Monday, August 17, 2015

Home thoughts about the Herald from abroad

I learned that the Mennonite Brethren Herald has been given a reprieve – of sorts. It will not be discontinued as previously announced to be replaced by  a publication that better fulfills the mission of outreach.  The discontinuance message gave me pause for I have read the Herald for about half a century and to lose it would be like losing a friend, albeit one becoming more and more a stranger as we both age.  A number of questions come to forefront about church publications as I think about the Herald:   

Is it possible to send out a communication without communicating anything?

Is it possible for a church organ to be prophetic, to lead in areas of truth no one person can deal with alone and hang onto its readers  when the push is aggressive  to be glossy, sleek, with super-artistic layout? 

Most of us call non-communicating communications junk mail or spam.  It fills wastepaper baskets and garbage collection sites.  We discard it because it is a one-way message. It may inform but does not communicate.   

What does it take for a communicator to communicate to the churched as well as the un-churched? Too much of what we get these days comes laundered, sanitized, and wrinkle-free lest someone see the body of Christ as less than perfect.  Surely most people know the church is not the flawless body it strives to be. 

For a publication to succeed, I think it takes connectivity -- strong efforts at keeping ties strong between sender and receiver. In a church publication it means informing individuals about individuals,  not just about  committees and boards. It means listening to the reader.  Two-way communication builds peoplehood.  One-way communication builds the institution. I sincerely hope the new version of the Mennonite Brethren Herald will not become a one-way messenger  in the interests of spreading the Gospel.  

A good church-related  publication shapes thinking about how God relates to real human beings, whether believers or non-believers, in a very real world of hurt, despair, disappointment and violent behavior.  It also shows how to relate to God in a changing culture.  It knows the difference between what readers want to know and what the top leaders want them to know to keep the image intact.

Having been involved in Mennonite  journalism  and institutions for a lifetime,  I know how difficult it is for church leaders to be convinced  the constituency can  handle touchy issues such as criticism  lest financial supporters or the uninitiated  are offended.   

How can this be achieved?  Through columns, reviews of significant books both for and against new thinking, information about what is stirring in the church,  and dialogue, lots of it,  by means of letters to the editor and editorials in which the editor responds to the readers. And personal experience stories.  The more personal, the more general I have often told writing classes, for people all have  the same basic experiences. 

A good church organ strengthens the faith of its readers whether they are new believers or seasoned elders in the faith.  I recall the very first writers workshop I attended in the 1960s at which the editor of a prominent Christian periodical stated again and again, “I don’t want articles about what God can do.  I want to know what God is doing.”  No future tense, only the present. Where is God working in daily life?   No preaching.  This kind of faith-strengthening is best done through stories of people explaining how God worked in their lives. 

Humans make mistakes and rationalize them, institutionalize them, and, as someone has said, give birth to sacred cows and then wander around in the messes they make while on the church’s mission. But the Bible is full of such people and we are blessed by the writings of the psalmist David without  always immediately recalling his adulterous, violent  life.

I have been a reader of the MB Herald since its inception and watched it grow, flounder, and rise again to become stronger. I pray that this coming change will take it to higher heights in strengthening both those within and outside the church.

Monday, August 10, 2015

"In Amerika, Frauen wie Kinder" [In America, wives are like children]

     My daughter, visiting in Canada, sent me a photo of the house in Yarrow, B.C., where my husband and I first lived after our marriage.  Memories flooded back like a tsunami. In my book You Never  Gave Me a Name: One Mennonite Woman’s Story I have described this first year  after we had said our vows as one of the most difficult in my life.
     I had moved unknowingly into one of the most conservative bastions of Russian-German immigrants.  My parents were also conservative immigrants but we had lived for several decades in a multi-ethnic community in Saskatchewan.  I had no experience with this kind of one-mind living.
     One early morning, shortly after moving into our side of the duplex, I woke to hear heavy footsteps on our gravel driveway, accompanied by loud muttering.  I nudged Walter. He looked out the window and then explained that the man lived by himself about a mile or so from us. In his childhood during the Russian Revolution of 1917-19, he had witnessed his mother’s rape and murder. Later, he had spent two years in hiding before coming to Canada as a five-year-old to be reunited with family members.  At some point he had lost contact with reality and the demons from the past asserted themselves.
     In the bleakness of that morning I watched from our upstairs window as this miserable, emotionally disturbed soul sparred and shouted at an imaginary foe, his voice growing louder and louder. Even when I later saw him in daylight, I drew back. He was a huge man, poor groomed with an angry mien. He was fighting his battles, I was fighting mine.
     Walter was soon busy teaching during the day and deep into class preparation every evening. Even if he had had time for me, there was no place to go and no money to do so. There was no library anywhere in walking distance.  I was shocked that I had become pregnant almost immediately.  Cause and effect had escaped my limited understanding of the facts of life. I felt nauseated to the point of despair and spent hours it seemed hunched over the bathroom stool throwing up.  I knew nothing about being pregnant. Nor about cooking or operating the drafts on a wood stove.  Growing up, I had been the child assigned to dusting and cleaning, not cooking. This was newly-wedded bliss?
     Another deep-seated concern was that the new baby might be born prematurely, as was the baby of college friends. The husband wrote anguished letters to all their friends, explaining with underlining and capital letters that he and his wife had not had sex before marriage, the Greatest Sin in the church at the time.  Their infant son was truly premature. I believed him, but the new father anguished that people might judge him unfairly. What if our baby was born prematurely?
     Other wrinkles  related to finances that  I describe in my book introduced themselves unceremoniously during the next months.
     It didn’t help that early one morning the Slavic woman living in the other half of the duplex knocked on the door to borrow some sugar. She watched Walter carrying a tray with oatmeal to me in bed trying to find courage to get up.  Her amused comment, “In Amerika, Frauen wie Kinder” (In America, women are like children), stabbed me to the core. She had come from Europe recently and could shop wood, carry big sacks of groceries for miles, and  manage a household with energy to spare.
     She did me a favor. Her statement humiliated but also pushed me.  I had chosen marriage.  No one had pushed me into this new arrangement.  If those difficult first experiences and others I mention in my book had knocked me down, they had also shown me that life is about choices, mine and others, but I determine how I will respond to them. So began a long journey of self-discovery,  learning about the practicalities of life, and figuring out my relationship to God, the church, family and society.   
    I look again at that little photo  my daughter sent me.  The building had once been a barn, with only the hip roof remaining to indicate its modest beginnings.  A room had been added onto the side and a front door added.  But it  was more than the beginning of a marriage; it was the beginning of an awareness of being adult of whom something was expected at each stage in life.  I began that journey.