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 

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.


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.

Friday, December 15, 2017

December's Column--Fighting the Darkness Without and Within

Stoke the fires within to fight winter gloom

By Dorcas Smucker
Register-Guard columnist
DEC 10, 2017

When I get annoyed at green fields, I know it’s time to fight back against the darkness.

I love Oregon, really. As a long-ago transplant from the Midwest, I am still in awe at the wildness of the Pacific Coast and the impossible magnitude of the Cascades. I like the secure sense of living in a valley framed by mountain ranges, and I love that there are always new waterfalls to discover.

But I have never learned to like Oregon winters — neither the gloomy skies nor the listless rain that hangs around but seldom works up the energy for a good impressive storm nor the damp cold that somehow chills my bones like Minnesota never did. Things that ought not to be wet are constantly soaked and dripping — trees, grass, cars, roofs, even chickens venturing out of the coop. And the way moss and mold creep over anything that stands still for a season — that is almost scary.

Every fall, it seems for a short time that things are progressing properly, as nature intended. Harvested grass fields are bare, acorns fall, temperatures drop, leaves drift downward, and rose hips emerge bright and red from brown wild-rose bushes beside the road.

Then the autumn clouds move in like a gray army, bringing a chilling and smothering of spirits. The days grow shorter, compounded by the end of daylight-saving time that cuts back the evening light by an hour.

Just when I think the bare fields ought to be frozen and covered with snow, they suddenly turn a bright, garish green.

You’d think I would find it refreshing, that splash of color. Instead, I find it annoying, taunting me with the fact that nature is all mixed up here, and this soggy winter will go on and on, verging on the edge of both fall and spring, without ever getting snowy and frozen for more than a few days, if at all.

When I waste emotional energy on green fields, of all things — that’s the sign that the encroaching darkness and mold have reached my soul.

Whether it’s seasonal affective disorder or just an unreasonable grumpiness, I have learned, after 20-odd years, it’s best to resist.

Giving in is easy, sinking into a self-absorbed and pitiful cocoon until spring. Unchecked, it can become clinical depression. Fighting back is tough but ultimately worthwhile.

Simple daily disciplines always come first, such as taking vitamin D, limiting sugar in my diet and going outside during the day.

I also choose gratitude, a simple discipline of the heart. Thanksgiving comes at an opportune time, bringing feasting and deliberate counting of blessings just as the last soggy leaves fall and the days grow constantly shorter. The holiday compels me to see, again, all that I’ve been given. It may be 35 degrees with sleet outside, my least favorite weather of all, but inside I can set the thermostat to 75, if I please, and the furnace does my bidding. We celebrate with a huge turkey from WinCo, an array of side dishes and a dozen friends and family, and I don’t have the time or desire to feel sorry for myself.

My third strategy is planning ahead for easy and fun activities, such as having my neighbor and friend, Anita, over for tea and conversation. Five family members came in the door, rattled around the kitchen, and left again as we talked at the table one afternoon. “I like how you just decide to do this, and then you do it, even if people come and go all the time,” Anita said. “You don’t wait until things are perfect.”

Waiting for perfection, I’ve found, lets the winter gloom spread like moss on an abandoned shed. Scheduling coffee with the sisters-in-law, a Handel’s Messiah concert, or half a day of secondhand shopping is a powerful antidote, even if the timing is inconvenient or the weather turns out to be terrible.

Even something as small as a London Fog from Dutch Bros, sipped in a car with rain streaming over the windows, brings warmth, indulgence, and a gentle boost of hope.

Lastly, the most powerful pushback of all is generosity.

It’s not surprising that the winter solstice coincides with Christmas, when we celebrate the light and hope of Jesus, the gift to a dark world. Giving becomes a personal form of light as well, dispelling the inner shadows. Choosing gifts for friends and family makes me think of others and what they need and enjoy.

Almost every winter, I host a giveaway online. I invite my blog readers to nominate people who have had a difficult year, so I can mail them a free book. The emails land in my inbox and I sit there in tears, reading of cancer, sick babies, car crashes, spouses abandoning their families, and a dozen other incomprehensible tragedies.

A book of mine will never make everything better, but I like to think it will feel like a little shaft of comfort, showing that someone cares. It dispels the selfishness in my spirits as well, proving the truth of Jesus’ paradoxical statement: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over …”

Some years, my husband and I participate in the annual “cookie project” of Gospel Echoes Northwest, a ministry based in Tangent. We go to a state prison and distribute cookies and handmade Christmas cards to inmates. There is nothing else like it for transforming your perspective and making your daily world — in any sort of weather — feel like a paradise of freedom and opportunity.

I may never come to love an Oregon winter. But choosing discipline, gratitude, deliberate fun, and most of all, generosity, will effectively fight off the invading inner gloom.

Around our walnut tree, during the longest nights of the year, quiet but determined daffodils already are pushing up from the cold wet soil. The prophet Isaiah still calls, “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” And when the evening sun breaks out from behind the clouds and slants across a flagrantly green ryegrass field, it is truly a beautiful thing to see.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Happy Sad Giveaway Project

This is the season of long nights and short days, and it is also the season of gloom in weather and spirit in Oregon.

...but rainbows help.

I've learned that I need to deliberately choose light, just to survive. Today, when the sun was shining in grand fashion and the sky was blue, I went on a walk and also sat on the porch with the sun full in my face.

I also try to choose light in my spirit. As I wrote in my column for this month, to be published on Sunday:

Giving becomes a personal form of light as well, dispelling the inner 
shadows. ...

Almost every winter, I host a giveaway online. I invite my blog readers 
to nominate people who have had a difficult year, so I can mail them a 
free book. The emails land in my inbox and I sit there in tears, reading 
of cancer, sick babies, terrible car crashes, spouses abandoning their 
families, and a dozen other incomprehensible tragedies.

A book of mine will never make everything better, but I like to think it 
will feel like a little shaft of comfort, showing that someone cares.  

Ok, so I sent that off yesterday, and in a lovely bit of timing and affirmation, I got this note today:

A little more than 4 years ago, we had just buried our 31 year old brother-in-law after he drowned and I was really struggling with knowing how to deal with the grief myself not to mention how to help our eight children. I remember so well the day your book came in the mail. It felt like a light was handed to me in the middle of a very dark tunnel. That certainly wasn't the end of the struggles but several things gave me hope-your delightful writing and the fact that someone cared about me.

I cried, of course. And decided it's for sure time to post this giveaway again.

I've decided to call this almost-annual event the Happy Sad Giveaway Project, because it is always the oddest mix of tragedy and joy.

As mentioned, I sit at the computer and weep as the emails and stories roll in, but it is glorious to know that this is a little tiny actual thing I can do, and the nominating, helpless, concerned friends can feel like they are doing something tangible as well.

It's also a way of showing my gratitude for the fact that people have been buying my new book, totally of their own volition! I always find that amazing.

This is how it works:

You write an email ( or a letter (31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR, 97446) and tell me about someone in your life who has had a rough year and who might be encouraged by a book from me. If you like, you can specify which book to send, or tell me which ones they already have.

You also tell me the person's name and address.

I reserve the right to decline. But if I feel this is a qualifying recipient, I mail them a book.

A few rules: I'll mail them only within the USA. You can nominate someone in another country only if you provide a US mailing address.

Sunlight Through Dusty Windows is not eligible.

You can't nominate yourself!

The deadline is December 20.

Also: don't count on this to arrive in time for Christmas, because I'm busy with other book orders and events, and also I use Media Mail, which is slow and unpredictable at this time of year--but also much less expensive.

A list of titles is right here

One, two, three, GO! And be blessed!

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Two Book Sales

Local people:

There are two book sales this week and I'd love to see you there.

The first is at the Register-Guard building on Chad Drive. It's on Thursday, Dec. 7, from 4 to 6 pm.

The second is in the Atrium at the Lane County Fairgrounds. It's on Saturday, Dec. 9, from 10 a.m to 5 pm.