Historic Tensions: Why I am a Mennonite, Amber M Friesen, April 1999 (United States)

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Return to Why I Am Mennonite Essays; Goshen College; Goshen, IN; April 1999

My mom is a crier. When she laughs, she cries. When she is angry, she cries. When she is sad, frightened, touched, upset, or worried, she cries.

During every single Lenten service this year at my home church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she cried. When I was home last weekend to celebrate Easter, I sat beside her on a polished wooden pew and cried with her. She passed me soft Kleenexes from her purse for my dripping nose; like a good daughter, I stuck them back in the side pocket of her full black bag when I had used them. I was crying on Easter Sunday, the flower-decorated morning of Christ's resurrection, and like my mother beside me, I was crying for a bouquet of reasons.

If I could, I would carefully summarize the sermon that Ron Adams offered that morning, because his words drew my tears. If I could, I would also detail the intimacy that spread lightly through the meeting house air that morning. I would explain how I felt the warm wafting of a faith community slide in through my nose and mouth, through my lungs and back out again. I felt God's presence completely that morning; I felt God on intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical levels and when I was feeling God I didn't divide myself up into categories. God simply was with me.

But why was I so touched? What content in that morning worship service stirred me, when I attend church only on Lancaster weekends and put sporadic energy into my faith journey? The Lenten services at East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church focused on loss, and Sunday after Sunday members of the congregation had stood before their sisters and brothers in Christ and told stories of desperate pain and loss. I was home for the first Sunday of Lent, and I heard a couple talk about the death of their newborn daughter in a car accident. After sharing, they extinguished the purple candle standing proudly next to the pulpit. Sunday after Sunday, individuals shared their experiences and put out the burning light to symbolize the ways that their grief had separated and alienated them from God. On Easter Morning, Ron Adams wove the story brother's death into the sermon and after he was finished he re-lit the candle that had been so many times blown out. With words and symbolic action, he wove hope into pain and Christ's presence into death in a way that did not discount or make light of the grief, tragedy, and deep faith questions shared during Lent. That morning, Christ was very real, very present, and so very forgiving.

The intimacy I felt with the God on Easter morning was a wordless intimacy. I am pulling hard on language to describe it in this essay, for really I felt and I knew without words. I have had a semester, like many semesters, full of words. I have read about God's movement in the lives of my Anabaptist ancestors, I have discussed the nature of my own faith tradition, I have gained a deeper understanding of how the radical sixteenth century movements transitioned into the Mennonite world in which I've grown up. Yet all of these experiences have been intellectual, and with them I've known no wordless intimacy. I haven't felt closer to God, and frankly that hasn't been my goal. Yet on Easter morning God met me in a new space, and I felt a power and love that I've read of others feeling and living for. I needed a pile of Kleenexes to make it through.

What I've hit upon in response to both that experience and the assigned discussion of "Why I am Mennonite" is a question. I wonder whether Mennonite identity is about a culture and a theology, about faith and the direct experiencing of God, or about a juxtaposition of the two. God's intimate touch in my life has frequently been a language-less experience, one that I don't connect with a faith tradition or theology. I haven't felt particularly Mennonite during moments of conversation with God. Ron's Easter message was not overtly Mennonite. Yet at the same time, I can't assume that the Mennonite God-language and faith-language that I've grown up with hasn't formed how I see God now. Somehow, faith and theology must work together.

Part of the significance of my Easter morning experience was that I was not alone. I was sniffling with my mother, who was crying on the shoulder of the woman two rows ahead of us, who was holding the hand of the man eight rows back. We experienced God together as a community. Ron's message was not powerful in an essential, absolute sense but because it was offered in a shared context warmed by accountability and intimacy. The worship service played off the strengths, weaknesses, and experiences of the church members, and was more meaningful for me because I could look around the high-ceilinged room and have an idea about how the message was meeting the Martins or the Shirks or the Yoders.

Easter morning is part of why I am Mennonite, for it offered me a living example of how theology and faith and language can work together within a community of believers. On Easter morning I joined a Mennonite church at its best. Yet I am Mennonite for layers of reasons, and oftentimes I find that my Mennonite identity is not in fact related to the faith I experienced and saw that morning, but rather to the parents who raised me, to the culture I've inherited, or to the set of political beliefs I claim. My Mennonite identity is not always so well integrated. If asked suddenly to explain what a Mennonite "is" (or to explain why I am Mennonite) to someone who knows little about my faith tradition, my natural tendency would be to discuss the belief in adult baptism and the community of believers, the emphasis on pacifism, and the assertion that one's ethic of love should be actively lived in daily life. My description of Mennonites would lean on the behavioral model Harold S. Bender set forth in his landmark Anabaptist Vision partly because I find a behavioral model easier to assert than a model focused on faith and spirituality. At times, I assume that I can claim a Mennonite identity based on ethics and my worldview with integrity even while lacking the essential spiritual base for a life of Christian discipleship. I don't claim this makes sense, yet I sense within me that contradiction.

Reflecting on my Anabaptist heritage I can see an historical justification for the contradiction. Throughout Anabaptist history, there are examples of church leaders focusing on the external word rather than the internal word, and pulling from the Bible prescriptive models of how the true, redeemed Christian should live. The Anabaptist history of martyrdom plays into this pattern, for it persecution forced Anabaptists to be accountable with their lives for their treatment of an external symbol like baptism. Also, Anabaptists believed that baptism represented an inner transformation of the spirit. God's grace made it possible for the regenerated Christian to live a pure, ethical life according to Christ's commandments and the true church was to be a pure church. Clearly, a pure church is pure not only with respect to the members' spirits, but also their actions. A tension developed over time as Anabaptists sought to balance these two sides of the same coin. Some early Anabaptists like Hans Denck were anti-dogma, and wanted only to stress the movement of the Holy Spirit and the realization of an ethic of love. Others, like Menno Simons, paid a great deal of attention to how members of the true church behaved. As Anabaptists became Mennonites and later generations tried to make sense of their heritage in changing times, renewal movements came from both camps. Jakob Ammann brought renewal by turning his eyes back to Anabaptist roots and emphasizing how his fellow brethren were behaving; he wanted more discipline. Encounters with Pietism in the eighteenth century brought into Anabaptist circles a refreshed emphasis on one's personal, spiritual relationship with God.

The contradiction I sense playing within me is clearly an inherited aspect of what it means to be Mennonite: I am Mennonite because I can sit in church and feel a living spirit and because I have learned to stress ethical behavior. Though I can't assume that this tension is uniquely Mennonite, I've learned this semester that a friction between the external and internal experience of God has been an integral part of Mennonite identity. The conversation between these streams of Anabaptism keeps the tradition alive for me; the dialogue keeps me working, keeps me pushing to understand myself and my relationship with God. This winter, I took president Shirley H. Showalter's course "The Literature of Spiritual Reflection and Social Action," and found I had trouble uniting spiritual reflection and social action as I wrote about and discussed the course material. Both are important to me, yet it isn't often that I've tied the two closely in my life. My trouble with that juxtaposition is related to my Mennonite identity.

Realizing that my Mennonite identity lies in part in conversation and tension brings me back to my earlier question which pitted the external aspects of Mennonitism against the internal experience of faith. It seems that for me, being Mennonite can't be about one or the other, for it simply is not a binary opposition. Instead, by keeping the variant expressions of my faith tradition in tension I can best understand who I am.

This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.