Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Mennonite

Preface

Half a century ago a drunken young man announced to a couple of friends that one day he would be a Mennonite and wear a beard. His friends dismissed this as babbling inspired by the booze he had consumed. The young man himself was bewildered. The few Mennonites he had met, from his mother’s side of the family, had not inspired any longing to be like them. He had never seen a Mennonite who wore a beard, didn’t know if he wanted to be a Christian, or even if there was such a thing as a real Christian.

Over the next twelve years he quit drinking, quit smoking cigars, became a Christian, got married and started a family, in that order. Then he and his wife joined a Mennonite church, one that is of the persuasion that if hair grows on a man’s face it doesn’t make sense to try to remove all trace of that hair each morning.

That drunken declaration was prophetic, springing from a longing within that took the young man years to understand. It is now apparent that the longing came from God, and that over the years He continued to prompt and nudge that young man in ways that would allow that longing to become a living faith.

This book is the story of all that led up to that unexpected statement and all that happened after to make it become reality, despite the bumbling confusion of the young man, who was me. I am an old man now, and look back in wonder at that journey.

I hope that my story will encourage others to trust that there is light for the pathway and unexpected moments of joy in the journey, even when one is stubborn and doubtful of the way.

[With this post I am beginning a memoir of my spiritual journey, which I hope to publish before I get too old for stuff like this. The working title, for now at least, is One Day I Will be a Mennonite and Wear a Beard. I encourage readers to offer critiques and comments. Tell me what works and what doesn’t. Does my writing style put you to sleep? Do I offer too much information, or not enough? Your thoughts are welcome.]

Advertisements

Looking for real Mennonites

All I learned about Mennonites while I was growing up was that my mother had been one and had left because the German language was more important than the faith and that my grandma, a dear sweet old lady, was one and wanted me to learn German so I could be a Christian.

Perhaps there was one more thing. My mother, though no longer member of a Mennonite church, seemed to have carried some of the faith in her baggage when she left. There was something about her that was more peaceful and attractive than the argumentative faith of my father.

In my mid twenties I decided I wanted to know more about Mennonites. This was half a century ago, long before you could go to your computer and ask google to find the information you wanted. Encyclopedias offered a little information, but I wasn’t sure they were getting it right. So I bought a book, probably more than one, I forget.

As I read Mennonite history I discovered a group of people who truly believed in God, who loved God, knew they were loved by God, and believed God wanted them to love everyone else. For some reason the state churches believed such a faith was subversive and persecuted the Mennonites. The Mennonites treasured their faith more than their homes, material possessions, even their lives. They were burnt at the stake and kept telling the bystanders about the love of God as long as they had breath.

I read about a time when soldiers seized a stock of books written by Menno Simons and were about to burn them in the town square. Several daring men began grabbing books from the pile and passing them to the bystanders, who immediately fled. It all happened so quickly that the few soldiers present were unable to prevent it and were left with almost nothing to burn.

There had been a power in that faith that I longed for. I knew there were many kinds of Mennonites in our province and hoped that somewhere I could find that old faith sill living.

I got up early one Sunday morning, dressed in my best clothes and drove into a nearby city to attend a Mennonite service. I was impressed by the simplicity of the non-liturgical service, don’t remember anything about the sermon, but hoped to learn more about this church. However, it appeared that I was an invisible person. One or two people nodded to me as we left that service, but none appeared interested in the stranger in their midst. I tried again several weeks later, with the same result.

I still thought that the faith I had read about must surely exist somewhere, but I gave up looking until after I was married. We experienced more disappointments and came to realize that most churches that called themselves Mennonite had no idea what the name meant. But we still kept looking.

Catechism Classes

About the only thing my parents had in common was a feeling that the church in which they had been raised had let them down.

My father was a descendant of New England Puritans, with some French and Scottish blood thrown in.  He was born in Iowa, grew up in Minnesota and arrived in Saskatchewan in 1908 at the age of 17.  The family was Wesleyan Methodist, but a series of mergers brought most Methodists into one fold and then in the 1920’s they became part of the new United Church of Canada.  My dad told of a service he had attended in Edmonton in the early years of the United Church.  As the preacher spoke, it became evident that he didn’t believe the creation account, the virgin birth of Jesus, or much of anything else in the Bible.  Dad walked out of that church into the street and wept.  After that he tried to avoid ever setting foot in a United Church again.

My mother was of pure Low German descent.  Her grandparents came to Canada in the great migration of the 1870’s.  There is a story in our family that her grandfather learned to read and write English and discovered that the bishop of the Old Colony Mennonite Church was using money that belonged to the congregation for his own benefit.  Great-grandfather was thereupon excommunicated and joined the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church.  I’m sure there would be a different story from the other side, but this is the story that I have been told.

Mom was born in Manitoba and grew up in Saskatchewan, the sixth in a family of 14 children.  She was the last one in the family to learn High German, which was the only language used in the Sommerfelder Church worship services.  Mom often spoke of how she felt that the church had abandoned her younger siblings.

In her later teens she joined a group of other young people in a catechism class.  They were supposed to learn the catechism by heart.  After the catechism classes were finished, they were to answer the questions of the catechism before the congregation.  I believe this took place over several Sundays.  Mom was the only one of the group to memorize the whole catechism.  As they always sat in the same order, the others calculated which questions they would be asked and memorized only those answers.  One of Mom’s cousins sat beside her.  The morning they were to begin answering the questions before the congregation this cousin told Mom, “I don’t have my answer memorized, so when the bishop asks my question, just speak up and answer it for me and no one will know the difference.”  Mom agreed to this subterfuge.  All went well until the bishop came to the person after Mom.  The anticipated sequence was now broken and he had not memorized the answer to the question he was asked.  Somehow it all worked out and they were all baptized.

My parents were married in the Alliance Church in Moose Jaw, but did not affiliate with any denomination.  I remember that we once attended a service in a rural school house.  I suspect my father was not pleased as we never went again.  One time we attended an Ernest Manning crusade in Regina.  When I was nine, my father arranged for me to be baptized in a private ceremony in a Lutheran church.

That same year, we moved to a farm on the outskirts of Craik.  There were three churches in this town, United, Catholic and Anglican.  My father decided that we needed to start attending church and the Anglican Church was the only good choice available.

A catechism class was planned for the following winter and my father decided I should join.  There were four other boys my age in the class and we spent a number of months studying, not memorizing, the Anglican catechism.  I still remember the definition of a sacrament: “An outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual grace,” and think that is the best definition that I have heard.  The confirmation service, where the bishop would be present to lay his hands on our heads and pray for us, making us full members of the church, came in the spring of 1953.

We five boys had a meeting with the bishop before the service began.  The Right Reverend Michael Coleman, Bishop of Qu’Appelle, was a kindly, white-haired gentleman.  He spoke to us of how the service would be conducted.  Then he told us: “When I was your age, I had the idea that after the bishop laid his hands on me and prayed for me, I would not be able to sin anymore.  When we got home after church, I went out behind the barn to see if I could still say the words that I had used before.  They came just as easily as they ever had!  When I lay my hands on your head today and pray for you, that will change nothing inside of you.  To overcome sin you will need something that I cannot do for you.  You will need a change of heart.”

This happened 57 years ago and I may not have the words exactly as he said them, but this was the essence of his message to us.  The fact that I remember that message so clearly must indicate the impact those words had on me, even though the fruit did not appear until many years later.

A living faith

I CAN NEITHER TEACH NOR LIVE BY THE FAITH OF OTHERS. I MUST LIVE BY MY OWN FAITH AS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD HAS TAUGHT ME THROUGH HIS WORD.
-MENNO SIMONS

THE TITLE ITSELF (MENNONITES) HAS NO SAVING POWER, IT’S VALUE LIES ONLY IN THE FACT THAT MENNO’S TEACHING IS ENTIRELY IN ACCORD WITH THE TEACHING OF JESUS AND THE APOSTLES.
-REUBEN KOEHN

*These were among a series of quotations posted yesterday on Operation Noh’s Ark. To see all the quotations click on the link at right under Blogroll. I first translated these two into French and posted them on my French blog – Témoin anabaptiste

Attitude correction

For more than 200 years, the government of Canada has graciously extended the privilege of exemption from military service to members of religious denominations which objected to participation in warfare for reasons of faith and conscience. At first, the law required conscientious objectors between the ages of sixteen and sixty to register annually and pay a special tax. These provisions were dropped in the 1850’s.

When the Parliament of Canada passed a conscription act in July of 1917, there was some confusion at first as to how this exemption should work. The Mennonite churches advised their members that when a young brother received notification that he was being called up for military service, he should report to the place assigned and submit to what was required of him Meanwhile, a committee of ministers would present a claim for his exemption.

Before long a system was worked out whereby a member would be given a certificate stating that he was a member in good standing of a specific congregation. The certificate would be signed by a minister of the congregation and this certificate was recognized by military officials as sufficient evidence to grant an exemption.

Before this system was put in place, one young Mennonite lad in Ontario received his call, but his mother would not let him report to the military as the church had asked. She probably thought she was protecting him, but it backfired. The army picked him up and carried him off to training camp. Minister Thomas Reesor was asked to intervene on his behalf.

Thomas Reesor and the young man were granted a hearing with the commanding officer. The officer questioned the lad closely, then turned to Thomas Reesor. “I am going to grant this exemption,” he said. “But I think you are wrong in your attitudes. You are living under the protection of the best government on the face of the earth and you are doing nothing to show your gratitude or appreciation.”

Those words rang in the ears of Thomas Reesor all the way home. He shared them with other ministers and leaders in the Mennonite churches of Ontario. In November, 1917 a committee was formed to help relieve some of the suffering of the war and to express in a practical way their gratitude for the privileges granted to them. The Non-Resistant Relief Organisation set a target of raising $100 for every young man granted exemption from military service.

Thomas Reesor was made treasurer of this organisation. In the early stages, one congregation sent a cheque for $130. He returned it, with a letter saying that if this was all their privileges meant to them they might as well keep the money. Not long after, he received a cheque for $3,500 from the same congregation. $75,000 was raised by the end of the war. This was a very impressive sum 100 years ago.

The money was dispersed to the Merchant Seaman’s Relief Organisation for the relief of widows and children of men lost on torpedoed vessels, the Soldiers’ Aid Commission of Ontario for help to wounded and disabled returning soldiers and to relief agencies working in the war ravaged countries of Europe.

I believe Mennonites have always endeavoured to be good neighbours, but it took the reproof of a military officer to launch us into organized relief efforts in Canada. In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, young men and women are encouraged to volunteer for a term of service in one of the many programs operated by the church: children’s homes, guest homes for families with a loved one in the hospital, units that repair or rebuild homes after a disaster, or Christian Public Service units in a number of cities where young people volunteer in hospitals, rehab centres, nursing homes, etc.

Worship then and now

Then was sixty years ago when I was a teenager and member of the Anglican Church of Canada. Services would begin with this exhortation:

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.

The service would continue with words of like eloquence, interspersed with a reading from the Old Testament, another from the New Testament, the reciting of some poetic passages of Scripture, either in unison or as a responsive reading. There would be a few hymns mixed in plus a sermon. All followed the familiar pattern of the Book of Common Prayer, which was little changed since it was formulated by Thomas Cranmer 400 years earlier.

It didn’t take long until you had the services memorized and didn’t need to follow in the book any longer. This was the great danger: the words were beautiful, meaningful and true, but one could recite them with nary a thought as to what one was saying. I have no doubt that many Anglicans were born-again people, but many, probably the majority, just droned along with their mind somewhere else altogether.

I remain very thankful for all the Scriptures read and recited in the Anglican services. I suppose this began in the day when most attendees were unable to read and this was the only exposure they had to the Word of God.  It was still good for those who were readers.

Now, in the Mennonite church to which I belong today, the services might seem a little tohu-bohu (the Hebrew words translated without form and void in Genesis 1:2). There is a certain order to the services, but they are informal and unstructured compared the church of my youth. Still, just as in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God is present.

Most congregations have more than one minister. None of them are professionals, they do not derive their income from the church but earn their living much as other members of the congregation. The hymns we sing are not chosen in advance but are chosen in a seemingly random manner by members of the congregation as the service progresses.  Lay brethren are often invited to volunteer to present some thoughts and a prayer to open the service. It may take some time for one to get up from his seat to do so. The sermons are extemporaneous, not written out beforehand. Sometimes there are no ministers present and the whole service is conducted by lay brethren. 

It works. We are fed, encouraged, reproved, inspired. We trust that everything, the hymns that are chosen, the words that are spoken, is prompted by the Holy Spirit.

This type of service goes back to long before Archbishop Cranmer. The apostle Paul wrote:

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. . . Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

Pietists, Quietists & Anabaptists

I have been reading some of the writings of François Fénelon and find some moving passages. I plan to post some excerpts in coming days.

Fénelon was a Quietist, that is a Roman Catholic who believed that salvation had to come through a personal relationship with God, rather than through the forms of liturgical worship. So far, so good. Yet, there is a niggling little thought that troubles me – Fénélon appears to have had a genuine faith, but was that faith passed on to following generations? He remained a Roman Catholic all his life. The same question applies to those who were Pietists within the Lutheran Church.

The Anabaptists took a different approach. They believed that Scripture and Spirit called them to remain outside the established state churches and maintain a pure church. This often led to persecution and they accepted that as a necessary consequence of their commitment to God.  Menno Simons wrote:

“Reader, understand what I mean. We do not dispute whether or not there are some of God’s elect in the before-mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the  just and gracious judgment of God, hoping that he has many thousands unknown to us, as they were to holy Elijah. But our dispute is in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinance and life it is with which Christ has commanded us to gather unto Him an abiding church, and how to keep it in His ways.”

It is my conviction that Menno’s faith has more fully endured and been passed on to subsequent generations than has the faith of Fénelon.

Could this be idolatry?

Aaron, an elderly brother from the congregation whee we used to live, had been driving down a lonely highway in Texas. After an hour or two he saw a young man hitchhiking and offered him a ride. The young man got into the back seat and they chatted a little. All was silent for a while, then the hitchhiker said “Jesus is returning soon.” Aaron looked back, but the back seat was empty. He had not stopped the car, but the hitchhiker had vanished.

Or so I was told. When I asked brother Aaron about this he said it had never happened. This story was heard often about 35 years ago, always about a friend of a friend, never a first hand account. Perhaps it is still being told. What makes people want to believe stories like this?

A few years later thee was a story going around in Amish and Mennonite communities about an Old Order Amish family with eleven sets of twin boys. Pretty soon the number was up to an even dozen. Then they were reported to be moving to Tennessee, to join a Church of God in Christ, Mennonite congregation. Brother Rodney from our congregation was travelling in Pennsylvania with his family at this time and news came back that he had met this family. I asked him about them when he returned home. He had never seen them. It appears that nobody else ever did, either.

A few years after that, there were news articles in the local daily newspaper about a young father with incurable cancer. The family heard about a clinic, in Texas again if I remember rightly, with a promising new therapy. They would take the patients urine, extract antibodies from it and inject them into the cancer patient. There were glowing testimonials of the success of this therapy. But it was prohibitively expensive.

The young couple sold their home, there were community fundraisers to help cover their costs, and they set out with high hopes. There were a few early reports in the paper telling how he was beginning to feel better already.  Then nothing.

Two months later there was a tiny item in the back of the paper reporting the death of this young man. He left a wife and several small children who were now completely destitute. However, the clinic in Texas was probably doing quite well financially. (I believe they were later shut down by the authorities.)

Why are people tempted to believe such stories? Why are so few motivated to seek out the truth? When people choose to believe a lie, either because it is interesting or because it offers hope in a hopeless situation, is this not a form of idolatry?

Holdeman Mennonites

I have been a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for half my life (in a few weeks it will be 37 years out of 74). The church name is a bit of a mouthful. Ideally we would like to simply call ourselves the Church of God, but at least 50 other denominations have had the same idea.

Some denominations seem to have tried to pack their doctrinal statement into their name, for example The House of God, Which is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Inc. I’m not trying to make fun, that’s just an illustration of how difficult it is to come up with a name that clearly differentiates one church from another.

There are those among us, at least in Canada, who would like to drop “Mennonite” from the church name. The problem with that is there is already a Church of God in Christ and it happens to be the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S.A., claiming 200 times as many members as the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Besides, they were using the name before we were. So that’s definitely a no go.

Early copies of the church periodical gave the name as the Church of God, a Branch Mennonite. That sounds suspiciously like it may have originally been written in some other language (namely German) and awkwardly translated into English. The current name was adopted about 100 years ago.

Do we object to being called Holdeman Mennonites? Well, we do it ourselves, at least in casual conversation, so we can’t very well object to others doing it. But there is a little problem with both words: neither John Holdeman nor Menno Simons considered themselves to be the founders of a church.

Menno Simons was a 16th century Roman Catholic priest in Holland who experienced the new birth and began preaching evangelical sermons in the Catholic church. After a year he withdrew and began to associate with the remnant of the Anabaptists, who had been scattered and demoralized by persecution. Soon he was asked to become a minister. He wrote extensively to explain and defend the faith to others. Soon his name was indelibly associated with the faith and all who were of the same faith were considered followers of Menno. Which wasn’t exactly true, there were other prominent leaders, but Menno was the name best known to those outside the church.

John Holdeman was a 19th century member of the Mennonite Church who felt it had drifted away from the historic faith . His intention was not to start a new church but to encourage the Mennonites to return to the Old Ground and Foundation (that was the title of his first book). No such return happened so a small group of Mennonites, at three different locations, began holding separate services. John Holdeman was the main leader in the early years, but as the church grew many others worked along side of him.

Thus it is not wholly inaccurate for us to be called Holdeman Mennonites, though I am quite sure that neither John Holdeman not Menno Simons would approve.

[By the way, I have added a Contact Me page with my gmail address and questions are welcome.]

Problem or blessing?

At 10 a.m. last Sunday morning half of our congregation was seated in the pews. The song leader rose, walked to the mike and announced the first song. Then he stood there patiently as the other half of the congregation walked in and were shown to their seats.

(We don’t use musical instruments in our churches. Congregational singing is a capella in four part harmony. The song leader sets the pitch and starts the hymn.)

This is quite a common scenario in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. People walk in the door of the church, see their friends, share greetings, ask what’s new and start to visit; soon it’s time for the service to start and they are still visiting in the foyer. I remember much the same thing happening the very first time we attended a service in this church, 41 years ago at Linden, Alberta.

Is this a problem? Every once in a while someone will ask why we can’t be like other churches where people walk in, find a set and wait quietly for the service to begin. That seems much more solemn and reverent.

I’m not so sure, having visited and even been a member of churches like that. Often the people don’t know each other very well and don’t really have anything to say to their neighbour in the pew.

In one church that my wife and I visited many years ago, at the beginning of the service the pastor asked everyone to stand up, shake hands with the people on ether side and in front and behind and introduce themselves. It seemed genuinely warm – until the end of the service. When the last amen was said everyone got up, turned around and headed for the door without another glance at those around them. We didn’t go back for a second visit.

The problem we have, if problem it be, is that we actually like each other and we want to visit, before the service and after the service. And when there are visitors in church we want to meet them and get to know them. Is there something wrong with that? I thin it’s a blessing.

“Behold how pleasant and how good it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).

It would be difficult to maintain this level of fellowship if our congregations became too large. Our North American congregations average 100 baptized members. The largest has 300 members. When a congregation becomes too large for the members to know each other well, they will often decide to build a new church a few miles away and part of the membership will choose to make this their new spiritual home.

At the same time, there are always families moving out of these larger congregations and establishing new congregations in new areas. There is a special kind of fellowship that develops as brethren from different areas unite to establish a new congregation in a new location. An additional benefit is that as the local folks become acquainted with these newcomers they might allow their curiosity to be used by the Holy Spirit to investigate the faith and be drawn into the fellowship.

 

%d bloggers like this: