Saturday, May 1, 2010

Learning From the Amish


Recently we have been exploring the faith and practice of various churches and denominations in a Bible class at my church. Last month we examined the Mennonite and Amish tradition, which the class requested be extended into this month as well (this class meets only monthly). In preparation for these classes I have been reading and rereading various books and sources, in addition to some film coverage on DVD. Last night I watched an award winning PBS documentary called "The Amish - A People of Preservation" as the first of three DVD films my wife ordered on library loan. While the original film goes back at least 20 years, the cover does indicate that this is also an "updated look" at the Amish origins and life, which can be seen in the difference in car models throughout the film.

Despite its age, however, I found the film quite informative, well done, and in a surprising sense, insightful about matters in my own faith and church. Historically the Amish and Mennonite traditions arise from the same Reformation period as my Lutheran forefathers. Known then as the Anabaptists, these "radical reformers" sought a return to what they perceived as a more pure and original expression of the Christian faith. To that end they endeavored to restore a more robust practice of church discipline, resulting in the seemingly harsh act of "shunning." They believed that the church had to be truly holy, even its outward appearance. They also believed in a strict separation of church and state, along with a commitment to passivity in regards to any expression of civil force, either military or otherwise. Theologically Lutherans parted ways with the Anabaptists from the very beginning, finding their abandonment of infant baptism and the office of the ministry to be clearly unscriptural, as well as their separation of the work of the Holy Spirit from the divinely appointed means of Grace (Word and Sacrament.) Numerous references in the Book of Concord indicate in greater detail the Reformer's concerns, such as various sections in the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord.

Aside from these theological concerns, though, certain aspects of their life and culture may prove all these years later to actually be a powerful reminder to Lutherans of the value of certain parts of our own faith we seem to be losing. Many remained perplexed by the Amish as they see a church seemingly frozen in time. Although they may be intrigued by the quaint nature of their way of life, they fail to understand what almost appears as an inconsistent and nearly hypocritical adoption of some forms of technology as they in turn reject others. However, one can understand the Amish fully only if one understands their extreme commitment to family and their need to guard it at all costs. How refreshing! In a culture where sex is a commodity to be used at will with no regard for its proper context, and where marriage too often degrades into an arrangement of convenience, the Amish continue to preserve the biblical essence of marriage and family as the core strength of their own society.

As I struggle pastorally with what often seems like a steady parade of divorces and trial marriages (a.k.a. living together), the Amish commitment to these biblical ideals is enviable. While we feel so progressive compared to these 'backward folk,' in truth we are the ones who have missed the point of it all. Our "progression" is actually "regression," and we are systematically destroying our own society by disregarding its most basic building block and foundation.

The Amish remained steeped in tradition in these regards and in many others as well; a tradition and respect for the past they find stabilizing and reassuring in the midst of constant change. As I watch my church and denomination fight against the past and look longingly to other churches that seem so much more 'successful,' I realize that they are blindly racing into the future with no real security. Tradition gives stability to the church as it encounters a culture in constant flux. The Amish realize that some things do not need to change. Some practices and techniques remain timeless and deserve to be passed down rather than thrown away. Of all people the Amish may be one of the few groups today which understands how history is still a living aspect of a culture's future and survival. We can and should learn from our past and its elders.

Unfortunately we see the elders of our society as out of touch and often useless to progress. We set them aside as relics no longer needed as we embrace the amazing power of our technological wonders. The Amish do not reject advancement and technology, however. What they do is evaluate its impact on their culture and families and then decide its usefulness and appropriateness. Does it strengthen the bonds of family, or does it tear them apart? Does it encourage community and fellowship, or does it elevate individualism and selfish pride? Lutherans would do well to ask similar questions of those changes they see in their own churches. Do the new worship forms and programs elevate individualism and cater to every whim of the ever-changing tastes and trends, or do they strengthen the idea of community gathered as one around Word and Sacrament? In our day we lift the individual up as the ideal. We cater to what the occasional visitor demands. We possess an insatiable need to please everyone lest someone become bored or put off and desire to go elsewhere. Not so the Amish. Principles comes first. Individual tastes and desires bring pride which they fear more than anything else. Thus the clothing that makes all look the same, and the commitment to a "plain" lifestyle. We have much to learn from these people.

I often wonder if my commitment to historical and confessional Lutheranism is a dying tradition. One church after another abandons every semblance of what once identified my faith. Sanctuaries give way to "worship centers." Formal steps aside for informal. Reverence vanishes as the need to be relevant and current steps in its place. Will the little country churches remain as outposts to preserve what it left as the larger city churches move on without us? Perhaps I am a kind of Lutheran Amishman, of sorts, refusing to give up what worked so well for my ancestors and still seems invaluable today. I do not reject new advancements and techniques outright. I do not believe that faithfulness is enshrining the past in museum-level security. Yet I do realize that the present should always be evaluated by the past. Caution is not resistance. It is simply being responsible. I do not want to abandon my Lutheran faith to become Amish. That said, I do wish my church was a bit more like theirs in its respect for what it too often throws away like abandoned relics of a bygone era.

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