Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Maple bug lament

box-elder-bug

Boisea trivitatta – box elder bug – commonly known as maple bug in Saskatchewan

They come marching into the house in fall. They can fly, but mostly I see them plodding up the walls, down the walls, across the ceiling, across the table, across the back of my hand. They are so light-footed that I don’t feel them; I just happen to look down and there it is – way too close for comfort.

They are a parasite of the Manitoba Maple, or box elder tree, in the summer. Then in winter they come looking for a warm place to stay. They do little harm to the maples; when they come into the house for winter they don’t bite, eat, breed, buzz or smell. They are actually cute little guys, one could grow to enjoy having one around for its picturesque appearance.

But you never have just one. They settle by thousands in the wall cavities of older homes. It wouldn’t even be so bad if they would stay there, but they feel the warmth inside the house and come out to investigate. I patrol the house with the hand vac several times a day and collect a couple dozen. The next day there are a couple dozen more.

They lie low in the dead of winter, though one or two might show up on a sunny day. In the spring they are gone and you never notice them on the maple trees in summer. In the fall they swarm on the sunny side of houses, looking for a place to come in.

They are so much a part of our life here on the prairies that it seems there should be a song about them. Did Stompin’ Tom ever write one? If he didn’t, somebody else should.

The education of a pioneer bride

The first settlers on the Saskatchewan plains were faced with a quandary – there were no large trees that could be cut to build log houses, and lumber yards were usually far away. So they set to work to build their first homes out of the material under their feet – the sod.

This was actually quite a practical choice. This was native grass prairie that had never been cultivated. The dense root structure made sturdy building materials. The sod was cut into strips two feet wide, about six feet long and two to three inches thick and they were laid much as one lays bricks, with alternating joints to tie the structure together. The sod was removed from around the growing house, providing a fire guard to protect against prairie fires.

Poplar poles were cut from nearby ponds or streams and lashed together to make a framework for the roof, which was then covered with sod strips. There was usually one door and two windows cut into the walls and a stovepipe stuck out the roof. The inside walls were often covered with a material like canvas. The result was a cozy home that was well insulated from the winter cold and the summer heat. Sometimes the roof would get saturated from a heavy rainfall and it would be necessary to move the bed and table away from the leaks.

Many a bride spent her first few years in a home such as this until her husband could accumulate enough money to buy lumber to build a wood frame home. No doubt the promise of that soon to be built two-storey home with a proper roof made life in the sod home easier to bear, but those early prairie brides had an amazing ability to adapt to conditions as they were.

Nevertheless, sod homes did present some unexpected challenges. Early one fine summer day a new bride set to work to bake some bread before her husband came home for dinner.  She measured the flour and other ingredients, soaked the yeast in water, then mixed it all together and set it aside to rise. But it didn’t rise. She checked it anxiously as the morning hours went by. There was never any change, it sat there in exactly the same shape as when she had first mixed it.

She set about making dinner, without the hoped for bread. She checked it one last time, then, not wanting her husband to know of her failure, she took the bowl outside and with a large spoon dropped a portion of the dough into the gopher holes around the yard. She felt a little solace in knowing that at least she had hidden the evidence.

When her husband came in for dinner, his first words were: “I just saw the most amazing thing. There are big white mushrooms growing out of all the gopher holes in the yard.”

I think it was the sudden flush of red in her cheeks that gave her away. Together they realized that she had done nothing wrong, but it was just too cool in the sod house to activate the yeast. The ground outside had been warmed by the sun and the hidden dough just couldn’t stay hidden.

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.

A tree falls on the prairie

One hundred years ago, settlers came to the flatlands of Saskatchewan. No need for axes and saws to fell trees, just a team of oxen and a plough to turn the virgin sod and prepare it for a first crop. Of course, the lack of trees also meant a lack of building materials, so the first home was often built of strips of sod laid one on top of the other.

The lack of trees on the open prairie also meant that you were fully exposed to the wind. And wind is an almost constant, though invisible, feature of the prairie landscape. So the settlers planted trees – poplars, willows, caraganas, Manitoba maples. Folks today consider those trees to be almost weed species, but they were the ideal trees for creating a shelter from the wind. They grew quickly and they were tough enough to survive during the dry spells and the winds. The poplars grew tall and strong, with massive trunks.

Now those poplars have grown old. Long ago, through damage caused by rodents, birds, insects and weathering, a fungus had penetrated the protective shell of the bark. Slowly the fungus worked on the inside, while the tree still appeared healthy and strong. Branches began to die and be broken off in the wind. Finally, the inner strength was gone and the trees began to fall, one by one, during windstorms. One tree was almost dead, yet one branch still produced fresh green leaves in the spring. Then one day, without a breath of wind, the tree fell. There just wasn’t enough sound wood left to bear the weight of the massively tall tree.

One hundred years ago, the settlers brought with them a faith in God. There were different varieties of faith, some seem to have been more vigorous and sturdy than others. Their faith gave them strength to persevere during the hardship of the pioneer years. Churches were established that appeared strong and substantial, able to stand for generations. Today, one by one, those churches are closing their doors.

The cause is the same: somehow a foreign life was allowed to enter in. New doctrines, new ideas, new methods of working. They didn’t seem dangerous, but the decay set in and no one knew the source, or what to do about it.

Many Christians and churches remain, but not all have a strong connection to the source of truth and life. In many places the decay is still very active and there is much confusion about how to arrest it. Some still seem healthy and strong, but how long can that last if they only want to save themselves from the decay that is evident in others? Do they perhaps have another type of decay that will eventually bring them down, too?

Only God can save His people. Will they hear His call, or will they let the opportunity to save themselves and others from the wrath to come pass unheeded?

Unexpected beauty

Sphaeralcea coccineaThese are the flowers of  scarlet mallow, a low growing plant that shows up in unexpected places here on the prairies, almost hidden among the grass. The plant is only about six inches high, the flowers about a half inch in diameter.

When I was a boy I would ask my Dad what those little red floweres were. He didn’t know and wasn’t interested in knowing either – too busy trying to keep me supplied with food and clothes to take time to wonder about little splashes of beauty.

I spent a good part of my adult life away from the prairies, but after returning sixteen years ago I resolved to solve the mystery of those little red flowers. It didn’t take long to find them, this time right in the city only a few blocks from our home. I bought a prairie wildflower book and finally had a name for it. A new subdivision was planned for the area where I found them, so I dug a few up and moved them to our backyard. We sold that home; perhaps I should find some to trnsplant to where we now live.

I have developed a talent in my working life of being able to find things that spoil the value of whatever they are mixed with. Among other things, I was a grain buyer for about eight years, looking at grain samples to find damaged, discoloured or shrunken kernels. I was a quality assurance inspector in an auto parts factory for fifteen years. Tonight I will be taking part in a three hour conference call of our church’s French proofreading committee, looking for, and finding replacements for, inappropriate words in a translated work.

I’m afraid that tends to carry over into my personal life. I am quick to see the little things that should not be. Perhaps there is some value in that, but such a talent by itself can lead to a rather sour outlook onlife.

There is still something left in me of that little boy who was fascinated by a little flash of beauty in the drab prairie grass. I pray that God would open my eyes to see more of the beauty and goodness around me, in people as well as in the landscape.

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