Monday, July 30, 2012
Friday, May 20, 2011
Dirk Willems was born in Asperen, Netherlands. As a young man Dirk joined the Anabaptist movement and was rebaptized upon the confession of his faith. In that time much of the Netherlands was ruled by Spain. The King of Spain had commissioned the Duke of Alva (also known as “the iron duke”) as his vice-regent in the Netherlands. Ordered by the king to eliminate Protestantism—and especially Anabaptism—from these regions, the duke implemented very harsh measures to impose the Spanish Catholic king’s will.
Despite the dangers involved with his choice, Dirk persisted in his Anabaptist convictions. He chose to follow after Jesus. He met regularly for Bible study and prayer with other Anabaptists. He even held prayer meetings in his own home.
Late in the winter of 1569 the civil authorities discovered and arrested Dirk. They threw him into prison in Asperen, where he awaited trial—and almost certain death. As the days in prison passed, Dirk seized upon a sudden opportunity to slip out of prison and escape. As Dirk fled, a ‘thief-catcher’ saw him and gave chase, intent on catching the fugitive and returning him to prison. Dirk ran hard, and tried to escape across a frozen pond. The thief-catcher followed Dirk but because he was heavier than Dirk (and heavily armed) he broke through the ice. He began to thrash about in the cold water and call out for help.
Dirk, who had almost crossed the pond and was about to make good his escape, turned around and saw the man who was in danger of drowning. Hesitating for only a moment, Dirk ran back to the distressed man, extended his hand, pulled him out of the icy water, and dragged him to the shore and out of danger. The thief-catcher offered to let Dirk escape, but one of the city’s burgomasters, who stood among the onlookers at the edge of the water, urgently reminded the thief-catcher of his duty, and ordered that Dirk be arrested and re-imprisoned, this time in a much more secure place.
While in prison, Dirk was tortured by the authorities, who tried to get him to recant his faith. But Dirk stood firm. He was therefore tried, found to be “persisting obstinately in his opinion,” and condemned to be bound to a stake and burned to death.
Thus, on 16 May 1569 this good man was led to a place outside the city limits of Asperen. Here he was bound to a stake; wood was piled about him and set alight. A contrary breeze blew the fire about, so that Dirk Willems bravely suffered a protracted and agonizing death, standing in the fire for a long time and crying out repeatedly, “O my Lord, my God.” The bailiff who was responsible for the execution was so filled with remorse that this good man was caused so much suffering, that he ordered the executioner to “dispatch this man with a quick death.” How this was done is not recorded.
Dirk’s story is both terrible and triumphant. Terrible because it tells of the evil that people willingly commit in the name of God, triumphant because Dirk’s death is, in a way, like Christ’s own—a willing sacrifice made to save another.
The story of Dirk Willems is one that has inspired many generations of Anabaptists, as well as others who believe that each person should have the freedom to follow his or her own conscience. In our own time, when we make dubious heroes of every pop celebrity and sports star—when we glorify what is trivial and trivialize what is glorious—we need to remind ourselves of true heroes. We need to recall people like Dirk Willems who for the love of God willingly gave up their lives to follow after Jesus.
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Thursday, April 21, 2011
The evenings of Friday, April 1 and Saturday, April 2 saw us at the House of James, which was hosting our very first presentation of Telling Stories—The Mennonite Narrative in Letters, Poetry, Short Stories & Film. Several Mennonite writers based here in the Fraser Valley were reading a selection of their writings to what turned out to be a full house.
Concluding each evening was Ruth Derksen Siemens, whose book Remember Us powerfully presents the terrible suffering of Jasch Regehr and his family. Like many millions of Soviet citizens during the Stalin Era, the Regehr family were (on the flimsiest pretext) forcibly taken from their village and shipped in cattle cars to a labour camp in Stalin’s Gulag. Once there, even the children became slave labourers, doing dangerous work for long hours, under the most horrible conditions. Ruth read from some of the letters in Remember Us which, while they tell of the terrible circumstances these people had to endure, also tell of the great faith that some of them found.
Ruth also presented a short clip from the film Through the Red Gate, which was inspired by the book Remember Us.
All of us who participated in Telling Stories want to express our appreciation to Lando Klassen and the staff of House of James Bookstore for hosting this event so graciously and cheerfully. Because those who attended Telling Stories enjoyed the event so much, a plan is in the works to do this again on October 21 and 22, 2011. Watch this blog for details.
Monday, March 21, 2011
We are very excited to present Telling Stories—an event that celebrates the Mennonite Narrative in letters, poetry, short stories and film, on April 1 and 2, at the House of James Bookstore.
Of all the many traits that characterize us as humans, one of the most important is our love of good stories—either telling or hearing them. A good story can be a great means for transmitting truth, passing along our culture, celebrating our heroes, or simply passing time together in a congenial way.
Among the Mennonites there has always been an interest in telling and preserving stories. Books like The Martyrs’ Mirror relate the tales of the ordinary men and women who willingly died for their Anabaptist beliefs. Their stories are woven with the great themes of love and loyalty, self-sacrifice and extraordinary courage.
For many of us who grew up during the end of the twentieth century, our grandparents’ stories of sudden and harried flight from the USSR became the backdrop of our own lives. I vividly recall the stories that my grandfather told us. Some were terribly sad, as he told of family and friends who died tragically at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Other stories were full of suspense and adventure, and helped me to see my grandfather as the brave, stalwart young preacher that he’d been. Still other stories that Opa told were very funny, and he recalled them with much laughter and happiness—and since he was not a vain man, he often told these stories on himself.
Telling Stories will feature the works of several Mennonite writers, poets and storytellers from the Fraser Valley. Each evening will vary somewhat from the other, with writers telling different stories in different ways. The published works of the writers will be available for perusing and purchasing. To add to the event, some musicians will present a selection of wonderful songs from the Mennonite past.
This is a free event, open to the public, and you are invited to attend. Come, enjoy some stories, music and a cup of coffee—sorry, Prips will not be served.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Yesterday we paused to say, “Good-bye” to Susanne Willms Thielman. We had anticipated this day for some time, for Auntie Susanne was nearly ninety-seven years old and, although she was always cheerful and enthusiastic about life, her ability to live it had begun to wane noticeably in the last year.
The morning dawned blustery, grey and rainy. I remarked to my cousin Selma, “It’s not going to be very pleasant at the cemetery, is it?” and she responded pleasantly, “Well, I’ve prayed about it, and we may get a sunny break. We’ll see.” And indeed, about half an hour before we were scheduled to gather the clouds parted, the sun shone down, and the air warmed up. By the time that about twenty of us met at the South Poplar Cemetery, the day looked wonderful. Auntie Susanne, who always looked on the bright side of things, would have been delighted.
My cousin, Walter Willms (Susanne’s oldest nephew), led the graveside service. He talked about the sunny, kindly person Auntie Susanne had been, and of our sure hope that she is in the Lord’s very presence right now, and that we will all be together again. Anne, Walter’s wife, led us in singing—
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
Gerry Thielman (Auntie Susanne’s older son), with his son Joseph, had flown from Fredericksburg VA to bring his mother’s ashes to be buried in her parents’ grave here in Abbotsford. Gerry also spoke briefly of how special his mother had been— a kind and cheerful person who had blessed the lives of people wherever she’d been. Gerry brought out the beautiful casket that contained his mother’s ashes and, after showing it to all of us, he gently placed it into the ground over his grandfather’s grave. Then we quickly drove across town to the Garden Park Tower, where another thirty or so friends joined us for a tea that Selma and her sister MarieAnne had prepared. Several people, including Susanne’s youngest brother John, spoke about her. Anne led us in another song, and then we had a good time of eating and visiting.
As I considered the day, I thought to myself that Auntie Susanne really went out on a high note. Despite her age, infirmities and increasing hearing impairment, she refused to complain. Rather she was as she had always been— a person who consistently and cheerfully loved and encouraged the people around her. She had completed her course—and she’d completed her memoir, which she’d seen published as a beautiful book that has been embraced by many readers, who will be blessed by the story that she told. What a great legacy to leave behind.
Yesterday, I had to think also of the legacy that, sooner or later, I will leave behind. Will I have family and friends who will get up on that day and say that I loved and encouraged them? Will my sons say that I was a good dad to them and (I hope) a good grandfather to their children? Will I leave behind a significant piece of work—something that will, in my absence, bless people and cause them to consider their own lives? Will there be those who will say—“He caused me to consider my own need of Jesus”?
I think these are important questions that we need to ask ourselves, and more often than we do.—Neil Klassen
Friday, March 4, 2011
Susanne was born in the Molochna,
Susanne grew into her teen years in the
When the Willms family settled in Abbotsford, Susanne had to work as a house maid in a rich family’s home, and contribute her wages to help pay for her family’s Reiseschuld or travel debt. Later she became a practical nurse. I imagine that her natural cheerfulness did much to improve her patients’ health.
Auntie Susanne married in the early 1950s, when I was fourteen. Together with two of my sisters and two cousins, I was a bridesmaid in her wedding party. We wore full length, pale blue taffeta dresses, which had full net overskirts—very much in style at the time. Her husband, George, was a professor at the University in
When Auntie Susanne was in her sixties she, Uncle George and the boys moved to
Auntie Susanne completed her memoirs during that time and I found much joy in reading them. Because her father had been a writer and a published author, my auntie also had an interest and an inherited flare in the art of writing.
When she came to live in Abbotsford in 2008, I encouraged her to publish her work. I had the pleasure of introducing Auntie Susanne to my editor friend, Phil Sherwood, who helped my auntie to perfect a final version of her manuscript. I created a series of watercolours, which were produced as a set of sepia toned illustrations in the book. In early fall of 2009 my auntie’s dream became a reality when she published and launched her book—Susanne Remembers.
With the book in hand, Auntie Susanne spent several months with us here in the
In early spring of 2010 she had the pleasure of seeing her book awarded a prize—the Abbotsford Arts Council named it as the best literary arts achievement of that year. Auntie Susanne just beamed as we went up to receive the prize.
Auntie Susanne returned to
When I consider the woman that I knew, there are so many things that I have been able to learn from my Auntie Susanne. I know that, despite all the dangers, difficulties and hardships she encountered in her youth, she was always cheerful about life and lived with a sense of wonder and delight about the things around her. Her smile and quiet sense of humor touched many lives and we have all benefited by our close proximity to her.
Auntie Susanne will be part of my memories and in my heart forever.
Monday, February 28, 2011
9 cups/2.25 L flour
1 cup/250 ml butter
4 cups/1 L warmed milk
½ cup/125 ml warm water
1 tsp/5 ml sugar
2 Tbsp/30 ml yeast (heaping)
1 Tbsp/15 ml salt (heaping)
1 Tbsp/15 ml lemon juice
1 cup/250 ml flour (for kneading)
With a pastry blender, cut butter into 9 cups/2.25 L flour. Soften yeast in warm water and sugar. (When using Quick Rising Yeast, add directly to flour.) Add salt to warm milk and mix yeast and milk into flour. Combine and let dough rest 15 to 20 minutes. Knead dough until smooth. Let rise to double. Form into balls and place on cookie sheets covered with parchment. Make the second ball small than the first and press down onto the first – press the two together. Let rise to double. Bake in a hot oven at 400ºF/200ºC for 20 minutes.