A room in the house

Side notes:

  • First of all, thanks to those of you who shared glimpses from personal experience—I am honored by your honesty. You round out the discussion in ways I cannot.
  • I want you to know that in all I say, I am not trying to pressure anyone into a box. My goal is not to present a case for Mennonite living, as though it’s The Way. I want to offer a perspective to those who find themselves here.
  • And last, I painted the good side of our church’s discussions on covenant. You who are experiencing it virtually will not see the uncomfortable side, and I want to assure you it’s there. I didn’t talk about the sore bums after seven hours of meetings, the fussy children, and the tense moments in which two of us strongly disagree, or one of us says something so ludicrous that the whole group halts and even the one who said it starts babbling to get out of the hole he dug. There’s not a one of us in the whole church, I bet, who doesn’t anticipate the hash sessions with a small sigh, thinking of all the things we’d rather be doing on a glorious April weekend. So—I want you to know it’s good. It’s not romantic.

Thanks for listening and talking.

*****

Confession: Sometimes Mennonites remind me of hobbits.

“Where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth.” Bilbo Baggins

Everybody loves hobbits, but nobody wants to be one. We’d rather be the inscrutable elves or the mighty men of Gondor. Undoubtedly individuals among us can be, but as a class of people we’re more hobbit than anything else.

A hobbit may not create the glorious art of Rivendell, or lead the armies of Minas Tirith, but he has his own place in heroism. His roots and simplicity make him surprisingly resilient. He can fight hard for the things he loves, and has a peace and wisdom all his own.

“And, yes, no doubt to others our ways seem quaint, but today of all days, it is brought home to me: It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.” –Bilbo Baggins

C. S. Lewis wrote about Christianity as a house. Upon entering the house, one finds oneself in a hall, with rooms (Christian denominations) branching out on either side. The thing, he said, is to enter a room. That’s where the warmth and living happens.

For first generation Christians, it’s an excellent analogy. But many of us entered Christianity within a room, born into a spiritual family already living there. While we were newborns in Christ (requiring frequent feedings of milk, making much ado about nothing, and throwing up on everyone who held us wrong), spiritual mothers and fathers dandled us on their knees, swaddled us in safety, coaxed us to crawl.

Many of us were adolescents before we even realized there were other rooms. The furnishings of our own were as familiar to us as the walls of the house itself. Sometimes we thought the furniture was the house.

And then as we got older, romped more, played harder games, some of us started feeling cramped. What is all this furniture doing here, anyway? Do we need it? Where’d all these mother hens come from? You mean there are other rooms out there with different furniture, and less trappings, and we don’t get to go in them? Why can’t we all be one big happy open house? And finally, What if this is not the room for me?

There are reasons to leave one room for another—sometimes we form deep ties out of our room; sometimes our room implodes; sometimes we encounter such severe pain that we want to bail out of the entire house, and changing rooms is all that saves our faith; for one reason or another we feel we must move on. Not everyone thrives in the room in which he’s born. Please hear me as I mean this—you can certainly change rooms. I have seen it done well. But those who have done it say it’s surprisingly difficult and unmooring. Rootedness is hard to regain, belonging is hard to reestablish.

We can spend our whole life wishing to be Something Else, but peace comes in accepting with gratitude, at one level or another, the Something we will never quite escape. If we can find Jesus within the room we entered, it’s no bad thing to stay. If He’s there, let’s enjoy Him and His people. Roots are one of His gifts. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God. (1 Cor. 7:18-24)

Sometimes (not always) our restlessness and discomfort indicate our teenage years in Christ, going through the inevitable stage of pushing back on our parents so we can own our beliefs for ourselves. We think it’s the beginning of the end in this room, when maybe—maybe?—it’s the end of the beginning, and we are about to become adults. We are poised to take our place now by choice in the room we entered by default. Maybe those spiritual fathers and mothers, once so trustingly embraced, now so easily dismissed, are about to become what they were created to be–the dearest of brothers and sisters. We don’t have to stay; but now we finally can.

I find peace in this Mennonite room not because it is the only one, or the best one, but because it is the one in which Jesus found me, in which He nourished me and goes on nourishing, in which He chose me and goes on choosing.

Why are you in your room?

Mennonites and metaphors

Confession: Sometimes I think that being Mennonite is like being part of a big butte out west. That’s what my husband says.

West Mitten Butte

West Mitten Butte

When you look at a butte, you think—Whoa, where’d that growth come from? What subterranean forces heaved it out of the earth?

But it didn’t grow at all.

At one point the whole earth was at that level, and time changed the landscape around it, chiseled away the rest and left this formation exposed and slightly garish in the middle. It has a beauty all its own; and an oddity.

When I hear us criticize Mennonites from the inside, what I like to ask is “Are we actually talking about a Mennonite trait?” We have our share of fault lines, but I suspect that many of the issues we critique are not, in fact, Mennonite at all. Some are tendencies all Christian organizations must deal with in some way—

internalization, ingrowth

religious arrogance

naiveté about the rest of the world

cultural assumptions

protocol without passion

and still more qualities, the ones I want to talk about, are simply old-fashioned. We hung onto them while the rest of the world shifted.

There is no particular virtue in that, unless the issue is one of inherent worth; we are merely leery of change.

We Mennonites traditionally grow and preserve and cook our own food. We believe in plenty of starch and gravy. We can’t do without enormous Sunday dinners (most of us). We expect mothers to stay at home, and families to grow large. We spend our money with great caution. Our women cover their heads in public. We don’t like being in the limelight; our self-effacing decorum is our virtue and our curse. We are shy of change and suspicious of novelty. There are reasons for what we do, but we do it even when we don’t know why. We act, more than expound or cogitate or emote.

Up until 50-75 years ago, this was normal life for many Americans.

This image of the butte helps me to be at peace with who we are. I do not think there is cause for serious panic on either side—either that we’re so bizarre as to be totally inaccessible, or that we’re rapidly eroding ourselves and will soon crumble into ruin.

Constancy is a virtue, but not the only one. No formation remains forever unchanged, frozen in time and preserved from external influence. God’s goodness and presence alone will remain, not a formation but a foundation, firm and sure.

In the meantime, some things are worth hanging on to. There is no shame in being what we have been…

*****

Another metaphor tomorrow, and I’ve said my piece. What do you have to say?

Mennonites and gender

I see some of us are still frozen with horror at the idea that anyone would actually love being a Mennonite.

Or not love being a Mennonite.

I said “sometimes,” alright then?

I didn’t mean to sound arrogant, as though Mennonites have a corner on church life. I recently heard Anabaptists described as the “vanguard of true holiness for the last four hundred years” and I almost threw up. Simultaneously, I don’t like the fact that it’s become hip to bash us from the inside. We are both strong and weak. It’s okay to have some strengths without calling ourselves the pinnacle and embodiment of all Christian virtue. It’s okay to have some weaknesses without calling ourselves the slime pit of Christiandom.

We are who we are, with a wholelota room for growth.

More on that next time.

*****

Over popcorn and iced tea, four of us sat around the living room discussing roles of men and women in the church. Most of us are familiar with the do not’s of Christian womanhood; what our discussion group wanted was a vision for the do’s.  In the words of my son Aarick several years ago, “Guys, it seems like there are too much no-no’s and not enough yes’s.”

Does the church need women? In what way exactly?

And my personal question: if our only word on the matter is “silence,” what is this pastor’s wife thinking with her love of writing?

Here’s what we wrote and ratified—

We believe that God created men and women with equal value and dignity, together reflecting the complete image of God. The genders are unique, complementary in function, each with gifts to develop and offer within the church. The New Testament teaches that men should provide servant leadership, teaching and preaching in the mixed assembly, and involving the entire congregation in decision-making. Both men and women edify each other through praying and prophesying, congregational worship and fellowship, and training of the next generation.

Confession: For a number of months I was pretty sure that God made the second half of the species as a cruel joke. I thought women were given talents but forbidden to use them, born to waste away in oblivion.*

* I have since learned that oblivion has some remarkable advantages all its own. But at the time it looked like the Ultimate Human Tragedy.

That particular falsehood could take me down one of two paths, both well-worn by women before me: resignation and rot, or clawing catlike to the top. I hate what each does to a woman. Limp or barbed: are those the only choices?

Scripture teaches less than I thought on the subject, and some of what it teaches seems to be in contradiction—an injunction to silence in one passage, and instructions for how to pray and prophesy in another.

It’s easy to see Scriptural commands as the bars of a cage, shutting a woman in, when perhaps they are the corner posts for guidance and protection, with much of space and life happening in between—not squeaking guiltily through the bars, but dancing with safety and joy among them.

We sometimes fixate on the aspect of submission as though it is the kingpin, but I wonder. The elder in our discussion group suggested that equal value and dignity is the kingpin, with three outlying values orbiting around it—leadership/submission, complementary participation, and loving relationship.

Remember that all commands to obedience come from a Man who knew how to lay down his life for his Bride. Whatever she lays down, it is a paltry contribution compared to His. Losing one’s life is not to be feared, but embraced.

I like this vision.

*****

I write about women too much, but it’s been a hard subject for me to come to terms with. Plus I don’t know enough about alternate species to make them the subject of extended soliloquy.

How do women contribute to your congregation?

Mennonites and music

Confession: Sometimes I love being Mennonite.

This is not a popular thing to love nowadays, and I confess I don’t love it always. Sometimes I do.

Our congregation has been working for some time on hammering out what we call our “covenant”—our statements of faith and practice. This spring we had four issues at hand: music, media, roles of men and women, and personal appearance. Anyone interested in a topic was invited to sign up for a small-group discussion.

We held the discussions, hashed the issues, wrote proposed statements, and brought our work back to the congregation.

This was FUN, and one of the best things about being Mennonite.* No overseer hired to command us; no man permitted to fend for himself. We believe that truth is held by the body; that the Holy Spirit can be discerned corporately; that we hear from Him silently in our hearts and out loud in the voices of our brothers and sisters. When Scripture says “all of your children will be taught of the Lord,” and “I will pour out my Spirit on all people,” we do not hear “therefore the body has nothing to say on the topic,” but “therefore the body has everything to say on the topic.” All of you. I love this.

After our preliminary work, we held an intense congregational work session for the weekend, our beliefs and statements strengthening. We didn’t agree on everything. But in the end, our amended statements passed unanimously, and were incorporated into the covenant.

I know this is an asset of coming from a small, new congregation. Some of you from the hundred-and-some-year-old churches never had the opportunity to influence your statements personally. But I’ll hazard a guess the group that wrote them hashed them copiously.

We can be stubborn as pigs, but we believe in His voice through each other.

Here’s what we agreed about music:

We affirm and embrace our musical heritage of congregational a cappella singing in harmony. We desire to practice music among us in a way that worships God and builds the community, that our souls and spirits might be enlivened. We believe that music should be aesthetically pleasing, lyrics should be true and honest, and that the combination of the two should be redemptive. We encourage our members to train their ears and hearts to enjoy and express music that is excellent and orderly.

Believe it or not, this is all we have on the topic. To some of you, the statement will seem very prim. To others, hopelessly loose. Where are the prohibitions?

I’ll tell you—silently in our hearts and out loud in the voices of our brothers and sisters.

*****

*Second only to our great cooking, of course. Heh.

Does your church talk about issues? Which ones?

Easter treat

jelly bean bag 2

Confession: I never saw much point in jellybeans.

The only ones I ever truly liked were the Buttered Popcorn variety from Jelly Belly. But their chief virtue lay in how much they tasted like something else. Sigh.

Still, when I found a poem* justifying their existence, I decided to share it with my Sunday school children — treat and theology, all in one. I know it’s a little too early for Easter proper yet, but our recent lessons have focused on the death and resurrection of Christ, so this is perfect.

Jelly Beans Tell a Story
Written by Barbara Hooks

Black is for the evil planned that night.
Yellow is for God’s Son who is the Light.

Red is for the precious blood that Jesus gave.
Green is for the grass that grew beside the grave.

Orange is for the setting sun as soldiers slept.
Pink is for the rising sun as Mary wept.

Purple is for rulers who could not win.
White is for the cloth He left within.

Blue is for the water in the sea.
On the shore “The risen Lord! Oh, could it be?”

Many people witnessed this great event.
Disciples watched as heavenward He went.

The angel said He would return–
Exactly when, we do not learn.

A bag full of jellybeans helps us tell
A story of love we know so well.

Share the candy; share the joy;
Jesus died for girls and boys!

bagging

I am slightly color-starved at the moment, so I decided to really play the color theme and cut rainbow-colored ribbons from my stash of fabric scraps.

snipping
rainbow cloth strips
jellybean bag 1

I printed a copy of the poem for each child and folded it up like an envelope, sealed with a sticker.

1 2 3 4 5 6

They loved it.

alena josh katy

* Inspiration and poem found at daniellesplace.com!