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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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).
fine writers have eloquently addressed the meaning of “spirituality.”
Let me mention three—a Catholic, an evangelical, and a Mennonite,
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Copyright © 2011 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC