I loved a woman named Edna Mertz. I don’t remember her as a child, but as an adult I came to know her when I returned to pastor my childhood church she attended all her life.
She never left Fort Wayne, Indiana, where her family had deep roots. She was frail, blind, lived in a nursing home and somehow arranged for transportation to church each Sunday. She often rose to recite a poem from memory—one she had written or one she wished she had—usually leaving us speechless at her presentation with her beaming face and unfocused eyes.
My visits with her were memorable too, usually leading to more recitations and stories that unpacked her surprisingly interesting life.
She came from a family of musicians. They played piano, guitar, and if I recall properly, accordion and harmonica. That might not seem all that strange, but this was a plain Mennonite congregation. An acapella one. No instruments when the congregation sang. No adornment. No frivolity (other than big pieces of pie with ice cream). No wedding rings. Plain dress.
But her family kept on playing and singing. Edna and her father played piano and guitar, following the score at the Rialto theater for the silent pictures on Saturday nights (she was that old!) and then showing up for worship on Sundays.
I’m not sure how they were able to go unchastised during their years of doing this. Perhaps they were chastised. But there was no dimming of Edna’s spirit. By the time I knew her, most all of those prohibitions that were railed against in her young adult years were normal modes of operation. The congregation had a piano and organ. There were flutes and trumpets and even an occasional liturgical dance. Folks went to movies, wore jeans and drove whatever car they wanted.
Of course, Edna wanted the old hymns of her youth, none of that newfangled off the wall stuff. Nothing electronic thank you very much. And the congregation wasn’t sure it wanted to buy computers. Who would use such a luxury anyway? What was data and why would we want to track it?
A little search through history shows us, repeatedly, that previous prohibitions give way and new ones find their place. People who once thought themselves progressive rebels find themselves on the conservative side over and against new possibilities.
- Consider the rural Canadian Bible College where I once spoke for a youth convention. The college coffee shop was decorated with old Coca Cola trays hung on the walls, complete with the bathing beauties that were considered scandalous and near pornographic back in their time. Now they were just rustic, harmless decorations.
- My first wife’s family have stories of moonshine activity during the Prohibition years — presided over by the family matriarch with her old world ways. By the time I entered the family, this criminal activity was completely sanitized and a source of good humor.
- Tattoos and piercings were expressly frowned upon during my childhood years. They were embarrassing to those who had them and needed to be covered up in public if people wanted to remain employed. Now they are everywhere. My children have them. They are on grandmothers who tell their grandchildren stories about how they got them and what they mean.
- Cable television and HBO are the new Sunday night activity. Seventy years ago it was the special programming that congregations held and television was a suspicious technology that conservative folk thought would ruin family life. Now church folk greet each other talk about the latest episodes they binge stream, many of which explicitly contravene the very religion they practice-ish. Instead of passing the peace won through atoning sacrifice, they recount blood-bathed episodes and wonder where the story will go.
- And, we have a new prudery in what may be the most sexually casual and pornographic era ever. There are so many more sexual options and approaches, and yet the evidence is people are finding enjoyment in actual coitus far less frequently, and with all sorts of contributing and complicating factors. Harassment is being called out and persecuted even as sex traffic becomes a bigger-than-ever business.
- Sometimes the acceptable becomes unacceptable and then acceptable again. For instance, my grandfather was opposed to beards, but the grandfathers to his generation all had them and got elected as Presidents. Now, thanks to the hipsters, beard oil is ubiquitous. The rebellious beard I grew in 1982 and still have doesn’t mean anything special today.
Let’s notice a that a new morality comes into play right behind the old one, with just as much self-righteousness and Pharisaism. Styrofoam cups. Food that has to travel a long distance before it lands on your plate. GMO anything. Plastic use. Failure to recycle. Transgressors are confronted over these wrongs in the way I was told not to come to church in jeans, or early adopters of bible study apps were told to turn off their phones in church. Twenty years from now it will be something else we cannot accurately predict. The most self-righteous and harshest among us about environmental sin will find themselves eventually the target of someone else’s wrath.
What is right becomes wrong. What is right gets wrong attached to it. What is wrong results in good things. It’s such a confusion.
I’m becoming more confident that understandings of gender are more culturally bound and fluid than we care to admit. Just like beards or tattoos. It doesn’t matter where a person lands in their understanding of gender: progressive or conservative, equating gender with morality in some way or thinking it completely separate. The strong feelings and protests hold more than mere science or theology. They also tie to social construction and a person’s sense of identity.
Were she a young adult today I cannot help but think Edna Mertz would not have become the sainted, blind spinster poet of First Mennonite Church, but rather the tattooed, bisexual and celibate coffee hostess and prayer warrior of the congregation, if she attended church at all. And, still a saint.
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June 2, 2022