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Fall 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 2 · pp. 75–82 

Growing with the Seasons of Life

Katie Funk Wiebe

A journey by car or on foot can be retraced by the road signs or landmarks along the way. A spiritual journey can also be retraced, not by street signs, but by experiences that marked a turn in the journey. A spiritual journey is always individual and personal although it may have been traveled living closely with other people. The markings on this journey, to use Dag Hammerskold’s term, may not be as tidy and clear as a well-lighted street sign. Looking back, however, they reveal the development of convictions and beliefs, the measure of faith, and, especially, the wonderful breakthroughs of God. I want to write about some of the clearer road signs in my life.

The most difficult transition is the inner one—the spiritual journey.

I was born in northern Saskatchewan to Russian-Mennonite immigrant parents who came to Canada in 1923, following the terrible revolution and famine in Russia. I grew up vaguely aware of their struggle to find an identity and a spiritual and economic home in their new, not always kind, environment. My early childhood was rich in stories about growing up in South Russia, the journey to Canada, and about what happened in Dad’s world in the grocery store he managed. I later discovered in these stories a mother-lode of truth.

We lived in Blaine Lake, not in a Mennonite community, but one that was dominantly Russian, with a mixture of many other ethnic cultures and faiths. During the short summer months, we enjoyed a fairly close attachment to Mennonite Brethren friends and relatives across the {76} river. At other times my parents connected with the Russian Baptist church and we children with the United Church of Canada. My father liked living in this Russian community, and since we knew no other, we children enjoyed it too. It was home to us.

Little did my parents know that by introducing us to two theologies from an early age—the more liberal and comfortable theology of the United Church of Canada and an emerging, yet demanding, Mennonite Brethren theology, unsure of its identity in the swirling waters of evangelicalism, child evangelism, dispensationalism, higher criticism and revivalism—we children might have a tough assignment later on sorting it all out. For a long time, words like “saved” and other evangelical terms were hard for me to use. They sounded too cultist.


At the age of 19 after a nine- to ten-month period of searching, studying, and praying, the spirit of Christ was slowly born in me. I looked for neon signs, bells and pronouncements as this new life found the light, but there were none. So I cautiously moved forward in the faith, somewhat concerned that my slow lurching toward the child of Bethlehem didn’t match the dramatic crisis experience of others.

The next step was resigning from my position as a legal secretary to attend the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg. I was convinced I wanted to serve the Lord, but I didn’t know where or how.

On the application form for college, I had to fill out what kind of church work I was preparing for. I serenely put down children’s church work, although that was far from my mind. I put down what I thought the college officials wanted to read. What else could a young Mennonite Brethren woman do but help in children’s ministries? The highest type of spiritual service I could dream about was becoming a minister’s wife or a missionary. I never considered becoming a writer because writing was not in the accepted list of vocations for Mennonite Brethren women.

At college, I was introduced to the heart of the Mennonite Brethren church—and to church ministry and Bible study. I lapped it up. Here I also met and later married my husband. During my 15-year marriage to Walter Wiebe, Bible teacher and minister, I supported him in his developing vision for a literature ministry among Mennonite Brethren. I recall kneeling by the kitchen table and dedicating our lives to this ministry.


During the years my husband was pastor at the Hepburn, Sask. {77}, Mennonite Brethren Church I decided to begin writing. The burden to write had been upon me for some time. I gently rejected the congregation’s expectations of a pastor’s wife to garden, keep chickens, and a cow, and exchanged them for the thrill of creating with words. I placed a small table under the stairs, hauled out my old college typewriter, and started to fill the wastepaper basket.

I encountered a series of obstacles. I discovered that women in the Mennonite Brethren church were not expected to contribute to church periodicals. This was men’s work. I was doing most of the work on the small conference publication, The Youth Worker, which my husband edited, sometimes signing Walter’s name to my work. Yet the youth committee had no freedom to appoint me editor when Walter decided he had no time to continue. God had given me writing gifts, but the church didn’t want them. Had God erred or did I err in expecting to use them? I was unsure. Even Walter’s ordination service gave me as his wife no clear direction. I was the wife of the servant of God.

In Kitchener, Ontario, I offered to teach a class for mothers with infants and small children, something I had been doing in Saskatchewan. I felt sorry for these mothers who did not attend Sunday Bible classes. I wanted to give them the opportunity for Bible study. Women who did attend a large mixed class usually kept silent. My offer was refused because women were not to teach in church. More perplexity.

A few more incidents like these, including my growing awareness of the tremendous riches residing in the women of the church, which were largely untapped, gave me serious inner turmoil. I did nothing with this tangle of thoughts for many years. I stored the experiences in my mind because I didn’t know what to do with them. To deal with them seemed to be arguing with God about the way he had made women and men.

The worst aspect of this turmoil was that I didn’t dare discuss my confusion with anyone. To do so would force me to reveal to myself my “liberal” thinking, worse still, an unspiritual attitude. But I could not deny something was happening within me that I couldn’t identify.


The death of my husband in the fall of 1962 shortly after moving to Hillsboro, Kansas, was an experience that probably had the most far-reaching effect on me, my faith, my theology, my outlook on life, and my vocation. I immediately went to work in a strange community to support my four children, unclear about the future.

My immediate loss of identity in a preacher-oriented Mennonite Brethren world was unexpected and devastating. Without a husband I had {78} no identity and also no pipeline into the church. I, who had always enjoyed knowing what was happening in church and conference, now had been rushed to the periphery. It took several years before I had the courage to face the problem of pain and suffering and the role of faith in healing. During this period of searching, I began nailing my own 95 theses to my Wittenberg door. Slowly, surely, I had to have something to cling to or give up. I had thought I could explain my faith by going to the little green Confession of Faith booklet and affirming each item. But I found faith doesn’t work that way. What I thought I believed didn’t agree with experience.

I struggled intensely to figure out what to do. I was faced with two alternatives—reject my faith and all that the church stands for, or put a more solid basis under my spiritual feet. I chose the latter.

I had gleaned from various sources that God was my personal messenger boy, ready to supply my every need. I prayed, God answered—the transaction was simple and mechanical. I accepted unconsciously that Christians lived in a mechanistic world in which they moved in predetermined paths (labeled God’s plan) like woundup Christian toys, not as free moral beings. I accepted that God had a plan for my life. It was important for me to discover that plan and then to wait for God to shove me into the right way. I was but a puppet in God’s hands.

Out of a lengthy period of searching came the firm conviction that the Christian life is a meaningful relationship between a personal God and the woman or man who chooses to follow him, based on trust. It is an intelligent relationship. Faith is not blind.

Each step in the faith journey must be claimed separately. Each faithstep forward, despite many giant steps backward, cleared the mist a little bit. My answers to suffering and related issues came in small bits and pieces, which I have explained more fully in my books Alone and Bless Me Too, My Father.


I took the next step. I found it was important to believe in God because God is God and not because he is a blessing machine. Faith means trusting in both favorable and unfavorable circumstances.

I became convinced of the importance of theology as well as Bible study for all laypersons, not just for the full-time worker. It took a long time for me to accept that theologies, which are human systems of thought trying to figure out God’s relationship to the world, have fads. They are subject to human error.

At MBBC we women students were steered away from theological {79} courses because we “would probably never use them.” Today, I firmly believe that theology is the task of every believer, male or female. We live according to our theology. Spiritual growth, relating to today’s world, the strength of our relationship with Christ, and our understanding of sin and evil, depends on our theology. The task of theology is to root believers firmly in the Christian life by thinking through God’s word for their own lives as it relates to their particular context. To allow ministers and academic theologians to spoonfeed us our theology is backtracking to the Middle Ages when only the priests had access to the Bible and the right to interpret it.

I accepted that I was accountable for what I believed, yet I hold firmly to the view that error and conflict in interpretation would be lessened if it was hammered out within the community of faith in prayer and humility. That is why I openly promote adult Bible study that allows for interaction of members and has a conscious goal of theology as well as biblical knowledge. I have taught adult Bible classes nearly all the last 32 years in Kansas.

To theologize is an invitation for God to enter my life with truth through his Spirit and lead me to greater certainty. If I make a mistake, God’s economy has room for forgiveness.


I have another signpost that directed my way. One day I had an Aha! experience: I stumbled upon Christ’s words, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” By now I was a grown woman, widowed, supporting four children, in search of an identity like a teenager and pursuing a higher education. If God loves me, I could love myself also. God does not expect me to be an invertebrate, an empty husk, a shell, slouching along in the hidden cracks of life. What glory does that give him? God’s invasion of my life does not wipe out my personality, but enhances it. The discovery of his love meant I could reach out to others with joy and freedom. And this happened after I was forty!

Love myself? I had to learn to love myself the way God had made me with my own set of talents and gifts, my own hopes and dreams, my own weaknesses and faults, despite the thinking of the church that I, a woman, shouldn’t strive to serve the church spiritually in this country. Doors to ministry only opened for women overseas.

That experience was like having another conversion. God thought I was okay the way he had made me—fairly bright intellectually, creative, wanting to write and share my ideas. Like the bent woman Jesus healed in the temple, I could stand erect. {80}

It took many years before I could identify myself as a biblical feminist because of the stigma attached to the word “feminist.” By feminist I mean someone who believes that God created male and female in his image and pronounced them both good. Both were given dominion over the earth.

But I struggled against this position. It sounded brazen, unscriptural. The territory it might take me into looked much too unsure. I found myself looking back with longing, for the way ahead seemed much too hard. Too many Christians, including Mennonite Brethren, attacked the women’s movement by trivializing, condemning harshly, bombarding with prooftexts, without ever having studied both sides of the matter. I collected several hundred books in the process of determining my own theological positions.

I feared God might strike me dead the first time I taught a mixed class. To give myself permission to do untraditional things, like speaking in public, was much harder than I expected. I understood the whistleblower in a government science laboratory who said, “If you must sin, sin against God, not against bureaucracy. God will forgive. Bureaucracy never.”

I asked myself many questions. What was at the heart of the contradiction between faith and enforced silence and submission of women? Was the contradiction in God and the Bible? Or in women and men who claimed to be Christian yet opposed the full development of women in church and society? How valid is experience? If men can lean on a spiritual calling to the ministry, can women also say, “I believe God has called me”? How much is the issue clouded over by a socially ingrained bias, beginning first with the translators, then the commentators of Scripture?

The difficulty in the church during the height of the women’s movement was that it lacked models which showed people how men and women could function together in the church, serving one another with love, mutual submission, and understanding. Jesus’ radical approach toward women in his earthly ministry seemed like some femi-nazi idea, to use Rush Limbaugh’s term.

I admit it is easier to serve God without a sense of calling. I wish at times I had never become involved in Bible study, in prayer, in thought about women’s ministry. Then I could pull back any time and learn to play golf.

Letty Russell in The Household of Freedom states that welcoming a new group into a household causes a major shift in the way we see reality. Everyone has to readjust when power is redistributed, whether the newcomer is a newborn baby or a hired man. The admission of Gentiles caused an upheaval in the New Testament Church. Women entering the Mennonite Brethren church have also caused a disturbed church to readjust. {81}


I try to convey my vision of God’s love through writing and speaking. Over the years I have written voluminously on many topics. I see the metamorphosis of my self over the years revealed in that writing. I test an idea for a time, then push on to another. I have changed a great deal in the past 30 years. I expect to change some more. It has been helpful not to lock my mind into thinking patterns and say: “Nothing can or should change.”

I know that the day I am no longer seriously involved in a creative tension with my beliefs, attempting to bring new light to ideas and situations, my vision will dim and my computer remain unused. As a writer I have a conscious sense of the stewardship of ideas God entrusts to me. I rarely write off the top of my head. I fear greatly leading people astray.

The success of my first book Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy, which I had resisted writing, overwhelmed me. The many letters I received from readers affirmed my story and my gift of writing. I felt blessed in knowing that I had been the voice for many widows, speaking for their pain, turmoil, their questions. I feel blessed by God when I know I have spoken for others.

Experiencing the freedom that comes from forgiveness was another of God’s gracious breakthroughs. I wrote about this in Bless Me Too, My Father. Practical forgiveness is the key to breaking the chain of unfair pain.

My return to school at age 42 was another big stepping stone because it meant I could study and write without guilt. Writing a column in the Christian Leader for 30 years was a satisfying activity, even if sometimes painful. I tested many an idea in words.

I am grateful to editors and church leaders in other branches of the Mennonite church who made room for my writing and speaking. I am thankful to Mennonite Brethren editors who trusted me. I appreciate the opportunity God has given me to encourage younger women writers. I have a large file of letters from women asking for a little encouragement. I like to give it.

My first speaking assignment came unexpectedly. “Now this too, Lord?” I asked. I felt much too inexperienced, almost an impostor. Important men got up to speak, to proclaim, to share, not women like me.

But I have learned to understand the fascination of preaching for preachers, especially when years after my first attempt I received my first standing ovation. At a fund-raising banquet, as I spoke I sensed a hush fall over the large audience. I saw someone wipe a tear. These people are mine, I said. I wanted to gloat. No, that’s wrong, I answered. The story I was telling that I thought was mine was theirs. They were recognizing themselves.

I am not sure how I gradually came to appreciate the value of stories {82} in teaching truth. Maybe it was a weariness with three-point alliterative sermons, so important in the fifties and sixties. Story is a way of embracing oneself but also the carrier of truth. Language has no meaning until the reader or listener attaches it to his or her own experience. We hear or read stories with our own experiences of love, hate, jealousy, embarrassment, perplexity, in mind. I received letters from readers in response to my book Good Times with Old Times asking, “How did you know what my growing up was like?” I didn’t. I only knew about mine. And the more personal the sharing, the more universal the experience becomes. Stories show how someone caused values to become living truth in another time and setting.

When I was widowed, when I became involved in women’s issues, I was unaware that my experiences were duplicated thousands of times in the lives of other people. So when I retired, I accepted that the discomfort I was experiencing in crossing into the new territory of the older adult was no stranger to other new retirees—they just weren’t talking.

I thought I had planned well for retirement from teaching at Tabor College, but found I hadn’t acknowledged that the most difficult transition is the inner one—the spiritual journey. Retirement means embracing this latter stage of life and identifying with those who are part of it. I waited carefully for retirees to encourage me to cross over. I wanted to be assured that God had a place for me on the other side. Those invitations never came.

So I had to figure out what it means to be old by myself. Aging has a blessed but also a terrible side. I wrote Life After Fifty (Faith & Life), Prayers of an Omega (Herald) and Border Crossing: A Spiritual Journey (Herald), the story of my own transition from college professor to Katie Funk Wiebe, older Christian in residence.

Why choose ministry as a woman in the Mennonite Brethren Church, a denomination that has not willingly opened many doors for women? The list of nominations for board members for General Conference convention 1995 showed this reluctance. I ached once again when I saw it. Why at this stage in my life am I still excited about being part of a spiritual ministry even if opportunities are limited?

To be a Christian woman requires a central core of strength rooted in God’s word that neither the culture of our day nor the institution of the church and its agencies and institutions can provide. That strength comes only as I regard myself the way God sees me—as someone made in God’s image and responsible first of all to God. God has blessed my life, but at times there is a longing to be openly blessed by the corporate church. That was probably one of the main reasons for writing Bless Me Too, My Father.

I tell myself as I grow older: This is my life. This is the way it will have to be. I can’t change the past. But I can keep changing as I move into the last phase of life. And I can do so with the presence and grace of God.

Katie Funk Wiebe is Emerita Professor of English, Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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