Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why I like the Mennonites, Part 2: Warts and All

I wrote a post a few months back titled "Why I Like the Mennonites". Several let me know they would like to hear more when I had been part of the community longer. I think some thought I was being a bit idyllic. I was. Mennonites, like everybody, have warts. And when we have them, we don't like to show them. I read The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray and would highly recommend it. Not just for Mennonites, or people seeking to become Mennonite, but for everyone that wants to see how Anabaptism can enrich your faith. Murray does not hide the warts. The good and the bad are revealed for all to see. Hence, the title of the book.

I made reference to Brian McLaren's book, A Generous Orthodoxy in part-one of my Mennonite musings. His suggestion is that we take the best from all traditions; that each heritage has something to offer, and like the body of Christ, we all need each other. Greg Boyd believes the Mennonites have something valuable to offer the Church, and I agree with him. He says quite eloquently,
"Cherish Your Treasure! Not in a prideful way, of course, but simply as a precious gift God has given you and that God wants to give the world through you. Be daringly flexible on all matters that aren’t central to the Kingdom (e.g. worship styles, dress, etc.), but be utterly uncompromising on all matters that are central to the Kingdom (viz. everything that pertains to living a Jesus-looking life). My Mennonite sisters and brothers, you have what multitudes in the rising Kingdom movement are longing for. You can provide a home to so many who right now are looking for one. If you hold fast to the faith you’ve been entrusted with (Jude 3), you may just find your fellowship exploding in the years to come. For, I believe, the Anabaptist vision of the Kingdom is a vision whose time has come."
I have found the welcoming Mennonite fellowship I have been attending these past few months to be just that. I still feel like I've come home. Recently, I was invited by the Mission and Service committee to join them on a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota to visit Third Way. I spoke about this new church in my last post. They are an intentional community of Jesus followers that have sought out the Mennonite denomination and asked to join as a participating community of faith, adhering to the Central Plains Mennonite conference confession of faith. What is so amazing to me is how an established, traditional church has been willing to listen and learn from a group so different from them. I just soaked in the experience. It was a torrential rain in the desert of my soul.

Like I said before, Mennonites are good at listening. I've seen this first hand and heard some stories told about intractable situations in the past that were negotiated with patience and prayer to the point of resolution. The local congregation I attend has lasted for nearly 114 years without splintering. Amazing as that sounds, I'm guessing some of their toughest days are ahead. There are at least two possible reasons for this: One, at the same time many are discovering the treasure of the Anabaptist heritage, many Mennonites are letting their distinct theological perspective be diluted by American evangelicalism, or co-opted by politics either to the right or the left. This is not the first time a leavening of a Spirit-filled movement has affected a potent work of God. In the 1920's there was great fear about the influence of "modernism" in the Church. Out of that fear grew the evangelical movement which many would say has led to phenomena like the "religious right" and alignment of church and government. And though some might think those are good things, the net loss was the distinctiveness of some spiritual movements in a joining with a generalized evangelicalism largely undergirded by fundamentalist reformed theology. Now that the Church is firmly rooted in modernism, the same kind of fear of "post-modernism" is affecting a portion of Mennonites to mix the Kingdom of God with nationalism, and even soften their long held stance on violence.

A second concern, and seemingly more troubling for Mennonites is the issue that many denominations are in dispute over at this moment: sexuality. This has come up for the Central Plains Mennonite Conference in specific ways over the last 15-20 years. What interests me most is how it has been handled more that what resulted. Remember, the Mennonites have this tradition of slow deliberation. All voices are invited into the dialogue. Much prayer is undertaken. Unity is of prime concern. Community discernment is the process. Trust in the Holy Spirit as guide. These tried and true tools have been employed for five hundred years with effectiveness. Surprisingly, with this divisive topic, all seem abandoned. As I understand it, as often as there has been a conflict regarding sexuality, there has been haste to make a decision.

The Central Plains Conference is facing this problem again. My hope is that fear is not the guiding force in these proceedings. That those involved will not forget where they come from. That Jesus' example of a Third Way will prevail and the long held confession of Discipleship into Faithfulness will hold sway. If you haven't guessed, I'm an optimist. I think we can do it. We can get through this one like we have gotten through martyrdom, harassment during wartime, listening to the radio, women in leadership. All of the tools are there. It's been done before. God help us.


Darvin said...

Thanks, Lon, Your perceptions are right on. How thankful we can be that we have another convinced (optomistic) Menno to strengthen us.

Tim Isbell said...

I can accept that all, at least most, Christian traditions have some excellent things in their heritage. But I’m not so attracted by the thinking that the best tradition is one constructed from what someone judges as the best grouping of the assets of other Christian traditions. Instead it seems like the creation itself indicates that God loves variety. He’s probably delighted that different traditions have different points of focus – he probably designed it that way. After all, “Our lives (families, churches) are designed to be a platform for God’s story of redemption and restoration” so that these would be helpful witnesses to the wide variety of people God created. (quote from Reggie Joiner)

Despite growing up in Ohio I have very limited personal experience with Mennonites. As a pastor in California I’ve dealt a few times with parishioners coming from or going to Mennonite communities. Most of these implied pretty healthy Mennonite communities; one of them was extremely unhealthy. Their theological perspectives differed quite a bit, although they all claimed to be Mennonite. Seems like about what we find in my Nazarene tradition.

To hear that Mennonites struggle with western culture’s views on sexuality does not surprise me. So did the first century church. So far as I know the first century church did a great job of holding up sexual purity as a positive example in an otherwise very sexually impure context.

To hear that Mennonites are sometimes drawn to one or the other of America’s political extremes is a bit more surprising, given what I think is the history of the Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions.

But in both sexual ethics and politics I presume that Mennonites not only are good listeners to what the people around them have to say but are also very good listeners to whatever God speaks into their tradition regarding these things.

Tim Isbell

Lon Marshall said...

Tim, thanks for taking the time to give input. I appreciate what you have to say and respect it - given our history together. You are a very important person in my, and my family's, life.

I like what you said about God's creation and it indicating variety. I agree with your idea that having all traditions may be better than only an amalgamated one. What troubles me is that some advocate a "corner" on truth and are not willing to respect the "other" enough to hear what God is doing among them.

Your limited exposure to Mennonites has served you well. You also seem to have a working concept of Anabaptist heritage. Yes, like any denomination or faith tradition - there are healthy and not as healthy congregations. My limited experience with the Mennonites tells me they are more fragmented than the Nazarenes; not as hierarchical and span a wider horizon of conservative to liberal theology, politics etc.

The Anabaptist movement of the 1500's and following was not organized. It has many traditions that have come out of it. The group of Mennonites I am affiliated with is the Mennonite Church USA. Many are baffled with a growing group of Mennonites that are moving toward an americanized, evangelical church. It is not in keeping with the Anabaptist heritage. The link to Greg Boyd's article talks about this more in depth.

The point I was trying to make about the tough days ahead for Mennonites, especially in our conference was more about a pattern of interaction versus specific Scriptural mandates. The Mennonites have a tradition of discernment within the community and heavy reliance on the leading of the Holy Spirit. This takes a long time. It involves including all voices, prayer, and careful consideration. With this one tough issue facing them - this long tradition has not, to this point, been used. It has worked well for a long time with difficult conflicts that seemed clear but different to people in the same fellowship. It will be interesting to see if in unity the whole can return to this proven method, or if another more useful one will emerge.

Tim Isbell said...

Lon: regarding your comment about many groups tend to hold a bit too tight to their corner of truth - I agree with you. My "rule of thumb" has been to consider anyone from any tradition that confesses the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds as brothers and sisters in Christ. I see no reason to "evangelize" these folks, but affirm their tradition as best I can. At the same time, I respect their occasional choices to change into my Nazarene tradition, and welcome them accordingly. These creeds cast a pretty wide net, but there are clear boundaries where near-Christian traditions would like to claim a place in the Christian tradition while declining these creeds.

Lon Marshall said...

Agreed. Although I am guessing not all that affirm these creeds would cast their net as far as you do. And, I believe we that have affirmed these creeds are also called to go into all the world... The least we can do is listen to others with different creeds, show respect and seek to understand their story. This does not have to mean agreement. I would say it involves a great deal of trust in God and surrendering control even though we may not see how He is redeeming it all.

One side note: I've learned the Anabaptists would say they are more confessional than creedal. Meaning, creeds tend to guard against heresy as opposed to describing practice. It seems to me that Anabaptists are more focused on starting something, doing something - what they call "Witness" versus stopping something, or defining ourselves by what we are against. Don't get me wrong - The Mennonite Church USA would line up with both creeds you mentioned and are classical Christian, but there is this nuance...