The spiritual life of practical peopleBy Katie Funk Wiebe
Gordon Houser, associate editor of The Mennonite, comes to his subject matter as an outsider who became an insider. He has observed American Mennonites for more than 30 years as a journalist. He acknowledges this book is not a definitive description of Mennonite spirituality, only his viewpoint. Spirituality as a complex, ever-changing entity, not easily pinned down with words.
Therefore this book is not about a confession of faith or creed but about how Houser sees American Mennonites living out their lives “in the Spirit,” definitely not an overworked area. An online search of Mennonite spirituality brought me meager results.
A well-tested wordsmith, Houser uses an eight-point alliterative outline to structure his work. He begins with Practice followed by Patience — a pale translation of the German word Gelassenheit, or “yieldedness,” which he sees as being at the root of Mennonite spirituality: “God rules, we must play the hand we are dealt.”
Peace, Politics, Play, Prayer, Perfection and Presence line up behind these two defining traits.
Discussing spirituality is not something Mennonites do well, writes Houser. They let Catholics explain the finer aspects of spirituality while they focus on the practical.
“The genius of Mennonite spirituality is that faith must be lived out within the world,” he writes. Even preaching, or speaking the word, is not as important to them as doing.
Houser admits that although prayer, the essay to which he devotes the most words, is important to Mennonite spirituality, the word “contemplative” when joined to “Mennonite” is almost an oxymoron. Mennonites are not known for their deep communing with God. They are a singing, doing, peace-promoting people.
Who can forget hearing a packed auditorium of Mennonites singing “Praise God from whom all the blessings flow” in four-part harmony? Even the rafters tremble before this soul-awakening congregational activity. But asking them to talk to one another about life hidden with Christ in God makes them gun-shy — sorry, word-shy. They’d rather talk about their work promoting peace.
Officially, Mennonites are a peace church, their most distinctive trait, though not all Mennonites adhere to this position. Peacemaking efforts are headliners, but talking to one another about living in the fullness or richness of God’s presence is not their first choice.
Nor do they feel comfortable making peace about disagreements among themselves, writes Houser. They prefer to help others make peace.
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