MEYRIN, Switzerland (AMBS/Mennonite Mission Network) – Philippe Gonzalez found that a few words can dramatically reorient life, whether they are spoken by an academic advisor or part of daily prayer.
The discovery of Anabaptism in John Howard Yoder’s writings and in Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book brought the precious, but disconnected, pieces of Gonzalez’s faith together, transforming a “desperately dissatisfied” man into an enthusiastic Christian and Mennonite preacher.
Variations of Gonzalez's "aha" echo from east and west as the new prayer book finds its way into the hands of Christians around the world eager to translate for their own communities.
When his Christian Ethics professor suggested that Gonzalez – a sociologist and theologian –write his dissertation on political theology, Gonzalez immediately thought of a book whose title had long intrigued him, Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.
“I couldn’t stop reading,” Gonzalez said. “Yoder was bridging the gap between my sociology and theology, the gap that cut my spirituality off from the real world. It had always seemed to me that Jesus just came out of the blue to save individual souls without caring about the way we live together in society.”
Within months, Gonzalez had read all of Yoder’s works that he could find.
Gonzalez search for more Yoder publications led him to the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary Web site. There, he discovered Take Our Moments, published last November.
This prayer book also bridged gaps in the Christian traditions that Gonzalez encountered throughout his life. Born to non-practicing Catholic parents, Gonzalez grew to love Bible reading through the influence of his paternal grandmother, Carmen Estevez. She also set him an example of living out faith by mediating village conflicts. Seated in her kitchen, people would find a sympathetic listener to their stories of difficulty.
“She was an uncommon woman,” Gonzalez said. “Though she lived a very modest life in this tiny village lost in northern Spain, she read the Bible. In this very Catholic, very conservative country oppressed by Franco’s dictatorship, you wouldn’t expect a person like her to even own a Bible, much less to read it.”
However, his parents moved from Spain and Gonzalez grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, a bastion of Protestantism. He read theology and actively participated in an evangelical church but, with time, became desperately dissatisfied with the lack of a social component in all the faith expressions he encountered.
“My sociology started messing with my theology. Protestantism, whether conservative or liberal, seems to suffer from the same disease: an excessive liberalism, too much emphasis on the individual and almost none on the community,” Gonzalez said.
It was at this crucial moment in his life that Gonzalez discovered Anabaptism through Yoder’s writing and Take Our Moments.
“Anabaptism allowed me to remain faithful to both my Catholic and Protestant roots, combining the spiritualities that shaped my life,” Gonzalez said.
Despite an overwhelming workload that includes completing his doctoral dissertation in sociology, parenting two preschool children and serving as a preacher in the Saint-Genis-Pouilly Mennonite Church, Gonzalez is translating the Anabaptist prayer book into French.
Gonzalez lists many reasons the translation of the prayer book is important to him and the church:
• “It provides for a communal discipline deeply rooted in an Anabaptist understanding of the Christian faith, so it works both on spirituality and identity.”
• “There are not many French Protestant prayer books available and, even fewer, that follow the cycles of the liturgical year which I love.”
• “The prayer book draws from the more universal, or Catholic, spiritual treasures of the church: monasticism, the Taizé and Iona communities.”
• “With Take Our Moments, we worship in communion with Mennonite brothers and sisters around the world.”
• “The influence of evangelicalism on French Mennonitism is so strong that it sometimes threatens our Anabaptist roots.”
• “It really is a beautiful work that will help us, if we let the Spirit of God shape us through its prayers, to stay deeply Anabaptist and, at the same time, profoundly committed to an ecumenical agenda.”
Gonzalez has completed the translation of the two weeks of prayers out of a four-week cycle. The first week of the French translation can be found on the webpage of the Centre Mennonite de Paris (Paris Mennonite Center).
Before beginning the translation, Gonzalez consulted with Eleanor Kreider, a member of the editorial group who compiled the prayer book. All of those who donated time to this labor of love over the past four years have connections to AMBS.
Kreider, who served with Mennonite Board of Missions (a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network) in the United Kingdom from 1974-2001, said, “The prayer book has definitely taken on a life of its own. We had such a good time compiling it and now we offer it back to the wider church.”
Janie Blough and Linda Oyer, who have served with Mennonite Mission Network and its predecessor agencies in France since 1975 and 1988 respectively, have joined Gonzalez and Michel Sommer, editor of the French Mennonite publication Christ Seul, to work toward the publication of Take Our Moments in French.
Simonas Kiela, a Free Christian Church pastor, discovered Take Our Moments during morning prayer at LCC International University, formerly, Lithuania Christian College. He has begun translating the prayer book into Lithuanian.
“I think this is a great tool for developing prayer life and for spiritual formation in our tradition,” Kiela said. “Since it is in line with developing Anabaptist spirituality, I jumped at it and began translation.”
Mennonite Mission Network has been sending administrative and teaching personnel to LCCIU, a four-year liberal arts college in Klaipeda, Lithuanina, since 1995.
In Japan, Mennonite Mission Associate Ray Epp is coordinating a grassroots effort to translate the prayer book as many members of the Japan Mennonite Christian Church Conference have a longing to deepend their spiritual lives. Yorifumi Yaguchi, the celebrated Mennonite poet and pastor serves as advisor to the project.
“Religious life is often believed to be a private matter in Japan and in most developed countries. I would like to see the book used in corporate prayer in the churches [and], as individuals pray, they may sense that they are connected with the communion of the saints throughout the world and throughout time,” said Epp.
Epp leads Menno Village, a Christian community near Sapporo, that models community-based alternatives to the dominant political food economy. He also teaches at Rakuno Gakuen University.
The words of the prayer book are taken almost exclusively from biblical passages, facilitating translation. Each week’s cycle highlights an aspect of Jesus’ teaching: the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, the parables and the miracles.
“We work within the framework of the great Christian traditions,” Kreider said, “but our Anabaptist tradition comes through as we focus on the voice of Jesus."
The prayer book committee also chooses biblical themes that were important to the 16th-century Anabaptists; discipleship, peace and reconciliation, economic sharing, service and mercy and hope.
The first volume of Take Our Moments offers prayers for ordinary time. A draft of the second volume, prayers for the festival seasons of the church year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost), is available for testing. Both volumes can be downloaded from the AMBS Web site or purchased from Mennonite Cooperative Bookstore.
Herald Press plans to publish the two volumes as a set in 2010.