Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: The Devil in Pew Number Seven: A True Story

As you may know, I love memoirs. Especially ones that can recount some sort of struggle that can be overcome.

When Rebecca Nichols was a baby, her family moved to a small unincorporated village in North Carolina so her father could become pastor at a holiness church which had been floundering under lack of leadership. Her father, with his natural evangelistic style that could reach both those who had long stopped coming to church and those who never started, soon set the church on course to become a vibrant Christian congregation. It would have been the ideal setting for a young family in ministry if not for the ominous figure in the back pew.

For years, a man who was not actually a member of the church but who attended every Sunday and was politically well-connected in the good old boy network of the south had been allowed limited control in the congregation. For years, he continued to manipulate the brethren to the despair and eventual decline of the church. A young vibrant pastor setting up accountability and expanding the church ministry could never figure into the plans of Mr. Horry Watts, who wasn’t used to not having his way.

Rebecca spent her childhood living in fear as Watts launched one terrorist campaign after another on her family, ultimately taking everything they had. All the while, her parents advocated for and maintained the practice of loving their enemies. While their home was repeatedly bombed (yes, you read that right) the Nichols family never retaliated outside the boundaries of the law. There is one surreal moment in the book when a man with inside knowledge of the harassment approaches Rebecca’s father and makes an offer to do what the authorities (local, state, and federal) had been unable to do up to that point; stop the violence and harassment once and for all. It would be permanent, kept quiet, and likely accomplished by use of murder. The pastor never even weighs the offer and kindly explains “it’s not our way.”

You would think that this book is about survival, but here is the real theme: Forgiveness. Even after Watts’ crimes stole her closest family from her, she forgave him. In the final chapters of this book, Nichols explores the reasons why, as she puts it, we have no choice but to forgive our enemies. The alternatives to forgiveness simply aren’t worth the risk in our own spiritual lives. For myself, it was difficult to read of the devastation done to an innocent family and not feel anger and resentment at the perpetrators. I cannot imagine that it was easy to forgive the man who terrorized their family, but I can believe that forgiveness is always the best course of action, and in our best interest. Truly one of the more worthwhile stories I’ve read on this theme. There are many Scriptural references throughout the book that the author uses to show why her parents chose to make the decisions that they did along the way. Rebecca never lost her faith, and her story deserves a lot more publicity than it has gotten!

Part true crime, part memoir, and wholly inspirational, this is a story you won’t soon forget.And thanks to my friend Hope for drawing my attention to such a good book!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday Dinner

I'm way deep in the winter blah's over here, having the hardest time feeling energized and alive during hibernation season. For you people who love winter, who find beauty in snow and icicles, and who can still bound out of bed on a ten degree morning full of vim and vigor, I have one question: How do you do it?

This season I've made Sundays our soup-n-bread dinner day. It's nice because a big pot of soup will provide leftovers during the week, and same for the bread. I don't always get to the bread part, depending on how busy I've been, but it's nice when it happens. A few months ago I made this recipe for "Everything Bread" which I found in Taste of Home magazine. Not only did it turn out delicious, but it was deceptively easy to make. The only thing I ended up adjusting was the amount of loaves, because 1 loaf made from this recipe makes a whopping 25 slices! While this would be fine if we were having guests over after church for dinner, I prefer to make two smaller loaves rather than one large loaf, and to freeze the other one.

Here's what you need:

1 pkg. (1/4 oz.) yeast
3/4 cup warm water (between 90-110 degrees)
1 cup warm milk- I used 2% (also between 90-110 degrees)
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 Tbs. sugar
1 egg yolk
1 and 1/2 tsp. salt
4 to 4 1/2 cups all purpose flour (I like to use bread flour, but all purpose works fine)
1 egg white (saved from your egg yolk!)
2 tsp. water

coarse sea salt, dried minced onion, poppy seeds, sesame seeds.

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in warm water. Add milk, butter, egg yolk, salt, and 2 cups flour. Mix for a few minutes on medium speed and add another 2 cups of flour until it forms a firm dough.

Turn on to a well floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. It takes less than 10 minutes. You'll end up with a lump of dough like this:
Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. I used olive oil for the "grease".

Cover, and let rise until doubled, which takes about an hour.

Warning: Do not set this to rise on top of your wood stove and then walk away to do something else for an hour without checking on it, or else the bread will start to bake in the bowl. Do you hear me?

Punch dough down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface; divide dough in half. Here is where you can have your choice about what type of loaf you want. You can take one of the dough halves and divide into thirds, shaping each into a 7-9 inch rope. Place the ropes on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or well greased) and braid, tucking the ends under the loaf.

You can do the same with the other dough half, or else you can simply shape it in a long french loaf style on the baking sheet. Finally, add your 2 tsp. water to the egg white and brush both loaves. Sprinkle with sea salt, onion, poppy, and sesame seeds. Bake at 375 for 22-28 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack. Watch it disappear when your husband starts on it!

Note: Two kitchen items that will make life easier for you on this one: A dough scraper, which is just a small flat tool made out of plastic that will help you scrape the dough out of the bowl (and off of your counter!) and a cooking thermometer for getting your water temperature just right. You want your water temperature to activate the yeast; too cold and it won't, too hot and it will kill it.

Does that thermometer really say 50 degrees??

Friday, January 21, 2011

And the winner is...

Wow, I haven't had a giveaway with this many entries in quite some time!

The winner is #29...

Mary Neat & Tidy! Congratulations!

New post soon.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winter Moments and a Giveaway


It is hard to believe that I was ever as hot as I was one morning last summer when I finally turned the hose on myself in the garden and felt relief for, oh, all of two minutes before doing it again! Now, deep in January, I shiver so much that it practically qualifies as exercise. The months of January and February may be my least favorite time of the year. Hardly any work gets done on our house construction as we battle ice, snow, and wind, not to mention the insulation that barely keeps up with the frosty nights. Someone told me it feels like "liquid ice" outside, and I think that's a good description. If I could climb into a fluffy bed and hibernate with books until spring, you wouldn't hear from me until the crocuses were in bloom.

By the end of next month my hands will be itching for the trowel, and I'll be deep in garden dreams. Gardeners, like farmers, always live in the magical land of "next year" when your optimism is refreshed, as well as your strategies.

I am knee deep in winter reading...especially seed catalogs. That reminds me. Many people find my blog through the popular Amish Reading List, and I have updated it with some recent titles and also added a few titles for children (scroll down on the page). I've been meaning to update this for a while as new books pop up in catalogs and surface in Amish-run bookstores. It's such a challenge to remember to do so, and I long to do better at keeping up the "books" portion of my blog.

Another project keeping me busy is this
special sewing project, which you will hear more about in the future. I can't give details yet, but you may be able to own it. :)

And finally, a giveaway!
Michigan State University Press has provided me with a copy of my friend Saloma's book "Why I Left the Amish" which I previously reviewed. If you'd like to win it, just leave a comment on this post. For one additional entry, share this post on Facebook or your own blog, and then comment again to let me know! The winner will be picked on January 20th, so hurry and enter!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Some Mennonite Beliefs

The Amish are Mennonites. The Mennonites aren't Amish. It's complicated.

One recurring question that came up in comments when I posted on Amish and Mennonites is that people want to join Amish churches or, at least adopt Amish philosophies (an extreme) because the Mennonites aren't "extreme" enough. In other words, people believe that Mennonites are too much like everyone else. We're too modern, too mainstream. We don't offer the experience of "getting away from it all" that people imagine the Amish can offer them. Several of you asked me to write about Mennonite beliefs, which is like asking someone to write a brief summary on the history of mankind. In short, that's a topic you can go long and deep with, and still never touch bottom. Also, I'm in no position to be a spokesperson for anyone's beliefs other than my own. So probably what would make a lot more sense to my readers is to compare the similarities and differences between the Amish and Mennonites, which will hopefully give you a clearer picture.

Mennonites and Amish sharing the road.

While I can see where this idea that Mennonites are not "different enough" come from, it is also an arbitrary argument. You see, having been educated in (and now working in) a secular environment, I can easily identify a huge disconnect between my own values, the values of my church, and the values that appear dominant in the mainstream American culture. There even seems to be a difference between Mennonite values and the ones of many other Christian churches. The hallmark of an Anabaptist faith is that Jesus is the center, and making Jesus the center of your belief system does not strike me as a very popular lifestyle choice. And that's just the beginning.

The first thing that people use as an example of how similar Mennonites are to everyone else is that we drive cars. It's true, except for Team Mennonites, the majority of us drive sedans, mini-vans, pick-ups, and SUV's. This differentiates us from the Amish who are forbidden to own cars, but certainly use vehicles and hire drivers to take them places. The fact that people point out the car issue first tells me one thing: People care an awful lot about appearances and external factors. But another real and
highly visible difference between Amish and Mennonites is that the Mennonites are all over the globe doing missionary work (Matthew 28:16-20). It's unlikely you will find any Old Order Amish handing out Bibles in Uganda, or or taking up outreach efforts. Also, we do welcome people from different backgrounds to our churches to worship with us and explore membership. Our church doors are wide open on Sunday morning, and there is usually a sign out front that tells you what time to show up. Our churches are not hidden away in an ever-revolving rotation of member's private homes, we are open to everyone. (And this is not a slight to people who have cell churches or worship in homes, it's just the observation that a real building with a sign out front makes it easier to find us.)

People are also quick to point out that Mennonites use technology, while the Amish have limits. This statement also has its weaknesses. It's based on the belief that the Amish don't have access to technology, or reject it outright. While many Menno churches allow a computer with internet in the home (some Mennonite churches do not, or only allow computer with e-mail access), the Amish church has drawn the line so that their church members cannot have a computer in their home. However, there are many Amish who access the internet at public libraries and through their mobile phones (which are allowed). Although I have a degree in Information Science, I never felt as unsophisticated as I did while standing in line behind an young Amish woman on her blackberry at a grocery market in Walnut Creek. Like the Amish, many Mennonite churches are walking the fine line on technology. I like to think we analyze what technology
serves us best, versus which types might we end up serving.

Mennonites do use electricity. While the Amish do not use electricity, they do use other forms of energy (air, gas, propane, etc.) and do not lack for power. We use different ways that accomplish the same goal.
An Amish carpentry shop. Not electric, but more powerful than your Kitchen Aid.

Another visible difference is how we dress, and I say this tongue-in-cheek because many people have told me that they cannot tell the difference between the more conservative Mennonites and Amish people. The issue of how we look confuses people because there is more than one way to identify as Mennonite, and even within groups that convey a conservative appearance, there can still be differences that aren't easily noticed by people who are not familiar with our churches. These differences can make us seem ambiguous, and people aren't attracted to ambiguity. Dress is decided the same way in Mennonite churches as it is in Amish churches. It is a community decision that focuses on modesty, and sometimes but not always, a uniform or non-conforming appearance. It can be decided on a church-by-church basis, or a decision made amongst a group of like-minded churches. Anyone interested in this topic can further explore it in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Timothy 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 3:3.

Finally, most (but not all) Mennonites are far more tolerant of educational advancement than the Amish. Despite the differences in various Mennonite churches, I think if you were to walk into one on a Sunday morning, you would find a similar sense of certainty and purpose. You would find people who know what they believe and why they believe it, have deep cultural traditions, practices that are Bible-based, and a church body that stresses accountability for our choices. We have distinct practices on baptism and communion, and a wonderful tradition of acapella singing. You would also find a devotion to world-wide relief work, missions and church-planting, and church activities that feed on fellowship and mutual aid. It's likely you would even be invited over someone's house for dinner after church.

Yes, we are just like everyone else, breathing the same air in and out, having the same problems and struggles, just like the Amish. But I cannot deny that we also have some unique characteristics and practices that set us apart. That people come to our churches, visit, sometimes join, and quite often leave saying that they just don't feel like they ever "fit in" tells me that while we are just like
anyone else, we also are not like everyone else. A radical and vibrant discipleship of Christ is something that will never be in danger of being too mainstream.

As always, you can always e-mail me if you would have specific questions, and you may want to visit
this site for plenty of good information.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Amish, Mennonites, And the "Simple" Life

Can anyone tell me what this is?

A buggy, right? Who drives it?

If you guessed an Amish person, you are wrong.

Guess again.

Right, it's a Mennonite buggy. Old Order Mennonite. You've heard of them right? You may have even seen some, but you thought they were Amish. Because at the end of the day, you really can't tell the difference. Although there are some differences. For starters, this boxy, squarish, black buggy is specific to Old Order Mennonites, and though you will find Amish in buggies, you won't find one driving this one.

So. Why do people gravitate towards the Amish and not Mennonites? I'll admit that I get a lot of interest in the Amish here on my blog. People love to read my remembrances of when I lived with my extended Old Order Amish family, and I get e-mail requests from people looking for Amish pen-pals and looking for an Amish family to go live with. (By the way- you are out of luck on both counts.) But the question that does grab my attention is this: Why do people want to immerse themselves in the Amish and not the Mennonites? Why not the Brethren, or even Hutterites?

Here is my theory. It combines three factors. We are at a time when people feel overwhelmed by the abundant choices and options that they have the freedom to make. There is actually a book that studies this phenomenon (The Paradox of Choice: The Problem of Excessive Choices in Modern Western Affluent Society, by Barry Schwartz) and when people feel overwhelmed they look for something they perceive to be simpler. Notice I said "perceive". A perception is not always a reality.

At the same time, people like instant answers. We are becoming accustomed to having things happen immediately, and on demand. When you have the cultural habit of wanting and getting things right now paired with a feeling of overload, you make hasty choices. You quickly look for a safety raft that looks like it might hold you. The raft has a well-known brand name, and it looks familiar. You don't know all the details about the raft. How long is it? Does it really float? Is there a hole in it? You are just grasping for the raft because it looks like a raft and so it must be the safety you seek. For many people, the raft is the Amish. An easily identifiable brand that has a reputation for conveying simplicity and old fashioned norms to many people.

The third factor that comes into play is a prevailing sense of the loss of community. Community looks different to everyone, but the idea of a support network consisting of people who all share the same values, ideology, and morals as you sounds very appealing. Since we are at a place and time in western society where people have abundant lifestyle choices, a cohesive set of standard values no longer exists. So people seek out something that looks persistent and uniform. Again, the Amish look this way, and so the final criteria is met.

For a while I thought maybe this interest in the Amish had something to do with them being a mystery to most people. But I had to nix that when I saw that the abundant amount of information out there available on the Amish was not quenching the thirst of the public. If it wasn't mere curiosity then it had to be something more. And frankly, if it was just their peculiar aloofness that was the draw, well, there are even more aloof and mysterious plain groups you could be interested in than the Amish. At least the Amish will take in a convert here and there. The Old Order Mennonites? No chance. If you wanted to join them, they would dissuade you from it. And they don't call people "English" or "Yankees" but instead call them "Outsiders." How's that for exclusive? (Kraybill & Hurd 2006)

But I don't think people really want to join a plain group, anyway. Not most people. People searching for a simpler, less complicated life would find a horse and buggy community to be full of finely nuanced cultural rules and traditions with little meaning to the outside seeker. And those who ask why things are done a certain way or why a rule exists might just be met with the tried and true answer that it is so because that is way it has always been so. Also, people value complete autonomy over their choices, as well as a high level of privacy. You will find neither of those things in most Old Order communities. What I think most people are looking for is some way to integrate their notion of the beauty of the Amish culture into their everyday lives. People want to take the good parts and seamlessly apply it to their modern world, like fitting a jigsaw puzzle piece into a crossword puzzle.

If it's beauty and a God fearing way of life that you seek, read your Bible. Discover and develop your convictions and beliefs. Find a church that also believes these things and that will love and support you in times of need. I don't advise finding a church and then trying to fit yourself into their mold unless you share strong convictions with that church. Conforming externally without inner transformation is an empty act of faith. Putting on Amish clothes will not change your heart. If you are interested in visiting a Mennonite church, e-mail me and I can help, or else answer questions. Meanwhile, why not begin to simplify your life on your own? Wear what YOU feel is comfortable and modest. Question new technology before it enters your home. Spend an evening playing a board game with your family, or visiting someone who lives alone. And stop thinking about denominational labels, and start thinking about living a Christian life that presents a faithful witness to the world.

After all, that's the real message anyway.


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