Montreal Finns

Scarf and Medicine Bundle

Matthew squares off with Scarf Women

On my leaving, the Finns of Montreal gave me a gift. It wasn’t a gift card, or a gold watch (do people do that anymore?) or a bottle of fancy wine. They thought about who I was to them, and who they were to me. Then nine households – nine different women, to be more precise – knitted a scarf. Together. They each, in turn, added wool from Finland, and colours from their homes that would mean something.

I’ve rarely been so touched. I wear the scarf often. I keep it in a place where I can look at it, as I’m doing now. Its colours tell me about the people who knitted it and the services and events we enjoyed together. Its heft in my hands reminds me how warmly I was embraced by the Finnish community. Although it wasn’t intended as such, the scarf turned out to be the perfect length for a stole (that priests and pastors wear over their robe as a sign of their ordination). When I got it, I told the women it would be a ritual object for me – it couldn’t help but be, because of how it was made.

In 1884 Canada’s Federal Government passed the potlach law, part of the Indian Act. It “legally” abolished all “Indian cultural practices,” the Sun Dance, the potlach, and other religious ceremonies. It also forbade Indigenous people and groups from keeping their ritual items. That provision was only repealed in the 1950s. Bob Joseph, in 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, writes that “for 71 years…almost three generations grew up deprived of the cultural fabric of their ancestors….thousands of irreplaceable ceremonial masks, robes, blankets, and other….items were lost forever to their people” (49).

When I walked into the Castle Museum here in Nottingham UK, the first thing to catch my eye was the medicine pouch you see below. The little sign says it comes from Alberta, Canada. When ceremonies – the life of a culture – were outlawed, many of the stolen objects were given to museums. That bundle belonged – STILL belongs – to someone…Blackfoot? Cree? It’s hard to imagine someone coming into my house to take my Finnish scarf, or a Bible, or a communion chalice. But that’s exactly what my government did to the Indigenous peoples. Learning this, and remembering it, is part of being ready for reconciliation.


Jonah of Lac-Mégantic


Friday, all three former railway employees involved in the terrible tragedy at Lac-Mégantic were acquitted. Most locals didn’t want them convicted. Even though the three men have admitted they bear some responsibility in the loss of 47 lives, everyone knows the fault lies higher up, with what the Bible calls the ‘principalities and powers’. If there was a Jonah for Lac-Mégantic, the prophet wouldn’t be in that little village. Jonah would be walking through parliament, in an Ottawa whose successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, let regulation go slack, and through Wall Street, or wherever the now bankrupt MMA Railway’s shareholders and executives live and work. Those are the people who should hear the call to repent. Some of those people might – actually – be you and me. We think ethical investment is an option. Is it, really? In light of Lac-Mégantic? Would Jonah have a word for us when we too, value financial returns over human life?


Deconsecrating but not Disappearing

(a homily for the deconsecrating of the Finnish church home in Montreal)

stone fence removed one 

Do you remember the famous leaning wall of Simpson? We never called it that. But that’s what it was. The Finnish leaning wall. The stone wall that, over the years and over the decades, decided it didn’t want to stay in one place anymore. That wall started moving even before we did.

I remember one day meeting Frank Berninger, Kati’s husband, standing by the wall with cement, trying to fill in some of the cracks that had developed as it ever-so-gently tipped out over the sidewalk. Or more often, poor Ismo, out there how many times a year?, measuring the angle of the stones, how much every winter freeze up and spring thaw would nudge the stones just a few more centimeters out of place. All those church council meetings where we sat thinking, and worse, imagining, not daring to say it out loud to each other: what will happen if someday that whole humpty-dumpty arrangement comes tumbling down and there’s a car, or God forbid, a person walking by when all those stones let go and gravity takes over completely?

How can we forget? All that beautiful field rock. And now? In the words of Jesus about a different Temple, not one stone is left upon another. The wall – that long, beautiful wall that looked so permanent – is gone. As is the garden. As is the day when young Finns would sit and pose by the fifties and the hundreds for black and white photos like we have hanging in the dining room. All gone.

But WE are still here. By your endurance, Jesus said to his disciples, you will continue. Life, hope, growth, vitality. They are not so easily measured, nor given up.

We human beings are easily fooled. We think that bricks and stone, mortar and wood will outlast us. That might be true, in terms of us as individuals. But in terms of us as the children of God, as the family of the Almighty, and as the realm of the Creator in this age, that kind of thinking is dead wrong. Brick and stones will NOT outlast us.

The God of the Bible is big on promises – big on vision. And it’s almost a constant, that the most certain time for a promise is precisely the moment when things seem at their darkest, when it feels like the whole world, and not just a wall, is tipping.

If ever a congregation was facing tough days, it would seem to be our little community of Finns. Here we are, wondering how it will be for us to move in with the Estonians. Here we are, dividing up books and looking at odds and ends, and recycling and taking home bits and pieces of this and that and the other. We’re like survivors of a shipwreck. This building that is so loved it is called not just a church, but a church HOME for so many years, will change. Its façade will stay. But when the massive front end loader shovels dig in behind, it won’t be pretty.

So what a day to receive such words of promise!

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, says the Psalm we have heard in the greeting and in the liturgy. Not only now – but from this time forth, and forevermore. This is a vision for AFTER the stones come tumbling down. When not one is left atop another. This is a vision of care and concern and support. It’s a FUTURE. We should make no mistake. It is a promise. Not as the world judges it, but in the eyes of the one who knows us better than the world. I will pour my spirit out, says God through the prophet Joel, so that your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old folks shall dream dreams, and your young people shall see visions.

If we are people of faith then we are always in some kind of crisis, because crisis is where God takes us in order to move us forward. In the midst of THIS crisis, this closing of the Finnish church home, it’s especially important to hear this call: in what ways, right now, are WE supposed to dream dreams and see visions?

In the “great and terrible” day of the LORD, things are reduced to their essentials: what is the ministry of this community? What can we do to reach out, not just to the church, but in God’s world, which is so much bigger and more exciting a place? How can being reduced to nothing (to speak like Paul in 1 Corinthians) …how can being reduced wind up being a beginning point of great opportunity for you and for me and for the Finnish community?

The days are surely coming, and are here, not just for this little congregation, but for all of us who call ourselves Christian, when you and I will be called on to do something NEW. We have no choice. The church is changing all over Europe and North America. There will be no walls to protect us. No false securities. The old has passed away. The new has begun. The Lord is your keeper. The Lord is your shade at your right hand, so that the sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night.

SO: let us remember that God is the greatest dreamer of all.

The leaning wall of Simpson wasn’t just the leaning wall. It was the leaving wall. What seemed so solid has detached and is gone. It led the way and now it is our turn as a community, also to leave, and to go forward into a future where we do not know our paths, but only the one who walks those paths with us.

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forevermore. In these coming weeks, and in this coming year, which will surely be unsettled, may we see where our TRUE foundation lies. May we see the liberation that comes with losing something so that we might gain something else. May we recognize our Lord in the wilderness. May THAT be what inspires us, and the point of view that gives us direction. Our heads are raised. May God grant us a vision, and through this present passing, bring new life to us all.