Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Life Pilgrim of Indomitable Spirit

When I came to the final chapters of Harry Loewen's most recent book of stories about people in Mennonite history, Cities of Refuge, I recognized at once that I had met the main character of one story many years ago.

In 1989 while with a tour of about thirty other Canadian and American tourists interested in their Russian-Mennonite origins, we visited Karaganda in Kazakhstan. As our plane flew mile after mile over densely forested territory to the north,I was reminded of scenes in the movie Dr. Zhivago. This was the Siberia I had heard much about. We had already visited the Ukraine where I was privileged to walk the streets of Rosenthal, where my parents had lived, loved, worked and endured. In 1923 they and thousands of other Mennonites left for Canada. But now I was back in the land of their birth.

The tour schedule was rigorous so one Sunday in this far eastern part of the former Soviet Union I stayed in my room during the evening church service to sleep. I was worn out. About 9:30 p.m. Clarence Hiebert, our tour leader, came knocking on my door with a local minister, Johann Koop and his adult son. They wanted me to join them to visit the elder Koop's father, David Klassen. There was a possibility that he had worked together with my parents at Bethesda Hospital for the Mentally Ill in the Ukraine.It would give the old man great joy to talk about his early life there. I agreed to go with them.

We drove to a high-rise apartment building. In the central court children were still playing as old women, probably their grandmothers, watched. I found little to please the eye. Everywhere there was quickly-built housing -- a forest of apartment buildings, each like the other, each without architectural adornment, all beginning to deteriorate. But this was before perestroika.

At the Klassen apartment a pile of shoes and a mound of rugs greeted us at the entrance. This family was in the process of redoing their apartment before leaving for Germany. They, like hundreds of other German-speaking people living in Russia, had been infected with emigration-fever to become Umsiedler (resettlers) in Germany.

Everywhere we went during our tour, the talk was about who was leaving and who was staying. One minister told me, "We don't know if the emigration is of the Lord, but we can't stop it." In the 1920s some people had hesitated to leave. Times would improve now that the Russian Revolution was over. Why leave? Later they regretted their decision. Now people of German-origin were rushing through the open door. Who knew how long it would stay open?

Old Mr. Klassen, age 90, was already in bed, so he was awakened. A daughter-in-law dressed him in a shirt and someone covered his legs with a blanket to make him respectable for the "American visitors." He had been deaf for a while but now was also blind. We spoke to him through a speaking tube made out of a newspaper held to his ear.

He told us his story briefly. During the 1930s and 40s he had been exiled three times for a total of about 25 years because he was a minister of the Gospel. His wife had been sent away for ten years because she had gone to church services. As she was driven away, her young children clung to the sleigh, but the driver whipped their little hands.

I learned he was a poet and a musician as well as preacher. He took my hands in his long, strong ones and wept. He had worked in Bethania from 1925-27 until it was torn down because of construction of the Dnieper dam. My parents had already left that institution by that time. No overlap.

Before we left we prayed together. He insisted on standing for prayer "to the glory of God." No sitting during prayer for him. I learned he died the following year.

Every once in a long while we meet a memorable character. David Klassen is one of those people I will never forget because of the impression he made on me in those brief moments we had together. He was a man of spirit, faith, and will. He went back to sleep, I assume, after we left -- and I lay awake to ponder his story.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What I've learned on my way to becoming 87 years old

Last week I celebrated my 87th birthday with flowers, chocolates, nuts, cards -- lots of them, and especially people. What have I learned to this point? About ten years ago I made a list of my learning to that point. Here are my revisions and additions to that list:

10. I think I could live in a nudist camp. A few years ago I couldn't answer the phone unless I was fully clothed, even buttoned up. It felt absolutely obscene to answer the phone in less than the required minimum The change came when I went to water exercise classes. When I entered the dressing room I didn't know where to focus my eyes amid all the breasts, buttocks, buns, and bellies both freely and modestly displayed in all sizes, shapes, and colors as we women dressed and undressed. Most of my new friends had surgical scars up the front, down the side, across this vast expanse, up that narrow strip, under that flap. With time I could look at them in various stages of undress and calmly carry on a conversation about the best way to make macaroni salad without embarrassment. And now I even answer the phone in the all-together if someone phones just before I plan to jump into the shower.

9. You don't need to forward an email to five addresses even if the sender says the boogeyman will get you if you don't. Believe me, you don't have to read all the stuff sent your way, and if you worry about having deleted that wonderful joke, forget it. It will come back to you again, and again, and again.

8. Under the skin, Mennonites (all stripes), Methodists (all stripes), and Baptists (all stripes) and even Catholics (one stripe) are pretty much alike. I know. I've mixed with all kinds. Also all the other denominations. I haven't found that any of them bite.

7. If after you've read the first chapter of a book and it is boring or doesn't make sense, feel free to drop it. Let someone else plow through it or simply keep it on their bookshelf to add the aura of erudition to their home.

6. Even if I'm on a "Do not call" list, solicitors still call to tell me I have won the lottery or some such big prize if I donate money to their cause. I've learned it's okay to hang up. Machines have no feelings.

5. I've learned it's important to stop and grieve over losses, even something as small as a file misplaced in the boxes around me. I hear again and again about "getting on with one's life" after the loss of a family member or other tragic event. At times it is necessary not to get on with one's life and stop to mourn the loss of a body function-- or a relationship. And then start moving.

4. It is important to face the day running, or stumbling, or with the help of a walker if need be. Face the day and it won't stare you down.

3. An assignment to write an article still gets my creative juices flowing. And my mind active.

2. Once you get into the swing of getting rid of stuff (on shelves, in boxes, in closets), it gets easier and easier. When we finally leave all our stuff and get stuffed into a long narrow box, whatever happens to our stuff won't matter. I've learned to carry one thing out every time I bring something in.

1. Each birthday, especially in the eighth decade of life, forces an admission of human limitations, but also an increasing awareness of God's unfailing grace. This time of life has its glories just like any other. Faith forms faith.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A family reunion revisited

In 1994 I attended a Peter P. Wiebe family reunion in British Columbia. There were about 120 of us, many of whom I didn't know, having lost contact with the younger generation over the years and because of the distances that separated us. I had been asked to speak on Sunday morning. What to say?  The words fell into place:

Heredity is powerful!  Anyone looking over this group of Wiebes would immediately know they were related.  My son walks the same way his father Walter walked.  There is that characteristic Wiebe eyebrow arch,  the character traits that appear and reappear such as the love of singing and music in many of them, the urge toward creativity, particularly writing poetry and much more.

Pain is omnipresent!  From my decades of association with many of them, I knew the depths of pain  and heartache some had experienced. Illness, death, disappointments,  failures, wrong steps -- all were present as they are in all families.

Grace is abundant!  As I looked over the crowd of faces that Sunday morning I became very much aware of the grace that had prevailed in their lives -- the perseverance, the continued reaching, the encouraging,the forgiving.

Grace had been imparted to me by many of them.  As I wrote in my first book Alone: A Widow's Search for Joy, a tiny, white-haired grandmother, her face lined by many years of hard work and poverty, sensed my fear as I faced the birth of our first child.  My  younger friends told me what to expect at the hospital, how many diapers and nighties I would need and all about formulas and night-feedings. This mother and grandmother, my mother-in-law, said simply, "The Lord helps at such times."

A glimpse of grace will not send a burdened person deeper into despair and self-pity, but will lift and encourage and help him or her to see a God able to meet their need. With these words she built  a bridge by which I could walk in faith into one of the deepest experiences of a woman's life. She was telling me that when a woman needs God, God is there to help. And he was.

All twelve of her children had been born at home, miles away from the white sterility of a hospital.  Perhaps she was thinking of the time one baby  arrived in the dead of winter in the old frame homestead on the cold, snow-covered prairies. Perhaps she was reminded of the time she held a limp, feverish little girl in her arms on a hot, dry August day in Saskatchewan to watch her breathe her last. Whatever had been her own experience, she was offering me faith, steadied by the grace of courage. 

As I think over that reunion I am reminded of Oswald Chambers' words: "The lives that have been of most blessing to  you are those who were unconscious of it."

Heredity, pain, grace -- all three come plentifully. Heredity comes without our choosing. We do cannot choose our genes. Pain likewise. Most people would not choose pain if they knew how to avoid it. Grace is something we can open ourselves to all times.

Who can be a purveyor of grace?    This gift is not limited to specific types or groups of people, or to certain denominations even though their  fences  are erected high to keep grace limited to their kind, or to some theological persuasions. I have been blessed by the words of a stumbling speaker  more often than the carefully crafted production of a slick orator which  slid past me like a greased pig its would-be-capturer.  The imperfect and the perfect, the poor and the rich, the sick and the well, the educated and the uneducated -- everyone can be the means of grace to others.

Heredity, pain, grace. All three play a part in our lives.