Author's Preface
Present Tense
A Mennonite Spirituality

Gordon Houser

Present

This book tries to pay attention to language, so let’s begin by attending to the title. The first word of the title presents (pun intended) many meanings. Webster’s Dictionary (11th. ed.) lists four categories, each with multiple definitions: 

(1) noun: a gift, something presented; (2) verb: to introduce someone or something to others; to make a gift to; to give or bestow formally; to bring before the public (as in a court of law); to nominate; to show or bring to one’s attention; to perform; to aim, point or direct so as to face something or in a particular direction; (3) adjective: now existing or in progress, being in view or at hand, constituting the one at hand or being considered, constituting a verb tense expressive of present time or the time of speaking; (4) noun: the present words or statements, the present tense of a language, the present time (now).

Okay, many of you are not into reading dictionary definitions (which, by the way, I’ve shortened). I realize I’m odd (“differing markedly from the normal or ordinary or expected”) in that I enjoy exploring language.

Along the way, I’ll interject elements of my life story or experience. This provides a way for you to understand where I’m coming from, my bias, my point of view. It also acknowledges that we come to a topic, to a book (whether as readers or as the writer), with certain biases or assumptions that have developed out of our experiences.

So here’s one of mine: Toward the end of my five-year college career (at four different schools) I decided to major in linguistics, which is the study of language. I began college interested in forestry. Soon I realized that interest had more to do with a love of the outdoors and romantic inclinations about nature than the nitty-gritty of caring for and measuring the potential board feet of trees. I transferred to a Bible college, where I fell in love with the study of Scripture.
My poor father, who with each change of school (and major) asked me, “What are you going to do with that?” He had come of age during the Depression, when you clawed for whatever job you could find. He had no luxury of choosing a career. Now here I was, pursuing something useless. Did I want to be a minister? he asked. No. I just enjoyed learning about the Bible—its meaning, history, and how it might be useful in living life.

After a year and a half, when a new school president came to power and wanted to enforce belief and restrict freedom of study, half the faculty and half the student body (including me) left. I transferred to Wichita (Kan.) State University. I had to declare a major if I was to graduate. I had studied New Testament Greek (called koiné) and found I loved language study. WSU offered a major in linguistics, so I chose that.

What? my father wondered. But by now he had given up my getting a degree in something useful. He just wanted me to get a degree, something he did not have the opportunity to obtain.

The linguistics program involved taking courses in various departments: English (where it was housed), psychology, philosophy, sociology, and foreign languages. This appealed to my eclectic interests and showed that language is at the heart of many disciplines. To these I would add the study of Christian spirituality, which is, I suppose, the category under which the book you’re reading falls.

All of which is to say that I come with a love of language and a conviction about its importance in understanding one another and in living meaningful lives as Christians. Though I’m not a theologian, I like Gerald O’Collins’ definition: “A theologian is someone who watches their language in the presence of God.”
Let’s go back to those definitions of “present.” The title uses the word in the sense of definitions three and four, specifically the present tense of a language. But this book explores other meanings as well, including gift, the presence of a Person and the present time—now.

I love to play with language (just ask my friends and colleagues who groan at my puns), and I encourage not only clarity but multiple meanings and connotations of words. So if you see the word present and drift off into memories of an early birthday present (I think of my first bicycle) that was of particular importance to you, I will not be disappointed. Or if you think of campesinos in a Salvadoran village who remember friends and relatives killed by paramilitary (or military) men and call out when hearing their names, Presente!—I will not be disappointed. Better yet, if these various connotations combine with the idea of (and the desire to practice) living in the present, I will be glad.

Tense

Webster’s offers three categories in defining “tense”: 

(1) noun: a distinction of form in a verb to express distinctions of time or duration of the action or state it denotes; (2) adjective: stretched tight, feeling or showing nervous tension, marked by strain or suspense; (3) verb: to make tense.

Ostensibly, the word in the title adopts the first definition above and comes from grammar (which I enjoy). However, as with “present,” I have multiple meanings and connotations in mind.

I hope in this book to address the tension many of us feel in our lives. Such tension arises from the many demands on our time and attention, the frenetic pace of life in our society, the bombardment of media—much of it calling us to participate in a deadening consumerism, purchasing products we don’t need. This tension affects us physically, psychologically and spiritually (more on that term later). It creates conflicts both internal and external.

I also hope to address the dynamic tension of living between opposite poles of belief and action. Another tension is between acknowledging what is, how things are, and encouraging change for the better. Related to this is the attempt to be descriptive and prescriptive (more on that under “Mennonite”).

In my work as an editor I pay attention to how writers use tense. A basic rule is to be consistent. Some writers flit between past tense and present tense without realizing it. And reporters often use past tense without establishing a time for the event. Such inattention to tense can create confusion in the reader—or at least can hinder clarity. If she “said” something, when did she say it? If she “says” it, then it must be an ongoing option.

Tense applies as well to how we live our lives. Do we live with regret or nostalgia, wishing we could go back either to change an occurrence or to enjoy it? Or do we live in longing for a future when things will be better? Or do we worry about what will happen?

This book calls us (I include myself) to live as fully as we can in the present tense. I hope to explore why that is so difficult and how we might do that better.

A

The shortest word in the title—and the most common—is perhaps the most significant. This simple, one-letter article is both limiting and delimiting. It is only one yet one of many possible ones.

This book represents a (not the) Mennonite spirituality. It is my observation and opinion. It offers my limited perspective.

Mennonites who read this will at points recognize what I describe but at many points will say, No way. That’s not true.

This is significant for at least three reasons.
First, it indicates that “Mennonite” refers to a variegated, complex group of people who practice their spirituality in many, various ways. While I contend there are characteristics that apply to most Mennonites, none them applies to all Mennonites.

Second, it shows that this is one person’s point of view. It hints at the postmodern perspective that we come to texts—either as readers or as creators—from our specific points of view. My take will not be the same as another’s. This begs the question, Who am I to write such a book? It’s merely an offering from one who has observed the wider Mennonite church for more than thirty years as a journalist while also being actively involved in a Mennonite congregation.

Third, I hope this “a” demonstrates one important aspect of Mennonite spirituality: humility, an imprecise word. I’m neither a sociologist nor a holy person. I’m just another voice. And I hope it’s not a pretentious or preachy voice but instead a confessional one. As I’ll say in more detail later, Mennonites have a knack for humility but don’t do confession well. And, as I’ll also explain later, both humility and confession are closely followed by their conniving twin: pride. Drawing attention to our humility or confession of sin is not a mark of holiness but a trait of our celebrity culture. You’ll soon learn I’m no celebrity and don’t have much to say that titillating.

Why write it then? In short, as the scorpion said to the Buddhist monk that carried it across the river to safety before it stung him, It’s what I do.

Mennonite

Many Mennonites have had an experience like this: You meet a stranger, perhaps your seatmate on a flight, and as you chat, the person learns you call yourself a Mennonite. The person gives you a quizzical look, and you rehearse your explanation of why you are on a plane instead of in a buggy and wearing chinos and a polo shirt instead of black pants, suspenders, and a wide-brimmed straw hat.

Perhaps you begin by downplaying the distinctions you’re secretly proud of, saying, “Mennonites are Christians and live like everyone else,” which is more true than you want it to be, since Mennonites are supposed to be different, to live exemplary lives. You mention that Mennonites believe in peace (maybe you even say you’re pacifists) and in community. You also believe in voluntary church membership and thus adult baptism. All this while you’re watching the other person for signs of boredom because you don’t want to appear boastful (though secretly you do want to boast) and you don’t want to appear coercive, which would go against your beliefs.

If the person does look bored, you stop talking, though you feel hurt because being Mennonite is important to you. At heart, it’s more important than being (to get personal) a film buff, a KU (Kansas University) basketball fan, a Democrat, or a listener of Sixties pop music, especially the Beatles, though these would be more understandable to the person you’re talking to.

Mennonites, like many people, I imagine, love to discuss their identity. Whenever the magazine I work for publishes an article on what it means to be Mennonite, we’re sure to get several letters, each offering a different take on this important topic. And though humility is one trait most Mennonites agree is crucial, we’re pretty self-centered. We even divide the world into Mennonites and non-Mennonites, though we make up less than 0.016 percent of the world’s population. But I imagine Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Presbyterians do the same thing.

If that person on the plane shows interest in learning more about Mennonites, you may refer to the beginning of your group in sixteenth-century Europe. You may explain that Mennonites got their name from an ex-Catholic priest in the Netherlands named Menno Simons, who helped galvanize Anabaptists after the debacle at Münster. Now you have to explain that Anabaptists—so named because they believed people should choose to be baptized, and since every citizen of the state was baptized into the state church, being baptized as an adult meant they were “baptized again” (the meaning of Ana-baptist)—broke away not only from the Roman Catholic Church but from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and other Reformers because they believed the church should be a voluntary association, not state-controlled, and thus that members of the church joined by voluntary baptism. They also believed that followers of Jesus Christ should not “wield the sword” against anyone, even enemies of the state (which was also the church, Catholic or Protestant), which at that time were the feared Turks.

Such beliefs did not endear them to state-church authorities, particularly when they acted on those beliefs by not baptizing their infant children (and thus reducing the number of people on the tax rolls). And refusing to fight the Turks was treasonous. So the authorities tried to stop this growing movement by arresting and often killing its followers—a few at first, then more and more. But the more they killed, the more people joined the movement. “Anabaptist” was a perjorative name given them by those who opposed them. They called themselves “nachfolgen Christi” (followers of Christ), since they saw that no one could truly know Christ unless they followed him in life. (More on that in Chapter One.)

If you’ve gotten this far, your seatmate is either unusually curious or too nice to turn away and read his or her book. For now, I’ll end this imagined scene and simply address you, dear reader. If you are not acquainted with Mennonites, perhaps you’ll find it interesting. If you are a Mennonite or acquainted with them, perhaps you’ll want to argue with my description.

To return briefly to Mennonites’ origins in the Anabaptist movement, let me caution that this movement, according to Mennonite scholar C. Arnold Snyder, “was a spontaneous, decentralized, grass-roots, underground movement of spiritual renewal and biblical reform, carried forward by ‘common people’ of no particular theological expertise” (Following in the Footsteps of Christ: The Anabaptist Tradition).

This reflects a theme of this book, that though I present a fairly simple approach to practicing Mennonite spirituality, that spirituality is complex, as is the world in which we live it out.

A turning point in this amorphous movement occurred in 1534, nine years after the movement’s recognized beginning in 1525. Anabaptists in Münster, Germany, used violent measures to try to establish a kingdom and overthrow the local authorities. They proclaimed Münster the “new Jerusalem,” and many Anabaptists flocked there, believing Christ’s kingdom was about to be established. However, the local Catholic bishop organized an armed force that laid siege to the town. Finally, on June 25, 1535, the bishop’s army gained entrance, and in the ensuing battle, many Anabaptists were killed, and their leaders were captured, tortured and displayed (see Through Fire and Water: An Overview of Mennonite History).

After Münster, persecution of Anabaptists increased. Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in Holland, joined the movement and helped return it to its earlier ideals and distinguish it from the violence at Münster. These peaceful Anabaptists were later called “Mennists,” and still later Mennonites. Eventually the Swiss and South German Anabaptists adopted that name as well. Menno wrote extensively and greatly influenced the burgeoning movement.

Over the next several centuries, Mennonites moved around Europe until they found places of refuge from persecution. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, German and Swiss Mennonites migrated to America and settled in Pennsylvania. Others found a haven in Catherine’s Russia, where they could live in peace, grow their Turkey Red wheat and not face conscription into the army. Eventually Russia changed its mind, however, and in the 1870s, many of these “Russian Mennonites” (though German-speaking) migrated to America and settled in Kansas. Later, some of these moved north, stopping to reside in Nebraska, South Dakota and Manitoba, Canada. Other immigrations occurred in the twentieth century, particularly in the 1920s and 1940s.

Besides the Bible, one of the most important and popular books for Mennonites has been Martyrs’ Mirror, a massive collection of early Christian and Anabaptist martyr stories. Originally written in Dutch, it was later translated into German, then English and many other languages. These stories of martyrs (the word means witnesses) have had a profound effect on Mennonite identity. They’ve reinforced Mennonite beliefs in “nonresistance” (more on that in Chapter Three), offering examples of people who remained faithful to Christ and died rather than fight back. This experience also likely reinforced Mennonites becoming “die Stille im Lande” (the quiet in the land). They tended to migrate to places where they could live peacefully, do their work and not bother anyone.

Today, Mennonites who want to promote evangelism and mission decry this trait, calling it an unhealthy timidity. Beginning around the turn of the twentieth century, however, Mennonites did embark on missions, with workers going to India, China, and Native American tribes. More than a century later, Mennonites are growing fastest in Africa, South America, and Asia. In fact (and I usually try to get this into the conversation with my seatmate), the country with the second largest number of Mennonites is the Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia is moving up quickly.

So Mennonites are diverse, living in all parts of the world and practicing their faith in a variety of ways.

Webster’s eleventh edition calls a Mennonite “a member of any various Protestant groups derived from the Anabaptist movement in Holland and characterized by congregational autonomy and rejection of military service.” Despite the limitations of this, it’s better than some older dictionary definitions that call Mennonites a “sect,” which makes Mennonites cringe almost as much as that word’s near homonym, “sex.” Like other churches or denominations, Mennonites do not see themselves as schismatic, extreme, or heretical, part of the dictionary’s definition of “sect.” Instead they see themselves reflecting more faithfully than most the teachings of Christ. I suppose most members of any religious group feel their group is the most faithful; otherwise they’d leave.

Snyder and others argue that Anabaptists were neither Catholic nor Protestant but developed distinct beliefs and practices. An early Hutterite document noted that “Luther and Zwingli exposed all the deception and villainy of the pope, . . . but they put nothing better in its place.”

Today, Mennonites are in conversations with Catholics and Lutherans, who have apologized for killing Anabaptists (though the Augsburg Confession still damns them). And many Mennonites are learning from and being influenced by other Christian groups (more on that later), and these groups are often attracted to Mennonites’ long peace tradition.

All of which is to say that the term Mennonite has definite characteristics yet is also fluid, ever changing.

Why do I use “Mennonite” instead of “Anabaptist” in my title? The short answer: I call myself a Mennonite and am most familiar with that group. Anabaptists include other groups (Brethren, Hutterites, and others) with which I’m less familiar. Some Mennonites prefer the term Anabaptist because Mennonite carries ethnic identity overtones. Then again, some who hear the word Anabaptist ask, “What you got against Baptists?”

I also use Mennonite broadly at times (there are more than a million in the world, from ninety-five denominations). Yet I am most familiar with my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, which is the largest Mennonite denomination and diverse in its own way. Still, it is also limited in its viewpoint and experience. I don’t write out of the context of Congolese or Colombian or Chinese Mennonites, though I feel kinship with them and may refer to their experience. I write as an American, a white male with some education. So I come to the page from a position of privilege. But I also come as a Mennonite.

Spirituality

Okay, I admit it: While “spirituality” is overused, misunderstood, and used in wildly different ways, it looks cool in a title. But it’s also an important concept that can help us live out our Christian practice and follow the way of the Spirit (one meaning of the word).

Many fine writers have eloquently addressed the meaning of “spirituality.” Let me mention three—a Catholic, an evangelical, and a Mennonite, respectively.
Richard J. Woods calls spirituality “the intrinsic, self-transcending character of all human persons and everything that pertains to it, including, most importantly, the ways in which that perhaps infinitely malleable character is realized concretely in everyday life situations” (from Christian Spirituality: God’s Presence Through the Ages). This is a mouthful, not least due to that pretentious word “persons,” which people (not persons) love to use. But the point he makes is a good one: that spirituality is an aspect of everyone and shows up in everyday life. It’s not some airy-fairy bliss or something only done on your yoga mat to the scent of incense or while sitting in a church or temple. Later he says it is “primarily concrete and real.” I like that.

Woods also draws out “spirit” from the word, which he says refers to “the essential human capacity to receive and transmit the life of God, our unlimited openness to being, life and conscious relationship.” In a footnote he quotes William Stringfellow about the holistic nature of spirituality: “biblical spirituality encompasses the whole person in the totality of existence in the world, not some fragment or scrap or incident of a person.”

Eugene H. Peterson prefers “spiritual theology,” which he describes as “the attention that we give to the details of living life on this way [the Jesus-revealed Way]. It is a protest against the theology depersonalized into information about God; it is a protest against theology functionalized into a program of strategic plan for God” (from Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology). In other words, spirituality is about living, not just thinking or strategizing.

The problem with popular spirituality, Peterson writes, is that everyone is left “to make up a spirituality that suits herself or himself.” But leaving us on our own leaves us “prone to addictions, broken relationships, isolation and violence.” Peterson adopts spiritual theology because “‘spiritual’ keeps ‘theology’ from degenerating into merely thinking and talking and writing about God at a distance. ‘Theology’ keeps ‘spiritual’ from becoming merely thinking and talking and writing about the feelings and thoughts one has about God.” Spirituality, then, is to be lived and to connect with God’s life among us.

C. Arnold Snyder writes that “in the Christian tradition the ‘life of the spirit’ has always been understood to extend beyond the ‘inner-looking’ activities of prayer, meditation and contemplation” (see Following in the Footsteps of Christ). He quotes Philip Sheldrake in describing such spirituality as “the whole of human life, viewed in terms of a conscious relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and within a community of believers.” Thus the major traits of spirituality include the inner and outer lives of Christians—their contemplative and active lives—in the context of the Trinity and the Christian community.

I like the points these writers make. And when I use “spirituality,” I’d like you to pay attention to the first half of the word, the first six letters: s-p-i-r-i-t. It refers to living in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. It means following the leading of the Spirit. And remember that in the Bible, the word for “spirit” (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek) can be translated “breath” or “wind” as well. I will emphasize the importance of breath in our living spiritually. And wind will help us better understand the importance of letting be and being carried. (Be assured, I’ve lived my life in Kansas; I know about wind.)

Too many people place attention on the first three-fourths of the word, the first nine letters: s-p-i-r-i-t-u-a-l. That’s not so bad, except they often equate that with “incorporeal,” or non-body. This then leads too often to a denigration of the body as unimportant, an attitude more Gnostic than Christian. I’ll say more about this later, but for now let me emphasize that we are not spirits trapped in bodies; we are bodies. God created the world and its creatures, including flesh, and God said, “It is good” (Gen. 1:31). Spirituality is about how we live as bodies, not how we escape our bodies.

To summarize, then, this book is about living in each moment amid the tensions within and around us, and it is one Mennonite’s description of how Mennonites live their lives in the Spirit and a prescription of how they (and you) might better live their (your) lives in the Spirit.

Each page is penned prayerfully, in hope that you, dear reader, will ponder each page prayerfully.

—Gordon Houser
Newton, Kansas

 

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