The top 10 Mennonite Brethren stories of the decade

The transition from old to new year is always a great time for picks and pans, for looking back and making lists. This year, of course, there was an entire decade to grab on to and re-consider. 

The international and national scenes have already been covered by the media pundits, but I put my hand to a list of my own on a rather smaller scale: the top 10 stories of the decade for Mennonite Brethren.

Although I worked with the denomination for five years of the decade, please be assured there’s nothing official or sanctioned about this list, and please realize too the opinions and impressions are entirely my own.

In no particular order then, and for tried-and-true MB conference junkies only (I’m warning), here are my picks for the top MB stories of the decade:
Continue reading

Crossing the Disraeli

It wasn’t exactly the Rubicon, but crossing the Disraeli Bridge last winter on my first day back to work after a year and a half away seemed momentous. It was a very cold morning and everything was slow, the car crawling through exhaust and spumes of smoke spilling out of chimneys like foam, and there ahead of me, our small city’s small cluster of high-rise towers. One of those dark, tense mornings, the roads clogged and everyone cautious, and enough time to “feel” the progress of dawn, from deep blue to milky blue sky, trees thick with their bare branches against it.

I was exhilarated that morning in spite of the traffic — about being alive, and warm in the car, and thinking how much I love this city and listening to songs nominated for a playlist of 49 best Canadian songs to present to incoming president Barack Obama (K.D. Lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia,” for example, and Ian and Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds,” and a song by Blue Rodeo). And yes, going back to work after retiring once, now that I’d decided I’d do it. “It’s only a year,” a friend reminded me. 

Winnipeg sits on land as flat as a chopping block, but the Disraeli rises to cross the Red River, and marks the “hilly” spot for me where I can see downtown and remember my city-love. This year, it was also a kind of halfway marker from our house in North Kildonan to the offices of the MB Herald. 

Driving back at day’s end the bridge was a marker homeward, and had I been in some horse-drawn conveyance, I suppose that’s where the reins would drop and Black Beauty would know the way alone, and probably pick up the pace to boot. 

Now, re-retired, it’s a true crossing back. Then: editor; now: writer. And no matter what Madam Editor said in her last post about writers still being needed, on this side of the Disraeli, wariness over editors returns. Will they want it? Like it? Change it? 

We definitely need each other, editors and writers do, but the priorities are different and there may be a power struggle, or nervousness at least, until you know one another well. I’ve had mostly good experiences, but there was that story that came to me in its published form with its verb tenses changed, and that experience of re-reading something of mine in print and thinking, my lands, I must have been asleep, that doesn’t sound like me, only to discover it wasn’t me but the editor. On the basis of such few and flimsy episodes I’ve become one of those writers who drives editors crazy, insisting she has to see the revisions (please). Most good editors, if they do anything substantive, show them anyway. Then again, what’s the definition of substantive? (Naturally, you do want the errors and foolishness caught.)

But before I engage in too much writerly insecurity, I’m taking a rest — to read and catch up on housework (and blog of course). I was already complaining to some writer friends that the inspiration to work at my (interrupted) short stories appears to be absent. The same friend whose advice helped me above, had some for this side of the Disraeli. “Of course the inspiration isn’t there yet,” she said. “That comes AFTER the rest.” 

Writers wanted

Back in May, I heard Trevor Herriot read from his latest book, Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, and he also talked about writing. There’s more writers today, he said, less readers: “maybe we’re all becoming writers.” This didn’t seem to discourage him, though. In fact, he had just given us a number of good reasons to be writing non-fiction. Books can be a stand-in for elders, he said, revealing truth inside our lives and others. And we write because it helps us grow up, he said, and mature, and understand more deeply — it’s “a gestational process.” In doing so we try to “delve deeper.” It “guards against cynicism.”

Each of these ideas would be worth exploring further, but I’m not thinking so much from the writer’s perspective today, as from the editor’s. It’s true, there are writers everywhere … 256,875 bloggers using this platform alone, I was just told when I opened WordPress. And yet, thinking over the past year at the MB Herald, I’d also have to say that the need for writers isn’t letting up, and maybe it’s even increasing. We didn’t have trouble filling our pages, so that may sound like a contradiction, but at any point in the year I’d look at the issues coming down the calendar and could feel a bit of a panic unless we had a solid piece in hand as an anchor or something assigned to someone we were sure would come through for us. But it wasn’t always easy to find those pieces, or secure a writer.  

Not just any kind of writer. We usually got enough of what I call the “happy thoughts” — an anecdote with a bit of a life lesson attached, a devotional, a piece “giving testimony” to some personal or congregational transformation  or touch of God. I hope I’m not sounding derisive, because it’s not what I mean, but these pieces are filler, they’re like sugar — wonderful, but you can’t make a meal of them. 

What we need more of are those writers who are grounded in their faith (and because we’re a Mennonite Brethren church paper, connected to this community, or the wider Anabaptist family) who also know something about some aspect of living, a.k.a professionals in the broadest, “competence” sense of the word — be it in parenting, or pastoring, or teaching, or peacemaking, or working with seniors, or seeing movies, or reading books, or doing theology — and who are willing to work hard (for very little money, let’s say 5 to 10 cents a word) to articulate that in a clear and interesting way. It could be a knowledge-based article or theological investigation with experiences to illustrate. It could be experience-based but with a sensitivity that places it in a larger framework. Such writers have to have some nerve, to let their study/reflections be multiplied 16,000 times and sent around the country. So it’s still about growing up and understanding, but also about a willingness to assist in the growth and understanding of others, and with a broad but essentially lay audience in mind.

(It seems to me — and this is an impression, I hasten to add — that our MB leaders in the past did more writing. I’ve heard people in such roles say they’re not writers — so they don’t. It may also be that we haven’t worked hard enough to find and encourage their voices. And there are exceptions, of course  — MB executive director David Wiebe often writes an “Outfront” column, and there are professors at our schools willing to turn their considerable academic skills into lay-accessible prose for the wider service of the church. I’m thinking, for example, of Tim Geddert’s helpful piece on atonement in the June MBH, here.) 

 Bottom line, magazines aren’t dead, and the one I know best — the MB Herald  — still needs writers.

Trevor Herriot also said that nonfiction writers write about the things they worry about. So if the MBH runs out of writers for their features, maybe it’s because nobody’s that worried.