Saturday, June 23, 2018

Summer services begin July 1

Gimli Unitarian Church will open for the summer season on Sunday, July 1, 2018, and continue with services on the odd Sundays of the month – July 15, July 29, August 5, August 19, and September 2. Services are at 11:00 a.m. in the congregation’s landmark building at 76 Second Avenue. Dress is casual — after all, it’s cottage season! 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A conspiracy of ravens

For some time, a pair of ravens has been nesting in the steeple of the Gimli Unitarian Church, much to the delight of people passing by – especially visiting Icelanders, it seems – and much to the annoyance of people who care about practical matters, like compromised shingles and moisture damage. I mistakenly thought they were crows until someone who knew better told me to take a closer look. Church leaders once had the nest removed by the Gimli Fire Department, hoping the ravens would make themselves a home in a better neighbourhood – a tall tree somewhere – but they returned and it is hard to escape believing that they’ve somehow become attached to the place.

Whatever the reason for the ravens’ staying power, having watched David Suzuki’s episode of The Nature of Things that examined the superior intelligence, memory, and remarkable ability to recognize human faces on the part of their cousins, the crows, I’m reticent to upset any members of this branch of the bird family and risk their ire, having seen what they can do to people who offend them. I used to fantasize about seeing a steeple without a nest, but “corvicide” is now out of the question because, while a group of crows may be called a murder, a group of ravens is known as an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy” – and I’m not inclined to tempt fate by inviting either. People love them and they’ve waged a very successful publicity campaign in recent years, having become the subjects of feature stories in newspapers along with favourable mentions on radio and TV. They have become inescapable tenants.

I suspect that the reason visiting Icelanders, in particular, appreciate seeing them nesting on the steeple is that Icelanders, alongside North America’s Indigenous people, have an inordinate fondness for ravens (and even their close cousins, crows) which figure positively in the folklore of both people. In pretty much every other culture, these birds are viewed with disdain, but not among Icelanders and Indigenous people. I’ve stopped sharing my former desire to get rid of the nest with visitors from Iceland, since they have universally expressed their disapproval at the very thought of it, some suggesting that we should consider the ravens’ presence to be a good omen. It should be remembered, though, that these are the same people who compliment me on the dandelions in my lawn, sometimes expressing their envy that I’m so fortunate as to enjoy the beauty of such an abundant crop of wildflowers in my own yard. What can you really expect from people who think that eating putrefied shark and fermented rams’ testicles is a good idea?

The more strident raven-lovers from Iceland have reminded me that there are folktales and poems about clergymen who have run afoul of ravens nesting in their churches, warning me that I do not wish to share their fate. Ravens can be harbingers of kindness and wisdom, but also death and destruction. Choose kindness and wisdom, my Icelandic friends and family seem to be saying.

As it turns out, I’ve developed a growing fondness for both ravens and crows. At our country home, Huldukot, the ravens and crows visit in alternating conspiracies and murders. (That sounds rather ominous, doesn’t it?) Cindy has noticed that when I’m sitting at the dining room table and these birds see me, they call to me to bring them peanuts. She has also noticed that I seem to respond to their calls faster than one of Pavlov’s dogs. So I now welcome each murder and conspiracy as it arrives without any hint of unkindness. And I’m looking forward to seeing the resident ravens of the church welcome people to Gimli from its steeple this summer.

The author with the raven's nest in the steeple behind him.

This post appears as the editorial in the May 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What's your one Icelandic book?

Last year, Condé Nast Traveler reported that the language learning platform Babbel had asked several ambassadors to the United States to name the one book each would recommend for first-time visitors to read before traveling to their home countries. Twenty-two diplomats responded and, looking over the titles they suggested, my initial reaction was to think: never ask a diplomat for a book recommendation.

That said, the best answer was clearly offered by Iceland’s ambassador to the United States, Geir H. Haarde, who recommended Halldór Laxness’s classic, Independent People. After all, Laxness is Iceland’s only Nobel laureate – so far – and most literary critics consider Independent People his finest work, even though it received mixed reviews from Icelanders when it first appeared. I would personally argue that World Light and even The Fish Can Sing are superior works, but I readily concede that’s a matter of taste.

Recommending Independent People strikes me as a safe choice – one could fairly say it was a perfectly diplomatic recommendation. I can hardly imagine anyone (except me) arguing against it – but I will. Don't get me wrong – I love Independent People and almost everything ever written by Halldór Laxness – but I consider it advanced reading, something for the second- or third-year student of Icelandic literature, not the proper text for a class called “Introduction to Visiting Iceland.”

For Americans on their way to Iceland for the first time, I am inclined to recommend Bill Holm's The Windows of Brimnes, an affectionate portrait by a man who deeply loved both lands. For visitors of Icelandic ancestry, Sally Magnusson's Dreaming of Iceland reveals the country through the eyes of those of us who learned about it from the stories of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. If you’re more into short stories, W.D. Valgardson’s “The Man From Snæfellsnes” (in two parts) from What Can’t Be Changed Shouldn’t Be Mourned offers an excellent primer for the diaspora Icelander returning “home.”

Specialists might wish to read something that intersects with their interests. Both naturalists and language majors would be moved to read Charles Fergus’s Summer at Little Lava while anthropologists and sociologists might want to consider Karen Oslund's Iceland Imagined. Historians and criminologists might opt for Dominic Cooper's Men at Axlir or Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which give an accurate flavour of life in past centuries. For psychologists and humourists alike, Einar Már Guðmundsson's Angels of the Universe might inspire them to wonder about everyone they meet on the streets of Reykjavík. 

Now, I understand the desire to read native Icelandic fiction. Several great books immediately leap to mind: Þorbergur Þórðarson's The Stones Speak, Guðbergur Bergsson's The Swan, Gunnar Gunnarsson's The Good Shepherd, Svava Jakobsdóttir's The Lodger and Other Stories, or (for a bit heavier read) Guðmundur Kamban's The Virgin of Skálholt

And before anybody posts something silly in their social media feed about Icelanders and their habits, they should read any one of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s “little books” – especially The Little Book of the Hidden People. But any of her books, which are all treasures, can save you from the most common clichés about Iceland.

If one must read Laxness, then The Fish Can Sing might be a better first choice, unless one is a theologian, in which case Under the Glacier might be a better pick ... except for liberation theologians, who should go with The Atom Station. Poets might prefer World Light, however, while political scientists should consider the merits of Iceland's Bell.

Once someone has visited Iceland and come face-to-face with the character and peculiar humour of the Icelandic people, then – and perhaps only then – will they really be ready to read Independent People. A friend of mine who is widely read once told me that it was the most depressing book he had ever encountered, which caught me by surprise, since I find it overflowing with that dry humour that is so characteristic of Icelanders. He had read it as a tragedy, whereas I see it as a droll commentary on the Icelandic character, more comedic than tragic. I realized then that a person needs to know Icelanders firsthand before they are capable of fully appreciating Independent People. It’s not a novel for beginners.

Perhaps editors are no better at recommending books than ambassadors. If it hasn’t occurred to you already, I find it difficult to name the one book everyone should read before visiting Iceland. Iceland’s history is too long, its geography too amazing, its people’s opinions too broad, and its culture too deep for any one book to capture the essence of the land and its people. 

If you had to choose, though, what’s your one book that speaks of Iceland?

This post appears as the editorial in the April 15, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

There he stood: 500 years after Martin Luther’s protest

Five hundred years have now passed since that seminal moment on October 31, 1517, when legend says Martin Luther posted what came to be called the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Saxony, a town of fewer than five thousand souls at the time. Although some historians have disputed the details of the story that has grown up around that event, there can be no dispute that what unfolded in the aftermath was one of the most dramatic stories in human history. Whatever else happened that day, it is certain that Luther wrote a letter to his superiors denouncing the sale of indulgences and soliciting their repayment, to which he appended his now famous theses (that is to say, propositions) on the subject. This act of conscience led directly to the Protestant Reformation, a religious transformation that reached the shores of distant Iceland some twenty years later.

Martin Luther in Wittenberg
(Photo - Andreas Breitling / Pixabay)
Indulgences were thought to be a means to reduce the punishment one would have to undergo in the afterlife because of one’s sins in this life. They also happened to be an important source of revenue for the church. Luther found the practice repugnant, having come to the view that forgiveness came through God’s grace, not the purchase of others’ surplus merit.

Luther had already been preaching against indulgences and other corruptions of the church, so the content of his theses was hardly news. However, this event did mark a turning point and has since been reckoned as the beginning of the Reformation. Luther shared his theses with a few bishops and friends, they were published using the relatively new technology of printing, and they subsequently came to the attention of the Pope, who directed his bishop to rein in the protesting monk.

At the Diet of Worms in 1521, where Luther had been summoned to defend his position, he declared: “Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Although this differs from the common paraphrase of his words – “Here I stand; I can do no other” – it was an equally powerful moral statement and a measure of his courage in a moment of great threat to his own wellbeing.

When Luther left the room, he said, “I am finished,” which seemed obvious to everyone, and he was granted three weeks’ safe conduct to return home, where it was expected he would face the common fate that awaited heretics in that day. Following his departure from Wörms in the company of the nobles who supported him, the emperor declared Luther an outlaw, but Elector Friedrich the Wise staged a kidnapping and Luther was whisked away to safety in the castle at Wartburg, perched high above the town of Eisenach, where he lived incognito as Junker Jörg (George the knight) for nearly a year. While there, Luther translated the New Testament into German, a task he accomplished in just eleven weeks.

As it turned out, Luther was nowhere near finished. Indeed, history makes it clear that he had only just begun. By the time he returned to Wittenberg, the Reformation was well underway, forever changing the face of Christendom.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What the University of Winnipeg Means to Me

Personal reflections on the 50th anniversary of 
the University of Winnipeg
receiving its Charter from the Province of Manitoba.

I come from a long line of people who earned their living with their hands, by the sweat of their brows – farmers, carpenters, weavers, and mechanics mostly. There was also a brewer or two and at least one outright bootlegger. Save for members of the clergy who pop up every few generations, and a couple of scholars in the dim reaches of the past, I don’t have many ancestors who went on to higher learning after having convinced their priest or pastor that they were worthy of being confirmed, which generally meant demonstrating they were literate.

I have one 5th-great-grandfather who attended the University of Copenhagen to study art and another who attended cathedral school for the same purpose. One 3rd-great-grandfather studied agriculture, also at the University of Copenhagen, and another in the same generation attended theological school. My father studied commerce at the University of Manitoba and he had two uncles who were college educated, both of them teachers, along with a few of his cousins. That’s pretty much it. Over the span of two centuries, there wasn’t much in my family to suggest that higher education would be my destiny, although I assumed from an early age that I would attend university.

Wesley Hall, heart of the University of Winnipeg campus.
Although I recall looking at the brochures of a few universities, I somehow always knew that I would study at the University of Winnipeg. It was certainly conveniently located – about a 15-minute bus ride from my childhood home – and it seemed the least intimidating for someone who had spent most of his childhood attending a smaller school, but it was my great-uncle and godfather, Axel Vopnfjord, who had the greatest influence on my decision. Uncle Axel graduated from Wesley College, one of the founding colleges of the University of Winnipeg, in the class of 1923. Next to my father, he was pretty much the wisest person I knew at the time.

It helped that the university was still home to a high school and that students who enrolled there were allowed to also enrol in university courses. Having fallen just short of graduating from St. James Collegiate, I completed the last part of grade 12 at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate while beginning my university studies. I planned to study political science on my way to law school, but I became drawn towards anthropology instead. Sadly, my father died suddenly during my first year at university and the stress of earning a living was added to the usual challenges faced by any student. Looking back, I realize I was depressed. During my second year, I stopped attending classes and began working fulltime. 

I married, became active in the Unitarian church, gave up politics (for a while), lost one job when the company I worked for was sold, and started another in a completely different field. My minister, John S. Gilbert, tried to convince me that my gifts would never be fully realized unless I returned to school. Four years after leaving school, I returned to classes by enrolling in “Western Thought in the Making,” which was taught by Mac Watts. By the end of the term, I had switched my major once again, this time to religious studies, and embarked upon the long journey of earning a degree while working fulltime. Ten years after I started, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts degree and proceeded immediately to a master’s program. 

Once again, the path proved to be circuitous but, after another nine years, I received my Master of Divinity degree, having also graduated from the certificate in theology program along the way. All told, I’ve graduated from the University of Winnipeg four times, earned two academic medals, and benefited from bursaries, scholarships, and the forbearance of my wife, Cindy. 

Along the way, my professors influenced me deeply – Tom Graham and Carl Ridd, John Badertscher and Kay Stone, Harry Loewen and George Epp, Paul Trudinger and Eleanor Stebner, Harold King and Mac Watts, and several others. If anyone had mapped out the journey for me beforehand, I never would have started, but my experience as a student at the University of Winnipeg shaped me profoundly and I wouldn’t have become the person I am without it.

Years after graduating, I returned as a volunteer for the University of Winnipeg Alumni Association and was honoured to have served as its president. It is now my privilege to serve on the Board of Regents. Beyond contributing to the University of Winnipeg Foundation, these are small but tangible ways for me to express my gratitude for the incomparable education I received, the patience and support of my beloved professors, and the countless ways in which the university transformed my life for the better.

This post appears as the editorial in the September 15, 2017 issue of

Monday, July 17, 2017

Going to the Woods

In his iconic memoir, Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This same aspiration is what led my wife Cindy and me to acquire a cottage near Lake Winnipeg a dozen years ago – a country home that has proven to be a year-round retreat and not simply a place of summer respite. We both tend to work long hours and our modest cottage, which we dubbed Huldukot, offered the promise of a break from the pace and demands of urban life. Hidden in small grove of ash, birch, and spruce – a short walk from the lake – it is almost like entering another world.

Like Thoreau, I embraced our second home in the woods in an effort “to live deliberately” – to relax and regenerate, recover and be restored, and not, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I had great plans to read books that had nothing to do with work, play my ukulele, visit with family and friends, ride my bike, and stroll along the water’s edge – maybe even dip into the lake from time to time.

The reality, though, is that I’m not very good at it – taking a break, that is. Every weekend, I tote my laptop computer along with me and, tethered to my phone, carry on pretty much the same as I do back in the city. I don’t disconnect much at all. At the same time, the satellite dish ensures that I can maintain a steady diet of cable news and mind-numbing electronic entertainment. During the summer months, I preach every second week or so at the nearby Unitarian church, which means that Saturdays are often spent revising and refining my sermon. I suppose that Thoreau had his own work to do – fishing, gardening, chopping wood – but a nagging voice in the back of my head tells me he was probably better at relaxing.

So this summer I resolve to do it right. If I’m going to go to the woods, I’m going to be there fully and not just carry on the same as I always do with a change of venue. I’ll continue to show up to lead church services, but the sermon is going to have to be done on Friday. I’ll still bring my laptop along, but I plan to leave it in my bag while the sun is shining. And this summer, I’m going to play the ukulele and ride my bike, but not at the same time. I’m going to live deliberately and relax with intention.

This post appears as the editorial in the July 15, 2017, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

150 Years of Confederation

On the first day of 2017, CBC ran a story headlined: “Canada is celebrating 150 years of … what, exactly?” It was accompanied by a short video asking, “how old is Canada, really?” The video reminded viewers that Canada’s Indigenous people have lived on this land for thousands upon thousands of years and then offered a series of milestone events in the evolution of the country we now know as Canada.

In 1701, the British Crown entered into the first of many treaties to encourage peaceful relations between Indigenous people and European settlers and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 established the principles by which the Crown could acquire land from First Nations. These milestones are of enduring significance but there was, as yet, no Canada. A few point to 1840, when the Act of Union brought together Lower Canada (now Quebec) and Upper Canada (now Ontario) into a single Province of Canada as the real beginning of Canada, but I’m not convinced.

Most Canadians reckon 1867 as the year in which Canada was born and so, a century later, Canadians enthusiastically celebrated 1967 as the country’s centennial and, this year, most people will mark its sesquicentennial. Yet, Canada as we know it a far different country in 2017 than it was in 1867 – and not just because of the advance of technology and the accumulation of history. Canada is more truly independent today than it was then and, as significantly, the nature of its people and culture is markedly different. So it is that, while we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, Canada remains a work in progress.

In the years leading up to Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald, who emerged as its leading proponent and became the first prime minister of Canada, addressing the many challenges then faced by the British colonies in North America, declared: “The only feasible scheme which represents itself to my mind as a remedy for the evils complained of, is a confederation of all the provinces.” His efforts, in collaboration with the other Fathers of Confederation, led to the passage of the British North America Act, which created the Dominion of Canada, a union of four provinces that has since grown to ten provinces and three territories.

Since then, there have been several milestones through which Canada became progressively more independent, including the Statute of Westminster in 1931 and the patriation of the Constitution of Canada in 1982. Along the way, British nobles gave way to Canadian citizens as governors general, Canada adopted a flag of its own, and O Canada replaced God Save the Queen as the national anthem. Canada became a self-governing country in 1867 but the process of becoming a country is something that has never ceased. This reflects the dynamic and evolving nature of Confederation itself. Like our personal identities, the development of a country’s identity takes time.

In his insightful book Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff wrote: “Federalism is not a political ideology. It is just a particular way of sharing political power among different peoples within a state. But it is nationalism’s political antithesis. Those who believe in federalism hold that different peoples do not need states of their own in order to enjoy self-determination. Peoples who share traditions, geography, or common economic space may agree to share a single state, while retaining substantial degrees of self-government over matters essential to their identity as peoples. Federalism is a politics that seeks to reconcile two competing principles: the ethnic principle, according to which people wish to be ruled by their own, with the civic principle, according to which strangers wish to come together to form a community of equals, based not on ethnicity but on citizenship.” This understanding is behind the development of Canada as a unified and collaborative country with more than one language and a rich multicultural mosaic.

Ignatieff went on to assert that, “if federalism can’t work in my Canada, it probably can’t work anywhere.” This country is rich in resources, abundant in opportunities, flexible and pragmatic in its social attitudes, and possessed of democratic institutions that provide for the orderly and mostly fair management of competing interests.

Beyond all of this, though, there is a distinctive and unifying Canadian spirit that we often fail to appreciate. As Robertson Davies once said, “I am convinced that Canada has a soul, and should get on better terms with it, because at the moment it is a sadly neglected part of our inheritance.” Behind Confederation there is a spirit of hopefulness, tolerance, inclusivity, pragmatism, and a concern for the common good that, when practiced, gives strength and shape to our country.

In the early days of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald said: “No one can look into futurity and say what will be the destiny of this country. Changes come over nations and peoples in the course of ages.” For 150 years, Canadians have faced the challenges and negotiated the many changes that have been necessary to maintain the “peace, order, and good government” of this diverse but unified country. The efforts of past generations have shaped “the True North strong and free,” in reality as well as in song, and we continue to shape this inheritance and add to it as we move towards the unfolding future. This is an achievement worth celebrating.

This post appears as the editorial in the July 1, 2017, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.