Sunday, October 30, 2011

Combining Caution and Compassion--A Pastoral Perspective on Sexuality

Should Christian congregations and institutions affirm and support gays and lesbians in intimate relationships?

This simple question, affecting the lives of real people among us we should all love and care about, is threatening to tear us apart.

But the issue isn’t simple. Rather than it dividing us into just two opposing camps, I note at least seven different positions people are taking, on the following continuum:

1.  Condemn and ostracize all lesbians and gays, keep them “in the closet”.

2.  Advocate acceptance of gays and lesbians but expect them to undergo a change of orientation (“healing”), with heterosexual marriage or a life of celibacy as their only options.

3. Openly welcome and accept all believers into membership without making sexual orientation a barrier, but support sexual relationships for only one man and one woman in marriage.

4.  Support the above approach as the church’s official position, but make pastoral exceptions for faithful same-sex relationships where no other option seems viable (similar to Paul’s “better to marry than to burn with passion” counsel, an approach many churches have applied to divorced persons seeking to remarry).

5.  Celebrate and affirm all monogamous and faithful relationship equally--heterosexual or homosexual.

6.  Encourage monogamous relationships, but make questions of exclusivity and fidelity matters of personal conscience.

7.  Leave all questions about sexual behaviors up to the individual.

Advocates of positions 4, 5 or 6 sometimes stereotype those who disagree with them (e.g., who take positions 2 or 3) as reactionary and without compassion, and judge churches who are unwilling to change as having legalistic church leaders concerned only with maintaining the status quo. But the fact is, the majority of lay members of most of our congregations are probably even more conservative on this issue than are their leaders. And most church assemblies, for better or for worse, are careful to follow democratic procedures in making church decisions.

Having said that, it may also be unfair for those who hold to the Genesis-old position of “one man and one woman for life” as reaffirmed by Jesus, to write off everyone else with differing opinions (for example, as in #4) as totally lacking in Biblical or moral values.

So along with the need for gaining some badly needed compassion, doesn't wisdom also call for a good dose of prudence and caution here? After all, churches are being asked to consider changing a position (#3) that has millenia of Christian tradition and the majority of Christian believers worldwide behind it, and that should never be done lightly.

My biggest concern, however, is not about the current homosexual debate, per se, but how the increased acceptance of positions 6 and 7 may affect the moral thinking and behavior of all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation. We might ask what happens to our ability to maintain some kind of community stability and accountability in the sexual arena when only the rights and wishes of individuals are considered? What happens when our sexual needs, regardless of gender orientation,  are seen as having somewhere near the same urgency as our need for oxygen, or when the idea of celibacy is dismissed as a near impossibility for anyone--of any age, life stage or sexual orientation?

I’m raising a broader and deeper question here, whether we are already on a slippery slope that may result in our losing our sense of shared community mores and values in this very important area of our lives. Are we being influenced by an individualistic mindset that has resulted in a social experiment in which everyone is pretty much on his or her own?

In the heterosexual arena, the results of that kind of thinking are sobering:

1. A growing number of kids, as young as elementary and middle school age, are engaging in oral sex (usually unprotected). Young girls wanting to gain popularity with guys are especially vulnerable.

2. According to an article in “O” magazine, less well supervised “morps” (“proms” spelled backwards), are becoming more popular among teens, with some of them featuring “freaking” (dances simulating sexual intercourse).

3. Bi-sexual sex is “in” among heterosexual teen and young adult women, according to popular magazines like Cosmopolitan, read by millions as the Bible of Cool.

4. A majority of teenage boys now admit to accessing internet porn on a regular basis, and many are becoming addicted to it at a time when both their brains and their personal values are still very much in formation. What kind of faithful fathers and lifelong lovers will they be?

5. Randomly “hooking up” at bars and weekend parties is increasingly accepted as a norm on university campuses, often seen as risking less commitment than actually asking someone out for dinner and a movie.

6. Cohabitation, a form of “premarital marriage,” is replacing dating and engagement as the normal step toward formal or legal “marriage,” in spite of cohabiters being at greater risk for divorce when they do marry.

7. Divorcing and remarrying, hooking up and breaking up, are becoming more and more common among adults, resulting in serial polygamy with numerous partners and untold and unforeseen long term consequences that are potentially destructive to adults and children alike. True, actual divorce rates are not increasing, but that is largely because marriage rates are declining.

So while the church is busy guarding the back door against allowing gays and lesbians (perhaps 3-5% of our members at most) to have sex with whomever and whenever their conscience allows, we’d all better be watching the front door and dealing with the hard question of where some of our own underlying assumptions about individualism and moral relativism are already taking us.

For me, this is not a simple matter of "us" versus "them," or of gay versus straight. We all have a stake in the well being of future generations, and we all need to talk--together.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Contemplative Action

Some time ago my good wife asked me to make a list of all of the extracurricular things I’ve gotten involved in in our community, one I admit turned out to be even longer than I thought.

Which caused me to think more seriously about creating a healthier balance in my life between work, community and church involvement and my personal, spiritual and family life. Have I become a workaholic, an all-too busy human doing instead of a healthy and balanced human being?

I’ve been benefiting from reading a book my daughter gave me on “The Active Life--A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring,” by Quaker author Parker J. Palmer. He suggests that instead of separating the contemplative and the action parts of our lives, or simply alternating between the two--with contemplation being primarily about becoming revived and renewed to go back to more action--that we do more of integrating the two, practicing contemplative action and active contemplation.

Palmer goes on to stress the value of work as an important and life giving part of who we are and how we contribute to our communities, rather than just being our way of earning a living. He also stresses the need to place high value on creativity, whether that be in gardening, raising and nurturing a family, or writing a poem or essay.

Another important element we want to integrate into our everyday lives, he says, is caring--visiting a sick or elderly neighbor, expressing love and support to a spouse or family member, or promoting projects that improve the well-being of the community and the world.

Can all of these be done in a way that reflects a healthy balance?

I hope so.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why I’m Still Loving Jesus

    Jesus hung with hookers, hung with hustlers, not with cops
    and he made wine from water, so the party wouldn’t stop,
    and Jesus, he loved everyone, just like his Mom and Dad
    ‘cause Jesus knew the difference between broken and plain bad...

    Jesus on the hillside had a message for the crowd
    he said, “blessed are the brokenhearted, but woe unto the proud,”
    and when they all got hungry, he took a couple loaves of bread
    and he passed himself around till everybody had been fed...

    Jesus in the temple yard trashed every loan shark’s booth,
    but Jesus said to Judas, “let those little children through,
    ‘cause Jesus hung with losers and with posers and with narcs,
    and he got what was coming to him somewhere in the dark…

                    - from Brad Yoder’s WWJD? 1998 all rights reserved 

In case anyone wonders why I remain passionate about following Jesus, here are just a few of my reasons:

1. Jesus never hated people or committed acts of violence against them. Rather, he taught his followers to practice prayer and good deeds toward enemies, not harm or kill them.

2. Jesus demonstrated a life of simplicity and generosity. He never advocated amassing wealth or becoming financially well to do. He not only stressed compassion for the poor, but chose to become one of them.

3. Jesus consistently preached and practiced care for the marginalized and disenfranchised. Even in a strictly patriarchal society he had women as close followers, and regularly enjoyed meals with people regarded as outcasts and misfits. He makes a hated and heretical Samaritan the hero in one of his best known parables, a story he uses as part of his answer to the question, “How does one gain eternal life?”

4. Jesus avoided dogmatic sermonizing and theologizing in favor of telling simple stories and teaching easy-to-understand (but hard to practice) truths like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Do not hoard/store up treasures on earth,” and “Let your ‘yes’ be a simple ‘yes,’ and your ‘no,’ a ‘no.’

5. Jesus rejected expressions of worship that require elaborate temples, complex liturgies, and professional clergy. Private prayer is encouraged, and “two or three” are sufficient when it comes to communal prayer and worship.

6. Jesus demonstrates that God loves everyone, and that his “Father,” far from condemning the world, is heaven-bent on saving it.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means:
‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

                                                                                          - Matthew 9:9-13 (NIV)

Friday, October 21, 2011

All We Have is Love

 We just returned last night from being at our brother-in-law Vernon Zehr's memorial service at the Greenwood (Delaware) Mennonite Church, a bittersweet time of remembering, celebrating and mourning. It was one of the most moving funerals I have ever attended.

On the return trip, emotions still fresh and raw, I kept thinking about a piece our singer/songwriter son Brad wrote in 2005, and which is recorded on his latest album. He had just been with us for a weekend, and on his way home reflected on what he felt for members of his family, no matter how challenging relationships with loved ones can be:


           love is all I have for you,
           it will have to do,
           if you were looking for a miracle,

           the fact that we’re still here, 

           well that’s miraculous as anything
           that I have seen magicians pull,

           but I forgot the tricks I knew,

           love is all I have for you..

love is all I have for you,
love is all that’s left after the wind has blown the chaff away,
I laugh at what I tried to save,
and disappointment’s just a lens to magnify what might have been,
but none of that was ever true,
love is all I have for you,

I close my eyes, I’m a child by the water,
casting stones so circles spread,
then blink twice, and we’re old on a park bench,
watching birds eat scattered bread,
in between we lost track of time,
but she is kind enough to remind us..
the little space between goodbyes is really only pocket-sized,
I carry you around with me in case I need some sympathy,
this fear that we’re not good enough will disappear when morning comes,
‘cause none of that was ever true,
love is all I have for you..
miraculous as anything that I have seen magicians do,
but I forgot the tricks I knew,
love is all I have for you…
In the end, love is what endures. More than even faith or hope, love never dies. It's what we have left after everyone and everything else is gone.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vernon Zehr 1934-2011

Our brother-in-law Vernon Zehr died Sunday at age 77 in Greenwood, Delaware. His obituary appears in today's Daily News-Record.

One of the many blessings of being married to Alma Jean has been inheriting 14 (yes, fourteen) wonderful in-laws, and Vernon, married to my wife’s next older sister Freda, was one of our favorites. They spent most of their adult lives in Wilmington, Delaware, where Vernon served in a dual role as a pastor and a special education teacher (and later principal).

As my wife commented to me this morning, there was so much of Jesus in this man. He loved everybody, reached out to the under served and ignored, saw every human being as special, wasn't afraid to question the religious establishment, and was as friendly, open minded and open hearted a man as one could find anywhere.

One of his nieces, Mary Ann Yutzy, daughter of another of my wife’s sisters, posted this on her blog Sunday in memory of her beloved uncle. I asked her permission to share this excerpt, which captures so well the kind of person he was:

I remember one time when Uncle Vernon and Aunt Freda come to visit us, and I was in the throes of young adolescence ('Addled Essence" would be more accurate, to be sure!).  My hair was a mess, and my dress was dirty.  I had been trying to clean up the kitchen, and I was talking to Uncle Vernon.  We stored the frying pan in the oven at our house (Still do in my house, to this day!)  But I had put a cake in to bake just a little before, and it was almost done.  I was talking animatedly to Uncle Vernon, who always engaged me in conversation, and without thinking, I grabbed the frying pan and put it into the oven without looking, right on top of that almost baked cake.  I felt an unfamiliar thud and then I looked in disbelief at the flattened and scrunched cake.

My Sweet Mama was not happy with me for ruining the cake.  We had plans to use it for a dessert the next day that is similar to Cherry Delight.  The only difference is that you use the baked cake as the bottom layer instead of a graham cracker crust.  It was all the rage back then, and I am pretty sure that Mama was expecting company for lunch the next day.  I don't know what she must have thought, but it WAS a result of not paying attention.  (Something I was, unfortunately, quite famous for.  Still am.)  Uncle Vernon and Aunt Freda were the current company, though and so she didn't scold me too hard.  But I felt awful, and I cried.  We tried hard to repair and salvage, but it was still rather sorry looking.

Later, I was back in the kitchen, and Uncle Vernon came up to me and said, "Mary Ann.  Come here."  He took me to where our living room and dining room met, where there was a large, full length mirror, and positioned me in front of it.  "Take a good look," he said.  I did.  Didn't particularly like what I saw, either.  "What do you see?" he asked.

It really wasn't much to look at.  My hair was stringy, falling down over my face.  I reached up and tried to tuck it behind my ear.  My dress, made of the shirtwaist pattern of the day, was an aqua gingham, rumpled and dirty.  I was dreadfully self conscious.  "Um, I don't know.  Me?"

"Now, Mary Ann," he instructed kindly, "I want you to straighten your shoulders.  Don't slump.  And I want you to smile.  You can smile."  He took my hands gently in his and crossed them over my tummy.  "Hold your hands just so.  Like that.  Now look at you.  I see a beautiful young lady," he said with energy, confidence and enthusiasm.  "Look at you!  You really are a wonderful young lady.  You are intelligent and you will go far."

I looked in the mirror.  I smiled at the girl in the mirror and she smiled back.  I felt a surge of confidence like I had never known before.  I didn't feel beautiful, but I felt capable.  I knew I wasn't gorgeous.  I certainly didn't have a reason to be vain, but I really did feel like I could meet the challenges of life, and that I had something to offer this old world, and it felt really, really good.

I have always blessed him for that day.  It was pivotal in my life.  It was many, many years before I understood how "Uncle Vernon" that was.  He lived and breathed encouragement.  He looked for something to praise, something to give hope, something to affirm. 

I pray that part of Vernon Zehr can live on in each of us.

May he rest in peace.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Small Child, Big Heart

Our oldest grandson, at the age of six, became big brother to a set of twins this June, a little boy (he had his heart set on a younger brother) and a baby girl. He has taken a great interest in them and has done a great job helping care for them where he can.

Recently, when they were about 3 1/2 months old, he came to his mother, our youngest, and said, in all seriousness, “Mommy, if we ever get so poor that any of us have to live in an orphanage, let me go. The twins are way too small to have to be away from their mommy and daddy, but I could take care of myself better.”

Needless to say, she was startled by his offer, and they are still wondering where he learned that poor people sometimes have to have their children raised in an orphanage, or why he feared his own family might become that impoverished. His dad, after all, is a neurologist and his mom, until recently, a college teacher. But all of us felt profoundly moved by his unselfish offer.

For me, one of the better evidences for the existence of a good God is that in spite of evil and suffering everywhere in creation, there is also in all of us the capacity to rise above that, and to behave in truly altruistic ways.

Where does that come from? Is there a gene for that? Can it be taught? Or caught?

I hope so. Certainly the world could use a more people with a lot more concern for the common good even when it may not seem to be in their short term self interest.

Out of the mouth of babes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ten Terrible Years of a War on Terror

The following is a condensation of material put together from a variety of sources by Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard, Peace Committee Co-chair of Virginia Mennonite Conference, posted here with his permission:

Friday, October 7, 2011, marked 10 years since the United States invaded Afghanistan in the name of the “War on Terror”—our response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks—the longest war in US history.

First, let me name a few sorrowful realities:

  • The human cost is vast, with seven Afghan civilians killed every day in 2010.
  • Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001, including women and children (Afghanistan is considered to be one of the worst places to be a child or a female).
  • 2,754 US and coalition troops have been killed since our invasion (, plus tens of thousands suffering from post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders, with shocking numbers committing suicide.
  • One in three recent US military veterans believes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting (the disapproval is nearly fifty percent among wounded vets).
  • Americans have chosen  to respond in fear and xenophobia (especially of Muslims) instead of unity within our own country and neighborhoods.
  • The wars in Afghanistan & Iraq now cost more than $100 billion per year.
  • Over $1 trillion dollars have already been spent in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars together and will approach $4 trillion dollars when all costs are considered – such as interest on the debt incurred and the lifetime care of wounded veterans.
  • Almost no money went to addressing true human need and development or diplomacy approaches to human security in Afghanistan.
  • “[A]fter a decade, Afghanistan still remains the most uncivil, most corrupt, and most war torn country in the world. The consequences of the so-called war on terror has only been more bloodshed, crimes, barbarism, human rights, and women’s rights violations, which has doubled the miseries and sorrows of our people.” - Malalai Joya, former Afghan parliamentarian and female-rights activist
  • President Obama recently announced US military presence will continue in Afghanistan until 2014 (with talks of thousands of special troops and aircraft staying until 2024!), and Congress has agreed to follow his lead. Many analysts believe the American military is trying to retain a based-presence close to Pakistan, Iran and China.
So what are peaceful Jesus-followers to do after an anniversary like this where one in four (75%) of Americans no longer follow what’s happening in our wars (especially when we, too, are tired after 10 years and overwhelmed by the needs)?

(1) First, let us remember our primary calling to be Christian communities of God’s peace. Let us worship together with lamentation, confession and prayer. In the next Sundays, I encourage you to share from the sad realities above and offer prayers, confessions and song in your congregations:

Prayers  ( from Words for Worship 2, by Diane Zaerr Brenneman)
Disarm our hearts
God of mercy and grace:
We mourn the lives of those around the world
                who are daily affected by terrorism and violence
We acknowledge that violence is a web that traps us all.
We confess our own complicity
                when our government feeds terrorism and violence
                to protect our interests and lifestyles.
Forgive us our thoughts and acts
that dehumanize those we consider enemies
We look into our own hearts and confess our own desires
                for vengeance and retaliation against those who have harmed us
Forgives us our violence
                as we forgive those who commit violence against us.
Disarm our hearts as well as our hands
                through the transforming power of the Spirit of Jesus. Amen

Bless our enemies
God of all people and nations,
                we don’t know how to act when what we love is threatened
                when our beautiful, fragile, diverse world is endangered
by terrorism, by wars, by wars on terror
We want Justice! We want it now!
We wish you would forget mercy for awhile, God,
                until you help us get this mess cleaned up.
But then we realize that we too are complicit
in things that harm your hopes for us—
                and mercy suddenly looks better.
Help us realize that in your cosmic economy
there is no “other” at all, no “them,”
                there is only “us.”
Bless our enemies; 
                bless those who terrorize us and those terrorized in our name
in their genuine well-being we all find well-being.
In Jesus’ name may it be so. Amen

A sample worship service, sermon and children’s story ideas, and other seeds of inspiration are all available online at use MCC's resources

(2) Secondly, let us recommit to solidarity with those who suffer. We have much to learn from and about those in Afghanistan (not to mention our Muslim neighbors in our own towns). Start by getting to know the refugees, immigrants, or Islamic community in your neighborhood.
 "He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore."
  • Tune into PBS’s October series on Women, War & Peace: ( On five consecutive Tuesdays beginning October 11, PBS will air nationwide Women, War & Peace (WWP), a five-part investigation of the effects of war on women and the power of women to broker peace in areas in conflict. The series, produced by Abigail E. Disney, Pamela Hogan, and Gini Reticker, comprises five films about the experience of women in the war-torn countries of Afghanistan, Bosnia, Colombia, and Liberia, as well as an overview contextualizing the series as a whole. The award-winning film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, focusing on the extraordinary story of women activists in Liberia who brought an end to that nation's bloody civil war and the despotic presidency of Charles Taylor, will receive its U.S. broadcast premiere as the episode of Women, War & Peace devoted to Liberia.
(3) Continue to call on democratically elected representatives to craft a national budget prioritizing international and domestic human need over military business (see the attached 2012 budget pie chart)
  •  Call in to the Subercommittee on the budget: “The Friends Committee on National Legislation has set up a toll-free number for us to call Congress: 1-877-429-0678. A Congressional ‘Supercommittee’ is charged with coming up with $1.5 trillion in reduced debt over ten years, and the wars and the bloated Pentagon budget dangle before the Supercommittee like overripe fruit.”
  • Use some suggested legislative responses from American Friends Service Committee AFSC (
Just as peace is more than the absence of war, national security is more than planes and bombs; it includes jobs, schools, housing, and healthcare.
American Friends Service Committee is calling for:
·         Deep cuts in the Pentagon budget
·         Raising revenues through taxes on the wealthy and corporations
·         Continuing protection for programs that aid the most vulnerable
·         Short-run investments to stimulate job creation
Use this toolkit to help support our call and help keep these resources in your community.
This is an quick, incomplete list of responses, so I encourage you to pass along ideas for lamenting and seeking an end to the suffering in Afghanistan and the US.

Peace be with you,
Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard
Peace Committee co-chair
in Virginia Mennonite Conference

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ain't Got Time to Fix The... Shingles?

For a bit of a health update (am I getting old or what?) here's part of the weekly e-blessing I sent to my adult children today:

The older I get, the more I'm grateful for how blessed I've been. Life that has been good way beyond deserving, with my wonderfully loving family and church family, good health, meaningful work and wonderful opportunities to grow and serve.

All this became even more vivid in my mind when I noticed some strange, ugly looking sores on my chest and my back last Tuesday. I had been experiencing some itchiness in those areas for about a week but had never seen anything like this. I first thought I might be experiencing a recurrence of my one and only diagnosis of "cancer" twenty-plus years ago, involving a small spot on my thigh that turned out to be an easily removed case of basal cell carcinoma. But this looked far worse, and I was thinking something far more serious, like melanoma (!). Strangely enough, I found myself not only feeling the dread of a big "What if...", but a sense of peace in having enjoyed a long and truly satisfying life and feeling quite ready to go if that were my lot.

My good skin specialist, Dr. Carolyn Miller, whom I got to see Thursday, took one good look and immediately said, "Oh, you've got a case of shingles." Much as I hated to hear that (having heard all kinds of horror stories about the condition) I felt a great sense of relief as well. I hadn't expected this diagnosis, since I had gotten a shingles shot over two years before, but was told that would at least help me experience fewer and less prolonged symptoms, and was prescribed a medication that seems to be helping.

I guess it's all a part of growing older. It's life. There is spring and there is autumn, the season I'm in now.

Here's a quote by Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer I've come to appreciate. It's from his book, "Courage To Lead":

"This hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying is surely enhanced by the visual glories of autumn. What artist would ever have painted a season of dying with such a vivid palette if nature had not done it first? Does death possess a beauty that we - who fear death, who find it ugly and obscene-cannot see? How shall we understand autumn's testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?

For me, the words that come closest to answering those questions are the words of Thomas Merton: There is in all visible things ... a hidden wholeness. In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of the hidden wholeness."  

Love and blessings,

Friday, October 7, 2011

Advertising a False Gospel

One of the problems we have in our society is that we have an enormous capacity for producing goods, but a limited number of people to buy them. So we’ve developed a huge advertising industry aimed at persuading people to buy more and more of what they don’t need and can’t afford.

Christopher Decker, in an article in the Wall Street Journal called “Selling Desire, Why Chastity is Bad for Business," notes that there was a time when advertising emphasized thrift, durability, and economy. Choices were usually made around how good a product was and how long it would last.  But a consumer society has to reverse these values, he notes, because if advertising is to succeed, and business thrive, people have to be convinced that desires alone are sufficient reasons to buy something and that all of our passions are to be indulged now, rather than denied or postponed. So the very notion of chastity has to go, he says, because that represents a mindset that is opposite from a throw away, consumer culture that urges us to get our our Visa cards to buy and use stuff with abandonment, and then simply discard it for whatever you like even better.

According to Dr. Sut Jhally of the University of Massachusetts, the right question to ask about how a given commercial affects us is not how much it influences whether we buy a particular product, but how advertising as a whole affects our buying into a whole different set of values that are counter to the ones we profess to believe. Modern advertising promotes a magical way of thinking, he says, making fantastic promises about what certain products will do for us, like offer us incredible happiness, gain the gloating admiration of all kinds of desirable people, and transform us into an instant, spectacular success. Consumerism promises all, and as such becomes a kind of religion that replaces the faith we actually claim to live by
We need to teach ourselves and our children to talk back to the blatantly false messages we’re all hearing on television and other media every day. Or better yet, just unplug ourselves from the barrage of untruths we're being bombarded with and read or tell them some good messages of our own.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mennonites and Amish—Ten Myths and Misbeliefs

1. Aren't Mennonites just a more progressive group of Amish?  No, “Anabaptists,” not Amish, are the ancestors of today’s Mennonites. Anabaptists emerged in western Europe in 1525, nearly 150 years before Jacob Amman and his Amish branch of the movement. Anabaptists advocated a “free church” based on voluntary baptism and church membership. While supporting many of the reforms of Martin Luther in Germany and Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland, they promoted what was then the radical belief in complete freedom of religion, and were against requiring membership in any established state church, either Protestant or Catholic. They saw mandatory infant baptism, which in those days registered children as both members of the church and citizens of the state, as violating the freedom of individuals to choose faith for themselves.

2. Does the term “Anabaptist” mean “anti-baptist”? No, Anabaptist was the nickname given to all “free church” dissenters, and means “re-baptizer.”  Early Mennonites tended to reject the term, as it identified them with a despised and diverse movement which included a small minority that did advocate violent revolution.

3. Was the name “Mennonite” chosen to honor Menno Simons as its founder? 
No, the peaceful Anabaptists preferred simply being called “Brethren” (well before  the beginning of the “Church of the Brethren,” founded in 1704). Mennonite” was first a nickname but one that eventually gained acceptance some years after ex-Catholic priest Menno Simons of Friesland joined the movement in 1535, ten years after it had begun in Switzerland. So Menno was not its “founder,” but the group became identified with him as one of its most influential and long-lived leaders.

4. Have Mennonites always been quiet and withdrawn? Anabaptists were at first very outspoken in their attempts to bring about more radical reform in the church, but after being rejected and severely persecuted over the first 150 years of their existence (by Protestant as well as Roman Catholic authorities) later generations did become known as “the quiet in the land.” The deaths and suffering of thousands of early free church proponents led many Mennonites and Amish to seek asylum in the new world.

5. Why have the “plain” Mennonites and Amish maintained such a distinctive culture? While they have always stressed living simply and modestly, early members of the movement dressed no differently from any other 16th and 17th century European peasants. What makes their way of life distinctive today is how and to what extent they have successfully preserved and adapted certain existing patterns of attire from their European past.

6. Could Old Order and conservative Mennonites and Amish be considered cults? No, in that their confessions of faith are very much in line with traditional Christian creeds. Where they differ is in how they apply their faith to everyday life. For example, most of them (plain and otherwise) have maintained their nearly 500-year conviction that Christian should not take part in harming or killing others, even in war, and that the church should use no stronger form of coercion or discipline than excommunication. They have also traditionally been committed to living a simple, self-disciplined life, attempting to follow the example and teachings of Christ and his early followers. Thus they resemble monastic communities more than cults, and some early Anabaptists were in fact influenced by monasticism. Unfortunately, groups that are serious about not being “conformed to the world” are also often prone to dissent and division within their ranks, hence the unfortunate number of divisions.

7. Doesn’t it take dictator-style leaders to keep members of more conservative (“plain”) Amish and Mennonites in line? Contra-cultural patterns of appearance and behavior are preserved primarily by the influence of strong, nurturing families and through close ties to caring faith communities. Amish and “plain” Mennonites actually have less hierarchical forms of church government than do most denominations, and their ministers are typically unpaid persons chosen by “lot” from their own congregations.

8. Don’t most young people in more conservative churches grow up wanting to rebel and leave their faith? Some do, of course, but larger numbers are staying than ever, resulting in “plain” churches being among the fastest growing Mennonite groups in the US, soon to outnumber their more progressive Mennonite cousins.

9. Are most Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley members of the more conservative groups? No. While Old Order Mennonites are the fastest growing and most visible group, their total numbers in this area are under 1500, while there are some 4000 Valley members of the more “liberal” Virginia Mennonite Conference, a part of the Mennonite Church USA (as is Eastern Mennonite University).

10. Are most of the world’s Mennonites found in North America and Europe? No longer. As a result of mission efforts by more progressive evangelical Mennonite groups, there are now far more Mennonites in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia than in the US and Canada. This is not true of Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites, however, since they do not actively evangelize or proselytize others, but they will accept outsiders as members if they are willing to commit to their way of life.