On a train bound for nowhere

Once upon a time, I rode a train through Mexico.

In truth, it was not once upon a time; it was more like twice and thrice and fource upon a time. I and my friends rode for many hours, switching our way through multiple trains: a student singing-tour bound for a mission in the heart of the country. But I remember one ride in particular.

As we bumped and jerked our way around the countryside, over shockingly high and flimsy trestles and through tunnels in the mountains, we students became bored, and began singing loud and sassy tunes together… pieces along the line of How Much is That Doggy in the Window? with multiple barking parts for accompaniment.

A train conductor wandered by. We didn’t think about him until he started clapping at the end of the song. That’s really good, he said, in his moderate English. Sing some more.

We looked at each other. We were self-conscious, caught out, ashamed somehow.

One girl said, Um. How about we sing one of our choir songs?

That’s a good idea, we said, relieved, and pulled hard on our reins, and cantered sedately into something Christian. We were supposed to be Witnesses and Examples in this place; what had we been thinking?

The conductor listened, and when we had sung a piece or two he said politely, Very nice, very nice. But I liked the one about the doggy. Can you do that one again?

And we did not know what to do.

But we did not sing it.

We were fine with being riotous and silly and human and joyful until someone Outside was watching – then, prunes and prisms.

One of the lasting and great regrets of my life is that at times, I have been so determined to be Mennonite first, and Christian second, and feminine third, and human fourth (or not at all), that I missed admitting who I was and connecting to the people who live in this world. There is nothing wrong with putting in a plug for Jesus, but if spirituality is the only face I feel comfortable presenting, then the world and I are both in trouble.

At that time of my life, I believed that as a Christian my primary stance toward the people of the world was evangelism, to be a testimony and a success story. It flavored all my speech, my facial expressions, everything. But then I had to look uniformly radiant, spiritual, perfect. I couldn’t be myself. During that time, I did not form lasting connections to anyone who was not of my stripe.

May the Lord have mercy on his people, especially the ones who abandon their own sense of humor.

We must be human, we must.

Each of our identities is a filter, through which we let the Real slip through in pieces. If we use the finest screen first, there is precious little that emerges to connect us with other people, to laugh and cry and live and rejoice and breathe. I understand propriety – that is, there is a time and a place for everything. But I can’t abide prudery – an obsession with decorum, wrapped around the idea that Christians are too otherworldly to breathe and sweat and eat chips and make love and run races and sing silly songs for the sheer joy of it. Christ became flesh. I prefer, these days, to be human first, and then Christian, and then feminine, and then Mennonite. I don’t know if it is the best sequence, but it is the truest to what I am.

The world is not often captivated (or changed in lasting ways) by half people, who have shut off all the accessible, disastrous, endearing, connecting, messy, real parts.

I wish I could go back to the Mexican train and do those moments over. I’d give the conductor a part to bark, and I’d sing my heart out.

What do you think? Am I right or left or highly alarming? What is your identity sequence?

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5 years ago

No, not alarming, my friend. I agree with the sentiment given and i believe I could have done some things or felt differently about this in my younger days (and later on, too)! So glad we can grow and LEARN and change!!!!! Thank you, Jesus!

Rhonda Yoder
5 years ago

That is so good, and so true! I mean,yeah, we will always be human, no matter what else! I think your sequence is perfect (: We don’t want to be silly to the point of foolishness, but ” a merry heart doeth good like medicine” I’m rather amazed that in spite of the trestles and tunnels, you were relaxed enough to do anything but hang on with your heart in your throat!

5 years ago

Shari, dear Shari. I am in full agreement… human first. As to the question of the order of the rest of my list… I am still sorting. 🙂 Thank you for another refreshing read.

5 years ago

As yes… that ride I remember… We do wear many screens or hats or identities. Should we consciencely sequence them? Would the screen of Jesus combine all those into one? Shouldn’t our screen of Mennonite show a human living inside. Maybe our idea of what Mennonite looks like works more as a painted canvas than a transparent screen.

I don’t mean to pick at straws. Just trying to arrange my own identities.

5 years ago

Shari, this is a good post and I don’t find you highly alarming. As far as my sequence, well I’m both ashamed and slightly embarrassed but here goes human, Christian, feminine and this is the ashamed/embarrassing part, Mennonite wannabe.

I can’t get into all the details except to say, I appreciate/admire the Mennonites and their willingness to stay true to New Testament teachings, especially Christian women’s headcovering and modesty.

Kendra Sensenig
5 years ago

I think this is wonderful. So many of us pinched little churchmice need to GET THIS!

5 years ago

Love this

5 years ago

Oh how I hear you. How long it is taking me to learn. And how I have seen faces light up when this Mennonite lady surprised them with humor, humility, humanity, or honesty.

5 years ago

I’ve actually been thinking of this lately, how to keep from shaming the name of Christ, yet embracing wholeheartedly the joy of living the life God gave us. I believe this said it well! Especially the describing of the differences of prudery and propriety. That was my favorite part. My takeaway is “Just be yourself and let God shine through you, instead of trying to be God.”

Kim Zook
5 years ago

Right on sister!!!….right on!

Rachel Shenk
5 years ago

Wow, wow, wow! This is SO true! I cannot agree loudly enough. And even if you’re not in the Mennonite circle, just insert another form of prudery, the prevailing notion of the hour! My husband and I are going through a very hard year, and coming out the other side very different people. One major truth we have been locked on is this notion of being REAL and loving the truth. By the way, I think your conclusion (to be human first, and then Christian, and then feminine, and then Mennonite) is right on. =)

5 years ago

I know what you’re saying. I’m sorry, but I don’t even want to be Mennonite. That probably would not be plain to someone who saw me. To me Mennonite is a name given to a way that makes people feel secure (or not). I want first and foremost to be a Christ follower which means being a real Christian woman. Knowing how to follow Christ and being a woman are both life-long quests in this day and age. I would love to have a sit down conversation with you because I think we would agree. 🙂 I’ve been conjuring a post about femininity in my mind. It may make it to my blog and it may not. BTW, I’m curious- Why were you embarrassed about singing that song then and would gladly sing it now?

Kimberly Glenn
5 years ago


5 years ago

Isn’t that the truth!! I find that it is often only after I have shared much of the human parts of myself that I even have an opportunity to share the Christian parts of me.

These days I am a mother first, then a human, a Christian, and a woman. The mothering comes first not so much by choice as because it is overwhelming everything else in my life. Help!

Louise Zook
5 years ago

So much YES!!!!! I love this. But you know what, I already knew the arrangement of your order and sequence even before you wrote this piece. Because the way we live this concept out is visible to the world around us. When I meet someone, I might meet a lovely woman, or a Christian, or a Mennonite. Yes, they might be all 3, but one of those identities will color everything. You are spot on, and I love it!

Shayla Miller
5 years ago

How can you even be Christian if you aren’t being human? When I let myself be truly and rawly and honestly human, is when I feel the deepest need for Christ. I like how you put it into words, Shari. I agree with your sequence. Still figuring out how to live it.

5 years ago

I’m going to go against the crowd.. 🙂 I am meditating on Ephesians 1:4-5 and trying to wrap my mind around the fact that God made us Christians before He made us humans. I sympathize with your sentiment. Though I think it’s the projected identities that are problematic. Good cause to be truthful about our identities. I always enjoy your words!

Rachel H
5 years ago

Great thoughts! I would have loved to sing “How much is that Doggy” with the conductor! Reminds me of the time 4 of us were singing “You Are Holy” on the train and a fellow passenger said she knows that song; she was surprised to hear us sing it, she thought maybe we would sing only hymns! You got me thinkin’ of what I might be portraying, and in what order. I read this, and then re-read several times before I began to understand what you meant by being human. I personally never thought of the two (Christian/human) as being in conflict. Do they have to be?

5 years ago
Reply to  Rachel H

Wait- “in conflict” was a poor choice of words for what I meant. More like, “as being separable.”

5 years ago

I don’t want to attempt to make an identity list. It would be interesting, perhaps alarming, to hear how other people would sequence me. I am so wanting to learn to be like Jesus. I don’t believe He was straight-laced or made people uncomfortable right off. Somehow, He reached right into hearts. He was so very human and so very God at the same time. Much pondering here, and much longing to reflect Him truly. Not as a prism or as a shriveled prune supposedly portraying a plum. That Life, that Love. Jesus, teach us!

5 years ago

So after reading this post again and reading everyone’s responses I had time to think about my “identity”. I am asking myself, does it really matter? When people see me do they see Jesus? Do I have a loving attitude to my pastors and everyone in my church who don’t believe as I do in regards to headcoverings, nonresistance and noncomformity to the world? Am I so obssessed with ” labels” that I have forgotten that I’m a child of God?

So now I will change my not so much of a sequence but more like an identity of sorts. I’m a feminine Christian human who is sometimes mistaken for a nun and occasionally a Mennonite but hopefully is displaying Jesus.

5 years ago

I read this last night and decided I needed to ruminate on this awhile. Ironically this morning my daily reading included Revelation 2:1-5 where Jesus was calling the church back to the “first love”.

I’m going to sympathize with the “self-conscious, caught out, ashamed somehow” group of youth. Could it be possible you weren’t even thinking about your Mennonite image at the time? Could your desire to sing a Godly song simply have come out of your love for Jesus? A youthful, energetic first love for Jesus? A frantic scrambling for a way to speak HIM into the conductors life? I know my youthful, fumbling actions – even my current actions are often driven by that desire. I know others may be critical and call ppl like me prudish Mennonites, but if it is driven by a LOVE for Jesus, is it really wrong?

5 years ago

Unless Christians tend to sin more among themselves, can’t they can act the same whether they’re around each other or not? Isn’t it more “let” your light shine than “make” your light shine? And I hope Christians reflect Jesus to each other, too.

It reminds me of some people who make a point to act extra, extra smiley around janitors, hotel housekeepers, and waitresses… and then act totally normal around doctors and dentists. It would be nice if people acted the same around both of those groups–and I don’t mean extra, extra smiley! (I’m someone who likes having both blue and white collar jobs, but I don’t like how I’m a ‘dear’ when I’m ‘blue’, or how people so freely dismiss or pity ‘blue’ people around me when I’m ‘white’.)

Enough ranting–I loved reading this post! I’d like to not be so hard on my own train-singing self – a lot of that is just being a teenager. Or 20-year-old. Or 30, or… :0

5 years ago

Well Shari, you sure got me thinking with this one! And maybe I should think more before I comment. . .But isn’t the point of the new birth just that – God overshadowing our first-response humanity with Spirit controlled living? How wonderful if others did see Jesus first because my humanity was so Christlike. (It isn’t, in case anyone wonders.) I agree with Rachel – hopefully we don’t need to separate our humanity from our Christianity. And I love it that now you would sing the doggy song and give the conductor a part to bark. Yes! But how many of us had that kind of wisdom “back when?” I appreciate Sheri’ s comment that you simply were desiring to witness for Jesus.
Thanks for the mind food.

5 years ago

I always enjoy your writing… This is the thing that came to me in reading this post… The fundamental problem is that we aren’t allowed to choose how people see us. To most people in the world we are Mennonites or “some religion” and everyone is asking “so, are Mennonites Christians?” I used to resent that… After years of struggle I appreciate it. I don’t hate being Mennonite. I am grateful for it. I hope people that meet me walk away thinking “Mennonites are Christians”. Not because you have to be Mennonite to be saved. No. But because I love my church. I identify with the beliefs of the Mennonites. I’d be glad to welcome people in because our imperfect church is trying it’s best to follow God. My humanity…I have little doubt that anyone wonders about that. That is always painfully obvious in my case!

5 years ago

I love this so much. And your sequence is what I hope to be.. It’s been an ongoing conversation with a dear friend lately, this thing of how much “being a Mennonite” colors our entire lives & how Jesus wants us to be human Christian first. Sometimes, as you said, we get so focused on portraying a good Mennonite that we can no longer be human and that’s pure bondage.

5 years ago

I agree 100% with this post. Many of us have been taught so strongly to be a good witness to the people outside our church, we think we have to put the Mask of Perfection on when relating to them. But that totally ignores the fact that people really want connection. And how can you possibly connect if you aren’t being real?

5 years ago

Wow! I love this! After reading and rereading over and over, I get it..(slow seepage). I like this new perspective on living life! Thank you for affirming all the friendships I enjoy with the other Stripes. Keep writing, Shari! We need your voice in this Time!

Lucinda J
5 years ago

You are right. Amen and amen.

5 years ago

In my teens I did a lot of “looking in the mirror at myself” Meaning, I didn’t like when I felt fear or insufficiency or guilt or shame. And so I would sit myself down for a talk and ask myself where it came from and decide if this was me and if I was okay with it or if it was something I needed to change or fix. After awhile I began to see that my Identity had to be in who Christ was in me. it was so freeing. My parents were very real about their own spirituality and walk with God and I had wonderful opportunity to talk all the confusing things of Mennonite over with them. So all that to say, I think young people raised in pious settings have to find their footing yes. But I think parents need to do a better job being real about their ongoing day to day relationship with Jesus, so that kids don’t have to work so hard to find their identities in all the things that in the end won’t hold them. So my questions is….Where do young Mennonite people “learn” that whole thing about being a ‘witness”? I never did understand and even as I am Mennonite it still doesn’t make sense. Enjoyed the post!

Twila Smucker
5 years ago

I loved this post! I remember people telling me different times in my life how they didn’t realize we Mennonites were just “humans” like them until they learned to know me better and realized I am a person just like them. It always made me sad, that we portray such aloofness and otherworldiness that somehow others are intimidated and think we are some sort of abnormal beings. Is this the message we really want to send? It makes me question a lot sometimes….

5 years ago

This is simply wonderful!

5 years ago

Amen and amen.

[…] between being human and being “a good witness,” I recommend Shari Zook’s “On a Train Bound for Nowhere.” She will grab your imagination, bend your ear, stimulate your […]

[…] between being human and being “a good witness,” I recommend Shari Zook’s “On a Train Bound for Nowhere.” She will grab your imagination, bend your ear, stimulate your […]

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