Suomi Conference of Canada

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)




Spoken Word Based on John 21

A spoken word I performed at the 2017 Suomi Conference, Hilldale church, Thunder Bay, April 30, 2017. Click below to hear (and watch!) it. Dedicated to Liisa and Jari Lahtinen and the people of Thunder Bay:

<p><a href=”″>Anderson Spoken Word on John 21 for Suomi Conference</a> from <a href=”″>Matthew Anderson</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Ahead of the Red Army Sunday


Life of a Montréaler Dept: I find out today is Sunday is something called “Kodumaalt Lahkumise Jumalateenistus” (Leaving Estonia ahead of the advancing Russian Army Sunday). Such a thing exists? So I include prayers for modern-day refugees. As the Estonians file in for church, there are two visitors who happen to speak only Russian. What are the chances? They want to know if I will take their book, in Russian, and find a translator for the Finns, the other group I am responsible for. They may be Karelians with links to Finland, but I can’t tell. So I wave at the replacement organist for my Estonian service, who happens to have moved to Montreal from Ukraine. She comes over and they talk, in Russian, about the Finns, while I put the finishing touches on the Estonian-English liturgy about fleeing the Russians. Another day as a Lutheran in Montreal.

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.

If You Put Mont-Tremblant at the Top of Europe

Levi ski area

Okay, there are a few differences. At the bottom of the hill at Levi, Lapland (about 120 km north of the Arctic Circle), behind the state-of-the-art chairlift (heated seats, a tinted canopy and a conveyor belt to help you get on), there’s a wooden tee-pee where people crouch in the semi-darkness over a fire and cook their sausages for lunch. There’s one electric-car recharging station in the town, and the rental shop carries the standard glittering equipment you’d get at Lake Louise or Chamonix. But there are also posters advertising reindeer rides and Lapland igloos where you lie on your back and watch the northern lights. (They neglect to mention that there’s been little sunspot activity this year and a corresponding drop in occurrences.) The snack bar has all the usual fries and hot-dogs, but also salmon on rye rusks, reindeer burgers and a kind of potato pancake that they call ‘bread’ here but reminds me of a thicker Norwegian lefse (apologies for using one obscure Scandinavian cultural reference to help try to explain another!) In fact, we’re only a couple of hundred km from that northern reach where Norway and Finland greet each other overtop of Sweden, and sometimes ski accident victims here might be taken to a Norwegian hospital rather than a Finnish.

I help Kaapo and Oiva, my host family’s boys, get into their snowsuits. Kaapo is not feeling well. Their father, Matti, has been shovelling snow off of the family’s cottage roof all day, but the big man seems none the worse for wear despite the back-breaking labour. Sari and Matti take me to the restaurant near where they met, and treat me to a local speciality: a warm, flat Lappish cheese with accompanying cloudberry sorbet, and a thick caramel sauce on the side. I may not be in heaven, but I’m close. On the way out, I pick up the local Levi Times paper: “Kittila became an independent parish by Russian imperial edict on 30 January 1854,” it says. “Population 6500. There are 900 inhabitants in the town of Levi and rooms for 24,000 tourists. Unemployment rate 13%, 718 lakes and reindeer approximately 12,000.”

with Oiva and Kaapo Sari and Matti

A Warm – too hot! – a welcome to Rovaniemi


Sauna One

My Ash Wednesday in Finland began with a flight north. I left behind the beautiful old 19th and early 20th century buildings, the gritty sidewalks and the cold sea wind of Helsinki and landed in the sunny, white and still world that marks the beginning of Finnish Lapland. It was so strange to be surrounded by banks of snow, yet feel warmer than I had in Helsinki. “It’s a dry cold,” someone said. Rovaniemi feels like Saskatoon or Edmonton on a nice winter day. Even looks a bit like it.

Right now the Arctic Circle, ironically, is warmer than Montreal. Pastor Sari Kuirinlahti met me at the airport. “I have hugs for you,” I said, “from Riita and Olavi Hepomaki and from Jari and Liisa Lahtinen. Is that okay?” “Oh!” she answered, “I miss those people!” And she let me give her the hugs, even though she blushed. Then she handed me a chart with all the things I’m doing in the next few days, based on what I had emailed her. Two documentary showings in a theatre and a chapel, a couple of interviews, a trip, meetings, some concerts…..

But first, she said, sauna! Have you had sauna yet? I admitted I had been two days in Finland already without sauna. You will be picked up this evening, she informed me. Get ready (I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant). The afternoon gave me time to settle in to the “Piispankameri” or the so-called Bishop’s room, which when a Bishop isn’t visiting is used for other guests like visiting musicians, or in this case, me. Cross-country skiers were passing by in front of my window. Having no skis, I walked to a local store and bought some food for the apartment, with the very kind clerk taking me around by the arm and helping me find what I needed, then warmed up some Karjalan Pirakkat with tea. Sari returned and took me to meet church volunteers. They asked, with Sari interpreting, what I thought the challenges facing my congregation (and the church overall) in Canada are. It turns out there are many similarities, despite the differences. Then another pastor (they seem to be everywhere here), Tuomo K, whisked me away to the church camp at Norvajärvi.

There were men there in the woods by the frozen lake. Many men, of different ages, in the saunas, towelling off, out standing in the snow, or cooking Finnish sausages over a fireplace in a hall. I sat in the sauna listening to the quiet hiss of steam. My host made it hotter and hotter until unable to bear the steam any more we had to run, naked, out to the snow. “A warm – sorry, a hot! – welcome to Rovaniemi” he laughed. We had arrived late so most of the men were already dressed and setting up for their discussion. I waited until the others were gone and then did what I had promised myself I would do. I fell back into the snow and looked, oh so briefly, at the stars, ten kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

The men sang a hymn, said a prayer, and I introduced myself to them in my very few words of Finnish. Then they fell into their planned discussion: how to be a Christian and involved in political life. It was all in Suomi, so I could only pick up a few words – socialism, communism, capitalism, faith, God. In this area the communist party was very strong for many years, and tensions sometimes ran high. Still, after the heat and steam and flight, it was hard not to nod off. The man beside me did, but then revived every now and then to add a few words to the discussion.

Then it was back down the highway, past the “watch for elk” and “Arctic Circle” signs, and boots crunching in the hard-packed snow, back to my room. “Kiitoksia!” I called out. “Good sleep!” my host answered. After that sauna, it won’t be hard to have a good sleep. Welcome to Rovaniemi.