Friday, February 23, 2018

The Journey To A New Life (Part 5)- God Purifies And Redeems What Was Lost

So, now that we had been living, dressing, worshipping, eating, reading, talking, and thinking Mennonite for going on three years, and educating our daughter in their school for about 3 months, what could we do in order to leave??  How could we make a clean break of it?  How could we leave without scarring our relationship with our children?  These were all questions we faced.  (The complications of an entire family coming into, and then some or all leaving a Mennonite church, has broken up or estranged many a family.)

Much of what we had heard from those in the church that had raised red flags about us staying there had been conveniently(?) said while our children were not around.  Important things seem to be purposely said after the children are outside or off playing somewhere.  My belief is that this is purposely done, because then if the parents don’t become members in the church then they still have a chance to bring the children in later. (This is also the belief of others who have left, not just us.)  And since they believe that you have to be a part of the Mennonite church to ensure your salvation, this is important to them.  They see it as a duty, to at least “save” your children, if you aren’t willing to stay and be “saved”.  (In this effort, their young people have even been known to “happen” by your house and stop for a visit with the older children to talk if they see them alone outside, especially in the beginning.)

All this being said, we had to be very careful how we communicated with our older three children especially.  They had seen only part of the picture, and didn’t fully know what had caused us to leave.  And we were not in the healthiest place mentally and emotionally at that point to constructively communicate that to them. So we took it honestly, bluntly, but slowly.  It took time and patience.  I believe that they now see what we were trying to say then.

The biggest comfort that I had in those moment was my time with God, just crying and praying.  Not only did He strengthen me, but He brought to light something that I very much had to learn.

I had been bitter and angry at the Mennonite church toward the end, largely because I saw a people who very much judged not only those around them, but the world that they kept at arms length outside their “Mennonite bubble”.  The more that I saw the damage of their judgement within the church, the more uncomfortable I became.  But when I heard and read countless messages from their church basically condemning people outside the Mennonite church as “so called Christians” because they did not choose to seek to live like them, I became enraged.  I had come from outside the Mennonite church.  And I had been a VERY passionate follower of Christ long before I had even thought about entering their church.  What about the wonderful spirit-led Christians that I knew that would never step foot in a Mennonite church?  How can they look down on them simply because they aren’t, and never will be, Mennonite?!  (One article in a newsletter of theirs actually warned of the dangers of wearing casual clothing [non-Mennonite clothing].  It claimed that casual clothing NEGATED your witness to others.  Not that it lessened your witness, mind you, but that it negated your witness altogether.  Really?!?! [Insert sigh, and head shake here.])

Then, just as my anger over all of this was at it’s worst, God revealed something very powerful to me.  He told me that I was on dangerous ground  as I pointed all this judgement and anger toward them.  He basically said to me, “YOU started this, and I am just simply putting a mirror to what you need to change.  You need to stop judging them, or you will be in danger of my judgement.  For years, you have judged countless Christians for not living up to YOUR standards of how a Christian should live!”


That was over two years ago now.  I have fully repented, but I am still not perfect at this.  God has humbled me, time and time again.  But there is a lot less judgement, and a lot more grace in my heart then there you used to be.

He has even called me to be reach out to those in the Mennonite churches that we left.  I believe that we need to show them that there are authentic Christians outside their churches.  They won’t seek to associate too much with us unless we are seeking to come into their church.  But just as Jesus pursues us with his relentless, unwavering love, so he calls me to show them that His love burns bright in me as I seek to extend the same to them.

May I be equal to the task, and to God be the glory!

Lord, give us new eyes to see those around us.  Even when they look perfect and all put together, may we see their need.  May we not beat them over the head in judgement, but come to them in compassion.  May we remember that true love is not about condoning nor about condemning.  That is your job, and as a human I don’t have the full picture.  It is about encouraging and loving in a godly way.  It is about being the example that others want to live up to, not because they have to, but because they see your love in our actions and words.  And they realize that you are the perfect example in our lives, and that your truth and love is true happiness.  Please guide and lead me as I seek to serve you Lord, in serving those around me.  Amen

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Journey To A New Life (Part 4)- Falling Into The Mennonite World

Something strange happens when you start going to a moderate to very conservative Mennonite church.  (I can’t speak on any others then the ones that I have been to of course.)

Seeing the seemingly perfect, orderly lives of this beautiful women in the perfectly ironed homemade dresses had an effect on me.  In fact, for a time, I think that the way that these families lived had our whole family under a spell of sorts.

The people are so eager to learn about you, and share their lives with you.  This is even reflected in their church directories, which read like a very in depth diary of each family’s life.  At first you feel like they just care very deeply for you.  And they really do.  But this is also how they stay accountable to one another.  (Every member of a Mennonite church is required to live by the “standards”, or rules, of that particular church.  This includes the written and unwritten rules set forth by the church leaders.)

As you see so many people, working so hard to stay accountable to the church, you find yourself wanting to “fit in”.  And, as the standards are all “biblical” (in their eyes at least), this seems like a good thing.  However, we personally believe that it is a huge stretch to match some of the church’s standards with the bible verses that they match them to.  Most do not at all speak to the same things.  Our personal view is that there is a strong attempt to take a culture and make it scriptural.

At the conservative Mennonite church that we moved to, here are some of the rules that they live by:

- A woman’s dress is made with the utmost modesty in mind.  It will have a cape (modesty panel like you see in the Amish dresses).  The neckline will be high and rounded off to be as close to the neck as possible, as they believe that showing the neck bones is immodest.  At church especially, you will have a matching belt on the dress (modesty in their view).  There will be no red color in the fabric, and the fabric design pattern cannot be larger than a dime (so as not to be flashy).  The skirts are longer then calf length.  You always wear black nylons and black shoes with your dress.  Girls follow most of the same rules, but do not wear a cape or cap when they are younger.  There are also expectations about the head covering (cap).  Women and girls must never cut their hair, ever.  They believe 1 Corinthians 11 calls them not to ever cut their hair if they are a girl.

- Men and boys all wear jeans or dark dress pants, depending on the activity.  They wear button down shirts.  You do not wear “camo” unless you are hunting at the time.  You do not wear logos on your clothing.  You are expected to have a neat and simple hair cut.  You are to always be clean shaven, no beard or mustache.

- When you buy a car, it will be a color that is darker and not flashy.  And they have a man in the church that knows how to unhook your radio wires for you, as there is no listening to radios if you are a member in this church. 

-If you buy a computer, you must buy one through church connections.  The people in the church will remove anything that does not conform to the standards of your church.  (No video player, no internet browser, etc. at the very conservative church.)

-Your children will all go to the church school until age 13.  And even if you aren’t members of the church, you will follow a list of church rules in your home to make it possible for them to go there. (No cutting your daughter’s hair, no internet, or TV, or radio in the home at all, etc.)  This is to prevent negative outside influences in the school.

-There are two to three church services a week, and you are expected to be at all of them, unless you are seriously ill or traveling.  (This means that you are in church for up to five hours a week.)  If you are not there, you will be asked why you weren’t there.

I could go on, but I think that this gives a pretty good idea.  The point of all of this is that we didn’t learn about all of these rules, and many more besides, at once.  It happened slowly, progressively. 

As we conformed to more to their rules and ways of living, we thought that we were doing the right thing.  We thought that to be serious about our faith we needed to work harder, and be the “perfect” Christian.  And they certainly seemed to fit the bill as our role models.

But there was a problem with our thinking at this point.  First, our efforts will never “earn us” a place in heaven.  This is why we needed Jesus to come.  It is good to be the best child of God we can be.  This is the fruit of our faith in Christ.  But we must never trust in our own efforts for our salvation.  It is not by our works, so that no man can boast . . . (Ephesians 2:8-10

And second, it is good to live by Hebrews 13:17, and to submit to the guidance of our ministers (so long as what they say agrees with God’s word).  But we must also remember these verses, 1 Peter 5:1-3, and the call for the pastor to not “lord over” the church but to be examples to those in “his flock” of what godly living looks like.

The more that we tried to please the Mennonite church, the harder it was to see God.  The harder we worked to follow their exhaustive list of rules (that I’m sorry was not all biblical, but in large part extra-biblical) the more miserable and judgmental of others on “the outside” we became.

It became like the parable in the bible about the Pharisee and the tax collector all over again. (Luke 18:9-14)

As I became more miserable, my response was to see the faults of the church, and become very bitter.  I was angry with the way that they judged those inside, and especially outside, by their standards for what a “true Christian” should be.  I was grieved by the extreme strain that that striving was doing to our family, and to their families.  I saw my own children turning against me in judgement and confusion during this time as well.  It felt like everything was falling apart. 

Fortunately my husband and I were in constant communication during this time, and we were in agreement that we had to leave the church.  But how could we do it without alienating our children?  They hadn’t seen or heard all that we had from within the church, and didn’t feel the same way that we did about needing to leave.  We needed to back away from the church and school slowly, in order to not do more damage in our family.  (Our daughter was in the school at this time.)  And I still had a very important, but painful, lesson to learn.


(Side note: Unfortunately, a number of marriages have ended after a couple or family came into Mennonite churches like the two churches we visited.  It seems that it might be due to lack of communication (or agreement) about one of the two wanting to leave the church, and them feeling like they have to chose to leave their spouse in order to leave the church.  Or, it seems to be because things happening while in the church have driven a wedge between them.)

(Disclaimer:  This series includes the personal experience of our family in both moderately conservative, and ultra conservative Mennonite churches.  I am only speaking for our experience personally, and what we personally know.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Journey To A New Life (Part 3)- A Mennonite Experience

(Note:  This is not the same experience that you would have at every Mennonite church.  This is in regards to the conservative Mennonite churches that we visited.  As a friend of mine once said, “There are many ‘flavors’ of Mennonites.”  This is just by perspective on our personal experience.  Nothing more.)

So, now we were well on our way to living as Mennonites, or at least strongly steering in that direction.  What does their world look like?  Well, I will say that it is vastly different looking when you are on the outside completely.  You have some idea when you spend some time with them about once every three weeks, as we did in Michigan.  But, going to their church every week, and living among them, is so different from either of those that you can’t fully understand it if you don’t try living it.

As we prepared our move, as I’ve said, we were going to a (moderately) conservative Mennonite church in Michigan about every three weeks.  In other words, we were getting a taste of Mennonite life.  We thought we knew what we were getting into, but we didn’t . . . yet.

Let me give you a picture of how this limited view only serves to feed our romanticized view of Anabaptist life.  Imagine that you are new at a Mennonite church.  The building looks something like the church/school building out of  the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show.  There is only a simple wooden clock on the wall, no cross. The men and boys walk in with black dress pants, and white button down shirts.  Women and girls all wear neatly ironed homemade dresses.  The girls all have braids down their backs.  The women all have their hair in a neat, tight bun under their perfectly starched caps (head coverings), and their dresses have “capes” (a fabric panel over the upper torso for modesty). 

You walk in, and all of the women stand around talking together like a bunch of little school girls, but quiet and proper like all the same.  The girls cluster nearby.  The women talk politely and animatedly about their week.  They ask you how your week was, and tell you about what they did, where they went, what they canned or sewed that week, etc.  There might be a newly courting couple mentioned, or a new marriage, or baby.

The men stand to the other side of the building talking about what they did that week, the boys cluster to talk nearby.  The men talk about how work went (many of them farm, are in building trades, or own their own businesses).  They might be looking for good weather to harvest their fields, or maybe they are building a new out building, etc..

At first, it is kind of refreshing really.  There is no swearing, or vulgar jokes.  That is really quite nice!

Now it is about five minutes till church starts.  As if on a timer, everyone mechanically files in to sit down.  The women and children sit on one side, the men on the other.  The elderly sit up front in the respective “Amen corners”, then the youth (teens) are near the front on either side, then the adults behind them with the smaller children. They all stop talking to quietly prepare their hearts to worship God.

As the service starts a man leads the singing of the hymns, all sung in four-part harmony.  (They believe that there are no instruments mentioned in the New Testament other then those played by angels, so therefore instruments have no part in their lives and worship.  All music is a Capella, voices only.) And as they practice singing in their church schools from a young age, it sounds beautiful.

I can’t for sure remember the order now, but then there is Sunday School time, a minister might share a personal testimony, there is prayer time (knees on the wood or carpeted floor, no kneeler, facing the bench), and a sermon and more singing.  The service starts at 10 am and ends at 12 noon, almost exactly, every week for the Sunday morning service.

As soon as everyone is released from the service the talking resumes.  If you are new, you will get asked a lot of questions.  They want to know everything about you.  And everyone wants to invite you over for dinner (lunch).   (Among Mennonite households, cleaning is done on Saturdays by the entire family, just in case they have guests on Sunday.)  In fact, if you keep attending church there, expect to receive at least one invitation every week until every family has had you to their home.

As you go into the conservative Mennonite home you will probably notice the absence of many things.  They might listen to a Capella hymn recordings, but they would not listen to other music, nor would they listen to the radio.  There is no TV, or internet (generally), but there might be a computer (stripped down by the church to their standards, to avoid temptation).  The home and furnishings are simple, and there is a lot of woodwork, beautiful woodwork.  It is very homey, with a large kitchen table typically.

The wife and any daughters help put the meal on, while the men visit in the living room until the meal is ready.  They won’t make a woman that is a guest from “the outside” help, but you will definitely impress them if you do. 

Finally, the food is on the table, and everyone sits around it.  It is a huge amount of food.  There is a main dish, many sides, fresh baked bread, homemade jam, and homemade dessert.  You start to drool, and boy are you hungry!

The man of the house starts the prayer, often times praying for the family or families eating with them that day.  Then the passing around of the food begins.

After dinner, all of the women and older girls do dishes, and then put them all away.  A lively conversation happens throughout.  The men are again lounging and talking in the meantime.

Now the children play.  The adults either talk together as couples, or as a group of men and a group of women.  The visiting lasts for a few hours, until it is time to leave, or go to the next house for supper.  (Sometimes, if two families want to invite you over, the second one to ask will invite you over for supper after dinner at the first house.)

Coming home from all of this is exciting.  You see a group of people with no noticeable church politics, no fancy church building or houses, who seemingly like everyone else, and would do anything for each other, that don’t swear or talk badly about anyone else or say anything even unpleasant.  It honestly feels like a wonderful parallel imaginary world, at first.  But, as you learn more, you realize that as natural as all of this looks . . . it’s not really.  They are human too, and there is a lot more to it . . .