A Living Faith

August 04, 2013
Philippians 4:4-8

 Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.


I don’t know why I like subtitles. My working subtitle for most of this week was “Harry, Frodo, and Mother Teresa,” but this morning, I looked at my Amish hat and thought “That’s it! My subtitle ought to be ‘My Amish Hat.’” And so it is.

And this is my Amish hat. It’s not a Quaker hat; it’s not a Brethren hat; it’s an Amish hat, an Amish straw hat. It’s homemade, although I don’t know who made it. There are different styles of Amish hats. Indiana hats are different from Ohio hats and Ohio hats are different from Pennsylvania hats. Mine is not only a Pennsylvania hat, but an eastern Pennsylvania hat. It’s not only an eastern Pennsylvania hat, but a Lancaster County hat. Not only a Lancaster County hat, but eastern Lancaster County hat. It’s from the Millwood area in particular. That’s where my wife, son, and I were just yesterday for an Amish auction. Millwood was where I was raised for the first 10 years of my life. My father was raised Old Order Amish in Indiana and my mother was an Amish Mennonite from near Morgantown, PA. He never joined the Amish church, but joined the Mennonites when he fell in love with her.

Now the Old Order Amish were once called the “House Amish” because they met in houses, and the Amish Mennonites were called “Church Amish” because they built church buildings to meet in. This split happened back in the latter part of the 1800s. The Amish still have church in their homes, or barns or sheds. They clear out some space and they have a wagon that they use to take benches around from place to place and they set them up for church. The benches we were sitting on yesterday at the auction had the letters “MD” on them. That stands for “Millwood District,” which was the Amish district we were in.

Another of the differences between the Old Order Amish and the Amish Mennonites was revivalism. Neither of them was affected by the early waves of revivalism here on this continent because most of the preaching was done in English, while the Amish and Mennonites were preaching in German. This linguistic divide helped keep them culturally isolated. But the Mennonites then started teaching and preaching in English, and then Joseph Funk did an apprencticeship with Dwight L. Moody in Chicago and brought revivalism to the Mennonites.

At first, revivalism was strongly rejected as modernistic. It was individualistic in that it emphasized the individual religious experience and feeling, while the Amish and Mennonites held the community to be over the individual. They resisted showy individualism. Revivalism could also be, well, raucous, what with Ira Sankey up there banging away on the piano and playing gospel tunes. The Amish and Mennonites didn’t have musical instruments in church at all. They believed that church services were to be sober experiences.

Within a few generations, though, the Amish Mennonites had been taken over by revivalism, but the Old Order Amish never were. They continue to resist it to the point that some in the revivalist tradition doubt that the Amish are even Christian. But the Amish hold to an older way, the way of a living faith.

Let me give you a story: someone once asked an Amishman if he were a Christian. The Amishman thought for a while, and then took out a pencil and wrote down the names of several of his neighbors. “Go ask them if I’m a Christian,” he said. What he meant was if he was living the life of a Christian, that is, if he had a living faith, then his neighbors ought to be able to tell.

I’m not a part of that world any more, although I’m still deeply rooted in it. In fact, I live in a state of more or less permanent culture shock. But one of the things I’ve kept with me is the notion of doing good. I think that the Good is of a piece: it’s the same whether you are Amish or Mennonite or Quaker or Episcopal or Muslim. So I look for the Good wherever I can. And since I work in a library, I thought I could talk about finding the Good in some of the books we have.

Now in addition to my Amish Mennoniteness, I’m also a Muggle: all Muggle, all the time.. I can say “Wingardium leviosa” all day and nothing will happen. The world of wizardry just isn’t available to me.

But fortunately for us Muggles–at least, us Amish Mennonite Muggles–Harry learns more at Hogwarts than spells, potions, and the like. In fact, for all his skill at spells and potions, what I think are Harry’s most important lessons come when Professor Dumbledore says things like…””It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What he’s saying is that what counts the most is what we do; how we choose to act.

And later, when Professor Dumbledore is trying to help Draco Malfoy to keep from making a very bad choice, he talks to him about having known another boy who, as Dumbledore says, “made all the wrong choices.” That boy of course was Tom Riddle.

Inrteresting, isn’t it? Obviously, the mere possession of the ability to do magic guarantees nothing at all. What counts is not the number of spells one knows, but how one chooses to use them.

Harry Potter’s story goes far deeper of course: the key difference between Harry and Tom Riddle is that Harry knows friendship, charity, and love and acts with them in mind, while Tom Riddle knows only power.

Perhaps we can go even further to suggest from Harry Potter that evil is nothing more than acting in the absence of love. This distinction seems to me deeply Christian: we need go no further than I Corinthians 13, which extols acting in love as the greatest virtue. Or John 15:13: Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends. Which of course Harry does, but the extent of Christian imagery in the Harry Potter series would likely take a book or two to cover. We all want to eat lunch sooner than that.

There’s another rather Muggle-like character from another literature I feel some kinship with: Frodo Baggins. Frodo is of course a Hobbit who is thrown into a titanic battle that he had no part in causing: the battle for Middle Earth. The evil Sauron wishes to rule Middle Earth and seeks the last of the Rings of Power to complete his domination. The Ring ends up in the hands of our Frodo Baggins, one of the race of Hobbits. Now Hobbits love nothing more than farming, gardening, and having a beer with their friends at a pub, so the notion that Frodo would undertake the mission of returning the Ring of Power to Mt. Doom so it can be destroyed there is a surprise to everyone–indeed, he’s not even quite sure why he volunteered to do it. Anyway, Frodo embarks on his quest and is, like Harry, in the company of friends.

The theme of friendship and charity figures very strongly in Frodo’s relationship to his guide, Smeagol, who is otherwise known as Gollum. Smeagol is a Hobbit whose obsession with the Ring has profoundly distorted him, body and soul. Yet Frodo calls him back to who he was by calling him by his Hobbit name of Smeagol rather than his corrupted name of Gollum. I won’t give the ending away, except to say that if you look closely in the last book, you’ll note that after they reach their goal, Frodo acknowledges his debt to Smeagol when he says to his good friend and companion, Samwise Samgee, “We couldn’t have done it without him…”

Unlike Harry, who is born a wizard, Frodo was born a Hobbit and remains one throughout the saga. Unlike Harry, whose journey includes discovering who he is, Frodo knows that he is a Hobbit; it would not occur to him to think he might be something else and he aspires to nothing else.

Both Harry and Frodo contend against an evil that is represented as monstrous. The worlds that they rule are full of twisted and distorted beings, lacking in that simple virtue we often call “the milk of human kindness.” Harry Potter has much more explicitly Christian imagery than Frodo Baggins, but at the core of each is love on the one hand, and the hell of trying to live without love on the other.

Now I want to offer one of my current personal heroes: Mother Teresa. She and the order of nuns that she founded remind me of what some firefighters once told me when I was gathering material for a newspaper article: “We go into buildings that the rats and roaches are coming out of….” That’s what Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity did and do: they go to places where there would seem to be no hope at all, among the poorest of the poor and sickest of the sick, and that’s where they minister. That’s a marvelous thing, even though there have been criticisms about how she carried out that mission.

But still more astonishing to me is something I learned about Mother Teresa only a few years ago. She left some letters behind in which she said that for the last 60 or so years of her life, she did not feel the presence of God in her prayers or in the Eucharist. But she believed that there was more to God than a feeling we might or might not have: she kept helping the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick.

And now I turn back to our own tradition. These are the words of Menno Simons:

“True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love; it dies to flesh and blood; it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires; it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul (3); it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it does good to those who do it harm; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those who persecute it; it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord; it seeks those who are lost; it binds up what is wounded; it heals the sick;it saves what is strong (sound); it becomes all things to all people…”

But there is a danger to this, too, and I’ll tell you a joke about it: it seems that a fellow died and presented himself to the Pearly Gates. He was welcomed in and was of course given the grand tour: the streets of gold, the many mansions and so on. And he was wearing the golden slippers. While they were going through the many mansions, they came to one thickly carpeted hallway. His guide asked him to remove his slippers and walk very quietly. They walked along the hallway and past this thick and heavy door. And after they had passed the door and his guide said it was OK to put his shoes back on, he wanted to know what was behind the door. “Oh,” came the reply, “that’s the Mennonites in there. They think they’re the only ones here…”

The Lord bless you, and keep you:

The Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace..