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.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Word of Appreciation

As in previous years, the awards ceremony at the 98th annual convention of the Icelandic National League of North America highlighted the brilliant array of contributions to the wellbeing of the Icelandic community by the various individuals who were recognized. It was moving to listen to each award’s presenter, read about each honoree in the program, and then listen to recipients express their thanks for their award when, in point of fact, it should have been us thanking them.

Healthy organizations recognize and appreciate the good work of their leaders and other volunteers, so it’s heartening to see the efforts the INLNA puts into acknowledging them through the Laurence S.G. Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award, its honorary memberships, and the new Joan Inga Eyjolfson Cadham Award for contributions through literature, arts and media. As in the past, this year’s worthy recipients earned their awards through hard work and dedication – some locally, some regionally, some internationally.

When the ceremony was over, however, I found myself wondering why we sometimes wait so long to publicly appreciate the work of our leaders. I’m thinking here about public institutions and voluntary associations in general, not just the INLNA or its member clubs. I was reminded of a deceased ministerial colleague who used to ask why honorary degrees were given out towards the end of their recipients’ careers when it would have been better to have honoured them somewhere closer to the midpoint.

Our society’s wellbeing is dependent on the contributions of countless individuals who step forward to offer leadership in the public arena, most on a purely voluntary basis, and I’m struck by how quick we can be sometimes to demand more or criticize imperfections while being much slower to offer words of appreciation. Gratitude is a spiritual discipline that seems to be in short supply these days and it is best cultivated through conscious inner reflection and outward expressions of appreciation.

So I’d like to thank the board of the Icelandic National League of North America as well as the board of its partner in the old country, Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga, for their indefatigable efforts on behalf of our shared Icelandic culture and heritage, both individually and collectively, not to mention the energy they put into bringing our communities together to “connect the pieces.” I’m not prepared to wait until their efforts are just one part of a lifetime achievement – I want to thank them now. And, while I’m at it, I’d like to extend my appreciation to the Icelandic Communities Association of Northeast North Dakota for organizing a magnificent convention this year.
Sunna Furstenau, President of the
Icelandic National League of North America

I would especially like to highlight and celebrate the extraordinary leadership of the INLNA’s president, Sunna Furstenau, who is surely one of the most remarkable leaders in the league’s nearly century-long history. The energy, enthusiasm, and organizational skills she brings to her work, including both a robust vision and attention to detail, are rarely found in a single individual. Add to this her grace, positivity and tenacity, and you have a force that’s as powerful as a prairie windstorm and as gentle as a summer breeze.

I don’t quite fathom how Sunna juggles it all. In addition to guiding the work of the INLNA, she has led the development of Icelandic Roots from a simple genealogical database to a comprehensive cultural institution, strengthened ties between North America and Iceland, visited numerous Icelandic communities, supported local initiatives and international programs, and she has still found time to be a devoted spouse, mother and amma. She has both a deep sense of her roots and an expansive imagination, which are reflected in her creativity and drive.

No institution lasts forever without reinventing itself. Indeed, voluntary associations need to renew their vision and clarify their purpose every generation or their existential clock will begin ticking. In Sunna Furstenau, the Icelandic National League of North America has a once-in-a-generation leader whose presence has helped to reinvigorate the league and reset its clock. Our appreciation of Sunna’s leadership shouldn’t wait for some far-off awards ceremony. We should appreciate it and offer our gratitude now.

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

Sunday, January 01, 2017

When Does a New Year Really Begin?

At a recent meeting of the Interfaith Roundtable in Winnipeg, a monthly gathering of people from a wide array of spiritual traditions, there was a robust conversation about the nature of holidays and holy days – what they are, what they mean to us, how they differ between cultures and traditions, and how there are similarities that cross cultures and bridge traditions. The conversation was driven, of course, by the looming Christmas season, which dominates celebrations here in North America, even though most of the people in the room were from other religious backgrounds. One of the seemingly universal characteristics we discerned about holidays was the significance of seasonal changes that lie behind many of them, even when they are otherwise connected with historical events or spiritual teachings.

I observed that, while holidays are days we set apart as somehow special or sacred, there is a measure of arbitrariness involved in which days a society or group selects to set apart for such honour. In many cases, the origin of a holiday is lost in the dim recesses of history and often involves a layering of traditions, one on top of another, no matter how much we may try to pinpoint its origin and purpose. Following the meeting, it dawned on me that New Year’s Day may be the quintessential illustration of an arbitrary choice for a holiday.

When does a new year really begin? How real are the numbers we attach to a given year when the selection of a starting point for our numbering was arbitrary to begin with? How do we reconcile the fact that different cultures employ different starting points in numbering the years? And how did January 1st earn the honour of being reckoned as the first day of the year? Of course, an additional question that some might ask is, who cares?

In pagan Iceland, the year was divided into two equal parts, summer and winter, and human lives were counted not in years but in winters. Ethnologist Árni Björnsson, who is arguably Iceland’s leading authority on calendars and holidays, says that Sumardagurinn fyrsti, the first day of summer, which falls between April 19th and 25th in modern terms, marked the beginning of a new year in ancient Iceland, although there was no New Year’s Day as such. And Icelanders have continued to mark the first day of summer right down to the present. Gifts were exchanged on this day, at least since the Reformation, and small tasks were practiced to symbolically mark the arrival of the growing season, which was still more apparent than real. The churches held worship on this day, until the practice was banned by the king in 1744, and the day was considered an auspicious time for fortune-telling. Indeed, there are similarities in the folklore attached to each of the days that have been successively thought to mark the beginning of the year.

In the 12th century, Ari the Wise pegged the beginning of the year on September 1st, in keeping with papal practice, but the Icelandic church itself regarded Christmas Day as the beginning of the year. In 1540, a marginal note in the first published version of the New Testament in Icelandic shows that January 1st had come to be accepted by then as the first day of a new year, at least in the eyes of the church and the academy. The first recorded New Year’s party in Iceland (at least in the modern sense) was hosted by Rev. Þórður Jónsson of Hítardalur and his wife, Helga Árnadóttir, in the 17th century, although there were hints of feasts as early as the 13th century. And, in 1791, the first known Gamlársköld (Old Year’s Eve) bonfire was mentioned by Dr. Sveinn Pálsson.

Needless to say, even after New Year’s Day became firmly attached to January 1st, the day itself moved when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian. Around the world, different cultures have reckoned the beginning of the year at different times, so the first day of the year has fallen in nearly every month at some time and in some place.

So every day marks the beginning of a new year, in a sense, depending on how we mark the flow of time. By convention, though, our heritage now sets aside January 1st each year as New Year’s Day – a day to reflect upon the year that has passed and leave it to the keeping of sacred memory; a day to ponder the year ahead and embrace its hope, as best we can.

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