(My “faith statement” shared on Sept. 16, 2018 as I join Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite.)
I was born and raised in a Russian Mennonite community on the Canadian prairies.
As often happens, it wasn’t until I moved away that I discovered how deeply this environment had shaped me.
In my mid-twenties I spent two years living and working as a Mennonite Voluntary Services worker in San Francisco. San Francisco may just well be the complete opposite of Winkler, Manitoba – culturally, environmentally, and geographically. While it was an exciting place to live for two years in my mid-twenties, I was also very glad to leave. I could fully exhale again.
I left there and went to Elkhart, Indiana to attend seminary. It was around this time that I read Kathleen Norris’ wonderful book “Dakota”. While Norris’ western south Dakota is geographically a little different than my prairies, her language about her land and her faith opened my eyes, mind, and heart to the geography of the place where I was raised, and how deeply it had shaped me, and my faith.
The prairies are a land of expansive spaciousness, and deep vulnerability. The prairies teach you that God truly does rain on the just and the unjust, and that rain can be a long-awaited relief after too many days without, and it can come with such ferocity that your electric rain gauge measure an inch every 10 minutes.
The overwhelming expansiveness of the blue prairie sky can’t but impress upon you something of the character of God, and your place in God’s universe. And if the sky doesn’t disrupt you, the endless miles of flat, nearly barren landscape will remind you just how small you are.
That huge sky can also bring forth a western wall of clouds so black and ominous that any conceit about subduing and controlling the earth blows away with the first foreboding breeze.
Waking up to 12 foot snow drifts across the roads makes a mockery of any wishful plans you made for that day.
So, what do the prairies and their weather have to do with my faith? They have taught me that any sense of defining, limiting, or controlling God is just a vain exercise of hubris.
In my Russian Mennonite community, humility was the highest virtue and pride the cardinal sin. Now, that can lead some of its own disfunctions, but these lessons were reinforced by the expansiveness of the prairies and the unknowability of the elements. The prairies offer a good lesson in humility.
My people placed high moral value on working hard, but there was also the recognition that a bountiful harvest was ultimately God’s to provide, or not.
Despite this, and while not exactly in these words, in Sunday School and at home I was taught that God was orderly and composed and so we should be too. But, at a deeper level, I feel like I was taught both by the people and the place that God was wild and we were vulnerable. I don’t mean God was capricious and we were servile, but God was God, and we were not.
I continue to be deeply grateful for how this space has shaped me and continues to shape me today, but in the last 10 or so years I’ve recognized that my experience of God, and of myself has expanded. The intimacy of God has become much more evident. And with that intimacy is an awareness of a depth of love. I’ve come to a growing awareness of God’s presence in me and my presence in God.
While it was the prairies that taught me about God’s power and wildness, I am not as certain what prepared me for this understanding of God as intimate love. Although the image that came to mind as I was pondering this is of me sitting and waiting. And in that waiting I was discovering my own inner spaciousness; my own inner prairie. And on this prairie, the overpowering cloud from the west is simply love.
God is intimate, and God is expansive. God is uncontrollable, and God is self-giving love.
Now, I feel that as a good Mennonite, as a good Anabaptist, I should be talking about Jesus, and discipleship, and service, and ethics. Even if you look at our two scripture texts, June chose the Matthew one and I chose the Psalm. If these things weren’t important to me I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you desiring to join this Anabaptist congregation. I am increasingly recognizing these good Mennonite principles as being born out of an understanding of and an encounter with God, who is expansive and intimate, and we, who are humble and loved.