Categories
Fairy Tales

Cap o’ Rushes

This post is part of a series.  To view the introduction to the series, click here.  Cap o’ Rushes is taken from a collection of English Fairy Tales.  The original is available here, via Project Gutenberg.

———-

Once there was a very rich man who had three daughters. One day he thought he would try to find out how fond they were of him.

So he said to the first, “How much do you love me, my dear?”

“Why,” she said, “I love you as much as I love my life.”

“That’s good,” he said.

So he said to the second, “How much do you love me, my dear?”

“Why,” says she, “better nor all the world.”

“That’s good,” he said.

So he said to the third, “How much do you love me, my dear?”

“Why, I love you as fresh meat loves salt,” she said.

Let me tell you, when he heard her say that, he was very angry.

“You don’t love me at all,” he said, “and you cannot stay in my house anymore.” So he chased her out, and then he shut the door in her face.

So, she went away and walked on and on until she came to the edge of a marsh.  She gathered together a big pile of bulrushes and started to make them into a kind of a coat. When she was done, the coat covered her from her feet to the cap she made for her head, and it perfectly hid her fine clothes.

When she was done making her coat, she walked on and on until she came to a very large house.

She knocked on the door and asked, “Do you need a maid?”

“No, we don’t,” they said.

“I have nowhere else to go,” she said. “I ask no wages and will do any sort of work.”

“Well,” they said, “if you like to wash the pots and scrape the saucepans you may stay.”

So she stayed there and washed the pots and scraped the saucepans and did all the dirty work. And because she gave no name they called her Cap o’ Rushes because of the coat she had made for herself.

One day there was to be a great square dance a little way off, and everyone was allowed to go. Cap o’ Rushes said she was too tired to go, so even though all the other servants went, she stayed at home.  But when they were gone she took off with her cap o’ rushes, cleaned herself, and went to the dance. No one there was dressed as fine as her.

While the servants formed groups and danced around the outside, the wealthy families danced close to the stage.  The family that owned the home where Cap o’ Rushes worked was there too, but there was only seven in their group and they needed an eighth. But as soon as her bosses son saw her come in, he walked over to her and insisted that she join their group. She was happy to oblige him.

Cap o’ Rushes and the family had a great time, and many people enjoyed watching them, but before the show ended, she snuck out secretly and away she went home. When the other maids came back she was pretended to be asleep with her cap o’ rushes on.

The next morning they said to her, “You did miss a sight, Cap o’ Rushes!”

“What was that?” says she.

“The most beautiful lady you ever saw came there, dressed in the finest clothes. She danced with the family of the house, and the boss’ son never took his eyes off of her.”

“I think I would have like to have seen her,” Cap o’ Rushes said.

“Well, there’s going to be another dance this evening, and maybe she’ll be there again.”

But, when the evening came, Cap o’ Rushes said she was too tired to go with them. However, when they were gone, once again, she took off her cap o’ rushes, cleaned herself up, and away she went to the dance.

The boss’ son hoping to see her again, and when he saw her again, he insisted she join their circle again.  She agreed, and once again he never took his eyes off of her. But, before the dance was over, she snuck out secretly, and went straight home. When the maids came back she pretended to be asleep with her cap o’ rushes on.

The next day they said to her again, “Well, Cap o’ Rushes, you should have been there to see the lady. There she was again, wearing her fine clothes, moving lightly on her feet, and captivating everyone around her.”

“Well,” she said, “I would like to have seen her.”

“Well,” they said, “there’s a dance again this evening, and you must go with us, for she is sure to be there.”

But, once again, when the evening came, Cap o’ Rushes said she was too tired to go, and no matter what the other servants said, she stayed at home. But when they were gone she took off her cap o’ rushes, cleaned herself up, and away she went to the square dance.

The boss’ son was very glad when he saw her. Nobody else was allowed to be the eighth in their group. During a break, he asked to know her name, but she wouldn’t tell him. He asked to know where she came from, but she didn’t tell him. Finally, he gave her a ring and told her if he couldn’t see her again he didn’t think he would ever be happy without her.

Well, before the dance was over, she slipped out secretly once more, and home she went. When the maids came home she was pretending to be asleep with her cap o’ rushes on.

The next day the maid said to her, “There, Cap o’ Rushes, you didn’t come last night, and now you won’t see the lady, for there are no more dances.”

“Well I really would like to have seen her,” she said.

The boss’ son tried every way to find out where the lady had gone, but go where he might, and ask whom he might, he never heard a thing about her. He loved her so much, that when he couldn’t find her, his health got worse and worse until he was unable to leave his bed.

“Make some porridge for my son,” the master of the house said to the cook. “He’s dying for the love of that lady.”

The cook started gathering the materials to make porridge when Cap o’ Rushes came in.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m going to make some porridge for the boss’ son,” said the cook. “He’s dying for love of the lady.”

“Let me make it,” said Cap o’ Rushes.

The cook refused at first, but at last she said yes, and Cap o’ Rushes made the porridge. When she had finished making it, she secretly slipped the ring into it before the cook took it upstairs.

The young man ate it and then he saw the ring at the bottom of his empty bowl.

“Send for the cook,” he demanded.

“Who made this porridge?” he asked when she arrived.

“I did,” says the cook, because she was worried she would get in trouble.

And he looked at her, “No, you didn’t. Just say who did it, and you won’t get in trouble.”

“In that case,” she said, “it was Cap o’ Rushes.”

“Send Cap o’ Rushes here,” he said, and the cook went to go get her.

“Did you make my porridge?” he asked when she opened his door.

“Yes, I did,” she said.

He held up the bowl with the ring still sitting on the bottom and asked, “Where did you get this ring?”

“I got it from the man who gave it to me,” she said.

“Who are you then?” asked the young man.

“I’ll show you,” she said and took off her cap o’ rushes, and there she was in her beautiful clothes.

The boss’ son started to feel better very soon. Their relationship grew quickly and they were very quickly engaged. His family said it had to be a grand wedding, and everyone was invited from far and near. Cap o’ Rushes’ father was invited too, but she never told anybody who she was.

Before the wedding she went to the cook, and said, “I want you to dress every dish without a mite of salt.”

“Everything will taste nasty,” said the cook.

“It’s my wedding,” Cap o’ Rushes said, “so don’t worry about the taste.”

“Very well,” said the cook.

The wedding-day came, and they had a beautiful ceremony. After they were married all the guests sat down to the dinner. When they began to eat the meat, it was so tasteless that nobody could eat it. Cap o’ Rushes’ father also tried first one dish and then another, and then he burst out crying.

“What is the matter?” the groom asked him.

“Oh,” he said. “I had a daughter. And I asked her how much she loved me. And she said ‘As much as fresh meat loves salt,’ but I turned her from my door, for I thought she didn’t love me. And now I see she loved me best of all. But now, I have no idea where she is or what has happened to her.”

“No, father, here she is!” says Cap o’ Rushes. And she goes up to him and puts her arms round him.

Instantly the man recognized his long lost daughter, and they all lived happily ever after.

Categories
Fairy Tales

The Fish and The Ring

This post is part of a series.  To view the introduction to the series, click here.  The Fish and The Ring is taken from a collection of English Fairy Tales.  The original is available here, via Project Gutenberg.

———-

Once upon a time there lived a rich man named Simon.  One day he met a wizard and paid him a large amount of money to get a little bit of spiritual power. So the wizard gave him a book called “Providence” and told him that if he ever wanted to know what was going to happen, he only needed to open the book.

The wizard was right; every time Simon opened the book, he could look into the future. He used this book and its power to become even more wealthy than he was before. He became a Baron and lived in a large castle on a large piece of land and had many servants working for him.

Simon also married a beautiful woman from a rich family. The day came when they had a son together who would inherit all of Simon’s riches when he died. So, when the little lad was about four years old, the Baron looked in his Book of Providence, wishing to know what his fortune would be.

And, lo and behold, it was written that this much-loved, much-prized heir to all the great lands and castles was to marry a girl from a very poor family. So the Baron was very sad, and he checked with Providence to see if this girl was already born, and if so, where she lived. And he found out that she had just been born in a very poor house, where the poor parents were already having trouble taking care of their other five children. So he called for his horse and rode away, and away, until he came to the poor man’s house.

There he found the poor man sitting at his doorstep shaking his head.

“What is the matter, my friend?” he asked.

The poor man replied, “May it please your honour, a little lass has just been born to our house. We have five children already. Where the bread is to come from to fill the sixth mouth, we do not know.”

“If that your only trouble,” Simon said quickly, “perhaps I can help you. Don’t be so sad and down-hearted. I am just looking for such a little lass to join my family. I will give you ten crowns for her.”

Well, the man almost jumped for joy, since he was to get good money, and his daughter, so he thought, would get a good home. He told his wife to bring the baby outside and he explained everything to her. She cried and cried because she loved her baby very much, but she agreed that this was the best thing for her family. The Baron took the baby in his arms, gave her parents the ten crowns he promised, and rode away on his horse.

But when he got to the river, he stopped. He got off his horse and placed the little lass in a basket and put the basket in the river.

“This river will carry you far away from here,” he said, “and you will have to marry someone else.”

Once again he mounted his horse and galloped back toward his castle.

Looking back at the river, he said, “So much for Providence!”

But, you see, he was sorely mistaken. For the little lass was carried by the stream only a short distance and soon the basket caught a snag just opposite a fisherman, who was mending his nets.

Now the fisherman and his wife had no children, and they were just longing for a baby, so when the good man saw the little lass he was overcome with joy, and took her home to his wife, who received her with open arms. And there she grew up, the apple of their eyes, and became the happiest and most beautiful girl in that whole country.

Now, when she was about sixteen years of age, it so happened that the Baron and his friends went hunting along the banks of the river and stopped to get a drink of water at the same fisherman’s hut. And who should bring the water out but the fisherman’s daughter. Now the young men of the party noticed how pleasant and beautiful she was.

One of them said to the Baron, “She should be able to marry a man with some money. You can tell the future, Simon, tell us her fate.”

Then the Baron, hardly looking at her, said, “I could guess her fate! She will likely only marry some poor yokel. But, to please you, I will see what Providence says about her. So tell me, girl, what day you were born?”

“That I cannot tell, sir,” replied the girl, “for I was picked up in the river about sixteen years ago.”

Then the Baron became very worried, for he guessed at once that she was the little lass he had thrown into the stream, and that Providence had been stronger than he was. But he kept his discovery secret. Afterwards, however, he thought out a plan, so he rode back and gave the girl a letter.

“I wish to help you,” he said. “Take this letter to my brother, who needs a good girl for his household, and you will be settled for life.”

Now the fisherman and his wife were growing old and needed help, so the girl said she would go, and took the letter.

And the Baron rode back to his castle saying to himself once more, “So much for Providence!”

For what he had written in the letter was this:

“Dear Brother,
Take the one carrying this letter and throw her immediately into your dungeon.”

But once again he was sorely mistaken. On the way to the town where his brother lived, the girl had to stop the night in a little inn. And it so happened that that very night a gang of thieves broke into the inn. They were not content with carrying off all that the innkeeper possessed, so they searched the pockets of the guests too. When they asked the girl for her gold, she explained that the only thing of value she was carrying was the letter. When they read it, they agreed that it was a mean trick the Baron was playing and a shame that such a kind girl faced such a cruel end.

So their captain sat down and, taking pen and paper, wrote instead:

“Dear Brother,
Take the one carrying this letter and treat her like the princess she is.”

Then, after putting the note into an envelope and sealing it up, they gave it to the girl and told her to be on her way. So when she arrived at the brother’s castle, though rather surprised, he gave orders for a feast to be prepared to celebrate her arrival.

The Baron’s son was also staying with his uncle. He had started to distrust his father and he had become more and more suspicious of the dishonest ways that he had earned his wealth.  Over time, as he grew to appreciate the girl’s great beauty and marvel at her many talents, he quickly started to fall in love with her. She too, was quickly falling in love with him. Well, when the news was brought to the Baron, that the girl was being hosted as a princess rather than being locked in a dungeon, he was beside himself. Still, he was determined not to be outdone by Providence. So he rode right away to his brother’s castle and pretended to be quite pleased.

Then one day, when no one was nearby, he asked the young woman to come for a walk with him.  As they walked, they came to a bridge over a large and fast-moving river.  There, he took hold of her arms, and was trying to throw her over into the water. But she begged for him to stop.

“It is not my fault,” she said. “I have done nothing. Please, if you don’t hurt me, I promise that I will never see you or your son again until you desire it.”

Well, the Baron let go of her arms agreed to her idea. So he took off his gold ring from his finger and flung it far down the river, where the water was deep and dark and the water swirled around from the rapids.

“Never dare to show me your face again,” Simon said, “until you can show me that very same ring.”

And with that he let her go.

The girl wandered on, and she wandered on, until she came to a different nobleman’s castle. She inquired if they needed a servant girl, and she was hired to work in the kitchen. Since she was used to such work in the fisherman’s hut, she was soon recognized for her ability to cook.

Now one day, as she was cleaning a big fish, she looked out of the kitchen window, and who should she see driving up to dinner but the Baron and his young son. At first she thought that, to keep her promise, she must run away, but she remembered they would not see her in the kitchen, so she went on with her cleaning of the big fish.

Lo and behold! she saw something shine in its inside, and there, sure enough, was the Baron’s ring! She was glad to see it, I can tell you, so she slipped it on to her thumb. But she went on with her work, and dressed the fish as nicely as ever she could, and served it up as pretty as may be, with parsley sauce and butter.

Well, when the fish came to table the guests liked it so well that they asked the host who cooked it. And he called to his servants, “Send up the cook who cooked that fine fish, that she may get her reward.”

Well, when the girl heard she was wanted she made herself ready, and with the gold ring on her thumb, went boldly into the dining-hall. When all the guests saw her were struck dumb by her wonderful beauty. The Baron’s young son stood up, happy to once again see his true love. Simon recognized her too, and jumped up angrily and looked as if he would hit her.

Without one word, the girl held up her hand before his face, and the gold ring shone and glittered on it. She went straight up to Simon, and laid her hand with the ring on it before him on the table. Then the Baron understood that Providence had been too strong for him, so he took her by the hand, and, placing her beside him, turned to the guests and said: “This woman is more noble than I. Let us drink a toast in her honour.”

And after dinner he took her and his son home to his castle, and they were married soon after.  On the day of the wedding feast, he threw his book Providence into the fire and promised to make an honest living from that day forward.  The Baron also invited the fisherman and his wife and the girls poor parents to come live with them at the castle.  Together they all lived as happy as could be forever afterwards.

Categories
Fairy Tales

Anabaptist Fairy Tales

One of my favourite duties as a father of young children is putting them to bed.  It’s nice to settle them down after an active day (easier said than done for some kids). I like being able to hold them close. I love hearing them say “good night” and “I love you,” even if it’s just in response to me saying the same things.

Bedtime is also an important time for me as a parent to establish rituals of hygiene, tidiness and spirituality.  I don’t mind helping them brush their teeth, clean their rooms or say their bedtme prayers, but I often dread the bedtime story.

It’s hard to find good children’s stories.  The vocabulary isn’t always accessible.  The morals are often overly simplistic or obviously representative of one particular school of thought.  I know my kids like them, but there are of kid’s books that I would be happy if I never had to read them again.

Lately, I’ve been taking my Playbook with me to story time and reading from a collection of classic fairy tales.  Anything out of copyright can easily accessed online and my 7″ tablet makes it easy to take them bed with my kids.  There is certainly a lot nostalgic value to them, but as I read, I found I was editting out certain content.  It struck me that I should probably record the edits I was making, and that maybe other people would enjoy these revised fairy tales.

This will be my revision criteria:

1. Less death – One could argue that we, and our children, are too sheltered from death and dying.  It is clear that even a few generations ago young children were much more aware of and comfortable with the possibility of death.  Maybe we do need to do a better job of teaching our kids about mortality, but the bedtime story is neither the time or the place for that.  So, when the bad guys threaten to kill people, I will soften the blow.

2. Fewer gender-based limitations – I take pride in being able to buy things for my kids, and I’m old fashioned enough that I will buy Disney Princess stuff for my daughter but “progressive” enough that I’m uncomfortable with some of it when I get it home.  That being said, I think we can easily overdo the “you can be anything you want to be” message.  Most of us cannot be anything we want to be, regardless of gender.  At some point we all need to realize and work within the realistic limitations we face.  In my world, my daughter has just as many career options as my son, and I’m fine with that. It doesn’t mean, however, that the idea should be drilled into her head in her bedtime stories.  These stories often include the heroine taking matters into her own hands, and I will highlight that.  Male heroes will need to me multi-dimensional as well.  Villains can still be one-dimensionally evil, I’m fine with that.

3. Anabaptist worldview – Not every bedtime story needs to be a Bible story, there doesn’t always have to be a moral.  But in cases where certain details can be moulded to fit a 16th century Radical Reformation understanding, I’ll do that.

I will also make the text files available so that others can put these stories on their tablets and use as bedtime stories.

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In the news again

Mennonites are in the news again in Canada.  Maybe in a good way, maybe in a bad way, and maybe both.  The Canadian Mennonite, a periodical published by Mennonite Church Canada has been asked/warned by an agency of the government to refrain from partisan political activity.  It referred to certain editorials and articles that covered political territory, including a few that encouraged readers to take certain issues to heart when selecting their candidates.  The editor of this periodical is a professional and knows not to endorse any particular parties or candidates, but by advocating treatment of the poor and the environment as critical political issues, this government agency deemed it to be partisan political activity.

[Canadian Mennonite article here.  CBC news report here.]

The Canadian Mennonite has gone public with the communication it has received.  Much of the response has been supportive of the magazine and critical of the government’s action.  At a political level, I agree that this attempt to silence anything that appears to be opposition is a step away from the freedoms we enjoy in this country.  At a practical level, I agree that this activity did border on promoting partisan political interests.

As with almost every group in Canada, there is a broad political spectrum represented in Canadian Mennonite religious and cultural communities.  All of the major mainline political parties will get votes from Mennonites motivated by their religious convictions.  There are a number of elected and aspiring politicians across the political spectrum who are ethnically Mennonite and/or hold Mennonite/Anabaptist religious convictions.  Driven by their stance on a variety of social causes, one could easily vote for any Canadian political party and still call themselves a rational human being.  Any intellectually responsible person will admit they need to set aside some principals in the ballot box in order to hold up certain other principals.

Some might argue about which political party best represents our Anabaptist convictions.  I’ve heard that argument.  It’s either boring because everyone blindly agrees, or it’s futile because finding any common ground seems impossible.

Some might vocally defend our right to speak against government decisions.  We have that right.  We have those convictions.  But rather than hearing why we should be allowed to speak against Harper, it would be more convincing to see the articles where we spoke against Chretien or Layton or May.  Would any of them carry out the office of Prime Minister without contradicting Mennonite/Anabaptist principles?  Where was this call for increased civic engagement when the Conservatives were on the political fringes?

All of this though is a distraction.  The Anabaptist understanding is that we, as Christians, are Kingdom people.  And so the political process in this or any other country is irrelevant to our primary pursuits.  If your Kingdom call prompts you to feed the poor, then feed the poor, whether or not there is government funding to do so.  If you want to promote responsible family and economic decisions, do it, but don’t expect our elected officials to be motivated by the same principals and seek the same ends.  Encouraging people to vote, even if you’re telling them to take their Christian principles into the voting box, does not align you more closely with the original Anabaptists, it does quite the opposite.

Some are claiming that the Mennonite community is being punished for its non-conformist stance, but by engaging in the political dialogue at all, we are conforming to the societal norm.  We can respond to this issue in a few different ways, but I worry that we will do it wrong.  We could respond to this government decree with defiance and become more vocal and more specific about our political opinions.  We could cower away and quietly avoid political conversations.  In one, we could boldly become worse Anabaptists, in the other, we become better Anabaptists, but out of fear.

Our true allegiance is to the Kingdom.  Artificial dividers like political or national affiliation distract us from our true callings.  A wise man once said that mixing church and state is like mixing ice cream and manure, it has little effect on the manure, but it sure buggers up the ice cream.  If we write off our government as hopeless they will ignore us.  If we too eagerly embrace the opposition, we will compromise our allegiances.  Either way, we lose our prophetic voice.

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I Walk the Line

First thing this morning I went for a walk. I had a letter that needed to be mailed and the nearest post office is at our nearby grocery store.  Since my letter needed an authorizing stamp, there needed to be an actual staff person there to receive it and that staff person wouldn’t arrive until 9.  I was there at 8:45 and so I thought that in the meantime, I should call my wife and see if there were any groceries I could pick up while I waited.  She obliged and gave me a list of half a dozen things that would be needed in the upcoming meal plan.

When I was in University, I walked to the grocery store all the time.  You shop differently when you walk.  Anything you buy, you have to carry.  Whether you want to carry it or not, you need the groceries. So I bought the 5kg  bag of flour instead of the 10kg. I walked with a 4L jug of milk inside of two grocery bags and a dozen eggs in one hand, and the flour and produce in the other. I didn’t buy anything unnecessary, because I would have had to carry it.  I didn’t buy a snack for my walk home, because I would have had to fight with my bags to even bring the snack food to my mouth.  I rarely walk long and hard enough for my walk to a strain on me, but with a 12 kg load (or so), I could feel my arms and legs yearning to be home.

Although not technically a walk, I did use my feet for something else today.  I rushed back from the grocery store so that I could meet our sewing machine repairman at 9:30. I watched as he cleaned, oiled and tightened my machine.  When my wife’s paternal grandmother died over ten years ago, Ana got her old treadle sewing machine.  I used it a few times at our apartment in Ontario, but even then it had a few glitches I couldn’t figure out.  We wanted to modify some curtains last week, so we brought out the old machine again and I couldn’t get it working. We looked over the owner’s manual, and while it had a warranty when it was purchased, that expired in 1944. Luckily there is a guy in town that fixes them, and so we called him over. He was a retired widower, and as he adjusted knobs, wound bobbins and sewed test patterns, we talked.  We talked about the small world connections he had made. We talked about other sewing machines he had fixed, many of them donated to a thrift store and sold for charity.  In just over an hour, he had the machine working smoothly again.

So as I held my strips of curtain fabric and tried to keep it straight, I couldn’t help but reflect on the past.  The needle going in and out of my fabric was being powered by my feet, just like it had been powered by my children’s great-grandmother in years past. I feel like when I make choices like to use this old sewing machine, I am giving a vote to my ancestors on how things should be done.  When you take your foot off of a treadle sewing machine, it doesn’t stop immediately. At the beginning, when it’s most important to be holding the fabric correctly, you also need a hand on the wheel beside you. If your foot falls out of rhythm with the machine, you need to focus on what you’re doing before you throw off the pattern.

There were no profound discoveries on my “walks” and again a lot of old memories that weren’t giving me any new information, but they were worth the effort once again.

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I’m walking, look at me

Sunday morning I challenged my congregation to do a few things.  I suggested they should pray more if they aren’t already praying regularly.  I also suggested that they could use the words of the Psalms as their prayer or at least to frame their prayer.  Those, while perhaps new for me, are pretty standard things for a pastor to suggest to his congregation.  The other thing I added was a challenge to go for a walk.

Walking is good exercise, better for the environment than driving, etc. but walking is a chance to get away from the worries of our life. Walking can be a profound time of closeness to God.

I have little control over who will follow my advice, but the biggest question isn’t will anyone else do what I say, the greatest question to me is will I do what I say.

So, tonight, I went for a walk.  The distance and the destination aren’t terribly relevant.  I walked for about half an hour, and it wasn’t long before my mind started cycling through the various pertinent issues of my life. But rather than arrive at some sort of epiphany, I simply replayed conversations in my mind. If anything I found myself re-convincing myself of the things I had already said.  This reminded me of another spiritual quest.

My memory can’t give me any new information, so what is the point of reflecting on it?

I’m likely not the only one who feels this way, but when I am in a conversation/argument where the same things are being said over and over again and there doesn’t seem to be any progress, I would rather not be there.  I would rather leave.  More than once I have left a conversation like that to go for a walk. When I go for a walk though, I keep hearing the argument played out.  I hear again and again what was said to me, and repeat in my mind the words that I said back. I reiterate why I was write to say those words.  But I cannot leave that conversation.  Not only am I reminded of my words, but I am reminded of the ineffectiveness of them.  When I go for a walk after a stressful conversation, I am putting myself in the shoes of my opponent. I hear my own words over and over again. I start to realize that they were not good enough, and I start to understand that I need to either say different words or say my words differently.

So, while I haven’t gotten any new information, the parts of memory have assembled themselves and I am farther ahead than when I left.

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He Still Believes

Do you know the Count of Monte Cristo?  You may have read the book, and if so, my hat goes off to you, because it’s quite long.  You may have seen one of the various film adaptations of it.  This epic tale told by Alexandre Dumas hits at something central to our understanding of the world.  It has become one of the main stories that is referred to when people are talking about revenge, one of the main themes of the book.

In one of my favourite movies, Shawshank Redemption, this book is donated to the library and the inmates are unsure if it should be filed under fiction or educational, since it deals with a prison break.  The recent blockbuster movie V for Vendetta refers to an older film version of The Count of Monte Cristo, available in glorious Technicolor.  All three of these stories, the original and the two that refer back to it, are stories of revenge and redemption.

Certainly redemption is a theme that I, as a pastor, like to dwell on from time to time, there is something else in this story that captures my attention, but there are other things about it that I love.

There is a movie version that was released in 2002, where the main character, Edmond Dantes, is played by Jim Caviezel.  This was his first big movie after playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.  So it was an odd feeling to see a man who I had only recently seen as The Prince of Peace wandering around France on a quest to kill his former friend.

Spoiler Alert.  In the story, Edmond Dantes is imprisoned unjustly.  One day a fellow prisoner, who also happens to be a former priest, mistakenly digs a tunnel into Dantes’ cell and the two become friends.   The teacher-student relationship they develop is heart warming, but it is also fodder for some great quotes.

After admitting he once told a lie, the priest defends himself by saying, “I’m a priest, not a saint.”

Despite being centuries old, this tale presents to us a wonderfully contemporary approach to inter-faith dialogue. The priest speaks of God and Dantes, having suffered though years of undeserved torture, responds by communicating his lack of faith.

By far my favourite conversation is when the priest lays dying.  He is imparting final instructions on his friend and warns him not to carry out the revenge that is in his heart.  The priest quotes the Bible, “God says, ‘Vengeance is mine.’”  Dantes looks at him, bewildered that this priest has not yet understood that he has given up his faith and Biblical reasoning will not deter his plans.  “But I don’t believe in God,” is his response.  Without hesitation, the priest answers and says, “It doesn’t matter, he believes in you.”

For some this is a reassuring statement about the nature of God.  For others, this is simply a clever turn of phrase.  For me, this is a model of Christian-Atheist dialogue that our society is sadly lacking.  Our most prevalent example of this conversation is usually when a celebrity atheist is debating a prominent Christian and they are exchanging insults and referring to their non-overlapping spheres of knowledge to outdo each other.

On the surface, it would appear that this is no shortage of angry atheists who want to knock down the church by any means necessary.  They will point to countless unhealthy models of Christianity in the past to discount the church’s credibility as a moral institution.  They will point to scientific research to discredit the validity of various Biblical accounts.  They will appeal to political processes try to remove aspects of Christianity from our cultural institutions that are remnants of a different time. The church usually responds in kind, and often initiates the attack, calling atheists soulless, immoral and worse.  Without seeking to understand each other, this kind of conversation quickly deteriorates.

What I like about the conversation in the movie/book, is that the priest knows full well the abuse Dantes has suffered and knows how those events could sap a man of his belief in a benevolent Creator.  He knows the pain that went into Dantes’ renunciation of faith and still he offers this gentle assurance.  His statement is not a guilt trip, an academic challenge or a call to faith, it is simply a reassuring word.

I have gotten to know a number of atheists in my life.  Usually we decide not to make our disagreement about the nature of the universe as the defining feature of our relationship. I respect that they have come to their views for a reason.  I assume that we can coexist and cooperate on mutual interests. Like the priest in the Count of Monte Cristo, I am sure that God still believes in them, and so maybe I should believe in them too.

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I Love Atheists

Every now and then I get to have some fun with a sermon series at my church. This August is one of those times.  I have decided to talk about a group of people long marginalized by the church, atheists.

It’s no secret that some atheists make it hard for Christians to like them, some have made careers of it.  But I’m sure that there are even more Christians that make it pretty hard for atheists to like them.  While we may have a fundamental disagreement abut how the world works, I still think there is a lot we can learn from each other.

Both Christians and Atheists believe that their worldview will help to make the world a better place, so why can’t we agree to work together to make the world a better place rather than arguing abut our motivating factors. Just like people join the church and reject atheism for different reasons, people become atheists and reject faith for different reasons. So let’s take an honest look at why people reject our worldview and respond honesty t those criticisms.

My plan is to take four weeks to cover this topic.  Each week I will talk about a prominent atheist and the “school” of atheism they represent. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and some people might be embarrassed by their randomly assigned representatives, but this is the list I have chosen.

Week 1 – Richard Dawkins

Many people are atheists because they have embraced a fully scientific view of the origins of the world and they believe that leaves no room for a divine creator. Richard Dawkins is a prominent scientist who sees things this way and has written a book, “The Greatest Show on Earth” to spell this out.  He explains the origins and evolution of life on this earth and explains why the scientific view is not only logical, but also paints a picture of a beautiful natural world.

(A description of a recent CBC Tapestry program featuring Dawkins can be found here – http://www.cbc.ca/tapestry/episode/2010/07/18/richard-dawkins-1/ – the link to hear the episode seems to not be working)

Week 2 – Ricky Gervais

Other people get caught up in the philosophical framework within with the church operates.  In his recent movie, “The Invention of Lying,” comedian Ricky Gervais postulates that a world without lying would have no church.  He also suggests that Christian notions of heaven and hell, sin and monogamy sound like someone’s desperate attempt at keeping people in line.

Here is a clip from his movie – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEMN64KEsKc The premise of the movie is that Gervais’ character is the only person on earth that can lie, and in this scene he is trying to cover for his previous lie about heaven by explaining how heaven works.

Week 3 – Adam Carolla

For some people, the idea that they have to label themselves by what they don’t believe in sounds ridiculous. They don’t believe in fairies or vampires either, but they never have to introduce themselves as afairyists or avampirists.  Whereas Christianity is a faith that people choose, sometimes atheism just means that people haven’t chosen anything, and they have no interest in choosing something.  Still though, their morality and even their vocbulary are heavily influenced by Christianity.  Ironically, there are many people who have little mre than a default Christianity, and their morality and vocabulary are more influenced by atheism than they are willing to admit.

Week 4 – Alain de Botton

A new wave of atheists are starting to realize that institutional religion actually did a lot of good in the world.  People like essayist Alain the Botton are starting to encourage people to embrace the structure of religion, even if they’ve rejected the belief in a divine being, etc.  At the same time, Christians all over the world are rejecting the institutional aspects of their faith tradition.  Are we facing an impending reality where there is organized atheism and anti-institutional Christianity?

Many of Mr. de Botton’s views on institutionalizing atheism can be found in his recent book, “Religion for Atheists” available for sale here.

I welcome any feedback about this initiative.  Please feel free to leave your constructive thoughts below.

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I always knew they were wrong

It might not look like it, but I am an egalitarian.  In Christian theological terms, that means I believe that (among other things), in the eyes of God, men and women are of equal value and that the traditionally understood Biblical list of spiritual gifts are given to men and women alike.

I understand that there is an abundance of evidence to the contrary.  After all, I am a Mennonite pastor, I live in Alberta, my wife adopted my last name and she generally keeps quiet regarding matters of church business.

My cultural background is probably the biggest reason people might be skeptical of me claiming this position.  Like most immigrant communities, the men I knew were much quicker to switch from cultural to mainstream clothing than the women were.  The women interacted less with the world around them and so they were slower to learn the language and other cultural norms.  Some of that was voluntary, some was externally enforced, and some of it was simply the reality of what they understood as their domestic responsibilities.

I grew up with five older sisters and no matter how busy they were or how unbusy I was, they were called upon to wash the dishes, etc.  I still assert that the jobs my dad invented that I needed to do were a lot harder than my sisters realized, but they did way more work than I did.

The church I attended had rules against hiring female pastors, but there were no women clamoring for the opportunity either.

The message I got was that I, as a man, was by definition stronger, smarter and a more capable leader than my sisters or any of my female counterparts at school or church.  That message was what I repeated back to others, rarely trying to be sensitive, humble, or even logically consistent.  The trouble, besides the offense I caused to my well-meaning teachers and classmates, was that deep down I knew that message was wrong.

The girls in my school classes weren’t just better behaved and more respectful, they were smarter than the boys, a lot smarter.  (I’m not trying to be had on these guys, but our culture didn’t push guys to achieve academically, so most of them didn’t try. Many of these guys would go on to demonstrate their considerable intelligence in a variety of ways.)  The girls at my church demonstrated a much deeper and more sincere spirituality than the guys did.  The girls were more committed to church teachings, they were more active in evangelism and they took ownership of what was happening at church, despite the fact that much of our activities were geared toward attracting more guys to come.  (The secret is that activities don’t bring guys to youth group events, girls do.)

Even though they could never dream of being ordained, even though they didn’t want to marry pastors or missionaries, and even though their talents could easily have led them to secular college programs with more lucrative careers, these girls attended Bible college in droves.

If us guys did as much as they did, the church would have interpreted that as a sign of leadership potential. Since it was just the girls, people wondered if they were just desperate to find boyfriends. (Desperate or not, the pickings must have been pretty slim.  Almost all of them graduated single and eventually had to marry less educated, less religiously devoted men.)

All of this evidence was in the back of my mind as I went off to college. There, I met women who were aspiring to be leaders.  I had the opportunity to visit churches where women were the pastors.  While I knew there wasn’t anything sinful about their leadership, I used the fact that their sermons didn’t inspire as my last shred of counter-evidence against women in church leadership.  Since then, I have realized a few things that have removed any and all obstacles.  I saw that there are a variety of speaking styles, and lots of other people were engaged by those other speakers. I learned that my level of engagement doesn’t determine someone else’s success as a leader.  I realized there are a wide variety of other pastoral duties that many women, including my wife, could do better than me.

My own marriage is a metaphor too.  I respects my leadership, and I respect hers.  Each of us has the freedom to correct the other, and when we’re in the right frame of mind, we might even listen to that correction.  I have different responsibilities, skills and opportunities, but we are in a relationship of co-dependence.  She relies on me, and I rely on her.

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Musings

But did I help her?

The other day when my wife was sick, I did my fatherly duty and got the kids out of the house so that she could rest.  My plan was to put my infant son in the stroller and load up the wagon with recyclable paper and cardboard, and my 3 year old daughter could take one and I would take the other.  After the regular rigmarole of me continually reaching over and balancing, steering and pushing the wagon and my daughter insisting she could cope on her own, we arrived at the department store parking lot that housed the publicly accessible bins.

As we walked from the path to the recycling area, I noticed something odd.  There was a vehicle with a set of keys dangling from the trunk key hole.  I kept walking and was soon unloading my cardboard, newspaper and assorted papers.  When we returned to the car, the keys were still there and there was no sign that anybody was on their way any time soon.

It was now clear that this wasn’t someone who would just run in quickly.  The car was also near the back of the parking lot, suggesting that this person was either working at the store and had parked there to allow customers to park closer or the person was carpooling and had left the car there while they traveled somewhere else.  Either way, at 7pm, it seemed as though the odds were that this person might not be returning any time soon, and with nightfall approaching, something should be done.

I decided that I would call the department store.  I explained the situation and asked if I should bring the keys in to them.  The woman at the customer service desk explained that this kind of thing happened from time to time and people always knew to check there.  So, with the wagon, stroller and two children in tow, I went into the store.  I walked past the vending machines and the children’s rides in the entrance and waited in line to give the keys to woman I had spoken to.  On the way out of the store, after insisting I didn’t in fact have money for the miniature merry-go-round, I heard an announcement that the owner of that particular car, with the corresponding license plate should report to the customer service desk.  Whether or not my children were aware of what we had just done, I left the store thinking that I had done the right thing and that the owner of the vehicle would soon be reunited with their keys.

As I approached the car one more time, suddenly a pickup truck pulled up beside it and a young female passenger got out.  When I saw her walk to the back of the car and set her purse down on top of the trunk, I asked her if this was her car.  When she said that it was, I explained, apologetically, what had happened.  She said, with astonishment, that she had parked the car there eight hours earlier.  She was surprised that she could have been so forgetful and that nothing had happened to the car in the meantime.  She thanked me profusely and ran to the store to retrieve her keys.

I too was surprised that nothing had happened to them that whole time, but I was mostly surprised that she thanked me.  After all, if I had done nothing, she would have been driving home already.  I had probably set her back about five minutes.  Had I done nothing, she would have returned to her car and thought fondly of all the people who had walked by and resisted the urge to steal her car.  Instead, now her forgetfulness had become public and she was forced to ask herself what could have happened if a theoretical bad person had found the keys before this theoretically good person.

I don’t totally regret my actions, but I do wonder if I accomplished anything more than re-instill the image that we should fear strange people who will eventually harm us and steal our belongings.  I do believe that this young woman received grace that day, I’m just not sure I was the primary deliverer of it.