Roger Martin is a member of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kan.
I came to my first service at Peace Mennonite Church hoping that an acquaintance who’d invited me would eventually shuck her love interest – a high school sweetheart – and take up with me. That didn’t happen. Instead I found the wonderful woman who is now my wife. More about that later.
What I did find on that first visit, however, was a church to attend, after a 33-year timeout.
At Peace, I nested in a spot where many others begin when they come to a new church: the back row. It was a place from which I could cut and run after service to avoid those nerve-racking, post-worship conversations with strangers. Yet from that starting point, my commitment has expanded. At first, I read scripture, then co-taught Sunday school for teens. Next stop: the worship committee. After a decade, I peaked, serving as church moderator. Gasp. They even let me serve on a pastoral search committee. Gulp.
There wasn’t any pushing or politicking required, given our small membership (of about 50).
I’ve now been at Peace for 18 years.
I’ve settled pretty easily into being a made Mennonite. I find the views and lifeways of the small number of Mennonites I’ve met to be congenial. The emphasis on service to people living through a disaster or in disastrous circumstances – without preaching to, or at, them – is admirable.
Then there’s the emphasis on simple living. This means, for example, that someone’s house may serve as a church. In fact, Peace Mennonite Church, which grew out of volleyball games and an occasional keg, began in a house.
Mennonites sometimes describe themselves as “countercultural,” a term I find agreeable, having spent a couple of years hitchhiking, taking a series of menial jobs and doing time in communes in the late 1960s. Of course, the terms of Mennonite counterculturalism are more serious.
Yet Mennonites are not a monolith. Even what is assumed to be a core belief of Mennonites – pacifism – is nuanced differently, depending on which flavor of Mennonite you’re talking about. (Formerly, there were several, including “General Conference Mennonite,” “Old Mennonite” and such. I’ve heard the names and acronyms – GC, MC, et cetera – drop casually from the lips of cradle Mennonites, uttered with the assurance of common understanding that a physicist might possess when she mentions muon or bosons to another physicist.) Half the Mennonites drafted served in World War II.
Yes, it’s clear that the namesake of Mennonitism, Menno Simons, opposed bearing arms. He once asked, rhetorically, in a flourish of metaphors, “If Christ fights His enemies with the sword of His mouth, if He smites the earth with the rod of His mouth, and slays the wicked with the breath of his lips; and if we are to be conformed to His image, how can we, then, oppose our enemies with any other sword?”
I don’t know what you’d encounter if you spent next Sunday at a Mennonite church. Many Mennonite churches have more gravity than ours. I once picked up a booklet in a bakery in Oskaloosa, Kan., about 20 miles from Lawrence, that faulted the deviation of today’s Anabaptists from their ancestors. The document accused most of having accepted or tolerated, for example, cut hair and jewelry, divorce and remarriage, and “bed courtship and the play spirit.”
But if you came to Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kansas, you’d likely find a surprisingly high ratio of levity to gravity: lots of laughter and little sanctimony (or, I must admit, liberal sanctimony rather than conservative). We are a gemisch of professors and teachers, editors and social workers, nonprofit-sector types and a few folks with more concrete skills: engineers, secretaries, and physical therapists. I’ve lasted through two blowups, the result of 1. divisions about welcoming gay men and women into our midst and 2. divisions about a pastor who was given a healthy shove toward the door by a vocal minority of our members. I probably stayed because I was on the prevailing side in both.
The quality of mind that Mennonites strive for, called Gelassenheit, or yieldedness, which is an attitude one should hold not only toward G0d but toward one’s brothers and sisters, is lacking in some of our members, myself included.
What happened to the pastor who narrowly missed dismissal was emotionally painful enough that she quit anyway. Oddly, so did many in the group who attacked her, which comprised a number of spiritual-but-not religious types. Before they left, the church was in danger of a drift toward heterodoxy, New Age-ism, nature worship and such. One person called Peace the Church of Anything Goes; another described it as a gathering place for Zennonites.
With their departure, we contracted, becoming poorer and more conventional.
When I came to Peace Mennonite in 1997, it shared an important feature with Bethel Evangelical and Reformed Church, where I’d gone from my birth – the year after World War II ended – till I entered the university in 1964. Both lacked air-conditioning. This seemed right to me. Christians ought to be ready to endure a trickle – or flood – of sweat.
The sermon on my first day back at church after decades away sounded a lot like the sermons of my childhood, so, as usual, I spaced out. In defense of those who preach, the abstractness of spiritual topics lends itself to vagueness. Words and sentences often clang against the mysteries they try to describe, making sermons, in my experience, as difficult to remember as dreams.
Besides the similarities between Peace and Bethel, there were several notable differences. Bethel had certain creedal staples: the singing of the Doxology, the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, for example. The Mennonite church is creed-lite. It’s nice not having to mumble my way through doctrines I don’t necessarily believe, or understand, until sheer repetition bleeds them of feeling. In the old days, even when the Lord’s Prayer made its way into services, it typically wasn’t the conventional one. We read the New Zealand version, with its references to eternal spirit and earth maker and a genderless father and mother of us all. Eventually, I began to yearn for daily bread and wish for deliverance from evil. I’m glad the old prayer was restored to our liturgy after the congregational wars of the early 2000’s.
One of the most obvious contrasts between my childhood church and Peace Mennonite was physical. Bethel, in North St. Louis, was a mighty stone fortress with conventional appointments: an elevated pulpit, a pipe organ, stained-glass windows and mahogany pews.
In the old days, Peace Mennonite had an upright piano, usually out of tune, and, on many mornings, flute or cello or guitar or banjo solos to start things. We sat in plastic chairs, not pews, staring out of plate glass, not stain glass. Today we occupy even humbler lodgings: a houselike structure purchased from a dying chapter of Odd Fellows.
As an institution, Bethel was politically conservative. The Peace Mennonite congregants that first day were starkly different from the women and men of Bethel. Their casual dress . . . the intellectual tone . . . the liberal politics – all this was more comfortable to me than were the men in three-piece suits smoking fat cigars whom I encountered in church as a boy.
One of the features of Sunday services I find most appealing would never have happened at Bethel. A time is set aside for people to share their joys and concerns or to ask for prayers. On my first Sunday back, the sermon was about the topic of reconciliation. During sharing, a woman sitting next to me rose to say that she was “struggling” with the topic. Her voice broke as she asked for our prayers. It was the fourth anniversary of her divorce, she said. As she had been driving to church that morning, she was shocked to see her new boyfriend’s car outside of his former girlfriend’s apartment.
What courage to speak so openly, I thought. At that moment I felt something I’d rarely experienced in a church: the pulse of the real. Her words were startling, the subtext clear and authentic: I’m in no mood to reconcile. I’m mad at my (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend.
Some may think that such a declaration is more fitting for a 12-step program than a sanctuary. But a blurter myself, I was touched. When the service ended, I turned to the woman and complimented her openness. “Peace Mennonite is the kind of place that allows you to be real,” she said. This was my first conversation with Barbara, a cradle Mennonite. A few months after coming to Peace, we started dating. After a sometimes tumultuous courtship, we married in 2004, and although the rough places haven’t been made entirely smooth, we are a devoted couple.
When I say, then, that I felt the “pulse of the real” my first Sunday at Peace Mennonite, I’m saying that a possibility had dawned: A church might admit – even invite – all of our weird humanity. This set me to thinking that maybe a church could be more than a group that gathers in a ritual space once a week and occasionally, in between, for potlucks. After all, if we aren’t transparent with our fellow congregants, what’s to distinguish church from any other polite gathering?
Finally, I find the political structure of the Mennonite church pleasing. On the whole, Mennonites care less for centralized authority than most other Christian groups. Congregations may, within certain bounds, override conference authority. One source of boundary setting is the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which, for example, states that marriage is between one man and one woman. Nowadays there is controversy about this among Mennonites, just as there is within most Christian churches. Even so, respect exists for the individual and small group, who are urged to use the words and deeds of Christ, joined with the compass of conscience, to navigate through life.
The importance of every person goes beyond the church’s need to keep people on board; it’s also a function of respect. John Roth, an influential Mennonite thinker, writes that “Mennonites have generally assumed that the Bible is best interpreted in local settings” and that “study, reflection, discernment and action are expected from every member.”
And Mennonites don’t judge your place on the path to God (with exceptions of course). Generally, the church doesn’t seem to stand guard between the individual and Christ’s way. On the other hand, the work of interpretation isn’t undertaken alone. Mennonites speak of a “priesthood of all believers.” C. Arnold Snyder, in the epilogue to Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction, writes that “all human beings stand equally before God. So said the early Anabaptists, and they were right.”
When I came to Peace, I fell in love at first sight. But then, as with most romances, the varnish peeled off. I got down to the task of loving within the usual messy relationship.
You might think that there’d be forgiveness all around all the time and that everyone would recognize the truth of what theologian Walter Brueggemann writes: “Whereas the empire needs certitude, exiles need space, room for maneuver, breathing opportunities that allow for negotiation, adjudication, ambiguity and playfulness.” The trouble is that the personal history of exiles and their sense of being outsiders make them brittle. As the crucible of community heats up, people may not open their hearts but close them. They may not allow their fellow exiles “room for maneuver” when an issue is hot and the vote is tight.
Peace Mennonite felt right to me when I came to it because as I listened to Barbara, it seemed to me a place where one’s heart could be safely opened. Though we are right now in a peaceable passage, I’m wary. We seem to be of different minds about our “space needs,” with some, including me, content to be right where we are and others yearning for more.
When a religious group spars, it hurts more than when a secular group does. So I ask myself: Will I be able to abide by it if a consensus emerges that we should move to bigger digs in a more central location? I think I know what a REAL Mennonite would – or should – say.
Yield, child. Stay.