Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Stories from my life

Dennis to the rescue

During the time I had been away in Toronto my folks had sold the little farm at Craik and bought an older two storey house in Moose Jaw. It wasn’t hard getting used to living in Moose Jaw, it was where I was born, we had family in the city and had made frequent trips there all during my growing up years. Uncle Art and Aunt Katherine, Dad’s brother and Mom’s sister, had moved into the city years ago already. Dad turned 72 in the summer of 1963, his eyesight was getting worse and he could no longer drive, so the move was a sensible one for them.

To get to the nearest Anglican church all my parents had to do was walk out to the back alley, go half a block east and half a block north. It was a distance my mother could easily walk. I never accompanied them to church.

Dad might not have seen well enough to drive, but he could still walk. He got up early in the morning and went for a walk, then took another walk or two later in the day, doing about six miles a day. He couldn’t see to read much anymore; Mom would gladly have read to him, but he could not bring himself to let her do it. That would have been to admit that he was handicapped.

But what was I to do? I was a walker like my Dad and walked all over the city with that question spinning around in my mind. I had lost all my excess weight in Toronto and was down to 60 kilos. I hadn’t done any physical work during those years that would have bulked me up, but I wasn’t weak or malnourished. I think it was just the unending questions about my future that made my head spin. One afternoon I came home from a walk, walked into the living room, blacked out for a moment and fell.

I got right back up on my feet, but Mom was scared. She got me in to see her doctor and he prescribed some little white pills for me. I got the impression that there was some malfunction in my heart and these pills would regulate it.

My cousin Dennis came to my rescue. He needed help on the farm and I was available. The farm was only a few miles out of Moose Jaw; I spent Monday to Saturday with Dennis and Harlene at the farm and Sunday at home with Mom and Dad in Moose Jaw. I helped with the field work and whatever else needed doing around the farm. Occasionally I would babysit Wendy, Jana and Jeffrey, their three young children.

Dennis had a few head of cattle, Harlene kept a few ducks and geese. It was getting dark one evening during harvest when I pulled into the yard with a load of grain to unload into the granary. The geese were not yet shut up for the night and here comes the gander running towards the truck, neck stretched out, wings flapping, honking for all he was worth to save the other geese from this monster. A fully loaded truck does not stop on a dime. Mom was out to visit Harlene and the two of them spent the rest of the evening plucking and eviscerating the would-be hero.

I helped at the farm on occasion during the winter and in spring began putting in long hours in the fields again. Then in late summer I landed a temporary job at the United Grain Growers grain elevator in Moose Jaw.

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A Teenage Failure

It was good to be home again, to eat my mother’s cooking, to sleep in my own bed in my own room, to help out around the farm and to visit the old buffalo rubbing stone, my rock of refuge. I was sure that the people in town thought of me as already a failure at the age of eighteen, so I avoided contact with them as much as I could.

After a few weeks of this my father exploded into my room one Sunday morning to angrily demand that I get dressed for church and come with them. He was right, I needed to get out among other people, but his way of forcing the issue did nothing to make me feel any less a failure. However, the rejection I dreaded at church never happened and I slipped back into the familiar rhythm of Anglican worship services.

There was perhaps some solace to my soul in the magnificent words of the Scriptures, prayers and hymns, but I don’t recall much spiritual sustenance in the sermons. The preacher at that time was a young man from England who never really got acclimatized to the prairie way of life. One sermon that I remember was about what an evil game hockey was and how cricket was the proper sport for Christians. He was that much disconnected from reality in rural Saskatchewan. I don’t think anyone ever tried to set him straight, they just politely ignored him.

Gradually I dared to peek out from my protective covering a little bit at a time and found that I suffered no painful consequences. I still went to find the peace and quiet of the old rock, but perhaps the long walks along the ravines did as much for my mental state.

This is long ago, I have repressed these memories for years and many things are no longer clear to me. I believe it was at this time that I worked for a few days helping to pour the foundation for a new high school. It has come back to me that the incident of my father burning himself and me taking over his farm duties and janitorial duties at the hospital occurred during this period.

I must have been home at Craik for almost two years. In the summer of 1962 I was off to Toronto again, this time to attend DeVry Technical Institute to learn electronics. Not that I was terribly interested in learning electronics, but it was a field that offered many job opportunities and once again my parents were ready to pay my way, so off I went.

A Vagrant Without a Clue

I didn’t report the theft of the money to anyone. I never considered asking anyone for help or advice. To admit the theft would be to admit how stupid I was and face the humiliation of being publicly denounced for my stupidity. That was my state of mind at least.

I don’t remember many details from so long ago, but I packed all my stuff into a trunk and sent it by rail to Toronto. For all I know it’s still sitting in the baggage storage there. And I bought myself a ticket to Ottawa. I didn’t have any purpose or goal in mind; I didn’t have a clue. I just wanted to get away. What did I want to get away from? I didn’t have a clue.

I still had some money and I spent a couple months in a seedy hotel. I walked the city, the paths along the Rideau Canal, around Parliament Hill and the ByWard Market. I did a lot of reading. People I avoided. I was still wrapped in my protective wadding, seeing, watching, but not a part of anything that was happening around me.

When the money had about run out I spent a night or two at a men’s shelter. Then I decided to hitchhike to Toronto. I didn’t have a clue where I would go in Toronto or what I would do. Maybe something would work out.

I must have gotten a ride that took me almost to Smith’s Falls. I don’t remember; all I remember is walking down the highway near Smith’s Falls and getting a ride from there that took me right into Toronto. The man who picked me up was disappointed. Driving up from behind I must have looked like a girl as I hadn’t had a hair cut for several months. Before he dropped me off he gave me money for a haircut.

Here I was in downtown Toronto, still with no money and still without a clue. I was hanging around one of the big stores to keep warm when a young police officer asked to see my identification. He was startled when he saw my name and showed me his identification. His last name was Goodenough! He kindly advised me to move on and try to find a proper place to sleep and keep warm. I had no clue how to find such a place.

A night or two later a couple of homeless men led me to an abandoned house where we could at least have a little shelter for the night. In the middle of the night men with flashlights discovered us. They were police officers and they hauled us off to jail.

The next morning we were summoned to appear in court on charges of vagrancy. When my turn came a Salvation Army officer intervened and said he would take responsibility for me. The judge discharged me into his care. I was taken to the Salivation Army men’s shelter and led to curtained off space with a proper bed.

I don’t know how long I stayed there. It was warm, the food was decent and I dimly remember hearing a gospel message or two in their chapel. Not that the gospel registered on me in my state of mind. People sometimes came to the Salvation Army looking for workers for a day. I remember going out with a few other guys to distribute flyers in a prosperous looking part of the city. I was intrigued bythe houses; remember – I had wanted to be an architect. I wondered what they looked like inside and what kind of people lived in them. The guys I was with had no patience for that kind of dreamy talk. The more flyers they could distribute, the more money they would make. This was my first time doing something like this and I didn’t do all that great a job of keeping up with them.

A few days later the officer in charge of the shelter asked me to come into his office. He told me that the Salvation Army operates a missing persons service and through that service my parents had found out where I was. He dialed their number and let me talk to my mother. A few days later I was on the train again, going home to Saskatchewan.

$9.60 for a tonsillectomy

Saturday evening I was looking through some old papers and came across the following bill from when my tonsils were removed 71 years ago.

Providence Hospital, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

July 10, 1946

Tonsillectomy

Hospital      2 days X 1.50                                         3.00
Operating Room                                                      5.00
Medicine                                                                   .10
Laboratory                                                             1.50
Total                                                                   $9.60

The Day I Had to Bully My Father

Two years later we had a very dry summer. About the only things that flourished were the Russian thistles. Then they would dry up, break off at ground level and blow across the prairie landscape. Often they would collect in great masses along fence lines, becoming fire hazards. Dad liked to collect them in a pile and burn them.

One day in late summer, Dad came into the house with a big hole burned in the back of his coveralls and the shirt beneath. He told me to go across the dam and see if he had got the fire completely out. I saw that his Russian Thistle fire had gotten away on him. There was a large blackened area in the grass and here and there small flames still flickering. When I was sure had stamped them all out I returned to the house.

Dad’s back was badly burned; Mom and I knew he had to go to the hospital. He refused. “Who will milk the cows? Who will do my janitor chores?”

I told him I would do all that, but still he refused. Finally I raised my voice to a bellow and manhandled my father out to the truck and drove him to the hospital. Mom had called Doctor McCaw and he was there to admit Dad and take charge.

The chores at home I knew how to do. The responsibilities of the hospital janitor I did not know. But those were simpler times. It helped that my cousin Ron was on the hospital board and the hospital matron, in charge of housekeeping, was Barb Hunter, a friend of the family from Mossbank days. With Barb coaching me I tried to do everything that Dad had done. I stopped in to see him each day and to see how his back was healing. I think Dad spent ten days in the hospital. His work got done and he got his full pay cheque.

At home I fed the chickens, gathered the eggs and milked the cows morning and evening. I cranked out the cream on the cream separator and did all the chores that needed doing. As far as I can remember Dad never did say thank you, but I think knowing that I had taken care of things eased some of the tension between us.

[This is part of chapter 10 of my memoir. I have done a thorough re-write and rearranging of the material I have previously posted and am ready to start on the next section)

Preface

Half a century ago a drunken young man announced to a couple of friends that one day he would be a Mennonite and wear a beard. His friends dismissed this as babbling inspired by the booze he had consumed. The young man himself was bewildered. The few Mennonites he had met, from his mother’s side of the family, had not inspired any longing to be like them. He had never seen a Mennonite who wore a beard, didn’t know if he wanted to be a Christian, or even if there was such a thing as a real Christian.

Over the next twelve years he quit drinking, quit smoking cigars, became a Christian, got married and started a family, in that order. Then he and his wife joined a Mennonite church, one that is of the persuasion that if hair grows on a man’s face it doesn’t make sense to try to remove all trace of that hair each morning.

That drunken declaration was prophetic, springing from a longing within that took the young man years to understand. It is now apparent that the longing came from God, and that over the years He continued to prompt and nudge that young man in ways that would allow that longing to become a living faith.

This book is the story of all that led up to that unexpected statement and all that happened after to make it become reality, despite the bumbling confusion of the young man, who was me. I am an old man now, and look back in wonder at that journey.

I hope that my story will encourage others to trust that there is light for the pathway and unexpected moments of joy in the journey, even when one is stubborn and doubtful of the way.

[With this post I am beginning a memoir of my spiritual journey, which I hope to publish before I get too old for stuff like this. The working title, for now at least, is One Day I Will be a Mennonite and Wear a Beard. I encourage readers to offer critiques and comments. Tell me what works and what doesn’t. Does my writing style put you to sleep? Do I offer too much information, or not enough? Your thoughts are welcome.]

An abiding church

As soon as we were married my wife and I set out on a search to find people who still believed and lived the faith once delivered to the saints. I firmly believed we would find that faith among the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptist & Mennonites of long ago. Time and again our search ran aground, and we would sadly move on to search somewhere else.

We met many fine, warm hearted people along the way, but their understanding of the faith always fell short. Some would say that wearing the style of clothes prescribed by their church was evidence of being born again. Others thought that the mere fact of wanting to be a Christian was evidence you were one. Some said that it was better to follow Billy Graham than Menno Simons. I mean no disrespect of Billy Graham, but I fear such a statement indicates a lack of a spiritual foundation and they would just as readily follow the next big name that came along, whatever kind of gospel he would preach.

Then there was this group that claimed to be the true church. I balked at that idea, which I took to be evidence of pride. But after encountering so many “wrong” churches, Mennonites and a variety of others, I began to reconsider. Doesn’t every church claim to be more on the right path than any other? Otherwise there would be no reason for them to continue to exist.

Finally I knelt in prayer and asked for help to understand what the Bible teaches about the church. I found there is nothing in the Bible that gives room to think that competing bodies, differing in doctrine, can all be churches of God. Neither did there seem to be any way to fit the idea of an invisible church into the New Testament teachings about the church.

Then I was led to Menno Simons list of signs by which the true church of God may be known:

Scriptural use of the sacramental signs – by that time I had seen the confusion in so many other churches and knew of only one that carefully proved those who requested baptism to see that they had indeed been born again and the congregation could testify of a Spirit-led life. This same church was the only one I knew of that would not have a communion service unless the congregation was fully united and any sins repented of and quarrels reconciled.

Unfeigned brotherly love – again we had seen many churches that tried to practice brotherly love, but didn’t really trust each other. Only one church seemed to have genuine brotherly love.

Unadulterated, pure doctrine – check

Obedience to the Word – check

Dietrich Philip added another sign – ministers that are faithful in word and deed. I had already noted that in this church there was the power to deal with ministers who crossed a line in doctrine or conduct without disturbing the unity of a congregation.

Thus, on February 11, 1979, Chris and I were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the same church that we had earlier vowed to avoid.

One last thought: the doctrine of the true church does not mean that we think no one else outside the church can be saved. Here I’ll quote Menno Simons again:

“Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen ones of God, in the before mentioned churches ; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias ; but our dispute is in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.”

Looking for real Mennonites

All I learned about Mennonites while I was growing up was that my mother had been one and had left because the German language was more important than the faith and that my grandma, a dear sweet old lady, was one and wanted me to learn German so I could be a Christian.

Perhaps there was one more thing. My mother, though no longer member of a Mennonite church, seemed to have carried some of the faith in her baggage when she left. There was something about her that was more peaceful and attractive than the argumentative faith of my father.

In my mid twenties I decided I wanted to know more about Mennonites. This was half a century ago, long before you could go to your computer and ask google to find the information you wanted. Encyclopedias offered a little information, but I wasn’t sure they were getting it right. So I bought a book, probably more than one, I forget.

As I read Mennonite history I discovered a group of people who truly believed in God, who loved God, knew they were loved by God, and believed God wanted them to love everyone else. For some reason the state churches believed such a faith was subversive and persecuted the Mennonites. The Mennonites treasured their faith more than their homes, material possessions, even their lives. They were burnt at the stake and kept telling the bystanders about the love of God as long as they had breath.

I read about a time when soldiers seized a stock of books written by Menno Simons and were about to burn them in the town square. Several daring men began grabbing books from the pile and passing them to the bystanders, who immediately fled. It all happened so quickly that the few soldiers present were unable to prevent it and were left with almost nothing to burn.

There had been a power in that faith that I longed for. I knew there were many kinds of Mennonites in our province and hoped that somewhere I could find that old faith sill living.

I got up early one Sunday morning, dressed in my best clothes and drove into a nearby city to attend a Mennonite service. I was impressed by the simplicity of the non-liturgical service, don’t remember anything about the sermon, but hoped to learn more about this church. However, it appeared that I was an invisible person. One or two people nodded to me as we left that service, but none appeared interested in the stranger in their midst. I tried again several weeks later, with the same result.

I still thought that the faith I had read about must surely exist somewhere, but I gave up looking until after I was married. We experienced more disappointments and came to realize that most churches that called themselves Mennonite had no idea what the name meant. But we still kept looking.

Precious memories

My cousin Dennis was born September 9, 1937, the first of six children born to Art and Katherine Goodnough. His wife called last week to tell us that his children were planning a surprise birthday party for him for his 80th birthday, last Saturday. Could we come?

I thought about it briefly, maybe half a second, and said “Of course, we’ll be there.” I had been thinking of this momentous occasion coming up, had bought a card and was wondering how or when to deliver it. Saturday we made the two and a half hour drive to Moose Jaw and joined 50 others, family and friends, to celebrate Dennis’s 80 years.

All of Dennis’s brothers came, from Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC. His sister lives in Portugal and didn’t make it. Four of his five children were there, two live in Moose Jaw, one in Alberta, one in BC and the one missing was out of the country on a business trip.

Uncle Art was my father’s brother, Aunt Katherine my mother’s sister. Our two families have always been close. Everything his brothers said about Dennis was completely familiar. None of us has ever seen him get angry, nor have we ever seen him violate a traffic law. Richard told how Dennis would always use his signal lights before making a turn, even if he was out in the middle of a 100 acre field or a thousand acre pasture.

He was always interested in others. Whenever you talked to him, his first questions were about your family. He never wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings. Stan, 15 years younger, told of encountering a kangaroo on his big brother’s farm when he was just a little lad. He told Dennis about the kangaroo and Dennis said, “Well, it might have been something else that looked a lot like a kangaroo.” Some time later Stan figured out that it had been a jackrabbit.

His patience was his great strength, but at times it looked like a weakness. Jason, his youngest son, told of how his Dad taught them the importance of cleanliness and also modelled it for them. One time the family was ready to get in the car to go somewhere, they were already 20 minutes late, but Dad decided he had to have a shower first.

Jason also told of how his Dad had been a good teacher. He didn’t get angry when they didn’t do as they had been taught, but relations could get rather cool for a while. Ted, the brother next after Dennis in the family, picked up on that and said that had come from their mother. When he did something wrong his mother wouldn’t speak to him for days. Finally he would get so desperate that he would do anything, wash dishes, scrub floors, to get her to talk to him. Thinking of that later, it seems that Ted would be the one in the family who would have most often incurred this treatment from his mother. He was also the one for whom it was most apt to produce a favourable result.

Joel, Dennis’s oldest grandson and a Pentecostal preacher, was MC for the afternoon. Jeff, Dennis’s oldest son and also a Pentecostal preacher (but of a different denomination), had the prayer for the supper. The Goodnough family is a mixture of Christians of differing persuasions and others who are not Christians. We don’t get together as often as we did when we were younger and lived closer to each other, but there is still something that binds us together. I believe the tie that binds us together, at least for those of us of the older generation, is the influence of our mothers. I am not alone in thinking that, the thought was expressed a number of times on Saturday.

Journeying on

We were having Vacation Bible School and for crafts we were doing a manger scene with Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. I started calling Mary’s husband Joe. I glimpsed a hint of a smile on Miss Parker’s face, just before Miss Napier let me know that I was not to be so flippant and disrespectful. I don’t suppose that Miss Parker was any more likely to encourage disrespect than Miss Napier, but she allowed herself to be amused by my childishness and seemed much more human to this twelve-year-old boy.

Miss Napier and Miss Parker were Bishop’s Messengers who had come to Craik to fill in until we could get another minister. They could not baptize or serve communion, but led the other types of worship service in the Book of Common Prayer: Morning Worship, Evening Worship and the Litany.

Miss Napier was British and the guardian of proper form and tradition. Miss Parker was Indian. Over the years that ethnic definition has gone from Indian to Native to Aboriginal to First Nations and recently to Indigenous. I must be getting old that seems like one change too far. I want to be respectful, but by the time I can get my head around Indigenous the nomenclature will no doubt have changed again. Miss Parker was a bit shy, definitely not pushy, and was liked by everyone. Miss Napier was not disliked, it just wasn’t easy to warm up to her.

After a year the Reverend Kenneth Vickers came to be our minister, along with his wife, daughter and son. Mister Vickers was the ideal country preacher. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty helping a farmer or maintaining the vicarage and yard. Just a regular down to earth guy that everyone liked. His daughter was nine days younger than me. I was horribly girl shy during the years I was in school, but I remember four girls with whom I could occasionally carry on a conversation. For some reason they were all named Joan and one of them was Joan Vickers.

It was while Mr Vickers was at Craik that I became an altar boy, assisting in communion services. The Craik parish included churches in three other towns and Sunday mornings found us travelling to services in two of those churches. When I turned sixteen and got a driver’s license he even let me drive his car, a Hillman Minx. Driving that car left me with the lifelong conviction that British technology is an oxymoron.

There were two other ministers at Craik before I ventured off into the big wide world, but all I remember of them are their foibles. I did try attending church again while living in Toronto, but there just wasn’t any pull to keep going back.

The worldwide Anglican Church has always been a big tent movement, where high church and low church Anglicans were able to function in harmony. The churches in Saskatchewan were pretty strongly high church where the liturgy was of utmost importance. Yet there were occasional hints of low church, or evangelical, tendencies. A discerning eye would have noted that the Anglican Church of Canada was already in it’s declining years when I was a boy. Today it has reached doddering old age.

Some congregations have withdrawn, reorganized and continue as outposts of the Anglican faith such as is found in Africa, Asia and South America. The Anglican churches of those countries no longer recognize the Canadian church as being of the same faith. The Anglican Church of Nigeria has sent a missionary couple to Saskatoon to start a new congregation.

I have moved on in my spiritual journey, yet when I look back it is clear that my journey began in the Anglican Church. After confirmation I was given a little red book of questions for self examination before communion. That little book almost led to my conversion. There is still a warm place in my memory where I believe God came very close to me, and I to Him. Then I looked away and saw that no one else seemed to take this seriously.

The services were permeated with readings and recitations from the Bible, way more Scripture than any other church I have ever attended. I was constantly reminded tin those services that I was a sinner who needed to repent and be forgiven. I learned that the outward forms of baptism and communion were only signs of an inward and spiritual grace. I didn’t find those spiritual realities in the Anglican Church, but it was the Anglican Church that set me to searching for them.

I learned in the Anglican Church that it was important that there was a continuity between the church of the apostolic era and the church of today. I still believe that, I just don’t believe that the original faith has necessarily been passed on through a continuous lineage of laying on of hands in ordination. I also learned that people of a great variety of ethnic backgrounds could worship together.

Eleven years after I left Craik I wanted to get married and neither I nor my fiancée knew a minister of any kind. My mother knew where to find Ken Vickers and he came to Moose Jaw to do some counselling before the wedding and to marry us, thus starting us on another journey.

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