I was drying dishes the other day, while my youngest sister, Elizabeth, washed. Since there is no room in our old farmhouse kitchen for a dishwasher, we wash them by hand, like pioneers. And with eight constantly-consuming adults in the family, that is no easy task. The one good thing about doing dishes the old-fashioned way is that it encourages conversations. I have had some of the most meaningful discussions of my life while washing dishes. This time, we got to talking about Mennonites.
“I worry about myself sometimes,” I said. “I mean with this whole thing of being a Mennonite. I’m worried about what I’ll do or what I’ll become because of what’s inside me. I’m different inside than I look on the outside. I just don’t feel like a Mennonite.”
I also worry about being a bad influence on my little sister with everything I tell her, but she is sixteen, receptive and responsible. It makes her temptingly easy to talk to.
“You mean you don’t have the convictions?”
“Yeah–I mean I guess I do sorta–but I think about things and explore things and my mind goes all sorts of places. I’m different than the other Mennonites.”
“But there are all kinds of Mennonites.”
“Yeah, that’s true–maybe I’m just thinking of the wrong Mennonites. Maybe this idea I have of what Mennonites are is only a myth. Do you think so?”
Sometimes I am hopeful. Recently, I made a Mennonite writer friend with a ready wit and a great sense of humor. She is twenty-eight and a mother of five, and she told me a story about her own mother, who, it seems, embarrassed the older of her eleven children on trips to Chesapeake Bay. As they crossed the bridge, she would lean out the window of their big black maxi van hollering, “Hi, Bay! We came to see you, Bay! Hi, Bay! Greetings! HI! HI!”
That free-spirited image doesn’t fit the picture in my mind of a typical Mennonite lady. Stories like that make me wonder if the Mennonite image I’ve constructed is something I’ve built out of two decades worth of Sunday school stories, with no basis in reality.
I think my mom has a Mennonite image of her own. For years, looking weary and shadowed under the eyes, when dishes were piled in the sink, I remember her saying things like this: “I’m afraid I haven’t taught you girls what you should know to keep a house. I’m just not organized. I’m just not a good mother.”
I know the picture she has in her mind. It is the picture of a perfect Mennonite housewife with clean cupboard drawers who has her children study the Sunday school lesson Saturday nights. But I haven’t heard many of those “what I should be” comments lately. I think when you get to about fifty, you realize you are what you are, whether or not it’s what you should be.
My Mennonite image has less to do with a clean house and more to do with someone who is rock solid, who is simple and discreet and holy and sure of the difference between good and evil. I am never sure.
“Maybe I have a picture in my mind that’s not really a true picture,” I told Elizabeth. “It’s just that I feel so wrong inside. Sneaky. Like I’m acting one way when I’m really another. Like I’m bad inside.”
She was wiping off the cupboard with a dishcloth, and she paused and looked at me. “Maybe you have to think of not how you are in comparison to other Mennonites,”–she made a swooping motion with her hands–“but just how you are in a big open space with God. You know, like with Char and the dog.”
I started crying. “But that’s so beautiful. How did you know about Char and the dog?”
“You told me about it.”
“But I didn’t know you understood it.” How does she know these things? She is only sixteen.
Char was my old-lady friend, a person who was disillusioned with religion and had cut herself off from church groups. I think because of that she lost much in growth and in spiritual understanding, but still, I learned a lot from her. She thought simply, the way a child would think. Of all people I have known–maybe because she was alone–she viewed herself not as how she compared to others, but as in a big open space with God.
She grew up Catholic and had been taught to pray to Mary. We discussed this, and both of us believed it to be false teaching. “I never really prayed to Mary,” Char told me. “I just didn’t see the reason for it, when I could pray to God.”
Later, she told me this story: “When I was young, the nuns taught us to pray to Mary. It was part of learning about God and Jesus, and that wasn’t wrong for me to do. But there was a dog who followed me to school every day. I would yell at it to go home, and it would keep on following me. I used to cross a railroad trestle that went over a river, and one day I was so sick and tired of that dog I stood in the middle of the trestle and kicked it in the stomach as hard as I could. It went sailing up in the air and landed in the river. I don’t know what happened to it.
“That was wrong.”
Char understood what confuses so many of us. We are not responsible for what we do not know. We are not responsible for what we cannot be. Neither are we responsible to others. Each of us stands in a big open space before God, and if we take the time to think about it, we will know exactly where we stand with Him.
That is our only responsibility.