Wednesday, September 9, 2009

WHAT THE AMISH CAN TEACH US

Sunday, my friend Vickie and I walked to the Barnes and Noble bookstore on the University of the South campus, and as we came out of the store, we met Suzanne Warner, a mutual friend who attends St. Mary’s of Sewanee. Suzanne, a tall, thin woman, 70 years old (who thinks and looks much younger), is a former attorney who worked in the office of Attorney General Janet Reno during Clinton’s presidency. Suzanne’s working toward her M.Div. from the seminary here and, ultimately, toward the priesthood. She drives around in a sky blue 2003 VW convertible and gave us a “top down” ride back to our cottage, a ride that left me exhilarated from “taking the air” as the Cajuns say.

We invited Suzanne in for tea and biscotti and spent an intense hour talking theology, mostly about the sacrament of reconciliation which may form part of Suzanne’s thesis. During the conversation, she mentioned an article entitled “Radical Ecumenism: A Teaching Moment for Anglicanism,” in the Pentecost 2008 issue of “Sewanee Theological Review.” The thoughts that piqued my interest in the article concerned the Amish example of Christian living and our need to hear the testimony of Anabaptism.

The first year we lived here at Sewanee, we traveled over to Ethridge, TN., a small town nestled deep in Amish country where a group of Anabaptists live and farm. We visited a mall of beautifully-crafted Amish furniture and bypassed the buggy rides being offered near the restaurant where we ate lunch. After lunch, we drove deeper into the countryside where farms appeared on most every hill. Children ran barefoot in the dusty yards beside corn fields that had been parched by the drought of that summer, and roadside stands advertised jams, jellies, soaps, fresh corn, and tomatoes. We stopped at a weathered farmhouse with a wide porch that covered the front and one side of the house. A young girl, barefoot and dressed in a long blue dress, slowly swept away some of the road dust. She smiled at us and stopped sweeping but was admonished, in German, by her mother who came around the side of the house to see if her charge was still at work. A young boy manned the crudely-built roadside stand and sold us a jar of jelly, a bar of odorless soap, and a few ears of corn. He averted his eyes and spoke only to give us the cost of each item. I admit that I stopped at the farm out of curiosity and didn’t give much thought to the religious views of this sect of Anabaptists. To me, these people with no running water, transportation, electricity, TV, radio, telephone, computer, seemed to be living in a time warp.

That Amish community hadn’t crossed my mind again until I read the article by David Heim that Suzanne handed to me during Tuesday morning services at St. Mary’s. In his article, Hein stresses “receptivity and openness to conversion – not talking negotiating, explaining, agreeing, or disagreeing. Seek first to understand, then to be understood…” And then he launches into an appreciation for the Amish and observations about their way of life – how, without preachment and what he called official ecumenical dialogues, the Amish share their testimony with us so-called open-minded Anglicans. He cites the terrible tragedy of the Nickel Mines schoolhouse shooter who murdered five Amish girls and explains that without spectacularism and without hesitating, the Amish community comforted the shooter’s family and forgave the shooter. As Hein says, “they just enacted their faith.”

Those in other denominations who read this article will very likely pause and reflect on their own Christian faith and practice. One of the most important points Hein makes about the Anabaptists, or the Amish, is that they practice “Nachfolge Christi”: following Jesus daily – a pattern of discipleship that involves obedience to the way of Christ and expresses love for their Christian community. Hein’s explications about the Amish resonated with me, particularly the revelation that Amish don’t pay attention to the assurance of salvation and emphasize the conscience and the will. He quotes John Hostetler (Amish Society) “Christ becomes a Wegweiser, one who shows the way, and not merely one who has atoned for the sins of mankind.” Amen.

Well, Suzanne dropped a plum in my lap, and incited in me some heavy reflecting about the Amish community that I sorta’ passed through without giving much thought to their way of life and their faith, a group of people who, as Hein said, “challenge many of the values the rest of us hold dear” with their ideas of self-denial, humility, and forbearance. There’s certainly something highly exemplary in an acronym posted in Amish schools: “JOY,” which means Jesus first, Others next, Yourself last. There aren’t too many of us who would have acted as the thirteen year old girl named Marian did in the Nickel Mines tragedy when she realized that the man who had invaded the Amish classroom intended to kill the children. She asked the man to shoot her first, just to buy some time for the others. She had imbedded that acronym, JOY, in her heart and acted out of a heartfelt wish to take care of the threatened children.

So where do we go with all of this? I haven’t really done justice to an article that proposes Anglicans might learn something from other Christians who live in an environment free from any pressure to arrive at what Hein calls “agreed statements.” You might wish to read “Radical Ecumenism: A Teaching Moment for Anglicanism” in the “Sewanee Theological Review,” Pentecost 2008 issue. David Heim advocates a more receptive attitude toward other Christians that would result in the transformation of lives and churches, urging our acceptance of those denominations that differ from our own. His observations and study of the Amish sect certainly challenge our approach to ecumenism which, so far, has been unsuccessful. I don’t know about you, but the lesson of that article in “Sewanee Theological Review” reminds me of the struggles of my own spiritual journey and the rejoinder I made to someone who asked me why I had a Jewish Mezzuzah at my kitchen door: “I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get.”
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