TEN OF THE LESSONS I LEARNED IN MY ANABAPTIST CHILDHOOD
TEN OF THE LESSONS I LEARNED IN MY ANABAPTIST CHILDHOOD
This reflection is part of a series of worship services where we are examining who we are and want to be at Shalom, both individually and as a community.
Shalom has a heritage of Anabaptism, which includes the Church of the Brethren and the Mennonite churches. Shalom belongs to both denominations. In these times of trying to rebuild our lives after covid restrictions and reconnect with each other as individuals and as a community, we may want to think about how much we adhere, and want to adhere, to Anabaptist beliefs and values. How much do we want Anabaptism to define and guide who we are as a church?
So, this sermon is a part of that question. Joe Harvey talked a bit about his Church of the Brethren roots on October 9. Today, we’ll talk a bit about my Mennonite roots and some of the values or lesson I learned as a child growing up Anabaptist.
I was raised in an Anabaptist context. My parents and ancestors were Mennonites. My great great grandparents on my father’s side were Amish. I grew up in Bluffton, Ohio (born in 1952) and attended Bluffton College (now University) (beginning in 1971). Bluffton University or Bluffton college at that time was a small Mennonite college of about 1200 students. The town of Bluffton had a population of about 3000. Our Mennonite church (one of a number of Mennonite churches around Bluffton) had about 600 members of which about 400 attended regularly on Sunday morning. My father taught at Bluffton College (or BC). The faculty and staff of BC played a major role in the church and community in general. Many of my friends were children who attended my church and/or were children of BC faculty and staff.
In your handout this morning, I listed ten of the lessons I believe I learned from my childhood and student years at BC. I see these as basic values that seemed to guide my decision making, (both rationally and non rationally); values that I tried to live by, that I have held as standards for myself personally and professionally.
Since you know me and know how I’ve really lived, I won’t claim to have consistently adhered to all of these values, but these were the standards, the expectations that I absorbed growing up. The older I get, the more I go back to thinking about these values and ways in which they have been a part of my life.
These values or lessons are listed in your hard copy handout and in a document I emailed to Shalom yesterday.
While I was reviewing these lessons learned, I was very aware that while I learned my fundamental values from my parents, it was the church and college community that affirmed and augmented them. Seeing those values shared and at work in a larger community, beyond my family, helped to cement the validity of those values. The church and community provided a forum for testing and practicing implications of living by these values. It gave words, content, and critical intellectual review to those values; those assumptions and expectations I had been absorbing. In my professional, personal, social, and spiritual life I recognize rationale and views I still have that I remember creating, considering, and debating while a child and a student at BC.
I am aware of how powerful an influence Shalom can be and is in the lives of our children. Shalom and extended family were (and continue to be) for Curtis’ and my children, perhaps what the church and Bluffton community were for me as a child. Shalom can offer that same critical review and testing ground for all of us including children, to explore values or lessons.
It might be an interesting exercise for each of us to think about our own fundamental values that we rationally and nonrationally live by, and then examine them with an Anabaptist lens and see what overlap or influence there might be. This exercise could be quite intriguing.
I emailed Shalom another handout yesterday that I won’t refer to directly today, but that can provide some version of this Anabaptist lens. It lists in my lay perception the beliefs Anabaptists, as practiced by Mennonites, seem to have articulated and attempted to live by. This outline of fundamental beliefs might help add context to the more concrete lessons I plan to articulate today.
As you read this list of values or lessons learned, you might consider:
- Are you comfortable with these values? Should I rethink some of them? (An additional handout included at the end of this sermon elaborates briefly on the ten lessons learned.)
- How closely do they jibe with your own values?
- How close to Anabaptist tradition and theology are these values?
- How much do these values reflect the lessons Shalom wants to nurture in its children and participants?
I see this sermon and the two handouts as unfinished, and as fodder for discussion and critique from all of us here at Shalom. I welcome that.
There are at least ten fundamental “lessons” or values that I learned as a child.
TEN OF THE LESSONS
(and am still trying to learn)
IN MY ANABAPTIST CHILDHOOD
I am an Anabaptist, a Mennonite.
Leave the world a better place than you found it.
Ask hard questions.
Be comfortable with being different from the mainstream.
Have faith; do what’s right, not simply what’s effective.
The process by which a problem is solved is as important as the outcome.
Live and work with integrity, passion, and a sense of responsibility for the world and its affairs.
Choose your commitments. Get and stay committed.
Enjoy your work.
I note here the obvious: I am a white female and have lived a life of privilege due to my race and middle class safety net. All of what I say here reflects that.
These are MY perceptions now seen from a distance.
1. I am an Anabaptist, a Mennonite.
In addition to helping me understand what that means ideologically, my church community
gave me an Anabaptist heritage and tradition; an identity that makes me different from many other people and provides me with a community within the larger world. It helps to protect me from the anomie (that sense of a lack of community or identity) that so many people seem to experience in our individualistic society.
No matter where I am in the world, I have a special identity as an Anabaptist. No matter how many sides of an issue I hear and digest, my Anabaptist faith informs my ultimate choice of a position to take and act upon.
My church community helped me to see that my Anabaptist heritage and worldview are relatively unique and address concerns of the world in a way that focuses on solutions and sensitivity to the humanity of people, rather than simply efficacy, efficiency, or economy.
In 1971, Joan Baez’s ex husband, David Harris came to speak at Bluffton College. He had been in prison for two years because he refused to register for the draft. He stayed up most of the night talking with a small group of us students. I remember noting at that time, that his strategy and motivation for political and social activism differed from mine and, it seemed, from that of my church community. The Anabaptist faith that underlay our activism gave us a different perspective and emphasis with regard to desired outcomes and our focus or source of energy to sustain our activism. I’ll say more about that in a bit.
2. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
In girl scouts we learned to leave our campsite cleaner than we found it. This may have been
a metaphor for a key life value. I saw that value repeated regularly in my Sunday school and church community. Underlying every debate/discussion we had was the usually unspoken assumption that we are here to make things better. If something is awry (poverty, war, an incurable disease, national spending) we work toward a solution. We are not simply observers who are intrigued or required to learn about history, events, or a situation.
We learn in order to contribute to a solution. Whether the learning in school is of calculus, psychology, anatomy, or religion, we learn with the expectation we need to know in order to understand and to act on behalf of ourselves, of other people, and of the world in general.
We are here to make a contribution to the world; that is our goal. We have a calling, a vocation that is one of service, not simply a career.
The decision of our BC faculty to teach students at Bluffton in an Anabaptist milieu (with its altruistic and non-monetary rewards) rather than pursue more lucrative or prestigious careers was clear evidence of that value.
3. Ask hard questions.
Don’t shirk complexity. Don’t shirk ethical and moral controversy. Don’t be afraid to
challenge the prevailing culture or society. Don’t be afraid to disagree with people you care about.
As we grow up and grow older and our social and professional security becomes increasingly important to us, it is tempting to avoid situations or questions that feel risky, provocative, or just too time consuming. Questions that have to do with physician assisted suicide, abortion, gender bias, gender identity or queerness, subtleties regarding economics and global exploitation, concerns about potential civil war within the United States, or the demise/change in democracy, might feel better left to others who choose to take them head on. At 50, I could often feel preoccupied with work, family, church, community, and social obligations.
In spite of our goal to live simply so that others may simply live, or perhaps because of such a goal, I learned early the necessity of recognizing, addressing, and persevering through the complexity of important questions and issues. The direct impact on many people in our society of decisions made by a few people was identified and explored regularly in formal and informal arenas within the church and Bluffton College community. We had controversial speakers come to present a variety of perspectives; we had a diversity of opinion among church members and students, exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking, and subsequent discussion and action within an Anabaptist perspective.
Because Bluffton was a small town, it was difficult to avoid people who thought differently from you. Within the Bluffton community I learned to seek out the complexities and to avoid easy answers that lead to short sighted solutions.
Early in my career, as I studied brain changes and subsequent changes in cognition, in conscious memory, analytical thought processes and verbal skills, (those parts of ourselves that in our culture often give us our identity), I found myself publicly asking the kind of questions I had been taught to ask growing up. “What makes life worth living when one has Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia? Why do people with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis sometimes seek physician-assisted suicide? How does one measure competency in the face of brain changes or damage? How does a person who has severe brain changes know and experience God? What is the role of health professionals and family members in the search for the meaning of life with one who has Alzheimer’s Disease?”
There is no doubt in my mind one can live a meaningful life even with severe Alzheimer’s Disease. It is the optimism and multi-dimensional view of life nurtured in my childhood that helps me in my search for answers and solutions.
4. Be comfortable with being different from the mainstream.
I learned from the anabaptist community that the mainstream isn’t always right. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessarily true that “if most people do this, there must be something
inherently right about it”.
I learned to value independence; that it is ok to stand outside the status quo. We were not
put on earth to think and act like other people. It is our responsibility to consider life’s dilemmas with intellectual rigor, with prayerful sincerity, and with compassion for those who are struggling beside us. But our conclusions, thoughts, and responsibilities are ours alone. We are accountable for them. Even if they are at odds with those of people around us and of people we care about, we nevertheless must follow our own path if that does indeed seem to be the way we are meant to go.
I saw this in the way we were challenged to think for ourselves and to aggressively critique each other, what we read and what we were told. I recall papers I wrote and discussions we had where this was especially evident. One paper I wrote was a rather in depth philosophical rationale for identifying God as “it” rather than personifying God as “he” or “she”.
5. Have faith; do what’s right, not simply what’s effective.
Don’t depend on outcomes to keep you going. I began college when the theological-
political-ideological milieu was producing John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus” (it came out in 1972). I heard messages along the lines of “We march in protest against the Vietnam war, not because it will produce a change, but because it is what God calls us to do. God is the one who creates the change, not us.” This motivation to act seemed different from the motivation I heard from David Harris as I mentioned earlier.
This notion that you live right not because it works, but because you are supposed to, has affected me throughout my life in all aspects of my life. It helps me keep going. For example, I still wash and reuse my plastic bags even when I don’t see that THAT could have much impact on the global warming crisis.
At various times, I would be with a group of long time health professionals who have been working toward change in the long term care industry (nursing homes) and in dementia care over decades. There is often discouragement and some disillusionment among the participants. Given the economic and political problems evident in long-term care with low funding, high staff turnover, and increasing numbers of people who need help, how can we keep going? We see so little progress.
I would find myself giving a spontaneous half hour presentation at the request of participants on what has kept me going for the past decades in this field. I would tell them something similar to what I had learned and seen within my anabaptist community. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves. If we pause to look back, we do see change. But most of the change that occurs is not visible to us. For every piece of evidence of change we see, there are likely many more we don’t see. In any case, change when it does occur is largely due not to us individually, but to a larger force that moves often in spite of us or with us perhaps when we work in concert with others. Small steps by many people over time certainly create a journey that represents change. We can help in setting the direction.
6. The process by which a problem is solved is as important as the outcome.
The outcome doesn’t justify the process (or the ends don’t justify the means). Efficiency and economy are not the primary criteria with which we judge success. The feelings and well being of the people affected by the decision and process are a very high priority and must play a part in the problem solving process.
My first year at BC in 1971, I helped organize a group of BC students to attend a rally in Columbus protesting the Vietnam war. I announced to the BC faculty that this group of students would be missing classes at a crucial time (final exam time) which would create problems for all of us. As I faced the faculty at a faculty meeting, I knew I was speaking to people who would be a part of my community not just now and for the near future, but for years to come. I needed to approach the controversial issues of priorities in the midst of a war with care, because I cared about these people and would for the rest of my life. Such a permanent association within a community breeds caution and care for process and the feelings of the people involved.
That same year, I helped circulate and present a petition asking BC to rescind a curfew for women students at BC. The male students did not have a curfew. At a time when feminism was controversial there was significant distress with the petition. What was interesting to me was the particular distress among the women students residing in dorms. They were the most vocal about resisting the petition, even though they were the ones most likely to benefit.
I learned a couple of things from that process. One was that indeed those of us with perhaps the most to gain from a change might be the most resistant to the change. I still see this in myself frequently. (If this is the way it’s been, surely there’s a good reason for it.) The other was that again, process was crucial. These women students were my friends. We were a community together. I did not want to hurt them. This issue could potentially be very polarizing and destructive of good will, if nothing else. We wanted to pursue a process that did not pit one person or group against another. This required listening to each other and trying to stand in the other person’s shoes. There were many meetings and heated discussions over this petition. The resulting increased sense of community and preserved relationships were worth the time and effort, even as the petition resulted in change. We are still friends and the emotional memory of the event was minimized. In fact, I suspect most people do not even remember it occurred!
Maybe 1971 was the year I learned to love the pursuit of good process. It was a culmination of seeing nearly twenty years of disagreements and deep seated differences among church members and the process with which those stress points were addressed.
7. Pursue excellence.
Know your stuff. Think with rigor, precision, and responsibility. Contribute to your field as a scholar.
We had good models within our church, in the Bluffton community, and within the BC community. The BC faculty and staff were of very high caliber. They were scholars in their fields, with books written, research conducted, and enormous priority, time, and effort put into their teaching. Even in “extra curricular” arenas there was the pursuit of excellence.
8. Live and work with integrity, passion, and a sense of responsibility for the world and its affairs.
The church members frequently invited each other to their homes for a meal or an evening of games and discussion. Children had an opportunity to see how adults other than their parents personally lived the values they were teaching.
Throughout my entire life, I saw the integration personally and professionally of integrity and passion within the church community. People spoke with profound rationality and with tears as they examined the crucial issues of our time. As I became an adult and involved in my own social, professional, and academic circles, I found I expected the same integrity and passion among my colleagues.
An examination and debate regarding the state of the world is not simply an intellectual exercise or one of bemusement. The church and BC community took world problems very seriously and saw the search for solutions as a personal individual responsibility. And they cared passionately about that search and possible solutions.
The personal was political and theological. We have an obligation to live responsibly as an individual. We can make a difference in the world and have an impact on others around us.
9. Choose your commitments. Get and stay committed.
I saw among the adults in my church and BC community, not only passion and integrity,
but also commitment. Over time and through obstacles, people stayed with a goal or relationship and valued its longevity. I saw this many times in my church through serious controversies, at BC during times of decision making and short and long term planning, and in friendships within the church, Bluffton community, and the BC community.
10. Enjoy your work.
Choose a career and community that is fulfilling and fun. Money is
important, but enjoying your work and the people around you is even more important.
Many church members, Bluffton townspeople, and BC staff and faculty not only enjoyed their work, they were very involved in the Bluffton community. They initiated projects, participated in church life, created plays, operettas, events, trips, and projects, and had fun doing them.
I learned the value of being creative and having fun in all parts of my life.
As I said in the beginning, this is offered as a contribution to our ongoing discussion about who we are and want to be at Shalom individually and as a community.
For further discussion, I have prepared a handout that lists the ten lessons I learned, but adds a bit of elaboration of each of the ten lessons, as follows below.
TEN OF THE LESSONS I LEARNED (and am still trying to learn) IN MY ANABAPTIST CHILDHOOD
A BRIEF ELABORATION
- I am an Anabaptist, a Mennonite.
- − Remember who you are. It is part of your identity. You choose to keep this as part of your identity. Seek other Anabaptists to support the identity you all have chosen.
- − You are different from most people, both individually and as an Anabaptist community.
- − Take seriously your Anabaptist faith and life; live your Anabaptism.
- − Live your faith every day, not simply on Sunday morning.
- Leave the world a better place than you found it.
- − Act. Avoid being simply an observer who is required to learn about the world. Learn about the world so you can love it, appreciate it, and contribute to solutions. Act to improve situations.
- − Be of service to others and to the world (all of it) (in your vocation and otherwise).
- − Be frugal, using as few resources as necessary. Take care of your resources, the earth, and what is on it.
- − Be a conduit (hands and feet) of God’s work, living in harmony with all creation.
- − Love and care for your neighbor and the strangers around the world.
- Ask hard questions.
- − Ask the hard questions. Avoid simplifying the questions or possible solutions. Appreciate complexity.
- − Don’t be afraid to tackle problems you can’t solve, to challenge prevailing culture, structures, or government, or to disagree with people you care about. Assume that what you think and do is important and valuable.
- − Bring energetic rigor, prayer, courage, and compassion to life’s dilemmas and to life’s hard questions.
- Be comfortable with being different from the mainstream.
- − Follow higher ideals. Dare to be different and nonconformist. Take risks.
- − Address problems even if most of society or government doesn’t recognize or confront them.
- − Do not avoid confrontations, but approach them with compassion.
- − Live simply with regard to externals (for example, regarding the human body and church buildings). Avoid ostentation or excess (for example, excessive decoration or expense).
- − Value function before beauty, but love the beauty all around us, within people, between people, in the mind and emotions, and in the art and creativity of human endeavor. Love the beauty of our bodies and nature as created by God.
- − You are in the world, not of it.
- Have faith; do what’s right, not simply what’s effective.
- − We are called to act for change.
- − We don’t depend on results to keep up our motivation to act. Results do not depend on us, but on God (often through individual actions of people collectively).
- − Be optimistic. Have faith in what you can’t see. Trust in the future.
- The process by which a problem is solved is as important as the outcome.
- − The ends don’t justify the means. Efficiency and economy are not the primary criteria of success. The role, impact, and feelings of people are. Share the process of problem solving with other people, especially those most affected.
- − Be and do good to all involved. Harm no one. Take care of each other. Care for all people you encounter and in the world. Exploit no one.
- − Relate compassionately with all people, even those who would disagree, harm you, or compete with you.
- − Engage in conflict transformation.
- − Don’t be too pushy. Don’t impose yourself on others. Influence through example. Value each individual regardless of who they are.
- − Lateral/horizontal model of decision making versus hierarchical/vertical power model.
- − Nonviolence/peace is the road to peace and nonviolence, not simply a goal.
- Pursue excellence.
- − Take your contributions in your life seriously, including all you do.
- − Act and think with rigor, precision, and responsibility. View and address the big picture and the details.
- Live and work with integrity, passion, and a sense of responsibility for the world and its affairs.
- − You are responsible for your efforts to leave the world better than you found it. This includes all of humanity and creation you encounter in your life and globally.
- − Integrate this responsibility, focus, and integrity at home, at work, and in all areas of life.
- − The personal is political and theological.
- − Be honest and truthful. Don’t be manipulative. Recognize reality. Don’t deny or court delusions. Be reliable and practical. Recognize reality for what it is.
- Choose your commitments. Get and stay committed.
- − Choose your commitments wisely in all aspects of your life.
- − Stay committed through obstacles and over time.
- − Recognize when commitments need to change.
- Enjoy your work.
- − Enjoy your work. Give yourself to your work. Be creative with your work.
- − Be an anabaptist at work. Focus on the humanity and needs of people rather than simply efficiency, economy, or profit.
- − Work matters. See your work as a vocation to which you are called. Care about your work. Do it well and with passion.
- − Do not be vain, proud, or boastful about your looks or your work and accomplishments. Seek to do good work rather than to be recognized. Know your limitations and the value of others. Share the credit.
- − How you live and work is who you are; your life and work is God’s work.