Where Do We Find Ourselves?

Sermon by Leonard Neufeldt

Where do we find ourselves? The double entendre is intentional: where are we as Mennonites, congregation, and individuals, and where is it that we might or wish to be found? I begin with a poem I composed last month.

Exchanges Among Elders

1. E-Mail To Conference Executives

words sticking like sap
to the hands long after
the branch broke away
only God can be at the mercy
of solitude and live . listen

the silence
after explosions of eye-rattling
gusts sudden as a grass fire
near the freeway

if you can’t hear the silence
settling in, if you can’t
walk over alone, sit down
with it in the shade of large oaks
let it touch you

let it whisper, “I am here,”
the emptiness filling you
like the slow throb of grace

where will you find
mercy enough to hold you when
the days turn cold
every word chilled
by the wind driving
an endless flotilla of clouds
flattened by the frozen earth?

P.S. Just outside our town limits
anyone can listen to the quiet
of an underground stream
that runs much farther
than they said only
a few years ago. Our town
now drinks from that stream

2. Reply From Executives

No hiding behind poetry
And voicemails filled

With allegories of hope or
Complaint playing one-upmanship.

And we don’t shake out
Sheets over the porch rail

Facing the street.

3. Second E-Mail to Executives

what we must do
could shorten our life

what we will do may
shorten it even more

despite the time set aside
for the garden

4. Second Reply

A few good weedings and
A garden will discharge you
But not the probability
That being found at variance is
Inversely proportional to a row
Of plants being held by earth,
A bird by sky.

5. Third E-Mail To Executives

making changes in the
garden is war?

6. Third Reply

The war is with desire—
Binding desire
The way women once

Bound their bodies.
In the end the coffin

Not altogether too shallow,
Or too narrow,

The body ready
For the rising sun.

7. Fourth E-Mail to Executives

consider the desire
for change
and how with changes
we have some choice

in September I prefer
the start of the poyraz
in Bitez, Turkey
the cool north-east wind
that riffles the bay
as I sit outside

a book open on my lap,
my grandson letting
his jacket fill
like a parachute

coming about
to feel it luff
feet never stopping
dancing, the book
face-down on my lap

8. Fourth Reply

Why, short of exile,
Would you start over
Your belated life in Turkey

When you remember
Your home well
And what you promised it?

The geography of what was true
Then can be ignored
But will not go away.

9. Last E-Mail to Executives

I remember the loveliness
of a Russian love song
I played on my violin
how I would vanish
as the vibrato surged true
and tightened in fifth
position, and then the refrain
an octave lower
the third-last note held long
on an open string
the final notes in double stops

the poet too disappearing
as in the village east of
Izmir, which still remembers
the old Smyrna

faint laughter behind the door
a cough, a dog stepping forward
with painful deference
nose close to the ground
an old woman walking up
the path, familiar
coming closer
a man far behind
talking to himself
too lightly dressed
except for work

between this village
and the litter of temple ruins
near the unroofed
synagogue of Sardis
a mountain
whose blue will not erode

eternity
Where do we find ourselves as Mennonites?

Without turning my head as I work in my office, I know exactly where my four randomly ordered shelves of Mennonite writers are. And without getting up to run my eyes across them, I know that many of these books have proffered something like answers to the question of where we as Mennonites find ourselves.

Several of my Mennonite books bear the name of a somewhat patrician uncle by marriage, Peter Dyck, who years ago was knighted by a European monarch for extraordinary humanitarian service during and after the Second World War. To those familiar with him as a writer, this is surely not what he is known for. He is known as an archivist and teller of personal experiences. Above all, he is an indefatigable collector of Mennonite experiences and dedicated apologist for Mennonitism. His books try to explain where Mennonites come from historically, ideologically, racially, geographically, and culturally, why they have migrated, how have they been different over time from other ethnic and religious traditions, and why this difference is praiseworthy. Other such celebratory Mennonite works stand on my shelves like genial acquaintances and would-be protectors–biographies, autobiographies, diaries, private journals, personal essays, memoirs, histories, tales, and sketches—most of them by writers of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. Heroes of faith, community and family ways, homeland, region still there but lost long ago, other losses painful to describe, perseverance, and some form of victory populate these books. One can find people of this triumphalist view among those comfortable with the church as it is as well as among those eager for changes.

Several decades ago strong symptoms of a very different impulse began to reveal themselves in American and Canadian Mennonite writing, at least in works I have read. Poems, short stories, essays, and a few novels trained raw nerves of doubt, grievance, and anger on the cultural history or contemporary versions of Mennonitism to which the authors are linked. The language seems bent on waking the sleeping, disturbing the complacency of the satisfied, and pleading with those long cowed into silence. At times the anger serves no other purpose than to indict as benighted, hypocritical, and hazardous to one’s health the Mennonitism with which an author is personally familiar. In other instances, however, the target of indictment and the literary treatment are thoroughly entertaining. And often there are quieter words, words that have struck a truce or made a peace of sorts with a beloved enemy, or have found peace and nurture elsewhere.

A number of the works I’ve just referred to employ conventions of the captivity narrative. The protagonist is capable of relatively free movement and self-governance but is often on the run because pursued by memory, habit, or by attitudes, ideas, individuals, groups, or institutions that would recapture him or her and, like Luther’s devil, seek to re-impose an iron collar. To stay ahead of pursuers, and to escape if trapped or actually caught, requires luck, inner resources, and a Natty-Bumppo-like knowledge of friends and enemies. The narrative may also proceed through a harrowing captivity to the prospect of a free-and-clear ransom by a mentor, lover, new friends, new geography, new culture, a profound new self-understanding, a peace treaty, or some other large motion of grace. A number of my writing friends belong to this group. Many of them do not attend services, although a goodly number insist on retaining their Mennonite identity. Those who do identify with a congregation, come to it with new reasons for coming.

Such new understanding brings to mind the conversion narrative. Conversion narratives sometimes depict growing up on the margin or drifting to the margin before eventually discovering life-giving meaning in the center. More often they present the familiar morphology of a story that starts as a captivity narrative in which the protagonist eventually gives his or her oppressors a Bronx cheer, runs far away intellectually, emotionally, and perhaps geographically, and, once out there in the big world, begins to suffer fits of nostalgia, regret, or loss. If these onsets are joined by sudden attacks of responsibility, the so-called prodigal reconsiders her or his past and present, discovering in what was rejected much of the meaning sought far afield. In such a case, as I’ve noted, the reorientation culminates in a return and restoration of relations, but usually on new terms, occasionally radically new ones.

Another orientation is evident in the popular and prolific sentimentalists—we might call them the borscht, vareniki, and shoofly pie collective. (If my late mother had had her way, blintzes would have been added to the list.) These writers belong to a middle ground, although some are out on the farthest margins in practice. Their art, however, is closest to the celebrators in that it is heavily imbued with a treasured heritage, treasured because it’s like a gallery of admired and irreplacable artifacts already largely absent from our world. A general or specific Mennonite element is made to be as pleasantly distinctive as a long-lost friend, delightful dinner, or old hymn. Here descriptions of people, behavior, and events usually join hands with praise and lament around a highly desirable but vanished or vanishing way of life. Occasionally the pilgrim moments is such writings join hands with snippets of hymns or scriptures that serve as an earnest of some kind of renovation or at least temporary spiritual recreation.

That’s what many of our writers are saying about us. But where do we, in this congregation, find ourselves?

  • Fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals.

If asked to explain how they differ from other Protestants or from Catholics, fundamentalists will likely respond that they are “Bible believers.” This suggests a distinctive claim to the Bible.1 And to believe it, one takes most of it literally, including what others regard as obviously metaphoric language, what we acknowledge as the poetry of the Bible deliberately written as poetry, the heroic tales, patriarchal sagas, the underground insurgency of early church movements against the anti-Christian Roman Empire in the form of apocalyptic literature such as the book of “Revelation,” and so forth. Moreover, each clause or phrase can be claimed regardless of context, and no distinction is made between a passage in Psalm 84, a phrase in Matthew, an injunction in Joshua, and the trumpet sounds of an angel or beast in “Revelation.” As religious historian George Marsden has noted, fundamentalists are known for their anger, alienation, and intolerance. God does not honor the prayer of a Jew or for that matter, a liberal evangelical. Think, for example, of the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention since the 1960s, when fundamentalists organized a coup and captured the leadership, turned their back on what the Convention had been known for since the early part of the 20 th century, and began a decades-long purge of liberal evangelicals in their ranks, in the process almost destroying many of their finest schools. This is the kind of temperament and person Marsden identifies as quintessentially fundamentalist. Marsden, a professor at Notre Dame University, was reared as a fundamentalist and identifies with evangelicalism, about which he has written several monumental books.2 On the points just made some distinction can be made between fundamentalists and many conservative evangelicals. The latter are usually not arrogant or fierce in their views and do not regard the world around them and other Christians as enemies. Indeed, conservative evangelicals in our congregation are genial and kind sisters and brothers. But in the way that they read the Bible and in their compartmentalization of religious faith and doctrines, that is in the separation of faith and doctrines from our scientific, technological, historical, anthropological, linguistic, social, psychological, and literary knowledge, conservative evangelicals are not easily distinguished from fundamentalists.

  • Liberal evangelicals.

The main difference I’ve observed over the years between conservative evangelicals and liberal evangelicals is the dissatisfaction of liberal evangelicals with compartmentalizing religion, in other words, with separating religious faith and religious knowledge from the rest of their knowledge. Aware of the siren attraction of such separation and the danger it poses, they seek an integrated life, albeit one that respects the importance of the Christian scriptures, faith tradition, personal faith, and the Christian community. Many of you present this morning recognize yourselves in these words. In some cases, however, you would recognize yourself more fully if the term evangelical were dropped and the profile would more closely resemble American liberal Christianity of the 19 th and 20 th centuries, especially its devotion to social and economic justice and a Jesus who leads the way to a fairer world in both senses of fair.

  • The Quasi-religious.

The terminology and definition here come from a brief but insightful piece columnist David Brooks wrote for the New York Times . Let me read some pertinent passages from his column:

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith but think some of the people who define it are nuts. . . .

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, [these] people often drive history. . . Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20 th -century American culture.

And now we are in the midst of an economic boom among quasi-religious Catholics. A generation ago, Catholic incomes and economic prospects were well below the national average. . . . But the past few decades have seen enormous Catholic social mobility. . . . How have they done it?

Well, they started from their traditional Catholic cultural base. That meant … a strong emphasis on neighborhood cohesion and family and a strong preference for obedience and solidarity over autonomy and rebellion.

Then over the decades, the authority of the church weakened and young

Catholics assimilated. Catholic values began to converge with Protestant values.

[Catholics] raised their children to value autonomy more and obedience less.

. . . They are now much better educated than their parents or grandparents

and much better educated than their family histories would lead you to predict. . . . Populists and various politicians can talk about the prosperity-destroying

menace of immigration and foreign trade. But modern Catholics have created a

hybrid culture that trumps it. [Let me say to the Catholics in our congregation

that Brooks could have interchanged interchange Mennonite and Catholic in these

paragraphs. Brooks continues]

In fact, if you really wanted to super-charge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who regularly attend church but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

College students who attend religious services do better than those who don’t. . . . [And] students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion but be a friendly dissident inside. . . . Submit to the wisdom of the ages but with one eye open. The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. . . .

Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.” 3

Why spend so much of this morning’s meditation on the quasi-religious? Does that question really need to be asked? Is not at least part of many of us in that camp? Are we not closely acquainted with it?

Where do we find ourselves and where might we be heading? To help understand where we are, we need to understand where we’ve been. I’d like to make this point personal by speaking a little about my own journey.

1. I was born and raised in Yarrow, British Columbia: a predominantly Mennonite Brethren village comprised almost 100% of Dutch-Russian Mennonite immigrants who had fled the Soviet Union after Stalin came to power. They had to leave behind their Russian Mennonite colonial system, but it had not left them. Yarrow, one of the two first Mennonite settlements in BC and very soon the principal one, was to be the Jerusalem of BC Mennonitism and a hybrid constituted mainly of their colonial Russian way of life and some necessary Canadian adjustments. Like most other young men in the village, my father, a pioneer, was baptized shortly before he was married. As a candidate for church membership, he had to affirm some kind of experience of divine forgiveness as well as loyalty to the local congregation. The church was our social and religious center. We were culturally segregated by choice, and we attended Mennonite schools five days each week, German religious school on Saturday, and Sunday School on Sunday. Thelma, Bill Loewen’s father, and I, all from Yarrow, witnessed the gradual collapse of this experiment in replicating the Russian Mennonite way of life and religious practice. What replaced it was North American religious fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. In 1949 a minister who had rebelled against his ministerial father’s tolerant views in favor of fundamentalism and trained at Prairie Bible Institute, a fundamentalist bastion, assumed the leadership by popular vote. A decade later my Uncle Peter, a conservative evangelical, became the minister. By then both Thelma and I had already moved to greener fields far away.

2. After my first year of university in BC, I spent three years of studies at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts (now part of Canadian Mennonite University) in Winnipeg, the capital city of Manitoba. Simultaneously I took courses at the University of Winnipeg. At MBBC, I spent most of my evenings reading in the library until the lights were turned off. As I was leaving the library one evening, a professor I greatly admired and loved happened to be at the door. “Len,” he commented, “You spend much time in the library. What are you reading?” Mostly the books that have the warning on the inside of the cover that the views of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the college,” I replied. “Good!” he responded. “Good for you.” I had become a liberal evangelical—quite liberal.

3. After graduate studies at the University of Illinois, I began slowly drifting into the quasi-religious stream, and in the almost 35 years of university life I drew more and more into the current of this stream. Yet I also found myself swimming upstream; in my heart I was something like a very liberal evangelical, in my head dismissing much of traditional Christian teaching. All the while I was a blue-blooded Mennonite, proud of my heritage, openly identifying with it, and ready to defend Mennonites who, in my view, were not being treated fairly or justly, whether I agreed with any of their views or not. And I continued to consume verenki, borscht, and farmer’s sausage with gusto.

4. Moments of counter-current in my professional years:

(a) An evening with the late Roy Vogt, a distinguished economist at the University of Manitoba as well as a Mennonite literary editor and lay theologian. As we discussed our personal religious journeys, Roy observed with considerable energy that as a blue-blooded Mennonite he had had no concept or experience of grace until he spent a year or two at the University of Hamburg in Germany studying under the renowned theologian of grace, Helmut Thielecke, who is known for statements such as this: “While we are at worship, the wolves may be howling in our souls. Thus our need for the grace of God.” When Vogt returned to North America, he visited an enormous number of Mennonite writings and many Mennonite churches but failed to find a credible theology of grace. For years I reflected on that evening’s discussion; only in recent years did I find out some its meaning.

(b) Early in my career I read William James on the “will to believe” and decided that this volitional inclination was probably in me. But more recently I read Paul on the gifts of the spirit and was surprised to find faith defined as a gift of God’s spirit. So, the will to believe was a gift. I could acknowledge it with thanks and accept grace with gratitude.

(c) When Purdue University first established a program in Jewish Studies, I and several other colleagues were asked whether we would be willing to help out as a freebie to help the program lift off and fly on its own. I readily consented. Some of our closest friends were Jews, and this assignment would introduce us to the Jewish community in the area. My 17-year association with Jewish Studies was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. Perhaps the most important insight I gained from this association is that skepticism and doubt need not be hostile to faith but could serve as the fertile soil for both grace and faith.

A will to believe, the gift of faith, a personal acknowledgement of grace, the freedom to question and doubt with the quasi-religious, a will to believe, faith, grace. The wolves do not howl. What is offered is inner calm, composure, an imperturbable spirit. Don’t be anxious about the future, the Jesus of Matthew taught us. What I’ve just described is what Mennonites over the centuries have called “Gelassenheit.” It is a beautiful concept, and despite what the commentary of our Confession of Faith states, the term has never meant submission or obedience. It means tranquility, the lack of spiritual anxiety. This is the flowering and fruit of grace.

Over the years we as children sensed that wolves howled in my mother’s soul, that she was a very anxious person who had difficulty accepting forgiveness and forgiving others. But after Father’s health began to fail, Mother began to change. She lived for almost 95 years, but only in the last 4-5 years did she live with grace. This is the one thing I regret about her very rich life. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like for us as a family if “Gelassenheit” had been her close companion over the years.

                     “listen

the silence
after explosions of eye-rattling
gusts sudden as a grass fire
near the freeway

if you can’t hear the silence
settling in, if you can’t
walk over alone, sit down
with it in the shade of large oaks
let it touch you

let it whisper, “I am here,”
the emptiness filling you
like the slow throb of grace

where will you find
mercy enough to hold you when
the days turn cold
every word chilled
by the wind driving
an endless flotilla of clouds
flattened by the frozen earth?

P.S. Just outside our town limits
anyone can listen to the quiet
of an underground stream
that runs much farther
than they said only
a few years ago. Our town
now drinks from that stream

Kathleen Boone, The Bible Tells Them So (SUNY Press, 1989), 5-6.
See, for examples, Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford UP, 1980); Evangelicalism and Modern America , editor (Eerdmans, 1984); and Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1990).
David Brooks, “The Catholic Boom,” The New York Times , May 25, 2007, A 19.