Monday, December 18, 2017

The Spiritual Winds

It seems like everyone is writing about church these days.

Asher Witmer is doing a whole series examining his history and experience with the Mennonite church, and what he is seeking and hoping for, over at Asherwitmer.com. 

Harvey Yoder writes, "I'm old enough to remember the walls and ditches and barriers created by people from different church groups among the Amish and Anabaptists. When I was Amish, people who left the plain church were often excommunicated, including myself. Jumping into the Beachy Fellowship circle was liberating, freeing and we talked among ourselves how restricting the old churches are. The Charity movement raised an incredible hullabaloo as people from all the plain churches flocked into this seemingly radical, unnerving and yet strangely attractive cult-like fanaticism about family and church and no standards. . . .Charity groups sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain all over the United States,. . .Fast forward to today. The hot summer sun of modernism seems to have withered most of the mushroom churches. . . . Many of the adults and most of the children growing up in those circles have left the Charity churches and have disappeared into the general society. All in the matter of roughly 20 years."

It all makes me sit back in my rocking chair by the fire and reminisce about all the winds and trends that have blown through the American Christian church and especially the Mennonite church in the last 50 years.

And how those winds affected me. Or mostly how they didn't.

My most disaffected stage was when I was at our Beachy Amish church in Minnesota as a young adult. Dear me, the Rules, the Legalism, the Traditions. How could the old ladies like Mom and Joe Ketty and Alvin Mary just go on going through the same motions week after week and not want Something More, something Deeper, something with Life? 

How were they ok with just being so Stuck and so Spiritually Dead?

I also had issues with the leadership. I felt then, and still do, that that congregation was almost cult-like in how difficult it was to leave. Surely, if someone wanted to leave, it would be much wiser to simply say, "Ok, you're an adult, and God is working outside of this little church. Go see what He has for you."

[Which is pretty much the approach my pastor-husband has taken, God bless him.]

Instead, I and others endured phone calls and meetings with ministers that were far too much like the woman taken in adultery, accused and condemned before Jesus and the crowd.

But then all my agonizing about leaving or not, and how and when, and trying to explain it to the bishop--none of that was actually necessary in the end because I chose the one single acceptable way to leave our church--I got married!  To a Mennonite man who charmed everyone with his steady confidence and great insights into Scripture and life!

They still ask him to preach when we go back to visit.

After that, I never really went through those agonizing decisions about Leaving The Church. Instead, I am now a lot like Alvin Mary and Joe Ketty and Mom, plump and contented, sharing news and recipes after church.

Interesting how the grandmas, so traditional, so limited in their view of the world, so not on fire for Jesus by our fresh-from-Bible-School definition, quietly went around teaching children, feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and healing the sick, actually doing exactly what Jesus said to do.

Hmmmm.

But I was going to talk about the winds that blew.

Whenever a new breeze whistled through my religious world, the chief proponents were always the ones I saw as Cool Spiritual People.

They always seemed to be on a different plane than me, like they had sniffed the jet stream and knew deep and high things the rest of us couldn't fathom. They used new and different words, and in their little groups, they immediately understood each other. Yes, mmm-hmmm, praise Jesus, my spirit bears witness to that.

I was never cool and spiritual. I was both attracted and repulsed by the changes I saw, wanting to be included, but thinking it was kind of pretentious and weird. But I would never have said that out loud. And I couldn't bring myself to use the vocabulary.

Mostly, I always knew that I was a bumbling sinner with lots of issues. It was important not to pretend to be something I wasn't, so no high and lofty spiritual life for me.

We note with all of the following examples that I had a persistent inferiority that colored my perceptions. Sometimes it made me cynical about trends that were actually timely and healthy, but it also saved me from following others down some bizarre paths.

There's no place like a Mennonite Bible school for dividing the cool and spiritual from the Not So Much. I can still see them--their eloquent prayers, the books they read, the long discussions on Apologetics and Eschatology. They were Deep.

And you-know-who was not-so-much, not a doubt about that.

During my school-teaching years, I attended a conservative Mennonite church that had a vocabulary and values surprisingly different from my Beachy-Amish background. These people were always talking about Convictions. You were supposed to have them, lots of them, the more the better. It didn't really matter what they were about, except they always had to do with church rules and being more conservative. They kept tabs on each other's convictions. Conservative was good and even cool. So if you would say--and show--that you had developed a conviction for a bigger head covering and longer dresses, you got lots of approval.

I was very bad at this, with the resulting disapproval and pull-asides and earnest exhortation.

There was a wind that blew through a neighboring church during my teaching years. It was the chic place to attend, where people murmured "mmmmm, yes, praise God," in normal conversation, and they would all get out of their seats during the service and hold hands and sing "Bind Us Together." They learned to start their prayers with "Father God," which was always one of the first signs of a traditional Mennonite becoming enlightened, and they were into speaking in tongues and exorcising demons.

I wasn't sure what to make of this, and watched in awkward fascination from the sidelines.

I've written before about the Bill Gothard/Basic Youth/ATI movement which came after we were married. It was hard, sometimes, to have so many friends who were part of my life and yet immersed in a system that Paul and I were suspicious of. Some friends were accepting of our choices, others were a bit too forceful in their gushing to us about the joys of homeschooling, of not using contraception, or of following Gothard's monthly schedule for sex, which seemed creepy at the time and now seems absolutely horrifying.

But what is hard to see from this perspective is that the people who were into Gothard seemed like the ones who had it all together, and we were just stubborn and weird, and we didn't love the Word like they did.

When we were working in Canada, it seemed like anyone who was anything in the mission got into counseling, and Touching Lives of Hurting People. Once again, they had a vocabulary all their own, and an aura of deep knowledge and insights. They quoted Dan Allender, went to Winnipeg for training, and talked about Heart Issues.

Paul and I were never encouraged to become counselors. After the trauma of the riot at Stirland Lake, a counselor was brought in to meet with anyone who wanted to discuss their experience. I was in the depths of morning sickness and remember thinking, desperately, "I don't need counseling; I need casseroles!" But I didn't say it out loud, and I didn't meet with the counselor.

Later there were the Charity churches and all their offshoots, which blazed over the landscape like a prairie fire. A Charity-offshoot preacher that we sort of knew was in church one Sunday, a powerful-looking man, sitting there frowning darkly and analyzing it all--the Sunday school lesson, the sermon, everything--was it actually the True Gospel or Traditional Platitudes? Somehow it was his to judge, and I was gratified that he reported to someone after church that Paul's sermon was Solid and True.

Why did I think this random pretentious guy was anyone to take seriously? That is just disturbing.

The shake-up in music in churches, from congregational hymns to "worship music" and choruses led by a band onstage, didn't affect our churches that much. However, it seemed the people who left the Mennonite church always gravitated for churches with the newer music style. More recently, however, Mennonite young people gravitate toward Liturgical churches.

Today, it seems like the cool spiritual young Mennonites are into adventure, photogenic missions, and being as urban and hipster as possible but retaining just enough of the cultural flavor to be unique and to keep the community connections. They also seem to be into drinking alcohol, not in excess but just enough to be sophisticated and to show that they are free in Jesus. The girls often retain some kind of head covering, such as beanies and fedoras and toques, with a low bun and lots of dangling strands of hair around the face.

Once again I am thoroughly uncool and confused.

From my perspective in the rocking chair, I've seen the ending of many of these stories. Mennonites tend to judge your life by how your family turned out, so I will do the same. Honestly, there really is not much rhyme or reason. I can think of Gothard followers whose families are complete disasters and others who are healthy and thriving. Many of the traditional folks who stayed in conservative churches did fine, but the churches with lots of convictions also produced an alarming share of pedophiles and cheating husbands. And of those who left, some did very well and some serve as an example of What Can Happen If You Go.

The only pattern I can find is that the people who were the noisiest about how we all ought to live often fell the farthest and crashed the hardest.

Meanwhile, the changeless, traditional Alvin Mary type of women were always plump and warm and welcoming, and always made me feel loved and special. The church of my childhood is still Beachy-Amish, but is a much more nurturing place than it used to be. Our church, where Paul has pastored for years, has had horrible hard times but is still a spiritual home for our family and a place where people know my shortcomings and love me anyhow.

Some things I've learned:
--We are all a bunch of sinners and Jesus is our only rock, foundation, salvation, and hope.
--Don't let anyone fool you with their awesome spirituality. The most truly Godly people will be the most humble and the most honest about their flaws.
--Both tradition and change can be good or bad, and you often won't know which until 20 years later, so good luck with that.
--A new wind blowing through your life and church might be a weird cult or it might be a fresh working of the Holy Spirit. Listen to Scripture and the Still Small Voice within about whether or not to move with the wind, and don't listen so much to friends or enemies or persuasive leaders or the Amazing Spiritual People or the newest bestselling author.
--If you follow Jesus, He will do all kinds of amazing things in your life, even if you are bumbling and stumbling and a little weird and full of issues.
--All the Glory is His, and you should be suspicious of anyone who wants a piece of it.

35 comments:

  1. Your very last bullet point is (I think) the most profound. Perspective sure is different from the rocking chair than it was back fifty years ago.

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    1. thanks, Gert, and very true about perspective.

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    2. "The perspective from the rocking chair"; what a perfect description! And yes, that last point wraps up the whole post in one brief sentence. Well put, Dorcas.

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    3. The flip side of this is, we shouldn't become complacent and so entrenched in our "traditions", that the spirit can't move freely.

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  2. This made me grin, Dorcas, even though I'm one of those weirdos that likes to write about church now and then! :) You're so right...none of us are perfect, and all the church commotion can be pretty confusing. It takes humility to learn and do the best we can. Thanks for your delightful insights!

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    1. Thanks Rosina, and just to be clear, I didn't mean that it was weird to write about church. I was just explaining why I joined the trend.

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    2. Church is such a big part of our lives, it's hard not to write about it.

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  3. This is such a wonderful ode to steadiness, rationality, and using the heads God gave us to to exercise good judgement, especially in a world that equates "reliable" with "boring," and says that the most important commandment is "follow your heart." (My heart leads me to all kinds of sin and silly things if I don't let my intellect provide the road map.)You also wonderfully capture a notion that doesn't get nearly enough attention: Intellectual fashions can be just as silly as clothing fashions, and are often actively dangerous. C.S. Lewis had some great things to say on the same subject in the Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. I think you would enjoy them if you haven't read them already.

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    1. "Intellectual fashions can be just as silly as clothing fashions, and are often actively dangerous."
      Good words.

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  4. I appreciate your insights so much, Dorcas. Thank you!

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  5. I read this out loud to my family and my husband answered with "Rarely do you hear such honesty." Thank you for sharing, this has been on my heart for a long time... With Russian Mennonite churches we are seeing the same trends and it just makes me more confidant that Jesus truly is the answer. Blessings!

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  6. Good thoughts! You articulate many of the things I felt, and have seen through the years. Thanks!

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  7. Dorcax your post is very interexting and I don't know where to start. I admit that I for lack of a better word, admire Conservative Mennonites because they believe in following New Testament teachings such as women's headcovering,modesty, turning the other cheek,etc.
    Actually the first time I heard such teachings was through listening to sermons from Charity ministries but that was over ten years ago.
    We've visited a Mennonite fellowship in Lebec,CA a few times and have made life long friends. We live in AZ now and have made friends with a fellowship in Congress, AZ. I don't know if these two fellowships, which are meeting in homes because of their small size, are more "progressive". Ive heard of ultra conservative groups they probably more legalistic.
    I don't know where I was going with my comment but I guess churches need to get back to focusing on Jesus.
    Sorry this is so long.

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  8. Dorcas, I'm glad to know your thoughts on the Gothard saga, and that you had the discernment not to jump on board and follow the crowd.

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  9. Is anything new under the sun? You put into words some of my thoughts. I get tired of people trying to analyze everything.

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  10. Thank you for those honest insights.

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  11. Refreshing! Thank you

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  12. Amen amen amen. Especially the last phrase.

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  13. Thanks, Dorcas. This is so good!

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  14. It is very interesting how people are writing about church because for the past couple of months I've been wanting to write about church too. I just have so much to say but it's something I feel I need to prayerfully write about.

    I didn't realize the ATI movement had gotten into the Mennonite circles. I've heard both good and bad things about this organization. I thought that because the Duggar family is involved that it must not be all that bad. That is until I looked closely at their website recently and something just doesn't seem right. You and your husband were wise not to get involved. There is that attraction though of modesty, husband being head of the family, mothers being keepers at home etc, but oh beware.

    Well again I talked way too much! Dorcas have a blessed day and you have a spammer above by the way. Don't you just love the politeness of them?

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  15. Spot on with your final points.
    As with the first couple in the garden who chose to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil when they could have partaken of the tree of life , we so quickly focus on and allow our identity to be based on knowledge and our perception of liberty and spirituality. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

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  16. Thanks Dorcas! Both entertaining and enlightening... and a bit frightening. But mostly it was my most spiritual wind for the day! Plus I thank God your husbands messages are both Solid and True!

    - a fellow-bumbler

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  17. I loved this post, and badly needed to hear it. Thank you, Dorcas.

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  18. Thank you for this, Dorcas. It really does put it all in perspective. I am going to cut out that last bullet point and keep it.

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  19. Thanks to all of you for weighing in and for your understanding and reflections. God bless you all. Those of you whom I know personally have encouraged me in following Jesus, and I appreciate it more than I can say.

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  20. Thanks for writing about church, Dorcas. I comfort myself with the fact that God knows what’s going on and how He will use the different winds and movements in church present and history. Just because a movement dies down and/or gets completely sour, doesn’t mean God can’t/didn’t use it. After all, His own Son was left with not a single follower and then killed. “Listen to Scripture and the Still Small Voice.” Amen. Let’s stop making fellow Christians and winds our gods, and let God Almighty reign!—-And what that looks like is where it gets complicated=) “O God, our help in ages past.”

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  21. And now, this...from one of your "non-churched" followers:

    I was born and raised Catholic...attended Catholic grade school, with the nuns and all that. But there's just...something...about the faith one is raised in that becomes stale and rote after awhile. And in the Catholic Church, there's so much dogma and "theology" in the mix, that I eventually felt it got in the way of my relationship with God, rather than enhancing it.

    In the eighties, my husband and I got involved in a charismatic church--yeah, with all the prophesying and hand raising and praise-the-Lording and speaking in tongues. Stayed in that sort of church for almost a decade, but eventually, the whole culture began to seem exploitative and emotionally manipulative. And politically far right-wing. No place for an aging hippie. It seemed to me that there must be more (and less) to the Creator-of-all-things than that.

    I just seems to me that most organized religions want to depict the Almighty as either the big piggy bank in the sky, or as a wrathful, vengeful Spirit that rains plagues and curses upon those who displease It. Or both. My soul does not bear witness to either of those concepts. As a result, I am no longer Catholic, or charismatic, or even Christian. I commune with the Creator through nature. I'll spare you the details...as I feel one's spiritual connection is a unique and private relationship.

    I have no beefs with followers of Jesus. If that is the form of spiritual connection to the Almighty that my friends are comfortable with, I'm not going to tell them they are wrong or misguided. Our God is so amazing that there are probably as many ways to connect to God as there are souls on Earth. Everyone must connect in a way that works for them. It's when people start telling you that THEIR way is the best way or the only way or the most blessed way that you have to wrap yourself in your cloak of discernment.

    Of which you seem to be doing a pretty fair job.

    Thank you for this post. It was enlightening to see that some of the things that made me uncomfortable about church are universal...moreso than I had thought.

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  23. So much I could say in response to this, Dorcas. My roots were conservative Mennonite with strong Charismatic influence in my teen years, well into my late 50's; avid follower of Bill Gothard from his earliest seminars until he got into specifics that turned us off; now involved in music ministry in UMC churches where I hear more scripture every Sunday than I heard in a year in Charismatic circles but also where there is little passion for Jesus. More than ever I believe that a life of genuine love and care for people in all walks of life is the real, true Christianity. But there are times I miss the excitement of being on the cutting edge of things even though experience has made me skeptical. I found a lot of food for thought in a recent message I listened to: 1. In every growing move of God there will be some messes and conflict. 2. Sometimes an unstoppable force can also be an unspeakable mess. 3. History has never seen a revival that isn't messy. 4. Don't shy away from a move of God for fear of the messes.

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  24. Beautiful! And relateable and honest... And do beanies and messy hair really make me into a cool, liberated, semi-Mennonite, ultra-spiritual, enlightened human bean? Why have I not known this before?!?! ;)

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  25. Where do the Mennonites stand on artificial contraception and natural family planning in general? And what is the reasoning? (If you don't mind me asking). I find this interesting having studied philosophy with RCs (I'm not an RC but a traditional Anglo-Catholic). It seems to me (very imprecisely) that some denominations have accepted it without really thinking about it, while others have gone for a more nuanced approach resulting in quite a lot of different conclusions. But I've never really had the opportunity before to ask anyone of the Anabaptist wing where they stand and why.

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    1. We don't have a specific denominational stand on this, and I don't know of any congregations that have a specific requirement for their members. Mostly, it's left to individual couples. However, we are guided by a few basic principles such as:
      --Children are a gift and blessing from God
      --large families are good.
      --caring for children is a valuable occupation.
      --women are the weaker vessel and men should be considerate of that.
      --wisdom and discernment and volition are good.
      --natural is better than artificial.
      I'm sure lots of couples are like us, sort of playing it by ear, with a certain amount of planning but also an unplanned pregnancy or two which is perfectly ok. Then I really wanted a fifth baby really bad, resulting in a pregnancy which was even more horrible than usual, and Paul said, "We are not doing this again."
      Then we adopted one child.

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    2. Interesting. Thank-you :-). One of the things that fascinates me is the extent to which different groups differ not only in their answers, but in how they work their answers out. The impression I get is that those principles are sort of generally garnered from scripture, without anyone trying to turn them into a sort of precise, perfect, indisputable formula. The RCs tend to treat everything as a logical problem "if this is the function and point of marital relations, then...", which I personally think works well with some things and not with others. (Admittedly that may be distorted because if you study philosophy with a group naturally logic is the side of their way of thinking you encounter!) Anglicanism has a tendency (which drives me mad) to what I feel is a milk-and-water "this makes life easier so it must be God's will" which is so inconsistant with scripture as to feel pretty much crazy to an Anglican scholar with approximately traditonal views.

      I think when one comes, as I do, from a social background in which people don't regard caring for children as worthwhile and which pretty much outlaws big families, it's very difficult to understand the different way of thinking. Though part of the reason I'm interested is that (despite a lot of general theological differences between the group I belong to and the Anabaptists) I feel it is more sound. Care for other people and the gift of life and being ought to be more important in the great scheme of things than one's personal ambitions and preferences. The assumption of the secular culture I come from is always that in a large family the parents won't cope and the children will just be neglected. (I don't share this assumption - life is really not that simple). I've not experienced the morning sickness thing myself (I'm not married and have never been pregnant) but I've felt rather contemptously challenged for opposing abortion, let alone artificial contraception, with the implication of it being completely unreasonable to expect woman to put up with things like bad morning sickness. And that seems to come in part as the reaction to a previous social attitude that somehow the pregnant woman was just an object whose health and welfare didn't matter. So I am both startled and impressed by the attitude you have to this, which manages to take both the value and cost of life seriously.

      It is also interesting that part of what I was taught by the RCs was that while couples should be prudent, they shouldn't try to control their families too rigidly, in a "my dream family" sort of way. I feel the dream family idea is a very negative one for other reasons too, and partly the result of pushing woman out to work regardless of their circumstances (as if one could solve the curse of Eve by laying the curse of Adam on women as well!).

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  26. Mennonite youth gravitating toward liturgical churches... I wonder why this is becoming the preference over the seeker-driven nondenominational churches. My off-the-cuff suggestion is that the waning of some leader-driven movements, scandals, and personality cults may have pushed disillusioned young people to look for something older than the Anabaptist movement. I would also be interested in hearing more stories of Anabaptist people moving to liturgical traditions. Is it because they wanted to remain faithful but needed space away from Anabaptism? Is it because commercialized worship music has been found wanting? Is it because othering, ostracization or poor implementations of brotherhood? Each story is different.

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