My church experience has included at least 13 Mennonite churches, a Baptist church, an inter-denominational church and two Catholic schools. That represents more worship services and Sunday school lessons than I can count! Not many details from the sermons and classes stick in my mind, but those experiences taught me many lessons over the years. Here are a few.
Childhood churches in Virginia, Indiana and Ontario linger as hazy memories. But I do remember singing from a little yellow songbook, playing with church-toy magnets shaped like Scottie dogs, and marching into Vacation Bible School to the non-pacifist tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers”! Most of all, those churches taught this preschooler about God’s acceptance and love—a lesson I have had to relearn many times throughout my life.
The Catholic schools I attended in Brazil were operating in the atmosphere of Vatican II, a time when new expressions of faith were finding their way into the lives of common people. Through attending regular mass I learned respect for varying ways of expressing devotion.
My Mennonite missionary parents helped nurture three young Mennonite congregations in Brazil, and they expected their children to be involved in congregational life. There I heard the call to follow Christ and I made a commitment to a life of discipleship. Baptism by immersion—take a deep breath and hold your nose!—was a metaphor for the excitement and scariness of following in the footsteps of Jesus. Those small churches needed the gifts of all members, however undeveloped those gifts might be. So this adolescent sang in music groups, told children’s stories, taught Sunday school and served as Sunday school superintendent.
As a university student I took part in a tiny church in the back “hollers” of Virginia. There I encountered the requirement that women cover their heads while teaching Sunday school. So this young woman reluctantly wore a small lace “doily,” in submission to the customs of the local Christian community. In a larger country church my husband and I took on the role of congregational and then conference youth sponsors, learning valuable lessons about planning, organizing and mentoring. And committee meetings!
The city church in Virginia offered me lessons on how to help quiet voices be heard when the church body made decisions, the importance of intentional small groups and the need for a Christian community to cultivate both inward and outward vision. As North American Mennonite conferences were beginning to call women into pastoral leadership, it was at this church that this twenty-something woman began honing skills in worship planning and public speaking.
In the Pennsylvania congregation I was nurtured into a deeper community life, as members trusted each other enough to share vulnerabilities that don’t often get expressed in church. Brothers and sisters shared stories of brokenness and healing as they struggled with eating disorders, alcoholism, mental health issues and more. It was the place where the 30-something could share her own stories of infertility, and it was the place that welcomed her young children to take their first steps on the faith journey.
The Baptist church in the city of Nazareth, Israel, worshipped in Arabic, and this foreigner learned about worshipping God even when many words were unfamiliar and the sermon ran long. Could I pray with fellow Christians even when I didn’t understand the words of their prayer? Working and living among people of many denominations in that city taught me to seek our commonalities while valuing the faith perspectives of Christians different from my own.
God still has lessons to teach me at congregation No. 13, in Kitchener, Ont. Here I see an attention to issues of faith and justice, grounded in Scripture. If we pay close attention to the preaching of the prophets, the Psalms, the words of Jesus and the Magnificat, how might that focus express itself in relationships with our indigenous neighbours, the adherents of other faiths, people struggling with financial insecurity and other “outsiders”?
My church is still teaching me. What lessons has God taught you through your church?
New contact information
At the end of March Canadian Mennonite bid farewell to editor/publisher Dick Benner. Tobi Thiessen has assumed the role of publisher and I now hold the role of executive editor. (See also: “New publisher, executive editor named to lead Canadian Mennonite.”) In the coming months you’ll hear more from both of us in these pages. In the meantime, feel free to be in touch. See here for contact information.