Guest Blog: Schools as a Common Good

Guest Blog: Schools as a Common Good

Guest Blogger

Delmar Oberholtzer and Ryan Yoder are board members of Anascholastic Institute . An organization which is dedicated to furthering education and scholarly thought within Anabaptist communities. Delmar is a high school teacher who loves school so much he never left. He has taught in both public and private schools across Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.  Ryan is a missionary under DestiNations International and lives with his wife and two children in Spain. He has studied Arabic institutionally, Spanish independently, and is currently taking online classes with Liberty University.

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The United States Census Bureau recently released the data it collected on public schools for the 2016 year, including the amount of money spent. The data indicates that the public school systems are spending an average of $11,762 per student in their care.1 Private schools generally operate on a smaller budget, but their per pupil expenditures still run into the thousands of dollars.

These types of numbers naturally lead to some common questions. How do we justify such expenses? Are our schools worth the significant amount of money we spend on them? What good is a school, really?

The most common answers to these questions often focus on the good a school provides for an individual student. A school teaches students how to work with people, build social skills, and helps them make friends. A school teaches skills that make students valuable workers, ensuring that each individual will be able to find a job or career. In Christian schools, a school also teaches a student about the truths of the Christian faith and encourages them to make that faith an integral part of their lives and worldview. These are all good answers, but they don’t complete the picture of a school’s value. A Christian school also provides benefits to its community, a value though often overlooked and hard to quantify, is real nonetheless.

A Tie that Binds

The first way in which a school serves the good of its community is through the social ties it creates and supports. A school is never sustained by the efforts of a single individual, it is always the result of a group of people who come together with a shared purpose. Those people include the staff, students, parents, churches, business partners, school board, alumni, financial supporters, and others that have an interest in the success of the school. As the school brings these people together it provides a common experience and a shared value that deepens the connectedness of the community. A school that actively engages its stakeholders can be a true asset by reinforcing a genuine sense of mutual care and camaraderie. In a society where people are becoming more socially isolated than ever before, any implement which brings people together in this way is of great value.

This is especially true for private Christian schools. Because there is no reliance on federal or state funding, all the support is generated by the local church or churches and the community that surrounds them. Likewise, almost all major decisions are made by local leaders and representatives. The church community collectively owns the school and is brought closer together through that shared ownership. While a church is more than just a social grouping, it is indubitably stronger when its members can come together in the type of fellowship and commonality that the support of a Christian school can provide.

A Source of Potential

Another way in which a school serves its community is through the preparation of “servants to the public” from one generation to the next. In a secular setting, this translates into the production of people who serve as anything from paramedics to sanitation workers. Schools make sure that there will always be people who are trained to keep their community safe and functioning.

A church is like a secular community in that it also needs a collection of people who support it through their service. Individual churches are structured in different ways, but they all need people who are willing to serve by preaching, singing, discipleship, performing administrative tasks, handling finances, teaching, and taking care of church property. Even a church that has all of these responsibilities covered should be preparing for the day when the tasks need to be passed on to a new generation.

A school provides the church with a place to identify and prepare individuals who possess the gifts for those positions of service. It is common for schools to encourage the development of gifts such as speech, creativity, and written expression, then display them before the community in the form of special programs or performances. These activities keep the community informed of the potential that exists among its young people and helps them identify those who might best serve the community in a variety of ways.

A Bastion of Values

Finally, and possibly most important, a school provides the church with a point of reference for, and transmission of, shared values and culture. Because a school is generally under the power of the local community as mentioned above, it becomes a reflection of the community’s values and beliefs. Making decisions about the school can force a church to truly evaluate what it believes and how it should be practiced and communicated. Whatever is truly believed by the church will find its way into the school, either in daily operations or in the content that is taught. A school with a healthy relationship with a church community can become an expression of the church, a public example of how its faith can be lived out and practiced.

Not only does the school reflect the church community’s values, it transmits them to the students under its care. The school sets an example and encourages patterns of behavior that have the potential to last a lifetime.  In one sense, a school can serve as a conduit from the church to the students that attend the school, teaching the basic tenets of faith as well as how to apply the Christian faith to daily life and action.

A school that serves a distinct culture will pass on cultural practices and traditions as well as the truths and beliefs of the church. There have always been Anabaptist groups who place a great deal of value in their distinct heritage, whether it has been expressed through clothing, language, holidays, foods, or music. For those who value their cultural background, a school can support efforts to pass on that identity to their children. In these ways the school becomes a tool for the preservation of the beliefs and culture of a church community and promotes its continuation from generation to generation.

What Good is a School?

In an age where schools broadcast their test scores, brag about their graduate employment rates, and celebrate their most successful students, it is important to not lose sight of the larger value of a school. The work it does on behalf of each student in its care is of utmost importance, but a good school can and should be honored for the significant good it can do for the community it serves. So what good is a school? It seems safe to say that the benefit of Christian schools, while significant to each student, also extends to the church, community, and ultimately to the Kingdom of God. 

 

 

 

Why Graduate From Four Colleges

Why Graduate From Four Colleges

Anabaptist Perspectives

The following is taken from an interview with Kyle Stoltzfus conducted by Reagan Schrock. Kyle is on staff at Faith Builders Educational Program, a conservative Anabaptist school whose mission is to prepare young people to serve their churches and communities through teaching and ministry. Kyle manages the communications department while pursuing a graduate degree in church history and theology. He lives with his family in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania.

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When I think about being a student of four different colleges, I sometimes feel this wave of shame. There are stereotypes which imply that people who keep going to college will become perpetual students who are of no earthly good after a while. As much as I’d like to say that I had big ideals about having a college education and of hoping to end up here at Faith Builders on staff, that’s just not the reality.

So why would somebody attend four colleges? For me—it was because I couldn’t build mini barns. Coming out of high school and trying to enter the workforce, I had some ideas about where I wanted to be headed, but they were vague and poorly defined. I was a decent student and knew something about computers, but I had very few manual skills.

I think a lot of people coming out of high school go for blue collar jobs that are immediately available to them; a low-level job where you apply and get the position. My application went to a business called Yoder Barns. I applied, got the job, and became a laborer. I guess some people can learn carpentry faster because they are more skilled or have background in it. However, I soon realized that I’m actually rather bad at building mini barns. I would arrive early and faithfully to work every day, but I would look at the time clock, time card in hand, and be absolutely miserable. I knew I would punch in, go out on the floor, and hate every moment of the day. I had a gnawing ache of sadness and depression. The ache goaded me to do something different. I needed a springboard and that’s what pushed me toward college.

My first experience came through Penn College where I earned an Associate’s Degree in computer science. They offer “degrees that work”. They are a skill focused school and offer technical degrees. After earning my degree, I began to see other possibilities besides just manual trade skills. Going to school allowed me to apply for a job that I otherwise wouldn’t have even considered because it would have been out of my league. I got the job, moved two hours away from my home area, and began to apply the skills I had gained.

Skills developed in college are not designed to cover everything. But they gave me the confidence I needed to settle into a new job. After starting that job I met my wife, Marlene, who was teaching school. Although we were making pretty good money, working long hours, and enjoying the meaningful work our skills-focused jobs gave to us, we still felt unfulfilled. What was the significance of our work? We were beginning to feel kind of burned out around the margins. My wife and I knew how to work, but how should we work with meaning? How could we learn to serve people that we care about and contribute something into their lives? These considerations brought us to Faith Builders. They had a faithful view of life, more than just a view of meeting the bottom dollar or getting to the American dream. I studied at Faith Builders for two years, and was then asked to come on staff.

The two-year degree at Penn College gave me technical skills and an occupation. Faith Builders helped me to find meaning in the work and answered the question of how I could participate more fully in God’s Kingdom with my work. The third part of my education, a bachelor’s degree from Liberty University online, paved the way for graduate school. This was the progression in my life which has prepared and provided for meaningful work and service.

When asked if I would recommend these steps for others, or if college should be pursued at all, one could consider the question, “Should I continue to grow, develop, and change?” The answer is yes, absolutely. Everybody needs to do that or else life will quickly become stale and stagnant. Regardless of the type of field a person is interested in getting into−whether it is carpentry, the manual trades, etc.−you are going to need to grow, change, and find sources of input to make that happen.

Would I recommend that someone go to four colleges or go to college at all? No, for two reasons. First, the skills which people bring to life around them are different. Some people are more suited to do manual labor and that is necessary and good. Second, anyone who goes to college in an attempt to elevate themselves above the common laborer probably has a defective view of schooling. There are many different types of intelligences. Some kinds of intelligence, such as being a farmer, are more applied. That doesn’t make the work less intelligent; it’s just a different kind. People who go to college may be more gifted in abstraction and being able to spin yarns and theory. Their education isn’t really complete until they develop something of a very gentle contempt, perhaps, for those abstract abilities as they recognize the limitations. A farmer needs a diversity of skills. He needs to care for cows, take care of his plants, be a diesel mechanic, and a bookkeeper. He needs all of these various skills, and it takes a certain kind of person to do that well. That person may not be well suited for academics, but the academic person, if you put him in that same situation, would probably fumble.

Superficially, one incentive to attending college is that having a degree will allow for a higher pay scale−if you can find a job after graduating. We might also think that a college experience can help us find what is authentic about ourselves. But you’re probably going to be disappointed if you look at going to school or landing the perfect job as “finding that core identity”. There’s just more to it than that.

These are relatively superficial reasons to attend college. So we must get down to the questions of real value. Do I want to do this job because I want to grow in my capacities? Why do I want to enlarge my abilities as a person?

Going to college not only helps us to gain particular working skills, but also provides a different way of looking at the world. You come out on the other end of college training and see new possibilities in the world that you didn’t see before. The possibility may be as simple as saying, “Oh, you’re having trouble with making sense of your finances. I have tools and training that can help you sort that out.” You are seeing possibilities on the other side of those muddled up finances. It begins to change how you see the world. When things break, you see the possibility of a system that works again, such as the possibility of health in patients who are really sick. The possibilities begin to bring equipped people’s imaginations alive. With a college education, they now have skills which make a possibility of something previously out of reach.

This is all good motivation for going to college, but, for the Christian, we can go even deeper than that. The statesman Abraham Kuyper is quoted as saying, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”1 This call of Christ extends into that space of imagination where we begin to see possibilities in the world, as well as into the disciplines a person gains from college. It begins to change and inform how they see the possibilities.

There is talk in today’s world about the sacred and the secular. The majority of trades that people learn in college—whether nursing, mathematics, or technical skills—are all chunked off in the realm of the secular. What this really mean, though, is that these trades haven’t been influenced yet by the Christian imagination. In reality, they have already been claimed. This is what Kuyper was referencing when he spoke of Jesus laying claim to everything. “Mine!” The task of the Christian, then, is to see those possibilities as the raw material they really are. Seeing them through the lens of their education, claim them for Christ, and then rehabilitate or reform them. What is a Christian way of doing nursing? What is a Christian way of doing computer science? What is a Christian way of doing agriculture? There are incredible opportunities out there for this kind of reform because all of these kinds of work have been set apart as secular, when really it needs to be reclaimed for Christ. College allows you to have access to both worlds, spiritual and secular, and to begin to redeem and reclaim them together for Christ.

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Samantha Trenkamp–My Journey to the Mennonites

Samantha Trenkamp–My Journey to the Mennonites

Anabaptist Perspectives, Testimony

The following is taken from an interview with Samantha Trenkamp conducted by Valonna Miller. After being raised Catholic, Samantha later encountered the Anabaptists and joined a Mennonite church. Samantha is part of the production team with Anabaptist Perspectives and also works in publications for other non-profit missions organizations. Her blog can be found here.

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Valonna: Tell us a little of your life before joining the Mennonite church.

Samantha: My extended family identifies as Catholic on both sides, though nominally so. My dad attended a Catholic high school. My immediate family was nominal as well, but we wanted something more. We visited many different churches during my growing up years. We were never felt settled in the Catholic worldview, but we didn’t know anything else.
             I attended public school until 4th grade, at which point my mom and dad decided to begin homeschooling me and my siblings. It was difficult to leave behind our friends and enter a new way of life, as well as a whole new type of culture as the typical homesteader-homeschoolers. Another factor in my growing up years was that, young as I was, I was seriously on my way to becoming a professional dancer. I was helping to teach younger classes, performed with the Knoxville Ballet twice, studied briefly under a German choreographer, and had a trip scheduled to go to New York for further study. My instructor had great faith in me. But a series of events out of our control effectively derailed those ambitions, and I ended up not taking dance classes at all. Looking back, I’m certain that was a God-directed shift in my life for which I am thankful.

Valonna: Tell us about the transition from Catholic to conservative Mennonite. Was that challenging? How did you find information on the Mennonites? How did you find our churches?

Samantha: After we started homeschooling we began regularly attending a local Catholic church with another homeschool family. I was not baptized as an infant and so I received baptism through this church when I was 11, along with my other siblings. We did not understand why we were being baptized; it was just part of what you did, a part of the process of being in the Catholic church. I remember feeling less than satisfied over this time. I often found myself as the youngest in the crowd of young people and had few friends I could call my own. I felt alone and wanted the reality of people and relationship. I appreciated the traditions and rituals of Mass, but never felt connected to the Lord or to the people. God was never presented to me as Someone with whom I could have a relationship, so I viewed Him as a God who did things for me if I did all the right things by Catholic standards (reciting the Rosary, confession to the priest, partaking of the Eucharist, etc.). God was distant. I was never really told why we did things or what anything meant. After a time, our elderly priest became ill and was replaced by a younger priest, whom we did not feel we could support, so we started looking for another church.
          I was 12 to13 years old when we began attending a charismatic, non-denominational fellowship via another homeschool family. We liked it there because there were quite a few young people. A few weeks after we began attending, the youth were going on a retreat. Since we were unable to afford it at that time, the church paid the way for my sister and I so we could join them. It was during the retreat that I encountered Christ and took hold of His salvation for me personally. Because there was a great deal of emotionalism and expectations within that kind of geared up atmosphere, I wasn’t sure if it was a real salvation experience and chose not to receive believer’s baptism with my sister upon returning home. Looking back now, I know that is where Jesus first found me. Unfortunately we did not receive much follow-up in terms of discipleship. After attending the charismatic church for about six months, various issues began to arise internally. Ultimately we decided it was time to move on to another church, as did some other families.
            Over the next few years my mom began seriously researching the web and various books about denominations. She was open to just about any kind of Christian faith at that point. Surely there were people sincerely following Jesus and Scripture somewhere! Eventually she came across the Anabaptists. These people intrigued her and somehow she made contact with a Mennonite pastor in Indiana who sent us information on the faith and practice of the Mennonites. We began studying the Scriptures and Anabaptist faith and practices, but it would be a little while before we would actually meet anyone of Anabaptist faith.
          During that time we began adjusting our lifestyle according to what we found in Scripture. We experimented with practicing the woman’s head covering and wearing skirts. I remember the day my mom told us that she would like to start wearing the head covering regularly. I don’t understand it even now, but I went to my room, pulled out the only kerchief I owned, and put it on. Skirts though were a different issue. Having always been a prideful tomboy, wearing skirts was kind of hard for me. I remember standing in my closet with a garbage bag intended for the thrift store and struggling with having to give up my favorite pair of hunter’s camo cargo pants. Socially, that was harder for me to adjust to than wearing the covering. Anyone can wear a basic kerchief and not be too noticeable, but, as a woman, wearing a skirt gives you a whole new identity in society. When people see a woman who embraces her femininity, they look at and treat her differently. This was a good thing, but an adjustment all the same.
           Later on, when I was about 16, by a wild “coincidence”, we happened to be taking a new route home one day and were shocked to see a little Anabaptist church tucked back in the hills! We had been living in the Sevierville/Knoxville, TN area practically all of my life and here was a little church in the middle of nowhere right when we were becoming interested in that very thing! We called the pastor (Joe Rudolph), began attending the somewhat new church plant, and the rest is history. Our family had to move a couple of times after that for jobs between Kentucky and Tennessee, so the few churches we found during those years were discovered by randomly crossing paths with other Anabaptists, or by local people pointing us in the direction of other “head covering people” who were homechurching. Now it’s more than ten years later. I began attending Wellspring Mennonite Church almost 8 years ago, finally received a believer’s baptism when I was 21, and positively love being a part of this group of believers who love Jesus and His Kingdom.

Valonna: What were some of the contributing factors that convinced you to join the Anabaptists?

Samantha: There were two big reasons why I joyfully chose to identify with the Anabaptist faith and people:
1.   They were serious about being devoted to God and His Word. I had never really met people who lived out Scripture like they did. Not to say that they always did this perfectly, but if Jesus commanded it, they adjusted their lives accordingly so as to be faithful to Him. They were all in and all eyes on Jesus. During our attendance at the charismatic church, the 2002 “Spiderman” film had come out and the youth pastor showed it during a youth lock-in. Even as a young girl I wondered why in the world this kind of thing was being shown in a church! By living counter-culturally, the Anabaptists proved to me their sincerity and devotion to the Lord above all else. Generally speaking, in my experience with the various Christian denominations and people I came into contact with, the teachings of Jesus did not appear to have impact on how Christians lived their daily lives. They worshipped on Sunday and lived like anyone else the rest of the time. The Anabaptist people were radical, seriously committed, and I loved it.
2.   The other factor was community! Coming into that first Anabaptist church, they took us right into their homes and lives and hearts. They loved us and made us feel like we belonged. They were like one big family with everyone there for everyone else. I had never had that kind of connection or relationships with a church before. This continues to be one of the greatest blessings about being a part of the Anabaptists. In a world where everyone is fighting for the top, the Anabaptists take us back to the early church where we lay down our lives for one another.

 

Valonna: Is there anything else you would like to add before we close?


Samantha: Yes. Because of the path I chose in following Jesus and identifying with the Mennonite church, relationships with extended family became increasingly strained. Others who have come into the Mennonite church have experienced similar tensions. The Anabaptist worldview and lifestyle of faith rubs harshly against the grain of our flesh and it can be difficult for others to understand and accept. In spite of that, Jesus’ promise has proven true that, if we forsake all for His sake, including family, He will restore a hundred fold. I like to think of my faith family as my other “Blood” family, because the Blood of Jesus over His people is eternally binding.
When I take time to look back over my life, I often think of the hymn that says “The half has never been told”. So this is just a part of my testimony and journey with the Lord. God is faithful; all we need to do is trust and follow Him. Everything He does is good.

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Mennonites and Social Media

Mennonites and Social Media

Anabaptist Perspectives

The following is taken from an interview with Matthew Landis conducted by Reagan Schrock. Matthew serves on the leadership in his local church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He is founder and owner of Landis Technologies, a technology company providing custom software and support to various industries. He is deeply interested in the effects of technology and how Anabaptists can respond in a reasonable, Christ-like way.

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Social media (and technology in general) is a big question among Anabaptists. When computers first came out, they were not used to interact with others in natural and social ways. They were very technical, and people did not think of them as a tool to connect with one another. Now things have changed, and computers have gotten much easier to use. Older media, like TV and radio, were used to broadcast messages to many people at once. Social media, on the other hand, involves individuals interacting on a social level. Another interesting aspect of social media is that it is made up of user created content. Rather than a TV station creating broad content, individual users are creating and sharing with each other, and then interacting around their own content. TV and radio limits the user to information intake only, while social media allows for personal interaction as well as immediate feedback on those interactions.

Social media is also more decentralized than TV or radio. The individual sitting in his living room can amplify his voice, for good or bad. When two people are talking together in person they are communicating directly with each other without any type of interface. With social media, there’s an application (such as a web app or a phone app) that’s mediating or brokering our communication, which then has the ability to shape what we say. For example, Facebook has a “like” button, but it does not have a “dislike” button.

Neil Postman studied media and said, “…technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation”1. Interestingly enough, I think Anabaptists have been rather sensitive to this. As a matter of fact, one statement from the South Atlantic Mennonite Conference says this, “…one of the most significant areas of technology is in communications technology.”2 This is technology many conservative Anabaptists are concerned about. Neither medical nor transportation technology are major points of concern. They recognize the power of communication and information technology to shape and change the people and culture.

The ability to amplify a message is one of the ways that social media can be beneficial. Posting a positive message that reaches all around the world is a huge opportunity. On the other hand, many people take the same opportunity to distribute negative or harmful messages.

One important thing to remember when considering involvement in social media is to act on social media like you act in person. Providing of course that you’re acting right in person. Be consistent between who you are in person and who you are on social media. If you don’t talk about yourself all the time in person, don’t do it on social media. Kevin Kelly wrote a book entitled “What Technology Wants”, and Facebook certainly wants something. It takes intentionality to be aware of the direction social media pressures are pushing you and to fight against them.

In the past, Mennonites either didn’t become involved with or stepped back from those mediums of technology in which the user couldn’t participate. However, Mennonites did get involved in the forms of technology which allowed them to create content. With that history, it seems Mennonites will tend towards social media in the future. Some Mennonite groups might not use Facebook, but they will still use email socially. I think that people will use technology socially, in the sense of interacting with others, as well as being able to participate in creating content.

Typically, new ideas generate questions. I was not alive when Mennonite churches started to do street meetings, but I imagine that kind of outreach was somewhat controversial in the beginning. When we make a shift in how we do evangelism (which doesn’t happen overnight), we need to find the proper way to go about it. Street meetings began because that was where the people were located. There are lots of people in cities and on the streets; that is where you can actually engage with them.

I’m not saying everyone needs to approach it in this manner, but perhaps a way to think about social media would be to ask “Where are people today?” You can drive down Main Street and see them sitting on a bench looking at their phones. We know that people are on social media. If we want to reach the world with the Gospel, social media may be a very open avenue to meet people where they are.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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