I was baptized after an emotional week of revival meetings with a tearful preacher in an old store-building at the young Finland Mennonite mission in the hills above “The Ridge” nine miles from the Lower Salford farm of my birth. I was all of eight years old, and in third grade. Other boys from Salford Mennonite families made fun of me, calling me, “Chun the Baptist.”
When Bishop Arthur Ruth of Line Lexington arrived at Finland for the service, and asked me some introductory questions, I felt I was flunking. I knew from Sunday School and family worship that we were saved because “Jesus died on the cross,” but I couldn’t answer the bishop’s follow-up question, “How do we know that?” The bishop helped me out: “The Bible tells us.”
Well, I had known that too. I had memorized a lot of Bible verses. And with all my immaturity I now found the church commending me on the solemn “step” I had taken.
This was only one of some questionable actions I would observe my church taking. So why did I continue to respect it and grow to love it?
I did not rebel when my extra-conscientious parents sent me fifty-five miles west to a two-year-old Mennonite High School at Lancaster (there was no Christopher Dock High School for another decade). I enjoyed my new Lancaster friends, visited their homes, dated a girl, and even got a “plain coat” for my graduation, like my Lancaster buddies.
While working in 1948-9 to earn money for college, I was asked to teach Sunday school in Conshohocken, at one of the many new “mission stations” then springing up in the Franconia Conference – many out of lay initiative. I think my plain coat had caught the attention of the bishops, because they put me in the lot for minister even though I was between my freshman and sophomore years at “EMC.”
Then when the “lot was cast” between me and two other men, both at least twice my age, it fell on me, as it had on even younger fellows like Paul Lederach of Norristown and Al Detweiler of Rockhill. Alas, I hadn’t yet really begun to think for myself. But the church had chosen me, and I chose to be chosen ecause in the voice of the church I heard the voice of God.
Sixty-two years later, my respect for the Church of Christ is a key to my Mennonite loyalty. In its fellowship I found a good wife, and was allowed both to finish college and a Ph.D. program in English at Harvard University, and teach literature for a dozen years at Eastern University. After that, I had a “second ordination,” again under the leadership of a bishop, Richard Detweiler. For thirty-five years I have been making films and videos, writing history books, and leading Anabaptist heritage tours in Europe, while serving as an associate pastor for twenty-two years in my beloved congregation at Salford.
I respect the Church because I believe, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 3, that it is the means by which God makes experiencable the mystery of salvation. Being reconciled to God and each other is what salvation is about. It is what our church is about. Our first confession of faith (Schleitheim, 1527) is about church, because the way we do church is the evidence of what we believe . Not complicated doctrine but simple acceptance of this mystery and living by it is what church is about. Not trying to be “realistic” about politics, war and economics, but simple obedience to the great Pioneer of our reconciliation, is what our church fellowship is, by birth and continuing discernment, about.
When I asked Indonesian members of the Praise Center this summer in Philadelphia why they would want to be a part of our Conference, they said, “Because you know what it is to be marginal” (i.e., non-conformed to the world). We don’t find that sense in other potential fellowships.”
“Well,” I said, “what about the fact that we’re pretty much part of the establishment now?”
“Yes,” they replied, “but at least you have the historical memory.”
I know what it feels like to be touched by that Mennonite memory. Seventy-four years after my immature baptism, though my church is still imperfect and tempted to imitate instead of obey, its noble birth-message of reconciliation makes it where I want to belong, be accountable, and share the mystery of salvation with a whole new set of neighbors.
Our summer blog series will soon be wrapping up. Have there been any insights that have touched you, made you think, connected with your experience? How do you “Mennonite”? Join the conversation on Facebook & Twitter (#fmclife) or by email.
Who am I? (To Mennonite Blog #1)
Serving Christ with our heads and hands (To Mennonite Blog #2)
Quiet rebellion against the status quo (To Mennonite Blog #3)
Mennoniting my way (To Mennonite Blog #4)
Generations Mennoniting together (To Mennonite Blog #5)
Body, mind, heart … and feet (To Mennonite Blog #6)
We have much more to offer (To Mennonite Blog #7)
Mennonite community … and community that Mennonites (To Mennonite Blog #8)
Observing together what God is saying and doing (To Mennonite Blog #9)