One day, either four or five years ago, Marcus Knolt and his family pulled up to a church in Athens Wisconsin in their horse and buggy. It was the Athens Mennonite Church, not to be mistaken for the Church of Athens next door. It was not an Old Order church, nor Amish, none of their member any longer used a horse and buggy. Now, there everyone drove some description of, ideally, a drab, dark colored vehicle with no chrome, or, for some who insisted upon being a little different, or the price was right, white or gray would be allowed. The Church of Athens had broken away from Athens Mennonite Church some 13 years prior for several reasons, the paramount one being that a newcomer, someone who wished to join the church, desired to add the component of a mustache to his facial profile. This man did not necessarily need any more hair on his face for reasons such as Marcus Knolt might have. Marcus may have appreciated the liberty to have all the hair on his face nature would allow those days while rolling to church when a freezing, twenty mile an hour wind was blowing through his buggy front, but this time the Athens Mennonite Church was faced with a fellow who felt he should be free in the Lord to either have or not to have whatever facial hair the Lord might have for him whether he needed it or not, and for him this included a mustache. The elders atthe church couldn't see fit for the Lord to allow him to do that, so the fracture was consumated, and with their newly claimed liberty to grow facial hair unabated, they built their new church three times the size of the first, right next door to it, and life went on.
Marcus and his family, on the other hand, were allowed to join in spite of the initial imputation of them clinging to their horse and buggy for their salvation, at best being very much a sort of oddity, and eventually, skeptically, were given their own new hitching post for which to tie their faithful old Standardbred cart horse to on Sunday mornings. They were claimed as a sort of prize wrestled away from the old order traditions just down the road in almost every direction, and it would be only a matter of time before they were talked out of their horse and buggy. Of course, showing up in a horse and buggy seemed like going in reverse to many of the newly converted Conservative Mennonites – many of them had grown up riding in a horse and buggy and had come out of the older Old Order Mennonite setting, some even from the Amish. This horse and buggy stuff seemed like a step in the wrong direction. Maybe even a blackslide. And after all, who could resist? He was free no - at last, to drive a car. That seemed like a splendid prospect that surely no one would not jump at, given the Northern Wisconsin weather and the long, rural highways. He could now drive in a car – as long it was of a darker color and had no chrome on the bumper or hub caps. But this didn’t seem attractive to Marcus. He had always driven a horse and buggy, and on top of that, like his kin, he still felt fine in it. He owned a successful cider juicing business, probably seldom had ever been in a tremendous hurry to get anywhere, and saw no reason to change modes of getting from one place to the next after all. He simply preferred his horse and buggy, was used to it, and wanted to keep on with it. After a few brothers meetings, the brothers started to understand this. To these same brothers whom I had been fellowshipping with for five years, my two riding horses were neither any longer necessary. “Don’t you use those mainly for recreation”? "Don't they just mainly stand around eating hay?". They thought they had me cornered now. True, they would say, riding horses were just a luxury now and a only a waste of time and money. “Well”, I would say, “I decided I had better keep a couple around . . . just in case the Amish are right”. Oooo . . . whoa. Invariably a moment or two of silence would lapse before the lips at the edge of their mouths would turn up, and they would burst open with laughter. Those whom I delivered the joke to could usually understand irony. They would figure I was making fun of the Amish . . . and most of the time, a few moments later, realize that I was making an argument that they, themselves understood, and that I was poking fun at them.When I would end by telling them that I was also a farrier, the silence would return and reflections on how far they had traveled from the ways of their parents and grandparents would fascinate them.
What in the world was I getting at . . . yeah. I was at my neighbors a mile and a half down the road today. He had been excommunicated about 9 months ago from the local Mennonite church I had fellowshipped with for five years (ending, roughly three years ago). His family had been with the Mennonites for at least 25 years. He is a pharmacist and his wife and he are master farmer/gardeners, and mighty good parents. They hitched up with the Mennonite church originally 25 years ago to sort of withdraw from the larger society – it was my impression anyway. But too, they were looking for something a little more in the way of honoring the Lord than what they were seeing in the average denomination. Two of their 7 children had reached adulthood and left the denomination, three had not, with the youngest two still undecided. On the way there, I passed another Mennonite neighbor. He was the cabinet maker/construction contractor who helped me rebuild my newly purchased house. His son was accused of being a bad influence on the son of the one who had recently been excommunicated. I had to go see the pharmacist for used egg cartons because the Mennonite neighbor across the street, my third Mennonite neighbor, has stopped returning egg cartons which I am taking as a hint that he would rather not trade eggs for milk anymore. The reason I am taking that as a hint, rather than as simply him forgetting that I am finally out of egg cartons, is that, since they have been excommunicating so many congregants there recently for disproportionately minor infractions (and 'they' includes 'him', as he was ordained about two years ago and now shares in the plural ministry of the church there) – proposing that they will withhold their salvation from them until they come crawling back, truly, as much as I love raw milk, my spirit has grown weary of them. No, it's come to be mildly disgusted with them - sorry.
We had open adult Sunday School at the Gleason Mennonite Church. It was the hour before the main service. Just like the church sign out front that said "All are Welcome", all are also welcome to speak up in church, if you dare, and join in the Sunday School discussion. I carefully gratiated myself of the offer on a mission to accomplish nothing more than to get better at it. As a nonmember I was surprised and edified by how well my not-so-traditional participation was received, and I feel as though I benefited personally very much by being able to exercise and grow in the process of doing so. It was a very exciting and educational five years. 5 years is a long time. I have many priceless stories to tell of my searching scripture with them. I was considered a brother and a friend in the Lord. But, my agenda was different than their's. I was not only trying to grow spiritually, as a Christian and as a person, and they graciously afforded me their own knowledge of the the bible and the church setting as a means with which to accomplish that, but I had a larger agenda: I was trying to figure out how we could all exist within the same Spirit with one another, in spite of our traditionally Spirit fracturing differences in church doctrine. I was trying to grow up together with them into one body, one mind in the Lord, whereas, I felt as though they were trying to grow up into a denomination that was a better nation of Israel than the nation of Israel was. It was truly wearing me out. Now, mind you, I had been to virtually every one of the twenty some families for Sunday lunch, sometimes supper, several times, not to mention many extracurricular get togethers, and had each one over to my place for lunch, some twice, as well. Those were big lunches at my place. There were families of 10-13 kids, and a couple older couples or single people at the same time, and my daughter and I. My daughter had spent many long days and even a few nights at many of their homes during a period of five years. We were considered one of them. I was the only dad in the church, perhaps the denomination, who had sewn a daughters dress from scratch, and one that looked great. I was in. I was a brother and a friend. I was a confidant to the church elders. It was exciting. It was a history lesson and a lesson in contemporary church politics, all in one. But it was hard. Their doctrine is challenging. As my daughter's eighth grade graduation was approaching, and we were faced with having to either join (in which case I would not be using the internet right now) or move on, there were several of their teachings that were bearing down on me. We had never intended to stay as a part of the denomination, but it was now coming to the place where I would be leaving either graciously, or in a way that might not be perceived as being so gracious. Since I did not intend for this to be a long post, I will pick one problematic area, now, and get toward the end of this post.
One Sunday, as usual, the service came to a close. Everyone, as always, stood up to socialize and began by greeting each other with a "holy kiss", usually on the lips - men to men, and women to women (I was not a member so I was not extended the privilege to do this - for which I am still very grateful), when, I turned around to two of my dear friends in particular whom I sat in front of many Sundays, and said "I feel as though I have been sitting in a Jewish tabernacle this morning". Heads sort of cocked to an inquisitive change of position, lips repositioning themselves, while they waited for me to explain such an odd remark. I said,"no one would have been run out of the tabernacle for anything that was said here this morning. Jesus said the day will come when you will be run out of the tabernacle. therre was no risk of anything like that happening here today, and I don't think that is a good thing". I said,"For starter, the name of the Lord was not mentioned. The Law, and the prophets, but not the name of the Lord". This was not well received; yet, it was the case. I was wearying of being taught to be a better Jew - the new nation of Israel. There was only one, only the original, and Christ had done away with the old and was trying to make that one a new spiritual creation in Him - One Spirit, one faith, one Body. One.
Fast forward to this morning. For better or for worse, I had not gotten quite get the kind of nights sleep I needed with which to be ready to tell my friend, brother, neighbor - the excommunicated pharmacist, what I needed to. That is, that now that he was booted out of his church - however temporary, he was still o.k., and, he didn't have to change a thing. He just needed to keep being the sort of Christian he was. He didn't need the Mennonites permission to continue to wear his "plain coat" (lapel folded together and buttoned at the top) if he, so, still desired. Or for his wife to cover her head as her own conviction before the Lord to honor Him, just as the tradition of doing so has been established in scripture. The Mennonites and Amish do not own the "head covering". "Jim!!!" . . . , I needed to say, "just be who you are", we need you. We need all Christians, and for them to just be who they are (pardon me while I emphasize what I am about to say) APART FROM THEIR DENOMINATION, JIM! Just be who you are standing alone before the Lord, like the rest of us are, Jim, together. Don't change a thing. (Watch your ears now) YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN, JUST BE THE ONE YOU ARE. Just be the kind of Christian you are. Don't go crawling back on your hands and knees, just because your socks weren't dark enough, or whatever else they busted you for, because, you are a Christian and we need you out here just the way you are. Do I have to beg here? Your family was a blessing to my daughter and I. And they are now. You taught us how to raise meat birds, you are brilliant in your own way, you have nearly a photographic memory, you can picture the molecular structure of nearly every element in the periodic table, and nearly every drug in the Merck Manual, and even though it has all come to grief now, Jim (except for your beautiful spirit), with your Lover the church, I saw you Jim, and I saw the Lord in you as well. A couple times, you got out of the way and I saw the Lord in you, Jim, and you got it made. It's made. Your mansion. And I hope it's near mine. And if you could see, brother, that you don't have to change a thing to honor the Lord and edify many of the rest of us. Just keep being the guy you've been for the last 25 years, the odd "plain jacket" with the collar modestly buttoned up to the top, your wife with her God honoring head covering - and dump that denomination of yours, and embrace the rest of the body of Christ, just the way you are, just the way you have been! Jim! I imagine you likely got busted for using the internet (although I'm actually guessing). If that is the case, then think about this. Don't let tradition arrogantly withhold the joy and salvation of the Lord from you, and don't let 'those' who call themselves after the name of a 'man' withhold tradition from you.
There is but one Spirit, one faith - only One, in which we must all find our way, nonexclusive of our petty differences, our likes and dislikes . . . one God, one Spirit, in which we must all meet each other, even find each other. Be careful, because many of us, in the name of our tradition, our denomination, our partiality, would excommunicate each other, given the chance, thinking we are the true remnant, until there is no one left standing.
"Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand." (Rom 14:4 NAS)