My Anabaptist "Vision," Tom A Stinson, April 1999 (United States)
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My "vision" of what it means to be Mennonite, or better yet Anabaptist, has been greatly shaped outside of the Mennonite church. Only recently have I begun to consider myself in some way Mennonite beyond my attendance at a Mennonite church. Connected with this identity is an understanding of the meaning I attribute to being Mennonite. Several specific characteristics and attitudes hold meaning for me as a Mennonite, which include a strong sense of community, believer's baptism, a simple lifestyle, and an emphasis on peace and social justice issues.
I am a late comer to Mennonite circles in some respects. The first church I remember attending was a Methodist church, and only faint images remain in my mind. Any influence this particular Methodist church had on me came indirectly through my parents, and I do not think I could pinpoint any noticeable characteristics that have remained with me. Soon, we started attending a much smaller non-denominational church. Given the small size of the congregation my parents soon became very involved in the life of the congregation. The smallness of the congregation contributed to a strong sense of connectedness that was not evident in the previous church. I remember the people as being very committed to each other and to following Christ's example, as well as an emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit in individual lives.
Jumping ahead a few years, the congregation began to grow and needed to add on a new sanctuary, which my father, an electrical engineer, helped design the electrical system for. The need for a new pastor also arose and we found an African-American man for the job. He was a very charismatic preacher, teacher, and leader. The church continued to grow, and had a very good mix of whites and African-Americans. Reflecting back on this fact now helps me understand my universal acceptance of those with darker skin than mine. The presence of African-Americans certainly informed my current understanding of community.
The presence of the Spirit within the context of community strikes me as very important, and I attribute this fact both to my past experiences and my understanding of Anabaptist beginnings. I closely relate to the early Anabaptists' desire to read Scripture, worship, and pray together.
I was baptized when I was eight years old into the non-denominational church I mentioned above. The event remains strongly imprinted in my mind as very significant. I have the feeling that many Mennonites would consider eight years old too young to be baptized, but for me I remember understanding what was going on and the commitment I was making. I fully agree with the common Mennonite belief that one should have an understanding of what they are committing to when they are baptized, but feel that perhaps younger people may be excluded in some cases from the greater community simply because they have yet to be baptized. The importance of younger people cannot be overlooked in the life of the congregation. A person should be free to receive baptism when they are ready to do so and when they have a good understanding of the commitment it symbolizes.
It could be argued successfully that many Mennonites do not maintain relatively simple lifestyles particularly in regards to money. However, something unique in the Mennonite reading of the gospel appears to point to such a lifestyle. Before I really knew much about Mennonite theology, the ideal of simple living stuck out to me in my own understanding of the gospel. I remember hearing stories of people of faith who were unconcerned with material gain, and something about their lives appealed to me. I am beginning to realize that my own personal convictions regarding money and material gain are realities in the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition.
Peace and Social Justice Stance and Discipleship
Faith that permeates all aspects of life has been central to my understanding of God's working in the lives of people. Such a faith is necessarily exhibited in actions. A full realization of the entirety of such a faith has been a process for me. This process has resulted in a paradigm shift from "saving souls" to meeting both the physical and spiritual needs of people. The two-kingdom theology we discussed in class plays a role here. Some people would separate entirely the physical and spiritual realms, with the physical as the kingdom of the world and the spiritual as the kingdom of God. Schleitheim could be interpreted in such a way, but the lives of early Anabaptists seem to display otherwise. Their faith held very real significance in the physical realm as evidenced in the idea of mutual aid and avoidance of participating in violence.
Today many Mennonites are committed to both of the above-mentioned examples, but their convictions have expanded to include activism in regards to peace and social justice issues. My understanding of the kingdom of God favors this development, but I fear often times the spiritual aspect of our understanding of the kingdom of God has been neglected. The balance between the two is extremely difficult to manage, and this is where the importance of the accountability available in community plays an important role.
Simply improving a person's means of living falls short of Jesus' command to go and make disciples, teaching them everything he commanded. Our lives are to be clear examples in word and deed of Christ's example, and we are to teach other's to live in a similar way. An underlying challenge in this process originates in the cultural baggage we North Americans often attach to the gospel. Such baggage includes things such as traditional Mennonite church services singing in four-part harmony. We must be careful to present our lives as examples of our best understanding of Jesus' teachings, which transcends and yet permeates the cultural aspect of others' lives.
I have focused in this paper on part of my "vision" of the ideals I believe central to my faith and understanding of what it means for me to be a Mennonite. Until recently I would not have really considered myself "Mennonite." However, after walking through the history of Anabaptists and more fully grasping the ideals underlying this history I feel I can call myself "Mennonite" with fewer reservations than ever before. A small tinge of fear still creeps up inside of me when I consider this, but I view this as part of the tension between the ideals of Anabaptism and the reality of how often we Mennonites fall short of these ideals.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.