“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
Thy LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
The LORD shall preserve thy going and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”
Psalm 121, King James Version
When I first ventured to Seneca Rocks four years ago, I was on the search for a new church home. Back in Northern Virginia, I’d been at first incredulous, then appalled at the complete lack of regard for the physical and psychological abuse of a student in a parochial school in which I’d taught. (Although I choose not to revisit that incident, please suffice it to say that I notified everyone in authority within the Diocese and also brought my concerns to the attention of the print media in the area, to no avail. However, God works in His own time, and the bishop and the superintendent of schools in that diocese have since been replaced.)
Having witnessed first hand the lack of Gospel witness in the parochial school, and then in the Diocese as a whole, I simply could not bring myself to return to the Catholic Mass or Sacraments. (For those Catholics reading this, please know this is simply my own journey with my own experiences; I’ve encountered many wonderful Catholics and I am particularly fond of the Franciscans, having been a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order.)
Once in the mountains, I noticed there were two Mennonite churches in the area, Brushy Run Mennonite Church in Onego (pronounced, “Wahn-go”), and North Fork Mennonite Church on the way to Petersburg. Both had neat white signs and an invitation to join them for services – “All Welcome”. Well, I had NO idea what the Mennonites believed, nor if I truly was “welcome”. Remember now, I’d been pretty much offered up as a sacrificial lamb all too easily by my own principal, pastor, school, church, and diocese back in Virginia. To put it mildly, I was leery of any organized religion – or any church for that matter.
Last April, however, I guess God decided to bring the Mennonites to me. I was living in a trailer near a ramshackle barn (which a month later succumbed to a strong wind) when I noticed a strange car parked on the road near the barn. Now, that road dead-ends just beyond the barn at the home of an elderly woman who lived there with her daughter. So I sort of looked out for odd vehicles and made sure that anyone venturing down that way had a reason for being there.
Since it was evening, I had on my flannel pajamas (it gets cold in the mountains in April) and pulled a jacket over my shirt before heading out to check on this new stranger. I came up to the driver’s door and asked, “Can I help you with anything?” The man looked a little startled but replied that he was here for a cottage meeting at my neighbor’s home and was waiting for the other vehicles to arrive. I was delighted – I’d heard about cottage meetings the summer before when I’d asked her daughter about all the cars parked in their front yard the previous night. “Oh,” she’d said, “We had a cottage meeting last night – members of the Mennonite church come and sing for Mom.” I’d wanted to attend a cottage meeting ever since!
I asked if I could come and the man in the car smiled and said, “Sure!” I raced back to get dressed and then headed to my neighbor’s home in time for hymns and devotions.
I had never heard Mennonites sing before and I was in for a treat. Mennonite churches have no choir, no organ, no instruments of any kind. The congregation itself is the choir, and every member of the church sings its part – bass, tenor, alto, soprano. Song leaders have a pitch pipe to get the congregation in tune and lead the hymns.
Last April, packed in a tiny room full of God’s people, I was swept up into a beautiful hymn of praise in such perfect harmony as I haven’t heard sung a capella since I was a Girl Scout counselor-in-training back in the summer of 1973. That song was one of those unexpected, joyous moments that took me back to a summer so sweet I could smell the pine trees on the wind and recall the friendships kindled around a campfire.
I clapped when they had finished their song, just caught up in the thrill. Their faces were calm, but it was CLEAR TO ME that one does NOT applaud when Mennonites have completed a hymn of praise to God. Okay, first mistake (of many!) but I wasn’t escorted to the door or reprimanded in any way. I remember thinking, “Oh, please, let me not offend these dear people!” I refrained from clapping for the rest of the hymns. Yes, it was hard – I was conditioned to applaud when one encounters a wonderful event and this truly met that requirement.
Outside, after the cottage meeting was over, I spoke with some of the young people who’d come along. One of them told the story of his parents, who’d moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia from Buffalo, New York and had converted from the Roman Catholic faith to the Mennonite faith. He said she’d written a book about it. I tucked that information into my head for a later time.
What struck me about this group of people of all ages was their kindness, their gentle spirit, and their fellowship – a coming together on a Wednesday night to sing for a member of their church who was home bound. They listened to me, answered many questions with great patience, and invited me to attend a church service.
And that was the start of a closer walk with God. Notice I write, “the start”. It is an ongoing, daily conversion, a giving up of myself each day to God, in order to do His Will, not my own. As a Secular Franciscan, we called this process “metanoia” – a daily dying of oneself to God’s Will for us. Mennonites practice the same thing, without the Greek name.
I invite you to read along in the next several posts and share my missteps and blessings as I’ve come to know and embrace this Gospel way of living. Learning about the Way of the Gospel does not come quickly, particularly when one is used to living “in the world” as I have done. I liken this conversion to a novitiate in a Catholic religious order – there, a period of years is required for the formation of a candidate prior to her final vows and profession to the religious order. In the Mennonite faith, especially for me as an “outsider,” I see this period of time in the same way.
There is no rush in this casting aside of the old life and putting on the new; I want to fully understand and embrace this life of greater faith. I seek to “Purge out therefore the old leaven… as [I] am unleavened.” Cor 5:7 Some tasks associated in wearing the veiling come more easily than others. And in some instances, God has needed to give me more than a gentle “nudge”. But He has been a constant presence in my life, and His people have been a constant source of support, encouragement, exhortation, and love.
Since last April, I’ve been going through “Basic Bible Studies” by Wendell Heatwole, published by Christian Light Publications, Inc. in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Now, the book is only 79 pages, but it is SO good! I’ve learned more about the Bible than I’ve ever learned before and I’ve been FULL of questions and tend to get off-topic during my regular Bible studies with Larry and Rhoda Showalter. (Maybe I should say, instead, that the topics in the book lead to related topics and questions.) We joke that maybe by the fall of 2017 I’ll be ready for rebaptism. That is probably closer to the truth than I would’ve imagined last year!
I don’t think I mentioned that Larry Showalter was the man in the car in front of the barn that day last April, the person I thought might be lost. He is a retired Mennonite bishop. (Even now, my cheeks flush with embarrassment just thinking about that first encounter. There I was, flannel pajamas, no veiling, hair blowing in the breeze.)
Larry wasn’t lost. But God knew I needed some direction and sent it my way.