The first time I ever heard Mennonites singing in four-part harmony all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I burst into tears.
I was in a tiny, white, clapboard church in the countryside of Kalona, Iowa. It was a hot summer day and my husband and I had driven up in his little yellow sports car (which we found that summer was a magnet for bees and police officers looking to meet their speeding-ticket quota).
We were running late, and the word I would use to describe my state of mind was harried. I had caught my dress on the corner of the door and heard a distressing rip. I then scraped my leg on a sharp angle of the bumper and yelped in pain, uttering sounds that would probably qualify as cursing even if they weren’t exactly profane.
I saw that all the windows of the little church were open to the morning breezes and realized the whole congregation probably just overheard me. I was a mess.
Worship began at 10 a.m., but the congregants were already seated, men on one side in a sea of white shirts, women on the other side in starched white head coverings. They were already assembled, all having gathered for Sunday school, which was something I realized then was not really optional at this church. I was used to just showing up for worship if one felt like sleeping in on Sunday morning. That wasn’t quite the way things worked here. My husband and I quickly shuffled to our respective sides and settled in.
The singing seemed to come out of nowhere. There were a few moments of shuffling quietness and then the little sound of the tuner coming from the cupped hands of a young man who stood before the congregation, the barely audible iteration of a hymn number, and then this sudden rush of sound. It knocked my heart down flat.
It was beautiful. And the songs kept coming! Hymn numbers called out, one after the other. We sang for nearly an hour before the sermon began and then we sang some more.
A short while later I ended up joining the Conservative Mennonite church.
I hadn’t been raised Mennonite. I knew my father’s side of the family was Mennonite and Brethren going way back. But my Dad had left when I was a small child, and we were estranged from his side of the family. I was cut off from that heritage growing up. I was raised Southern Baptist and the only thing I knew about Mennonites was the recipes my mother used from the well-worn Mennonite Community Cookbook and a class with my youth group about cults, warning us of the errors of extra-biblical practices like legalism and pacifism.
I found the Mennonites in my first year of graduate school. I just wanted a house in the country. I ended up with a whole new identity and purpose.
My time with the Conservative Mennonite church was the beginning of a real commitment to follow Christ. According to my mother, I had said the sinner’s prayer and been born-again at age five (the same year my father disappeared). I rededicated myself to Christ and was baptized at age 12. Looking back over the arc of my life, I know that God was with me all the way. But it wasn’t until that summer morning that I really decided to follow Jesus — when I rushed in harried and embarrassed and joined strangers in a new song.
I didn’t stay in the Conservative Mennonite church. I got so into Anabaptism I found that I wanted to use my gifts more fully (or dare I say, just differently) in congregational life. So, with the support of the pastors and with a blessing from my congregation, I moved on to a Mennonite Church USA congregation.
I learned a lot of new things from my new liberal Mennonite fellowship. Many folks were interested in a deeper relationship with God and a more authentic worship. We tried lots of new things. I experienced a very meaningful healing service where the pastors anointed people with oil and prayed for them. This was something rooted in ancient Christian rituals and also influenced by the Charismatic movement. I walked labyrinths, spent time in contemplative prayer in monasteries, practiced lectio divina, made icons and visited Friends (Quaker) meetings where I learned to get more comfortable with silence. I really love the many ways that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers and meets us where our longings are. I love the diversity of worship in the Christian body. To me, it is all evidence of God’s creativity.
Many of us have already found value in the spiritual practices of Celtic, Catholic, Orthodox and Charismatic Christianity. How about the rich tradition of the Conservative and Old Order Anabaptists?
Here are some ways that I have adapted practices from the plain communities into my own spiritual life:
Sing spiritual songs. If you ever frequent Amish places of business or happen to live in a community where there are Old Order Anabaptists, you will hear a lot of singing. Around the house, I have taped up copies of hymns from the old church hymnal still used in many traditional settings. I like to sing these old shaped-note hymns when I am doing the dishes or working around the house. Integrating work with worship in an intentional way is really nourishing for me.
Be content with quietness. I have gotten rid of some noisy technology and found that settling down into quietness opens up more space for God. I got rid of my gas-chugging mower and enjoy pushing my reel-mower around the yard listening to the birds. This gives me a deeper connection to creation and gives me space to recognize God in the natural world and also to become more comfortable in a natural quietness that makes a lot of us modern folk nervous.
Kneel in prayer. I really appreciate the act of kneeling in prayer as is done in most conservative churches. I have taken this into my own prayer life and find that this physical posture of humility and gelassenheit, or yielded-ness, opens me up to God’s creative power and brings me a deep sense of peace.
These are just a few practices which can be meaningful and open up new space to allow God’s grace to work in our lives. There are many others, such as reciting the Lord’s Prayer, praying silently at meals, and even (gasp!) plain dress.
I never let go of my deep respect and admiration for traditional and Old Order Anabaptist communities. I join them for worship and fellowship often and I find that I continue to be moved by many of the spiritual practices of our plain and traditional brothers and sisters. And I am still often brought to tears when our voices lift together in that first song of worship.
Heather Derr-Smith is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has published two books of poetry, Each End of the World, (Main Street Rag Press, 2005) and The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, 2008). She also contributed a chapter to the book, Fifty Shades of Grace by Herald Press. Derr-Smith is a member at Des Moines Mennonite Church and lives in Iowa with her husband and three children.