This is an independent blog and is not affiliated with any particular church, group or conference. The term Bruderthaler refers to a specific ethnic or cultural Mennonite heritage, not to any particular organized group. All statements and opinions are solely those of the contributor(s). Blog comprises notebook fragments from various research projects and discussions. Dialogue, comment and notice of corrections are welcomed. Much of this content is related to papers and presentations that might be compiled at a future date, as such, this blog serves as a research archive rather than as a publication. 'tag

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Spiritually Restless Holidays

ne jeistlijch Pogge

    Religious traditions and holidays are meant to bind us together – especially in the traditional faiths such as Judaism, Anabaptism, Catholicism and Protestant Lutheranism.  But sometimes the ties that are meant to bind often seem rather to distance us from each other – even within our own faith traditions.
    These days, ethnic Mennonites and Roman Catholics seem to get along quite well.  All four of my sisters married Roman Catholics and the majority of my friends in the Midwest seem to be Roman Catholic (admittedly with many significant exceptions).  In fact, given the dearth of active Mennonites in my age group (being the 20s and 30s), I often find myself fellowshipping or spiritually caucusing with Roman Catholics of my age group. 
    I have already written that the recent elections in the United States were bruisers – ideologically divisive in the extreme – especially within the Catholic parishes which are now just as split politically as their Anabaptist counterparts – a relatively new phenomenon for a religious electorate that has often been noted for its cohesive unity.  Many of my Catholic friends are considering changing parishes or redefining their religious identity.
    Understanding the split within my own family between Social Progressive elements and the Fundamentalists and that we no longer even celebrate holidays together, many non-Mennonites have asked me why I continue to identify as Mennonite as why don’t just give up on the family.
    The answer is simply that while Anabaptists remain a relatively united ethnic religion, we are in fact about as diverse politically and spiritually as one can find outside of the Jewish culture.  One of my greatest frustrations – past Mennonite treatment of my non-Mennonite mother, actually reflects one of our greatest strengths.  Ethnic Mennonites such as my father provide stability, context and an historical perspective to the church and ethnic group while adult converts from other backgrounds tend to provide the enthusiasm, the energy and the vital faith that reenergizes the ethnic pact generation after generation.  This is a lesson shared with the faculty and leadership of Grace University in Omaha who recognize that while the school seldom identifies as Mennonite any longer, it is the old Mennonite families and churches that continue to imbibe Grace with a depth of support and heritage.  To this day, many of the multi-generational, multi-unit (meaning cousins and cousins) families at the University are of some sort of Mennonite derivation.  Conservative or progressive, liberal or fundamentalist, all Mennonite-derived or affiliated congregations tend to share these two pillars of strength and identity.

    On the other hand, the Mennonites and even the Amish are incredibly diverse.  No matter what your issue or interest, you are likely to find fellowship and camaraderie somewhere within the diaspora.  We lack a Vatican, or even a unifying synod.  We just are and no one can claim to speak for all of us (though MC-USA often seems determined to try – just noting).
    As for past sins and disagreements – we have had generations of them.  Yet, we have always understood that we are stronger because of what unites us than we are weakened by that which divides us.  It is true.  Besides, all Mennonites are far too stubborn to just quit the ethnicity and allow the other side to dominate the definition as to who is the ‘real’ or ‘better’ Mennonite.  Even the proudest Amisher seems to back down in noting the divide between Mennonite and Amish when it comes to potentially surrendering the Anabaptist title to the opposing side.
    As for me, many friends have also asked if I have ever considered stopping being Mennonite – “how would that even work?” is my confused reply.  “Can you just stop being who you are?”
    You see, being Mennonite, or even Amish, is arguably a decision entered into as an adult.  But, what are the alternatives?  Do you just press ‘stop’ or ‘pause’ on your upbringing, your genealogy, even the way you think and discuss?  It is unlikely that one even can.
    The documentary on the Amish, The Devil’s Playground or Rumspringa, follows several youth on their journey of self-discovery and identity-building.  One thing that stands out is that even for those who choose to remain apart from the church, they are forever ethnically Amish – even the ones who ‘fail’ and are not able to join or are banned.  They are still defined strongly by the nature and character of their relationship to the core of their ethnicity – whether for the good or the bad.
    Nor is one’s national ethnicity all that different – it is an adult that one registers with Selective Service, is empowered to vote and when appropriate, is required to decide on one’s nationality (for those with other options, one is still seemingly encouraged to “choose one” when one turns 18).  All of these actions are a form of “choosing to self-identify” with one’s national ethnicity as an adult.  There is actually very little practical difference in registering with Selective Service or gaining a passport and joining a church – though establishing an alternative is arguably somewhat more difficult.  These are all comparable rites of passage by which ethnic and social identity are established, conferred and proclaimed – and they are all age-dependent. 
    So once a Mennonite, always a Mennonite, and thanks be to Him or Her that we are diverse enough to handle this identity in all of its diversity.
    As for the deeper challenges – such as what happened to my mother, they are indeed very painful, but that pain only makes sense within the context of our shared Mennonite culture, and the only hope for eventual resolution is through that identity.  If nothing else, the relatives of the victims of such pain incur a moral obligation and witness to intervene and prevent the repetition of such cultural failings within our communal identity structure against others.
    I greatly enjoy my fellowship with Roman Catholic parishes, and while quite honestly, I also enjoy taking a break from the Mennonite forms and context, I am aware that the peace and respite I enjoy from that fellowship is vital and true, but often borrowed.  At some point, one still has to go home, do one’s own dishes, feed one’s own cattle and take out one’s own garbage.  One simply cannot coast on the cultural success and peace of others. 
    There is a phenomenon amongst the Mennonites that is quite common to all open congregations of low church fellowships – that of church hopping.  While there is nothing amoral or immoral about such practices, and indeed such experiences might teach one to respect diversity and tolerance, it also seems shallow and spiritually immature.  My experience has been that many church hoppers are either attention seekers or those who are running from issues in their church and personal lives.  Instead of resolving those issues, many choose to run from them.  While taking a break, enjoying a respite or creating distance from negative persons, experiences or events can be quite healthy, one often finds oneself eventually having to deal with similar or even quite different but equally negative persons, experiences and innate cultural failings in the new fellowship or congregation.  At some point, one needs to learn coping skills and how to overcome.
Church Hoppers courtesy
    As for me, while I have taken my share of breaks and created more than my fair share of distances, I have also found that it is usually much easier to deal with the people that you know in the context in which you grew up and matured and for the preservation of an identity that unites you with your neighbors and generations of family.  There is no place as frustrating or as rewarding as home.
    As for my own family, could it be that I do not practice what I preach?
    Possibly; even probably, I suppose.  At the same time, the greatest obstacle that my immediate family faces is that we no longer have access to that common multi-generational, geographically inclusive context.  You see, since my mother’s death, we have all left our home culture and gone church hopping, for various reasons.  While I have always retained my Mennonite identity and reconnected with my heritage intellectually, academically and culturally, none of my sisters, all who have married outside the church, have made similar apparent commitments.  Each of us has gone our own way and we have given up a common cultural context for dialogue, fellowship and inter-generational relating.  While we could quite easily revert back to the culture of our ethnicity and our childhood, each of us is presently busily pursuing alternatives that are not shared with any other of the siblings and are somewhat blocked by new personal and family relationships that we have since established under the premise of not honoring our previous cultural, ethnic and faith unity.  The price for such independence is loss of context, loss of dialogue and loss of relationship.
    So what is to be done?  I am not sure, but I might take a pointer from my mother’s Swedish aunt who stated firmly that while the (Swedish) side of the family has seen many members leave for and immigrate to the United States, Australia and even, God forbid, Norway, those who have remained behind have always left the door open for their return.  In fact, that is the lesson behind the kitschy plastic candlesticks often found in Scandinavian windows – a light is always left burning to guide the others home whenever it is that they will return.  The rest is up to God. 
    Margretta is pretty smart, for a non-Mennonite, don’t ya think, ja?

    Happy Holidays!

    ‘tag – Bruderthaler.

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