I grew up on a small mixed farm on the prairies, with a large garden that provided all of our fruits and vegetables for a year as well as providing some produce for market. I definitely took it for granted back then, but no longer! Now, as an urbanite, the few skills I picked up are a treasured possession—although prairie methods have not always been beneficial on the wet coast.

When I invite my Anabaptist History class over every year they marvel at my garden as novel and “cool,” but it is really my meagre attempt to practice my faith on a domestic level. The informal time around the table with food highlights two important Anabaptist values that could not be communicated as effectively in the classroom: community and simplicity. My invitation is very much a part of the course as I believe that how and what we eat is very much a part of Anabaptist/Mennonite faith. Harvesting a few vegetables reminds me of where food comes from and my constant battle with raccoons, neighborhood pets, slugs, and other pests reminds me how volatile and precarious food production is. I’m learning to trust God. What if my life depended on my garden? We get enough raspberries to freeze for the winter but every other crop is consumed fresh and only compliments what we buy from the local market. I’m very grateful. Perhaps faith and food begins with gratitude.

Traditionally, “Mennonite food” has included heavy meals such as sausage and vereneki with a sauce made from cream and meat fat. Doris Janzen Longacre’s, More With Less heralded a new era of Mennonite food that was more about things like beans, lentils, and rice. Her cookbook and accompanying book has been followed up by international and seasonal cookbooks. I embrace this new era of Mennonite food-ways that continues to focus on simplicity, both economically and aesthetically, but is also committed to nutrition and sustainability. I enjoy telling my students that I cooked a good meal for them for less than a dollar per person, using garden produce and dried beans and lentils.

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How I Became an Anabaptist

I grew up a prairie boy,
I grew up rural,
I grew up separate,
I grew up sheltered,
I grew up Low German,
I grew up in the church,
I grew up conservative,
I grew up evangelical,
I grew up Mennonite.

In school they called me a Nazi.
They called me a Croute.
They called me a Mennonite.
I wanted out.
All the words meant the same to me.
And it wasn’t pleasant.
I did not want to be a Mennonite.
Did I know what it meant?
Not a mite!

Mennonites have bled.
Mennonites have fled.
Mennonites have become Alliance and Baptist and Pentecostal instead.
I didn’t want to bleed. I couldn’t flee.
There were no other churches in the community.
I had no options. I left my church. I left my parents’ faith. I left my Jesus.

But Jesus did not leave me.
My parents prayed for me.
I returned to Jesus but I thought, it really bites
this thing about being Mennonite.
And I had never even heard of being Anabaptist.

I wrote this in my journal at age 16:
“Ed Wiebe [another preacher] came to see me about baptism into the Mennonite church! I told him no bloody way! I wasn’t even a good Christian, and I told him that church didn’t seem very attractive because many members were backslidden and it was a bit dry. He was a little hurt and asked if I needed any spiritual help. I said no even though I did at the time. I still can’t stand help from preachers. I still can’t understand some.”

(Even well into college I continued to be embarrassed about being Mennonite. It seemed so old-fashioned and conservative. When I had to take Anabaptist History in college I was surprised to learn that the Anabaptist movement which gave birth to Mennonite denominations was a radical youth movement! I was forced to re-evaluate my background.)

I’ve swallowed my words. I’ve swallowed my pride. My old self has died.
For thirty years now a Mennonite minister, I’ve been bona fide.
Now I’m one of those “hard to understand preachers!”

I chose then, and I choose now, to be called Mennonite.
My sister, she’s not a Mennonite, even though she eats vereneki.
My pastor, she is a Mennonite, even though she’s a Yamasaki.

 

(Note: In November, 2018, after 25 years as our pastor, April Yamasaki moved on to focus on her writing and speaking work but the concept and the rhyme works so well I will keep it for a while, at least till our church gets a new long-term pastor!.)

How did it happen?
How did I become Anabaptist [a theological movement]?
How did I become Mennonite [a church of the movement]?

So, back to my youth; I was pretty uncouth.
I flirted with a lot of churches;
they seemed like so much more fun
than my old Mennonite one.

What a shock! What a surprise!
It was in public university that my faith had a reprise.
Christians were ridiculed right wing republican war-mongers,
but the Anabaptists/Mennonites were nonviolent peacemakers.
It is an offense. It doesn’t make sense.
But I had an opportunity. I shared the Jesus story. I shared my story.
My own faith came alive when I told it.
It was radical then. It is radical now. How can I learn from it?

500 years ago the Anabaptists died for the freedom to choose… their faith.
500 years ago the Anabaptists lived for the kingdom only to lose… their lives.
500 years ago the Anabaptists died for their political rebellion.
500 years ago the Anabaptists lived out their salvation.

500 years later… What are we dying for?
500 years later… What are we living for?

The author of one of our texts, Stuart Murray, a non-Mennonite Brit,
thinks that Anabaptism is a movement “whose time has come.”
I went to England in 2011 to visit and learn and understand
this thing of which he writes called “post-Christendom.”

(Stuart Murray is a Pentecostal-Anabaptist. There are no Mennonite churches in UK but there are over 200 who are part of the Anabaptist Network which he facilitates. Less than 50% of CBC students come from a Mennonite church. My purpose in the opening research on your own church and/or denomination will hopefully help you to appreciate your own background, whatever it is. After the course you may even find yourself to be a “hyphenated Anabaptist” like Stuart Murray!)

Now I have a renewed excitement
about the contributions of the Anabaptist movement.
It seems particularly relevant I’d say,
for our theology, for our church, and for our world today.

I have become an Anabaptist.
I have become a Mennonite church loyal participant.
I have become an enthusiastic advocate of Anabaptist thought.

I became all of these because of what it meant and means.
It meant something in the 16th century.
It means something for us in the 21st century.
What does it mean? I hear the shout!
That is what this course is all about.

(The above spoken word piece obviously focuses on Anabaptist/Mennonite being a term of faith. Anabaptist and/or Mennonite have also been used to describe food, names, literature, music, clothes, ethnicity, even race. How have you seen or heard the words Anabaptist/Mennonite in the past? What do they mean to you? Are Anabaptist/Mennonites radical in any way today?)

 

 

500 years ago, Charles V was crowned as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. But it was crumbling as educated elites such as Martin Luther, middle class merchants, and even peasants were beginning to feel restless. In 1519 there were also major floods on the Dutch coast. The time was ripe for some tumultuous changes in church and society, not unlike today.

The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century appeared a few years later; they were so sure of their convictions they were willing to die for them. At the same time, they were involved in a grand experiment of how faith, church, and society related to each other.

My experiment is much more modest and safer. For the next four months I will be posting material from a lecture or related to class content in the Anabaptist History & Thought class in order to provide an opportunity for students to continue the conversation online, perhaps even with others who are not in the class. This is not so much social media—I do not have a Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr account—it is simply one way to respond to some important issues and to foster conversation beyond the classroom. I still plan to have class discussions, but sometimes introverts need more time to process or prefer writing to speaking, and so this is a way for more people to engage and participate. The nice thing is that this little risk will not involve anyone being burned at the stake for their convictions. I hope there will be lots of dynamic yet respectful dialogue in class and online.

We did not have a white Christmas on the wet coast but I did note the references to snow, frost, and hail in 147:16-18. “Who can survive this winter?” (v.17b The Message) may have been on the minds of some on the prairies.  We actually saw the sun a few times on Christmas Day. We had a lovely time with our family from Christmas Eve till Christmas morning and then Cyndy and I went for a walk along the creek, vigorous with new rain but smelling of dead fish that had just given their lives as they finished the spawning cycle. What a beautiful day to celebrate the life of a child who was God with us and would bring us new life.

Today was not the first time I have had to catch up on my Psalm reading this year. Now it’s the day after Christmas and the year is almost done! It does not seem like that long ago that we started this experiment of reading the Psalms in a year. It began with enthusiasm as more people expressed interest than I had expected but as with many other “New Year’s Resolutions” the enthusiasm soon waned and in the past few months there have been only a handful of people still responding. I know there have also been a few who were quietly reading on a regular basis; I hope that it was a meaningful experience. Congratulations to all who made it to 150 by December 30!

I would like to hear from people who made it to the end. Please respond on the website or send an email to gareth.brandt@columbiabc.edu and I will anonymously post your comments so that other participants can benefit. Here are some questions to reflect on when you are finished: What was your experience like? What new insights did you gain? What repeated themes did you note? Was there a psalm that impacted you in a new way? What was the highlight of your reading? What troubled you in your reading? What did you not understand?

I feel like I do not have the kind of enemies that are described in Psalm 140 and 141 [and many other psalms]. I am not aware that there is anybody out there who is out to get me, to harm, destroy, or even kill me. Thus, I don’t know how to read a psalm like this. How can I identify and pray this?

Well, the closest I can come is when I cycle to work every day. Today was a particularly miserable day. It was wet–very wet–and about 5 degrees. When it has rained as much as it has in the past few days I know that my usual route through a low lying swampy area on a trail and boardwalk will be flooded so I am forced to take the street. Cars are my enemies. I confess that I have called down some curses on them as they whiz by, spewing their pollutants into my face and splashing me with dirty water. So perhaps a few of the lines of these psalms can help me:

“Keep me safe Lord” [140.4; 141:9]

“Those who surround me proudly rear their heads” [140:9]

“May they be thrown into a [pothole], never to rise” [140:10]

But as I spew forth a barrage of polluted words towards them I suppose I should pray 141:3, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.”

But the ultimate triumph came this morning when I was able to pray 141:10. “Let the wicked [cars] fall into their own [potholes] while I pass by in safety.” Abbotsford has done quite well in creating bike lanes and I was traveling on a bike lane this morning when I noticed a massive traffic jam ahead of me, probably a line up at least a kilometer long with dozens and dozens of cars. It had been hard to get out of bed this morning and even harder to get on my bike in the cold, gray drizzle but now I felt a new surge of energy as I sped past them all, shouting and laughing with glee, “You too could ride your bike and get wet instead of fuming in a traffic jam all dry and cozy.” I even waved a few times just to let them know how happy I was to be “passing by in safety.”

 

Both Canadian and American Thanksgiving days have come and gone but Psalm 138 reminded me again about the importance of gratitude. I noted at least 7 “thank-you’s” in this psalm. It made me realize I have a lot to be thankful for! Most immediately, I made it through another semester, albeit there is still some marking to do. I’m thankful I have meaningful work to do for which I get paid. I’m thankful I got to sit in some hot springs with the love of my life for an evening. I’m thankful I am loved. And the list goes on.

Psalm 138 comes right after one of the more brutal psalms of anger where the writer wishes for babies heads to be smashed on the rocks. I find it difficult to imagine how anyone could be so angry but perhaps there are people in the world who have had such grave injustices done to them that they might be this angry to wish such harm on the perpetrator’s infant children. Perhaps it uses vitriolic hyperbole to express this feeling, I don’t know. I just know it is much more pleasant to meditate on Psalm 138.

And then comes Psalm 139 which is one of the most familiar psalms after 23, 100, etc. Any new perspectives on 139? I might be tempted to skip over verses 19-22 for the same reasons 137 made me squirm. Eugene Peterson says that these kind of psalms must be prayed, and by praying them we relinquish these feelings to God. If we don’t pray these feelings we might be more apt to act on them.

Psalm 126 uses metaphors of drought and unexpected harvest. This was not uncommon in an arid climate and dusty landscape but it is completely foreign to modern urban readers, especially those of us living on the wet coast! But reading Psalm 126 triggered a memory of when I used to work for my uncle and aunt on their dairy farm.

It was a dry year; the first cut of hay benefitted from the melting winter snows but there was virtually no second cut this particular year because we had virtually no rain for months. I remember running over the field in a matter of minutes with the tractor and hay-bine cutting off a few sparse strands of alfalfa. It was hardly worth a pass! So on this dry hot day my uncle and I were cleaning up the shop for something to do. Suddenly we heard the crack of thunder and within a few minutes my uncle ran outside in order to feel the large drops of water coming down. He was dancing, weeping, and singing at the top of his lungs: “Thank-you God for making it rain…” to the tune of an old Gospel song. His cows depended on food from the fields and his livelihood depended on the cows being able to produce milk from the food they ate. It was a life and death situation. This unexpected rain was like a dream, too good to be true!

This was the context for the metaphors of Psalm 126. Sowing time was a tearful time because it was a huge risk to plant seeds in the dry, rocky soil, wondering if anything would ever come up. They depended on the winter rains which sometimes did not come and other times came unexpectedly. Because of this great risk, harvest was a time of celebration. Although this psalm could have been quite literal for subsistent agricultural people in the Middle East, it was also a powerful metaphor for their exile away from their homeland. When would they ever return?

My own personal desolations seem paltry compared to what people are experiencing in other parts of the world but this psalm speaks hope to all of us. We await God’s promised intervention in the deserts of our lives. This psalm envisions it happening.