Interrogating an Anabaptist: Donald R. Clymer

As I mentioned previously I was going to present a number of interviews, I am entitling this segment Interrogating an Anabaptist. The reason for this is that during the 16th century, Reformation the primary ecclesiastical bodies namely Roman Catholicism and Protestantism would authorize and engage in the interrogation of die Täufer (Anabaptists) regarding their beliefs in order to determine whether they were “heretics” or lined up with their definition of Christianity. This generally led to the untimely death of the Anabaptists being questioned. In these installments, it is my desire to engage in a form of interrogation that would lead to truth, peace and life in place of false teachings, hostility and death.

Therefore I am happy to introduce my first Q&A with someone I consider a good friend, a fount of knowledge regarding the Mennonite Church and a fellow MennoNerd. This individual’s name is Donald R. Clymer but before we get into the questions and answers let’s take a quick look at his bio which reads:

drcl“Donald Clymer teaches Spanish and leads cross-cultural seminars for Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va. He has graduate degrees in Spanish literature and spiritual formation and has worked for Eastern Mennonite Missions and Mennonite Central Committee in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, and through reflection on his intercultural experiences, he has developed a passion for connecting spirituality to cross-cultural learning.”

Now without further ado, I will get right into the interrogating.

  1. Can you tell the readers about your experience growing up in the Mennonite Church?

I grew up in the Mennonite church of the 50s and 60s that was focused on non-conformity which meant a certain type of dress and restrictions on television, movies, bowling and organized sports. Nevertheless, there was a great emphasis on community, and our social life centered on church activities. We were secure in knowing that if we were in any sort of financial trouble through loss of job or illness, our church would help us out. There was an emphasis on service to others as well. We made school kits for less fortunate people, and worked to clean up and rebuild after natural disasters. I have many fond memories of growing in this ethnic culture in spite of the strictures against “the world.”

  1. How do you feel regarding the popularity of Anabaptism or what is being called Neo-anabaptism at present and do you think that if someone goes by that name they should at least take an in-depth look at the historical materials from the individuals in which that designation originally applies?

I am tickled pink that my heritage is being discovered by people across the Christian spectrum. Because of some of the excesses of maintaining the “Ordnung” or “doctrines” of the church, many ethnic Mennonites have left the church. This is true in my own family; of the eleven children, only four remain in the church. Popular was never a word associated with our movement, because Mennonites were considered (and still are by many) a sect by mainstream US American culture.

Perhaps popular will never be an appellation given to Anabaptists, because if  a new “Schwärmer” (what Luther called the new converts to Anabaptism) actually reads the historical documents and sees how costly the discipleship is to which my forbearers committed, they may indeed back down from such a commitment. My forbearers gave their lives for such commitments. Even thought they grew by leaps and bounds back in the 16th Century, they were not very popular with the authorities. Their discipleship involved taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. I sincerely believe that if a Christian really took the Sermon on the Mount seriously, they would probably not be very popular in our current cultural climate—or any for that matter. The Sermon on the Mount is counter-cultural. I try my best to live up to its demands, but I know that I do not live up to the kind of commitment that my forbearers had.

  1. Lately the Mennonite Church has made some controversial decisions. Such as allowing women pastors, and recently the licensing of the first openly gay or lesbian pastor, what are your thoughts on that matter?

The original Anabaptists had many women leaders, simply because the male leaders were killed off because of their beliefs. I think women should be allowed to exercise fully the gifts they have been given by God.

Regarding the licensing of an openly gay pastor, I have mixed feelings. My biggest fear is that MCUSA will lose a significant number of churches. I do not want that to happen. I am also torn because I saw the struggle of a gay friend who has many gifts for ministry that have been thwarted because of the church’s position on same sex relationships. I know that among the majority of young adults whom I teach, it is not an issue. In fact, they would consider leaving a non-inviting Mennonite church.

I see the issue somewhat like the head covering that was required of women in the Mennonite church of my youth. 1. Cor. 11 is pretty clear about the need for women to have their head covered during prayer. My grandmother was so convinced of the importance of this scripture that she wore her veiling to bed. This is considered a cultural practice by the majority of the Christian church and is not followed anymore. I think that the homosexual issue is a cultural one, and like divorce and remarriage, will eventually be a non-issue for most churches.

Having said that, I will continue to support the Mennonite Confession of Faith until there is a movement to change it within the larger body.

  1. A few other matters that have always been rather controversial are the Mennonite view of separation and the ban. At present, some have moved away from these practices, do you think this is a move in a positive direction in a negative one?

The ban was never used in my church, at least not in my life time. Excommunication was, which in many levels is more severe than the ban. After watching parts of the series on the Amish on PBS’s American Experience, it is clear that the ban can be abused. I am in favor of the original intent of the ban, which was to make the estranged member of the community miss the fellowship of the group so much that they longed to be restored to full fellowship. The motivation behind that is love and forgiveness. However, it has been used too often as a way to get rid of non-conformists in a vindictive sort of manner.

It would be extremely difficult for any group in our country today to have the kind of community that can make the use of the ban effective. We are FAR too individualistic, and that includes all the ethnic Mennonites that I know. We know way too little about living in true community. The Hutterites, the Amish, and a few Old Order branches of Mennonites, who are mostly rural and related to agricultural employment, have an understanding of community.

  1. I happen to know that you have a specialized focus in Spiritual formation. How have pursuing this area of focus benefitted you in your relationship with God?

When I was torn out of my ethnic background to serve with the Mennonite Church in Honduras, I was traumatized by the oppression and poverty I saw there, and by my own government’s involvement in keeping the oppressive systems in place. I didn’t like the Evangelicals’ answer to poverty—wait for things to be straightened out in heaven. I became enamored by liberation theology and Marxist analysis of social systems. The hope of these two movements were brutally crushed by Reagan in the 80s, propping up some of the most brutal dictatorships known to humankind in every country in Latin America save a few. I became hard and cynical. I needed to restore some hope.

I turned inward instead of outward and discovered, through Jungian dream analysis, that I had as much propensity to hate, be racist, kill and lust as all the people I was condemning. I discovered Christian writers like Morton Kelsey, who used Jungian depth psychology which had really intrigued me and helped me, to develop spiritual disciplines of prayer and contemplation along with dream work. I became so intrigued by this that I went to seminary to specialize in spiritual formation and to train to become a spiritual director. Through this study, and now through my writing, I have been able to turn my cynicism to joy. I have also returned to a better balance of outward activism and inner contemplation; part of the “third way” for which Anabaptists are known.

  1. Have you looked into the historical connections the Mennonite Church had with the Wesleyanism and/or German Pietism? If so what can you share?

I have not done much work on these two influences. I know that the Brethren in Christ movement is a splinter off the Mennonites because of Wesleyan influence, particularly sanctification. I also know that German pietism seeped into Mennonite thought as a way to justify their “Stille im Lande” posture; inner piety rather that outward activism or evangelism.

  1. I understand that Celtic Spirituality has been a big part of your studies, has there been anything that you learned that you rejected because of it going too far away from those teachings or practices you learned while growing up as a Mennonite?

With Celtic spirituality, I am finding more parallels than contradictions with Anabaptist/Mennonite thought. Celtic spirituality is tribal, and as such is more attuned to community, nature and God’s goodness than most of modern Christendom. If one would look at the Amish, and some other Anabaptist groups that still hold to a more tribal existence, we would find a spirituality that has much more in common with Celtic spirituality than the individualistic Christian evangelicalism or Catholicism. Mennonites had the same tribal spirituality until they abandoned the farm and rural communities at about the middle of the 20th Century.

  1. Since you have extensive experience abroad in such places as Latin America and Europe. How have these experiences assisted you in becoming an effective minister and servant inside the Body of Christ and outside of it?

First and foremost, it has made more tolerant and accepting of varying ways of viewing reality. It has helped me to see how many things which we consider to be Biblical are really cultural, or interpreted culturally. Even such black-and-white issues as “thou shalt not steal” depends on how you define personal property culturally. I wrote a blog post on my experience with this.

Secondly, it has helped me to be a better communicator—especially a listener. I’ve had to learn two different languages, and two dialects of one of them. In order to do this, I’ve had to shut my mouth and listen. I have become a compassionate listener.

Thirdly, I have become sensitized to the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. The subtitle of my book Meditations on the Beatitudes is “lessons from the margins.” I include many stories of walking with people who society would like to leave on the dung heap, and how I noticed that they live the beatitudes more faithfully than the majority of those of us who are in middle class US America. Therefore, we have a lot to learn from them. We can’t learn from them if we don’t walk alongside them.

  1. While serving as an assistant professor at Eastern Mennonite University thus allotting you a lot of teaching experience, can you share with the readers anything you picked up that could be employed to become a better teacher of God’s Word? 

For me the key to teaching is motivation. The best way to motivate students is to encourage them with positive feedback. I had a student who was struggling in one of my classes, and I told him that I saw how hard he was working and that I appreciated that. His face lit up like a light bulb. “I have never had any teacher before tell me anything like that.” Applying this to teaching God’s Word, I try to remember that everyone, no matter how annoying, is made in God’s image. I try to have my own God image touch the other person’s God image. This is spiritual formation at its most basic and at its best.

  1. 10.  You also are a writer and have contributed to several journals and have your published book Meditations on the Beatitudes: Lessons from the Margins. What advice can you provide to aspiring writers like me regarding the whole writing process?medidc[1]

 

The thing that I continually come back to is something that Henri Nouwen quotes often in his work: “What is most personal is most universal.” We often think that our inner struggles with identity and sin are too shameful to reveal to the public. But when we make ourselves vulnerable and openly write about these struggles, we touch the souls of others. Henri Nouwen has sold more books on spiritual formation than any other writer, and it is precisely because he openly shared his doubts and struggles. People could identify with him, so they thought, if such a well-educated and religious man struggled like me, I can listen to his advise.

In addition, it is good to practice some writing every day. Keep a journal, even if it is not something that will get published. Practice, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect is the saying, and like any skill (learning language, learning a sport, learning to type), one needs to practice a little every day.

  1. You are also a blogger, and at this time could you share a little about your blog where to locate it and what someone can expect to find there?

My blog can be found at http://donrclymer.blogspot.com/. My passion is the intersection of cross-cultural experience with spirituality, but my blog is more than that. I like to reflect on what it means to be an Anabaptist in a post-modern, post-Christendom world. I like to write about Jungian psychology and its intersection with faith for me. I like to explore Celtic spirituality, the Christian sort, with my own walk with spirituality. I like to write about my experiences in Latin America.

My blog is a way for me to practice writing. I have dozens of blogs that have been started and never finished or published. Maybe someday I will complete them.

  1. Finally, are there any concluding thoughts you would like to leave everyone with regarding Mennonites, Anabaptism and faith in general?

I have a deep love for my church. I realize that part of it is “bred in the bones,” that is, it’s in my DNA. In my chapter in the forth-coming book however, I write about how I became more than an ethic Mennonite with the right DNA. I became enamored with, and converted by the theology that my heritage espouses.

Related to this, I want to say how energized it makes me feel to see Neo-Anabaptists learning to love the theology of my heritage. I call them “convinced Anabaptists” as opposed to Ethnic Anabaptists. Their zeal for the Anabaptist distinctives far exceeds many of my fellow Mennonites who were born into the faith. They are Anabaptists because they went through a process of evaluating what their faith means, and came out with an Anabaptist position. They are more missional because they know what they believe and are excited about it. They desire to share this new-found belief with others. Unfortunately my church tradition, the Mennonites, has had a long history of being silent because of the persecution of our forbearers. We are afraid that sharing our faith, which is radically counter-cultural, will cause more persecution. New converts, on the other hand, gladly proclaim their faith, like the early Anabaptists, without considering the consequences.

 


[1] Clymer, D. (2013, December) “Resting in the Presence of God: Soul Care for Busy People,”Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction. (pp. 24-31).

Clymer, D. (2013, July). Entertaining Angels. The Mennonite16(7).

Clymer, D. “Male spirituality: a personal journey toward wholeness,” accepted April 2013 for future publication in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction.

Clymer, D. (2012, December). Where is your Heart?. The Mennonite 15(12).

Clymer, D. (2012, May). Presence, Patience, Prayer. Connections: Spiritual Directors International 21(1) (pp. 10-12).

Clymer, D. (2011, October). As you go . . .are you preaching or walking? . The Mennonite 14(10).

Book. Clymer, D. Meditations on the Beatitudes: Lessons from the Margins:. Cascadia (2011).

Clymer, D. (2011, April). Do you understand what I have done for you?. The Mennonite 14(4).

Clymer, D. (2011, March). “Music and Spiritual Direction,” Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction. (pp. 34-38).

Clymer, D. (2011, February 22). Prayer for Patience and Hope in a Confusing World. Weekly Prayer for Peace. Peace and Justice Network of Mennonite Church USA.

Clymer, D. (2010, March 11). Morning Prayer for Orientation in a Broken World. Weekly Prayer for Peace. Peace and Justice Network of Mennonite Church USA.

Clymer, D. (2010, February). Young adults: We stand amazed in their presence. The Mennonite 13(2).

Clymer, D. (2009, July). Gastfreundschaft: In den Fußstapfen Jesu Online, 2/2009_.

Clymer, D. (2009, June). For I was a stranger and you invited me in. The Mennonite 12(12), 8-10.

Clymer, D. (2009, April). Prayer changes things. The Mennonite 12(8), 14-15.

Also appeared in OurFaithDigest.org, June 2009

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