Wilderness Testing

By Paul Knudtson

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The church’s observance of the forty days of Lent is rooted in Jesus’s forty days of testing in the wilderness after his baptism. Jesus’s wilderness testing recalled Israel’s forty years of testing in the wilderness following her deliverance from Egypt (the exodus) and preceding her entrance into the promised land.

The dates for the season of Lent differ each year, based on the varying dates for the celebration of Easter. This year (2020) Lent is from February 26 – April 11. Easter Sunday will be on April 12. Lent consists of forty days that begin on Ash Wednesday and conclude on the Saturday before Easter (and does not include the Sundays during this period).

During Lent this year, I have been preparing to teach a church history course on the history of the Christian church prior to 1500, that is, on the early church and the medieval church. This course was to be offered in an intensive, one-week format offered March 23-27, but has now been cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. Yet the preparations for this class, together with the enforced social isolation due to the virus, have combined to give me a unique perspective regarding my experience of Lent this year.

What has especially caught my attention in my study of the early church has been the birth of monasticism in the eastern Mediterranean around the time that the Roman Emperor Constantine identified himself as a Christian (though he was not baptized until he lay on his deathbed in A.D. 337). As Christianity enjoyed the support of the empire, and as many of its rich and influential citizens became Christian rulers of state and church, so a counter-cultural movement of lowly believers arose in the Egyptian wilderness and elsewhere. These believers sought to live out the radical demands of the gospel as they gave up wealth and the comforts of human society in order to know and love God above all.

The word “monk” comes from the Greek word, monachos, which means “solitary.” So the first monks went out into the wilderness alone as they sought fellowship with God. In doing so, they patterned their lives after Jesus, who after his baptism and then at various times throughout his ministry, went out to be alone with God. “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16).

Following the example of Jesus (see also Mark 1:35), a principal focus of these wilderness Christian monks was prayer. Jesus’s teaching on prayer includes an admonition to shut out all outside distractions. In his sermon on the mount, he says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6). So the monks sought God in the hiddenness of their wilderness cells. While most monks throughout history lived in communities with other monks, they maintained a focus on leaving the distractions and comforts of the world in order to pray.

The early Egyptian monks (both men and women) came to be referred to as the “desert fathers and mothers.” Many of their sayings have been preserved and are still available. As I was preparing for my church history class during the past month, I have been reading a book that includes many interesting samples of these sayings: Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings—Annotated & Explained (Skylight Publishing, 2012) by Christine Valters Paintner.

The Coronavirus pandemic has meant that this year we are forced into a kind of monastic retreat from the world as we each learn to practice social isolation, each living apart in our homes as if in monastic cells. Like most others, I spend my days now almost completely at home, together with my wife, Elaine. In days to come, I will always remember how during Lent 2020 I was forced to live like the monks of old, separated from the world. Each day Elaine and I go for walks in our little “wilderness,” a walk that takes us on a path running through the trees along the Bow River. We listen to the honking of Canadian Geese, or chatter of other birds. We hear the soothing sound of the water as the river flows along. We feel the warmth of the spring sun on our bodies. And I think of the desert monks—and before them, of Jesus of Nazareth—who sought God in the wilderness. And I wonder what I am to learn during this Lenten time about prayer and about the pursuit of what is most important in life.

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Here I am in warmer days in a wilderness setting, with a bag of books and a folding chair.

 

 

 

 

 

So, for Lent this year, I am learning afresh from the desert fathers and mothers about seeking God as I spend time alone in this present wilderness. Let me quote some of these early monks. Abba Moses said to another Christian brother who was seeking a word, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything” (Paintner, p.7). Just so, I feel that I (we) have been given the same instruction. It would be more fun to enjoy the usual distractions of visiting others, or of going out to eat, or even of going to the mall, but now is a time for simply sitting in our cells. Christine Valters Paintner says, “It is a way to retreat from the noise and activity of life and remove the disorienting and distracting voices—our own inner voices and those of others (p.6).

Another desert father, Abba Arenius, gives this counsel to a person troubled by a compulsive need to do something: “Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work; only do not leave your cell” (Paintner, p.13). These monks had learned the value of staying put, of stability and steadfastness. The followers of the rule of St. Benedict (A.D. 530) made a “vow of stability,” which meant that they pledged themselves to remain at one monastery for the rest of their lives. They were not to move about from monastery to monastery seeking the one that would best suit them at any given moment.

We live in a highly mobile culture. We are accustomed to moving about quickly and spontaneously, even travelling to far off lands by airplane. Elaine and I love to travel to Europe for vacation. Now all of that has stopped as we are no longer permitted to travel to other countries, nor even to go to places where people congregate, or even to go to our places of work. We are told repeatedly on the public media to “stay at home!” We are, as it were, being given the council of Abba Moses, “Go sit in your cell,” and of Abba Arenius, “do not leave your cell.”

Amma (mother) Matrona said, “We carry ourselves wherever we go and we cannot escape temptation by mere flight” (Paintner, p.23). An anonymous desert father similarly says, “If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Whenever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you. So stay until the trial is over . . . ” (Paintner, p.23). So one of the blessings of a Lenten season such as we are having this year may be that it makes it easier for us to face our demons, to acknowledge our besetting sins and temptations, in order to deal with them adequately. To do this, it helps to stay put rather than escape to some far off land of distraction.

As I think about the thousands of Christian men and women who left the comforts of city life to live in their cells in the wilderness, I ponder their lives in order to learn about finding God by eliminating the distractions of a busy life. Though this enforced time of social isolation in the spring of 2020 is difficult and unsettling, it may also be a way to become reoriented concerning what is most important in life.
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Here I am sitting in the sun with my sister Lois in our farmyard 60 years ago (Spring 1960).

From early childhood we learn that life is wondrous and precious. How I enjoyed exploring our farmyard as a preschool boy. I would wonder from the barn, to the corral to observe the cattle, to the garage, and among the trees of the shelter-belt around our yard—often accompanied by our dog, Sport. It is easy as we become adults to lose the sense of wonder we enjoyed as children. The monks invite us, I think, to rediscover this, and to leave behind a superficial life that often misses what is most important. Abba Poemen said, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy the heart” (Paintner, p.31). Perhaps Lent this year will give us opportunity to consider what truly satisfies out hearts, what quenches our deepest thirsts. “O God, you are my God. I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

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This is the Bow River just a block from our house and the place where I go for walks almost every day. It is a little piece of wilderness that runs through our neighborhood.

As stated above, those early monks who sought God by leaving society to go into the wilderness, did so in imitation of Jesus in the gospels. In the midst of his busy ministry, with crowds of people coming and going, Jesus says to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). So it is that the desert fathers and mothers and sought God in wild, deserted places.

As I reconnect with these monks—and with Jesus and his disciples—during this Lenten season, I reflect on how what we refer to as “nature” is a good context for renewing one’s relationship with God. Indeed, many monasteries came to be built in places of special natural beauty. God’s presence is mediated through creation. The apostle Paul writes, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen though the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). Lent is a good time to become more observant of the beauty of this creation and to consider how it bears witness to a good Creator. Psalms 65 and 104 celebrate the goodness of creation.

You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. 10You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. 11You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. 12The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, 13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy. (Psalm 65:9-13)

My wife, Elaine, and I have had the privilege of taking a number of trips to Norway, to beautiful locations such as those pictured here. Norway is the land of my ancestors.

I will remain ever thankful that I grew up in the country on a farm. Our farm was a half mile from a coulee, which was a kind of wilderness to which I would often retreat. I loved riding my bicycle down the dirt road leading to the coulee and then along the coulee bank. My brothers and I enjoyed countless hours exploring the coulee hills as we looked for special rocks, such as pieces of petrified wood or petrified shells, or pieces of crystal or other attractive stones.

In the winter we would toboggan in the hills of the coulee. Our father purchased two quarter sections of pasture in this coulee, so we also often traveled to the coulee to check on the cows or to have family picnics with wiener roasts. As an adult I often thought that it would be a great place to have a cabin where one could find a place of retreat. Sadly, in recent years our family sold these coulee quarter sections, but I still treasure the memories of the many hours spent among these hills. And I have learned that there are countless places where one can seek retreat.

This is the path to the coulee that I often rode along on my bicycle.

 

 

We often met for picnics as a family at the coulee.

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After mom moved off the farm to live in an apartment in Camrose, she still enjoyed visits to farm and to the coulee. Here she is taking a photograph of our beloved coulee.

 

 

It remains for me to examine and consider the biblical roots of the monastic retreat to the wilderness and of the church’s annual observance of the forty days of Lent. As stated at the outset of this reflection, these roots lay in Jesus’s forty days of testing in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years in the wilderness before entrance into the promised land.

The book of Exodus in the Old Testament describes how the people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt through God’s act of deliverance. This liberation from Egypt through a series of plagues and rescue at the Red Sea is known as the exodus. It is followed by Israel’s forty-year period of wandering in the wilderness, followed by her entrance into the promised land (as described in the book of Joshua).

Israel’s forty years in the wilderness was a time of testing and temptation. Life is difficult in the wilderness. One’s life becomes vulnerable and precarious because the basic needs of food, water and shelter are in short supply. Just so, the severity of life in the hostile wilderness environment tested the limits of Israel’s faith in God. When there was no water, the people complained to Moses their leader, saying, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). Their desperate situation even caused them to doubt God’s love and care for them. They asked, “Is the LORD among us our not?” (Exodus 17:7).

In a similar way the desert times in our lives can push us to our very limits where we wonder whether we will live or die, and whether God is with us or not. In wilderness periods, people sometimes give up on God. Many become atheists. Others become bitter. In the case of Israel, the lack of food and water in the wilderness led them to complain against their leaders Moses and Aaron, and against God (Numbers 21:5). They told Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and at our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3) “They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?’” (Psalm 78:18-19)

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul discusses the spiritual significance of Israel’s time in the wilderness. In 1 Corinthians 10, he compares Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea to Christian baptism (10:2), and implies that Israel’s reception of food and water in the desert should be likened to the spiritual food and drink in the bread and wine of the eucharist (10:3-4, 17, 21). Paul calls upon the believers in Corinth to resist the temptations of this life and to not be like the Israelites who gave in to the sins of idolatry (10:7), sexual immorality (10:8), putting the Lord (or, Christ) to the test (10:9), and complaining (10:10). Paul affirms that God provides the needed help to overcome the testing or temptations of the wilderness. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (10:13).

Finally, it is fitting during Lent to consider Jesus’s forty days of testing (or temptation) in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). Jesus’s time of wilderness testing followed immediately his baptism in the Jordan River. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1). As stated above, this forty day period of testing (Matt 4:2; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2) has become the template for the Church’s annual observance of Lent.

It may be helpful to note how the key Greek terms used in such scriptures may be rendered in English. The Greek verb peirazo may be translated as, “tempt” or as “test.” Similarly, the Greek noun peirasmos may be translated in English as either as, “temptation” or “trial.” Therefore, it would be correct to translate the phrase in a passage like Matthew 4:1 as either, “to be tempted,” or “to be tested.” Jesus’s wilderness time was a time when he faced testing and temptation. A test always involves the possibility that one will fail the test—that is, that one will succumb to the temptation.

It is also interesting to note the Spirit’s role in Jesus’s experience of testing by the devil. Matthew uses a purpose clause here: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1). God evidently wanted Jesus to face the testing presented by his foe, the devil. In a certain sense, spiritual testing or temptation is a good thing, a necessary thing.

Similarly, educational training involves testing. Students must demonstrate through testing that they have mastered the material. All professions require those who are to become practitioners to pass rigorous tests. It is not possible, for example, to become a medical doctor or engineer or airplane pilot without passing tests. In a similar way, God prepares people—even his own Son—for ministry through rigorous testing. The book of Hebrews speaks of the mature “whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good and evil.” (5:14). Concerning Jesus, Hebrews say, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8). Similarly, just as Jesus’s baptism was followed by a period of testing, so we should anticipate that our baptism into Christ should lead to our testing as well. As is clear from the more extensive descriptions of Christ’s temptation in Matthew and Luke, Jesus faces this spiritual testing of the devil by quoting scripture. In response to each of the three temptations, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6-8, texts that describe how Israel was to meet her challenges in the wilderness. But in the wilderness Israel failed to learn to trust in God as they ought to have done. When food and water were lacking, they turned against Moses and God, thereby putting God to the test. Jesus reenacts or recapitulates Israel’s history as God’s obedient, trusting Son. Jesus’s threefold quotation of Deuteronomy highlight lessons regarding life in the wilderness:

1. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3 in Matt 4:4 and Luke 4:4) 2. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16 in Matt 4:7 and Luke 4:12) 3. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (Deuteronomy 6:13 in Matt 4:10 and Luke 4:8)

As we live in the company of Jesus in our own wilderness, we may learn several lessons. First, life does not consist of having and consuming those things that people commonly use to satisfy human cravings. Life is more than bread alone. [Interestingly, it was in the desert that Israel received supernatural food, that is, manna or “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4).] So, Jesus reminds us that “one does not live by bread alone.” Similarly, the desert father Abba Poeman says, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” (Paintner, p.31)

Second, one learns from Jesus the difference between trusting in God for protection from harm and “putting God to the test.” The devil quotes portions of a wonderful Psalm to Jesus, Psalm 91. This Psalm is especially fitting for those living amidst the dangers of the wilderness. The Psalm offers this promise to those who trust in God: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday” (91:8-9). These words seem especially relevant to our present circumstance.

In the wilderness one is cut off from the usual supports and protections that one relies on in the city. But while the Psalm gives exactly the sort of promises of divine protection that one needs in a dangerous land, Jesus rightly discerns the difference between faith in God’s protection and putting God to the test. Putting God to the test involves pressuring God to bring about our deliverance in a way that we have determined.

Third, in the wilderness one learns what it means to trust in the one true God. In the wilderness Israel succumbed to the temptation to worship other gods. While Moses was away on the mountain with God, the people of Israel grew impatient and made a golden calf and worshiped it. “[Aaron] took the gold from them and formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:4). Matthew and Luke describe how the devil sought to tempt Jesus to worship him. Jesus showed Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” and promised, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matt 4:89; see also Luke 4:5-7)

In the wilderness we are often tempted to worship what is not God.

Severe testing reveals the true character of a person. People may appear pleasant when all is going well, but when hardship comes, one learns what a person is really made of. Trials cause some to become angry and bitter, and even to turn against God. When Job suffers horrendous trials, loosing his children, his property, and then his health, his wife gives him a council of despair. “Curse God, and die,” she says (Job 2:9). But Job cannot do this. He tells her, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10). Though Job does not understand the meaning of what has happened to him, he does not give up on God.

All humans, including Christian believers, encounter many trials and temptations in life. A relationship to God does not exempt a person from troubles. Biblical narratives illustrate how various people of God have experienced such trials. The story of Abraham in Genesis shows how his life is determined both by the promises of God (of descendants, land, and blessing) and by a multitude of threats that endanger these promises (such as famine, his own fear, infertility, and old age). In each instance, God’s promises seem endangered by trials. Yet, in spite of obstacles, Abraham believes God’s word of promise. “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Eventually Abraham and Sarah in their old age experience the joy and laughter brought about by the fulfillment of God’s promise as they have a son, Isaac. But even then God sends a trial to Abraham. In what is surely one of the most poignant lines in all of Genesis we read, “After these things, God tested Abraham” (22:1). Genesis 22 records what is, in effect, Abraham’s final exam. God asks Abraham to offer up his beloved son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Once God sees that Abraham is willing to do even this, God stops Abraham as he is about to slay his son. Abraham passes the test and God tells him, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me” (22:12).

While Jesus is tested in the wilderness for forty days prior to the beginning of his public ministry, his final test comes as he learns that he is about to be condemned to death, after being mocked and flogged (Mark 10:34). As he faces this test, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).  He prays to God in the garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). But like Abraham and Job, Jesus passes the test, remaining faithful until the end. Concerning this, the author of Hebrews writes, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7).

Though Lent officially ends this year on April 11—with Easter Sunday on April 12—our enforced social isolation due to the COVID pandemic may, in effect, extend our wilderness period considerably longer. But as always, the wilderness is not to be our permanent home. In the wilderness we are to learn how to look forward, to anticipate the goodness that awaits us. In the wilderness, Israel looked forward to her entrance into the promised land, “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). Later while they were living in this land, the prophets taught the people to look forward to that day when “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). Similarly, Jesus endured the trials of suffering and death while anticipating “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2).

In the words of the Nicene Creed, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” And while we wait, we pray in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Save us from the time of trial” (modern translation) and “deliver us from the evil one” (my translation).

lent12Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things. Psalm 107:4-9

(Scripture References throughout are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.)

The Raft

Paul Knudtson

For some reason today I thought of the raft that we made at home when I was maybe about 10 years old. We made it from wooden beams (they must have been at least 12” x 12” and the longest about 8 ft) that dad had used to set the cattle tank on before he replaced them with a cement pad. For the floor of the raft we used wooden slabs from the pile that were stacked on the south side of the granary just to the south of the barn door, just west of the barn and along the slab fence.

 

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When we had finished making the raft dad moved it with the loader to the slough on the north-east corner of what is now the acreage at home. It did float with two of us on it, though barely. We couldn’t both stand on the same side of the raft, or it would sink below the water. We used wooden boxes to sit on it and had some wooden poles to use to push us through the water. It seemed like a lot of fun, though the slough was quite small. I don’t think the water was very deep. I’m not sure how we got on and off the raft without getting water in our rubber boots. Anyway, it was fun to go out on the water on our little raft. We probably didn’t do it many times, but it was one of those many activities on the farm that as I remember it now, make me happy that I grew up on a farm.

I feel like I need to keep reliving those old childhood memories so that my present 65 year old self does not become disconnected from that farm boy who was also me—even though that life was so different than the one I live now. It has been a very long time since I have been on a raft!

 

The Joy of Being Six

By Paul Knudtson

 

paul 5cI remember exactly how it felt to walk outside into a glorious spring day like the one in the photograph. The sun felt warm on my face and body. The air was fresh and fragrant with the scent of soil and vegetation and farm animals. As I left the house I walked across the yard that was just beginning to turn green as the earth warmed from the strengthening rays of the sun. I could hear birds singing: sparrows, robins, crows, Canadian geese, blackbirds, magpies, and red-winged black birds. I could also hear the sound of frogs in nearby sloughs. The earth was coming alive.  And I felt happy to be alive.

 

What a glorious feeling to walk outside on such a morning! My brothers, Allen and Arthur, had left for school. I had had breakfast. And I had put on my shoes and was able to wear my spring jacket, the one that I am wearing in these photographs. I loved that jacket! I liked the way it made me feel special when I wore it.  It was red—though I think it may have been reversible, with the other color being blue. It had a white stripe running down each arm, and had white, metal snap buttons and stretchy, elastic cuffs. It felt sporty—even though it was a hand-me-down from one or both of my brothers, and showed signs of wear. I had put on the jacket in the porch where it hung on a clothes hook, along with my cap.  This little porch was on the east end of our house, next to the kitchen. It couldn’t have been more than about eight feet square.

paul 5b I spent most of my time on such days exploring the farm yard by myself. I would explore the barn, perhaps, or climb up the haystack and look out over the countryside from my lofty vista, or maybe I would walk among the trees of our shelter belt. My common companion on such explorations was our dog, Sport. When I walked about the yard or through the trees Sport was there at my side. When I stopped, Sport stopped too, and sat right beside me so that I could pet him. He showed his appreciation for such attention by licking his lips. I found it hard to stop because he was so appreciative!

sportIn the spring, Lois and I sit without a care in the warmth of the spring sun. We sit close to the place where a pile of hay sat against the south end of the slab fence. Each morning some hay would be pitchforked over the slab fence to some cattle below. There are remnants of this hay scattered on the ground where we are sitting. I can imagine that there would have been some lingering smell of this hay, and perhaps there was still hay in a little haystack not far from where we were sitting. About fifty feet or so to the right of us was the barn, a favorite place for exploration.

Our mother took these photographs of  my sister and me at home on the farm on a warm spring day in 1960, perhaps in April or May, when I was six and my sister, Lois, was one and a half. We are sitting here in the sun on a pile of lumber at the south-west corner of a slab fence that ran along two sides of the corral on the south end of our barn. In the photo we are facing west toward the house. The slab fence stood to the right of the barn (south).  Lois and I sat at the end the fence shown in this picture.

Mom saw me outside from the kitchen window and quickly brought out Lois along with her black-and-white camera to take our pictures. I wonder exactly when these photographs were taken. Grandma Johnson, my mom’s mom, died that same spring, May 11, 1960 (a Wednesday). I imagine that the pictures above were taken before this, but I can’t be certain. In any case, mom found joy in her children and would have found comfort in being a mother even as she lost her own mom. She once told me how when she was a little girl she couldn’t imagine losing her mom. The thought of losing one’s mother is inconceivable to a child. I’m sure it was still hard for mom as an adult to learn that her mom had died. It happened less than a week before mom’s forty-fifth birthday (May 16, 1960). But mom’s sorrow was surely balanced by her joy at having children of her own. So as I look at these black-and-white photographs I also think of the one taking the pictures, my mother.

I have a specific memory from this time. It is about walking out our driveway and onto the road leading to Beda’s house (Beda Johnson). Mom and I walked over to Beda’s house so that we could watch the royal wedding of Princess Margaret that took place on May 6, 1960. This was the first ever televised royal wedding; over twenty million people watched it. It was a Friday. I have a distinct memory of this, of walking to Beda’s house, and of sitting in her tiny living room while we watched her black and white television. We didn’t get a television until just before Christmas 1963, so it was quite a treat to be able to watch television. Mom told me in recent years when I relayed this memory to her that she was sad that she wasn’t home that day because it was the last time that grandma was at our house. I had no memory of this. I imagine that grandma was at home babysitting Lois, while mom and I went to Beda’s to watch the wedding.

Life was simpler back then.  Jesus invites us to become like a little child.  When responsibilities and worries crowd my thoughts, I like to revist these happy places in my mind and imagine the wholeness I felt on those warm spring days in 1960.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Role of Grandparents

By Paul Knudtson

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (2 Timothy 1:5)

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Grandpa Eilert Knudtson with some of his grandchildren in the summer of 1957. I’m the shortest boy in the front row.

All of my grandparents had died by the time I began school in the fall of 1960. Grandma Knudtson and Grandpa Johnson died long before I was born, but  Eilert Knudtson (d. Mar 10, 1959) and Mina Johnson (d. May 11, 1960) lived long enough for me to have met them.  Their memory lived on, reinforced by stories that my mother told me in later years. For instance, mom told me that once, when grandpa was visiting, he watched one of my brothers run across the yard and he said, “You run like a jack rabbit!”

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Eilert Knudtson with two of his nieces in Norway

In another story, they were visiting Grandpa Knudtson and our aunts at their home in Calgary. Everyone was standing outside and Allen, my brother, took grandpa by the hand and said that he wanted to go with him into the house. Grandpa thought that Allen wanted something, but when they got inside,  Allen told him, “I just wanted to sit with you.” Grandpa liked to hear this, and repeated it later to my mother. It is nice to have a grandpa’s lap to sit on, and it is equally nice for a grandpa to have a grandson who wants to sit on his lap.

These stories are fragments of memories. I became vividly aware that I didn’t have any living grandparents when I was in grade two. Our class was reading a story in our readers about Dick and Jane visiting their grandparents. We saw pictures of the car they traveled in and of their arrival at the home of their grandparents. As I studied these pictures I felt somehow left out and sad that I didn’t have grandparents that I could visit. I suppose that I was also aware that many of my classmates still had grandparents they could visit.

 

My wife, Elaine, tells of a special relationship that she enjoyed with her grandparents. When Elaine was a preschooler, she lived for a while with her parents in the same house her dad’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Anquist. While her parents and grandpa went to work for the day, Elaine would spend all day with her grandma. These were special times of bonding between the two of them. They would go together on errands, like visiting the butcher shop where they would watch the butcher wrap the meat in paper and string, or they would work in the kitchen preparing supper or baking. And it was fun when grandpa came home from work and gave special attention and love to his granddaughter, taking her onto his lap as he sipped a cup of coffee.  I have no such memories.

gran5
Grandma’s house, built by her husband Henry in 1915. Grandma (Mina) lived in this house until she died in 1960, and as a widow since Henry died in 1943.

My brothers Allen and Arthur are both older than I am (Allen is six years older and Arthur four years older), so they have more vivid memories of our grandparents. Arthur told me in recent years how as a little boy he and Allen slept over at Grandma Johnson’s house on one occasion. He remembers that they had to sleep at grandma’s house that night because grandma was “afraid of lightning.” Someone must have explained it to Arthur in this way.  Grandma lived alone in her house on the farm just a few miles from our farm, and in same yard as the home of her son Clifford and family.

On July 2, 2017 the descendants of my grandpa and grandma Johnson had a family reunion. That day I learned more stories about my grandmother from older cousins. One of them (Carolyn, born 1941) told me how during the summer she would sometimes stay with grandma in her house. Carolyn said that grandma was playful. After the noon meal they would sometimes play Chinese checkers. The person who lost would have to do the dishes. But if grandma lost, then they would have to play more games so that the person who won the most games out of three would be spared the dishes. Or if the pastor showed up for the second time that week just before noon, grandma had everyone (grandchildren) quickly hide the dishes so that they could tell the pastor that they had already eaten.  The pastor enjoyed grandma’s home cooking–but enough is enough.

As I have observed, there is often a unique relationship that develops between children and their grandparents, one that differs qualitatively from the one between parents and children. Parents are often preoccupied with the demands of work and the responsibility to correctly  training and correcting their children. Grandparents, on the other hand, may have a somewhat more relaxed attitude concerning their duties and responsibilities, which may, in turn, give distinctive shape to the relationship. “What happens at grandma’s, stays at grandma’s.”

This past Sunday (October 7, 2018) we had our two oldest children and their families at our home for a thanksgiving meal. Timothy has just moved this summer back to Calgary with his family from Seattle (Bellevue), so it was nice now to be able to have both his family and Kristy’s family here for Sunday. This meant that four of our six grandchildren were here. It felt good to have all of them and their parents, enlivening our usually quiet house with boisterous noise and activity.

As I watched and listened, I thought, “How good it is to have grandchildren.” At one point, I observed Elaine interact with our oldest granddaughter. “How good it is that Faith has such a grandmother,” I thought to myself as I saw how they understood each other at a deep level.  This relationship between grandmother and granddaughter has developed over the years, and is a treasure to both of them.

gran6

I don’t know what it would have meant to have had grandparents during my school years. I suppose I pictured being doted on by a grandparent, being given cookies and milk at the kitchen table or simply having someone who was happy to see me and spend time visiting with me.

 

gran7Though I grew up without grandparents, in recent years I have come to enjoy a relationship that has in a way filled this void. As I was about to turn sixty, I came to know a man—one much older than I am (he is about 24 years my senior)—who has become a kind of grandpa figure in my life, Father Robert (“Father Bob”) Mitchell, a Franciscan friar.  Since the fall of 2013, I have been making monthly visits to Father Bob. He is someone who looked like a grandpa, who was always happy to see me, and who was not in a hurry.  He patiently sits and listens to me talk about how I was doing. Even though I am too old to have a living grandpa,

 

 

 

Father Bob is always genuinely happy to see me, as I am to see him. We often greet each other with a hug, or give one as we part—or both. We begin by informally sharing something of how we are. Then Father Bob reads a short scripture, and we pause for a period of silence before I share what strikes me about this passage, or how I may hear God speak to me through it. Our conversation continues, leading wherever it will, as we seek together to hear ways in which God may be leading in my life. Father Bob listens or shares examples from his own life and experience that we relate to what I have been talking about.

Father Bob has become my “spiritual director,” a term with a centuries-long history within Catholic Christianity, but increasingly familiar to other Christians as well. Gordon Smith of the Christian and Missionary Alliance gives a good definition of spiritual direction, a definition that accurately describes Father Bob’s contribution to my own life.

“A spiritual director offers spiritual guidance and companionship to help us make sense of our faith journey, interpret with us the significant markers on the road, and encourage us, particularly through the more difficult transitions and valleys of our pilgrimage. Most of all, a spiritual director helps us make sense of the witness of the Spirit—assisting us to respond well to the question, How is God present to me and how is God, though the ministry of the Spirit, at work in my life?” (Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Direction, InterVarsity Press, 2014, page 9).

Much of what happens in that little room where Father Bob and I visit concerns more of a feeling or impression than of information that is shared. I often leave those visits with a sense of unexpected joy that leaps up within me. Though much of our conversation is quite ordinary, made up of the regular stuff of life, I have nonetheless often left with a sense of how uncanny and good our visit has been. These little visits are unlike anything else that I do in my life—similar in some ways with a good conversation over coffee with a friend, but more like a child’s visit with a grandpa or grandma.

I think we all need “elders” in the faith, people who are genuinely interested in our well-being, who have the time to listen to us and help us discern the ways of God in our lives. The apostle Paul describes his relationship to the Corinthian Christians in such terms. He writes, “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:15)

Many people decry the fact that so many churches today are made up of a preponderance of old people; there are so many grey heads. It would be better, we think, to be part of a youthful church filled with young families. We of course want to see the gospel flourish among the young, but I also wonder if we are not often missing out on the treasure we have with the large number of seniors in our churches. I think of the potential benefit that many younger believers could receive if they were “adopted” by these older people who could take on the role of spiritual parents or grandparents.  I wish that everyone could have the equivalent of my relationship to Father Bob.

gran10There is a significant role for grandparents to play in the lives of their grandchildren.  This may be the greatest calling of all in our later years.

In 2016 my mother knitted baby blankets for her great grandchildren who were born that year. Mom died on December 8, 2016. These babies were born into a world where they were loved by generations of their family, even by a great-grandmother they would never know in this lifetime.

“Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their parents.”   Proverbs 17:6

 

The Busy Signal

By Paul Knudtson

459Yesterday I missed my mother.  It’s been almost two years since she died, but I still refuse to delete her number from my cell phone.  Her daily conversations were part of the rhythm of my life that is now silent.

I was reminded of a time several years ago when I spent an entire morning trying to call her.  I was concerned because mom had reported that for two days she had great difficulty getting around her apartment because of a sore foot.  When I tried to phone her at 9:00 AM, her line was busy—I got that beeping of the busy signal. Now my mom used her phone often, so this was not unusual. Her phone was often busy.

I phoned mom all morning. I even went for a long walk, because I couldn’t concentrate—and gave her lots of time to finish her phone call. But when I came back at 11:00, her phone was still busy. Still at noon, I couldn’t get her. I began to worry. Was mom alright? No one talks on the phone for three hours. My imagination started to work. I hoped that her phone was simply off the hook—but I thought that, who knows, maybe she knocked the phone off the hook when she was trying to call for help, and now she lay unconscious or worse in her apartment.

mom.JPGMom got meals each noon from “Meals on Wheels.” So I thought that when they showed up to her apartment, having tried to phone her from the door to the apartment on the first floor, they would tell her, “Do you know that your phone is busy?” Or, they would discover if mom was in some state of dire need. They arrived between 11:30 and 12:00 noon each day, so I thought that when I called at noon, she would get her phone back on the receiver. But when I called  noon,after her phone was still busy. I didn’t know what to do.

So I texted my sister, “I notice that mom’s phone has been busy all morning. Do you think it is off the hook?” Then I waited. But my sister must have been busy too. She didn’t respond to my text. I sat on the little couch in my office and wondered what to do.

Then I remembered that we had had trouble with my cell phone recently and had to re-enter some phone numbers. I wondered if the right number had been entered for Mom’s phone number. There it was; it was the wrong number, with the wrong area code.  I had been phoning the wrong number all morning—that’s why I could never get through to mom.

So, I tried the right number, using the correct area code, and guess what? The phone was busy!  But when I tried again a few minutes later, the phone rang and I heard my mother’s voice on the other end. That was a great relief!

It illustrates our frustration with prayer:  sometimes we get the wrong number, or when we try, we get a busy signal.

20161216_154347.jpgWhen it comes to getting through to God, Jesus is the right number. The apostle Paul often uses the word “through” when speaking of Jesus, as in Romans 5: “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:1-2).

At times, we get a “busy signal” and God does not seem available to hear our prayers. But there are two who need to listen in prayer: God, and us. Prayer is not about a one-way conversation, where we do all the talking and God must do all the listening. Prayer is about a relationship with God in which there is dialogue, where we listen as well as speak.

There is an aspect of prayer that involves getting away from the crowd. It involves solitude and stillness, freedom from distractions.  It is about being alone, in a deserted place: quiet, by ourselves, undisturbed, shutting the door to the outside.

It is about paying attention. Listening.

Prayer involves not only listening to and answering God—“where are you?” (as in Genesis 3 in the garden)—it also involves listening to ourselves. Prayer is giving verbal expression to what is stirring deep within us. This deep stirring is referred to in Paul’s statement on prayer in Romans 8.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (8:26)

listeningPrayer is a vocalization—sometimes wordless-of these pains.

Prayer is listening to the suffering within ourselves, and expressing this pain to God.

Prayer is a way of dealing with the suffering of this life—and I think it is good to realize that the worst kinds of suffering are often not physical, but mental and emotional.

Prayer is about consolation for our afflictions:

16So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4)

Along with these frequent cries of pain that are scattered throughout the Psalms, there are also frequent testimonies of the LORD’s help and comfort:

  • Psalm 130 – “7O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”
  • Psalm 6 – “9The LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer.”
  • Psalm 4 – “7You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. 8I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.”
  • Psalm 22:24 – “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

 

Cracks in the Wall

By Paul Knudtson

“So we do not lose heart. Even though out outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. . . . For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor 4:16; 5:1)

Cracks in the Wall

cracks2There are cracks in the wall,” my son reported in his distress.  

     “There are now more cracks in the wall,” he says in his alarm.

The house was refinished, with new plaster and fresh paint, new walls and fixtures,

     An attractive little house, a bright new home for a new married couple,

     A place for dreams to grow, for a family to live beneath its great, sprawling tree.

 

But now cracks have begun to appear on the pristine newness of freshly plastered walls,

     Cracks that come out of nowhere and grow with disquieting unpredictability.

Cracks that spread from the walls of a house into the walls of one’s mind,

     Reaching down deep into the unseen caverns of the soul.

Are these mere cracks in the wall, one asks—superficial and harmless, nothing to worry about?

            Or—dread the thought!–do they appear as signs of a deeper, more dangerous flaw?

     Could these cracks turn a happy dream into a nightmare of regret?  

 

grey road painting
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Cracks in the wall” are so distressing because they are so visible.

     They stubbornly insist on being seen—they cannot be wished away.

     Their existence cannot be denied or ignored—they are there!

They are vexing because they lay outside one’s control,

     Possessing a life of their own, appearing and growing at will,

capricious, unpredictable, defiant.

“Cracks in the wall” are usually benign—thank God!

they are normal,

inevitable,

superficial,

harmless.

     But it is the knowledge that catastrophe is also possible

—that cracks can widen into crevices and chasms—

that keeps one forever wary,

always on one’s guard.

     Houses have collapsed. Worlds have fallen apart. Calamity has overtaken.   

 

img_20161202_202725I sometimes become alarmed at new “cracks in my wall” when looking in the mirror.

     Is that just a blemish before me, or it is evidence of something more sinister,

     evidence of a hidden and catastrophic flaw?  

Every new report of someone dying in their 60s is like a tremor,

     causing me to check for new cracks in my wall,

Every new ache and pain,

     A potential symptom of approaching mortality.

 

“Cracks in the wall” are always unsettling,

disturbing,      

troubling,

nagging.

 

Still . . . I realize that there will always be cracks in the wall.

     Cracks of climate-change in the delicate ecosystem of our planet.

     Cracks from terrorist acts that shake the stately buildings of western culture,  

     Cracks in families and marriages, breaking hearts and wounding spirits.

Cracks continually show up in one’s psyche,

     a sensitive instrument that registers even the slightest tremor.

 

IMG_0067Sometimes a crack opens up beneath my feet in the ground of my being,

a fissure between a secular age and Christian faith,

a canyon so wide and so deep that I fear that I shall become stranded on one side or the other,

perhaps swept away to an island of despair,

cut off from that bright and secure land of Israel’s scriptures,

unable to live in that house built on the rock and that stands through wind and storm.

 

I am beginning to understand that there will always be cracks in the wall,

     And that they teach me that this home is not my permanent residence,

     that it is but a temporary dwelling.

I need to keep seeing those cracks,

 so that I may be educated about the nature of this life.

     Seeing those cracks, though annoying,

remind me time and again that this place is transient,     

                       only a resting spot on my journey,

                                        only a tent on a camp site,

Not a mansion on a vast estate.  

 

“By faith [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents. . . . For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:9-10)

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”    (Hebrews 12:22)

“For here we have no lasting city, be we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)

Waiting for the School Bus

Paul Knudtson

I can still remember the very first day I rode the bus.  In those days public school began at grade one, so I started at age six. The day began with getting up and getting dressed, having breakfast while mom made and packed our school lunches in our lunch kits, and then walking out the driveway to wait at the road for the bus.  Mom lined us up in our new school clothes and took our picture.  Dad was also there to take me onto the bus for the first day. I imagine that our dog Sport and later Sparky, would also be with us as we waited together for the bus. I remember hearing my mother say that Sport would go to our gate when it was time for the bus at the end of the day, around 4:00 p.m.

We went to the road five or ten minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive. The bus always arrived from the north and we could see it coming as soon as it turned the corner onto our road at the church two miles north of our place.  For some reason I recall having a negative reaction to the color of the inside of the bus. I was expecting it to be a cheerful yellow to match the color of the outside of the bus. Instead, it had a pale, pinkish-tan interior. I didn’t like it. It made me feel yucky.

DSCN0492We played games while we waited beside the road on mornings.  We would put our lunch kits down beside each other and find various things with which to occupy ourselves. Sometimes we would throw rocks from the gravel on the road at the power pole in the ditch on the south side of our driveway.  In this same ditch there was also often standing water. In the late fall this water would form a layer of ice on its surface, and we would throw the rocks at this layer of ice and try to penetrate it.   It late fall, when the ice became thicker, we would walk on it.   Even though it would crack and sink—the water in the ditch was very shallow, so we were never in any danger of even getting wet. If there were air bubbles under a thin layer of ice we would break through these.

bus8It was harder to wait for the bus in the cold of winter. When it was very cold we would sometimes have one of us stand and look for the lights of the school bus through the bathroom window. When we saw the lights we would have enough time to get out to the road before the bus showed up.

 

 

Our driver was Ralph Tate.  He was an older man (at least he was not a young man), a common man. He and his wife lived in a humble house in Donalda. I don’t think he made a great income.  Apparently he owned a truck. There is a photo in the Donalda history book (Donalda’s Roots and Branches) of his smashed up truck after it was hit by the train as he was crossing the tracks in Donalda.

Mr. Tate liked hunting and trapping. In the spring he would sometimes swerve to see if he could hit a gopher that was on the road. I’m not sure that he was always the best driver either. Once he took the speed corner at the church (Bethany) too sharply and drove right into the ditch. I believe he was able to back up onto the road again.  Dad was unimpressed when we told him about this.

bus4One morning we were later than usual in getting out to the road. We didn’t quite make it before the bus drove by. Dad must have been outside with us and saw the whole thing happen. In the past there were mornings when the bus would show up at our house or that of someone else with no one waiting at the stop. In such cases Ralph Tate would wait for a minute or two and maybe blow the horn. Usually the late kids would show up running to the bus while pulling on their jackets. But on this morning, he didn’t even stop.  The bus drove right by! I remember that this made dad very angry. He had to drive us to school—or perhaps he caught up with the bus before it got to school. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I clearly remember how my dad was angry and that I have the sense that he boldly confronted Ralph Tate about this: “You didn’t even stop!”

One morning I brought my truck along with me as I waited for the bus.  Other boys in my class had begun to bring their toys from home (toy trucks and so forth) and would play with them in the sandbox beside the school during noon hours. This practice gave me the idea of bringing my prized toy truck to school.  As I was climbing up into the bus that day, Ralph Tate scolded me and said that it was too dangerous for me to take this truck on the bus. I felt quite embarrassed and had to run with my truck back to the corner of the yard and drop it there and run back to the bus with everyone watching. I had to go to school without it.

We lived very close to our neighbors, the Halseides. Their house was just across the road and a little south of our house. They had three daughters, Anna, Helen, and Edna. These sisters were all older than I was, so Edna was the only one who still went to school.  I remember Edna getting on the bus, her large, swooshy skirt brushing me as she walked past me down the aisle in the morning.

I spent many hours of my childhood riding a school bus from grade one to grade twelve. I learned to daydream as I looked out on the passing countryside through the bus windows.  Those were the early days of contemplation and meditation.  I learned to be comfortable with my own thoughts and silence.

 

Country School

Paul Knudtson

Our education shapes the person we become.  Out of this soil emerges our self-concept, character, and view of the world. For me, the world was predictable, stable, and supportive.  It matched my home life on the farm.

donaldaWhen I attended school in 1960 this was the old building that housed grades one to five, The new school addition had grades six and up, as well as the school auditorium and school office. The school day ran from 9:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., with an hour off at noon and fifteen minute recesses in the morning and afternoon. Interestingly, we never entered the school through the front doors shown in the picture, but entered at the back.

Boys and girls entered the school through different doors. The basement underneath the old part of the school was divided into a boys section and a girls section. So the boys entered the school by going through a door and down stairs into their section of the basement. I often thought that it was hard to see when going down these dark stairs into the basement after spending time outside on the playground in the bright sunlight. Our eyes had to adjust from the bright light of the sun to the dimly lit basement.

Along one wall of the basement we were each assigned a coat hook where we hung our coats—with another hook above for our caps–and below on the floor we left our boots. On the one end of the basement opposite to the door by which we entered, and just below basement windows, were rows of wooden boxes in which we left our lunch kits. Then to the right of these shelves or boxes was the stairs leading up by two flights to the main floor.

During my years in this old building, I don’t think there was a single time when I was in the girls’ section of the basement, though I may have glimpsed it once or twice through an open door. I think, though, that when I was in grade ten there was a typing lab set up in a corner of the girl’s side of the basement with ancient manual typewriters sitting atop old desks. It was here that I learned the keyboard, something that I am using now as I type on my computer keyboard.

If we were not able to go outside (due to poor weather) for recess or during the noon hour, we would sometimes go to the basement—the boys to their section and the girls to theirs. There we would play games like pum-pum pullaway (or “pump pump pullaway”). “Pum pum pullaway, you all come now or we’ll pull you away!”

donalda2
Miss Lawson with my brother, Arthur’s class. He is the first boy on the left in the back row.

I began school in September 1960  in Miss Lawson’s grade one classroom. Miss Lawson was a single teacher who began teaching in Donalda in 1937 and retired from teaching in 1968.  She taught thirty one years in Donalda. This means that Miss Lawson must have been in her late fifties when I was in grade one. I perceived her as grandmother figure: roundish, though not plump, always in a dress, never in pants, with greying hair.

I think Miss Lawson was friendly and welcoming to the timid little lambs that entered her classroom on their first day of school.  My brother Arthur showed me to my classroom on my first day; it was just beside his room, the grade five classroom.

I remember Miss Lawson as one fully in control of her classroom, though not severe or intimidating. On one occasion she displayed a little frustration as she used a yardstick to settle down an unruly boy by tapping him on the head. I went to school in the age when teachers could still use the strap on misbehaving children, but I don’t recall that ever threatened us or kept us in line by the threat of such punishment. She was firm, but also kindly.  I learned from my cousin that she would force left handed students to switch to their right hand if they were in her class–making it more traumatic.  It was a different era.

There was much to adjust to in making the transition from the freedom of my life as a pre-school boy on the farm to the regimentation of the classroom. I enjoyed the freedom of being on the playground at school during recess and at the noon hour break.

playgroundOnce when all the other kids left the playground at the end of recess when the buzzer sounded, another boy and I stayed outside. We preferred being on the playground. The school janitor, Charlie Stiles, and our teacher, Miss Lawson, soon appeared by the doors to the school and coaxed us to come inside. We learned that we were not free to do as we pleased, but had to return to our classroom during class time.

I don’t recall how Miss Lawson assigned our seating on that first day of class, nor do I remember if I sat in the same place throughout the year. I do remember at one point sitting behind a girl, Rhonda, with her blond hair. I remember she once leaned her head back so that her blond hair was laying in front of me on my desk. I didn’t know how to handle this, and said nothing. What is a boy supposed to do when a pretty girl lets her hair fall on his desk?

donalda3I was shy as a boy—I still am shy—and did not like to have attention drawn to me. One ordinary incident from grade one illustrates my shy nature. It was the ordeal of having my photograph taken by the school photographer. The photographer had his camera and lights and backdrop set up in a corner of the school gym. Like all the other grades, our grade one class was led to the gym where we stood in a line and had our pictures taken one by one. For some reason, I found this to be a very unpleasant ordeal. When it was my turn and the photographer told me to “smile” I couldn’t seem to do it. To make matters worse, I saw my teacher, Miss Lawson, and the photographer laugh at the way I “smiled.” I felt that I was being laughed at, and felt shamed by my inability to smile. One can perhaps sense some of the discomfort and even terror in the photograph taken that day.  To this day, I won’t smile when people take pictures of me.

Miss Lawson taught me how to read. We learned the names and sounds of each letter, and how to read the stories in our readers about Dick and Jane. She had us follow along in our readers as one student after another would read a line or two. She used a ruler to put under the line that we were to read, going from student to student as we sat in our rows of desks.

Miss Lawson initiated a special fund-raising project that was also educational. Students were invited to bring spare pennies to school for this fund-raising project. I don’t recall now what these funds were ultimately for—it seemed like it was for a local need, like a family that had suffered loss in a fire. I simply cannot recall. penniesA daily part of our daily classroom routine was for us to give whatever pennies we brought from home to Miss Lawson, who would take them and lay them each day in a row along the wall of the classroom. The goal was to bring enough pennies to go entirely around the perimeter of the classroom. Each day she would lay out the pennies brought that day along the floor against the wall and then mark how far they went with a thumb tack. The pennies were then put into a large jar, and then the next day the row of pennies was extended from the point of the thumb tack along the wall. I believe we did eventually get enough pennies to go entirely around the edge of our room. At that point Miss Lawson put these pennies in paper rolls.

donalda4When this was completed, we had a special day when we took these pennies to the bank in Donalda. We each carried two or three rolls of pennies as we walked the few blocks from the school to the Bank at the end of main street. There we were even taken inside the bank vault as we entered through its massive doors.

       After the bank was closed, it became the Donalda Art Gallery.

Miss Lawson also taught us how to  print. For some reason in grade one we used large diameter pencils, apparently because it was thought that they would be easier to use than regular sized pencils. In grade two we were able to use ordinary pencils. I don’t think we were able to use pens at school until grade four. Also in grade four as we learned how to write cursively, rather than simply printing, we used stick pens that we dipped into little ink bottles that sat on our desks.

penThis was always a somewhat risky exercise, and I recall at least one student accidentally tipping her ink bottle onto her desk and clothes. But maybe our grade four teacher, Mrs. Olson, was onto something with her idea that it would be easier for us to learn how to write beautifully by using a stick pen rather than a ball-point pen. We were allowed to use a ball-point pen for our regular work in grade four (other than arithmetic), but we had to use our stick pens for our writing classes. I still remember the ball-point pen that I had for Mrs Olson’s class. It was blue plastic, not round but had three sides, and it had a retractable nib that one operated by turning the end of the pen.

 

Miss Lawson went to extra effort to make our celebration of Christmas a special one. Along with the rest of the school the last day of school before Christmas holidays was given to a Christmas party. One aspect of this celebration in Miss Lawson’s room that year involved all of us gathering in a circle around a big square galvanized steel wash tub that had been filled with saw dust.

wash tubThere were different colored threads of yarn coming out of the sawdust in the washtub, with each of our names on a little tag attached to the ends of pieces of yarn coming out of the wash tub. Each child found their name and held onto the end of their piece of yarn. At the same moment we all together pulled on our pieces of yarn and each found a little toy—like a Dinky toy truck—attached to the end of the piece of yarn. This was a present to each of us from Miss Lawson. As we stood around the washbasin we said together, “he stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum” and at that point we all tugged on our threads and pulled out our Christmas surprises.

Living in the country, in a small, stable community meant that I was able to grow up with my peers.  All the children who entered grade one with me were there when I graduated in grade nine.  That gives one the illusion that life is safe and predictable.  For a quiet introvert, this was ideal.

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Here is my grade nine class at Donalda School. Most of these kids were with me in class from grade one on.  I am in the center of the back row.

Ecclesiastes holds a somewhat pessimistic view of life, with a nostalgic remembrance of youth.

“Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.  Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment.  So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.” 11:9-10

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’  .  .  .” 12:1

Not only was the Teacher wise, but also (she) imparted knowledge to the people. . . The teacher searched to find just the right words, and what (she) wrote was upright and true. . . 12:9-10

 

 

 

Striking Contrast

By Paul Knudtson

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As I sit on this park bench in the morning sun on these last days of August,

I notice a striking contrast between the stark stillness of nature before me and the commotion of human activity just beyond.

The trees in their yellow-green dress of early fall, stand so quiet and still;

as if they dare not make a sound,

not even a whisper.

They do not move a leaf.

It is as if I am looking at a photograph in which nothing moves . . . all is still.

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It seems as though these trees are deliberately, intentionally still,

determined to be silent observers

of the arrival of this new day.

They do not move a muscle;

they do not make a noise.

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Like a mother saying, “shh,” to her children,

holding her finger to her lips to silence children,

so these trees say, “shh,” to me;

they bid me sit quietly on my bench and pay close attention   .

These trees do not seem lifeless, inanimate objects;

I feel their presence as I sit here with them standing about me,

as if they possess some awareness

of what is happening in this world.

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But human noisiness contrasts with this palpable peacefulness.

From the North-west, across the river somewhere,

I hear the noise of a diesel caterpillar tractor,

the loud squeaking and clicking of its steel tracks

and snort of its engine as it pushes earth with its shiny

steel blade.

To the East I hear the steady hum of highway traffic,

trucks and cars as they come down the long hill

and cross the bridge across the Bow River.

Above there is the drone of a single-engine airplane,

flying across the morning sky.

A few minutes ago,

a group of women walked hurriedly on the gravel path behind me,

busy in animated and noisy conversation.

They seemed oblivious — I thought —

to these trees and their remarkable silence.

Sitting on Bench

What a contrast . . .

. . . between the still and silent trees,

standing here in the warmth of the morning sun

beside the river that flows gently and quietly along,

. . . and the commotion of human activity.

For these few brief moments,

I have been hospitably welcomed to sit here

among these silent observers,

as if sitting in the company of wise, but silent elders.

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These trees invite me to sit among them for a few moments.

Perhaps I can learn from them

about being still,

about being quiet,

about resting,

about being patient,

about simply absorbing the rays of the sun

and allowing the slow, gradual growth and change

that comes through the cycle of the years.

Such trees are not in a hurry,

but live slowly, day-by-day, hour-by-hour,

staying put,

growing and changing only gradually,

imperceptibly,

but unmistakeably.

There is a contrast.

Still versus busy.

Quiet versus noisy.

Thank you for allowing me to sit here with you for a few moments this morning,

and to learn a little about another way to live,

one that contrasts with the way of humans.

Lord,

Help me to be still.

Help me to be quiet.

Help me to abide in the sunshine,

and so to become like these trees.

“They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield

their fruit in its season.” (Psalm 1:3)

 

Afternoon Coffee on the Land

By Paul Knudtson

A key aspect to the Old Testament story of Israel concerns the land that God gives to his people.  The story about the land begins with God’s promise to Abraham:

  • Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
  • Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7)
  • 14The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. . . . 17Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14-15, 17)

The promise of land was repeated to Abraham’s son, Isaac.

  • 2The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; settle in the land that I shall show you. 3Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.” (Genesis 26:2-3)

There are descriptions of this promised land in scripture. It is “the land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 31:20).

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  • 3Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
  • 9For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
  • 11But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
  • 22for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land,
  • 29The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.
  • 34Wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

I will remain forever happy that I was born into a family that lived in the country. My father was a farmer and lived his entire life in the country. In fact, he only ever lived in two houses—in the house of his mother and father, and in the house that he built for my mother when he was married. That house, the house that I grew up in, is just a mile from the farm site of dad’s childhood home.

 Mealtimes on the farm were regular and at set times. Breakfast took place before we had to go to wait at the gate for the school bus, shortly after 8:30 a.m., the noon meal was at 12:30, and supper was around 6 p.m.  Then there was a coffee break—called “lunch”—around 4:00 p.m. Normally dad came into the house for this coffee break, but there were certain times when dad was working in the field with a tractor—cultivating perhaps—when afternoon lunch could then be brought to him in the field.

I recall one such occasion when we rode with mom in the 1958 turquoise and white, standard transmission Ford Custom, east through the yard and then north to the field where dad was working. Mom didn’t have her driver’s license at this time, so she would usually only drive in the field, or perhaps only a very short distance on the road if the field was not far from home. In the late 60s she took driver’s training when Arthur was in high school in Stettler. I was proud of mom for getting her license, though she never really did much driving. She would perhaps drive over to visit one of her sisters or go to a ladies’ meeting at church. I remember thinking after dad died that it would have been nice for mom to be able to drive places, but I think by that time she had lost some of her confidence, especially when it came to driving in Camrose.

On this particular day, Mom had packed a lunch into a dishpan and covered it with a tea cloth. Lunch consisted of coffee in a thermos for dad and mom—along with ceramic cups, and koolaid with glasses for the kids. Then there would be some sandwiches and probably some cake—chocolate cake with icing and chopped up pieces of walnut. Dad liked walnuts in his cake. The sandwiches were simple—something like butter and jam on pieces of homemade bread. We always had homemade bread or buns that she kept in the bottom drawer in the kitchen.

When we got to the end of the field to the North-East of the farm yard, we sat and waited in the car until dad got around to that place with the Co-op tractor.  He stopped the tractor, turned off the engine, and we drove next to him in the car. Dad was dusty from driving the tractor (which didn’t have a cab) and so he would take off his jacket and swing it against his clothes to knock off as much dust from himself as possible before sitting down for lunch. Dad would put his jacket on the ground beside a rear tire of the tractor and lean against the wheel as he ate his lunch. We sat around him—I don’t remember sitting on anything, so we likely just sat on the unworked ground beside dad.  I remember liking the smell of the tractor as we sat there.

It was a nice family moment—all sitting there in the quiet of the field as we enjoyed the lunch that mom had made and each other’s company. We were always amazed by the way in which dad could drink hot coffee. He liked his coffee to be very hot and could somehow drink it without burning his mouth or throat. He joked that he had hair in his throat.

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Years later, when the grandchildren came along, the afternoon coffee tradition continued.  Grandma had special cups for birthdays or tea parties.  When she passed away, our children were given the opportunity to choose from the house that held special memories for them.  Our oldest daughter pulled a tiny yellow mug from the china cabinet.  “Grandma and I would have a special time together.  She would put a drop of coffee in my milk.  It is a good memory.”

 

“Who, then, is the man that fears the lord?  He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.  He will spend his days in prosperity, and his descendants will inherit the land.”  Ps. 25 12-13