastline holds some appeal for me.  It’s a similar appeal as the rolling grasslands of southwestern Saskatchewan or the desolate crags of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. They all have been buffeted by high winds, extreme weather, and brushed clean of all but the hardiest vegetation.

What is it about these desolate places that give them their spiritual appeal? They can be described as “thin places” where the mythical distance between heaven and earth might be just a little bit less than other places. When most people think of the most beautiful places on earth they often think of the tropics with abundant vegetation, exotic animals and fruits, warm temperatures, and vast sandy beaches. Newfoundland does not have much of any of the above. The trees are scrubby, (Although moose overrun the island, they were imported!), I observed virtually no agriculture, the winters are harsh and extreme (apparently a normal 12 feet of snow in Bishop’s Falls), storms abound, and the temperature while we were there in July topped out at 22 degrees. And the locals said that we were lucky to have such nice weather!

Perhaps because of the above, Newfoundland has the lowest population density of any province in Canada! Yet the appeal for me remains. I felt humbled and cleansed (and clung to the railing!) by the powerful wind as we traveled by ferry. The rock formations in Grose Morne National Park spoke to me of divine groundedness, reliability, and ancient creativity. All the many coves with tiny fishing villages clinging to the rocks and sheltered from ocean gales were a powerful metaphor for divine rest from the storms of life. The fragile dependency on the produce of the sea reminded me of the prairie farmer’s dependency on weather and soil. From the eastern points the sea stretches on endlessly into the horizon where eventually they are indistinguishable. In many ways I encountered God on the rock.

 

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Top Eleven Experiences in Cape Breton and Newfoundland (in no particular order)

  1. The Lookout Trail up Partridgeberry Hill. It was a warm sunny day and the climb was steep but the 360 degree views were spectacular. Gros Morne National Park is known for Gros Morne but the trail to the summit is a 16 km all day hike with 800 m vertical so for those like us who have limited time and energy, the Lookout Trail offers similar views with less than half the distance and vertical.
  2. Western Brook Pond boat tour. The advertising photos for Newfoundland come from this ancient inland fjord and the advertising holds true. Continuous gasps of awe! We got a little bonus when one of the guides entertained us with east coast folk music on the return trip.
  3. Unique geological formations. A few of the best places to see layered rocks and unique formations are Green Point and Lobster Cove Head in Gros Morne National Park and Black Brook Cove in Cape Breton Island National Park. You don’t have to be an amateur rock hound like me to appreciate these. And if you see any “inukshuks” when you visit they might be my creations.
  4. Eating fresh lightly battered cod and drinking Iceberg beer at Quidi Vidi micro-brewery in Quidi Vidi Cove. The cod was actually good (I generally don’t like fish) and the beer was crisp and refreshing but what made it an experience was the location in a sheltered cove down and just north of Signal Hill. A feast for the eyes as well as the mouth.
  5. Cape Spear. Just because it is the easternmost point in Canada. Desolate and wide open, perhaps not unlike much of the country that lies to the west.
  6. Standing on top of a rocky knoll called Mill Cove Lookoff in the driving rain. Most of the weather was clear for us during our visit but for this short hike/scramble in Terra Nova National Park we got the full dose of iconic east coast weather.
  7. Seeing the sunset from the summit of Skyline Trail on the west coast of Cape Breton Island. Hiking 9 km in the evening and then returning after dark was one thing but the sunset from the multiple viewpoints was something else. Wow!
  8. Finding mini orchids along a few paths through bogs in Cape Breton, Gros Morne, and Terra Nova. Pitcher Plants, the unique provincial flower of Newfoundland, were abundant but spying a few of these miniature beauties was special.
  9. Walking the streets of old downtown St. John’s. It seems almost every residential street is a unique “jellybean row” with the iconic brightly and variously coloured row houses.
  10. Signal Hill. The Cabot Tower is the recognizable symbol but the short hikes around the North Head were where you not only saw the ocean but felt it in the breeze and got great views of St. John’s Harbour. The Newfoundland Chocolate Company Café is appropriately situated part way up the walk to the top of Signal Hill. They make a lovely iced dark café mocha latte.
  11. Supper on the deck with a view of the Exploits River in Bishop’s Falls. We cooked it ourselves at a lovely little Airbnb house and after dinner went for a walk to the old trestle bridge and ended the evening with s’mores around the fire. (I had to add an eleventh because all the others were from the east or west coast of the island and we did drive the entire Trans-Canada Highway from Port-aux-Basques to mile zero in St. John’s.)

All of the above were experienced with my sister and brother-in-law who were enjoyable traveling companions. And we only fought about directions once!

Two more posts coming about the “spirituality of the rock” and a sad story about New-found-land.

To “vacate” means to “leave a place once occupied.” In North America, summer is the time many people choose to leave home and travel somewhere else in order to rest and relax from ordinary work and home responsibilities. This summer we did our usual trip to Manitoba to visit extended family but we added 12 days on the east coast [see previous post] to explore Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland [wait for the next post about Newfoundland].

Just because we take a vacation from ordinary daily life does not mean that the events of ordinary daily life vacate us. We still have to eat, sleep, and relieve ourselves of bodily wastes. Birth and death continue to happen—and not on a holiday schedule! The second day into our road trip as we traveled across Alberta we received news that an uncle had died. The family visit was at a funeral rather than a dinner party. Then on the day we were beginning our trek back home we got news from the other side of the family: an aunt died suddenly and later that same day another uncle died. In the midst of those funerals my cousin, whose mom had died, welcomed a baby into the world. We can’t take a vacation from birth and death; they happen no matter where we are or what we are doing.

The above events caused me to do some reflection. It is good to make plans to travel, retreat, and recreate but it is good to hold our plans lightly and be open to the unplanned and unexpected. We booked accommodations on the east coast months ahead of time and thankfully the major details of our trip went smoothly as planned but accident or death could have visited us or our more immediate family. A planned vacation does not stop this. I say this not that we should live with a sense of dread, as if we could prepare ourselves for an unexpected tragedy. Rather, CARPE DEIM! Seize the day! I believe we did that on our vacation as we enjoyed the company of family and friends, exerted our bodies on hikes, enjoyed local food and drink [cod and screech], and saw amazing land-forms we had not experienced before.

Church is both scattered and gathered. We scatter in various activities of service and witness. We gather in various forms: our care group that meets in homes for potluck every week, weekly worship with a few hundred, denominational gatherings in our province and in Canada, and global gatherings of all in the Mennonite faith family, and then we could expand that to ecumenical and interdenominational gatherings. Denominations have their institutional hang-ups but they offer something very unique in that they connect me with people of like faith in different geographical areas and different cultural expressions.

This weekend I am thankful for my national church family. I really enjoy Mennonite Church Canada assemblies. It reminds me that I am part of something bigger than what is happening in my own city. I have been part of one Mennonite World Conference in 1990 and that ranks up there with once-in-a-lifetime experiences where I got to be part of the global Anabaptist family, fellowshipping and worshipping together. Mennonite Church Canada Assemblies give me a taste of that diversity, plus I get to see good friends from across the country that I only see once every few years that I have worked with in various capacities over the years. Many of them are now pastors and leaders in the denomination!

I have been part of this denomination for 23 years and I attended my first assembly in Stratford in 1998 and I still remember it! Since then I have participated in assemblies in various capacities: denominational youth minister, workshop leader, youth planning committee, plenary speaker, congregational delegate, and college representative. This year I am experiencing a different role as a host and volunteer. I helped unload boxes, set up decorations, stuffed bags, made name tags, did registration, helped with a crokinole tournament, gave directions, and did whatever needed doing. It gave me an opportunity to see the assembly from a different perspective and to see an even greater variety of people. It also reminded me of all the behind-the-scenes work that is so essential to making such an event happen.

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost and the end of the Easter season. Thanks for journeying with me this season of Easter where we have been “walking in the resurrection” with Myron Augsburger. After last week when I was wondering whether his writing was perhaps a bit dated, I was pleasantly surprised by how relevant and prophetic were his words in the final chapters. So, I simply conclude the way I began, with a few quotes:

“At Pentecost God created a new community, a new people bound to each other in a covenant of love, and expression of the life of Christ.”

“Walking in the resurrection is to live as a new humanity, to live by a standard which finds its norm in Jesus Christ, who in his resurrection introduced us to the ultimate humanity in which we share.”

“First, we must always affirm the ultimate value of human personality above mere things. And second, we should never ask anyone to give [their] life for our things. We can adjust our expectation to live without things, but we cannot replace lives that have been lost.”

“Christianity is the most materialistic religion in the world, said William Temple. The reason? Because it takes the material order seriously. As disciples we do not withdraw from life to be more holy. But as we have seen, the grace of God restores to us a true humanness in the renewal of [God’s] image within us. Just as the incarnation is God’s great affirmation of humanness, and the resurrection [God’s] expression of the eternal pattern for the humane, so we find God’s call for us to live in holiness as a quality of life in the midst of the material order.”

“How important that we recapture the awareness that work can be participation with God in God’s providence in the creative necessities of life.”

“The disciple looks at ecological concerns, not just from the perspective of [their] own security in the universe, but as part of [their] responsibility under God as a steward, as a concern of both love and hope for the generations yet to come who should have a ‘good’ world in which to participate in life.”

“To be led by the Spirit is not static.”

We walk on in hope.

My view of the church—and I would say even the church’s view of itself—has evolved since 1976 when Walking in the Resurrection was written. I am with him on the opening statements that “the church is a fellowship and not an institution…The church is an expression in the world of a new humanity, a people reconciled to God, a people in whom the restoration of God’s image keeps coming through as a transparent quality.” It exhibits the idealism of the Jesus movement going on at the time but I still like the definition. Sometimes I’m not sure how useful are such idealistic definitions because we are more realistically a fellowship of sinners than a fellowship of saints. Most normal churches are often a very poor representation of a new humanity that do not look at all like the one we claim to follow. But being too idealistic and hard on ourselves will probably not help the matter much. Practicing grace and forgiveness for ourselves and others might.

“The concept of the invisible church is a man-made doctrine which claims that ultimately only God knows the heart of each person who is a genuine believer. But as disciples of Christ this is a false perspective. The church by its very nature must be visible.” I too have preached this in my Anabaptist theology class and it was a helpful response to Christendom and still is a helpful response to western individualism. At the same time this view has nurtured ethical legalism and an ethnic superiority complex among Mennonites over the past few centuries. Again, take with a dose of grace. That too is part of walking in the resurrection.

The other critique I have is Augsburger’s view of evangelism, i.e. proselytization, as the primary work of the church. “Changing lives will change society.” Since 1976 the missional church movement has helpfully broadened and deepened the mission of the church as articulated by Darrell Guder, Chris Wright, and others. God’s mission is the restoration of all humanity and all creation and the church’s mission is to give witness to God’s work in the world. Rather than doing missions and evangelism, the church is missional in character; our mission is simply to be the church, gathered and scattered. This involves not only verbal proclamation but also structural work for social justice. Augsburger’s final chapters on “relating to government” and “God and Mammon” will hopefully get into this.