John D. Roth demonstrates in this book a clever knack of melding stories of personal experience into discussions about theology and church practice. Perhaps it’s because he’s a historian being theological, not a theologian being historical. Thus, this book ends up being tolerable reading for people who are not interested in academic treatises.
He starts this book with a problem he has encountered in his own life. He gives readers the impression that his pondering of the encountered problem was the impetus that motivated him to write the book. Likewise many of the chapters begin with a story, but not necessarily from personal experience.
At the beginning of the book Roth reflects on a time when, in a search for an experience of spiritual reflection, he started on a hike alone on the Appalachian Trail. The hike “was to be a vision quest—my chance to wrestle with God alone in the wilderness, to discipline the body, and to commune directly with the divine through nature” (15).
Those were noble aspirations, but the hike didn’t go well. Weather and blisters conspired against him and his planned 19-day hike ended after four days. This of course serves as an introduction to his proposal for ongoing renewal through spiritual disciplines. The point here is that practice matters, whether in preparation for a hike for for church life.
I was pessimistic when I saw that one of the early chapters has a subtitle of “Why The Incarnation Matters.” I’ve read enough about early church history to know that there were many needless schisms over disagreements concerning the details of the nature of the incarnation (i.e. humanity vs. divinity of Jesus). I was relieved to learn that his approach to the subject of the incarnation was to see it as a latent aspect of the Spirit of God. A gathering of Christians to form a community of worshipers is an example of incarnation (i.e. the church is the body of Christ). Likewise, God is incarnate in the material world of nature. It follows that the anabaptist view of theology considers the activities of life in this world are worthy of being important in the eyes of the God. This is a metaphorical way of viewing life with which I can feel comfortable.
This heavy dose of theology at the beginning of the book ties into the subject of “Practices” by noting that church practices are our way of rehearsing and reminding ourselves how to live our lives. “By practicing the presence of God in worship we can experience true reconciliation with God, with each other, and with creation. And this is good news” (99).
At the beginning of the chapter titled "Why Worship Matters" Roth tells of a conversation with a college student who had grown up in a Mennonite community, joined the church, and considered himself to be Christian. But the student said he saw no need to attend church services. When asked why he said, "I just don't see the point. After I came to college, I realized that I had been going to church just out of habit, because my parents made me. But when I quite attending, I found that I didn't really miss it all that much." Then he added, "Besides, I feel closer to God taking a walk along the millrace than I ever did in church on Sunday morning." This story sets up the challenge for the following chapter to explain why worship matters.
The book then proceeds with discussions of subjects including, singing, foot washing, fellowship meals, children’s meetings, funerals, family life, mutual help, baptism, marriage, witness, and church architecture. The discussions of these topics aren’t dogmatic, but rather recognize the differences found among different Mennonite and Amish communities. The merits of the different styles are explored in the book's coverage of these subjects. Nothing presented here is radical except to the extent that the Mennonite tradition itself is radical. Included are several references to the Amish experience at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, when ten of their children were shot by a demented neighbor. “What stunned the watching world in the days following the shooting was less the reality of the horrific violence than the response of the Amish community” (80).
Roth observes that the Amish have devotional practices such as regular recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with its emphasis on forgiveness. So when the time came to forgive, the Amish were ready. Perhaps it can be mentioned that the Amish have persisted without revivalism, Sunday schools, or a worship band to lead the Sunday morning assembly.
From worship Roth moves to witness, which he develops broadly from our bodies to our families, our communities, and our worship spaces. Like the Amish who pray the Lord’s Prayer regularly, he calls upon us to practice our faith and our traditions advisedly. Keep our eyes open and our heads above water.
The chapter on “Bearing Witness in Our Committees” includes two sorts of anecdotal evidence, one historical and one current. It opens with the determined and futile efforts of Swiss authorities to stamp out Anabaptism: “the Anabaptists . . . were widely known for their moral integrity and their readiness to follow Christ in daily life” (149). As for present witness, he illustrates the dilemma with two experiences from his travels.
On one airplane he met two Germans who were pleased to know that he was a pacifist but had no interest in his Christian faith. On the next plane his seatmate saw him reading his New Testament and was pleased to meet a fellow Christian. But when he learned that Roth was a Mennonite he became incensed. “‘My son is a Marine. And you guys are a bunch of parasites. It just makes me sick.’ Then he got up, went to the bathroom and returned to another seat” (152).
Roth observes that “peace and justice” on one hand and “evangelical” witness on the other “face a powerful temptation to be relevant to the world according to the world’s criteria. . . . A witness to the gospel of Christ, by contrast, is vulnerable and cruciform” (166).
Near the book's end the subject of "practice" is tied to the words of Jesus with these words. "For those in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, the Sermon on the Mount has often been claimed as a kind of shorthand for Anabaptist ethics: here we find the central themes about loving enemies, practicing generosity, and living simply. But it is surely no accident that in the middle of this call to radical discipleship, Jesus offered his disciples instruction on worship, specifically, a model for how they should pray" (220).
Roth closes the book by saying, "This is a travel report of a pilgrim on the way rather that the pronouncements of a fully mature Christian who has finally arrived." We're invited to join him on this journey.
Note: Portions of the above review are copied from an article written by Daniel Hertzler, Scottdale, Pennsylvania in the Dream Seeker Magazine, Summer 2010, Vol. 10, Number 3. LINK TO HERTZLER'S ARTICLE