Finnish Lutherans

17 “Finnish” Clergy & the Future in Canada


Look at this photo of the “Finnish pastors” at this year’s Suomi Conference in Sudbury. Seventeen smiling faces. Seventeen clergy who, for the most part, like each other, share jokes, help each other out, support each other, and share an eagerness to be the best leaders they can be, in a renewed, vital Finnish-Canadian church.

But as they say, a picture tells a thousand words. And this picture, taken in the closing minutes of the Suomi Conference 2018, says a lot about what the Canadian Finnish church is, and might become.

17-6= 11          17-3=14           14-3=11           14-7=7             17-4=13

To start with, six out of the seventeen “Finnish” pastors in this picture aren’t Finnish at all! Six are actually English-speaking pastors from Canada. Only one of the six “anglos” – Stanley Johnston – is fluent in spoken Finnish. The rest of us practice our pronunciation with varying degrees of success!

Three of the seventeen “Finnish” pastors who DO speak Finn were either born in Canada or the United States. Or moved here at a very early age. That means that nine out of the seventeen people in the photo are probably more culturally North American than European. That’s major. The Lutheran church in North America is not a state church. Lutherans have always been a minority here. When you’re a minority, living with small budgets, and relying heavily on volunteers, you tend to think and act differently (as North Americans do, in any case).

Three of the seventeen pastors are actually visitors from Finland. Olli Valtonen is founder of the Tuomasmessu (The Thomas Mass), an international movement, and a book author. Leila Valtonen is a book author as well, a group psychotherapist and an expert in the Enneagram personality test.  Mauri Vihko is the new Kirkon ulkosuomalaistyön johtaja, administrator of Finnish churches abroad. He says that the Finnish church is also shrinking, along with its budget. Since 90% of the Suomi Conference budget comes from Finland, that’s a concern! Mauri assures us that there is no immediate danger. But changes are ahead…. Mauri is very interested in how to reach out to Finns who are “global migrants”, travelling out of Finland for jobs, adventure, or relationships. This is EXACTLY the kind of Finn we’re seeing more and more of, in Montreal.

Fully half of the fourteen Canadian pastors in this photo are either retired, or within a few years of retirement. Nothing wrong with grey hair, but there’s a lot of it in this photo! Three of the seventeen serve part-time, mostly because the parishes have become so small they don’t need a full-time pastor. Only four of the seventeen are women. But notice – they are among the youngest in an otherwise aging group. The face of the Finnish presence, and the face of clergy, in Canada, is changing.

This photo says it all! (photo courtesy of Ismo Makkonen; missing from photo: Pat Dorland)




The Young Finnish Women Pioneers of Montreal

Finnish maids in Quebec ca 1930

The earliest waves of Finnish immigrants to Montreal consisted overwhelmingly of young Finnish women. Unlike in other areas of Canada, where Finnish immigrants engaged in forestry or other labour, in Montreal the gender balance was definitely female! These determined and resourceful young Finns often worked as domestic help in the ‘grandes maisons”, or the large and rich homes of the Montreal wealthy. They were the primary movers behind starting the congregation, and the initial financial offerings they raised came from their own, often meagre, earnings. Through the years, unlike in many other churches, women and men together have always been on church council, and active in the direction of the congregation, its music and its social life. Newly arrived maids on the steps of the Finnish Immigrant Home in Montreal ca 1929 Victor Kangas Collection

It’s not surprising that so many of the Suomi activities planned for fall 2017 in Montreal – a Finnish bus trip to the Eastern Townships on Oct 14, the sold-out Suomi 100 Ball in December – are likewise spearheaded by women. The historical video can be watched here:

Again the Call


‘Wait and see what Trump does.’ How many times have we heard that, lately. Such terrible uncertainty. Everywhere. But hasn’t it always been that way? Jesus called the first disciples during brutal military occupation. Martin Luther became a monk and then a reformer  during societal earthquakes. Martin Luther King was who he was because he lived out his dream during, and precipitating, crises that shook the world. And so again the call.  This Jesus walks by us too. And says: ‘follow me. NOW is the time. Despite: no – because of – the risk. Follow me.’

Everyday annunciations


Mary Eastlake – Annunciation – Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

This was the one God chose as theotokos, meaning “God-bearer”. My spirit rejoices, the girl tells the angel. For God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. The message is simple. If God chose someone as weak and lowly as Mary for something so important and powerful, then surely God continues to choose the  outsider. We need have no shame when we feel that way. More importantly: we ignore the modern-day theotokai – the weak, marginalized, strange, poor, God-bearers around us – at our peril. They are the prophets. They tell us what is important.

What comes naturally


A few years ago my daughter called me from a soccer field, telling me she’d been hurt. I picked up crutches and met her at the field. “Thank-you, Daddy,” she kept saying to me as I helped her up. “Thank-you for coming.” So you also, Jesus says, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say “We are but slaves. We have only done what we ought to have done!” Let me rephrase. Who among you, who is a parent or a step-parent or a grand-parent or an aunt or an uncle, would expect one of the children in your life in an emergency to thank you for coming to their aid? Would you not rather say to that child: “you’re welcome my daughter, my niece, but really I’m only doing what any adult in this situation ought to do?” I felt a bit ashamed. After all, where else would I WANT to be? Jesus is making the point that there are certain things that are just part of the deal. They’re supposed to be part of our basic identity. One night, years ago when I had a house, I left the water running on my grass by accident and went to sleep. My neighbor, who arrived home late, saw it and came over and turned it off. When he told me the next day and I thanked him, he just shrugged: “I’m your neighbour,” he said. “That’s what neighbours do.” Feed the hungry, says Jesus. Clothe the poor, visit the sick, seek justice for the marginalized and powerless…and do it all while being thankful for what you have, trying to live in love. You and I, said Jesus, should just shrug and say: that’s just what we’re supposed to do. Imagine a world where it could be that natural. Truth is…it can.


The Promised (Fin)land

2013-08-20 20.43.25

I really LOVE Montreal, one of “my” Finns will say. It’s a great city. It’s so exciting. But….But then the Finn will get a dreamy look on their face: “But you know, I’m only here temporarily. It’s a two-year contract. And then our plan is to move back to Helsinki.”

Montreal, nice as it is, is just the waiting station. For many, the land of their dreams is, was, and always will be, Finland. We’ll talk about Mount Royal and how nice it is in the spring to look out over the city. We’ll chat about going out for a sugaring-off and maple syrup, or skating on Beaver Lake, and we’ll all agree that there’s nothing like the taste of tire-sur-neige when there’s still snow on the ground and sap flowing in the trees. We’ll talk about going to La Banquise for poutine and the night life on St-Denis and the jazz and the great music and the outdoor terrasses for a cappuccino or a café au lait.

And that’s where I, for my part, would stop, maybe. But sooner or later, something, maybe talking about the Laurentians, will set the others on to Finland. Oh, the forests, they’ll say. You don’t have to go far out of Helsinki you know. The birches. I miss the birches. And then their conversation will be all about the saunas, and swimming in the deep dark lakes, and picking lingonberries and the quiet of the northland woods. And they’ll get this smile and this far-away look on their faces: You can be SO happy there, so easily! Even just dreaming about going back is what gets us through.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, writes John the Elder, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Life, frankly, looks a lot more like traffic jams on Atwater street than either the idealized Finland of some folks I know, or the heavenly Jerusalem. But you and I CAN find glimpses of how things should be, even here, even on Monkland Avenue or Sherbrooke Street or Victoria avenue St-Lambert, in how we treat each other and the world around us, around the table, with all of our faults and warts and misgivings and hesitant happinesses.

Then, and then truly, we will experience that voice Revelation describes, speaking to us from the throne. The voice we cannot always hear, but the one we know is calling, and more than calling, promising. Telling each one of us. Behold, I make all things new even you.


Life is a Bowl of Cherries


As many of you know, the first time that I ever went on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain I was wounded. I’d snapped my Achilles tendon and had it repaired by surgery. So I was in a cast that tilted my foot straight down, which was like having one foot in high heels. Add 25 pounds of luggage on your back, and the effect is to drive your toes into the fiberglass with incredible force and cut the skin with every step.

I just couldn’t keep up. So after four or five days, it seemed wise that I would let the more-or-less healthy-bodied continue to walk on without dragging me along like an anchor. Also, as nice as it was to be the welcoming committee of one, it didn’t seem the best use of my time or money either, to hire cars from one little village to the next and sit alone in abandoned town squares all day waiting for my friends to show up. So with the help of my colleagues at Concordia I’d cooked up a plan. I would head off to a country home in France owned by these colleagues, and spend a week with them enjoying lovely conversation, incredible wine, and the unmatched delights of the countryside.

Of course, there are plans, and then there are realities. Unfortunately my colleagues turned out to be not healthy enough to travel, and certainly not to France. No problem, they said graciously. Here are the keys to our place. You just go ahead and enjoy it. So I waved goodbye to my Camino friends, and jumped a train.

Three trains, an overnight in a semi-abandoned hotel at the border, and LOTS of walking later, I arrived at my little town in France. I was exhausted. There was no other word for it. I’d dragged my crippled body through more stations and up and down more stairs than I wanted to remember. I dropped my luggage, found out where there was a grocery, and walked another great distance through the town to a store to buy food. I hadn’t eaten properly for two days. I got my groceries. It turned out, with the requisite drinking water, that it was quite a few bags. No problem, I thought. I’ll just ask the check-out clerk to call me a taxi.

When they think you’re an idiot, the French have a way of speaking with a kind of disdain that really, only they seem to have mastered. The clerk arched her eyebrows at me, as if I had failed to register even a score on the IQ test of how to survive in little French towns. “Monsieur,” she informed me, “you are not in Paris. There IS no taxi here.”

Thus it was, that after 800 kilometres across country by train, completely exhausted, hungry and tired and alone, I tied six bags of groceries to my wounded body and set off, limping and hopping, jostling and sloshing, through an amused little French town to my destination. I was NOT happy. I was NOT pleased. And definitely I was complaining.

From the wilderness, says Exodus, the Israelites journeyed by stages. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. And there they quarreled with Moses, saying “Give us water to drink.” And they complained, saying: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

There’s a long Biblical tradition of whining, but this has to be one of the lowpoints! At a place sometimes called “the rock at Horeb” and sometimes called “Massah and Meribah”, the complaints of the Hebrews reached a fever pitch.

In reality, they had escaped from murder, genocide and forced labour. They should have been happy. But somehow, wandering around in the desert, they were definitely NOT getting the deal they felt they were promised. They maintained, as we so often do, an unhelpful image in their minds of a future that became more and more unreal and romanticized. Oddly enough, the perfect place in those former slaves’ minds, began to look more and more like Egypt, the land of their oppression. It’s odd how often we wind up attracted to the very things that oppress us.

So they complained. They complained and they complained. And Moses – poor, put-upon Moses, reacted by – what else? – complaining too. Moses cried out to the Lord, saying: “What shall I do with these people? They’re ready to stone me.” There’s more humour in the Bible than we realize. I think this is one of those places. Moses is complaining about the Israelites complaining. In other words, the whining just keeps going up the chain of command.

We live in a culture of complaint. The City complains about the police not doing their job, the police complain about the contract negotiations, people complain about how cold it’s getting when two weeks ago we were all complaining about how hot it was. We worry about this and that and something else, without realizing how fortunate we actually are.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression that with some people it’s: “easier to get water from a stone” than to get them to change their attitudes. The story from Exodus shows us that God’s people (including you and me) are SO stubborn and whiny that sometimes it’s easier to get water from a stone than to change human nature. So God opens the boulders and the water comes out. God can pull miracles out like rabbits from a hat. Even raising someone from the dead. But even God apparently can’t always change human nature. Then OR now.

There was a landowner, Jesus says, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. He agreed on a fair daily rate with them. Then he decided he needed more workers, so he went back at 9 am to get more workers, and noon, and three o’clock. Even at five pm he went out and got a few more people to work in the vineyard. Then, at closing, when he gives the last-hired a good wage, the first to be hired start rubbing their hands. Great, great, they think. But what’s this? He gave them all the exact SAME pay, the ones who had worked all day sweating in the sun, and the one who had only been out an hour. Complain? You bet they did. And the landowner says to them: Friend, I am doing you no wrong…Are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last.

When it was written, this text is probably about how the non-Jews, people like us, get a relationship with God even though we’re not Jewish and haven’t really earned our keep. For us, now, I think it also has says something about complaining. Do we really realize how fortunate we really are? If we did, wouldn’t we act differently?

That day in the little French village, I was berating myself for deciding to buy so much drinking water. Yes, it’s tough being crippled. As I staggered home under the weight of bags and with my crippled leg, I was wondering if I should just give up and break open the wine. Finally I managed, with lots of stops and despite all the smirks of passers-by, to stumble home. My fingers were raw from carrying bags. My toes felt like they’d been put in a vise grip. I unpacked and sat down, sweating. And then eventually I walked into the back yard of this little place.

“How in the world did I wind up here?” was what I was thinking right then. I was tired, and hungry, AND alone, in a foreign country. “What am I going to do in this abandoned place?” Sort of like the Hebrews. I was complaining. Just then I felt my cast squash something in the grass. I looked down to see what I’d stepped on. It was red, and squishy. There were lots more red and squishy things. I looked down, and then, finally I looked up. And what I saw was this: I was standing, hungry, under a whole tree full of beautiful ripe cherries.

The moral of this Bible text is simple: “God will provide.” Not necessarily in the ways we expect. Not without pain. Not without surprises. The wandering Hebrews did NOT expect water from a stone, or quail at nightfall, or manna in the morning. But God DID provide. And as God did for them, so God will for us. In ways both unexpected, perhaps painful, in the short term at least, and ultimately surprisingly full of grace and growth. Like the workers in the vineyard.

The last question the Israelites asked at Massah and Meribah was this: “Is the Lord among us or not?” And the Gospel answer is always the same: Is the Lord among us? Yes.

Let us wait on the Lord. Life may not always be a bowl full of cherries. But sometimes it is. And through the pain and the trouble, through the thanks and the complaints, though a future that so often seems uncertain and troubled, somehow, we can ALWAYS be sure of this: God will provide.