IDOLATROUSNESS . . . Beyond the gilt and awe

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. “
(Reference: Exodus 20:3-6 )

One of the many things the historic Anabaptists had against the established state church was the use of symbols, pictures, and idols that were used during worship services and masses. Historic Anabaptists and contemporary Anabaptists/Mennonites have continued to keep anything that seemed like idol worship out of church services and the sanctuary. Historic Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier summed out what this position was when he said, “Yesterday it became thoroughly clear from Scripture that there should be no images. I myself would that no image had ever come into Christendom. For the text of Exodus 20:4-6 is bright and clear. It stands firm as a wall. By means of two distinct prohibitions it expressly forbids not only worshiping the images but also making them. . . .

However, not having icons and religious symbols, statues etc in a Roman Catholic church would be unimaginable. And what may have been the substitution of icons etc in the time of the historic Anabaptists, I think, has been re-visioned as aids and reminders for worship. At least that is a more modern perception. But it was a wide-eyed Mennonite girl who first saw the inside a Roman Catholic church with awe and wonder. I remember walking around being amazed at the shine and color.

It is, however, a worldly wise woman who realizes that it is not just icons, symbols, statues etc in a church that can be worshiped above, and instead, of God. Idols come in many forms – from “heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” I would rather see the icons, symbols, and statues that are used in churches that profess a strong faith in God, than the idols I see in society. Maybe I am more worldly than the historic Anabaptist fore-bearers. Or may I have seen too much worship of things that take us away from God than lead us to God.

In regards to the rest of the passage, one thing the historic Anabaptists and more modern Anabaptists/Mennonites realize it that God does not punish generations of the future. And that God’s “jealousy” is our Lord’s desire for only wanting the best for us, and desiring us not to be lead to things that harm us. God’s love and compassion is for the thousands of generations. Yes, it is best that we keep God’s commandments. But God’s love can clear our eyes, help us see what is true and what is gilded falseness, and can restore us to full relationship. May it be so for you beloved. Selah!

Baptised… By the Spirit… Into What?

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

Thanks, Carole, and all who have been in the Simple Desire discussion lately on such vital matters. The following is in part a very long response to the concise, good points you have already made.

I have read some of the blog comments about evangelism, and Jesus’ “instructions”, and various doctrinal stances from the past few days. I definitely lean more toward commenter Scott Yoder’s more typically evangelical end of the spectrum as regards the Great Commission and the gifrts of the spirit. And yet I also have had Carole’s feeling of concern over the “condemnation of unbelievers” piece suggested by the above passage (Mark 16:16). But I do not let questions about such mechanical matters as baptism or evangelism methods *dominate* my views on ministry, service, or any other form of witnessing to the truth of the gospel. Because we humans can make false idols out of just about anything.

First off, as an example, note that Mark’s Jesus does NOT say “whoever is not *baptised* will be condemned”. That already puts some current demoninations within the worldwide church on shaky doctrinal ground, by teaching that the unbaptised ARE condemned. So who’s got it right? Secondly, who’s to say what Jesus meant by condemnation? It need not automatically mean condemnation to hell (or permanent separation from God). It may simply mean condemnation in a worldly sense, like “by not believing, you are condemned to wallow in sin like a prison, with its separation from the One Source of love, truth, healing and other good fruits”. Or perhaps he meant “you will be condemned (and thus excluded from our community… and let’s not forget that whole “shunning” phenomenon within Anabaptism) by believers (and perhaps by God… though Jesus does not quite SAY that) for being so self-involved and headstrong“. Both interpretations would be criticisms of unbelief rooted in *this* time and place, not necessarily the eternal kingdom of heaven.

Some would say I’m splitting hairs. Perhaps. On the other hand, I think various denominations (Mennos very much included) are discovering in the dawn of the third millenium that it is actually okay –even preferable– to hold only *loosely* to certain doctrinal specifics, and then to trust God to sort the rest out later.

I know it’s hard to run a church this way, that historical precedent strongly suggests the institution and its leaders (the theologians, professors, on-the-ground ministers, and lay practitioners) have to take a firm stand on as many “points of truth” as possible. Yet unlike theology, the Holy Spirit defies being systematized. He is alive. And we, His Bride, can grow, change and increase in love and faith (and accuracy of belief) only by listening (including reading the Bible creatively) and then applying His loving ways IN RELATIONSHIP, like a salve to a wounded world. We can occasionally apply that love also to ourselves, for we cannot hate ourselves and yet profess to love the God who has humbly, graciously taken His place within us… thus ennobling us for all eternity. But relationship (the evangelical buzzword) is nothing like doctrine. Never forget that the message of Jesus always boils down to just those two great commandments: Love God fully, and love others as you would be loved.

And even then, growth, life and witnessing occur by way of occasional failure, followed by gracefully listening (to believers and unbelievers alike) and learning and trying again.

These failures, the realizations of our own wounds and limitations that we share with Christ, are actually some of the Spirit’s ongoing gifts from the Father.  Moses had a stutter. Paul had a thorn in his flesh, whatever that was. Thus we have daily opportunities to learn, to grow closer to God and each other, to act in the Spirit and let it overcome those relational disconnects that we feel, or that we create through sins like pride or greed. That we fail to agree, on how or why to bless Him and increase the family’s love (or size), is just one aspect of sin and our human limitations.

On a practical note: The building of ecumenical alliances often requires this theologically open attitude, so that we can actually learn something valuable from each other, while holding our differences in check and loving the “other” anyway (past doctrinal “enemies” though they may be).

Holding doctrine loosely is also a humble attitude, inspired by such Jesus-isms as “judge not” and “come to me as a child”. Coming as a child may mean not needing to know everything just yet, or to prove oneself, or even to be anything (Mennonite, evangelist, law-and-order Republican, generous and socially-conscious liberal, superior baker or carpenter or computer whiz). We come to God just to give and receive love and grace, and we are sent out to do the same, in whatever ways Jesus modeled for us.

I am less threatened by such debates, and by leaving these questions open, than I used to be. But it is hard to live in this “unsettled” state, I will admit. I would even go so far as to say I’ve caught better glimpses of the true Jesus from a select few Muslims and Buddhists of late than I have from “my own kind”. So I don’t know what to make of that. Yet I listen to the Holy Spirit, I stick to my own scriptures first and foremost, and I wait…
Of course, I can take this position because I’m not a from-the-cradle Mennonite, nor am I in any position of authority. I’m just a regular joe, a layperson with an occasional gift for crafting memorable prose. I take on this project probably moreso because I’m on a journey to integrate (as much as possible) the essence of Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical and Mennonite theology into something useful and truly generative. (Yes, I’ve always been a bit too spiritually/intellectually ambitious that way.)

In my life experience, I even embody some of this integration, and the tension. For example, I do believe the historic Jesus’ cross, his blood atonement for my sin, and his actual bodily resurrection were the centerpiece of God’s eternal plan for ALL humans. That makes me orthodox, right? And perhaps even conservative in my stance on the Bible itself (in particular, my stance toward Paul’s way of cooking up the stew of Old and New Testament history).

But I also feel called to throw off much of the modern conservative, evangelical (and Roman Catholic, though less so) literalist approach to the scriptures. And I’m charismatically freed up enough to try it out, which is a real challenge to do without the gifts of the spirit: the strain of walking the perimeter without walking away requires God “filling my tank” regularly. By contrast, a supremely rational, post-Enlightenment idolization of  the written word, and language, and science, has only put the church in bondage to the actual biblical text itself. There is no room in everyday evangelicalism for the supernatural Jesus, the unexpected Jesus. There is too much press for Him to conform to our Western wourdview.

By pressing for a linguistically narrow (quantifiable, repeatable, and systematized) interpretation of it, we have cheapened the spiritual richness and variability of the gospel. The keepers of “the word” have used it historically use to justify Inquisitions, wars, racism, exclusionary politics, colonialist paternalism, sexism, willful ignorance, unconscionable wealth and exploitation –all the non-loving systems and *power-seduced* behaviors that the Mennonites sought to critique in the first place.

So I suppose this attitude –toward the Bible and the actual church –makes me a liberal. An orthodox liberal.

So which is it? Social gospel or saving the damned? Healing the sick or donating money to Doctors Without Borders? Liberal Mennonite or conservative Lutheran (the category my current place of worship probably falls into). Do I baptise my unbaptised (but consecrated) six-year-old son to be safe, or do I let God draw him to Himself and be baptised in his own time, when he’s able to accept the whole Jesus package?

For me, it is not a question of either/or (when it comes to baptism, or evangelizing, or almost anything else that most systems would call imperative). It is typically what one of my mentors, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr (a huge respecter of Mennonites, by the way), calls a both/and moment. God is both firmly authoritative and gently expansive, powerful and peaceful, at the same time. As Rohr is also fond of saying, “everything belongs”. We just don’t know how, yet.

So I am a man with principles, and a slowly-focusing theological position, but with almost no one to agree with me except this Jesus fellow, who tends to look a bit fuzzy around the edges when I try to pin him down. And I am reminded quite regularly that He disagrees with some of my own imperfect efforts to apply those principles, or to live “in the Spirit”. He may appreciate the attempt, and even bless the effort. Or I may instead be confronted by sin in some new area of my life, and the need to be re-converted in that area, and to be forgiven my shortcomings for the seventy-seventh time.

But the moment I claim too much victory for myself, or too much ownership of “the truth”, or take too much identity from what I have done (gotten baptised, “saved” somebody, fed the homeless), or how “right” I am, it is at that moment that I have turned my back on Him. I have loved self, or recognition, or comfort, or ideology, or church, or belonging, or gift, all more than the Giver Himself. (A Giver, by the way, who actually contains both genders, or no gender, but we humans have to settle for masculine or clumsy neutral/inclusive pronouns and “Father”, because of our limitations as humans.) For Jesus said to take up my cross. I am not for myself anymore, but like Him, I am to be a gift to others.

The compulsive need to “get it right” (or to “do it right”, as if works can save us… as Scott Yoder may be accusing the Mennonites of attempting) is like Phariseeism. It’s a red herring as often as not.

Denominations and approaches to theology can learn from each other, and often in practice will grow and change through both internal reform efforts and external ecumenical conversations. But we may not be well-served anymore by “choosing sides” based on a flawed, fleshly history and an incomplete theology that has always existed (and been twisted within *every* tradition, in my opinion).

Lastly, I am prepared to be corrected and re-focused in my *own* currently unconventional beliefs, which refuse to conform to those classic categories (denominations, positions, etc.) On some of this, I’m sure I will turn out to be wrong. So I can yield to authority, or at least try to. I do it because Jesus says to do so. But that’s also what it is to be human AND to have faith: acknowledging that sin and error will always creep back in, and we (leaders and lay) need to self-correct, to correct each other, and to generally be re-converted daily, or why else did Jesus bring us the Holy Spirit in the first place? If it were simply a system, a formula, we’d have gotten it right by now. But it’s not. It’s belief with a touch of skepticism, faith with a steady diet of works, to keep up that tension, to keep it all in balance.

This tension is one reason I consider myself a Roman Catholic/Mennonite theological hybrid (and perhaps only the Spirit can accomplish such things). Yet currently I’m acting as a sort of “spy” in a mainline Protestant church, gently teaching or modeling some creative Mennonite principles, and some Catholic social gospel and ritualistic ones as well. I’m also meeting, in a separate context, with a bunch of Catholics and a few evangelicals, on broader spirituality and personal “conversion” matters, exploring some tactics or ideas our churches have in common with 12-step programs, Jungian psychology, and other faith traditions. I’m meeting Jesus at every turn, and also meeting a bit of opposition now and then as well, as can be expected. This integration and healing of our family is no touchy-feely project: it is still a battle for territory and authority with powers and principalities, just as Jesus and Paul said it would be. Evil is real, and God’s enemies may in fact be winning, …in the short run.

Yet I also believe God is expanding His “family” in unprecedented ways and unexpected directions (as the Emergent Church movement also attests). It takes the work of the Holy Spirit to do this kind of bridge-building and integration of the past (both its mistakes and its gifts). Yet we must hold even that past loosely, with an eye on the “post-modern” future and the real needs of our children and our church in a coarse, essentially non-Christian culture.

I also wonder if, for North American Mennonites, a closer look at that question of regular “re-conversion” is warranted now, on both the personal and institutional levels. Since the “official” re-structuring of the denomination (early 1990s?), in what ways have the hearts and minds of the members and their varous groupings been re-oriented, or not?

An authentic, internally-motivated reform of self-perpetuating (but limping) Mennonite and Brethren practices/structures (like the colleges?) could go a long way toward re-invigorating the individual churches. What kind of outdated religious or business models still hold sway? On the other hand, how can the original passion of the martyrs and founders be somehow reclaimed, un-fossilized by genuine love and courage in newly radical actions, generated by a movement of the Holy Spirit. This would provide some of the godly energy and enthusiasm needed to provide a genuinely effective witness.

Who, after all, wants to invite a new person into a clunky, weird, dysfunctional sort of family like this? And for children who grow up Mennonite, it may explain why they’re leaving. It’s not even “family” for them anymore. It’s an institution, with very few points of connection within the real world it is sincerely hoping to “save”.

There is reason for hope, though. I find that in this “social crisis” moment, the general population is vaguely curious about the counter-cultural aspects of Anabaptism. Intentional communities,  nonviolence and simple living are becoming sort of “hip”, in certain sectors. Mennonite leaders are being invited into conversations with high-ranking Iranian religious leaders, and even political figures, who see our historic view of Jesus as more authentic than that of the saber-rattling evangelical community. And the Anabaptist community’s loving response in the wake of the Amish school shootings a few years back was a reminder to the U.S. population that we’re still here, in their midst, not just some tourist attraction out in rural Pennsylvania.

But we Mennonites now have to follow that up, and prove we’re actually following Jesus, that we’re practicing what we preach and that we can function well, or all credibility is lost. Unfortunately, in an evangelical-created *marketplace* of religion, that high ground message of “personal salvation = giving your heart to Jesus” was abandoned by most Anabaptists long ago in their public stance, where “joining the community” is seen as the fare one must pay. In going that route, the Mennonites chose not to compete at all, or at least not on the flawed, shallow terms that the megachurches would set for the competition. Mennonites chose instead to build a “city on a hill”, and then just see who would come to join. But few are joining… in Europe and North America, anyway, where the “cost” of discipleship under the Anabaptist flag tends to be pretty high and daunting to consider, for a new convert. And so, for better or worse, the Third Way is genuinely a third way… perceived as “not for the faint of heart”.

Whether the U.S. denomination is headed the “right” way is not for us to determine, or at least not for me to determine. If I know Jesus, and I hope I do, then we will know the Anabaptist tree by its fruit …define that fruit (or famine) however you will. We may be chastened, but we will never be abandoned by our loving God.