By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
MARCH 13, 2016
As a Mennonite minister’s wife, I sometimes get tired of Sundays. But when I missed a recent Sunday, I found that I indeed missed it. At least I got popcorn at the end.
We Mennonites are not only different from the rest of the world in our conservative appearance, but we also keep Sunday as a distinctive and special day.
Designated in the Bible as a day of rest, it’s the day when our combines are quiet, bakeries are closed, and corn waits for Monday to be picked and frozen. We don’t mow the yard on Sunday or fix the car or go shopping. Families draw their own lines about entertainment and recreation. Organized sports are discouraged.
Individually, we argue with our conscience about things like sewing. Mom always said it was work, therefore inappropriate for Sunday. But for me it’s recreation, so surely it’s OK. A silly discussion to have with oneself, maybe, but tradition is tenacious. We take this seriously. Sunday is also for worship. We go to church, usually twice, and sing hymns, listen to preaching, study the Bible and pray. And we “fellowship,” a religious word for “talking a lot and hanging around for a long time after the service to catch up with everyone else.”
Sunday illustrates the reality that living out the Christian faith is rarely a clearly defined, once-and-done matter. Instead, we live in that challenging, ever-shifting place of finding our balance between two opposing truths. On this side, we have God instituting a day of rest, a holy and deliberate institution, with promised blessings if you treat it reverently and darker consequences if you don’t. On the other side, Jesus in the New Testament observed the day but clarified, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
There’s also tension between the value of tradition and the need for change, and between individual and corporate faith. Faith affects all of life — that’s been the Mennonite belief for 500 years. Just how it looks and acts in this or that detail — that discussion also has been around for 500 years.
So, for this slice of our lives, this is how we do Sundays: We are up early. Paul, my pastor husband, is in the recliner, studying for a sermon with his computer on his lap while I’m in the kitchen cutting up carrots and assembling a pot roast in a huge pan while wearing an old shirt of Paul’s over my Sunday dress.
Our son Ben comes downstairs, makes coffee and discusses departure times with his dad, since Paul meets with the other pastor and the advisory board half an hour before the service begins, and Ben often leads the singing. On days I make chicken and rice, Paul peels off his dark suit jacket just before it’s time to leave, stands at the sink, and yanks the skins off the chicken legs without splattering his white dress shirt — a remarkable feat, I always think.
The girls show up in a flurry of clicking heels, fluttering skirts, mugs of tea, and “Does this look OK with this?”
The guys leave, Bibles and laptops and hymnbooks in hand.
I tell the girls to hurry. Someone always is delayed, announced in a wail from upstairs. I make sure the oven is turned on.
Purse, Bible, phone, missionary newsletters to put in the mailboxes, birthday cards for a few, get-well cards for others, a Pyrex dish to return, and we are out the door as well.
The sanctuary at Brownsville Mennonite Church is, as the name indicates, a place of safety and peace, and I settle into it, body and spirit. God is within me, always, I know, and here he is among us as well, within, between, beyond. We are safe here and loved, and we worship.
Ben leads the congregation in singing two or three hymns, a capella, four parts, no piano, words and music coming from the past to lift us toward Heaven. “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love …”
Dismissed for Sunday school, a hundred people head to their classes, up to the balcony or down the hall, with excited little nursery-class kids darting around them.
In the ladies’ class we “share,” another religious word for talk. We share our concerns and questions, pray for each other, and share from our lives in a discussion on how the Bible applies to the reality of a struggling teenager or a dying friend or a financial crisis.
Back in the sanctuary, a sermon follows from Paul or Pastor Kevin. Both take seriously their job of explaining the Bible in a way we can all understand. Recently, though, they’ve introduced the fancy new tool of PowerPoint, an innovation that makes some of the older folks nervous. Paul, a lifelong teacher, is all for using technology to make things clearer. Some people, especially the children, understand better if they see a picture, he says. Imparting truth is more important than tradition.
We mingle and fellowship after the service. “James, how is your foot since surgery?” “Aunt Susie, how is Uncle Milford doing?” “Are you coming to Ladies’ Retreat?” “Yes, I can host the youth group in two weeks.” I scout the milling group and then go to Paul, who is standing near the doors shaking hands with everyone, and we have a quick consultation about who to invite for lunch.
Often, another meeting is squeezed in after the service — maybe the missions committee or the people planning Bible Memory Camp or the social committee.
On the way home, we divide up duties. Our family tradition is that you help before Sunday lunch or after, but not both.
Emily spreads a pretty tablecloth, picks a bouquet and sets out the china. We assemble, give thanks and eat. The pot roast flakes apart in a puff of steam and tastes like all good Sunday pot roasts ought to taste. And, of course, we talk and laugh.
The guests leave. Paul cleans up the kitchen with anyone else who didn’t help beforehand, and then for the first time I get to truly rest, collapsing for a long nap.
It’s nearly time to leave for the evening service when I get up, and as I come back to life with a cup of tea, I wonder about being the pastor’s wife and the balance between freedom in Christ and the sacrifice of worship and wanting to stay home and do nothing.
I usually end up going, because it makes Paul happy, and he skinned the chicken to make me happy, and because this is one way I apply the verse in Isaiah that says, “If you call the Sabbath a delight, and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please ... then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land...”
This is faith: to believe and do, even if you aren’t sure what the results will look like.
The evening service is less formal, with more lay people involved in speaking, singing or reporting on mission trips. The youth group disappears to someone’s house for snacks and youth-oriented fellowship. Paul and I go home and make popcorn and grape juice, and talk about the day, and read. The kids come home and we make more popcorn, and talk more. We plan our week, the clever people make up puns, everyone laughs, and then we go to bed and Sunday is over.
If Sunday was too exhausting, I take Monday morning as my own time of rest, staying home, making tea and sewing.
I got strep throat last week, surely the worst case in history, with razor blades shredding my throat when I swallowed and swaddled quilts failing to keep me warm.
I stayed home on Sunday. The before-church flurry swept around me — Paul rushing out with his sermon notes, Emily hunting for a lost binder of lesson plans, Jenny assembling a scroll at the kitchen table, scotch-taping paper sections together, with a skewer across the end.
“It’s for the story in Jeremiah where Baruch writes on the scroll. One kid can be the king and tear it up and throw it in the fire.” She slapped the tape down determinedly. “I always get my best teaching ideas right before it’s time to leave.”
“Wait. You’re not having a real fire, I hope,” I croaked.
Then they were gone, and the house was quiet.
I texted my friend Jean and asked her to have the Sunday school ladies pray for me.
It was awful to be alone on a Sunday morning. I missed the singing, the Sunday school discussion, Paul’s sermon, and the fellowship. I missed the missions committee meeting and the mail in our box and seeing my friends and checking up with Aunt Susie and holding babies. Ben grilled chicken for lunch and brought me a fragrant plate of buttery potatoes and a crisp chicken thigh. I missed the evening service in both body and heart, and the missions report on CAM-West, the Ohio-based aid program with a branch on the West Coast. It felt all wrong.
But when everyone was home again we had popcorn, and I was well enough to enjoy it and to laugh at the kids, so it felt at least a little bit special, like a normal Sunday.
Faith always will be both solid in its source and fluid in its application. We will always be adjusting for balance, and there will always be tension between individual and community priorities, between valuable old ways and equally valid new, between freedom and duty.
We will always be tweaking our Sundays — less of this, more of that — worship and rest, sacrifice and fun, people and solitude.
As we take tentative steps in this walk of faith, on Sundays and every other day as well, we find, just as we are promised, a sure and triumphant joy.
Dorcas Smucker is a homemaker and mother of six. She can be reached at
Faith always will be both solid in
its source and fluid in its application.
We will always be adjusting for balance ...