Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: coulees

A flatlander looks at life

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I am a native of the Canadian prairies, like the young fella gazing across the plains in the picture above. We call him a gopher, technically he is a Richardson ground squirrel. When the government asked people to vote for an animal emblem for Saskatchewan, some folks suggested the gopher. He is kinda pesky, kinda cute and you just can’t get rid of him, much like the people of this province. For all folks try to get him out of the way, he just keeps popping up again.

The majority vote was for the white-tailed deer. He is just as picturesque and just as pesky. I’m sorry if I offend you Bambi lovers out there, but we look upon the deer as large cloven-hoofed rodents. Try to plant trees, bushes or a garden in rural Saskatchewan and you’ll soon find out why we are not so fond of deer.

I have travelled a little farther afield than the gopher. For the first ten years of my life my family liven in the hill country of southwestern Saskatchewan, the Missouri Coteau. Then we moved into the flatlands, where, when you left one town you could see the wooden grain elevator in the next town 15 km away.

There is more to the flatlands than meets the eye of someone just passing through. There are ravines and coulees meandering through this country, some of the coulees are a mile wide and have a little river wandering along the bottom.

In my adult years I have done farm work, managed one of those wooden country elevators, worked as a postal clerk and in quality assurance in an auto parts factory. In the process, I have lived in five provinces of Canada.

My father was descended from English Puritans who settled in Massachusetts in 1638. His mother was descended from a man who had been a swordsman in Napoleon’s army. My mother was of Dutch-German ancestry, her grandparents came to Manitoba from Ukraine in 1874. I figure my mixed ancestry makes me pretty much a typical Canadian. My father’s mother spoke French, but he never learned more than a few words. I have learned quite a bit more than that.

My parents were both religious people who were disappointed with the churches of their parents. They both longed for something better, without knowing exactly what that would look like. I didn’t know what I was looking for either when I became an adult, but my wife and I went on searching in a way that seemed haphazard, until we found a place where we could worship God in spirit and in truth and have fellowship with other believers.

We can see for miles and miles out here on the prairies. Perhaps that gives us a little different perspective than folks who spend most of their life in one little valley. Perhaps the variety of my life experiences and my spiritual searching give me a little different perspective than folks who have never ventured far from the beliefs their parents taught them.

This blog is an attempt to give you a few glimpses of the way I see things. Not everyone will agree with me and that’s OK. I just want to do my best to let you see what I see so you won’t think that I’m a little touched in the head for not seeing things exactly as you do.

(Note to readers: this is the first draft of the introduction to a book I am compiling from some of the posts that have appeared on this blog.)

A rock of refuge

In 1951 the doctor told Dad he had an ulcer and needed to eat a very bland diet and find a less stressful lifestyle. Thus it happened that in October of that year we loaded all our possessions and left the land of hills and sloughs for a new home in a land of ravines and coulees.

It was mid-afternoon when we got to our new home just outside the town of Craik. I was just in the way when the trucks were being unloaded and I went to look around the yard. I checked out the barn, the chicken house and the garage for our truck. As I walked away from these buildings where all the activity was going on I discovered a ravine north of our house. It began with a large culvert under the road on the west side of the yard and seemed to get deeper as it went east. It was dry now but water must come through that culvert in spring. Soon I was called for supper and after supper it was dark and I was tired.

After breakfast the next morning I decided to see where that ravine would lead me. I hadn’t gone far when the ravine widened and I found myself in a coulee coming from the south. There was a cliff on the opposite bank that I imagined to be a buffalo jump where buffalo had been driven over and killed where they fell at the bottom. When I climbed up the bank beside the cliff and looked around I saw circles in the grass and was sure there had once been tents standing where those circles were.

At the old farm the pasture was a long way from the house, had lots of beef cattle and a few big horses. I had walked it a few times with my Dad and with my older cousins when they came for a visit, but I was a little boy with no permission to explore it alone. Here I was a big boy, nine years old already, and there was a new world to explore at my doorstep. The only cattle were a few tame shorthorns.

I walked further along the coulee. It curved to the east, back west and then north again. The bank inside that last curve was the highest in our pasture. There was a hollow depression halfway up that bank and that was where I discovered the most wonderful place in that whole pasture. There stood a giant rectangular block of pink granite with a step halfway along the top. One could imagine a giant doorstep or recliner. It was a buffalo rubbing stone, rubbed smooth by buffalo rubbing their itches for thousands of years.

The best part was that when I was beside this stone I could not see a fence, a road or a power line and could hear no sound from the roads or the town. I was back in the days before the settlers came and almost expected to see buffalo come along the coulee. This spot beside the big stone became a haven for me as I was growing up. I could walk away from the tension and anger that often existed in our house and find rest and quietness beside my rock of refuge.

There were many other wonders in the coulee. In one spot along the bottom there was a burial site marked by stones. There were wild roses, buffalo berry bushes (my father called them buck brush), Saskatoon berry bushes, tiny red flowers that I later learned were scarlet mallow. Not far from my rock was the spot where the first crocuses bloomed in spring. There were pools of water along the bottom where the cattle drank and frogs croaked. There were gophers and Swainson’s hawks that hunted them.

One time, just as I entered the coulee, a hummingbird flew up to me, stopped so close that I could have reached out and touched him, looked me in the eye for a moment, then zipped aside to let me pass. It seemed an invitation to enter the coulee where the atmosphere would spread a healing balm over me whenever I was troubled.

Double-decker church planting

I grew up in a town I shall call Seagull, Saskatchewan. This is a fictional name, as are all the other names given in this account, but the events are true to life as best as my memory serves. Like all other prairie towns, there were a number of tall wooden grain elevators lining the railway tracks in Seagull. As soon as you got out of town you could see the elevators of the next town.

Yet the land was not as flat as it appeared from the highway, it was broken by ravines and coulees which eventually led into the Grand Valley River. Ravines and coulees, we tended to use those words interchangeably. I guess a coulee leads into a ravine, which eventually leads into a river. In spring, these valleys funnelled water from the melting snow into the river, the rest of the year they were dry. The river valley was indeed grand — deep and a mile wide; the river itself was a narrow stream tracing a sinuous path along the floor of the valley.

There were three churches in Seagull, none of which could be considered evangelical. Some folks wished for something more. When I was twelve a Baptist evangelist from the USA came to town and held a week of meetings in the Legion Hall. This caused quite a stir, some made fun, some were curious, some were searching and appeared to find what they were looking for.

At the end of the week, it was clear that there were enough committed people to establish a church. There was an empty country schoolhouse available, they bought it, moved it into Seagull and made it into a church. They called it the Seagull Baptist Church and hired a young Bible School graduate named Larry McLeod as their pastor.

They began as an unaffiliated congregation and happily worshipped together in Christian fellowship for several years. Some members advanced the thought that there would be benefits in affiliating with a denomination and it seemed that the majority were persuaded that this was the way to go. Thus, after seven years of independence they affiliated with one of the Baptist denominations. A hitch developed, though, when it was found that pastor McLeod and the denomination were not altogether in harmony. He was replaced by someone more acceptable to the denomination.

Feelings were ruffled, some members withdrew from the Baptist church and asked Pastor McLeod to stay on as their pastor. More evangelistic meetings were held, a new congregations was formed, and a rural church that had not been used for some years was moved into town. This was the beginning of the Seagull Gospel Church. Now Seagull had five churches, enough to satisfy most everyone you would think. But could they all afford to support a preacher?

The Baptist church was the first to go, closing their doors 13 years after they began, 6 years after the split. The cost of supporting a minister was just too much for those who were left. The Gospel church struggled on four more years, then voted to amalgamate with a congregation in a town twenty miles away so that together they could afford to support Pastor McLeod. The evangelical witness in Seagull lasted a total of 17 years.

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