Review: Dad, God, and Me: Remembering a Mennonite Pastor and His Wayward Son

by Mary Ann Smith and Terry Smith

Ralph Friesen tells of how his father, Peter D. Friesen, grew up in the KG/EMC and served as a minister and, later, the lead pastor of Steinbach EMC for years while supporting his family as a businessman. His Dad suffered a stroke in his 50s and lived uncomfortably for several years before dying in his early 60s. As Friesen said in an interview elsewhere, the book intertwines two stories: his father’s and his own.

His father served as a pastor while trying to be a peacemaker between traditionalists and reformers within the congregation; and his son tried to find his personal identity amid a tangled faith and culture with expectations that sometimes seemed to leave inadequate room for authentic searching. The book is an act of respect toward understanding his father and the faith tradition in which they were both raised; and it is an act of respect toward Ralph’s own spiritual journey.

There are lessons in this book. Ralph’s Dad sacrificed much for the church, yet was moved aside when it both elected a minister with an advanced formal education and decided to provide a salary. Friesen, though, had an education gained within the church and a salary might have reduced his stress (was the stroke related to his stress?) and workload, permitting more time with family. While Paul served as a tentmaker, he taught that the labourer is worthy of his hire (1 Tim. 5:18), which followed Jesus’ words (Lk. 10:7). (By the way, the minister said he felt “no aversion, no rancour” from Friesen.)

A pastoral couple and church do well to realize that the Lord does not make up for the lack of time and attention children receive just because their parents are dedicated in service to Christ. If children are “an inheritance from the Lord” (Ps. 127:3-5), would we treat an inheritance with neglect? Mary Ann’s parents, Peter and Susie Thiessen, whom she loved and respected, were dedicated servants of Christ involved in church and camp work even while farming (and sometimes both had other jobs as well). Reading Friesen’s book was a healing experience for Mary Ann as she remembered her home church’s tensions with traditions and interpretation of Scripture.

To “wayward” children, button-holed, labelled, and whose questions were brushed aside: many of us are aware the journey of faith in Christ is neither simple nor easy. Questions are welcome, a local church can disappoint us, and we can dislike simple answers to complex situations. (His Dad and family sacrificed for the Lord and the church and yet to Ralph the “reward” seemed to be his Dad’s irreversible brain damage and paralysis. Ralph objected to people saying this was part of God’s will or plan.) We “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). May dialogue continue.

This is a quote with meaning for Mary Ann: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited to suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair…He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death” (Dorothy Sayers). She also refers to the quote, “The Church is the only army that shoots its own wounded.” She would remind us that people raised in the Church are on a journey (see Phil. 1:6).

Review June 2020 CoverThere is a sad, surprising lack of Jesus in some of this book—surprising because Jesus chastised some religious leaders (Mt. 23), rejected wrong traditions (Mk. 7:11-13), cautioned against simple answers to suffering (Lk. 13:1-5; Jn. 9:1-2), and warned against mistreating children (Mt. 18:5-6). Jesus, the most challenging figure in history (given such claims as John 14:6), remains of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1-6); and the Bible, even when critically sifted in its history and confession, points to his uniqueness. Jesus remains worthy of following even when simple answers don’t fit and the church disappoints.

Dad, God, And Me: Remembering a Mennonite Pastor and His Wayward Son. By Ralph Friesen, Victoria, BC: Friesen Press, 2019. ISBN 9781525560880 (paperback). 275 pp. $22.50.

Mary Ann Smith is a health care worker raised in the EMMC by parents with an Old Colony background; and Terry Smith is an EMC minister of United Church background who joined Steinbach EMC in 1979.

Dad, God, And Me: Remembering a Mennonite Pastor and His Wayward Son by Ralph Friesen, Victoria, BC: Friesen Press, 2019. ISBN 9781525560880 (paperback). 275 pp. $22.50.

Reviewed by Thiessen siblings: Paul, Danny, Afrieda, and Loreena, all with EMC connections and all following Christ in his church.

The very innocent looking photograph of Ralph and his father on the cover of this book introduces the beginning of a complex father-son relationship expressed in the subtitle: Remembering a Mennonite Pastor and His Wayward Son.

This is a story that gives glimpses into the history of Steinbach, as well as the theology and past religious practices of the EMC. More personally, this is an account of a pastor and his son. The author tells of his growing up years with a father who is very busy—too busy to take time with his son. The pastor-father is a businessman, a preacher, and an influential leader, and yet the son rejects his message.

When Ralph is a teenager, his father suffers from a stroke and everything changes for the family. The once very busy father is now an invalid and needs a lot of help. Ralph’s reflections on caring for his father show a different kind of father-son relationship. Now his father is always present. But it is not the same father.

At the same time as Peter D. Friesen was much appreciated by the church, Ralph feels distant from his father: “I would say that those of us who were never baptized wished for his blessing, but were not able to receive it in this way because of everything else we would be obliged to accept” (183).

Of his teenage experience at Red Rock Bible Camp, Ralph says, “I turned my heart into stony ground,” rejecting the pressure to follow Christ. Although as a child he had once identified with Christianity, as an adult he could no longer say, “I have decided to follow Jesus,” but was unsure of what or whom to follow.

Having grown up in Steinbach and understanding many of the issues that Ralph writes about, my brother Danny, my sisters Alfrieda and Loreena, and I decided to read this book and discuss it. We found ourselves a part of this story as we read details about our father, Isaac J. Thiessen, the shoemaker.

As we sat together reflecting on Ralph’s story, Loreena said, “I’m Ralph!” As a teenager, there was a time when she thought that if everything was considered sinful anyway, then you can do whatever you feel like doing. Reflecting on the teaching that everything was either good or evil, Danny said that it had taken him years to get a more balanced view. He felt that strongly opinionated parents can sometimes cause children to block out much of what they hear. Alfrieda emphasized her appreciation for Ralph’s transparency.

Even if you didn’t grow up in Steinbach, as we did, this book is helpful for understanding the early thinking in our churches. If you are looking for a story with a happy ending where the wayward son repents of his sin, accepts his father’s faith, and becomes a follower of Jesus, you will be disappointed. But if you are willing to listen to the thoughts and experiences of a person who tells his life’s story with honest vulnerability, by reading this book you will gain some insights that may help you to understand similar people around you. This book may even help you to understand yourself.

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