Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Menno Simons, Father of the Mennonites


By Rev. Dr. Ed and Janice Hird

-an article published in the Light Magazine

How many Mennonite or Mennonite heritage people do you know?  In the Fraser Valley alone, there are at least 24 Mennonite Churches, led by over 100 pastors.  Menno Simons has birthed a remarkable Mennonite movement of around 200,000 in Canada and over two million people in at least 86 countries. There are now more African Mennonites than in all of North America.

If you attend a church, like millions of Baptist, Pentecostal, Alliance, or independent congregations that practice believer’s baptism, you can thank Menno Simons. And if you value freedom of religion and conscience, you can thank Menno Simons.  Many of his ‘unusual’ ideas have become normalized in evangelical Christian culture.

You may be wondering why an Anglican priest would be writing about the ‘founder/pivotal leader’ of the Mennonites. In full disclosure, Mennonites have radically shaped so many key moments of Ed’s life that he has wondered at times if he is an honorary Mennonite.  Both Ed and Janice were rebaptized as adults.  During the Jesus Movement, Ed was led to Christ and rebaptized in Lake Okanagan by Len Sawatsky, who trained at the Mennonite Columbia Bible College.  While serving as a priest at St. Matthew’s Abbotsford, Ed was privileged to be the first (and perhaps last) Anglican priest to speak to the student body at MEI (Mennonite Educational Institute).  He has even given talks at other Christian schools on Mennonite history.

Menno Simons (1496 –1561) grew up in poverty as a peasant in Friesland, Holland. At an early age, he was enrolled in a monastic school, possibly at the Franciscan monastery in Bolsward, to prepare for the Catholic priesthood. In March 1524, at the age of 28, he was ordained at Utrecht and assigned to the parish at Pingjum, near the place of his birth. Seven years later in 1531, he became the village priest in his home parish at Witmarsum.  Simons learned Latin and some Greek, but never read the Bible out of fear that it would lead him into heresy. Instead, he did a lot of cardplaying and drinking as the parish priest.  He commented: “Finally I got the idea to examine the New Testament carefully.” After reading Luther’s books, Menno became known as an evangelical preacher because he began preaching from the bible.  Menno Simon’s favorite bible verse was 1 Corinthians 3:11 “No one can lay any other foundation than that which is laid, Jesus Christ.” Luther never met Menno Simons and didn’t appreciate Anabaptists.

Menno’s first exposure to ‘rebaptism’ came when he heard of Sicke Snijde’s beheading following his adult baptism. The idea of believer’s baptism initially ‘seemed very strange’ to Menno as he had baptized his churchgoers only as infants.

In 1535, Menno’s brother Pieter, and some people from Menno’s congregation, were among a group of 300 Anabaptists killed during a violent revolution led by Jan van Geelen in Munster, just a few miles away from Menno’s parish.  Of the ones who did not lose their lives in the attack, 37 were then beheaded and 132, both men and women, were taken to Leeuwarden, where another 55 were executed after a short trial. Menno admired their zeal compared to his own complacency:

I saw that these zealous children, though in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith…But I myself continued in my comfortable life and acknowledged abominations simply in order that I might enjoy comfort and escape the cross of Christ. 

Seeing Munster as the apocalyptic New Jerusalem, the Munsterites had embraced polygamy and forced people to be rebaptized on pain of death.  This shocked Menno and so he denounced the Munsterites and embraced non-violence:

The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife. They are children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning forks.

We are called, said Menno, to be a church of peace:

True Christians do not know vengeance.  They are the children of peace.  Their hearts overflow with peace.  Their mouths speak peace and they walk in the way of peace. 

Menno was careful, thoughtful, and reflective, a welcome contrast to the more extreme Munsterite Anabaptists. When Menno Simons became an Anabaptist on January 12th 1536, he joined a movement in dangerous peril. Almost all of its initial leaders were dead, either by disease (Conrad Grebel) or execution (Felix Manz, Michael Sattler, Hans Hut, Hans Denck, Balthasar Hubmaier, Georg Blaurock, and Jakob Hutter). Melchior Hoffman who brought Anabaptism to the Netherlands was in prison.  Anabaptist leaders usually died within two to three years.

The authorities conveniently lumped the Munsterites and the peaceful Anabaptists together.  Baptist historian William Estep suggested that the history of Anabaptists can be divided into three periods: "before Menno, under Menno, and after Menno.” His decision to get rebaptized was very costly: 

I prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ, He would graciously forgive my unclean walk and unprofitable life.

After Menno’s rebaptism in 1536, he became a fugitive.  He spent a year in hiding, seeking God’s direction for his new ministry. During this time, he wrote Van de geestlijke verrijsenisse (“The Spiritual Resurrection”), De nieuwe creatuere (“The New Birth”), and Christelycke leringhen op den 25. Psalm (“Meditation on the Twenty-fifth Psalm”). More than forty of his writings survived. 

In 1537, he was ordained by the Anabaptist leader Obbe Phiips, and married Gertrude.  They had three children, two daughters and a son. Only one daughter outlived him.

Many, including Herman and Gerryt Jansz, were arrested, charged and beheaded for having taken Simons as a lodger.  In 1544, Jan Claess’ head was cut off on Amsterdam’s Dam Square and stuck on a stake; his body was placed on a wheel to be eaten by animals and birds. His crimes included rebaptism by Menno and publication in Antwerp of about 600 copies of Menno’s books.  In 1549, Elisabeth Dirks, was arrested on suspicion of being Menno’s wife (she wasn’t), endured imprisonment, inquisition, torture, and finally death. 

Menno taught the Mennonites, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, to value simplicity and avoid pride:

I voluntarily renounced all my worldly honor and reputation…and at once willingly submitted to distress and poverty, and the cross of Christ.

In 1542, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V promised 100 guilders reward ($8,100 CDN) to bring about Menno’s arrest. In 1543, the Netherlands ordered the death sentence for anyone publishing, spreading, or reading Menno Simon’s work.  Pardon of all crimes, and a hundred guilders, was promised in 1544 to criminals who could deliver Menno Simons to the government. Menno’s publisher John Claus was executed that following year. Around this time, the term ‘Mennist’ or ‘Mennonite’ came into use, a phrase that Menno tried unsuccessfully to discourage. In his later years, he often used crutches, calling himself ‘the lame’. Finally in 1544, the Simons found safe refuge in a Holstein cottage near Lubeck, Germany. After his peaceful death, he was buried in 1561 in his garden. In the 1550s, from 2,000 to 4,000 Mennonites were tortured, beheaded or buried alive. The many stories of the Mennonite martyrs are recorded in the 1660 Martyrs Mirror by Thieleman J. van Braght.

Menno sought to establish a believers’ New Testament Church. His desire to separate church from state was unusual in a time of state churches. He saw the church’s identity as a spotless bride ready for her coming husband. Mennonites often speak of being in the world, but not of it.

Menno’s pacifist convictions brought great suffering to his Mennonite followers who left Holland, then Prussia, then South Russia (Ukraine), and moved to Canada in order to say no to violence.  Ukrainian Mennonites were often caught between a rock and a hard place as first the communists and then the nazis tried to break down their pacifism. While Canada initially promised military exemption and private schools in the language of choice, the government reneged on their educational promise, forcing Mennonite children to attend Public English schools. Over 7,000 Mennonites moved to Mexico and Paraguay because of this betrayal by the Saskatchewan and Manitoba governments.  In 1920 to 1921, Canada banned Mennonites from entering Canada because of their unCanadian pacifist views.  Then again from 1929 to 1945, Mennonites were not permitted to move to Canada. 

A major theme of Menno’s writings is the new birth. He was strongly Christ-centered, desiring believers to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk as new persons. Out of Menno’s deep suffering came a conviction of caring for other hurting people: 

True evangelical faith … cannot lie dormant. … It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it … it binds up that which is wounded … it has become all things to all people.

Menno’s compassion has inspired the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) to help millions, particularly those who are refugees.  Matthew 25:35 has been described as the ‘national anthem’ of the Mennonites: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Many lost people first meet Jesus through the practical caring of Mennonites.  Encouraged by Menno’s example, Mennonite communities regularly show the highest level of charitable giving in Canada.

Like their founder, Mennonites tend to be independently minded people.  Life for Mennonites is often like a Mennonite patchwork quilt of joy and suffering.  Because Mennonites fight with words rather than weapons, they have developed a rich body of literature exploring their history and identity. They remarkably turn tragedy into comedy with very dry humour and word-play. 

We thank God for Menno Simons and his caring, peaceful and generous Mennonites who have made Canada a better place to live.

Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird, co-author with David Kitz of The Elisha Code

Saturday, March 09, 2024

Adam Smith, Father of Compassion


ate Economics

By Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird

-an article published in the March 2024 Light Magazine

Many people nowadays have little idea how Adam Smith’s economic ideas have shaped their lives for good. Can a rediscovery of the real Adam Smith rescue our muddled Canadian economy?

In 1776, Smith’s second book The Wealth of the Nations was so popular that he became known as the Father of Economics and the Father of Capitalism.  For some people today, Capitalism has become a negative word associated with Scrooge-like greed and cutthroat business practices. Karl Marx blamed capitalism for all the world’s ills.  Can capitalism instead embrace the compassionate vision in Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol?

Because Smith was a devout Christian economist, God was mentioned a total of 403 times between his two books, including his lesser-known book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Biblical economics is based on our being faithful stewards, realizing that all things come from God, and of his own have we given him (1 Chronicles 29:14).  Stewardship in the Greek is the same word as economics (oikonomos, manager of the oikos, the house). Smith wanted everyone to earn a decent living, saying ‘No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater of the members are poor and miserable.’  He lamented how the poverty and poor health care in the Scottish Highlands resulted in many a mother having only two of her children survive after giving birth to twenty babies.  With Canada’s standard of living suffering from governmental and economic mismanagement, perhaps it may be time to revisit the economic wisdom of Adam Smith. Might a rediscovery of the Protestant work ethic of diligence, thrift and efficiency help Canada get back on track?

What might happen in Canada if we once again rewarded hard work rather than punishing it with excessive taxation and regulations? Smith wrote about the Man of system who bureaucratically treated people as if they are chess pieces. In contrast, Smith held that economic freedom with free markets and free trade brings economic progress. Smith observed how God transforms private interest into public good by his invisible sovereign hand.

Born in 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, Adam Smith never knew his father who had died five months before his birth.  Smith regularly attended the local church with his devout mother Margaret. His strong Christian faith is often ignored or minimized by modern economists.  He never married, living with his mother until her death in 1784.  He then died himself six years later.  You cannot really understand Adam Smith without appreciating his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us.

As Christians, our financial choices need to be shaped by the love of neighbour as ourselves rather than the love of money.  The golden rule is God’s golden way economically. When people matter more than profits, everyone wins.

Adam Smith was not just a philosopher and economist.  He was also an early psychologist and sociologist who served at Glasgow University as Professor of Moral Philosophy. He was such an academic rock star in Glasgow that the university bookstore even sold a bust of his head during his lifetime. Smith was fascinated about what made people tick, especially how emotions/sentiments affected our life choices and ethical decisions. Influenced by his lifelong friend David Hume, Smith held that our emotions and imagination shape us far more than our apparent rationality. Like Hume, Smith pioneered the modern scientific method where technology, business, and society are advanced through careful experimental observation. 

Unlike Hume, Smith retained a strong Christian worldview as he embraced science.  With most of his students training to become ordained clergy, he taught them extensively about natural theology, how God our creator impacted our natural world:

…every part of nature, when attentively surveyed, equally demonstrates the providential care of its Author, and we may admire the wisdom and goodness of God, even in the weakness and folly of man.

Smith was struck by the miraculous order of God’s good universe. He called the universe God’s machine, designed to produce at all times the greatest quantity of happiness in us. Romans 8:28 reminds us how all things work together for the good.  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith commented that:

all the inhabitants of the universe, the meanest as well as the greatest, are under the immediate care and protection of that great and all-wise being who directs all the movements of nature, and who is determined by his own unalterable perfections to maintain in it at all times the greatest possible quantity of happiness.

Since he was fatherless, Smith deeply appreciated that God was indeed our heavenly Father. He commented that ‘the very suspicion of a fatherless world must be the most melancholy of all reflections’, leaving us with nothing but endless misery and wretchedness.

All the economic prosperity in the world, said Smith, can never remove the dreadful gloominess of a world without God our Father.  Smith taught that with this conviction of a benevolent heavenly Father, all the sorrow of an afflicting adversity can never dry up our joy. Smith, who sometimes suffered from depression, knew that because he was not cosmically alone, he had reason to keep going. While there is weeping in the night, there is indeed joy in the morning. (Psalm 30:5) After experiencing academic burnout, he left Glasgow University, serving as a European tutor for Henry Scott, the future Duke of Buccleuch. While in Paris, he became friends to Voltaire and the French physiocrat economists, led by Dr. Francois Q            uesnay, the Royal Physician to King Louis XV. After the tragic death of Henry Scott’s younger brother, Smith returned home, never to again visit Europe.

Smith held that we need to submit our will to the will of the great director of the universe.  While Smith as an Oxford-trained academic was very private about his emotions, he clearly taught that God deserved our unlimited trust, and ardent & zealous affection.

No conductor of an army can deserve more unlimited trust, more ardent and zealous affection, than the great conductor of the universe.

Both economics and theology for Smith needed to be practical. He said that while contemplating God’s benevolent and wise attributes is sublime, we must not neglect the practical call to care for our family, friends and country. As God’s financial stewards, earning money enables us to more effectively care for our family, our neighbour, and our country.

Smith liberated us from medieval mercantilism, which was a zero-sum game of winners and losers where there was no mutual economic growth and value-adding, except in farming. Mercantilism had countries grow wealthier through invading other countries to steal their grain and gold. The mercantilists could not imagine that everyone could win through peaceful international trade.  Smith’s economics involved the division of labour, resulting in specialization and free trade between countries and regions. He blamed the profit-driven mercantilism for the dreaded slave trade. Smith realized that free people are better workers, producing better profits.  Mercantilism was also so tied down with local guilds that workers were often unable to work in neighbouring towns. Smith envisioned ordinary workers being able to move freely around the country to offer their services. Thanks to Smith’s economic revolution, ordinary people, rather than just the very rich or the government officials, could save up enough money to own their own property. In contrast to mercantilism, Smith held that:

A nation is not wealthy by the childish accumulation of shiny metals, but it is enriched by the economic prosperity of its people.

How might our world be better in 2024 if we embraced Adam Smith’s compassionate, Christian-based economics?

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Searching for God- Carolyn R. Wilker


Malachi writes in chapter 3:1 of his Old Testament book: “Look, I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple…” (The Message)

Malachi may as well have been shouting from a rooftop with one of those megaphones we hear more than see at an outdoor baseball game. Further in the chapter we read that even though the descendants of Jacob have not listened well to God, he hasn’t destroyed them. He’s got something big coming that he believes will help them understand.

 In the revised common lectionary, Malachi’s text shows up in The Presentation of the Lord alongside the reference for Jesus’s baptism in Luke 2. A fitting pair. John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus. God had a plan. We learn that it’s not just for the descendants of Jacob, but all people. Put that thought on hold for a moment.

If you’ve been in the big bookstore, you know where to find most things based on the signs above the rows of shelves. There’s fiction, books for children, texts on spirituality, music, art, religion, and poetry. Then all those gift items. If you’re looking for self-help, there’s a big section. Find just about anything there — how to manage your finances, how to sew, how to plant your garden. Seeking something deeper? It’s there too. If the store doesn’t have what you’re looking for, it can be ordered.

Back to looking for God, if you’re having trouble finding him. Where do you search? Do you find him in the mail-order catalog? On the bookstore shelves? A Little Library shelf? Just because you can order or pick up a print copy, or recording, of the Bible and sacred texts, doesn’t mean you automatically understand it.  

Read it, learn about it, and keep on learning. Sermons you’ve been hearing in worship services, or online, can help to understand context. You can also do a study of scripture, such as lectio divina. Is there someone you can study with?

The good news is that God can be found in the stories and teachings. You may feel him near you on a bad day. It could be that a person, acting as God’s hands or feet, may just help you get back up when you’ve fallen. Keep looking. You’ll find him.




Thursday, January 04, 2024

The Gift of Poetry by Eleanor Shepherd

         Recently, as an experienced writer, I was asked to participate in the evaluation of poetry. I felt ill equipped for the job but promised to at least read over the poems and offer my reflections on them.

            In my personal writing history, I have never made a serious attempt to create poetry, although I have been aware at times that when I am engrossed in writing about something about which I feel passionate, I can begin to sound poetic in the choice of metaphors and descriptors that I use to try to adequately relate the concepts that are so dear to me.

            I have always had an appreciate for the poetry written by others. My father encouraged this in me, as he often quoted poetry that he learned in school and wrote books of poetry. I remember one book of his that sold out quickly was a book of poetry that chronicled the life of the Apostle Peter, called Memoirs of Peter. He wrote another one that told the story of the life of the Apostle Paul in poetry. It was his influence that inspired me to take courses on Shakespeare at University and I loved the lectures and learning about the writing of one of the best loved poets in the English language. 

            My older brother also developed a love for poetry, and he wrote some of his own poems, but one of my significant childhood memories is him reading to me one of the poems of Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” If I remember correctly, he had to memorize the poem, so I listening to it frequently and knew it quite well before I got to his grade. I thought it was beautiful.

            One of the poems that I was obliged to memorize in school was Trees by Joyce Kilmer. The lines I loved the most were his first and last stanzas:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.” …

“Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

            I totally agreed with his sentiment that trees were far more beautiful than poetry, but they did furnish subjects about which a poet could expound. I also loved the humility of his final stanza, recognizing that even our most beautiful creative expressions cannot compare with the gifts that God offers us.

            It is all about the words. Words are wonderful and I love them. It seems to me that there are two kinds of people. There are the people who love numbers and the people who love words. At least that is the way that it is in our house. My husband loves numbers. He amazes me with the way that he can handle them. I can ask him any question, however complicated about numbers and in a few seconds of mental gymnastics he can offer me an answer.

For me, I can’t even remember the simplest telephone number unless I write it down. However, words stick in my mind. I enjoy rolling them off my tongue or putting them together in new ways, just for the joy of hearing or reading them. To me they are magical. However, I usually create an order for them according to some logical progression that I envision. That is why I continue to read fiction, to feed my creative imagination. Otherwise, my writing would risk becoming too rigid and not allow enough room for the fluid movement and ambiguity that encourages readers to reflect as they read.

            My own efforts at poetry have been at best some rhyming lines created to be linked with simple melodies to try to express some of my feelings in worship. These I have kept to myself, as I know the quality would not make them useful for others, thus distracting rather than enhancing their worship. I leave the writing of song lyrics to my professional jazz musician daughter.


  What thrills me is the way that people like the Anglican priest poet Malcolm Guite can take words and make them magical by weaving them together in poetry that touches something deep inside us and connects us with eternity. Ironically, both my husband, the number lover and I the word lover find his poetry inspirational. It is poetry that comes close to measuring up to those beautiful natural wonders that God has made. I am so thankful for those who have received and honed this gift and offer it to us more mundane writers to encourage us to appreciate our words and use them creatively in our own endeavors. The God who makes the trees also bestows the gift of words.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

On Telling a Story

Robert Béla Wilhelm, founder of the School of Sacred Storytelling, writes in The Tell Tale Handbook, about techniques of sacred storytelling. He addresses the way a storyteller opens the story and how that teller gathers the listeners in and keeps them engaged. A single storyline is the key.

There have been times I wondered more about what took place in a scene, for example, the blind man who called out to Jesus. The “fixed point” is that the man wants to be healed and Jesus does that for him. In storytelling, we call this “the most important thing.” We don’t know what he wears or how he looks, but the storyteller gets the point across.

A hero, or heroine, once on a journey, will encounter obstacles to reaching their goal, and we follow them to that point. We can follow an oral story as long as there are not too many diversions. In a book we can go back and reread something we miss, but in oral storytelling, the storyteller needs to tell in a way that helps everyone listening to keep track of the characters and main happenings. A clear narrative line is the key.

Consider the story of the birth of Jesus. The fixed point of that story is that the star draws people to the stable to pay homage to the new baby, who is the new king of Israel (whether Herod likes it or not. We don’t hear about Herod in this part of the narrative). Think of the gospel story being read to an audience, or a storyteller delivering a story orally.

All eyes are drawn to Bethlehem where the birth takes place. Nothing else matters to that story, not how many angels were in the sky to announce the birth, not how many shepherds trekked to the stable or how long it took to get there, or even what animals were in the stable. All those things are left for the listener to imagine as the story unfolds. Only the fact that those people were part of the story.

An artist, poet, or screen writer, can decide what and how to illustrate characters and scenes, but in oral storytelling, the storyteller (and the gospel writer), strive to relay “the most important thing.”

Back to the story of Jesus’ birth, each listener will take in the story with their senses, by listening, seeing, and maybe even hearing their own version of the angel’s song, but the main point is “watch for the baby Jesus.”

Reread the story in Luke and imagine your own details as you follow the fixed point of the story.


Carolyn R. Wilker is an author, editor, and storyteller from southwestern Ontario



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