I’m relatively new to Toledo, and a typical introductory conversation goes like this:
Me: “Hello, I’m Joel, and I’m the pastor of Toledo Mennonite Church.”
Person: “Nice to meet you, Joel. Hmm… I’ve never heard of Mennonites. What are Mennonites? What do you believe?”
Answering such a broad question has been one of my biggest challenges in ministry. Do I talk about the historical origins of Mennonites, or about Mennonites today? Do I talk about what makes us different, or about what we share in common? Do I talk about what Mennonites have been, or about what Mennonites are becoming?
I struggle with the enormity of the question, yet it’s good that I try to answer it periodically. In today’s globalized world, we all must navigate the choppy waters of defining our religious identities in a pluralistic context.
So by way of introduction, we Mennonites are a Christian denomination that emerged from 16th century Europe during the Reformation.
The movement has often been classified as the radical wing of the Reformation, not because the early leaders disputed the doctrines of the church regarding the trinity, creeds, and scriptures, but because they rejected the alliance between church and state and critiqued what they saw as corrupt church practices of the day. They then went on to create their own alternative models of church which centered on an ethic of love and nonviolence, simple living within a new community of believers, and bold witness to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Though there have been some notable exceptions along the way, Mennonites today are part of the legacy of Christians in all times and places who have insisted that worshipping God in spirit and truth and putting Jesus’ teachings into practice are two sides of the same coin.
I love the tradition I am a part of because it has fed and nourished me. It has introduced me to God who created and loves me. It has brought me into a family of faith that regularly gathers to read and interpret the Christian scriptures and to encourage one another as we seek to follow Jesus as a community of grace, joy and peace. It has inspired me with stories of heroes in faith that lived with courage and conviction in the face of struggles and opposition. And it has imparted to me the values of love, peacemaking, concern for the poor, creation care, simplicity, and repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
At the same time, I struggle with my tradition because I am aware of our flaws: our propensity toward schism, our periods of withdrawal and passivity, our temptation to assume we have cornered the market on Jesus-centered ethics and the judgmentalism which results. Like any family, we have skeletons in the closet that we aren’t proud of and that sometimes hold us captive.
For better or worse, we Mennonites have always been dreamers. We look back and dream about the assumed idealistic early church, and we try to reproduce that. We look forward and we dream about the culmination of the Kingdom of Heaven where there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, and we try to embody that. Sometimes we gloss over the difficulty of keeping Jesus at the center of our lives. Sometimes we think it all depends on us and forget the grace of God that pervades everything.
It seems we are always en route to becoming the people God has called us to be. I believe that to be true of myself, of my tradition, and of the Church universal. God is always calling us to something more -- more reverence and awe, more humility and accountability, more hope and creativity, more justice and peace, more love and mercy, more understanding and wisdom.
I look forward to contributing in the coming months to the ongoing conversation about faith and values in Toledo. I’ll be contributing to that conversation as a Mennonite and hope to represent that tradition well. I’ll be contributing as someone who has humbly accepted Jesus’ invitation to “come and follow me,” which has taken me on a journey from a small steel town in Pennsylvania, to two Mennonite Colleges, to an Evangelical in seminary in Los Angeles, and now to Toledo as a rookie pastor, all while introducing me to people of faith from many parts of the world.
And I’ll be contributing as someone who takes seriously Jesus’ command to seek first the Kingdom of God, to forgive as I have been forgiven, and to love not only my family but also my neighbors and even my enemies.
And perhaps most importantly, I’ll be contributing to that conversation as a fellow sojourner always en route to that “more” which God has in mind.