Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

Spiritual Smuggery

July 18, 2014

The preacher talked about being “spiritually smug” in the sermon and something went ping in my head. None of us would want to think of ourselves as high on the spiritual smugness scale. I surely wouldn’t. And yet I think it’s an affliction that infects us more than we care to admit.

Any one of us who professes strong convictions is vulnerable to spiritual smuggery. Jesus called persons who purported to know best how God expected others to behave “hypocrites.” How, I wonder, do those hypocrites differ from the rest of us motivated by prophetic fervor, by righteous indignation, by a zealous desire to be faithful to God’s law?

For my part, I think Mennonites in general are afflicted with an oversized case of spiritual smuggery. We’re Jesus’ favorites after all. We get Jesus like few others do. We’re big on discipleship, loving our neighbors, and even loving our enemies. We often separate ourselves off in communities that intentionally stay away from big world problems or mainstream popular culture, thinking that will make it possible to attain a pure life. If we try a little harder or separate a little more decisively from those who’ve compromised, we feel even better about ourselves.

All of us who strive to be good and faithful servants are in danger of registering high on the scale of spiritual smugness. Seminaries are not immune. Academics have been known to demonstrate disdainful arrogance and intellectual snobbishness. Congregations who refuse to associate with other congregations are not immune. Persons who categorically stigmatize others for their race, gender, or sexual orientation are not immune.

Whenever we set ourselves up as better than others—whoever they may be—we stand in stark contrast to Jesus.

Jesus has harsh words for spiritually smug persons:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I’m attracted to humble people—persons who are so in touch with their own need for mercy that they readily extend it to others. Any impulse to disdain or to distance themselves from others is foreign to them. They live in grateful wonder for mercy that is wide and forgiving. They exude kindness and generosity. Their quiet joy is infectious because they know in every cell of their being that nothing can separate them from the love of God. How do they know that? They have been broken open by pain, loss, profound suffering. They have also been broken open to the beauty and mystery of a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.”


Tags: faithfulness

What does faithfulness look like?

April 29, 2014

A.D.Wenger and Annie Lehman Wenger

A.D.Wenger and Annie Lehman Wenger

I just completed reading a new, beautiful book written by two cousins about my grandparents, called A.D. & Annie: Stories, letters and memories of A.D.Wenger and Annie Lehman Wenger. There are some 10 endorsements on the front flyleaf, including praise from John Sharp, Don Kraybill, Shirley Showalter and John Ruth who called it a “rare cornucopia of Mennonite family lore.”

I never knew A.D. and Annie—so the book surprised me with the gift of my grandfather and grandmother. I’d had glimpses of them through my father’s stories—but now I see them more fully through their own words and relationships. An overwhelming gift!

Their story revolves around intense, often heated negotiations about how to be faithful followers of Jesus. My grandparents’ generation “knew” what faithfulness looked like. Plain dress said in an instant who all was complying with the community norm of expected behavior. Faithfulness was expressed in frugality, nonresistance, Bible study, foot washing and the fruit of the Spirit. But the plain suit, covering strings and conformity (or nonconformity) on a host of matters was a coded language that made faithfulness immediately recognizable.

Both A.D. and Annie had a commitment to education which was unusual in their communities. A.D. became the second president of what is now Eastern Mennonite University. Along with other visionary Mennonites, they organized schools to form young people in faithfulness—in biblical knowledge, core commitments and lifestyle choices—that was intended to make them distinctive as they engaged with literature, science, mathematics, history, music and more.

Over and over again, as a church community, we renegotiate what the markers of faithfulness look like. We are in the midst of it again—with a fierce intensity that indicates many of us still want to be faithful disciples of Jesus.

Is our intensity an encouraging sign? Perhaps! If the heatedness of our renegotiation about how to be faithful disciples genuinely grows out of love—then I would venture a confident “Yes.” But I wonder if the depth and breadth of our love is up to the challenge.

Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize-winning physicist is reported to have said: “The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.”

Is there a way to hold seemingly opposite truths together, asks Parker Palmer, and in that holding, to allow the tension to pull our hearts open to a larger and larger love?

The suffering brought on by holding together a profound truth that appears to oppose another profound truth is neither to be avoided nor merely survived but must be actively embraced, says Palmer. The embrace of the tension expands our hearts, inviting us to see God at work in everything, in everyone.

Over and over again, Jesus showed us how he allowed seemingly opposite truths to pull his heart wider open in the midst of great suffering. Paul saw what most of us miss: that in Jesus “all things hold together.”

In this season of Easter—in the power of the resurrection—I long for us as a people, to be distinctive in immediately recognizable ways. I want us to stay intensely engaged in negotiation about how to be faithful disciples of Jesus—and to love each other enough to stay in warm, family-like relationship. How can we be a church where all are genuinely welcomed (with our differences) into Jesus’ family and be a church that honors God with our ethnicity, our sexuality, our education?

I’m guessing “the world” wouldn’t be surprised at all to see us divide yet again over our differences. Polarizing along the lines drawn by political categories would be to choose an easy “worldly” option, in my view.

Conversely, I can’t imagine any more distinctive witness to faithfulness than what Jesus instructed his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Tags: faithfulness

This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.

The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.