What does faithfulness look like?

What does faithfulness look like?

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).