Not everything about Martin Luther is to be celebrated. Luther’s opinions regarding Jews, many of them written in his book, On the Jews and Their Lies, are disturbing. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools… Jewish houses should be razed and destroyed… prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them… their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb… all cash and treasure of silver and gold [should] be taken from them.” What Jews could do was to have “a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade” put into their hands so “young, strong Jews and Jewesses” could “earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.” Not unlike Hitler’s “Work brings freedom” which is welded on the gates of Dachau.

Was Luther anti-Semitic? Did his attitudes pave the way for the emergence of Hitler? Was he the father of the still present anti-Semitism among western Christians?

I visited Dachau concentration camp in 2008 and again in 2013—they were sobering visits. Most of us prefer to distance ourselves from people like Adolf Hitler, who is seen by many as one of the most evil people in history. One quote I encountered there kind of jolted me and spurred me to read some more of what Hitler wrote and spoke. It seems he saw himself as a Christian leading out of Christian convictions. We do not like to think of him as “our kind of Christian” but I think it might be good for us if we looked inside and saw the same potential for evil within all of us. Here’s that quote:

There is a road to freedom. Its milestones are Obedience, Endeavor, Honesty, Order, Cleanliness, Sobriety, Truthfulness, Sacrifice, and love of the Fatherland.

It sounds like a list of North American Christian values does it not? And here’s another one that might surprise you it’s Hitler.

Today Christians stand at the head of this country… We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit … We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in the theater, and in the press – in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during the past few years.

It makes me shudder how much like a modern day evangelical preacher he sounds. Not only Jews were tortured and killed, but also the disabled, homosexuals, immigrants, liberals, artists, journalists, and any who would dare to resist or speak out. They were all categorized, vilified, dehumanized, and then they could be exterminated.

The fear of human difference persists in all places, including our own hearts. Do we still couch it in terms of immorality? Whom do we categorize, vilify, and dehumanize today? The Gospel is about humanization; God became a human being in Jesus Christ and those of us who claim to believe in this God are called to be human as Christ was human and to treat others as we are.

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THANKSGIVING

We take a brief break from our 500th anniversary of Martin Luther series to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. I am thankful for family, food, and friends as usual but in this 150+ year of celebration let us give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy in this wonderful political entity called Canada. Canadians complain about the weather, about our politicians, about our hockey teams, about too much of this and not enough of that but really, we have a lot to be thankful for. Here are just ten things:

  1. First Nations. Before there was Canada there were many nations. They have been hospitable and humble hosts even though we brought some really bad gifts from Europe.
  2. Geography: coastal beaches, mountains, deserts, prairies, forests, muskeg, rolling meadows, and the Canadian Shield—a unique collection of rock, lakes, and trees that covers almost half of Canada.
  3. Road Trips to explore the above. The Trans-Canada Highway that runs from coast to coast is the ultimate one. We traveled it in 2007 as a family of 6 in a mini-van [Check out the pictures under “Slide shows”], although we did not do the Newfoundland section which is on my bucket list.
  4. The People. If the USA is a melting pot, Canada is a salad where every distinct people group is encouraged to embrace their uniqueness while still contributing to the whole.
  5. Winter. Although on the west coast we can hardly claim to have winter, to brave the harsh winter elements is a truly Canadian experience. Other than licking a metal pole at minus 30—which I would not recommend—that feeling of your nostrils and eyelids freezing together beats sunburn any day.
  6. Universal Health Care. Invented by Tommy Douglas, a Baptist pastor turned socialist politician—which could only happen in Canada. He was voted the “Greatest Canadian” in a poll a few years ago. We complain about wait times but the fact that all sick people can go to a hospital for treatment without incurring massive debts is one of the best things about Canada.
  7. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]. A state-owned radio and telecommunications network that is more critical of the government than any privately owned network. I like the irony of this.
  8. Hockey. World’s fastest game on ice and sometimes our national religion. The regular season has just begun. Now if only a Canadian team could win the Stanley Cup. Oops, that was a complaint!
  9. Good neighbours. Although we love to denounce our big brother to the south—mostly because of our inferiority complex—we enjoy the world’s longest undefended border. How y’all doin’ eh?
  10. Self-deprecation. It’s so endearing and it makes for some great comedy. “Sorry for bragging.”

 

Luther is known for his rediscovery of Romans 1:16 “The just shall live by faith” and the subsequent Latin phrases “Sola Gracia” and “Sola Fidela” i.e. we are saved only by grace through faith. Today’s reflection is inspired by a third phrase: “Sola Scriptura” which means that Scripture alone is our authority for faith.

In 2008 Phyllis Tickle introduced the theory that every 500 years there has been a major shift in western Christianity in her book, The Great Emergence. This means that we are in the midst of another significant shift presently, which she calls the “Great Emergence.” In 2014 I read her follow-up book entitled, Emergence Christianity, in which she attempts to define and describe the present movement.

In the first half of the book she recounts the events that paved the way for Emergence Christianity. “As a general rule, the first substantive evidence that a serious change is in process is the presence of organized, albeit not always well rationalized, resistance…” This resistance took the form of Vatican I and the declaration of the infallibility of the pope for Roman Catholics; for Protestants it was the declaration of the five fundamentals at the Niagara Bible Conferences, with the inerrancy of Scripture being central. A central question in the history of the western church is: Where is the authority? How is Scripture an authority? A few quotes from Tickle’s book are insightful in this regard.

“In the years immediately preceding 1868 [before Vatican I and the Niagara Bible Conferences], the disestablishment of slavery had delivered a major blow to the principle of biblical inerrancy and, thereby, to Scripture’s role as the absolute basis of authority in latinized [western] Christendom. While the Bible does not require that one person own another, it clearly acknowledges that practice and clearly provides for its just application. And by 1868, there could be no question about the fact that abolition, whatever else it did, had declared that what was permitted in Holy Writ was wrong—egregiously wrong.”

The present issue that again is forcing us to wrestle with the question of biblical authority is the question of LGBTQ+ inclusion and the blessing of gay marriages in the church.

“The rightness of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered life, much less the rights of those who so live, has dominated cultural conversations for decades. It certainly was to thrust Christian theology and ecclesiology into a divisive turmoil that has not yet reached resolution… The injunction against homosexuality in all its forms is the last of the biblically based injunctions still standing in the world. Should it come to be resolved, the doctrine of Protestant inerrancy will have no other battlefield on which to defend itself.”

Although our denomination [Mennonite Church Canada] does not use the word “inerrancy” or even “infallibility” in our doctrine of Scripture, we do hold the Bible to be a “fully reliable and trustworthy standard” for the church. “Sola Scriptura” was uttered 500 years ago in a very different context than our own but the way we hold the Bible to be an authority for us continues to be worked out.

 

Although Martin Luther departed from Roman Catholics on many doctrines, he continued to agree on a number of points, including infant baptism and original sin. In his commentary on Romans he wrote: “But original enters into us; we do not commit it, but we suffer it. We are sinners because we are the sons of a sinner. A sinner can beget only a sinner, who is like him.”

Anabaptists disagreed with both Luther and Roman Catholics on both of the above points, although lately some Mennonites have been influenced by the “neo-reformed” movement that has also influenced numerous other evangelical denominations and emerging churches. I generally try not to bother myself with such heavy subject matter, but The Story of Original Sin, with only 108 pages, and written by John E. Toews, a renowned Anabaptist biblical scholar, attracted my attention when it came out a few years ago. Despite the small number of pages, his biblical and historical research is thorough. Here are a few of his conclusions in regards to the doctrine of original sin:

“Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is without biblical and historical foundation… There is no basis for it in the Genesis 3 text [neither sin nor Satan appear in the story], or elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures… There is no basis for it in the New Testament and certainly not in Romans 5:12 [Augustine did not know Greek and based his mis-exegesis on Ambrosiaster’s mistranslation of this text]. Paul’s real agenda is not Adam’s sin and its consequent universal death, but Messiah Jesus’ triumph over the apocalyptic power of Sin and gift of righteousness and life for all people.”

“Augustine’s doctrine of original sin could have been declared heretical… but became dogma instead of heresy, and his teaching has been perpetuated in the western church ever since. How could a teaching which violated the major criteria for truth in the ancient church have become dogma? The truth be told, it had to do with politics… to justify the practice of infant baptism as the means of cleansing for original sin.”

In his concluding chapter he proposes a more constructive proposal based on contemporary Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Anabaptist confessions:

“So, how do we understand sin? Sin is enslavement to transpersonal and structural powers… that have the world in their grip. All humans are born into the world that is enslaved by these powers… and we all let ourselves be seduced by these powers or we choose to embrace these powers and their sinful ways. Each culture and each ideology gives expression to these powers in different ways, so that the Christian church must continually discern the ways in which the powers tempt and call people to choose to turn away from God, each other, and creation.”

Let’s replace Luther’s belief in original sin with what is truly original and biblical: God has created each person in the divine image to be in loving relationship with Godself who first loved us. That is our original blessing!

 

My Canada 150+ blogs of the summer give way to a new series in anticipation of “Reformation Day” on October 31 which will mark exactly 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. I begin a series of blogs reflecting on some of his quotes and ideas. I am not a Lutheran but the Anabaptist movement which I identify with would not have happened without the work of Martin Luther. Although I prefer to see the Anabaptists as a third stream of the Reformation era they were also “protestors” of the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church of the day. This protest was ignited by Luther’s famous post.

Let’s begin with a lesser known pithy quote from Martin Luther. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” This reflects a strong attachment to creation and all vocations within it as well as a “new creation” type eschatology. Although his statement is about planting time and it is now harvest time, this good earthy theology makes me thankful again for the produce of our garden and of the fertile Fraser Valley in which we live.

It was a warm and dry summer so some crops thrived and others wilted in the heat. The lettuce, kale, and especially spinach did not like the heat. What did really well? Broccoli, carrots, raspberries [as usual], rhubarb, and concord grapes. Cucumbers, potatoes, peas, green beans, yellow wax beans, and radishes were normal although they finished bearing a bit earlier than usual. The ever-bearing strawberries still give me a handful for my cereal now and then. Most of the perennial herbs continue to flourish: oregano, dill, sage, basil, chives, parsley, thyme, rosemary, chamomile, lemon balm, spearmint, peppermint, stevia, and lavender. I beat the squirrels by harvesting my hazelnuts early this year and they are ripening nicely in a paper bag but the birds got most of the blueberries and choke cherries, and the apples are not as plentiful as last year. The list seems long now that I actually name them all! What a variety of tastes and fragrances! I’m glad I planted in spring and the world is still in one piece [depending on the perspective of course] as we move into fall.

The apple harvest has just begun in BC, although the best apples come from a few hours away in the Okanagan. The ones on my tree are hard and tasteless and barely good enough for sauce so we buy our apples from the market! I really enjoy the early-season Sunrise variety with their crisp tartness. They have come up with numerous varieties over the years and I enjoy many of them but the good old Spartans are still my favourite apple. How about you?

 

I went to seminary in Toronto, Ontario, Canada’s largest city. The seminary boasted some of the top Christian scholars in Canada and was located in the upscale suburban neighbourhood of North York. I commuted in once a week while working in a rural congregation made up predominantly of uneducated, migrant agricultural workers who spoke English only as a third language. The 401 highway was a 200 km bridge between these two vastly different worlds. Which one was the truly sacred place? What a difficult but wonderful exercise of translating the lofty concepts of theological academia into the language of everyday life!

One summer I lived on campus for a week while taking a course. I took an evening away from the seminary to participate in a folk festival. As I was wandering about the venue looking at various booths I spotted a T-shirt with pictures of dogs spouting thought bubbles above their heads that represented various beliefs about God, e.g. the atheist dog was thinking “There is no God”, the theist dog was thinking “There is a God” and the agnostic dog was thinking “Is there a God?” etc.

In the rational western world, poetry and theology do not often go together as they do in the Psalms and Prophets but I believe they should dance more often. This shirt and my theology class inspired the following poem. It really needs to be read aloud in a high pitched, pretentious, snobbish, British accent but perhaps you can imagine it and then be a bit more humble next time God shows up somewhere we do not expect or does something that does not fit our theological constraints.

THE DYSLEXIC AND HIS DOG

I am

a dyslexic and I have a little dog;

his name is Yahweh.

I put him on a chain or a leash

so he does not get away.

 

At night

he sleeps in a little box

by the parlor door.

I have a neon pooper scooper

in case of messies on the floor.

 

In the morning

I take him for little walks

to Jerusalem Park.

He’s a nice little dog

but he never does bark.

 

One day

my little dog was gone (god-noggit!).

I saw him at the neighbors’

(they don’t even believe in dogs)

and he’s running free and wild,

all over their yard and flowers…

And look!

He’s climbing a tree!

Dogs don’t climb trees!

 

 

Our birthplaces have significance—they determine our citizenship for one!—even if we move from that spot immediately after our birth. I was born in Steinbach, Manitoba and spent my first six years of life on a farm about six miles north of there. Then after moving a few hours west with my family I traveled back to the area to visit relatives occasionally but I also had a lot of spiteful humor about it during those years, thankful I had left the Mennonite Mecca. In light of that it is perhaps ironic that Steinbach became significant in my spiritual journey during young adulthood. My motives for attending Steinbach Bible College were mixed. I had just graduated from high school and was not having success in my fall job hunt. I was looking for a job in the area and dropped in at the college to see a girl I had liked at camp that summer. I saw the excitement of students beginning the new adventure of college life. It was God speaking! By the end of that week I was registered and starting classes.

For the next three years Steinbach was my home for most of every year. Steinbach hosted a number of important milestones in my life. I graduated with my first of four post-secondary degrees. I bought my first car: a royal blue Olds Omega with mag wheels, and also got my first bank loan in order to make it happen. I met my first steady girlfriend there and a year later experienced my first romantic heartbreak there when she broke up with me. I got my first independent apartment in Steinbach. I had three different jobs in Steinbach: car jockey at an auto dealership [where I found my car], guitar instructor for a music store [where I met the young woman], and forklift driver for a truss manufacturer [which paid for my apartment]. I won’t go into detail on any of the adventures surrounding the above milestones. All this to say that Steinbach was not only my birthplace but also became a sacred place where I grew in my independence: spiritually, intellectually, financially, and socially. Steinbach was the place where I became an adult.

The following poem is about middle adulthood, the time when we rework our past and embrace our new maturing selves. Author Miriam Toews was also born in Steinbach and spent her formative years there. Her book, A Complicated Kindness, is a work of fiction about a teenage protagonist living in East Village but to me it had some obvious autobiographical references. East Village was a reference to Steinbach, the largest town in the East Reserve, one of two parcels of land given to Mennonite settlers in 1874. I not only knew many of the locations described in the book but I could also relate to the rebellious teenage years of the protagonist. However, my theory is that the book is actually the story of Miriam Toews’ midlife journey of coming to terms with her past. I was in the midst of this journey myself when I read the book. I had a clever idea to put my midlife journey in the form of a humorous poem written like a fan letter to her. The love and hate are personifications of the love/hate relationship we have with ourselves and our past lives.

I submitted the poem to Rhubarb: A Magazine of New Mennonite Writing but unfortunately they did not seem to understand that poetry is metaphorical and published it in the “letters” section making it look like I was a Miriam Toews stalker! I received some venomous hate-mail from one very literate reader who also did not get it. So for the public record, I had and have no desire to have a relationship with Miriam Toews but good art always provokes identification, and her writing is good art. My poem may not be the best art but after the previous incident I feel I have to explain the poem just to make sure people don’t misunderstand. It’s a poem about my sacred place in Manitoba, even if I [and Miriam Toews] have left that place both literally and figuratively.

LETTER TO MIRIAM TOEWS

I love you, Miriam Toews

that mole on your cheek

your straw straight hair

those Baltic blue eyes

mischievous

deep sadness in behind

and that self-deprecating smile

the Menno drawl

(just like me)

I love you, Miriam Toews

I hate you, Miriam Toews

you soiled the bed

that I was born in

I used to like chicken

(especially breasts)

but now I’ve flown the coop

(just like you)

with my own evisceration

and I’m all embarrassed

to be who I am

lonely on my bedroom floor

I hate you, Miriam Toews

I love you, Miriam Toews

we cried together in triage

drowned in the same gravel pits

slid down suicide hill

excommunicated,

we escaped the hatchet line

I thank-you for your cruel kindness

now breathe your burning breath

on my frigid fingers

writing

I love you, Miriam Toews