Like her grandmother, Lucinda J. Miller wears long dresses and a prayer covering. But she uses a cellphone and posts status updates on Facebook, too. Anything but Simple is the riveting memoir of a young woman’s rich church tradition, lively family life, and longings for a meaningful future within her Mennonite faith. With a roving curiosity and a sometimes saucy tongue, Miller ushers us into her busy life as a young schoolteacher.
Book 5 in the Plainspoken series. Hear straight from Amish and Mennonite people themselves as they write about their daily lives and deeply rooted faith in the Plainspoken series from Herald Press. Each book includes “A Day in the Life of the Author” and the author’s answers to FAQs about the Amish and Mennonites.
About the Author
Lucinda J. Miller is a writer, teacher, blogger, and member of a conservative Mennonite community in Wisconsin. She teaches elementary school at the Sheldon Mennonite Church, and her writing has appeared in Daughters of Promise and Red Cedar Literary Journal. Her children’s book, The Arrowhead, is forthcoming from Christian Light Publications. Connect with her at lucindajmiller.com
Read an Excerpt
Anything But Simple
My Life as a Mennonite
By Lucinda J. Miller
Herald PressCopyright © 2017 Lucinda J. Miller
All rights reserved.
I USED TO WONDER, when I was young, what it would be like if the whole world were Mennonite.
What if you'd go past a gas station and see Mennonites there, pumping gas? And what if you'd go into the grocery store and there were only Mennonite families doing the shopping? The dads in the lead, smiling in a friendly sort of way and wearing long-sleeved dress shirts like the men wore to church, the wives in their dresses and head coverings, pushing heaped carts down the aisles, children gathered around them in bundles.
What if you never had to worry about anyone stealing from you or doing bad things, because everyone obeyed Jesus? (As, in my childish mind, I assumed all Mennonites did.) And what if everywhere you went — to the ocean, to the park, to California — it was like you were meeting family, because everyone was just like you?
Was that how it was to be a normal American kid: to look around and feel that you were a part of things and that the whole world reflected your own?
All my life, I have known how to think within the context of two cultures. "You live in two worlds," my best friend told me once — "Like the English-as-a-second-language students I used to teach."
Strange that I call her my best friend. I am a member of one of the most devoutly religious groups on earth, and she tells me sometimes that she is an atheist. But she understands many things, and about living in two worlds, she is right.
The first world, the world of my birth, is a pure world. Simple. Dedicated to God.
At least, that is the ideal. Conservative Mennonites make a career of simplicity like some people make a career of being a neurosurgeon or defense lawyer. Sometimes — with our plain dress, our avoidance of worldly entertainment, our public image of down-home cooking and good hard work — we believe we have achieved it.
"But if you try for simplicity, is it simple anymore?" another friend asked. And truthfully, I have seldom seen such a complex code of laws, both written and unwritten, as exists within my denomination. The Pharisees of Jesus' day might be an excellent comparison: a Jewish sect so dedicated to following the holy Law of Moses they developed many traditions of their own. These traditions, meant to clarify the original commandments, were so detailed as to dictate how many steps one was allowed to take, or how many letters one was allowed to write on the Sabbath.
In our Mennonite world also, everything matters. Clothes matter most of all because they define you. They define you in society as "separate," and they define you in Mennonite circles as part of a certain fellowship or conference, a certain level of liberal or conservative. Even something as seemingly insignificant as whether or not a man's top shirt button is closed during a church service can become an important issue in certain church groups. In our world, every decision is given excruciating examination in light of the Bible and the church.
If not a completely simple world, ours is at least a safe one. All the edges are sewed shut. All the answers line up as long as you stay within its parameters. It is only when I step outside my safe Mennonite world and into larger American culture that life gets screwy and confusing, that I wander through forests and lean sobbing over tree stumps because the world hurts me and I cannot understand it.
This, my second world, is characterized by autonomy, individualism, a drive to the top, and in my generation, a wide-open acceptance of all moralities. By birthright, I have inherited both mindsets.
It is on the thin crust, the fault line that lies between the two worlds, that all my battles lie.
People from the outside often seem to have the idea that one is born Mennonite and remains that way, on a level with being born black or Jewish or female. Actually, many conservative Mennonites and other Plain people experience a real battle between cultures. They make a conscious decision to embrace their parents' lifestyles or not, according to their own deeply held beliefs.
For me, the battle has never been over dress codes or entertainment guidelines or any of the other rules that define a "Plain" people. I don't much care what I wear, as long as it is clean and pretty. If I have a book in my hands and lots of space to think and write, I will be happy.
Instead, my battle has been a thought war waged between the two sides of myheart.
One side is the earnest missionary, which believes there is nothing so noble as throwing oneself upon the altar of sacrifice and continuing the long Mennonite tradition of service to others, of reaching out to the poor and underprivileged. This side of me would gladly live out the long years of my life in the slums of Port Au Prince or the most forsaken wastelands of Siberia, if only for the privilege of winning one or two souls for the Lord.
The other side is the aspiring author and intellectual, just a little bit ashamed of being a part of a people group so socially backward as to still believe in creation or that God designed the woman to be helpmeet to the man. This side wants desperately to achieve fame among the people who matter: to be listed on the New York Times bestseller list, to be placed in anthologies and translated into Portuguese, to be discussed in colleges a hundred and twenty years from now.
Do you think it funny, a little pathetic perhaps, for me — a shy Mennonite girl — to dream so high above my station?
If so, you have little understanding of the universal nature of human.
"No man can serve two masters," Jesus said. "For either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other" (Matthew 6:24).
Jesus may have known what he was talking about, but for much of my life, straining my limbs to embrace two allegiances, I have been trying to prove him wrong.
And I am surely not the only Mennonite, or the only person, whose archenemy is herself.
Even my father — who from childhood was my hero — struggled. I remember when I first heard him tell the story of his past. It was a story that had power to move me, and to influence my worldview for all times, because he was my dad.
* * *
I was eleven years old. Or maybe I was nine or ten or twelve — I can't be sure. What I am sure of is sitting in the auditorium of the Sheldon Mennonite Church on one of our varnished wooden pews — those pews I loved on sunny Sunday mornings when mellow sun rays burnished them gold — and listening to words like punches, like Cain's song that grabbed your insides and twisted them double, coming from my dad's lips.
My dad was a poet, you see, who stood at the pulpit and moved us with his voice, stretched us up to our tiptoes, down to our tears, who made us cringe sometimes — at least if you were his daughter and concerned about what people would think — because he was so very honest. He was smoother than the other preachers — more polished in his manner and not likely to drop an "ain't" or an "I seen" into his message — but he said things the others wouldn't say.
This Sunday he told us about his past, and it was a past I had never imagined or guessed. I was not too far beyond the age of believing things were always as they were. I even thought, when I was very young, that Dad and Mom had been brother and sister when they were children and then gone ahead and got married. Because who could imagine them apart?
Dad, I thought, would have grown up loving Mom. He would have grown up handsome and godly and wise, just as he was now — smarter than any other person in the world.
And now he stood trim, black-suited, dark-haired behind the pulpit, his forehead shining like God himself, and told us that when he was seven he'd told his dad he wanted to go to hell. Told us that when he was an adolescent he hated his Mennonite parents and their Mennonite rules and vowed never to be a Mennonite himself. That when he was fourteen and his mom tried to discipline him, he beat her until she was black and blue. (Plump, auburn-haired Marcy, seated on the bench ahead of us, gasped and gave a tiny, out-loud laugh, like she always did at surprising places in a sermon.) His mom — I imagined her plump and short and old, as I knew her now — had called his dad. And he — a black-haired teen with a face I couldn't picture — had run out the door and away. And then his dad had come home and they'd called the cops. Because what else could they do? Neither of them knew how to handle him anymore.
We listened, rapt. No sleepers on the men's side of the auditorium today. On our side, no girls doodling on notepads or poking each other or passing silly messages down the row. Even the babies were quiet.
Dad's voice dipped into sorrow, and we moved with it. He told us he didn't know what had gone wrong, but maybe part of the problem was that he'd always hidden his badness inside himself. He'd always acted the part of good boy, always been his mother's pet. "I never had my will broken when I was young," he said. "God had to break it for me when I got older, and it was a hard, hard lesson."
His bent face, the halting lift of his voice through tears, hurt, thrilled, embarrassed me.
I cried too, silently. I couldn't help it, because my dad, whom I loved, was crying. I stared straight ahead with puddles in my eyes, willing the tears back into my eyeballs and swiping furtively at the trails on my cheeks, trying to hold body and head perfectly straight so no one sitting behind could see my face. And then I blinked, and the tears were gone, and I looked around relieved and saw that Mom and Dora were crying, too.
Dad did not tell us much of what he had done after that, only that the judge — a foolish young man who didn't know better — had taken his side and blamed my grandparents.
"They won't let me go to high school," Dad had told the court: very smooth, very convincing. And it was true. He wanted to go to the public high school in the nearby town of Goshen so he could hang out with non-Mennonite kids, but his parents wouldn't let him.
Eventually he got his way and was sent to live in a foster home. "I went down, down, down," he said. "I still carry the scars of some of the things I was involved in today. God had to take me to the end of myself. And when I was at the bottom he showed me what I would become, and I said, 'God, I don't want that.' And at that point I gave up and gave my life to him."
His voice had cleared now, strengthened.
"We want our will soft before God, so we don't have to experience the hurt that comes when he has to break it for us.
"Even as adults, we can never escape authority. If you are part of a church, you have chosen to place yourself under the authority of the ministry there. The Bible clearly says to honor our church leaders and submit to them. Doesn't mean you have to agree, but you can still respect. If you don't, your children will never learn to respect your authority, either. And worse, someday they won't listen to God."
I knew who Dad was talking about.
I thought of John Lester, the bishop of our church, remembered his wide pockmarked face and the lips that turned down when he stood up front and shook his head, grieved at the way the church was going. Those lips always reminded me of a turtle's, peaked like a beak and down-turned.
Sometimes, when the phone rang and John Lester's number popped up on the caller ID, Dad would run out the door, yelling, "Tell him I'm out!" and would stand just outside until the message was relayed.
Not a lie, really. He was out.
But other times, John Lester would call and Dad would answer the phone and talk a long time while he voiced his concerns, us children propped against walls, listening. It might be the too-short socks the girls were starting to wear, or the too-small head covering of a particular sister in the church, or the Easter program the schoolteachers wanted to do. We'd never done one before, and it was just a step towards worldliness, perhaps.
Some of the dads thought John Lester was overstepping his position as bishop, focusing on trivial rules instead of the Bible. Other dads, concerned with how worldly the church was becoming, agreed with him. Those were the dads who kept an eagle eye on their own children and the rest of us, too, "approaching" the parents of the ones who got out of line with a warning or reprimand.
I was glad my dad wasn't like that.
My dad always told us what was said in all the long ministers' meetings he attended, laughed with us at the foibles of those stern old and conscientious young men, explained to us just why they thought the way they did so we could understand them. My dad answered our questions, made us think we were in this thing together.
"Why can't we wear sandals to the school picnic?" Dora or Jennie might ask. Dora was sixteen now, and in the youth group, and Jennie was fourteen and would go next year. Or "Why can't we go hear the Gospel Echoes Quartet? It's not in the Bible."
"Because John Lester is our authority, and the Bible says to respect our authority," Dad might tell us. Or, "Paul said, 'If meat makes my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth.'" Or — what was probably truer than anything — "We don't want to be in the limelight. As long as we're careful and watch what we do, we won't be in the limelight and they won't bother us, but once you get in the limelight, you never get out."
And now he was standing at the pulpit, explaining to my friends some of the same things he explained to us: not the limelight part, of course, but the other parts, about respecting authority and other people's convictions. His voice was strong and moved from his soul, and his forehead was holy, and his face dark and handsome and smart-looking behind his glasses.
As always, after the sermon, Dad asked us to kneel for prayer — presenting a great opportunity, as we turned to the backs of our pews, to glimpse the moving faces of people behind us. I saw that Bridget, Jennie's friend, was just coming in red-eyed from the vestibule, a tissue in her hand. Some of the other ladies had been crying, too.
Calvin, a stocky dark farmer with the cuffs of his long-sleeved dress shirt open and turned back once at the wrist to relieve the tightness, got up to lead the closing hymn. We all sang with him as fervently as if we had just come through revival meetings, pushing our sadness, our uncertainty, our shock, our wonder, our damnation and determination out into the air with the bass and alto and soprano.
Afterwards, we breathed easier and smiled and talked and laughed — reveling in normalcy now that the tension was past. "That was just what I needed," VaLita, who was Dora's age, said.
"I never knew all those things," Dora said on the way home from church.
"I guess it's hard for me to talk about," Dad said.
And he didn't talk of it again for a very long time.CHAPTER 2
A Girl Out in the Hills
I HAD GOOD REASON to think, when I was a child, that Dad and Mom had always lived together: I had never seen them apart. I was seven when Mom's only brother — one among nine sisters — got married, and she flew with the baby to Virginia to attend his wedding.
I remember the magnitude of the occasion, remember hearing how Mom cried because she missed Dad and the rest of us. She had never before spent a night away from Dad. Except for the times she went to the hospital to have another baby — and that was different.
When Mom was having another baby, Dad was always there with her during the birth. Then, after chores that evening or the next morning, he'd take us children to town to see it. We would all have been praying for this child months before its arrival: "God bless Dad, Mom, Dora, Jennie, Luci, Kathy (or whoever else was the youngest at the time) and the next new baby." Our excitement would have risen, with the departure of Mom and Dad for the hospital, to heart-pounding, gender-guessing, future-predicting heights.
Excerpted from Anything But Simple by Lucinda J. Miller. Copyright © 2017 Lucinda J. Miller. Excerpted by permission of Herald Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction to Plainspoken 9
Author's Note 11
1 Cain's Song 17
2 A Girl out in the Hills 23
3 His Own Peculiar Calling 33
4 A Conscientious Lot 39
5 The Heights of a Mind 48
6 Dorky Schoolbook Snorky 53
7 Sacred Things 64
8 Myself 72
9 Another Turtle Bishop 78
10 My Dreams So Large and I So Small 85
11 Home Again, Home Again 93
12 Someone Waving Hairy Arms 100
13 Charlene, My Friend 108
14 A Story to Rock the World 114
15 Little Girl or Atheist 121
16 Don't Cry for Me 132
17 An Open Window 141
18 A Desire to Be Named 148
19 What We Own 155
20 What We Watch Die 165
21 Someone as Smart as God 172
22 Apple Trees 180
A Day in the Life of the Author 185
FAQs about Mennonites: The Author Answers 191
The Author 195