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We are in the midst of a very difficult and complicated time in Canada with the flashpoint being the disagreements over a proposed gas pipeline through traditional Wetsuweten territory in BC. It has resulted in protests and blockades all over Canada as well as the disruption of the economic engine of the country. I do not have an immediate solution to the standoff but I know my own story and it is not unrelated.

I am a Mennonite from Manitoba. My ancestors came to the Red River Valley from the Russian Steppes in 1874. Little did they know that they benefitted from land giveaways by the Canadian government in the Red River Valley because the Metis resistance was put down a few years before they came. Eastern European settlers were preferred over Indigenous people who had met at the crossroads of the Red and the Assiniboine for millennia and Metis farmers who had been living in southern Manitoba for more than a generation. My ancestors were grateful for land but they were not aware that it was at the expense of others.

A similar thing happened in 1885 after the resistance—again led by Louis Riel—was put down in Saskatchewan. Mennonite and Lutheran settlers were given land vacated by indigenous people fleeing the bloodshed. See the documentary https://www.reserve107thefilm.com/ about this history and the present reconciliation that is happening.

I now live in Abbotsford, BC where Mennonite settlers were again given land which caused the displacement of the Sumas people. The rich agricultural land settled by Mennonites was made available by draining a lake that had fed and sustained the Sumas First Nation for thousands of years.

What do these settlements have to do with the Wetsuweten dispute? They are all sad and complicated realities we (“We” refers to all European settlers, including protesters in Toronto and Vancouver) have to become more aware of and educated about. The first step in a long process of reconciliation with our indigenous hosts is to acknowledge the truth and to sit with it for a while even if it is uncomfortable. Then we can ask our hosts about how we might right the injustices they have had to endure.

Monday, February 17 is Louis Riel Day in Manitoba. Louis Riel was the founder of Manitoba, as finally acknowledged in 1992. We could add Saskatchewan and maybe even Alberta onto his resume of provinces he brought into the Canadian union.

At his best, he represented the interests not only of the Metis and indigenous people but the French in all of Canada and all settlers on the western prairies and forests. At his worst, Riel was tortured by a combination of mental illness and religious delusion later in his life. But the man was a true visionary who saw modern day Canada before it was. He saw Indigenous Peoples, Metis, British, French, and other settlers sharing the land together in mutual peace and goodwill. For his resistance of English Canadian domination he was executed a week after the last spike was nailed on the Canadian Pacific Railway in November, 1885. In fact, these events are tied together: The push for the completion of the railway was so that troops could be sent west to put down the “rebellion” in what was to become Saskatchewan. (At first, the present blocking of railway tracks to protest a pipeline seemed unrelated and inappropriate but in light of this longer history I now see the connection.)

Riel’s work dealt with a number of issues we continue to struggle with in Canada: western alienation, the rights of indigenous peoples, differences between French and English culture and language, and the mixing of politics and religion. I see him as a visionary ahead of his time whose final years were marked by controversy and tragedy.
Riel’s vision of a multi-cultural society is still alive, and the failures of the Canadian government to fully embrace it still haunt us today. We no longer execute “renegade” leaders like we did Riel and we do enjoy a multi-cultural society to some extent, but the pallor of living conditions in most First Nations communities, the ongoing inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and our fear of new refugees and immigrants remind us that we still have a long way to go.

In this year of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the province of Manitoba, I call for one more step in Louis Riel’s exoneration: an official apology for his execution by the Canadian government. Take Riel off the gallows and put him on a pedestal with the other fathers of confederation. The Manitoba government began this process in 1992 and in 1996 put him on a literal pedestal with the honourable statue that stands on the legislative grounds. Now it is the turn of the federal government to take an action that has been proposed but has never been passed.

I was born in Manitoba and I have lived in Manitoba for 31 of my 59 years. In a few years when I will have lived in other provinces more than my home province, I will still be a Manitoban. It will always be my roots. I have said numerous times that “when I die and they spread my ashes over the Pacific it will be prairie dust!”

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. I was glad to be able to say that I grew up in Wawanesa, where I was exposed to the big wide world away from where my ancestors had lived sheltered lives for more than three generations.

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. Since I had relatives there 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 the first of four post-secondary degrees: a Diploma in Biblical Studies. I bought my first car: a 1974 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 sitting in that car. 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].

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.

Nellie McLung, born Letitia Helen Mooney in 1873, is one of my favourite Canadian heroes—and she grew up in my hometown of Wawanesa, Manitoba where a number of her Mooney relatives still reside. This post provides a segue from my January theme celebrating ten years of blogging—which began with a website on men’s spirituality—to my February theme celebrating Manitoba’s 150th anniversary.

Nellie McLung’s accomplishments are many:
1. She began a teaching career in Manitou, Manitoba where she met her husband.
2. She gave birth to five children in 16 years.
3. She authored 16 books, both fiction and nonfiction.
4. In 1911 she moved to Winnipeg and organized the “Political Equality League” to lobby for women’s suffrage. By 1916 women were allowed to vote in Manitoba.
5. She was elected to the Alberta legislature in 1921
6. She became one of the “Famous Five” women from Alberta who petitioned the federal government to expand the legal definition of PERSON to include women. They finally won their case in 1929 when women in Canada legally became persons.
7. She was also involved in other campaigns: prohibition of alcohol, anti-war, urban renewal, emphasis on family and women’s contributions to society.
8. In 1936 she became the first woman on CBC board of directors.
9. In 1938 she became Canada’s delegate to League of Nations.

Nellie McLung was known for her passionate speech and acerbic wit. Here are a few of my favourite feminist quotes, mostly from her book, In Times Like These:
“I am a believer in women, in their ability to do things and in their influence and power. Women set the standards for the world, and it is for us, women in Canada, to set the standards high… Men alone are not capable of making laws for men and women… Never underestimate the power of a woman… Women had first to convince the world that they had souls and then that they had minds and then it came on to this matter of political entity and the end is not yet… That seems to be the haunting fear of mankind—that the advancement of women will sometime, someway, someplace, interfere with some man’s comfort… We may yet live to see the day when women will be no longer news! And it cannot come too soon. I want to be a peaceful, happy, normal human being, pursuing my unimpeded way through life, never having to stop to explain, defend or apologize for my sex… Women who set a low value of themselves make life hard for all women… The greatest insult came at the marriage ceremony when the minister asked ‘who giveth this woman,’ and some brother, or father or other man, unblushingly said he did, as though it were entirely a commercial transaction between men… The economic dependence of women is perhaps the greatest injustice that has been done to us, and has worked the greatest injury to the race.”

And two quotes that sum up her personality and legacy: “Never retract, never explain, never apologize; get things done and let them howl… I want to leave something behind when I go; some small legacy of truth, some word that will shine in a dark place.”

I am hopeful that the next generation of men will continue the trajectory in men’s spirituality toward vulnerability, compassion, and reconciliation. I see this in my sons and in many young adult students at the college where I teach. They are much better at showing emotion, admitting weakness, and sharing power than previous generations of men. There is also a change in language when it comes to gender. The move today to seeing gender on a spectrum rather than a binary is helping us on this trajectory.

Although I believe Jesus was a first century Jewish man, not a body-less androgynous concept, I also believe that he is a model human being for all people, regardless where they are on the gender spectrum. Our gender is an important part of our identity but for Christians it is not the most important. Identity in Christ is most important. Here is part of a recent sermon on Colossians 3:1-11 preached at Eden Mennonite Church in Chilliwack and Peace Mennonite Church in Richmond.

In Christ, we are done with binaries! We are done with ethnic divisions. We are done with religious disputes. We are done with the battle of the sexes. We are done with economic disparity. We are done with cultural divides. We are done with political mud-slinging. In Christ, the barriers are broken and we are made one. In Christ we are made whole.

Verse 11 highlights a central theme of the Christian Gospel that is repeated in a few other Pauline books in different ways. Galatians 3:28 is almost verbatim. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, slave or free…” The point is the same. The same message is given in Ephesians 2:11-22 and erasing the Jew/Gentile binary is really the main theme of the entire book of Romans.

We could add any other modern binary human categories here to make the point. In Christ there is no white or coloured, young or old, rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight, western or eastern, employed or unemployed, abled or disabled, progressive or conservative… the list goes on. Human diversity is much more complex and beautiful than any two binary categories. And in Christ all of this diversity is made into one! That is the Gospel! That is good news!

We use language to describe our experience but I believe the language we hear and use is also a powerful shaper of experience. Thus, we need to use our words with care. When writing and speaking about gender and spirituality is perhaps one of the most critical subject areas in which we need to be aware of our language.

One of the purposes of my book was to provide new metaphors for thinking about men’s spirituality. The primary archetype for men’s spirituality that had been used since the birth of the modern men’s movement in the mid-twentieth century was the warrior. The message was that men should quit being so passive spiritually and become more aggressive in their faith. Richard Rohr’s men’s book entitled, The Wild Man’s Journey, revised and retitled, From Wild Man to Wise Man, and then John Eldredge’s later book, Wild at Heart, both used similar warrior language. Rohr wrote from a Catholic Franciscan perspective and Eldredge’s book became the manual for an evangelical view of Christian manhood.

I thought there must be other, more creative and constructive images we could use to help us define what a Christian man looks like. Just for fun, I sent a copy of my book—which critiqued their warrior/wild man analogy—to both of them without expectation of getting a response. I did not even get an acknowledgement from John Eldredge’s office but Richard Rohr actually sent me a personal email, and it seemed he must have read at least a chapter. What a surprise!

“I hope the book Under Construction enjoys a wide reading. I am honored to be quoted in it, and I thank you for your personal vulnerability.

I rather totally agree with your critique of the warrior archetype. It still dominates most books on male spirituality, particularly those from the evangelical Christian world. They do not have enough of Francis, the mystical level, nor the Mennonites and Quakers in their resumes. I hope you did not hear me affirming that kind of warrior. I think we Catholics, bound by so many historically bound words, become masters at saying “This is what it really means!” while still maintaining the old word for the sake of continuity and not upsetting the old guard. (Protestants do not need to do that so much!).

There is also something mind expanding and memorable when we re-define any word, although I know it also has its limitations. That is why I probably would continue to use the image of “warrior’ (Ephesians 6:13-17), but I am also fully aware that males filled with testosterone, will pull it into their all-pervasive world view of domination instead of grace. It is probably just a judgment call, and I surely would not use warrior UNLESS I could re-define it spiritually.

Richard Rohr”

The dilemma between finding new language or redefining old words is a wider issue. For example, it is now universally accepted that we talk about people and humankind, not about men and mankind. This new language more clearly includes and gives value to all people which is a core aspect of the Christian Gospel. Redefining or explaining that “men” actually includes all people is not acceptable. Language is powerful and it is important that we choose our words carefully. We will explore some new language about gender in my next post.

Perhaps the most surprising and rewarding response to my book on men’s spirituality came from my next door neighbor. We had exchanged pleasantries but both being introverts and having very different social and vocational circles, we did not have a lot of obvious common interests around which to bond until one summer when the slope between our houses desperately needed some attention. We cleared some brush together and since he had a truck we drove to get a few loads of mulch to put down. This gave us an opportunity to converse more than we ever had in the few years we had lived side by side. I learned about his life as an airplane mechanic with its geographical twists and turns from South Africa to various places in Canada. He even began to share about some of the pain in his childhood and a previous marriage and then on to present struggles with a blended family; I reciprocated by talking about my life. At one point, he stopped me and said, “I know, I’ve read your book.” This took me by complete surprise because I had never told him I had written a book and he did not strike me as the type who would read books, never mind books on men’s spirituality.

Men often find it difficult to be vulnerable, as I did when including some personal experiences in the book. Sometimes it is even more difficult to be vulnerable with the man right next door! I made the false assumption that we had nothing in common because he was an airline mechanic and I was an academic; he fixed cars as a hobby and I wrote poetry. We did not realize that underneath we had some deep similarities as men who sometimes felt insecure and had experienced pain. We had to strip off the masks of having it all together, then we had to let go of the idea that our primary identity is what we do for work, and then finally we could get to the tender layers underneath. We were both men in pain and once we saw this commonality, a deeper relationship began to form.

For most of human history men have been the warriors and leaders but I think we have finally begun to know ourselves deeper as men since women showed us the way in the feminist movement. Women began to identify their worth apart from men which made men begin to reflect on their own identity as men. For most of history men have been pathetically un-self-aware. The “#metoo” movement has confronted certain men with the pain they have caused but also the pain that men have inflicted on women in general. Harvey Weinstein may be the one on trial right now but all men are culpable to some degree. Part of why men have been violent and abusive is because we have never been able to deal with our own insecurity, pain, and brokenness; instead we cover it with workaholism, social bravado, and domestic aggression. It is vital for men’s spiritual identity to begin to acknowledge the depth of our pain and brokenness.