When I was growing up on the Saskatchewan prairie during the 1940s, Thanksgiving meant all-day church. We Mennonites called the holiday Erntedankfest since High German was our language of worship.
Before the morning service, several women of the congregation decorated the church. They arranged cabbages and baskets of other vegetables near the pulpit. They set loaves of homemade Bultki—white bread—on the pump organ, along with bouquets of sunflowers and other flowers. Some bouquets graced the windowsills.
The service started with a hymn: Nun Danket Alle Gott (Now Thank We All Our God) or similar. This was followed by Scripture reading and prayer, led by whichever man of the congregation had been asked to "have the opening." Then came the main event: preaching by two or more visiting Prediger (preachers).
One preacher made a particular impression on me as a child. He began by telling the story of Adam and Eve. I knew it from Sunday School. However, this time, I didn't pay much attention because the preacher was using grownup language.
As the church grew warm, I leaned against my mother's arm and drifted off to sleep.
I woke with a start as the preacher shouted, "We are all children of disobedient Adam and Eve!" He pounded his Bible, his eyes bulging. "Like our first parents, Adam and Eve, we are sinners. We lie. We steal. We are unkind, jealous, greedy, selfish. Even little children wilfully disobey their parents."
I squirmed in my Sunday dress.
"God is holy," the preacher continued. "He cannot overlook sin. We all deserve His punishment."
He glanced at the clock, shut his Bible, and stepped down from the pulpit. Apparently that was the end.
A sense of doom clutched my heart during the closing prayer.
My father and the other men of the congregation didn't seem concerned. They began matter-of-factly lifting the benches aside and setting up sawhorse tables for the noon meal.
How could they act so calm? How could the women so cheerfully call to each other as they spread tablecloths on the tables and brought the food from the shady side of the church, where they had left it in tubs of cold water?
How could the teenage girls laugh and talk as they set out the food: sausages, ham, cheese, potato salads, jellied salads, buns, and pickles, aware of the teenage boys watching them? Why wasn't everyone cowering under the benches, trembling in expectation of God's punishment as announced by the preacher?
I might have asked my mother, but I doubt if I could have found the words. Anyway she and the other women were busy chatting, pouring coffee from the Thermoses, feeding the children, eating quickly themselves, and then clearing the tables and washing the dishes.
At last the tables were down and the benches were back in place for church. Impatiently I waited for the first preacher to finish so we could hear further news from the second, who had introduced the topic of impending judgement that morning.
Finally it was the second preacher's turn. He opened his Bible. "Jesus, the Son of God, died on the cross," he said. "He took the punishment for our sins. If we tell God we’re sorry, He forgives us. He takes away our sins because of what Jesus did."
My heart stirred. It seemed there was hope after all. Actually I recalled hearing something like this before, but I had forgotten how it went.
"Jesus comes and lives in our hearts," the preacher continued. "He helps us not to sin. He helps us live in a way that pleases God and makes us truly happy."
My sense of doom lifted. If we wanted a way out, there it was. I'm not sure how much of the message I personally applied at the time, but it planted seedlings that bloom in my heart and mind to this day:
-There's no point pretending. Call the darkness darkness.
-Cry out in the darkness, reach out at the end of yourself, and there will be a crack of light. Follow the light.
-Out of despair, hope.
-Out of weakness, strength.
-Out of meekness, power.
-Out of death, resurrection.
-Ultimate answers exist.
Years later this incident and others from my prairie childhood inspired me to write my 1940s-era novel CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS. The story, set in Vancouver and rural Saskatchewan, is about love, Mennonites, faith, despair, and ultimately hope. It's loosely based on the lives of my parents and other Mennonite relatives from Russia.
CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS is a 299-page paperback available online from Chapters Indigo http://tinyurl.com/ny8smwk or the publisher, Borealis Press of Ottawa http://tinyurl.com/1fdo9pf . Or ask in a bookstore or library. For more information, please see http://elmams.wix.com/sflwrs .