Last year I had an opportunity to visit eight Mennonite communities in the United States. I talk about it as my get-to-know-the-family tour (I haven’t been a Mennonite for very long). I am discovering that we are quite a diverse denomination. I ended up writing a series of reflections for The Mennonite Weekly Review about my experiences in these different congregations (see the column, Life of the Body).
I ended the column with a summary reflection about what it means to think of Anabaptism as a living tradition in which we can participate by being part of the Mennonite church (among other Anabaptist denominational bodies):
An Anabaptist vision that is simply an essence distilled from various histories turns our tradition into a corpse. Anabaptism as a system of principles ends up killing the past. Once we have a system, we no longer let the twists and turns of our present life give us new ears to hear what we may have missed before. Within a living tradition, old voices are made new as we let our ever-changing world open us to displays of faithfulness from different times and places. Anabaptism comes alive when we locate ourselves within cultures of worship that become spaces where stories can echo back and forth through the ages. (“Faith that lives“–not my chosen title)
Anyhow, that’s were I’ve ended up, at least for now. If you are interested in further thoughts in this direction, I put together a booklet of my reflections. It’s available at the website of the church I’m a part of: CHMF, Mennonites. But I’ll also post it here, if you’re interested:
Isaac Villegas, Life in the Body (2011). (click to download the whole booklet in pdf form)
Below are some passages from the booklet, if you want to get a taste of it to make sure its worth your while.
One of the women asks us as she sits down, “Are you the singing people?” “Yes,” responds Pastor Megan Ramer, “We’re from a Mennonite church nearby.” The woman rests into her chair and sighs, “Oh, that’s good. I always feel better with your singing.” She pauses, and looking around the circle, she says, “You know we’ve missed you.”
As we sing, our lives are drawn together. As we worship God, we rest into the presence of the Holy Spirit. The God who breathed life into the first humans now breathes through our songs, enlivening our spirits with the Spirit of God. Singing is our communion, as we share the same Spirit with each of our breaths — drawing into our bodies the breath that comes with the words from the ones beside us.
“Use us to create a new world on earth,” pastor Sue Conrad prays at the beginning of the worship service. As she speaks from the pulpit, the sounds of the world outside sneak through the open windows: the sound of traffic speeding through the city, the piercing rhythm of a car alarm, fragments of conversations along the sidewalk on the other side of the church wall. The church in this city worships with open windows and doors, welcoming the bustling flow of life on the streets, receiving the world of God.
A discussion of the story of Esther becomes a call to live as the “pueblo de Dios” amidst forces that seek to destroy the church. Haman, the villain in Esther’s story, becomes a name for political leaders and immigration enforcement agents who sever the body of Christ by taking away “los hermanos y hermanas del pueblo que no tienen papeles” — brothers and sisters who are undocumented residents. But, like the Jews in the story of Esther, “tenemos que orar.” We need to pray because some demons require prayer and fasting. Yet no matter what happens, the pueblo of God can have faith “porque tenemos un abogado en el cielo, a la diestra del Padre” — we trust in Jesus Christ, our heavenly immigration attorney, arguing on our behalf, defending our citizenship in the pueblo of God. Among the various metaphors for describing the salvific work of Jesus, we can add another: our Lord the immigration attorney, el Abogado en el cielo.
The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition is not a static identity in the past that we can reincarnate in the present. Instead, our tradition is a style of radical reformation, as theologian Chris K. Huebner argues in his book, A Precarious Peace. We are a people who are always being re-formed through the movement of the Holy Spirit. And for Luz del Evangelio and Alexanderwohl, the Spirit of God is a movement that is mixing up their stories and identities. The two distinct bodies, each with important cultural distinctions and formative stories of migration, are being re-formed through sharing the life of Christ with one another. As Pastor Steve Schmidt said in his sermon, “The stories of Luz del Evangelio will become our stories. They will become our people.”
Anabaptism is a living tradition where cultures of faith, like the Mennonite Church, are invitations into an identity that happens to us as we retell the old stories and write new stories with our lives together.
What if we made Paul’s longing — “I long for all of you,” he writes in Philippians, “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8) — fundamental to our faithful discipleship in the way of Jesus? In a world where people judge each other from afar, where we admonish sister congregations without ever sharing the intimacy of a worship service, I offer these reflections as an invitation into the longing for communion that Paul describes, the longing for union in the affection of Christ.