Guest Blog: The Geography of Loneliness

Guest Blog: The Geography of Loneliness

Guest Blogger

Henry Moody lives at the Danthonia Bruderhof in the wide-open, sun-soaked spaces of the Northern Tablelands region of NSW, Australia where he is a school teacher. He is married to Dori and they have four children. On her mother’s side, Dori has her roots in the Hutterite Anabaptist heritage and blogs at www.Bruderhof.com.

***

Across the sparrows and slates of the rooftops of London, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral heard the great bells naming him where he lay in pain and doubt, wrestling with his God. High over the town, the swinging mouth and heavy iron tongue of the Death Knell measured out his days as the dread voice spoke relentlessly into his soul. It reached out like the finger of the Almighty, plucking him from the world of men, a summons to abandon all comfort and joy, take up his sins and stand alone before the Judge.

The funeral bells rang out often over London in 1623 as the Great Plague ran amok through the town. Consequently, when the terrible fevers struck, and the discolored lesions bloomed on his skin, John Donne despaired. The literary genius, ladies’ man, and writer of risqué verse turned ordained minister lay nailed to a bed of pain, suffering, he suspected, the torments of the damned in the hands of a jealous God. And so, when the voices of the bells came in at the open window, they could only be calling him.

Shortly afterwards, however, a tragic procession passed by on the street below, and his mistake became clear: the tolling of the bell was for another man. In time his illness, most likely typhus and not the plague, passed and Donne lived. Yet the moment left him deeply changed. What of the dead manso utterly alone, cut off forever from the affairs of the living, from the small joys and sorrows of the day and those deep ties of warmth and fellowship that run through all mankind? Unable for a time to read or talk, Donne let his pen speak for him in some of the most powerful words ever uttered in the English language. “No man,” he wrote, “is an Iland, intire of itselfe…”1 

“Ah, look at all the lonely people. Where do they all come from?” wondered the Beatles in 1966. Good question. These days we no longer fear the Black Death. Another pestilence, a quiet and desperate sense of alienation, has infected our relationships. Troubling reports of an escalating “loneliness epidemic” have initiated a widespread public conversation. As researchers compile a mountain of evidence, a few disquieting statistics suffice to ink in the shadowy outlines of a silent, invisible scourge: 15-30% of the general U.S. population (including 40% of Americans over 45) experience chronic loneliness.2 Surveys show that over 9 million people in the U.K. “often or always” feel lonely. Worse still, a heartbreaking 200,000 elderly Britons cannot report a single conversation with their family or a friend in over a month.3 Things are so bad the government recently appointed a cabinet level “minister for loneliness” to focus on the issue.4   

Loneliness is the great leveler, breaching even the most exclusive echelons of power, rank, and privilege through the fatal flaw of our common humanity. Everyone, at some time, has looked up and encountered its silent stare. Its pain belongs to the human race: the sorrow of the grief-stricken at the graveside left to carry on alone, the ceaseless heartache of the abandoned and betrayed, the bewildered hurt of the elderly shelved in the flickering light of the talk shows, the thousand tiny wounds of the ignored and overlooked, the midnight place of the suicide whose silent scream of pain gives up God’s breath of life into the void.  

“There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally,”5 wrote G.K. Chesterton, stabbing his broad finger directly down on the sore spot. At its root, the opposite of alienation is far more than mere hilarity, merrymaking, and high times. Misery may lurk at the very center of the crowd, surrounded by the din and blare that keep the black dog at bay. Who can understand the human heart? The waters of the soul run deep. We are born with a yearning for a kindred spirit—someone to confide in and reveal the depths and measureless currents of our inmost longing. Even the Messiah, united with his brothers as with his Father, must have hungered for this special closeness with the apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”6

The American poet Emily Dickinson writes of selecting her soul’s society from an “ample nation” with the delight of a child agonizing over a box of chocolates. Left outside are emperors kneeling on the mat and chariots idling at the gate—all the pomp and circumstance of high society the world has to offer leave her unmoved as stone frozen in the plumbing. Both genius and recluse, Dickinson knew all about isolation. What nameless anguish lay at the root of her self-imposed exile remains a mystery—she simply referred to it as “terror.” At times her pint-sized poems bleed loneliness and hurt onto the page. And so, perhaps taught by the familiar ache of its absence, she knew the value of a kindred spirit best:

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself —
Finite Infinity. 7

The empty, dusty, echoing years between the stars, the blue eternity of the deep beyond the final headland, the valley of shadows that all must walk alone–these are the very crossroads of all human love, fellowship, and warmth beside that other place. Here the soul, this slight breath of God’s infinite Spirit which blows where it will, is turned inward to feed on itself, imprisoned and locked in the eternal ice of never ending winter.

Many well intended solutions attempt to cure such human tragedy with the equivalent of get-well cards, smiley stickers, warm fuzzy robots featuring outsized sympathetic eyes to comfort the elderly, bear-hugging armchairs, restaurants that provide life-sized plush toys to sit opposite solitary diners, even phone holding Ramen bowls that provide consolation with a cheery, nature-themed anti-loneliness app as you cry into your noodles. Obviously, any attempts to heal deep wounds at the surface level are bound for failure. But the Good Lord, as we know, loves to set things upside down and back to front.

Chesterton once defined love as the “loneliness of God”8–a loneliness which became a love so great that it took from the Creator of the worlds his only son and nailed him to a cross as the Redeemer and brother of all mankind. Perhaps the current epidemic is a manifestation of a sort of Narnian winter that has come over society—a distance and chilliness that sets in when love, as prophesied, cools and ebbs away. In some strange and simple way, love will solve everything, turning our loneliness into the loneliness of God, not the human despair that drives us deeper into wintry isolation, but in the direction of a fellow man.

For winter implies spring already on its way. It arrives with the first robin splashing down in the snow like the grace of God. A few days of sunshine soften and melt an entire winter’s load of ice. The first drip begins the break-up. There is a tilting of all things, and the earth turns its face towards the sun.

Like the prophet Jonah—alone in the deep, seaweed in his hair, barred in forever at the roots of the mountains—John Donne knew what it meant to be brought up from the pit. His powerful Meditation XVII holds up a mirror to God’s breathtaking love and makes it his own, a love so great that every border between men ceases to exist:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main;
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind;
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.1

If we share in every man’s death, we also share in his rebirth. The funeral knell gives way to the jubilant bells of Easter morning pealing the Resurrection in unearthly adoration. In his time, Christ, the lonely God, will find each one of his lonely people and every tear will be dried.

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The New Conservatives

The New Conservatives

Anabaptist Perspectives

The following is taken from an interview with Melvin Lehman conducted by Reagan Schrock. Melvin lives with his family in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania, where he also served as a teacher at Faith Builders Educational Program for many years. Melvin is passionate about teaching the Bible to the next generation, and enjoys tending his small family farm.

***

Ten years ago, after some of my interactions with the young folks who were coming to Faith Builders, I wrote an article entitled The New Conservative. I began to realize that they had a different perspective than I. But why was their perspective different? What had changed?

I grew up in public high school in the 1960’s and had taken in the rebellious mindset of the times. During that era, there was a fragmentation of the solidarity of the old Mennonite conference. Many divisions happened, but the biggest were between liberal and conservative.

What do we mean by “conservative” and “liberal”? Back at that time, the two were clearly defined. But as I taught students between 1980-2000, I could tell that they were not thinking in the same terms I did. These are the people I’m calling the “new conservative”. They were not coming out of that 60’s and 70’s perspective, but neither were they liberal. In fact, they were quite open to conservative people and thought. What I heard them asking for was a compelling reason to follow the conservative path. As I heard these students discussing issues that were relevant to their lives, I found six points that define the “new conservative”.

1. They appreciate traditional practice. When something is presented as traditional they do not react in opposition, but neither do they blindly accept simply for the sake of tradition. While a “liberal” would automatically react to anything that is traditional, the new conservative does not do that, which is why I refuse to call them liberal.

2. The new conservative rejects authoritarianism without relationship. I grew up in a world where authority might be quite distant, but if they spoke, you obeyed.

3. The new conservative seeks to respect and honor other Bible-believing groups. They seek to discourage divisiveness.

4. They value Christian education. As a teacher at Faith Builders, I care about education and I respect their position. Generally speaking, the deeper one goes into conservative thought, the more anti-education one tends to be. The new conservative, however, sees education as an outline to the kingdom, his church, and his life.

5. The new conservative emphasizes that separation from the world in thought and practice begins in the heart and affects every area of life, not just in arbitrarily selected areas. Being willing to not only accept, but embrace a position that separates me from a pagan world is important, although I prefer the term “countercultural” better than I do “separation”.

6. The new conservative longs for meaningful Christian community as a basis for personal growth and effective outreach. There are some who are wanting a level of community that seems slightly beyond their grasp in today’s Anabaptist circles. I hear the new conservative wanting community in a more complete and real sense.

These six things generally define the new conservative. So where are they headed? I think the new conservatives are tilted toward tolerance and away from raw authority in institutional organization. I think the new conservatives will struggle with administrative structures.However, the new conservatives will have to learn that structures are needed to move things forward. They will need to create these structures, and know the difference between godly tolerance that leads toward holiness, and tolerance that could open the door to crass worldliness.

There are some positives and negatives to new conservative ideology. A positive is its emphasis on missions, particularly children’s ministry. The millennial generation has become very concerned with the children of the world. There is an increased interest in childcare, pregnancy centers, Bible Clubs, and similar ministries. When I was growing up substantial focus was placed on prison ministry, which is still needed. However, children’s ministry is working from a better place as it seeks to lay a foundation early in life.

I already mentioned the community emphasis, but I’m not sure if the new conservatives have identified what they mean by community. Does it mean living together in close proximity? Is it just a feeling of camaraderie? Is it having a common goal? Again it seems that the new conservative’s work is to bring community emphasis into administrative structures that actually bring those ideals into reality.

A negative aspect of this movement is that, if one tries to show tolerance and be all things to all men, one ends up being almost nothing to everyone. I’m not saying that everyone needs to identify with the conservative Anabaptist constituency, but identity may be a little ambiguous for the new conservatives.

The new conservatives need to build a sustainable culture by passing their core values to the next generation. Thinking of the six items I mentioned earlier, I wonder if the next generation will carry them forward. People forget that values are carried forward generationally by traditions. Not artificial traditions, but traditions that are actually integrated into the values they represent. I’m not sure that the new conservatives are building that kind of sustainability.

Is new conservatism just a transition from Amish or Mennonite into mainstream Christianity? I’m optimistic that it is not. New Conservatism is not necessarily following or rejecting any particular ideology. The summary statement from my article reads, “I personally have a deep respect for the contributions of the ‘Old Conservative’ positions during the 20th century and have no desire to devalue that contribution by suggesting there is a ‘new’ way that we must follow. The path that leads to God is an old path that many saints have trod before us. We are brethren with them.” 1

I don’t see new conservatism as being a path to liberalism. On the contrary,I see it as being more aligned with conservative ideals and having a better chance of carrying forward those ideals versus the extreme conservatives or the liberals. Of course it has some serious flaws, but I think that the new conservative path has the best chance of carrying forward the best from the old conservative and actually providing a new perspective, but not one so different that it’s totally unrecognizable. There is the possibility of the new conservative shifting into liberalism. However, if it can stay on course, honestly grappling with the issues, sorting through some of the debris, and pulling in some of the framework we’ve talked about, I’m hopeful that it could be the path forward for next hundred years.

New conservatism isn’t unique to our time. In James Juhnke’s book Vision, Doctrine, War,2 he records some conversations and movements from the 1870’s-1930’s that are similar to new conservative ideals. People back then were asking the same questions that we are asking today. This current generation has a unique chance to carry forward these ideas. We have the opportunity, and we have some perspective and vision for it. Let’s be hopeful that we can actually plow ground, particularly in our generation, that hasn’t been plowed.

_________________

 

Guest Blog: Poverty and Wealth

Guest Blog: Poverty and Wealth

Guest Blogger

Dorcas Smucker is a pastor’s wife and mother of six. She and her family live near Harrisburg, Oregon in a house that’s been in the Smucker family for over 100 years. Dorcas has been writing a monthly column called “Letter from Harrisburg” for the Eugene Register-Guard for 17 years, and these columns have been compiled into seven different books. Find more of her writings on her blog, Life in the Shoe.

***

“We shouldn’t be this wealthy,” I thought.

I was sitting in Halsey Mennonite Church gymnasium with 450 other Oregon Anabaptists, listening to reports about the astonishingly varied and vast work of Christian Aid Ministries and its new satellite program, CAM-West. Medicines, hygiene kits, food boxes, clothing, wells, blankets—the list seemed endless and included, of course, reports of the large financial donations that make these projects possible. There were a lot of deep pockets in that room. Everyone seemed to be listening intently and—I assumed—evaluating whether this cause was worthy of a financial gift, and if so, how much it should be.

For the most part, Anabaptists in Oregon are financially successful. Many families own their own homes and, often, farms and rental houses besides. Mennonite-owned businesses—most of them related to agriculture—abound and thrive. They are also generous. Fundraisers for Gospel Echoes Northwest or a medical emergency are well-attended and raise many thousands of dollars. According to the prevailing theories of poverty and wealth found in financial articles such as The Atlantic, and in books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, we should not be doing this wealthy. What is it about Anabaptists that turns the American economic charts upside down?

For one thing, we are primarily rural; rural America is declining in opportunity and struggling to survive. Also, probably less than half of the conservative Anabaptist adults in Oregon have finished high school, and all the experts agree that lack of a high school diploma is a key precursor of poverty. Yet, Mennonites are able to support their families and fund CAM-West, as well as many causes and charities besides. Why has this community turned the economic tables upside down? Here are some likely factors:

 1. While not nearly as long-established as Lancaster County or Holmes County, the Willamette Valley Mennonite community is over 100 years old. The first Mennonite settlers bought farmland that is, in many cases, still in the family. Farming expertise and equipment were also handed down from one generation to the next.

2. Mennonites have been quick to recognize opportunity. They were among the first to recognize the suitability of this climate for growing grass seed. Frank Kropf, one of the patriarchs, was the first to import a hardier perennial ryegrass from New Zealand. When a harsh winter killed the other ryegrasses, his seed stock became the standard. Frank and his sons invented machinery to harvest grass seed, and many Mennonite farmers established their own seed cleaning businesses. Later, when burning the straw off the fields was outlawed, Mennonites were among the first to bale the straw and ship it overseas, which led to employment opportunities in baling crews, hay presses, and trucking.

3. An old-fashioned work ethic has prevailed. From teenage girls putting in 12-hour days driving combines during harvest, to men who manage large acreages and pastor a church besides, hard work is expected and honored. Being willing to work hard and learn as you go is considered of more value than formal education.

4. Traditionally, practicality was encouraged and foolishness was not. Money was re-invested in farms and equipment rather than in ostentatious houses, travel, or possessions. This factor is gradually changing with young people buying lattes and new pickup trucks. But much of the underlying tradition remains.

5. Connection is important. Nepotism, some would call it. Fathers hire their sons, nephews, and their friends. If you can prove a connection to a potential employer, he is likely to trust and hire you. This means that any local young person with a desire to work can get a job and, if he or she does well, work their way to a better position.

6. Anabaptists recognize that money is not the only, or even the most important, type of wealth. Perhaps it was the isolation of the early settlers, and the vast distance from communities in the East, that made them recognize that people are of enormous value, and they created large families and tightly-knit communities. Today, we still tend to have lots of children, live close together, and show up by the hundreds for weddings and funerals. Spiritual resources are also of more value than money, exemplified by church attendance and lifestyle choices such as taking Sunday off, even when the weather is perfect for harvesting ryegrass. Both of these would no doubt seem, to a secular economist, like a drain on finances. Paradoxically, both have led to an increase in financial wealth.

7. In another seeming paradox, generosity has not depleted financial resources. Tithing is encouraged, and many give above 10%, funding church programs, schools, prison ministries, CAM-West, and much more.

Ultimately, of course, wealth and poverty defy simple explanations, and all that we have is a gift from God. It is His choice to bless or withhold. Living by Christian principles and valuing people, wisdom and the Gospel over money can lead to resources that secular economists will never understand or quantify.

I Started an Anabaptist Women’s Magazine

I Started an Anabaptist Women’s Magazine

Anabaptist Perspectives

 

The following is taken from an interview with Rachel Schrock conducted by Reagan Schrock.
“Rae” is Founder and Chief Editor of Daughters of Promise Magazine. With a strong cup of coffee in hand, she loves exploring new and out of the way places, heartfelt talks with a friend, and doing anything creative and handmade. She lives in Virginia where she enjoys a quiet home in the country surrounded by fields and woods.
***

Daughters of Promise began in 2010. That was a really tough year for me personally. I was going through a lot of upheaval and tremendous loss in my life. I went to Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute for a term which helped me find healing for some of the things I was struggling with. It was not only a time of breaking, but also a time of going deeper with God.

During that time I started talking with other women, began to hear their stories, and realized that we shared common struggles—that we had all been touched by pain. Many times our pain was centered around similar things such as relationships and identity. The women I met had questions about who they were and how they fit into the world. I began to really pray about how God wanted to use my story and the things I had learned to encourage other women. That was the heart behind why I began reaching out to women through the magazine.

Names have always been important to me, and the name “Daughters of Promise” just clicked. Initially it started out as an email newsletter to some of my friends from church and Bible school. But surprisingly, over the next year, the list of subscribers grew tremendously. Through a long series of events, my small team and I decided to make to make it a magazine format which was then published online digitally. Over time more women joined our team and in 2014 we began printing hard copies. Currently our staff numbers 26 women, including all of the writers, artists, and editors.

Daughters of Promise (DOP) has gone through a lot of changes. It is now produced quarterly and, at 112 pages, each issue resembles a book more so than a regular magazine. Despite the changes, our vision has remained the same. We want to encourage other women towards finding freedom and wholeness through an understanding of who we are in Christ. Outside of a relationship with Him, we are broken, lost, and destitute.

I think that women from conservative Anabaptist communities in particular have often struggled to know how to find their voice and to share with others. DOP provides a platform for women to share about the things that God has led them through personally, which then encourages other women who have had similar experiences. Readers will often say of an article they read in DOP, “I really connected with that.” We strive to feature content that is relevant to our Anabaptist culture and yet is relatable to a broad range of women. We don’t necessarily want to just offer answers, but to encourage readers to think about what is presented. Freedom in Christ often comes when we wrestle through the things we are experiencing, rather than simply being spoon fed answers.

Since turning DOP into a quarterly magazine, the response has been phenomenal. The magazine features more content such as stories, art, and the inclusion of interactive elements such as tear-out artwork, journaling space, and coloring pages. We have had the privilege of featuring some wonderful writers, including at least one article written by a man in each issue.

Daughters of Promise is available online at Daughters of Promise. We are also on Facebook and Instagram (@daughtersofpromise). DOP is a ministry, and our desire is to share with Anabaptist women that they can live in freedom through Christ.

________________

 

Local Church Evangelism

Local Church Evangelism

Anabaptist Perspectives

The following is taken from an interview with Elijah Yoder conducted by Reagan Schrock. Elijah is a pastor and has been a full time teacher at Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute for over 25 years. He lives with his family in Harrisonville, Pennsylvania.

***

Before we can talk about evangelism, we have to understand the biblical role of the church. The first time I taught the course on local church evangelism, I took the word “church” and traced it through the New Testament, expecting to find “church” used in relation to evangelism. What I actually found was that the word “church” is very seldom, if ever, used in direct reference to evangelism. Scripture doesn’t say that the church went out and evangelized. It was always individuals who were doing evangelism. The role of the church is discipleship and to be a place for the people to gather together and find fellowship. Then, as the church gathers, fellowships, and disciples together, the individual members go out and do evangelism. The key is not the programs that the church is using. The key is the people in the church.

In my Local Church Evangelism class, I’ll often ask my students about people from their local community that their churches have brought in. Almost always the story is that an individual from the church reached out and discipled that person. We’re not bringing people into fellowship through summer bible schools, kids clubs, and passing out tracts. Some of those relationships may come through vacation bible schools and kids clubs, but invariably it’s because someone in the church reached out and developed a relationship with that person.

The key to evangelism in the local church is not what the church as a whole is doing. Evangelism is not a sudden foray out into the world at an appointed time in which you accomplish the task of evangelism and then retreat back into normal life. Evangelism needs to be a lifestyle of caring for others and sharing with your neighbors on a daily basis. It takes commitment. Often we are too busy to engage with others or assume that it is someone else’s responsibility such as the minister or the church, but evangelism is the responsibility of each of us. Passing out tracts in the neighborhood can be effective, but follow-up through building relationships must follow. In kids club ministries, children often move on as they enter the teen years. The biblical foundation laid in clubs may draw them back to Christ, but usually these teens need a dedicated individual to disciple them in a long term relationship.

Sometimes sharing Christ on an everyday basis is difficult. Most of us have close relationships with non-believers, but too often we don’t share the Gospel with them. Neighbors, co-workers, or relatives are prime relationships for us to pursue and people with whom we can share Christ. The highest percentage of people from non-Mennonite backgrounds who are joining Mennonite churches are coming from these types of relationships.

Discipleship and living for Christ on a daily basis right where you are is the key. Our lives get busy so we ease our conscience by hosting a vacation bible school or tent meetings. Again, those methods aren’t wrong, but it’s not about the methods; it’s about the believer’s heart of love for the community. If a heart of love is missing, you can do all the activities you want and it won’t change anything.

I often have students at SMBI who become excited about evangelism, but upon returning home, realize that many believers are inactive in pursuing evangelism. My question is:

“What about you? What are you doing?”

I encourage those who want to start evangelizing to not do it alone; take someone else with you. There are a lot of people in our churches who want to do better in evangelism and outreach. Involve others; which often leads to more people getting involved.

The responsibility of evangelism is not on the pastor or the Sunday school superintendent, it belongs to each one of us. Bringing people into the fellowship of our churches will depend on you and I and our relationships with those around us. That is how real evangelism will happen.

__________________

Why Are There Mennonite Bible Schools?

Why Are There Mennonite Bible Schools?

Anabaptist Perspectives

The following is taken from an interview with Clifford Schrock conducted by Reagan Schrock. Cliff is administrator and teacher at Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute where he has served for over ten years. He is best known for his classes on the topics of nonresistance, apologetics, and separation from the world. Cliff lives with his family in Harrisonville, Pennsylvania.

***

Bible schools began around the early‒mid 1900’s in our Mennonite circles because, as Anabaptist people, we place a high value on Scripture and knowing Scripture. Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute (SMBI) was started with the vision to provide a place of study for conservative Anabaptist young people in the eastern United States. There were other schools, but they were not as close to Lancaster, the hub of the Mennonite community in the east. There have been other Mennonite schools such as Hesston College and Goshen College, which also go back to the early 1900’s. However, colleges such as Hesston and Goshen moved away from their formerly held conservatism, becoming more liberal and conforming to mainstream culture. In contrast, SMBI has remained relatively unchanged in doctrine and practice for 40 years.

I think that SMBI’s lack of accreditation has helped it to maintain its conservative position. The qualifications for our instructors are not solely based on educational background or degrees; an area where schools are sometimes forced to compromise on character or theological position to maintain an academic accreditation. Our primary qualifications at SMBI are the spiritual life and character of our faculty.

The reason students attend Bible school is because they seek personal growth and enrichment. More of our young people are pursuing accredited degrees, but people don’t come to SMBI to get a degree for economic or career advancement. They are not looking to invest in a two-year degree or a four-year degree. SMBI doesn’t require a 2 year commitment; a student can come for anywhere from 6 to 24 weeks. We have five, six‒week sessions per year and students can come for any one or a combination of those five sessions.

I first came to SMBI as a student in 1997 for a six‒week session. Then I came again in the fall of 1998 for another six‒week session. I started teaching here in the spring of 2000, taught for three years, and then became assistant administrator for three years. Later I became administrator and have remained so for the past 11 years. I decided to go to Bible school after hearing testimonies from other students who had gone, and I also knew a few of the faculty for whom I had a great deal of respect. What inspired me as a student was the interaction with other young people and the encouragement and spiritual depth of the student body. Students were there to think seriously and to study. Along with that was the variety of students that were represented from many different backgrounds and places. Within that diversity, the common goal and bonding together was what encouraged me the most.

______________________

Why Do Mennonites Have So Many Choirs?

Why Do Mennonites Have So Many Choirs?

Anabaptist Perspectives

 

The following is taken from an interview with Benjamin Good, conducted by Reagan Schrock. Benjamin is a teacher and choir director at Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute and has been regularly involved in various Mennonite choirs and conservative singing groups. He lives with his wife and children in Harrisonville, PA.

**

I have been teaching full-time at SMBI (Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute) since 2012. I grew up in a family that sang together quite a lot, so I’ve been singing all my life. I had my first experience in conducting here at SMBI, and I took a conducting class here. Besides directing the choir I also teach classes in music theory and music theology, as well as some Bible classes.

One reason that Mennonites have so many choirs is simply because singing is fun! People enjoy singing and listening to choirs. One reason we have so many choirs is because of the demand for them. While at a border crossing during an SMBI choir tour in Canada, one of the officials asked a student, “What are you doing on this tour?”

“It’s a singing tour.” the student replied.

“How much do they pay you to be a part of this tour?”

“Oh no,” the student said “I pay to be a part of the tour.”

“Strange,” the official replied.

Singing has always been important to the Christian church. The first century of Christians sang a great deal. They believed in the power of congregational singing. We see this in the Bible and in extra-biblical sources. Singing is worship, but there’s a lot more entailed in it than that. It teaches the truth and is a way of witnessing and joining people together. There is a great deal of power in music—specifically in singing—that we as a church understand and want to tap into. God asks us to sing. We praise Him through both congregational singing as well as in performance; praise flows out of our hearts. We sing to glorify our God.

Anabaptists in general strongly prefer and uphold a capella (without instruments) singing in our worship. People learn to sing in four-part harmony from childhood, and choirs have become a natural extension of that ability. Youth choirs are a way of involving young people in a healthy activity, giving them opportunity to interact with other young people, and when they go on tour they are able to see what God is doing in other churches.

Choirs have not always been a part of the church. In the first century, singing was a big part of the church. When the church became a state entity, choirs produced all the music in the church. For hundreds of years, congregants would go, sit in the pews, and not make a sound. Then the Reformation came along and many reformers, including some of the leading Anabaptists, said, “We want to get the congregation involved in singing again.” They pushed hard for everyone to be actively involved in worship, and for congregational singing. There’s little record of choirs in Anabaptist circles until soon before the 20th century. Then in late 20th century, choirs in our circles began to flourish. Prior to this, Sunday evening youth singings were common, and choirs formed out of these gatherings.

I believe we may currently have the strongest balance of choirs and congregational music the church has ever had: strong congregational singing, with choirs (sometimes touring) to supplement that.

We are concerned that our choirs do not take the place of congregational singing. Some are concerned that we’re heading that direction. But those of us involved in choirs care very much about our typical, local worship service, with congregational singing playing a major part in corporate worship. We don’t want that to ever go away.

The positive outcome of choirs in our circles is that it fosters congregational participation. In the pre-Reformation eras, the church leaders led worship, the choir sang, and the lay people (the congregation) merely observed worship. Congregational involvement is key to what we do. It’s what we believe. A capella singing depends on everyone knowing how to sing and desiring to sing along. Choirs also train people to sing well in a congregation, and they inspire the congregation to sing.

Another value in a capella singing (which is somewhat undermined when instrumental music is included in worship) is the focus on the truth of the lyrics. The Gospel message needs the clarity of the text. So, while we enjoy the beautiful music that helps draw our hearts and minds towards God, the lyrics are what drives the message home.

I believe choirs strengthen congregational singing by teaching people how to sing. They teach congregations new songs and promote the joy of singing. Having choirs helps to strengthen congregational music, and, through touring, helps to spiritually strengthen the church as well.
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How Should We Live?

How Should We Live?

Anabaptist Perspectives

The following is taken from an interview with Elijah Yoder conducted by Reagan Schrock. Elijah is a pastor and has been a full time teacher at Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute for over 25 years. He lives with his family in Harrisonville, Pennsylvania.

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In my growing up years, the importance of the principles of Scriptures in our lives, not just the practice, was stressed. In other words, you don’t just want to teach the next generation to wear a head covering. They need to understand the biblical principle and reasoning behind it. We have the practice (how we live); we have the principle (the scriptural mandate); then we have the Person of Christ.

Some have accused the Mennonites of making the Bible the fourth person of the trinity, which obviously is a very wrong concept. We have the practice, beyond the practice we have the principle, but then we need to go beyond the principle to the Person of Jesus Christ. When you have the focus on the Person and who He is, then the principles and practices will come as a result.

The Protestant Fundamentalist tradition in the United States has put a lot of emphasis on Paul and his epistles, and much less on the Gospels and Life of Christ. Another tradition of Protestant Fundamentalists has been for people to “get saved”. The apostle Paul affirmed that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). I don’t want to minimize that at all, but Jesus said, “follow Me” (Matthew 4:19). Christ’s emphasis while with His disciples was that they should be with Him (Mark 3:14). Jesus taught the twelve by His life, which is what we will have to do as well if we are going make disciples. We must follow Christ in life, not in doing “the right things” in order to look good to people around us. We need to take hold of the person of Christ, what He has done for us, and from there we can go to The Sermon on the Mount. All of the things in Matthew 5 that Jesus wants us to live out today have to come out of a relationship with Christ and wanting to follow Him in life.

Protestant Fundamentalism has made the doctrine of believing in Christ the key thing. If you
believe in Christ and His death and resurrection, then everything is okay and you go to heaven. While believing is important, it is only because of Christ, because of what He has done. The key isn’t “belief”, but Jesus Christ. If you believe in an intellectual fact of what Christ has done for you, then you get saved and it doesn’t really matter how you live; but if you focus on the person of Christ you are going to want to find His principles. Out of those principles the practices will follow.

When applying Scripture, we can’t just take for granted how the previous generation applied it to their life and times. For example, in my growing up years, one of the big issues was that you shouldn’t go to certain places. As a result, my generation established some practices that they decided was best for the group. If my generation simply tries to give the next generation our standards, it’s not going to work. Today’s generation is growing up with very different dynamics. The world is quite different than it was for my generation or the generation before that. We have the person of Christ and the principles of Scripture, but the way we practice those principles may change.

Some groups, like the Amish, have pretty much taken their practices and stopped at about 1920. They’re still trying to live the way they did in 1920. What we don’t want to do as conservative Mennonites is to remain in 2018 and say, “Here is where we stop.” If we don’t adjust our practices to the times we are going to wind up decades down the road and be viewed as the Amish are today. We’ve got to focus on the person of Christ, followed by Scriptural principles, that will tell us how to live in our culture and time. How the principles are practiced might change from one generation to the next, but the underlying principles of Scripture are going to be the same. Each generation must wrestle with issues of practice themselves and evaluate those issues by the light of the principles in the Person of Jesus.

Some people think that if you have the Person of Christ in the principles, then living out the Christian life will come automatically. If that was the case, Paul would never have had to write Ephesians 4, 5, and 6. He spent chapters 1, 2, and 3 on relationship with Christ. Even once the relationship is established, we still need instruction on how to live out the principles. Paul gives very specific instructions and encouragement, but it comes after our relationship with Christ. If our focus is just on the practice, it will become like a dead, dry flower that’s not going to do anything for anybody. But if it’s coming out of well-watered soil, it will be something that’s beautiful and attractive to the world around us. This is the result of a relationship with Christ.

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“End Those Muslims!” – A Response to Jerry Falwell Jr.

“End Those Muslims!” – A Response to Jerry Falwell Jr.

Uncategorized

The following is taken from an interview with Dan* conducted by Reagan Schrock. Dan is on staff with an Anabaptist relief organization and has spent several years living in the Middle East. He is a pastor and will be moving with his family back to the Middle East to aid in the refugee crisis.
*name withheld for security reasons

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Three years ago Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, the largest Christian Evangelical University in America, said,

“If more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they go out trying to kill us…Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” 1

The context for his statement was in regard to the San Bernardino shooting that was currently in the news at that time, in which two Muslims entered a holiday party in California and shot a number of people. That incident followed a string of other terrorist attacks that had been going on in the United States and other Western countries over the last several years.

Liberty University often comments on current events and this was a reaction Falwell gave as a means of instruction to his students. The motive that I see driving statements like this is fundamentally a widespread concept among many Christians about the nature of America. In the book The Myth of a Christian Nation,2 the author discusses the idea of America being designed as a Christian Nation: for Christians, by Christians, Christian’s running the government, Christians participating. There is a lot of fear among people that have this view because they feel like this idea is gradually being pushed out as America becomes a more pluralistic society and more people arrive from other countries. They have a sense that America is being threatened, and we need to protect ourselves; that, as Christians, we need to stand up for what we have and for our rights.

I believe that comments like Falwell’s are motivated by a core idea that the rights of Christians in America are under threat and being trampled on by leftists, Muslims, and others. If it takes physical force to defend against those opposing forces, then that’s what they are prepared to do. Falwell intended to direct his statement towards Muslims who were involved in terrorist attacks and not all Muslims in general, but whatever the case, he was speaking about ending the lives of souls that God created.

I would say the majority of those who identify as fundamental, evangelical Christians would have supported Jerry Falwell or been in a similar way of thinking, though certainly not across the board. There are people at various levels in their response to Muslims and their responses as to how much they want to interact with them. Fear is definitely prevalent among the evangelical Christian community, and possibly parts of even more mainstream Christianity.

So now we ask the question: How would Christ respond?

When reading the New Testament, you will see almost exactly the opposite of what Falwell prescribed. Jesus made statements such as “love your enemies”,3 “resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.”4 There is one constant message that Jesus gave: The people who treat us badly are the people we are supposed to treat the best. It is very counter-cultural and counterintuitive, but that’s absolutely the message that Christ gave to His people here on earth.

The Anabaptist story is about 500 years old now, and throughout their history the Anabaptists have been an oppressed, persecuted people who have said, “We will stand up for our beliefs in Scripture no matter what it costs. Even if it means death by fire, drowning, stoning—we are willing to suffer and die.” However, times have changed and now the majority of conservative Anabaptists live in America with comfortable lifestyles and little persecution.

So how do we respond to terrorism and Islam? I fear that sometimes we are too affected by our neighbors and friends who would spread fear and make us want to respond in defensive ways by saying, “This is our country. We don’t want to let you in.” As Anabaptists we should never feel proud or superior in our understanding of Scripture, but the way of Christ is always the way of love. We have a tremendous opportunity to follow Jesus’ teachings and respond in nonresistant love when facing opposition or persecution.

Jesus said very clearly that we are not to fear those that are able to kill the body, but to fear him [the devil] who is able to destroy both body and spirit in death.5 Obviously, as humans, we do have some fears and I think God understands those, but He’s encouraging us that what we should really fear is spiritual failure and spiritual death. Fearing people and certain groups that may have the potential to harm us physically isn’t really the point. We may take some precautions, but our chief goal is not to preserve our lives. This concept involves a radical change of thinking. We’re here only for a few short years anyway, and if we can get that mindset, it changes everything. Jesus is teaching us a way of peace, love, and forgiveness, and that’s a powerful message to any enemy.

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Advantages of Anabaptist Culture in Missions

Advantages of Anabaptist Culture in Missions

Anabaptist Perspectives

The following is taken from an interview with Elijah Yoder conducted by Reagan Schrock. Elijah is a pastor and has been a full time teacher at Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute for over 25 years. He lives with his family in Harrisonville, Pennsylvania.

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Anabaptists have historically tried to live a holy life style and not follow the things of worldly culture. Hence, we dress differently, are nonresistant, don’t go to war, and our ladies wear the veiling. When conservative Mennonites began starting mission outreaches in the 1930’s to 1950’s, missions was a new thing for them. They wondered, “How are we going to teach? What do we do?” Typically they followed the methods of the Protestants, but they expected the results to be different. Missionaries were going out to save and bring salvation, but they didn’t follow up on discipleship.

Almost all of the missions that were started in that era have lost many of their conservative principles. They’ve lost the veiling, nonresistance, and nonconformity to the world. Obviously there are a lot of reasons that could bring this result, but one reason is simply that Mennonite missionaries didn’t evaluate their methods, which we still see happening today.

In Protestant/Calvinist organizations, the goal is primarily to just get people saved, but there is little focus on discipleship and follow-up. In relation to missions, the methods of Protestants and Mennonites haven’t been all that different. What I would like to suggest is that one of the keys to being successful Mennonite missionaries and planting churches that are truly discipling others and following the Lord, not just in belief but also in principal and lifestyle, is to develop one-on-one relationships, discipling, and teaching biblical principles and what the Word of God says. Whether it is on the mission field or at home, we need more one-on-one mentoring and intentional relationships in our circles today.

I recall when I was a student at SMBI, I did my thesis on teaching Anabaptist principles on the mission field. The first missionary that I sat down to do an interview with was Jacob Coblentz, who was a missionary in Mexico and Texas. My goal was to try and figure out what methods a Mennonite missionary needs to use. I came fully prepared with all kinds of questions to ask him, but after I asked him a few he said, “Love the people.”  I asked him some more questions and he said, “Well, just love the people.” That’s all he would say: “Love. Love. Love.”  I got kind of frustrated with him, but really that is the answer. It’s not in methods or what you do. It’s not that methods won’t work, but if you’re going to do kids clubs, for example, the way you’re going to bring those children into the church is through loving them in one-on-one relationships.

As Anabaptists our stance is often counter-cultural, which can be either an advantage or a disadvantage. If you’re not loving the people, and you’re trying to force them to live or act a certain way, such as putting on a plain coat or a cape dress so that you can get some stars in your crown with the people back home, it’s not going to work very well. If you really love people and they can feel the love of Christ coming through you, then those things are not difficulties; they are not barriers. In fact, when people understand, for example, what the veiling means and what it’s for; when they understand why you’re doing the things you are and it has a relationship behind it, it’s going to be powerful. We don’t need to put aside what makes us different to reach more people.

Divorce and remarriage is one counter-cultural issue that we as Anabaptists have taken a clear biblical stand against. This can be difficult because some might say, “We’re shutting people out.” I have seen people throw this doctrine aside, but then what happens in the next generation when you have divorce and remarriage in your church? You wind up with broken homes and young people who are hurting as a result. Is having a strong stance on divorce and remarriage a hindrance? In one sense it’s going to be, but allow that practice to enter the church and you’re going to bring hurt and pain down the road. I don’t believe that biblical principles are going to be a handicap to reaching out to people, but if we’re not loving, then they can be. On the other hand, I do think we have to be careful about differentiating between what is cultural and what is Bible. Yes, a lot of things we believe are cultural in some senses, but they are deeply rooted in biblical principles.

On the mission field, it’s important that missionaries don’t just take along their culture, but they take the love of God with them; then you have something attractive to give to people. The key to teaching Anabaptist principles on the mission field is to have the Fruit of the Spirit in your life. The key is for each of us to have a relationship with God and to do what we do because of our love for God, not just to impress the people around us or to fit in. Our actions and mission have to come out of the heart and a sincere Christ filled love for all people.