Four Mennonite Sons

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There was, one hundred years ago, a Mennonite family with four sons. They lived near a small rural village on the outskirts of a bustling city, with their three sisters, and two parents. Life was simple. They would get up early, milk the cows, then clean the stalls, before heading in for a hearty breakfast at mom’s dining room table, then out for the fieldwork or to cut firewood. The seasons of planting and harvesting were busy times, but there was always plenty of work year-round. There were community events, almost always involving donated labor, to raise a barn or help some struggling neighbor harvest their crops, but life revolved around the daily chores, tending to the animals, the repetitive cycles of the crops, occasional trips to town and church attendance.

In their spare time, evenings before going to bed or after dinnertime on the slower seasons, these boys would read. They had a keen interested in history and current events. The books gave them a window into the world beyond the horizon, beyond the slow pace of his agricultural lifestyle, where great men made important decisions, tales of war, of how his Anabaptist ancestors had suffered intensely for their faith, stories of missionaries traveling to exotic locations, reports the new technology that promised to change everything, and all of this captivated these young men. Their 8th-grade education and sheltered agrarian lifestyle may have left them in wide-eyed wonderment—like the first time they saw that WW1 surplus Jenny JN-4 biplane flying over the family farm—but this did not make them ignorant or lacking in intelligence.

The eldest son, Joseph, was the spitting image of his father, he had seen the farm grow, had participated in the hard work and toil right from the beginning, this simple lifestyle was as ingrained in his heart as the dirt was ground into his calloused hands. He had his dad’s work ethic, would never complain about physical labor, and he had that wiry strength common to farm boys. It is said that once, as a teenager, one of the town boys seeing this naive Mennonite, tried to pick a fight, even landing a blow, before John gave his antagonist a big bear hug, repeated “I don’t want to fight” and then put the stunned bully down. That bully would go on to be the mill owner, a friend, who would always tell that story, but John would laugh and claim that it was exaggerated, a tall tale. John, who had basically inherited his father’s farm, would continue to implement new techniques, was very successful, a respected member of the local community, married his sweetheart and they faithfully attended the church of his childhood.

The second oldest, the ever-inventive Henry, found a way to improve a farm implement, he started manufacturing in the shop on his dad’s farm, but soon outgrew the shop and purchased some land nearer to the city where he built his first factory. By following his passion for business, employing his hardworking heritage, he became very wealthy and could afford to treat his child to luxuries he could not have even imagined at their age. His life was always full of activities, parties, baby showers, vacations (his wife loved the beach, how could he say no?) and, of course, the daily grind of running an industrial production schedule. His life was dominated by the clock, by the calendar of events, the sports teams, politics, etc. He loved technology and one day brought home a brand new cabinet radio/record player that he had purchased at Sears. But, as busy as they were, and despite leaving his father’s old-fashioned church behind, religion still played an important role in the life of his family and he did his best to instill conservative values, his charitable giving (not for attention) made him a noteworthy character and admired amongst those in need.

Hudson was the third of the sons, said to be named after the famed Protestant missionary to China (although it may have been the automobile of the same name), was the more earnest of the four sons. One day an evangelist came to town, despite attendance being discouraged by the church elders, he (with his brothers) was in the audience. The message tugged at his sensitive heart, he rose to his feet shaking, walked the sawdust trail, and had a “born again” experience. Now, truth be told, he had never really been that rebellious, he had had some terrible guilt about seeing some female peers taking a dip in the pond and spending an extra moment observing, but he had always been thoughtful, considerate, and conscientious sort. But now, freedom from his sin, he was determined to serve. He taught at the newly formed Mennonite high school, eventually became a founding member of Mennonite World Aid, an outreach of the conference created to appease those longing to be missionaries, and even did a stint in post-WW2 Europe. He raised his large family to be Anabaptist (although he saturated them with fundamentalist literature) and was followed everywhere by his adoring perpetually pregnant wife.

Then there was Clyde. Clyde was the black sheep of the family, saw John as naive, not too interested in technology like Henry (other than his camera) and certainly far more cynical than Hudson. He didn’t have much appreciation for the farm life. He soon realized that his church was taught by ignorant rubes who got their “ordination” by seeming sincere enough to nominate and then picking up the right Bible. He at first decide to do the Mennonite missionary thing, but he was more or less there to observe and take pictures, and then headed off to university to satiate his hunger for knowledge. Yet, beneath all of this ‘liberal’ smugness, was a compassionate and caring heart. He would go on to write books, people loving to hear about his experience growing up as a traditional Mennonite (although things had really changed significantly before he was old enough to remember) and he was eventually hired as the pastor of the big conference church. Unlike his forebearers, he used his pulpit to spread about social issues, encouraging diversity, reprimanding the “ethnic church” for not caring enough about minorities, the poor, victims, etc.

All of the sons remained Mennonite. And yet all, besides John, had dramatically changed what it meant to be Mennonite. Even John’s life became more chaotic and cluttered than that of his father’s, some of his sons gave up farming (land was too expensive) and worked at his brother Henry’s factory, others (also smitten by an emotional ‘revival’ preacher” carried out Hudson’s vision, but all remained active in their congregations. Henry’s sons embraced the comforts of modern life, they drove muscle cars, listened to popular music and were a little wild before settling down. Of course, Hudson’s sons, all home-schooled (a necessity on the mission field) were a mixture of sheltered and exposed, they all thought of their father as sort of saintly character and were determined to spread ‘Anabaptism’ to the corners of the world. Then there was Clyde’s only child, an avowed feminist, decrying the patriarchy, privilege, police brutality, and basically indistinguishable from the other trust-fund babies who shared his far-leftist views—to him Jesus was basically a political tool, a means to shame his more practical cousins, and a philosopher superseded by Karl Marx.

Nothing about the new generation was the same as their grandfathers. Horses had been long replaced by tractors, the suburbs had encroached on the farmland inheritance and the influence of the ‘liberal’ cousins was having an impact on Joe’s old Mennonite orthodoxy that had been unquestioned for decades, more and more switched from farming to carpentry or manufacturing as economic realities pressed into their communities. More of Henry and Hudson’s descendants (who still crossed paths as conservative Mennonites) became disenchanted with the status quo, some looking for a more lively worship experience, others being disillusioned by the Protestant influence started to question the foundation of their religious tradition, some were angry about hidden abuses, and there were special conferences held to discuss the “Anabaptist identity” crisis. The trappings of modern life had slowly but surely crept into their lifestyle, smartphones were prevalent, pornography caused anxiety amongst many and the austerity of the past would have been appealing if they had the time to stop and think about it.

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A Practical Model for Christian Love and Community

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My last blog gave an abstract vision of love.  

The story of my sister Sarah and a precious bhest were part of the catalyst for a more concrete idea. 

The other part of the inspiration process was a scammer who claimed to have cancer and promised me a windfall.  They said they wanted their untold millions to go to a man (yours truly) who would use it for Christian charity.

That flirtation with the thought of having a great amount of wealth to spend for a cause I thought worthy enough led to a vision of a farm.  The idea would be a farm that combined the biggest asset Mennonites have to offer (their families) with those who needed it most.

You see, church attendance, for someone without the family structure, is not enough to meet their social needs and single mothers need more.  A welfare check and public housing is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of many of these abandoned women and their children.

Our duty to love the widow and the orphan is clear.

We as true people of faith do not have an option here, we have a moral duty as those called to be perfectly merciful as God is perfectly merciful (Matthew 5:48, Luke 6:36) and desiring to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. 

Specifically, as it pertains to this blog and the vision, it means taking up this divine task:

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” (Psalm 68:5)

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

That is the heart of God.  And those who seek fellowship with God will share in His own heart and create their own visions around His cause.  James tells us:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14‭-‬17)

We live in a time where most basic needs are met and this could be used as an excuse.  One could shirk their own God-given responsibilities by saying that government programs provide.  Or use Scripture as a legalist would and claim that since social needs aren’t specifically mentioned there is no reason to fill them.

However, our culture, with the breakneck pace we live, is probably not the same as a city or village in the time the book of James was written.  And—despite our connectedness via technology and social media—many people are without close friends or family support and single mothers are especially vulnerable.

So, anyhow, at this point if you don’t agree or can’t see the need you probably can stop reading here.  But I’m guessing most of my readership is interested in knowing more and will continue to the specific idea.

A farm and vision to bring family to those without.

I did not grow up on a family farm.  However, like many conservative Mennonites, I was one step removed from agriculture and would often visit my grandparents farm.  Three of my uncles, carrying on the work of their father, all live in close proximity to each other and run the farm together. 

To me my uncles have something in that farm which few people do anymore and that being a true sense of community.  They work together towards a common goal, their labor is for each other as much as it is for personal gain and it seemed to me an ideal place as a child.  There is something special about a family farm.

So, as a result of that childhood experience, my love for both Sarah and bhest, as well as the scammer giving me reason to dream, my vision is to bring that family farm experience to single mothers and their children.  I believe it would be the ideal environment for teaching basic life skills and helping to end the cycles that lead to generational poverty.

What I picture is two or three healthy families paired with a single mother and her children.  The idea would be to have seperate houses within easy walking distance of each other, common meals at least once a day and plenty of working together in the way strong Mennonite families do. 

There would be gardening, maybe a garage for mechanical work or wood shop.  I would prefer that it be a sustainable effort that doesn’t depend on outside help besides start up cost.  The size and scope of the farming operation would depend on who is involved and the more other trades or talents the better.

I believe many single mothers and their children need this kind of real loving investment to thrive.  This is a need right here at home (North America for me) and places like the Philippines.  It is an adaptable vision.  The work could center on a bakery or restaurant so long as there is working together and an opportunity to teach.

What is needed to make this vision a reality?

This vision requires normal people like you.  Perhaps you are a mother escaping abuse or abandoned.  Maybe you are part of a Christian home and wish to share that great wealth of family you have with those who do not.  Or you could be a businessman looking for a tax write-off and investment.  This is your opportunity.

If you share this vision or something like it.  Please comment your own ideas below, describe what you are able to offer towards an effort like this and share this blog post with your friends of like faith and love for those most vulnerable. 

The Gospel is not about singing on the subway or shoving tracts into faces.  It is not about flying to exotic locations with the cool religious people either.  No, it is about Jesus who literally fed, physically healed and said his followers would do greater things.

Single mothers struggling to survive don’t need a lecture about sin or salvation.  What they really need is commitment and love that they can’t understand which in time will open their hearts to receive the fullness of God’s grace.

Who’s in?