Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jehu’s Jihad

The screaming became the dying and the dying became the dead, and all was quiet, except the panting and scuffling of the soldiers. I focused my world into the agony of slow and secret breaths. One by one, I held my lungs in a measured starvation to stay quiet and alive. My world was the dark mute pressure of dead arms and legs and torsos slick with sticky hot blood, the copper tang of it thick in my nostrils.
—From “The lamentations of Baalzakar” in “Jehu’s Jihad

It was quite an honor to have my first fictional work read on Seth Andrews’s The Thinking Atheist podcast today, one of the most popular podcasts on the Internet. Seth directs his show toward those who “assume nothing, question everything, and start thinking,” to borrow the show’s tagline. He runs it in “a polished format, a relaxed environment and a rage-free challenge to the religious beliefs that defined his youth.”

Read it here

I have listened to the show for years now, beginning when I was first realizing that there were issues with my own childhood religious beliefs. Podcasts are a great way for wavering souls to get new perspectives and some reassurance on their lonely journey of doubt, all in the privacy of a pair of earbuds. There are a lot of great shows about secularism nowadays, and Seth’s is one of the best.

Seth read the first of my story’s three parts to cap off today’s show. Hearing one’s writing rendered in the smooth, measured voice of a talented radio professional is certainly a treat. He thought it was well done, “a nice way to add some depth to stories of bloodlust and torture and execution and all the stuff that the Bible speaks about so bluntly, like bullet points.” It was a way, a “semi-fictional” one, “to go in and get into the minds and hearts of those who killed so many with the edge of the sword.”

And they did it in God’s name, as the passage he read from 2 Kings 10:30 says about Jehu: “The LORD said to Jehu, ‘Because you have done well in executing what is right in My eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in My heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.’”

If you are a Christian for whom the Bible is the Word of God, the highest authority in your life, this is a problem. Your God ordered and praised the very kinds of outrages being committed by the barbaric psychopaths of ISIS not a hundred miles from where this story is set. Jehu cut off his share of heads, too, piling them in heaps outside the gate of Jezreel.

Give it a look. I really enjoyed the week of research and writing it took to produce. In the months ahead, I’m guessing that there will be more entries under the “Fiction” heading over in that sidebar.

I’m also considering a whole book of Bible stories written like this. “Jehu’s Jihad” would be one of a dozen or so chapters providing dramatic narrative for the scriptural stuff that gets passed over in sermons and Sunday school. Perhaps the next one should be “Have Another Drink, Daddy” about Lot and his two daughters. Fifty Shades of Grey sold pretty well, after all.

———
The reading makes up the last 21 minutes of the episode entitled “Bedtime Bible Stories (that will terrify your kids)”, available on The Thinking Atheist website and on YouTube. Thanks, Seth.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Life Celebration: Mary Suominen

Mary M. Suominen (1928—)  [Flickr page]

Trudi was unhappy with her husband. This had happened before, in Germany, with a young draftsman from Dresden who got her pregnant and reluctantly married her three months after their son was born. They were barely out of their teens and, as the boy’s father would put it in a sorrowful letter a decade later, too young to be grown ups. Trudi moved on in less than a year, leaving the baby with her parents.

She got a divorce and married a merchant who had ambitions of living in America. They made the crossing to Ellis Island on the Stuttgart, a new steamship that held a thousand passengers, four years after their wedding. Trudi’s little boy stayed behind with his grandparents, ignored by his father and unwanted by this other man in his mother’s life. He has his own story, about deserting the German army during WWII and being executed by a firing squad.

Now, two years later, Trudi was unhappy with this husband, too. She said he became demanding and abusive and sometimes hit her, and refused to even discuss her request for a divorce. When he finally filed for one some time later, he complained that she “willfully, continually and obstinately deserted” him. Whatever her reasons, that much was certainly true. On their sixth wedding anniversary, she packed up her things and left. She had found another man, again.

This one was a violinist who played in the concerts Trudi had been going to with her cousin Elsie, who had moved to New York from Germany a year earlier. The ladies had been enjoying some evenings out on the town, much to the annoyance of Trudi’s husband. They went anyway. Elsie’s husband played in the concerts alongside the violinist, and it was he who did the introductions.

What was it like, on the eve of the Great Depression in the winter of 1927, for the young German woman with a wandering eye and a son left on the other side of the Atlantic to meet this handsome dark-haired musician with Swiss immigrant parents, very prim and Catholic, and a studio for violin lessons? We cannot know, because they are both now gone and all we have are a few recollections Trudi left behind in the memory of the child she conceived with the violinist a few weeks before she packed those things and left to start a life with him.

With her mother Gertrude (Trudi), 1950  [Flickr page]

When the midwife came to Trudi and Bill’s apartment to help give birth to my mother in 1928, Bill the violinist had also become Bill the driver, because his violin students were dropping out. The timing is a bit fuzzy here; my mother was told she was conceived in the backseat of my grandfather’s taxicab. Was he already driving a cab when Trudi met him, or did that happen in the months to come? It makes for a good story, anyhow.

Mom also heard some good stories about a famous performer I will not name whom Bill chauffered around the city. This was another driving gig, better than just being a cabbie: Drop off the performer while he entertained one or another of the women who pawed at him in hordes, and discreetly pick him up later. There was a lot of the sort of thing going on that resulted in my mother, it seems.

Her childhood was quieter than all this. She spent most of it living with her parents—Trudi had finally found a man for the long haul, till death would they part—at her uncle’s house. Despite the stock market crash of 1929, Bill reopened his music studio and got active in the old orchestra. He also qualified for the New York Philharmonic, which led to the highlight of his career, a solo violin performance at Carnegie Hall. I grew up hearing him play that violin in his room at our house, an old man full of memories. He was my mother’s best friend.

With her dog, 80 years ago  [Flickr page]
As a young lady  [Flickr page]

Another story, about that: My mother was sixteen years old when she took a bus to the subway for a date rollerskating with a sailor she’d met once. She was terrified when she got on the subway, alone, and surprised that her parents hadn’t objected. Then panic, as she skated around the rink realizing that the sailor was never going to show up and thinking about the long ride she’d have to make, late at night, to get back home. Then a hand on her shoulder; it was her father. “No wonder they didn’t try to talk me out of it,” she said. Her father was keeping an eye on things. Her mother, too. “I looked at the side seats and saw my mother sitting there watching. Dad was a good skater. We did all the dances. After we left the rink, Dad stopped at a place where we had ice cream Sundaes.”

When Trudi lay dying of cancer just eight years later, she said to my mother, “People will still eat ice cream cones.” I think about that, and the grandmother I never had a chance to meet, when I eat one myself.

Wedding Day, 1946  [Flickr page]

My mother was not quite seventeen when she moved, grudgingly, with her parents to a little bungalow on a leaf-canopied dirt road in upstate New York. I remember it well from early visits to my grandfather: a screened-in front porch and one all-purpose room behind it, one bedroom, and a toilet in the basement, flushed with a bucket of water. Bill and Trudi slept in twin beds in the attic. It wasn’t much of a place for a teenage girl from the city. But a long arc of her life, and mine, would trace from a farmhouse down at the end of that rutted old road.

Trudi went to the farmhouse to buy a cooked chicken, and there she once again found herself eyeing a handsome, dark-haired young man. She wasn’t interested in wandering from her marriage to Bill—it was a happy one that had been in progress, officially now, for a dozen years. What she said when the young man’s mother introduced him as her son Ed, just back from the war, was this: “Now that is for my Mary.”

Mary and Ed were married eight months later, in the spring of 1946. She wouldn’t turn eighteen until summer. They would have four children; I was born last, decades later.

Art and Ambition

Exhibiting her art at a photo show  [Flickr page]

My grandfather didn’t just play the violin and drive a cab and rescue Mom from being stood up on dates. He was also a camera bug, taking photos with his Kodak Brownie and developing the black-and-white images in a darkroom at home. His daughter spent a lot of time in that darkroom, with him and on her own, too. Bill had to lock up his photographic paper because she went through it too fast. It was made with silver, and not cheap.

With one of her many photo
awards in the 60s  [Flickr page]

In her twenties, she published an article with some photos about being a young wife living in a trailer. Her portraits were getting noticed, and someone asked her to be a “following photographer” at a wedding. This was still a fairly new concept: Instead of the participants just sitting down for poses in a studio, the photographer would go to where the action was: the bride’s home, the church, the reception.

The gear for this undertaking, she recalls, “consisted of a heavy bulky press camera equipped with a large metal flashgun, film holders that each held two 4x5 black and white sheets of film, and No. 2 flashbulbs the size of regular lamp bulbs.” She lugged all that stuff into the man’s world of 1950s photography, returning with a few carefully framed exposures to develop herself in the darkroom.

It was exhausting she said, but fun. “Once my camera was in my hands, there wasn’t time to think beyond creating a love story through my lens.” The photo processing was time-consuming and added more responsibility. But she found it gratifying to see “the finished wedding album. It was a beautiful product of such personal nature to present to a happy client. So when another request came, I went ahead again.” And again, and again, building a business that she would run, with my father joining her as a partner, for the next fifteen years.

Giving a talk in the 70s  [Flickr page]

Mom is a visual artist who made a career out of her gift for framing images in her mind and then expertly exposing them onto limited frames of film. But running Lakeside Studio called for a lot more than that.

She was an event fixer who took care of essential little details during all those weddings and receptions. That started with the very first wedding, when she calmed a crying mother of the bride and used some rubber bands to shorten a ringbearer’s shirtsleeves, fitting them under his jacket. Mom usually helped the brides with their wedding gowns. They were comfortable in such intimate settings with this woman as their photographer.

And she was a skilled technician who equipped herself with the best equipment available, who knew how to operate and care for it. When a smaller camera came on the market with a 2.25 inch format that would work with the exciting new color film, she bought two of them. There was always an extra of everything for backup; Mom didn’t like having dreams about catastrophic equipment failures on Friday nights. This was capital investment for a serious professional operation: The Hasselblad 500c single-lens reflex was the best you could get.

I remember the thunk and whine of that big shutter marking each careful shot in the studio as Mom leaned over the viewfinder and Dad stood off to the side, watching the people whose heads and arms and smiles he had just helped assemble into a perfect pose. He brought his own expertise to the partnership; one of his strengths was posing the subjects while keeping them happy to be there sitting on stools under the bright lights. “Did you know it takes more muscles to frown than to smile?” I heard him say a hundred times, and still don’t know if it’s true. But smile they did.

With one of her Hasselblads  [Flickr page]

How many kids get to watch their parents work together as respected and mutually respecting partners, making a good living right there in the house? I’ll never forget the acrid smell of hot studio lights, the forest of shadows they cast on the walls, the thickness of their big black cords snaked along the carpet. The crisp rustling of wedding gowns as Dad sweet-talked their wearers into sitting up just a bit straighter, with their heads turned just so. The sound of Mom laughing with mothers of the brides.

They would wind up photographing almost 3,000 of those brides. One Saturday during their glory days, with each of them taking photos separately and some freelancers helping out as well, their tally was seven weddings. They would wave to each other from churches on opposite sides of the street. The local newspaper’s bridal section was pretty much given over to the work of Lakeside Studio.

Before any of that could happen, though, a young woman in the 1950s needed to believe in herself as an artist and entrepreneur, to assert that she was not just another pretty housewife tidying up the kitchen until her husband got home. When she went to City Hall, the clerk grinned at her and asked, “You want a photographer’s license?” She paid the fee and took the paperwork from him, and he said, “I give you six months.” She did see him again, while photographing his own family members’ weddings.

When she and Dad finally sold Lakeside Studio and moved to Arizona, her second act was to manage a portrait studio. There she photographed Ronald Reagan, Dolly Parton, countless high school seniors, food, and a Rembrandt she found unimpressive. Sometimes I would ride my bike to the studio to see her after school, and then, when I could drive and wanted to use the car, to give her a ride home. She had samples of her work hanging on the studio walls, and my favorite—for some reason—was a blown-up shot of Dolly in a glimmering white outfit that must have been spray-painted on for her concert.

Story and Spirit

With Dad, sometime in the 1980s  [Flickr page]

Mom viewed the wedding album as a story that became a work of visual art. Her aim was to capture “all the beauty and love of the moment” for the bride and groom, especially the bride. She loved a good story, and she knew how to tell them in words as well.

An example of that is her 1999 book Twice to Freedom about Dad’s experience as a prisoner of war in WWII. (He met and fell in love with the daughter of a German immigrant less than six months after escaping from German captivity. These parents of mine were an interesting pair.) Dad would occasionally get to telling his war stories and we would sit quietly and listen, not wanting to interrupt what was a rare and fickle thing.

Mom was always fascinated by the history of the war and wanted to record Dad’s part in it, but he never shared anything about it with her except these verbal stories. When she found some notes he was writing, she typed them out and put them back. He continued writing, and she continued typing, adding a narrative of her own with photos and historical references. They never talked about the book until boxes of its first printing had piled up in the house (it sold out) and he finally read one. He sent her a signed card in the mail: “Wonderful. Fantastic.”

In the 50s  [Flickr page]

Dad could be trying at times. I think Trudi would have put him in his place and kept him there. There was plenty of love between him and Mom and me, though. As a privileged late arrival to the family, I was fortunate to have a wonderful and supportive father who drove me across town to buy electronic parts and radio equipment and stood on the house roof helping me string up antenna wire. He was in his late forties when I was born, and I told him he needed to last a while. He did, for another 35 years.

There was something else about my father that arrived late into the family, an unseen entity that followed slowly behind from that farmhouse where Trudi first spotted him. It was at turns a force of joy and beauty and fear and pain, forming me and shaping me, giving me the view I would hold of the world for the first forty years of my life. It was the Apostolic Lutheranism of Dad’s Finnish parents, a demanding and fervent faith they brought across the Atlantic and practiced with a few thousand others having their own origins in the land of Lars Levi Laestadius. A handful of them lived in Ulster Park and they held services in homes. There was sin and forgiveness in abundance, and much wailing about people’s transitions from one to the other.

After twenty years of marriage to a moderate Catholic, Dad returned to the exclusivist Protestant religion of his youth. Contention sparked into flame about things like their teenage daughter’s earrings and the television in the living room. With no change on her part, Mom was one of the worldly now. She entered a period of soul-searching, questioning the clergy at various churches where she did her weddings, spreading their pamphlets out on her bed. Finally she asked God to point the way, and the answer she thought she heard had her convert, enthusiastically, to Dad’s Laestadianism. The television went away.

It’s not my place to summarize my mother’s current beliefs, half a lifetime later. Frankly, I don’t know or care what they are. What I do know is that she made quite a splash in the little pond of American Laestadianism (Heideman branch), just as she did with photography in upstate New York.

There were front-page articles in the Greetings of Peace with this eloquent former Catholic woman (what an exotic combination!) writing about the sense of peace and joy she felt at finding God’s Children. There were long letters back and forth with prominent ministers during a time of schism in the early 1970s. And there was a song—a beautiful one I sang many times along with hundreds of others in church, before a committee somewhere changed the tune and lyrics and ruined it all—about her heart longing for Christian love. She wrote it in the car on the way back from services one evening, full of feeling: “God’s children here blessed from above / Here in the flock on God’s Holy Mount / I find peace when washed in the fount.” And just listen to the biblical poetry here:

No ear has heard nor an eye has seen

The endless joy of which I dream

To Paradise leads the narrow way

Keep me in Faith, God, to thee I pray.

She’s written a lot of private musings that express this same faith in God, even as some people in the old church scratch their heads and wonder about whatever happened to Mary, who married an unbeliever after Ed died and is now living with another one. Like this stanza from a poem “Our Senior Years”:

Moonlit nights and sunlit days

Shining fields golden grained

All of God’s wonderful ways

The joy of life retained.

In another poem, “Life,” she writes about standing “on the threshold of eternity,” turning around to lift her eyes to “the light from Heaven above.” Her words tell of faith and praise and a patient hope. This is from “I Want to Walk the Narrow Way”:

In the quiet all through the night

With many thoughts running free

I’m thanking God for all

The blessing that he gave to me.

She isn’t all just sentimentality and flowers, though. I smile at the memory of a story she liked to tell about a gathering of their little congregation of Apostolic Lutherans. One of the elders was admonishing her to humble herself and repent of some sin, or more likely, a false spirit that was being blamed as the “root” of many sins. At the time, false spirits were running rampant across Laestadian Christianity—Heideman branch, non-Torola—and the discerning elders of the Ulster Park congregation had spotted their share. This gentleman was enamored with the sound of his own voice (I heard it plenty myself), and his rebukes were going on and on. Finally, Mom said, “If you’ll shut up, maybe I’ll repent.”

Repentance, perhaps, but humbling herself? She might not have been so good at that part.

Love and Loss

With Joe, a late-in-life love story  [Flickr page]

Mom and Dad made it 57 years together. She couldn’t stand to be alone after Dad’s death, and Match.com had itself a new customer. She came across the listing for a man whose wife had died three days before Dad. Off they went—talking on the phone, meeting at a restaurant for lunch. “It was so comfortable with Joe,” she writes. “We held hands and shed tears for our lost spouses. This led to many more ‘dates’ and we knew it was right for both of us. We couldn’t stay apart.”

She married Joe in 2005. I was still so firmly stuck in my old church’s judgmental views that I didn’t attend their wedding, because she was in the Laestadian faith and he wasn’t. One should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers and all that. I wish I hadn’t been so damn righteous. Unlike me, some of her family and friends who remained in the church behaved decently about it: They were there, and they have my admiration for it.

I met Joe after the wedding on a visit down to Arizona. We went out to a buffet for dinner, and when Mom got up for some dessert, he looked at me with his big bushy eyebrows raised. “Well?” he asked. Did I approve, finally? I stuck out my hand. “Joe,” I said, “I give you my mother’s hand in marriage.”

They were a couple of doting old lovebirds, Joe and Mom. “It’s our new beginning,” she wrote in another poem, “when these vows are said. Wedding bells are ringing, but it’s my heart instead.” They had a wonderful marriage, both of them respecting the memory of their first spouses and loving each other just the same. And then she found him dead one day, the way of all flesh, and she grieved over another husband outlived.

He brought to me joy each day

His sweetness and tender love

It was happiness in every way

A gift from God above.

Their five years together was much too short.

With Jack, still smiling for the camera  [Flickr page]

Now Mom is with another companion, Jack, a smart and interesting man. Her memory is fading and his sharp mind helps keep things on track. They sit in his trailer with their two dogs and watch their remaining days go by. She is coasting to the quiet finish of a long life well lived.

I sat beside her a couple of months ago as she leafed through an album I’d made for her of my own favorite photos. The call of the camera seems to have continued a bit in me, just as a hobby. She commented on composition and lighting, pointing to this and that, saying how pleased she was that I’d taken up photography. I looked at this remarkable woman, at her wispy hair and that big nose she left me with, and my eyes welled up with proud and fond and grieving tears.

You’re amazing, Mom, and I love you.

———
Click on individual images to enlarge. Most of my photography on this blog is Creative Commons licensed, but the ones for this posting are All Rights Reserved. You can visit and link to the Flickr page for any of them (see the hyperlink next to each caption) or browse the full album, but no further distribution, please.
A technical note about these images: I reproduced all but the bottom one (the photo of Mom and Jack I took myself) from prints in Mom’s various albums using my Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 camera in full sunlight, doing hours of post-processing work with Adobe Lightroom. The most time-consuming part of the processing was removing speckles and scratches using Lightroom’s spot removal tool. There was also some sharpening, noise reduction, radial and gradient filtering to emphasize subjects, and considerable tone mapping. With the faded color photos, I also did color adjustments, mostly to overcome the reddish hues that creep into those old prints over the decades. It was a labor of love; an accomplished photographer deserves to have her life story told with some decent photographs as well as words.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Open Dialogue over the Faith Boundary

He drew a circle that shut me out—
  Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
  We drew a circle that took him in!
—Edwin Markham, “Outwitted”
The traditional approach
Note: The presentation reviewed here was made more powerful by an example of its author practicing what he preaches; the bottom half of this post contains a gracious reply I received to my open letter.

During its annual Summer Services last month, my old church’s pastoral director Keith Waaraniemi gave a talk entitled “How to approach another person.” It was based on a work presented a year earlier at a large gathering of the church’s sister organization, the SRK.1

The presentation was excellent. There is much in it to praise, even for someone as vocal as I have been about issues confronting the church and its doctrines.

Laestadianism does not emphasize individual preachers, and I try to avoid doing so as well when critiquing their sermons and writings. My points are about the organization and what it teaches, not the people doing the teaching. This time is different, though: I want to offer credit where credit is due, and have decided to do so by name.2

Keith Waaraniemi

Indeed, the whole point of this remarkably thoughtful presentation—encouraging human contact and understanding, even between people of differing views—makes me a bit hopeful that a personal approach would not be unwelcome for this blog post. So, I will take it a step further and address Mr. Waaraniemi directly, with an open letter.

Keith (as I will presume to refer to him from this point on) and I are an unlikely pair for undertaking any correspondence, even without a thousand or so people looking on. I left my childhood faith after forty years, and in a very public way that caused a great deal of upset among people in the church. Keith has dedicated his professional life to the Laestadian Lutheran Church (LLC), serving for many years as a preacher and in leadership roles of its central organization. But hopefully my letter will be taken as it is intended—friendly, complimentary, with a few points gently made along the way to advance mutual understanding.

———

Dear Keith,

I really liked the presentation you gave at Summer Services recently. It was warm, compassionate, balanced, and showed a great deal of understanding about human needs. I know this sort of praise is unusual to hear, even from believers, but hope you won’t be unsettled by it.3 The sense of service and humility on the part of preachers in the LLC is quite refreshing, actually. It’s something I think you guys really do get right, in the midst of a country full of ego-driven, money-grubbing televangelists and megachurch pastors.

Slide #20

For me, one of the highlights of the talk was where you and Aimo Helén provided a simple and reasonable summary about the way to maintain human relations: “We care for them by coming close, and talking” (28:20). I appreciated how you encouraged contact not just with believers, but non-Laestadian neighbors as well (28:50), and elsewhere, how everyone is actually your neighbor.

Including me! An open letter from this outspoken LLC apostate is probably one you read with some reluctance, and that is entirely understandable. Thanks for doing so, though. It’ll be fine.

There is, I know, another motive for believers to engage in such unequally yoked contacts, the desire to “convey living faith to another person” (19:40). That’s understandable, too. You have a message that you feel is of great urgency to people’s eternal salvation, so of course you will want to share it! “We have been given the task of being ambassadors of Christ. God speaks through us,” you say, adding that you and your listeners have been entrusted with the message of forgiveness. “God makes his appeal through us, through his own. We implore the world on behalf of Christ, that they would be reconciled to God” (20:20).

Slide #38

The desire almost always comes from genuine concern—especially for the people closest to you. During the talk, you indicated that many of those listening could think of some loved one they would’ve liked to have alongside them. No doubt that’s true. It’s a natural human drive to share what we value; I do it, too, though of course with very different viewpoints from yours.

One thing we should all keep in mind, though, is that our loved ones do not want to become our conversion or de-conversion projects. When I visit with friends or relatives who are happily living their lives as believers, it hardly ever seems appropriate for me to bring up issues involving the church. They all know that I’ve left it for my own reasons, and if they want to know why, all they have to do is read my book or blog posts. Similarly, those who have left the LLC know the positions held (or at least professed) by those who remain, including about them.

Now, that doesn’t mean the church can never be mentioned. Doing so in a neutral way can actually defuse tension in the room. I’ve had enjoyable conversations about shared memories, humorous stories, and ongoing church activities. Someone who will always remain close told me with a laugh about hearing that people “who think like me” are “Ed-heads,” and I laughed, too. On another occasion, two of us—one a believer, one not—fondly recalled the old songs that we both grew up singing. I miss them sometimes. There was no preaching about how I really must feel a longing to repent (I don’t), just understanding about my continuing to value, in a way, something that was so much a part of my life for so long.4

Slide #16

Your slide No. 16 is headed, “Approaching without prejudice.” You point out how believers might have stereotypes or fears about approaching someone different, and I smiled at your lighthearted mention of the “irritating bunch of skateboarders” hanging out by the library. And so, you acknowledge, the approach often is made “with prejudice, pre-conceived notions.” But, you added, “we find when we do approach, that we find people, and that our fears are often unjustified” (26:40, my emphasis).

Indeed. May I make one point about doctrine here? If we as mere frail humans can both realize that we are all just people, shouldn’t an almighty God be able to as well? We have some mutual friends, Keith, and I have heard about your good humor and big heart. My faith in people, yourself included, remains strong—much stronger than any faith in an angry, judgmental God who cannot behave as well toward us as we do (in our better moments) toward each other.

Aimo Helén’s original paper (p. 3) includes something that is very encouraging for us “unbelievers” to read. I was very glad to hear you pretty closely repeat it in your talk (35:00) and see it on your slide #20.

Authentically respecting one’s neighbor means giving him or her human value irrespective of his or her characteristics. The love that God gave as a gift teaches us to accept ourselves and our neighbors as unique persons created by God. We can value humanity by respecting different cultural and religious customs and by treating our neighbor as an equal regardless of his or her differences and possible inadequacy. However, valuing diversity does not mean approving of sin and an indecent life.

“Treat all people as equals created by God,” is how you put it. “We respect different cultures and religious customs, but not at the expense of faith and good conscience” (35:45). What more could anyone ask, without becoming dogmatic themselves in an opposite way?

Later in your talk (53:30), after an interesting and useful discussion about helping someone with difficulties (including mental health issues), you return to the issue of understanding us unbelievers:

The kind of upbringing that we’ve had, the kind of parents that we’ve had, the kind of place that we’ve lived, values that we’ve developed, may be different than others. But we want to try to understand one another. We of course can’t accept everything, but we want to respect our neighbor for who they are. All neighbors, even unbelieving neighbors.

As your Finnish colleague puts it (p. 5), this is done out of “true neighborly love,” which “gives us readiness to meet even a diversity of cultures with an open mind. We cannot approve of everything, but we can value our neighbor as an equal irrespective of his or her background and different way of thinking.”

Bravo! And consider how important this sort of treatment is to you, too. Imagine, for example, how you would feel in this hypothetical situation: A young woman who left the LLC after having just two children comes to a wedding at church and afterwards belittles the pregnant mother of the bride for continuing to have children. Now, I’ve never heard of a former believer behaving so thoughtlessly. But, I must gently add, I’ve heard plenty about people in the LLC belittling and mocking the changed beliefs and lives of people who have left the church. Your presentation will hopefully go a long way toward helping to improve that situation. I really do appreciate what you and Aimo Helén have done.

The issue of acceptance is somewhat different when it comes to people who are still in the organization. You note, I think accurately, that “some of [your] friends—that is believing friends—think differently about matters of faith and life than is taught in God’s Kingdom. They still claim to be believers, even though their tie to the congregation may have been severed. They may want to believe on their own terms” (1:00:00). That is, of course, the right of every person in a free society, but so is the right of the LLC and SRK to maintain norms of behavior and belief for those who wish to be members. You may be surprised to hear that I respect that.5

Personally, it was important to me to make a decision about what I actually believed and then act accordingly. I didn’t want to cloud things by trying to live one way and profess belief in another. The “temptations of the world” were never that big a deal for me; the issues were. Of course, now that I’m no longer concerned about conforming to the LLC’s standards, I enjoy movies, TV shows, and a wide variety of music. Why not?

Now, there are people who don’t want to leave the church, even though they find no good reason not to partake of such activities, or to back away from the heavy demands of nearly annual childbearing. This is where I will be most critical of a work I find encouraging and excellent otherwise: Your advice to fellow believers to “search for answers within God’s Kingdom,” the so-called “pillar and ground of truth,” which you feel is guided by an “unerring advisor” (1:06:00). Do you realize, as an insider, that those answers all tend to be of the form, “It has been revealed in God’s Kingdom…”, or “God’s children have seen it good that…”? The invitation to be “free to ask questions” when it doesn’t work out that “the spirit that is in each child of God answers the spirit that speaks in the congregation” (1:07:00) rings a bit hollow when the spirit always seems to just wind up referring back to its own authority.

Slide #41

So why don’t these people just leave, to stop sowing weeds in your midst, as you and Helén put it? I can’t speak for them: They are individuals, with their own private thoughts and emotions. But I think you provide one answer yourself: the longing for contact, for love, for fellowship (1:02:00). Thoughtfully, you recognize that it’s not just difficult for believers when their loved one leaves the church, but “it’s difficult also for the person who has left” (1:09:00).

You like to call it “the Father’s house,” and Laestadianism also makes a lot of references to “the mother.” And of course, there are “brothers and sisters in faith.” These analogies illustrate the very deep emotional bond that is established when people grow up with each other in a distinctive subculture, do almost all their socializing with each other, and reinforce their ties by seeing each other as a group on a weekly basis. It doesn’t hurt that many of you really are extended family, either. The connections run deep.

I am glad, though, that you recognize, “Each person must make their own choices in life, even giving up faith” (1:08:00), that you must “accept their decision, though so very hard” it is to do (1:11:00). And it was wonderful to hear those “very important words” your wife’s believing friend told her about your own son who had left: “Love him, love him, love him” (1:09:00). That is what you desire to do, you said, and so do we.

Thank you for this presentation, Keith, and Aimo Helén as well.

Fond regards,
Your former brother,
Ed Suominen

———

I was happy to receive a thoughtful response from Keith, which he gave me discretion to quote from or post in its entirety. He expressed his thoughts well, and with considerable trust that I’d treat them fairly. So here they are, verbatim—everything after his initial salutation and a friendly line about this being a busy summer for him. I really appreciated the reply, all of it, and encourage you to read it as well.

First of all, thanks for your complimentary comments about the presentation. For the most part, I borrowed what Aimo Helén presented a year earlier in Finland. For that reason, I want to credit the original source and above all thank God for the words that He has given. In answer to your question about using my photo and quoting from or posting this message, I will leave that to your discretion. In any case, I prefer not to personally comment or participate in online public forums where questions of Laestadian Christianity are discussed.

Yes, it was a surprise to get a message from you! I’m happy that you felt free to write to me. I want to carry you in prayer and love. Regarding the critique you have given, I do not see a need to answer point by point. The presentation is what it is. All glory and honor goes to God. Any weaknesses are mine.

I hope that Laestadian believers, former believers, and all people for that matter would remember that carrying bitterness towards another person hurts the carrier more than anyone else. As you pointed out, we have the freedom to believe as we wish. No one is forced to believe. It would be good to remember that our focus needs to be on the issues at hand and not attack the person. Luther’s explanation to the Eighth Commandment reminds us not to speak evilly of our neighbor, “but apologize for him, think and speak well of him and put the best construction on all he does.” Who of us can say that we have been exemplary in this? I certainly cannot. Our human corruption is close.

You gave a hypothetical example, “A young woman who left the LLC after having just two children comes to a wedding at church…afterwards belittles the pregnant mother of the bride for continuing to have children.” You stated that you have never heard of a former believer behaving so thoughtlessly. Well, I must say that I have seen anger, thoughtless words, evil speech, etc., both from believers as well as former believers. In our Christianity we endeavor to speak about the evil deeds of that little member, the tongue. It’s hard to keep it in subjection. Regarding former believers’ speech, I’d ask you to consider their blogs. Do they speak well and put the best construction on the words and deeds of their former friends in faith?

You take issue with the kingdom of God being the pillar and ground of truth and our belief that we have an unerring advisor, the Holy Spirit. I would point out that it is a kingdom that holds the Bible as the highest authority for doctrine and life. The Spirit is the key to understanding the Bible. The spirit of Christ resides in the body of Christ, the congregation. For that reason it is unerring. How could God’s Spirit speak against itself, or disagree with itself? I believe that as God is God, He doesn’t make mistakes. That is why the congregation is unerring.

It is so, as you state, that each person is free to believe or not to believe. Those who believe have not been able to do so of themselves, but have been called by God. Luther teaches in the explanation to the Third Article of the Creed: “I believe that I cannot of my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith, even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus’ Christ in the true faith; in which Christian Church he daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins.”

We can believe only through the grace of God. I am thankful to be a partaker of this grace, which I have not deserved. I am happy to be a child of God. My sins are forgiven and I have the hope of reaching heaven one day. I join with the Apostle Peter when some could no longer follow Jesus due to his teachings. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” I cannot find the peace of God anywhere else than in His kingdom, among His own upon earth. That which I have received, I desire to make known to others.

You are in my thoughts and prayers, Ed. 

Sincerely,
Keith 

———
Waaraniemi’s thumbnail portrait is from his entry on the “Contact Us” page of the LLC’s web site. Thumbnails of the “Approaching Others” presentation were exported from his PowerPoint file. The “traditional approach” composition, using a photo of my own plus a thumbnail of the By Faith book from the LLC’s online store, is Copyright © 2014 Edwin A. Suominen; you may freely use it for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Notes


  1. Waaraniemi’s first slide says it is based “on Aimo Helén’s presentation at 2013 SRK Speakers and Elders Meeting: Toisen ihmisen kohtaaminen” The MP3 audio, is quite legible at 2x speed if you want to save time. Also, check out the Powerpoint slides

  2. Waaraniemi’s name is on the work, after all, and on the webpage where it is publicly available. 

  3. I use the term “believers” here to refer to Conservative Laestadians—as they refer to themselves—along with “unbelievers” to mean everyone else. A lot of non-Laestadians don’t like being distinguished in that way, as most of them have sincere religious beliefs of their own. Personally, I don’t mind, especially when engaging in a dialogue with Laestadians. 

  4. Believers might also consider the converse side of such an open dialogue, one that is a bit challenging for them: politely acknowledging some of their friend’s “worldly” activities. I’m not talking about burning incense on an altar to Satan in the middle of the night, but things that are an everyday part of life for most everybody outside the LLC. If the friend lets it slip that junior hurt his knee at soccer practice last week, an expression of sympathy, perhaps a little joke about Laestadians saving on medical bills in that regard, at least, can go a long ways toward keeping a long-valued relationship intact and mutually respectful. Sure, there is a possibility that the ex-LLCer might wonder, “Hmmmm, maybe he doesn’t think school sports are such a big deal.” But consider the other thought that occurs to the one lucky enough to have such an understanding friend: “I’m so thankful he is secure in his beliefs and doesn’t need to be a fanatical sourpuss about everything.” 

  5. I would suggest, however, that you guys dispense with the charade about there being no rules. Of course there are—many of them! If there weren’t, then people could do as they pleased. And it wouldn’t bother them much at all, without the pressure to conform, given how ordinary and harmless most of the supposed sins really are.