On Tuesday, Diane and I took an unusual holiday to Peterborough. I had volunteered to help lead a workshop doing the Blanket Exercise for Classis Quinte of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) at Living Hope CRC in Peterborough. To avoid the drag of traffic through Toronto and to visit our granddaughter Janelle at Trent University, I took Diane along and we made a whole night and day of it. We left home Monday evening and stayed at a hotel very close to the church. A good meal at Tim’s started the day off right. Diane could even get oatmeal porridge, just like at McDonald’s in London, England! I took coffee and eggs.
At church I met former acquaintances, including Pastor Shawn and former co-teacher Will, now the leader of our presentation. Our presentation used the third version of the script, which included some interesting history. We had about seventy participants who seemed to really engage in the exercise. While I was doing this, Diane went to several quilt shops. We had a lovely lasagna lunch at the church and said goodbye to a number of new friends.
In the afternoon we visited the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough. The museum is a great place to explore the role of canoes in opening up Canada and allows you to try out various things. I got to see my cutie try on a Hudson’s Bay coat. While we were there, a 93-year old woman was talking with the curator trying to track down where a folding canoe was that her father had given the museum quite a while ago. The curator knew what she was talking about and it looked as if they would be able to answer her question about that inheritance gift.
At four o’clock we drove up to Trent University to the bookstore where we had arranged to meet Janelle. There she was! I took a parking ticket for too long, but gave it to a student when we left. Janelle gave us a tour and told us she had won a spot on the university’s volunteer Emergency Response Team. (She’s following in your footsteps, Greg!) Trent has a lovely campus. Following this, we drove downtown and got a tour there. It took too long to find a suitable restaurant, given that I didn’t want Thai and Diane didn’t want straight Japanese, but we found a meal. Following that, we brought Janelle home and got a tour and met her friend and her friend’s very friendly dog.
The way home was quite smooth, given we were coming later than the crush of traffic. We arrived home at a good hour and agreed we’d had a wonderful day. The only question I had was whether we had set a precedent and now had to go and visit Katelyn at Laurentian! How about it Katelyn?
The following poem was written by Nathan Proper for the 1989 Proper Clan Reunion Newsletter. He was 14 at the time. Your job during this reunion is to continue the poem from where he left off down the family line to you and your children and grandchildren.
Once upon a proper time
there was a proper Proper
He married a woman who wasn’t quite so proper,
just on the brink—VandenBrink!
They had three little proper Propers
just as was proper.
The oldest was graceful—so was called Grace.
The next one always followed Grace around
so they called him Her—man.
Then came one whose hair always bounced
so they called him Bob.
After that they had enough of being proper
so they sold their property in their proper country—
Holland—and went to sail to Canada
–or fall over the BRINK of the world.
They got new property in Canada
and went back to being proper.
They got another little girl who always walked all over the place
so they called her Free—da.
After a long time as was proper
Grace stopped being proper
and married a Hocken—barely.
Herman fell head over heels in love with Van Oofen
and he became Her—man.
Bob decided to stay proper
and married a Neutral.
But Free—da wasn’t proper
and didn’t want to be like big brodders Her—man and Bob
so she married a Van Arrogant.
Now the two proper seniors are having a proper reunion.
Everyone must be proper
on their property
as is proper.
No being Arrogant, Neutral, Oofen, or Hocken—barely
The following was written and published in the 1989 Proper clan reunion newsletter.
Nov if nobody likes this year’s story, which I have had to unearth out of the depths of my dim recollection and have rescued from oblivion for our posterity, then don’t blame me. For it was at the suggestion (or stimulation) of our dear Diane that I recorded this event in the first month of the Lord’s year 1989.
Cornelis Proper was the oldest of three boys born to Hendrik Proper and Willemina Brummel, who were farmers in the neighbourhood of Oene in the township of Epe. Cornelis was born on July 22, 1796. Those were poor times—times of war and famine. A few years before his birth, the French Revolution had started and plunderings and murders were still going on. In Holland, lots of people thought this revolution to be a blessing and invited the French rabble to come to Holland; the House of Orange, who had done so much for the people of the Netherlands, had to leave the country to save their lives. That “blessing” soon turned out to be a real curse. Four times a year for a number of years, France sent 25,000 troops, the rabble of their population, to Holland to be fed, clothed, and supplied with footwear—without pay, of course! Most of these troops had been in the army for some years without ever getting dressed; most came on bare feet and infected with all kinds of contagious diseases. When Napoleon came to the throne, he straightened things out, but the wars and bloodshed kept on unabated until finally, at Waterloo, the French were defeated [in 1815].
But then, about 1830, the Roman Catholic southern part of Holland (what is now Belgium) revolted against the Protestant north and, after bitter fighting, became independent with the help of France and England.
All these circumstances brought great misery and poverty to Holland and most people were in dire need of the most basic necessities. Such were the times when the following events were carried out by our ancestor Cornelis, whose lot it was to be born in such a turbulent time.
Cornelis became a weaver by occupation and got engaged to Rikje vanEssen, whom he married on April 30, 1824. Too poor, most likely, to buy a property, he took it upon himself to make use of the old squatter’s right by which he could claim possession of a small piece of government property if he could build a dwelling on it in one night. There must be nothing seen in the evening and the next morning there had to be a dwelling out of whose chimney the smoke was rising when the sun nose on the horizon. If these conditions were met, then the neighbours could testify to the fact that no building whatsoever had been there the evening before, but in the morning when they rose at the dawn of a new day, there to their surprise stood a dwelling out of whose chimney the smoke ascended to high heaven.
So this story is recorded as follows, passed along the line of the generations by word of mouth, just as I have heard it told as I sat in front of a flaming hearth fire many a time. Now I will record it to the best of my ability (taking a certain freedom of expression in doing so) in order that it may be kept in remembrance by future generations, as many as the Lord God may grant the Proper clan in its spreading branches here in Canada.
The sun at eventide had sent her last colourful rays over hill and dale and had departed as a glorious red balloon from this part of the globe beneath the Dutch horizon and the landscape of the Veluwe. Now in the clear sky in the east, a full moon rose majestically and flooded with her golden light the countryside in a soft dusky shine. The little breeze which had been stirring the watery reed grasses along the sluggish little creek and the stubborn woody heather on the higher ground had laid itself to rest. Along a deserted, rutted road came a horse, pulling a creaking, grinding wagon loaded with wood, reed, and some household goods; it climbed the little knoll which would be known in future years as “the Steenderbult.” In its tracks followed several men and women, the women with some kettles and baskets in which cups and food were stored, the men with squeaking wheelbarrows and spades and axes.
At the top of the little hillock, Cornelis Proper turned the horse to the left and stopped halfway between road and creek. “Here,” he said, “is the location on which Rikje and I had our eye, and what, my friends, do you think of it? Here we have water nearby and a good kind of soil to cut sods for walls.” All the friends and relatives who had come along for the fun of it (and the heavy work) thought this place to be as good as he could find anywhere!
With no time lost, stakes were set out for the size of the house-to-be and the men started to dig out about a foot of sand, taking the top sods for building the walls. Others unloaded the wood and building material from the wagon and started to build the roof. Most of the sods for the walls were taken from the lower ground near the creek where the peat made it easier to take them, and loaded onto the wheelbarrows. Men and women worked together with pleasure in full harmony, with jokes flying back and forth, to and fro, to be interrupted again with snatches of songs. Some of the young ladies collected dry spruce wood and pine cones and in no time had a nice campfire going. On each side of the fire, they hammered a post into the ground and bound a young sapling to them; from it they hung a round iron kettle over the fire to boil water for coffee. It did not take them long, and soon their young voices were calling that the coffee was ready. The hampers filled with black rye bread were opened, and soon the whole group was sitting around the fire enjoying the food in such pleasant company.
After a short rest, all were back at it again. Slowly the building took shape. Poles for the roof were raised and thin long saplings of fir trees were fastened onto the poles and a wooden chimney nailed on top. Some of the men were thatchers by trade, and bundles of thin pliable willow branches which had been brought along were used to tie the thatch on the roof. They were skilled workers who did not have much trouble working in the spare light of the moon. The sod diggers and wall builders put one window in the west wall where the weaving loom was to be placed. The front wall had to be high enough to put in a door and a window. These items had been brought along and were fitted in. Every field stone they found was saved to be used for the fireplace and for the floor inside the house. The young women kept the coffee and bread available throughout the night.
But it was the young boys’ responsibility to keep the girls in a happy mood throughout this long night. For that reason, one of the boys had brought his accordion along to have some moments of respite from the hard work. For it was music in the men’s ears to hear the rolling, teasing laughter of the lively young maidens bubbling through the moonlit night and to have a klompendans (wooden-shoe dance) around the campfire in the middle of the work. This gave the perfect opportunity for the boys at the same time to steal a kiss from a happy smiling face. It did not often happen in those times that there was an occasion and a good reason for having a pleasant time, so they did not let an opportunity like this slip past.
Steadily, by dint of hard work and cheerful spirits the simple and humble dwelling rose on the Veluwe moor. The last thatch was tied on the roof and the last sod ceremonially laid in place. Stones for the fireplace were already in place and Rikje, as the mistress of the house, started for the first time, all by herself, the first fire in her own dwelling while all her friends were outside, leaning on their tools and watching for the first wisp of smoke to leave the open chimney. When that first smoke rose into the air, a cheerful cry went up, and with handclasps and laughter they congratulated each other, glad in the knowledge that the job was satisfactorily done.
In the bleak sky, the sun rose to a new day, and friends and family, leaving their best wishes behind, trudged homeward, being loaded with thanks for their help from the new couple who now at last had their own roof over their heads, even if it was a very poor one. A few formalities had to be fulfilled at the municipal office to get registered and acquire a homestead certificate.
As soon as they could afford it, the west wall where the weaving loom stood was replaced with a brick wall and later on the other wall was also bricked in.
It was not until Reinder Proper took possession of the property after his father Cornelis’ death that a whole new brick home could be built. The building of that house was done by his son-in-law, Johannes Huiskamp, who was a bricklayer by occupation and after whom I was named.
But even in that house, the flooring was still the same old field stones used in the first poor and simple squatter’s hut. When my mother Gerritje married my father Reinder, the same stones were still the flooring in the living room. Then one day (this was before I was born), my eldest brother Hendrik was left unattended for a while, and in playing broke up the best part of the floor. While my mother was busy putting the stones back in place, a friend of Dad dropped in and, seeing the mess, told my Dad to cut down some big trees growing around the house and bring them to the sawmill to be cut into boards. These could be used to make a pine floor in the living room. Dad thought that was a good idea and so it was resolved and done.
And so I have come to the end of my story. Whereof acta Johannes Proper.
What Is the Steenderbult?
Continuation by Herman Proper, the son of Johannes Proper.
For our dad, Johannes Proper, and for us, his children, the Steenderbult was always the name of this house, and it was the symbol of home: Capital-H Home. Johannes Proper was born in that home on January 4, 1911, and a little over a year later,
The Steenderbult as it looks today.
his father died of cancer. His mother then married Gerrit vanLaar and the ownership of the Steenderbult passed out of the Proper line into the vanLaar line. Dad felt himself disinherited. At the age of about 13, he went to work at various farmers’ places and eventually got a job as miller in Voorst, about a half-hour away (by car, much more by bike). Here he met Marie vandenBrink and married her in 1942, right in the middle of the Second World War. Grace was born in 1943 and Herman in 1945, less than three months after the war ended. In 1949, Dad left Holland for Canada and spent his life looking for a new Home. Their home on ten acres near Rockwood became the Home that his children and grandchildren cherished for many years. Dad and Mom eventually had to move on to a nursing home and are now in their eternal home, the city without foundations whose architect and builder is God.
All of us look for an eternal home. If we are fortunate, we find and make a real Home here on earth, and if we are really blessed, we will recognize that it is only a type of the final Home to which we are bound. Dad apologized to his children that he moved around so much in Canada, done because he wanted to find us a permanent home. He and Mom pointed us to the final Home with God.
The story of the Proper family’s earthly Steenderbult is over. The last vanLaar, my Tante Driesje, had to move into a nursing home a few months ago and just in the past few weeks, the Steenderbult was sold. The new owner took possession on July 29. That era has passed but that is okay. We must learn to hold things here lightly, to hold each other dearly, and to hold our hope firmly because the new City has eternal foundations and we are beloved by the architect and builder.
In my last post, you read about banding birds at Crieff during our family reunion. Someone else took a photo of me holding the Brown Thrasher to let it go. Here are the two photos I recieved. The Brown Thrasher is a beautiful bird. The bird book says it is about 10 inches long and you can see that in these photos. God’s creation is glorious.
This past Saturday and Sunday, Diane and I had our annual family reunion with 26 of our 27 members able to join us. Saturday was World Migratory Bird Day, so Crieff Conference Centre had arranged for Brian, a certified bird bander, to be there for the morning. We were able to watch how he caught birds in nets and band them. He caught five that day. He examines them to determine their sex, whether the females were brooding or not from their ‘brood patch’, estimate their age from their feathers, weigh them, and band them. Each band has a nine-digit number and Brian recorded all the information about each bird in his record book. Later he reports this to the Canadian bird database and it goes from there to the US and North-and-South-America database. He let children release the birds. Brian laid the bird upside down on the child’s hand, then told the child to lay the other hand beside the first and gently roll the bird onto the second hand; the bird was then right-side up and soon flew away—at high speed!
When Brian was finished the four birds, it was close to 12:00 o’clock and he began to close up. I walked back to our house along the nets and found a brown thrasher in the second net! I ran back and told Brian; he came and got it and banded it too. I got to hold that bird—not on its back as it was too big—and then to let it go. It flew away madly, probably to its nest of eggs. The bird-banding was a wonderful experience. God’s birds are marvelous!
Adopting the Doctrine of Christian Discovery Report
In June 2016, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), of which I am a member, will consider the report Creating a New Family: A Circle of Conversation on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery from its Doctrine of Discovery Task Force. The report recommends that the CRCNA acknowledge the historical role of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD), repudiate the Doctrine, and commit itself to restore relationships with Indigenous peoples. The key recommendations of the Task Force are to:
Acknowledge the DOCD and its legacies as systemic sin and moral wounds with wide effects on life and ministry among both Indigenous people and settlers;
Confront the legacy of the DOCD in a denomination-wide commitment to learning, prayer, confession, lament and repentance;
Direct agencies of the CRCNA to: build substantive dialogue and relationships with Indigenous Christian leaders; to asses and build sound mission practices and; develop congregational learning and action resources on the legacy of the DOCD;
Acknowledge the CRCNA’s historical appropriation of a Euro-superior worldview and resulting trespasses against Indigenous peoples…; and
Make safe space and provision for the sharing of stories about the legacy of the DOCD in CRC ministries (Executive Summary, 8).
The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) should adopt these recommendations as a step towards healing the relationship between the Indigenous people and the CRCNA and other “settler” churches and the “settler” peoples of North America. If adopted and implemented, these recommendations could change the culture and worldview of the CRCNA in significant ways and encourage the church and its members to engage in further work to help heal the injustices against Indigenous peoples that persist to this day in both Canada and the United States (US).
The Doctrine of Discovery began in the sixteenth century, the age of exploration, when European nations began exploring and colonizing other countries. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church had a great deal of power over kings and rulers and was the source of law for “Christian” countries. King Alfonso of Portugal sought from the pope legitimacy for his conquests and trade rights in Africa and elsewhere. In the bull Dum Diversas of 1452, the pope granted him “full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be…and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.” After Columbus’ discovery of new lands, the bull Inter Caetera of 1493 gave the same rights to Spain; in effect, it essentially gave the right of new lands to whichever Christian European land was the first to “discover” them; this right of first discovery became known as the Law of Nations. The right of the Christian nations to take over new lands and to enslave the non-Christian inhabitants was readily taken up as international law and came to be called the Doctrine of Discovery; it became the underlying rationale (or rationalization) for further European conquests.
This doctrine was used in the 1496 Patent granted by the British King Henry VII to Cabot giving him the right to claim lands in North America. A brutal use was made of it by Charles I of Spain in his 1514 Requerimiento: it was to be read to peoples in the new world to inform them that they were subject to the king and queen of Spain because the pope, the heir of Christ, had given the king and queen these lands; therefore the Indigenous peoples had to submit on penalty of subjugation and death. The British Crown’s Royal Proclamation of 1763 declared that only the Crown could take or buy lands that lay west of the Appalachians from the Indians in North America. This ‘right’ passed to the United States government after the War of Independence; in Canada, it was exercised by the government of Canada. In both Canada and the US, therefore, the Indigenous peoples were only “occupiers” while the governments were the legal owners of the lands.
The United States Supreme Court used this Doctrine of Discovery in several decisions written by Chief Justice Marshall between 1823 and 1832, legalizing the taking of Indian lands because the Indians had lost their rights to complete sovereignty upon discovery by Christian nations. Justice Marshall specifically used Cabot’s Patent as proof that England had recognized and used the Doctrine of Discovery. Further court rulings said that Indian peoples might be “domestic dependent nations” but were always subject to the federal government’s legislative authority.
Canada used the Royal Proclamation to assert its ownership of all lands that the Indigenous peoples occupied; these peoples were wards of the state and the Crown was the legal owner of the lands on which they lived. The Indian Act of 1876, the first consolidation of the government’s previous decisions, considered the Indians to be “minors” with the government as their guardian. The federal government, through its agents, controlled all Indian lands, property, and funds. This basic relationship, based ultimately on the Doctrine of Discovery, continues even today. Furthermore, the Indian Act aimed to end the “Indian problem” by assimilating the Indians into the dominant white culture. The most serious attempt to do this was the residential school system which took children from their parents; starting in 1883, this system was copied from the earlier model of residential schools in the United States.
The task force report examined the relationship between the CRCNA in both the United States and Canada. In the US, the main interaction was in the mission that the CRCNA began among the Navajo and Zuni peoples in the US Southwest. In 1888, the Board of Heathen Missions bought land and built a boarding school which they named Rehoboth. They cut students’ hair, dressed them in Western clothes, and replaced their Indigenous names with English names. These practices and the language they used in describing these missions and these peoples reflected the assumptions of European cultural and religious superiority: to be Christian meant you were western; to be Indigenous meant you had no knowledge of God and were not made in his image. The effects were cultural genocide: Children were robbed of their language and culture, their native spirituality, their self-respect, and—most of all—were robbed of their parents. They did not learn how to raise their own children but treated them as the missionary teachers had treated and abused them. The trauma is still felt to this day by both the Indigenous children who attended these schools, and to a much lesser extent, by some of the adults who thought at the time that they were following God and the church obediently, but now realize their sin. The same cultural genocide and trauma were experienced in the residential schools in Canada, as is evident in the 2015 report of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The history of relationships between the CRCNA and the Indigenous peoples in Canada is different, probably because most of the Canadian CRCs came after 1945. The CRCNA started no schools in Canada, but in 1968, the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada (CCRCC) developed a plan for work among Indigenous peoples. In 1976, it started the first Urban Aboriginal Ministries (not missions) “integrating indigenous teachings and Christianity in frontline ministry.” This integration was questioned by some, up to the point of asking Synod whether this was syncretism (an unwarranted blend of Christianity with pagan elements). This questioning clearly showed some suspicion of Indigenous expressions of Christianity.
It is time for the CRCNA to build better relationships with the Indigenous peoples of North America. The beliefs and principles which the CRCNA confesses and holds dear are in themselves sufficient reason why it should adopt the recommendations of this report. First of all, the Bible clearly teaches that all humans are descendants of one pair of ancestors, Adam and Eve, and that all humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1). Nowhere does the Bible teach that some humans are less than others; all are equal in the sight of God. The church, the new humanity in Christ, is also one body, as Paul teaches, and we are called to be one as Christ prayed we would be in John 17. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 that many different parts make us strong as one body should encourage us to welcome those who add differences to our current composition. Our confessions teach that all were made good by God, that in Adam all have sinned, and that all are called to come in faith to Christ to be saved and made new. Our Contemporary Testimony also speaks to the issues in this report very clearly: We are all made in God’s image and are called to care for creation and love our neighbours (Art. 10); “no matter what our age, or race, or color, we are the human family together” (Art. 12); “we grieve that the church which…spans all time, place, race, and language has become a broken community in the world” (Art. 43); “we call on governments to do public justice” (Art. 54); and “we are called to be peacemakers” (Art. 55). To adopt the report’s recommendations would also be a follow-up to the church’s adoption in 2012 of the Belhar Confession as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, essentially a call to lament and reject forced racial segregation on the grounds that it is unbiblical. We are called to make all of these fundamental beliefs and principles a reality in our relationships with our Indigenous neighbours.
The devastating effects of the Doctrine of Discovery that persist to this day should arouse each church member to agree that it is our problem today: as the report says, we “drink downstream” from this history even today. To help heal ourselves and our neighbours and country, the CRCNA should whole-heartedly adopt the recommendations of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery Task Force. Then we will embark on a new stage in the healing of relationships with the Indigenous peoples of our countries. From them, we can learn new ways of healing our lands and we can be a better witness to our governments about the need to heal our relationships with our Indigenous citizens on national levels. As we stand together with other church denominations on these issues, we may also develop better relations with them. Together we may help to heal the reputations of churches in our countries, reputations damaged by years of oppression and abuse. Above all, we will be obedient to our Lord who calls us to be one in him, to love him, and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
I was struck by the quote from Carol Shields that our professor in Expository Writing read early in our course. I made a note of it and decided to use that idea as the topic for my Analytic Essay. The quote is in the first sentence of the essay. Enjoy, use, be more human.
Using Language to Be More Human
“We are human because we use language. So I think we are less human when we use less language” said Carol Shields in an interview with April Henry for Boswell Literary Magazine. For lovers of language and literature, this is an intriguing idea, especially coming from a recognized and well-regarded writer, but it raises philosophical and anthropological questions about what is meant by human and by language and by the idea that the quantity of language affects our humanness. It may also raise concerns about how literate people might think about those they consider less literate such as children and socially-disadvantaged persons; it is a matter of historical record that white European colonizers considered colonials who had no written language to be lesser human beings. What does it mean to be human and what role does language play in that? Our first step in considering these questions is to look at what Shields herself said about language and humanness. When that is done, one discovers that Shields was not thinking in philosophical or anthropological terms about humanness and language, but about the role of language in forming human connections and community. For her, it was through language, especially in stories, that we connect and come to know others and to be known. In this understanding, Shields came close to what many people experience to be true and close to how language functions in God’s creation of people in his image.
Shields’ quote came in response to Henry’s question if she believed that words were dying out. Shields replied that she had heard that 5,000 words had dropped out of the average vocabulary in the last ten years and then commented, “If that’s true, that’s very alarming, isn’t it?” When Henry asked why that was important, Shields replied, “Words are our life. We are human because we use language. So I think we are less human when we use less language” (Interview). Shields used the terms language and human in the ordinary senses of everyday use; she was not articulating some theoretical or philosophical understanding, for example, of language as the key characteristic that distinguished humans from animals. Shields’ concept of human was also quite ordinary. Susan Swan commented that “It took me years to understand that by ordinariness Carol meant our humanness. Nobody’s ordinary. That’s the truth of it. But we’re all human” (74-75).
When she connected language and being human and “being more human,” Shields was thinking of language as the thing that allows individuals to know each other and thereby to know themselves and the meanings of their lives and to leave a record in the world: I have been here! Not language in the abstract, but language that could bring out the untold stories of their lives. In the “Afterword” to Dropped Threads, she said, “We decided to ask some of our women friends to talk about the skipped discourses in their lives and how they had managed, at last, to cope with the surprise of self-discovery, stumbling on that which had been missing: an insight, a truth, an admission, a dark hole” (346). The use of language to tell these stories—giving an account of who we are and relating to others—was very important to Shields. As she said in her essay, “Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard,” the world is full of the stories of who and what we are. All of us are like the man with the sign “J’ai faim” around his neck while eating, the sign “gesturing…toward an enlarged or existential hunger, toward a coded message, a threaded notation, an orderly account or story that would serve as a witness to his place in the world” (19). And so we want stories, we tell each other stories of our lives and our secrets; “[e]veryone recognizes that human hunger is part of the human personality” (20). But the stories never quite satisfy us because they don’t say enough, they are “glancing off the epic of human experience rather than reflecting it back to us” (22). Shields says that the task of the narrative writer is “getting inside reality rather than getting reality right,” so “it is inevitable that our stories will never mirror back to us a perfect image” (35). One can almost hear her echo Saint Paul who says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (I Cor. 13:12).
The need to use language and the desire to tell our stories run deep in all of us because God made the world with language embedded in it. It is through language that we can know the world and create human community. In the beginning, God created the world by speaking words: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), and there was light. In the Gospel of John (1:1-2) , we read that Jesus was the logos, the Word of God that became flesh and lived among us so that in him we could see—or “read”—the character of God. The word, or language, is then central to the character of God: he is a God who communicates to establish a relationship with humans. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “…language in its origin and at its best is the means by which one person draws another into a participating relationship” (13). God also gave Adam the task to name the animals; this use of language makes it possible for us to know the world, to give order to it, and to describe it. The most remarkable thing is that God said he would make humans, male and female, in his own image. Language is part of that image, for God made them and spoke to them to give them their task as his co-workers. God also gave Adam a wife as his partner. Adam then named her and the two of them walked with God in conversation each day.
Shields does not make reference to a Christian worldview or a language relationship with God, but she understands the role of language in creating relationships and in understanding other people and the world in which we live. In the words of Eden Edward, Shields affirms “the ties that bind reader and writer, world and text, language and the real world” (10). Shields had an interesting way of describing the relationship between language and reality. She said we should admit “that both real events and their accompanying narratives are conveyed to us by words, and that words, words alone, will always fail in their attempt to express what we mean by reality. We cannot think without words—or so many believe—and thus the only defence against words is more words. But we need to remember that the labyrinth of language stands besides reality itself: a somewhat awkward, almost always distorted facsimile or matrix” (“Narrative Hunger” 23).
Especially important to Shields was telling the stories of women that had not yet been told, the stories that had been suppressed. However much we want and need stories and want our stories to be told, most of them never see the light of day; they fall through what Shields called the “narrative sieve” (“Narrative Hunger” 20). Much of our experience is never put into words. In the past, it was mainly male stories that were told. Much fiction was disallowed because fiction was “untrue” (26). Women were not allowed to tell their stories. Literary theories disallowed certain kinds of stories. The writers whom we do allow are generally at the periphery, part of the “picaresque hero” crowd. Stories at the centre—where most of us live—are not allowed, for they might not follow the accepted (male) “narrative arc” (35). What Shields valued most in narrative was “the interior voice. Reflecting, thinking , connecting, ticking, bringing forward a view of a previously locked room, and, to paraphrase John Donne, making that little room an everywhere” (35-36). As she said in her Interview, “I guess I am interested in the unrecorded voice. The voice that doesn’t make the public record is much more interesting to me than the one that does.” These voices, mostly from women, are singular, but universally experienced (“Afterword,” Dropped Threads 2, 366).
Jane Urquhart commented: “What truly absorbed Carol Shields, however, was something she called ‘the arc of a human life,’ the path a human being walks from childhood to death. She once said that there is no such thing as an ordinary life; a seemingly simple idea, but one many of us had not considered until it was made delightfully clear to us by her writing” ( 136). Each one of us ordinary people is human. In “About Writing,” Shields said: “language that carries weight in our culture is very often fuelled by a search for home, our rather piteous human groping toward that metaphorical place where we can be most truly ourselves, where we can evolve and create, and where we can reach out and touch and heal each other’s lonely heart” (262). Through her words and stories, Carol Shields invited us all to “come home” to community with herself and with all those about whom she wrote. Through her words, we may become more human.
We have come to the final attribute on this list—gentleness. The problem with our understanding of this word is that our current definitions don’t accurately describe what the biblical writers meant. Misters Miriam and Webster describe gentleness as “amiable, kind, docile, soft or delicate.” The biblical synonym meekness has the modern definition of “deficient in spirit or courage.”
The Apostle Paul uses the Greek word translated into English as gentleness/meekness more than any other New Testament writer. Paul is not a character one thinks of as docile or delicate. There was fierceness in his character, whether it was in trying to destroy the growing church or in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why his use of this word is so instructive.
Imagine a wild horse or a young colt with amazing power and strength. The term horsepower came from experiments on horses and their ability to pull loads to a certain distance in a certain amount of time. Wild horses and colts couldn’t do that until they are “broke” – until their power is controlled. That is what gentleness/meekness means. It is power under control.
This word often shows up in lists like the one above and in the description of the fruit of the Spirit. James connects it directly as a fruit of wisdom. Peter reminds us that when we enter into conversation about our faith with those who don’t believe as we do that it is done gently, with controlled power.
We may think of a horse running wild as freedom but there is something very dangerous about it. You don’t want to get too close because it can do serious harm. There are all kinds of ways we can exert power but unbridled power is dangerous. Power, under the control of the Holy Spirit, demonstrates the life of Jesus, the life that he willing gave up so that others could live. This is the greatest demonstration of power under control.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
2016 February 27. True-City 2: Apprentices Cultivating Jesus’ Character.
Saturday at the TrueCity Hamilton conference continued the theme of being an apprentice learning from the Master, Jesus. If I want to learn from the Master, I have to become like him.
The main speaker, Chris Schoon, pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton, reminded us that God says in 1 John 2:2-6: “anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.” There is grace in that: I don’t have to be like other people, only like Jesus. Chris Schoon gave us three snapshots that show how we can cultivate the character of Jesus in ourselves. Mind you, this does not happen overnight but it is a journey I have begun and will carry on to the end of my life. I’m on a life-long pilgrimage.
Scene 1: Dying and Rising with Jesus. Philippians 2 tells us to have the same mindset as Jesus did. Jesus was the highest in the universe, equal with God, but he did not hang on to that position for his own selfish purposes. He lowered himself to become human, submitted to John’s baptism, spoke to people in the dregs of society, and even let himself be put to death on a cross. Because of that, God raised him to become the ruler of all things. During his life on earth, he gave signs of this new life in raising Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus and healing many. In the same way, I need to be humble and show that I have become new person in Christ by bringing grace and healing and reconciliation in my relationships and my sphere of influence.
Scene 2: Abundance in Community. In Ephesians 4:1-16, God tells us that we are not alone. In fact, all of his people form one unity, one body, in which each of us plays a role. We become like Jesus when we show in our actions that we belong together and we find the full measure of this when we work together in service. Even Jesus did not work alone. He got twelve apprentices (disciples) to learn his ways and help him. He even took three of them along to the Mount of Transfiguration, the high point of his life on earth, and to Gethsemane, the lowest point. Our unity is based on being conformed to Christ, not being uniformly like each other; each one of us retains our uniqueness. “Each person is a once-in-eternity expression of God’s love and faithfulness to the rest of God’s creation.” We can experience this unity best when we join with people different from us, as in True City and in welcoming the “others” who are not “like” us.
Scene 3: Jesus Love Lives Among Us. 1 John 4:9-17 tells us that God loved us so much that he gave us Jesus; that’s why we should love each other. That is the evidence that God lives in us. In fact, “his love [for the world] is made complete in us.” When we become like him in this world, then we will have confidence on the day of judgment.
Then Chris left me with two questions: (1) How am I doing in growing to be like Jesus, and (2) am I willing to live with the right and the responsibility to love others as Jesus loved me. That’s where my apprenticeship to the Master is meant to lead me.