July 2010

Editorial: Why “Work and Hope”?

July 19th, 2010 – by The Editors

Work and Hope: Finding Christ in the Church is a blog and e-zine dedicated to the experiences and perspectives of young Anabaptists in their twenties and thirties.  Our vision for Work and Hope is to start a conversation that we believe is missing from both the official church channels and its margins.  We hope that this space can become a forum that both affirms Christian discipleship and wrestles with the ambiguities of what that means in today’s world.

Like many mainline Protestant denominations, Mennonite Church USA is in the midst of a demographic crisis.  In 2007, Conrad Kanagy’s study, Road Signs for the Journey, provided sociological evidence of disengagement by young people from MCUSA.  Since then, the focus of discussion at the institutional center has been about our peers that have left the church.  From the margins, the discussion has often centered on what it means to be culturally or ethnically “Mennonite” without belief in traditional Christian truth claims.  While both of these conversations are important, we want to start another one among those of us young Anabaptists who continue to seek Christ within a denominational context.

When we started daydreaming about this magazine/blog, Jeremy came up with the name Work and Hope.  The motto “work and hope” (Arbeite und Hoffe) frequently appeared as the inscription to the Martyrs Mirror until the 1990 edition.   The motto speaks to us about the perseverance and faithfulness inherent in the Anabaptist tradition.   At the same time, Finding Christ in the Church, signals the ambivalence that many of us feel about denominations and church structures.  Our whole name, Work and Hope: Finding Christ in the Church, attempts to name some of the complex and often conflicting dynamics on what it means to be a Christian during this anxious time, when many US Christian denominations struggle with dropping membership and internal challenges to traditional understandings of faith.

Ultimately, we believe that our work here is a sign of hope for the church.

Hope keeps us working toward something even when we have no idea if it’s going to turn around, or go in the right direction.   We hope for the church, even when many in our generation express hopelessness over the institution’s dysfunctional and fallen nature.  We hope that the work of Christ continues in this group of people who sometimes get it totally wrong. We hope that the Spirit can still sway people and moved them to do something that would have seemed completely absurd to them at any other time.  We work because we hope.

In this issue, we feature several short reflections from some of our peers on why they still identify themselves “Mennonite” or “Brethren.”  We hope that this issue provokes, inspires and helps start this much-needed conversation.  Please respond in the comments section to each post.

While we editors will be blogging regularly, we intend to put out an “issue” every quarter that will feature a broad range of perspectives by young Anabaptists on a particular topic.  Our next issue will come out in October, with frequent posts by the editors in between.  In the October issue, we will ask the question, “What is Church?”   If you’re interested in writing for future issues of Work and Hope, please contact us at workandhope@emu.edu . Ω

— Laura Amstutz and Jeremy Yoder

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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Hope and Peace

July 19th, 2010 – by Laura Church

Laura ChurchI am still a Mennonite because of the Presbyterians.

On a daily basis, I am surrounded by gun shots, drug deals on my front stoop, and questions from the police over whether my husband and I are lost as we pull up outside of our row home in Baltimore.  The adjustment to life in my neighborhood was difficult for me. Just a few months after moving there, I felt frustrated with my neighbors, sad that anyone had to live in this situation, and tired of seeing people make destructive life choices. I saw little hope for those around me, and wasn’t sure what “peace” was anymore. I wanted to move, and often retreated into my house to avoid my neighbors. However, both my husband and I felt a deep sense of call to live in this neighborhood. We realized that we needed a community with a similar sense of call in order for this to work.

We began looking for this community at church. I was surprised to find myself drawn to a Presbyterian community near where we live. I was raised in the Mennonite Church, and as an adult, I continue to hold to its values and commitments. I felt skeptical that I would find what I looked for in this community. However, on the first Sunday we visited, I knew I had found a place that truly sought and followed the footsteps of Christ. We found a rainbow of people worshiping together. The pastor talked extensively about core values of the church: Reconciliation, Redistribution, and Relocation. He spoke on the importance of living among those you serve, share resources, and bringing together groups of people who would not normally interact. I realized everyone in that service lived in the neighborhood and came from a variety of backgrounds. Some had grown up locally, and some were transplants. Some continued to struggle with their daily needs, while others had never known poverty. However, they all were committed to loving each other and providing for each other’s needs. They knew each other, loved each other, and lived their lives together as one body. I found hope in their commitment to each other and discipleship to Christ. While they would not consider themselves a “peace church,” I saw persons working for peace more clearly than ever before.

I no longer desire to move. I learned that in order to love my neighbors, I must know my neighbors. Instead of watching my neighbors from my house and feeling frustrated, I now spend my time sitting on my front stoop talking to them, helping people apply for social security or unemployment, pumping up balls and tires for the children, or having a family over for dinner. I still have some of the same frustrations that I did before, but I see my neighbors differently. They are now my family, people I love, and the idea of leaving them breaks my heart. I learned that to provide hope and peace for those around me, I must know them, live with them, and share in their daily life struggles. I also learned that not only do I have something to offer them, but they have something to offer me. I am regularly loved, called family, and looked after by my neighbors. I no longer work for hope and peace for my neighbors — we now work together to find hope and peace for the neighborhood. Ω

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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Community

July 19th, 2010 – by Sherah-Leigh Gerber

Sherah-Leigh Gerber

Perhaps I’m “still” Mennonite because I’m a bit weird. And I say weird, because I think it’s counter-cultural to think that denominations matter, but I’m in that group that does. I think denominations are important. Yes, it can get messy and hierarchical. Yes, it can be bureaucratic and broken, but ultimately, denominations provide both a historic rootedness and an ongoing accountability that is important for faith.

I grew up as the oldest daughter of Mennonite pastors. Both of my parents grew up in Mennonite homes as well. So one might assume I am Mennonite because of my upbringing. While I am an “ethnic Mennonite,” I’m an Anabaptist Mennonite by conviction. Living out my faith through the theological understandings of Anabaptism is a choice that I continue to make. And that choice is not because I’m unaware of other options.

Through my public high school experience, I made friends who were strong Christians in other denominations (and a dear friend who claimed atheism). This provided a wonderful opportunity to for me to learn and grow in my own faith tradition in ways that I may not have had to otherwise.

I clearly remember when one of my friends came over for dinner. Our family held hands as we sang grace; we enjoyed a leisurely dinner, talking and laughing as a family. As she got ready to leave, my friend asked if my family did this every night, and if so, could she come again? It was the first time I realized that not everyone’s family did things as our family did. What a gift she provided me with that insight! The faith that my parents claimed deeply impacted all areas of their lives. The Anabaptism modeled for me was not a Sunday morning experience or a merely personal salvific moment, but a way of living and loving that impacted everyone in our family sphere.

The theological framework provided by Anabaptism is the way of understanding faith that resonates with me, and so I am “still” Mennonite. I’m sure the opportunity and affirmation I have received within the Mennonite community also has impacted my commitment. I appreciated the opportunity in Seminary to go deeper into these ideas, and I came through, still believing that the Anabaptist lens is most helpful.

In particular, I’m drawn to the centrality of Christ and understanding Jesus as non-violent in his approach and call to discipleship. I appreciate the way Anabaptism holds together peace and justice through the person of Jesus. I’m attracted to the practical, rich and serious way that Mennonite theology takes the teachings of Jesus. I am encouraged and challenged by both the personal and communal elements of living out an Anabaptist way of life, and these dynamics are particularly significant for mission and service activities.

In a recent Sunday School class discussion, we were talking about the value of community, a significant feature of being Mennonite. While reflecting on how challenging working things out “in community” can be, I realized that the accountability and support of my community is a significant part of how I understand faith, process my experiences and make meaning of this journey. Yes, it’s messy and difficult and takes time and energy, but really all things worth having seem to be that way. Ω

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Why I’m [Still] Brethren – Love

July 19th, 2010 – by Brian Gumm

Brian GummFirst, let me say something rather unremarkable: I’m Brethren because I was born that way. My parents, my congregation and its pastors, and church camp and youth leaders all did a marvelous job of not running me out of the church. In fact, it was at times me that was running out of the church, and everyone else working together to lovingly keep me in. So as I begin to answer the question of “Why I’m Still Brethren,” it starts with that life-long relationship with followers of Jesus Christ who have called themselves “Brethren.” From that faith community, I also heard from a young age that the church needed me and was eventually called by them into the ministry. So formed the first 28 years of my life…

Two years ago, my family made the decision to uproot from our native Iowa and move to Virginia so that I could study in the Seminary and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. Moving here was our first encounter with Mennonites, and little did I know that this would put me through a year of what I’ve called my “Brethren identity crisis.” I quickly developed a deep admiration for the Mennonites around me and their self-awareness of their Mennonite-ness and Anabapist-ness. For Brethren as I experienced them (in myself as well), there was a certain…something that felt…Brethren, but it was rarely articulated or in the collective consciousness. One reason I’m still Brethren comes out of a sense that many Brethren have forgotten, or worse, have never heard, what their story is and why their witness is important. If we’re Brethren we need to know the Brethren story and be imaginative storytellers, folding our own rich history into the infinitely-richer biblical narrative and the gospel that Jesus embodied and offers us still. Put as a question: What makes the Brethren story worth living, much less telling?

Part of what helped me through my Brethren identity crisis was academic study that put words to the Brethren experience, things that I already knew in my bones. This is the paradox of the Brethren: What do you Brethren believe? Answer: Look at how we live. It’s a simultaneously foolish and brilliant approach to the Christian faith and another reason I’m happy to be in the Brethren flock. What I fear is that “how we live” has been subverted by complex societal-cultural forces that we’re ill-equipped to even sense, much less respond to. Further, these forces are shot through with spiritual conflict that we’re equally ill-equipped to deal with.  Mind you this not a conservative v. liberal rant, but rather a modern-postmodern social-theological critique, and an area in which I feel called to minister.

So why am I still Brethren? Because of love.  A love with which God first loved us. That love of God I felt deeply in my Brethren congregation. It’s that love I’m led to express and teach in my fellowship, a calling I’m humbled and thrilled to take up. Ω

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Why I’m [Finally] Mennonite

July 19th, 2010 – by Adam M. L. Tice

Adam M. L. TiceThe strange thing about saying I am “still a Mennonite” is that I haven’t officially been a Mennonite all that long. For my first three years of life, I attended a Mennonite church. After that, my family lived outside of Mennonite enclaves. We were generally Anabaptist in orientation at home, but on Sunday we were just plain Baptist.

By the time we moved to Elkhart, Ind. when I was 15, I felt detached from the Mennonite world and didn’t regard it as a priority to attend a Mennonite Church. My older brother and I began attending a Missionary Church. I continued there for 11 years, through college at Goshen, and during my time at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Through higher education, I did discover a deep resonance with Mennonite theology. And yet education and personal theology did not really make me Mennonite. I had not committed myself to a local body of believers.

My baptism at age 13 did not entail church membership. For theological reasons, I never became a member of my Missionary church. So by the time I finished seminary, I was neither a Mennonite nor a member of any church. My identity was finally solidified within community when I became the Associate Pastor at Hyattsville Mennonite Church, just outside of Washington, DC. In fact, I was licensed as pastor a full week before officially joining the church.

My choice of a Mennonite identity was by no means inevitable. I was not nurtured (or indoctrinated) through Mennonite Youth Fellowship. Even Mennonite higher education couldn’t shake the hold of another church, although it ultimately led me to ministry within MCUSA. I am Mennonite, first and foremost, by conviction and choice. I have (finally!) committed myself to a local body of believers; I have also committed myself to a conference and MCUSA as a denomination through the process of credentialing.

And so the answer to the question, “Why am I still a Mennonite,” is that I’ve only really been a Mennonite for three years! I have chosen to be Mennonite because of my convictions about what God is doing in the world. Through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is bringing about a new creation, and we as Christians take part in that work. Mennonites articulate and live out this work in a way that I have not seen in any other faith tradition.

There are substantial issues that make my relationship to MCUSA tenuous. The minute I became an official Mennonite (and as a credentialed minister, I even have a card to prove it), I also became a marginal Mennonite. My conference placed my congregation “under discipline” several years ago for a long-standing practice of welcoming members upon confession of faith without regard to sexual orientation. By accepting their call, I also accepted the discipline.

I take comfort in the fact that growth occurs at margins; creativity flourishes and new ways of understanding emerge. At the same time, growing edges need to be fed and maintained by a healthy core. I wish that more of the church would have the opportunity to see God’s work of new creation as I do—alive, active, expansive, and inclusive, at the urban edge of the Mennonite world. I worry that we might be pruned away—that the denomination will lose the gifts that we bring, and that we will lose our connection to the denomination’s deep, strong roots. Ω

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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Heritage and Grace

July 19th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Laura AmstutzIf denominations were dog breeds, I’d be a pure-bred Mennonite. It’s hard to get more “Mennonite” than me, with family roots traceable to the Netherlands and Switzerland, thirteen years of education in Mennonite institutions, nine years as camper and counselor at a Mennonite camp and attendance in a Mennonite church for all twenty-nine years of my life. Oh, and did I mention I’ve worked in Mennonite institutions for all but one job on my resume?

My husband likes to talk about my Mennonite bubble. I like my bubble.  Heck, I am the bubble, but this isn’t an essay about how I’m a Mennonite (with so much indoctrination, how could I not be?) — it’s about “why” I’m a Mennonite. Mennonites believe in letting people make a choice about their faith, and although we could have a discussion about whether thirteen-year olds are really making a choice, it is part of our heritage that we hold dear. I think the choice for my generation isn’t something we decided at twelve or thirteen, when many of us were baptized.  I think the choice really happens sometime around college or early adulthood, when we start making decisions about our lives for ourselves.  And it’s not a single choice, it’s a daily choice, or weekly choice, or a moment-by-moment choice.

So, why do I choose to be a Mennonite? With so much Mennonite education I probably should say something intellectual about following the ethical way of Jesus.

But I won’t.

I’m partially a Mennonite because people I respect and admire are Mennonites.  People I want to be like are Mennonites. People who have mentored me are Mennonites. Some of these people are pastors, who showed me that church is mainly about loving the people, with all their imperfections. Some people are faculty who showed me that it’s okay to think critically about the denomination and even criticize the church and that criticism does not mean I can’t stay connected to it. I am still a Mennonite because of people.

More recently, my choice to remain Mennonite has to do with the roots of the denomination. Early Anabaptists did what “emerging church” folks are just now talking about. They sought to follow Jesus in life. I’m used to thinking about Mennonites as about 50 years behind on all major trends, but in this one thing, it seems that we are ahead. Or at least we would be, if we could follow our roots.  I’m proud of that heritage.

Beneath these things, there is a warmth in knowing that I’m connected to a group of people that mostly tries hard to get it right, that mostly seeks to follow Jesus, that mostly intends to live their faith. And when they fail, I recognize that I cannot call myself a follower of Jesus without extending to them the same grace I hope to receive for my own failings.

I am a Mennonite because of breeding, education, people, heritage and grace. Ω

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Why I’m Mennonite [Again]

July 19th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

Jeremy YoderThe Gospel of Luke contains a number of metaphors that might describe my spiritual journey — lost sheep; lost coin; lost son.  Jesus often spoke about his love and compassion for the lost and forgotten, and that includes those who wander away from the community of faith.  Like many of my peers, I spent years outside the Mennonite church.  Unlike many of them, I eventually found my way back.

Even though I grew up outside the typical “Menno ghettos,” I am deeply affected by my Mennonite heritage.  My family comes from the Conservative Mennonite Conference and I spent many summers as a child visiting my “plain” grandparents and attending church with them.  At the same time, I also attended Reba Place Church in suburban Chicago with my family. There I experienced an urban Mennonite community that was committed to radical Christian discipleship.  Looking back, I believe these two experiences kept me connected at least culturally to the Mennonite faith during my “agnostic period”, but they weren’t enough to keep me active in the church.

Why did I leave? I had questions and doubts.  Part of the problem was that my family background prized certainty.  My grandfather, who was a lay minister in the Conservative Conference, often emphatically used the phrase “I firmly believe” when making faith statements.  Weak faith was almost as bad as no faith at all.  He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ had redeemed his sins through the cross and resurrection.  I concluded that if I could not believe in this Christianity thing completely, then I couldn’t believe in it at all.

At the same time, I had mentors and adult friends who encouraged me to question, explore, and doubt.  I did have space to explore hard questions, so the problem was not just that I came from a “religiously restrictive community,” but rather that Christianity itself stopped making sense.   Once I no longer accepted its fundamental story, all the apologetics, rituals, preaching and testimonies stopped making sense as well.

Why did I come back? I came back because one rainy Sunday morning, in a small Mennonite church in the Inland Empire of Los Angeles, I felt the Spirit nudge me to ministry.  I came back because I started “showing up” at church and the more I participated in the life of a congregation, the more this Christianity thing made sense.  I found ways of entering the Christian story spiritually, intellectually and imaginatively that not only connected to my experience, but also began to shape me in unexpected ways.  When I finally was baptized in my mid-twenties, I still had my doubts, but I also felt that I could commit to this faith community in spite of them.  As I continue to seek Christ, I continue to be surprised by how this story shapes who I am.

I’m a Mennonite because this tradition, with all of its problems and shortcomings, is my spiritual home.  I’m a Mennonite because of my ethnic heritage.  I’m a Mennonite because I trust its hermeneutic and witness to the world.  I’m a Mennonite because I seek to follow Christ.  I’m a Mennonite because Jesus found me and brought me back to the church.

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Review: “The Naked Anabaptist”

July 19th, 2010 – by Maegan Yoder

The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith by Stuart Murray starts with the declaration, “the Anabaptists are back!” With this statement, Murray begins an exciting and timely dialogue about the radical vision of Anabaptist faith and tradition. His obvious passion for Anabaptism, which combined with a concise and clear writing style, makes this book a stimulating and easy read. What truly sets The Naked Anabaptist apart, is the book’s bold declaration of core Anabaptist values, imbued with a humility that respects other Christian traditions and acknowledges unflattering moments in Anabaptist history. Murray draws from his experience with the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom and Ireland to explore the meaning of Anabaptism stripped of its ethnic traditions. Murray creates a provocative and challenging vision of what Anabaptism offers without portraying it as the theology that will save Christianity.

The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray
The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith
by Stuart Murray
300 pages. Herald Press. $13.99

Murray employs the term post-Christendom to identify the waning influence of Christianity in Europe and the USA. While Murray does not imply that Christianity is ceasing to be a significant cultural influence, he argues that the intimate relationship between state and church is ending. While many Christian denominations encounter this shift with fear and panic, Murray enthusiastically embraces the change. He agrees with the classic Anabaptist belief that the church’s movement to the cultural center after Constantine pushed Jesus to the margins. As a result, the person and message of Jesus was “reappraised, neutered, and domesticated”, and led to a depiction of Jesus that was “worshiped as a remote kingly figure or a romanticized personal savior.” This downplayed Jesus’ radical message and demand for discipleship. As a church on the margins, the Anabaptists provide a roadmap with which Jesus once again can be both followed and worshiped.

Murray introduces the seven core convictions that define Anabaptism today. The convictions are, in short:

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel.

Murray expounds on each conviction and lays out Biblical support, historic Anabaptist belief, and current examples of application for each point. Murray concludes by offering a brief history of the beginnings of Anabaptism and cites several issues that Anabaptists currently struggle with, such as legalism, divisiveness, separatism, and quietism.

For those who want to explore Anabaptism, this book is an exciting introduction to a religious tradition that offers a radical view of the relationship between Jesus Christ, our faith communities, and the world. As Mennonite Church USA deals with an identity crisis in the face of declining membership and a profound absence of younger people, this book serves as a powerful reminder. It reminds us that the strength of the Mennonite church resides in its experience of being a church on the margins. It is in the margins, not the center, where the church can offer its vision of radical faith, commitment to peace, and wholehearted discipleship to Jesus.

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