The passing of a generation

A couple of weeks ago, while I was back in my hometown for a memorial service for an aunt, a photo in one of the displays grabbed my attention. It was of my father’s family, taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s. It’s one of those photos taken at family gatherings—weddings or funerals. Everyone was perfectly posed, dressed in their Sunday’s best. My dad’s parents seated the middle, surrounded by their 11 children, ranging in age (I’m guessing) from late teens to perhaps early 30s.

A trained eye could detect signs of the transition taking place between generations of Mennonites. My grandmother wore the covering with ribbons that she wore until her death and my grandfather a plain coat. My dad’s brothers and sisters were dressed conservatively but less distinctively Mennonite. The men wore jackets of contemporary cut, white shirts buttoned to the neck but no ties. In a few years, things would change even more dramatically. During World War II, my dad’s older brothers were drafted as conscientious objectors and served in Civilian Public Service camps across the country. Three of my dad’s sisters would go to college, two of them ultimately becoming Registered Nurses, while their oldest brother and sister, my Uncle Orland and Aunt Dorothy, didn’t even graduate from High School. Within a decade of that photo, my grandfather would be dead.

Now, some seventy years later, none of the people captured in that image are alive. It’s strange, at age 60, to feel the loss of that generation. They provided so much of the soil that nurtured me and helped me to grow into the person I am today. It was my Uncle Orland, who, in spite of his lack of a formal education, became that Mennonite community’s unofficial historian and wrote the history of its first hundred years. It was he who introduced me to the Martyrs’ Mirror, the seventeenth century compendium of stories of Anabaptists and Mennonites who lost their lives because of their faith. It was he who told me the story of the Hochstettler family, who on the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s refused to defend themselves when a Native American raiding party attached their homestead. Some were killed, some escaped, some were carried off into captivity, and I am descended from the survivors.

I remember summer evenings spent on the screened porch of the old homestead, the air thick with humidity and corn pollen, the sounds of crickets and cicadas chirping in the distance. I would lie on the concrete floor, grateful for its coolness, reading, or playing, or falling asleep, while the voices of the elders murmured stories of people I didn’t know or things that happened long ago.

Their faith, nurtured in the congregation where I also grew up, provided a firm foundation in changing times. They lived out that faith as conscientious objectors, in service through nursing, by volunteering in many capacities, in quiet service to their congregation and the wider community. Two of my dad’s brothers were called by their church and by the Holy Spirit to be pastors, serving mission churches in Toledo and in rural southern Ohio.

But it wasn’t all easy. In later years, my mother would express how intimidated she felt as a young bride, coming into this family of accomplished, articulate women. And after my Uncle Orland’s death in 1971, even though I was only 13, I remember going through the materials that he used in writing his congregational history, leafing through minutes of congregational meetings, and finding a notation that my grandfather was reinstated to full membership after some unnamed lapse in 1916 or 1917 (later records were almost comical in their detail—a sort of secret service reporting on those who were seen attending the County Fair and prevented from receiving communion for their sins). There was also the stash of empty liquor bottles discovered by my dad’s employees in the 1970s when they were demolishing an outbuilding that had been moved a mile from the church to my grandparents’ farm. The official explanation was that the bottles must have been left by hobos when the building was still on church property in the 1930s.

Now, with that generation gone, and most of my cousins in their sixties and seventies, the distance we all have traveled from that farm on which our parents were raised is far indeed. While some of us have remained in the area, and a few of us who grew up elsewhere have made our homes there as well, we are spread across the country, from eastern Pennsylvania to California, from Wisconsin to South Carolina. And our children have dispersed even further.

The legacy of our parents and grandparents lives in us, and because we had an uncle and four aunts who never married, their legacies live on in us as well. We have become businessmen and women, doctors, teachers, all manner of professionals. Few of us remain in the Mennonite Church, though the values of that tradition continue to echo in the vocational choices we have made and in our commitment to family and community.

As I enter this season of my life, having turned 60 last week, no longer accompanied by those aunts and uncles who nurtured me in my youth, I pause to reflect on all that they gave me, all the ways that they shaped me. Their faith, witness, and their sacrifices have helped to make me who I am. Their love nourished me along the way, and their examples continue to inspire me. As the author of Hebrews wrote,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

It is a long journey I have traveled in those sixty years, a journey that has taken me a great distance from that community, from the Mennonite Church in which I was baptized and where I first encountered scripture and came to know the love of Jesus Christ. The great cloud of witnesses that now includes my father and all of his siblings surrounds me still.



The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Words from James Cone for Good Friday

James Cone died on April 28. Here’s a brief excerpt from The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

To understand what the cross means in America we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history–that “strange and bitter crop” that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through “God on the Cross.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity is a religion of slaves. God became a slave in Jesus and thereby liberated slaves from being determined by their condition.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This…

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Resurrection Imperfect–John Donne

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

by John Donne

SLEEP, sleep, old sun, thou canst not have repass’d,
As yet, the wound thou took’st on Friday last ;
Sleep then, and rest ; the world may bear thy stay ;
A better sun rose before thee to-day ;
Who—not content to enlighten all that dwell
On the earth’s face, as thou—enlighten’d hell,
And made the dark fires languish in that vale,
As at thy presence here our fires grow pale ;
Whose body, having walk’d on earth, and now
Hasting to heaven, would—that He might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all—
For these three days become a mineral.
He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought that a…

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Poetry for Easter Monday: Seven Stanzas for Easter by John Updike

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of…

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Poetry for Easter: Easter Communion by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

Easter Communion

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
To crosses meant for Jesu’s; you whom the East
With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,

God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

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Why White Christians support Trump (not just Evangelicals!)

according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted March 7-14, both white mainline and evangelical Protestants continue to approve of Trump as president at higher levels than other religious groups.

An article in the Washington Post argues:

The more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump

First, Americans who agreed with the various measures of Christian nationalism were much more likely to vote for Trump, even after controlling for a host of other influences, such as political ideology, political party, and other cultural factors proposed as possible explanations of Trump voting.

How much a U.S. voter feared Muslims was as significant in predicting who voted for Trump as Christian nationalism. Overall the strongest predictors of Trump voting were the usual suspects of political identity and race, followed closely by Islamophobia and Christian nationalism.

Responding to Parkland: Lament and Action

Bishops United Against Gun Violence have issued a statement and a call to lament and to action:

In the wake of this massacre, we believe God is calling us to understand that we must not simply identify the social and political impediments to ending these lethal spasms of violence in our country. We must reflect on and acknowledge our own complicity in the unjust systems that facilitate so many deaths, and, in accordance with the keeping of a holy Lent, repent and make reparations.

I’ve posted repeatedly about gun violence and offered resources to learn more, take action, and pray in response to this national crisis. You can learn more by clicking on the “gun violence” tag.

The resource page at the Wisconsin Council of Churches is a good place to begin.