A Tale of Two Meetings

I would like to talk about two meetings with some obvious differences and some profound similarities.

The first is a series of meetings that took place across Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba in the early 1920s.  Members of various conservative, traditional Mennonite churches were gathering to discus how to respond to recent government policies put in place to make better British subjects of its citizens.  Most of these families had fled Russia in the 1870s, where similar governmental policies resulted in massive uprisings and eventually civil war.  They discussed whether they should make compromises and stay or follow their conscience and leave.

The second is a meeting that happened more recently in Steinbach, Manitoba where concerned citizens met to voice their concerns over the recently tabled anti-bullying bill.  They were worried that the wording of the bill would mean that people acting out their religious values would be punished.

The obvious similarities make it seem hardly worthwhile to connect the two.  Besides geography, the only connection is that it was a meeting of people with religiously based conscience.  One could argue that meetings of conscience and religion have been happening weekly in this area over the hundred years separating the two events.

The differences are plain, aren’t they?  There are differences in the time period, in the levels of political engagement, in culture, and in the issue being discussed.  So why am I connecting these dots?  Because the differences are an illusion.

First, the issues.  The first group were concerned that they were going to be forced to run their schools in English, rather than German.  The second group was concerned that their religious schools may be forced to provide funding and staff for a student club that endorses homosexual lifestyle.  These issues are different, but they are both related to education and both point directly back to the issue of religious freedom.  After all, isn’t Canada founded on the value of religious freedom for all?

That brings us to our second “difference,” political engagement.  The first group was not political.  There were no politicians in their meetings and their members were forbidden from any kind of political involvement.  The second group had three sitting MLAs (members of the legistlative assembly, regional representatives of the provincial government) and other politicians from other levels were either present or have since voiced their support.  The similiarity however, is more profound.  Both groups were working with the understanding that their past political activities would prevent exactly this type of problem from occurring.  The first group had only come to Canada because their delegates had negotiated with the Canadian government a promise that they could run their communities, churches and schools, in whatever way they wanted.  The second group has been voting in Conservative party politicians habitually since before the first group had their meetings. They do so partly because those politicians usually live out the family values their constituents uphold, but mostly because they promise to protect the special interests of that riding. So in both meetings, there is a high level of frustration that despite their political engagement, their special interests had not been protected.

The last perceived difference I want to talk about is culture. The first group gathered in Mennonite churches, defending their right to teach their schools in German, and wanting to protect their cultural communities. The second group met in a school, they met in English, and it was billed as being open to the entire non-denominational community. So ths is the greatest, non-negotiable difference, isn’t it? Much has been written lately about the inappropriateness of germanic ethnic expressions in theologically Anabaptist churches, but that presupposes that Mennonite churches are the only places you will find Mennonite cultural expressions. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this second meeting, this multi-denominational/non-denominational gathering, was thouroughly a demonstration of Mennonite culture. The family names of the pastors and politicians were also reflected in those first meetings in the 1920s. Anabaptist theological convictions of a “pure church separate from the world” have incorporated themselves into Mennonite cultural practice. Sometimes that means we neglect the call to evangelize, sometimes that means we don’t allow ourselves to see the needs around us, sometimes, sometimes it means that we are spared of the corrupting influences of our world. If you ask people who have left Mennonte ethnic communities, many of them will tell you that this kind of insular behaviour is part of the reason that they left. Just because people leave Mennonite communities and churches, doesn’t mean that the cultural expressions will stop.

So then, if these meetings are more similar than either group would like to admit, then what is the remaining critical difference? One group stayed and remained bitter and unchained, and one group had the courage to pack up and live out their convictions in a strange and barren land.

I forgot

I forgot how tired I felt
when at two in the morning I was woken up by a crying baby
and a frustrated wife.

I forgot how keenly aware I was
of the sleep I was losing,
the productivity I would be sacrificing
and how much my forthcoming decrease in mental alertness would cost me.

I forgot the amount of
resent, anger, and self pity
that would build up in me
with every minute this child would lay awake in my ever weakening arms.

But I also forgot

I forgot what would happen when I would look down
and lock eyes with this child.

I forgot the amount of innocence a pair of beady little eyes could hold.  

I forgot how magically disarming that glance could be.

I forgot how quickly
all of my selfish emotions
could be replaced
by feelings of love and compassion,
and how easily all other
tasks and responsibilities
would fade into oblivion,
all other tasks, that is, besides sleeping.

I simply forgot

Okotoks-20130310-00182

—————

I wrote this poem as I reflected on my new reality with a newborn in the house.  I also had an article published recently where I wrote about her birth story (relax, there are no graphic details).  The article was published in the local Western Wheel newspaper:

http://www.westernwheel.com/article/20130306/WHE0903/303069979/-1/whe09/birth-and-death-have-more-in-common-than-we-think

The Cat and the Mouse

I had hoped to post a new revised fairy tale each week as a new writing project this year, but that won’t be happening.  This will be my final fairy tale related post for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s a lot of work.  I could simply record myself as I reword the stories on the fly for my kids at bedtime, but to do the stories justice, I need to invest more thought than that. After making it through the story once or twice, there are nuances I want to highlight, storylines I want to recover.  It isn’t just a matter of replacing unpleasant details, but working the original moral and emphases around a more palatable storyline.
  2. Someone else could do it better.  I didn’t realize how grand a task it was to add an Anabaptist flavour to these stories.  I could do it and have fun with it, but for these to serve as a worthwhile resource, someone with more appropriate gifting in that area would be far more suited to the task.
  3. Some of the stories are un-redeemable.  As an example, here is the story of the “Cat and Mouse in Partnership”.  Rather than modify the original text, I’ll summarize.

There once was a cat and a mouse who had learned to live together.  As the winter was approaching, they decided it would be wise to make a special pot of stew that would keep until spring if they ever ran out of provisions.  For a variety of reasons, they decided it would be best to keep it somewhere other than their own house, so they hid it under the pulpit of their church.

As the winter hit, the cat told the mouse, that for safety’s sake, he shouldn’t leave the house, and whenever the mouse needed anything, the cat would happily fetch it for him.

After a while, the cat grew tired of the meager provisions they had saved up for themselves and he decided that he was going to go eat some of the stew without telling the mouse.  Instead, he told the mouse that he had heard of a new nephew that had been born and he needed to attend the christening service for it in another town.

The cat found the stew right where they had left it and proceeded to eat off the entire layer of fat that had congealed at the top.  He put the stew safely back where they put it the first time and went home.

The mouse was curious about his trip.  He asked about the church service and about the new baby nephew.  The cat said that the service was fine and that the baby had been named “Top Off”.  The mouse was confused by this odd name choice, but the cat offered no further explanation.

This happened again a month later when the cat ate half of the stew and said the new nephew’s name was “Half Gone” and another month later when he finished the stew and said the next nephew’s name was “All Done.”  Each time the mouse asked why that name had been chosen, and each time the cat shared no details.

Finally, the winter provisions were running low and the mouse thought the time was right to enjoy the rations they had set aside at the church.  The cat happily accompanied the mouse to the church.  The mouse was surprised to see that the pot was empty, but it all became clear after he saw that the cat was not surprised.

“Of course, Top Off, Half Done and All Gone were not names of christened nephews, but were the status of our stew.  Why would you do such a thing?”

Then, the cat ate the mouse, and such is the way of the world.

—-

It’s a terrible ending to the story.  We can see this as a warning to any weaker party who enters into an agreement with a stronger party thinking that it will be even, when it cannot be so.  This could be a parable about marriage, about wives not allowing their husbands full and total control of everything.  Those are valid and practical lessons to be learned, but there has to be a better way to do it than to tell stories where the good guy gets literally devoured in the end.