This is the first of what will hopefully be more testimonies of….
HEROES OF FAITH IN OUR TIME
A CLOUD OF WITNESSES
by Rev. Philip Friesen, Minneapolis, MN
I was having my worst year of college, almost flunking a course in my major field and feeling somewhat guilty about being of no help at home. My sister, Jewell, at 16 years of age, was helping pay expenses with an after school job, and Dad was in bed after major back surgery, having spent 6 weeks lying immobile on what was then called a sandwich board, Mom also having been immobilized by crippling arthritis that made it impossible for her to even dress or bathe herself. During that time my sister shared responsibilities with our 80-year-old grandfather for cooking, cleaning, shopping and whatever had to be done at home to care for two helpless parents.
One day during this ongoing crisis a short caravan of automobiles drove up to the house loaded with frozen and canned farm produce and meat, and a check brought from Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Doland, South Dakota, an expression of love that greatly encouraged our family.
Twenty years previous our Dad had been pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Doland. He and Mom shared their lives with this Hutterite congregation first during the years of depression bringing drought, grasshoppers, hunger, and cold, and then for the duration of World War II. The shared hardships of that period created bonds of friendships that followed the young pastor and wife for the rest of their life. (Both Dad and Mom along with two of our siblings are now buried in that church cemetery.) Twenty years later, this church had not forgotten the young pastor with his crippled wife who had shared life with them through adversity and trial, and their love overflowed with a gift, the memory of which left its mark on both my sister and me forever.
Dad had a legalistic bent typical of his generation that could be both blessing and curse. Two of his pet themes were tithing and Sabbath keeping, along with teaching children about God. Tithing was hard to preach to a starving congregation, but preach it, he did. There could be no compromise in proclaiming God’s truth and God’s law.
Young Enoch Hofer and his wife, members of Emmanuel church had a dairy herd. One year there was nothing for the cows to eat except wild onions, and the milk tasted horrible. First one cow died, then another, and another, until the last cow of the herd lay dying in the field. That evening, as they offered their prayers of worship and thanks to God, the two of them made a covenant together. Whatever income they had from that day forward, regardless of how small—the first 10% belonged to God as their tithe, and would be given for the service of God. When prayers were finished and they opened their eyes they saw a miracle outside the window. That dying cow had returned to the barnyard. It did not die. A dozen years or so later as a teenager, I drove tractor and loaded bales of hay for Enoch for just a couple of days, but from that short time with him, I’ll never forget the gentleness and strength that for me seemed to shine from this man of great faith.
In the 1930’s farmers brought fresh produce or meat to the pastor as it became available. It was one way to supplement the $5 monthly support he received from the Northern District Conference and whatever free will offerings people gave on Sunday. One of the first things Dad did when beginning his pastorate at Emmanuel was to end traditional family assessments for pastor salary and change to completely voluntary offerings. If the people couldn’t or wouldn’t give, then his own salary would not be paid, and that was just fine. He would not accept money given by legal obligation. While preaching the law, he still believed that obedience had to be completely voluntary without any form of coercion. God was his employer, not the church, and God would provide. That faith in God’s provision was severely tested again and again, but God never failed to provide for his servant’s necessities.
Dad also had this thing about Sabbath keeping. I believe his own relationship with his father had something to do with this obsession. I run the risk of making too much out of too little data, but two events in my Dad’s childhood seem to explain what happened. The first event is a terrible beating he received from his father, after which his big sister, Kate, wiped off the blood and cleaned him up. He and Kate became close friends for life. Of all his twelve siblings, it seemed to me that Kate and her husband, Dave Schmidt, were among the closest in affection to my parents, despite the fact that Kate and Dave had no qualms about breaking the Sabbath or pretty much any other legality that bothered my Dad. Dad’s preaching and the close relationship he seemed to have with these relatives who pretty much never followed his rules were a baffling mystery to me, but also, in a way, a powerful lesson in living together without the need to judge and condemn. Of course, Dad was never their pastor.
The second thing that fed into Dad’s obsession with Sabbath keeping probably occurred more than once. On Sunday mornings my Grandpa Friesen had to stand and wait for his wife, eight sons, and five daughters to get out of the house and climb into the horse-drawn wagon for the trip to town. During that time he found little jobs to do, such as mending a hole in the fence to keep the animals in while everyone in church. That, to my Dad, was a sin. I suspect that from his own sense of betrayal by his father, Dad had determined he could and would do better at keeping the law than his father was doing. This is how I think I can explain, at least in part, Dad’s obsession with Sabbath keeping.
In Dad’s church, failure to keep the Sabbath could get his members into real trouble with their pastor. One Monday morning a car drove up to the uninsulated and creaky old rented house in the middle of a treeless, windswept field where Mom and Dad lived. A proud and happy face invited the pastor to inspect a gift he had brought. Opening the trunk of the car this farmer, whose name was Joe T. Tschetter, offered a trunk load of pheasants as a generous gift for the beloved pastor. Dad looked directly into Joe T.’s face and bluntly asked, “Were these pheasants shot on Sunday?” For Dad, to receive birds caught in violation of the Sabbath was equivalent to receiving stolen property. The time spent hunting was time stolen from God, because Sunday was for God and God alone. Humiliated and embittered, Joe T. took his gift and went home.
A day or so later, by chance or providence, Dad was scheduled to do some work for Joe T. As they worked together, according to Dad’s report, he sensed there must be something bothering Joe T. (Duh!) His friend didn’t seem happy to see him, as he usually would have been. Sizing up the situation Dad stopped what he was doing, looked directly at his friend and blurted out, “ Joe, do you still love me?” According to Dad’s report, suddenly the ice broke and the friendship was restored.
I think one has to understand something about Hutterite culture (Joe T.’s, that is) and Low German culture (my Dad’s) to begin to make sense of this exchange. I would describe conversation in these two cultures as direct and blunt, almost to the point of brutality, sometimes quick to explode, but equally quick to forgive. That’s how we get along! Exploding with anger is clearly not a Biblical virtue according to James 1:19, but “quick to forgive”—that is a work of grace, and it is for me a priceless treasure to realize how powerfully this ready forgiveness had become a cultivated grace in the culture of faith that is my heritage. I believe this habit of ready forgiveness can be nourished in society when we exegete all of scripture and all of life through the lens of the cross. The grace of God’s ready forgiveness can overcome all the faults to which we might otherwise be habituated, and I offer the witness of my family’s experience as evidence that this is, in fact, the truth. When I feel angry with someone close to me, I try to remember just how much I do really love this person. It turns my mind back to relationship and away from my easy obsession with faults.