This article was comissionned and is copyrighted by the Anabaptist Center for History and Society, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. It is now an edited chapter in Making a Difference in the Journey, The Geography of Our Faith, the stories of fifteen Brethren and Mennonites.
Paragraphs from prefaces: In a world of complexity and unrelieved turmoil, a time when many are infected by despair and desperation, the last word must be given to Martin Lehman, a church bishop who dared to ask questions that were not allowed. He offers hope for the journey, citing I John 2:3 as the compass giving direction to his life: “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” Martin’s assurance is based on his own sense of the ending of the story. These marvelous accounts point to that “true light” for all of us on the journey. – Lee Snyder, President Emereritus, Blufton University; Academic Dean and Vice President, 1984-1995, and Interim President, 2016, Eastern Mennonite University; Author, At Powerline and Diamond Hill
In like manner, there is the honest struggle of Martin Lehman, who fought courageously and valiantly for the acceptance of sexually marginalized persons – a leader who came to change his traditional views and worked zealously to make room for these hurting people in a still reluctant religious community working through its prejudices and moral principles. His is a story of steadfast courage. Richard (Dick) Benner, editor and publisher Canadian Mennonite Magazine.
My Faith Journey
from Youthful Conformist to Senior Nonconformist
Martin W. Lehman, unedited version
While putting the final touches on this manuscript, the preacher in me told me that it needed a Bible text. A little search brought me to the following:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 NIV
This text reminds me to prepare to be questioned about what I believe, to welcome every opportunity to give a reason for my hope, and to be gentle and respectful always toward all who hear me.
I was born on March 14, 1926, in a small farm house in the slate hills west of the Conocheague Creek in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. My parents intended to name me Martin Weagley Lehman: Martin after my mother, Ruth Martin, Weagley after the country doctor who came to our house to preside over my birth, Lehman after J. Irvin Lehman, my father. But the good doctor had the final word. On my birth certificate he wrote, Martin W Lehman. That is my name and I feel kindly toward the old gentleman who named me.
Our family lived on a 35-acre, sustainable farm. As a boy I learned to milk the cow, churn ice cream and butter, and to trust honey bees. I slopped the hogs, gathered eggs, split wood, and decapitated and plucked chickens. I learned to build a compost pile with chicken litter. I worked in the garden. All vegetable refuse was composted and spread on our garden soil from which grew all manner of fruits and vegetables to be sold at the farmers’ market in Chambersburg and to the customers who sought us out.
My father gardened organically before organic gardening was popular. When asked why he gardened organically, he would say, “I am a Christian, and I don’t want to poison God’s earth.” I assume that the formation of my faith began with my parents’ understanding of practical ways to be Christian. My father was widely known as a conservative, but was described by historians Burdge and Horst as being aggressively progressive at home.
I was playing with some toys in an empty space on the church bench beside my mother when I became aware that the man in the pulpit was my father and that he was saying something important. I remember that moment and it may be that it was at that time that I received my first call to preach.
At age nine I stood to publicly accept Jesus as my Savior. I was baptized at age ten and became a member of the Marion Mennonite Church which belonged to Washington County, Maryland and Franklin County, Pennsylvania Conference. The conference was the smallest Mennonite conference. It was a troubled conference and its members disputed among themselves about many things.
My father was the secretary of the conference and often met with the bishops to record their actions. Nervous anticipation related to this work caused his beard to sometimes stop growing in spots. (I know because I watched him shave at the kitchen table with his straight-edged razor.) He regularly had an upset stomach as the annual conference sessions approached. My mother called it his conference stomach. This must have caused my distaste for divisions in the church to seed and begin to grow.
The Marion Church was said to be the most progressive congregation in the conference. It had an annual business meeting in which any member, whether man, woman or child, could nominate and vote for persons to fill offices in the Sunday School and church. My interest in the church as an organization may have begun when as a child of ten I voted with the adults on who should give leadership to the ministries of the church.
Life outside of my small circle in Franklin County began at Eastern Mennonite School. Sister Dorothy Kemrer introduced me to three years of Latin and hard study at Eastern Mennonite High School in 1940-43. My English vocabulary grew through knowledge of Latin roots.
In my freshman year of high school I got a brief glimpse of Rhoda Krady, daughter of D. Stoner and Francis Krady, when she visited EMS for one weekend. She returned as a student for her sophomore year, and then she left EMS for Lancaster Mennonite School for her junior year. But I pursued her by writing a letter to her on her sixteenth birthday. I will not mention Rhoda as often as she deserves in this treatise, but you must know that she is almost always by my side in fact and in thought.
On January 5, 1945, I entered Civilian Public Service at Grottoes, Virginia to do Soil Conservation Service. In May 1945, I was transferred to the forest service camp at North Fork, California. I was selected by lot (pulling names from an Amish hat) to be one of the several hundred conscientious objectors to go to California because of the danger of fires caused by Japanese fire bombs launched by balloon. We traveled by troop train.
We left Appalachia going via Chicago to Kansas where we connected with the Aitcheson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railway. We traveled through the level, green wheat fields of Kansas and the cacti growing, great desert of the southwest. The train took us north through the Mohave dessert to the San Juaquin Valley of California and ended at Fresno. We went by truck, as I recall, to North Fork, the headquarters of the Sierra National Forest and the home of CPS Camp No. 35. The vastness of America the beautiful was being imprinted on my mind.
Camp Grottoes was the first camp for conscientious objectors and had the most homogeneous population of all the camps. The North Fork camp was different. It had a wider range of Mennonites and Amish, and COs of other persuasions including Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Russian Molokans (“Christian Spiritual Jumpers”). The morale of the fellows who welcomed us might be measured by the following incident: on my first morning there I said “Good morning” to the man brushing his teeth next to me. He asked, “What’s so damn good about it?”
The highpoint of my life in California was four months on fire towers. I lived alone in cabins perched on steel towers. Each cabin had a cot, a gas stove, a short wave radio, a telephone, an Osbourne firefinder and was surrounded by a catwalk. I walked the catwalk and looked for smoke every 10 minutes of every waking hour. For many years afterward, if there was smoke on the horizon I saw it. It was an ingrained habit. I saw what I looked for.
I took with me my Bible and the black Mennonite Hymnal published in 1927. I read and reread the epistle to the Romans. Sixty years later I am still guided by what I read. It may be summed up as: all have sinned, and no law, not even a good and perfect law from God, can save me. The law of sin and death operates within me, exploits my weakness and seeks to seal my fate. Yet there is hope for me, for the law of life in Christ Jesus sets me free.
I spent part of each day singing through the hymnal. Some hymns were prayers, like, ”O Master let me Walk with Thee” and “Lord Speak to me that I may speak” These prayers were sung often and are evidence of the deep longing of my soul. The four months alone with God and the mountains were high points of my life.
Early December 1945, I was granted a month-long furlough and a bus ticket from Fresno, California to Gulfport, Mississippi by way of Greencastle, Pennsylvania. I traveled for six long days on that bus. I wondered if I would ever get out of Texas. On arriving home I borrowed my father’s car and went to Lancaster to see Rhoda Krady. East of Chambersburg I expected to go over South Mountain. It wasn’t there. My eagerness to get to Rhoda no doubt helped make the mountain disappear, but my visual perspective had changed so much that the mountains and trees of Appalachia didn’t look to me like they did less than a year before.
The furlough passed quickly and I was soon on my way by bus to the elite CPS unit at Gulfport, Mississippi. Fellow COs introduced me to the values of the old South. The state of Mississippi was governed by a free range law for cattle. I was told that a black woman was of less value than a cow. A driver who faced the dilemma of hitting either a black woman or a cow should strike the woman. There would be less difficulty in the courts.
My first assignment at Gulfport was to work with a small team of men that used red squill as a poison to control the rat population along the gulf coast. We gained entrance to white-owned mansions along the gulf coast and to the shacks of the descendants of slaves who lived in slum-like ghettos not far from the scenic gulf shore. After the rat eradication project I joined the camp’s kitchen staff. I washed dishes, graduated to meal preparation, and ended my civilian public service career as a dietician for the 40-50 person unit in Gulfport.
On my off time at Gulfport I wrote an original piece called The Antithesis of Job. As I recall it, the main character of my booklet was tested by his wealth, and the question was why was he blessed above others. He was admonished by brothers liberal, conservative and ultraconservative. I included it in my letters to Rhoda and she returned the drafts to me in her letters with commas put in their places along with other grammatical corrections. The Sword & Trumpet organization published it. George R. Brunk II described it as unusually mature thinking for a man so young. (I have no copy to refer to.)
October 10, 1945, was my last day in CPS. On April 5, 1946, Rhoda Miller Krady and I were married and began to put down roots in Franklin County. We built a cottage on a beautiful corner of my parent’s farm, purchased a well-preserved, one-owner 1931 Chevrolet coupe, and soon became the parents of a beautiful daughter that we named Rachel Elaine.
All this was interrupted by an invitation to attend Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission’s six week-long missionary training institute in Philadelphia. The training focused on practical methods of evangelism and church planting. Not many months after this training in Philadelphia we received a letter from Henry Garber, president of Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions. He invited us to his home to consider a call to serve as a mission superintendent couple either in Brewton, Alabama or Tampa, Florida. We knew some of the people serving in Alabama, so we decided on Brewton as our first choice. However Tampa turned out to be the only choice. A few hours before our arrival at the Garber home another couple had accepted the call to Brewton. This seems providential.
The mission superintendents in Alabama were mission-minded, but older than Rhoda and I, and change-resistant, and would have wanted us to stay the way we were. The mission superintendents who came to Florida tended to be younger, worked in cities or migrant communities, and were often willing and eager for change.
We sent Rachel’s crib ahead of us with a friend and crammed ourselves and our personal belongings into and on the coupe. We began our trip on February 1, 1950, and arrived on February 4. We knew we were venturing into a new phase of life. Over and over we sang a song we had learned at the Pond Bank Summer Bible School the summer before:
I will not be afraid;
I will not be afraid;
I will look upward,
And travel onward,
And not be afraid.
He says He will be with me;
He says He will be with me;
He goes before me,
And is beside me,
So I’m not afraid.
Yes, we were naïve, but the lyric confirmed our simple faith as we journeyed with our two-year old daughter and our few possessions into the unknown future.
Novice missionary that I was, I had in my baggage a belief system based on the verbal inspiration of the Bible. I believed that the Bible was to be taken at its word and allowed no divorces and no marriage after divorce, required covering a woman’s long hair, permitted no musical instruments in public worship, allowed no wedding rings or other jewelry and that a woman could not wear men’s clothing. This is only a partial listing of what I now acknowledge to be the dirty laundry in my luggage. (If you dislike my use of the term “dirty laundry,” please recall that the Apostle Paul listed his assets and called them “dung.”) Almost a year later, on the day before Christmas, I was ordained for ministry.
As I recall my preaching in the fifties, Jesus was preeminent. But the closer a convert came to church membership, the more likely I would display the dirty laundry in my luggage. The sad fact is that most candidates for church membership left the Mennonites for a Southern Baptist church. There one could go forward to confess faith in Jesus, and that very night or no later than the following Sunday could be baptized, baptized the right way, by immersion, and join the traditional religious culture of their ancestors.
A middle aged woman explained to us that as a teenager she had left the Mennonites for the Baptists because she knew she could not be that good. I still see the puzzled face of a sincere young man when I explained that before he could be baptized he must take the ring from his finger. He explained sadly, “but my mother gave me this ring.” The last I heard of him he was in a tank facing down the Russians at the Berlin gate.
Jesus said that anyone who causes a little one to stumble should have a millstone tied about the neck and be cast into the depth of the sea. Now by God’s grace, it is not I, but those pastoral sins, along with all my other sins, that are buried in the sea of God’s forgetfulness.
I did not see the dirt on my laundry. The items in my luggage were all consistent with what I believed to be the wishes of the bishop under whose direction I worked. More importantly I was blinded to the dirt by my reliance on biblical proof texts. Like the smoke on the horizon, I found in the Bible what I had been taught to look for.
As the fifties ended the Lancaster Conference Bishop Board decided to divide its large southern region into two districts and ordain bishops from among the pastors who resided in the South. The pastors of the new Georgia and Peninsular Florida district met at the Ida St. church to consider who among them should be their bishop. I was troubled and could not sleep the night before nominations were to be made. It doesn’t seem impertinent to me to say that God and I were in communication. I knew there was a possibility that I would be named. Finally, I went to sleep after I promised God that if I were a bishop I would not interfere wherever I sensed that the Holy Spirit was at work. This may have been the time when I began to open my mind to things new.
In the forenoon of the next day I was named as the one to be ordained. In the afternoon I was examined and instructed by the two Bishops present. They asked about my willingness to wear a frock coat like other bishops. They gently asked Rhoda if she were willing to wear a dress with an apron like her mother and the wives of other bishops. The final question in the series was significant to me. Bishop David Thomas asked, would I promise to give my insights to the Bishop Board even if I were a minority of one? We promised, and I was ordained the next day.
The congregation greeted Rhoda and me as they filed past us at the end of the service. I recall two styles of greeting. Mennonites of long standing were often teary-eyed as they solemnly promised to pray for us. They sensed the difficulty of the task before me, and that I would be expected to make difficult judgments, and might be misunderstood and even disliked. On the other hand, our non-Mennonite neighbors smiled as they congratulated us. To them, being ordained bishop was a promotion and an honor.
Ordination made me a member of the bishop board of the Lancaster Conference. The bishop board met on the third Thursday of every month. I was expected to travel to Pennsylvania for at least half of the meetings. This meant that for almost twenty years I took a minimum of six trips to Pennsylvania each year and lived a minimum of twelve days with fellow bishops who became my family for those days.
Most of the other bishops had been chosen by lot from among the pastors of their districts. Most had succeeded in a secular enterprise. There were school teachers, farmers, entrepreneurs, and at least two millionaires among us. I was one of the younger in age and lived on a missionary’s stipend, but on the bishop board we were equals. I learned what it was like to speak my mind and to be a respected minority. I learned to listen quietly to the convictions of others.
The Bishop Board was also subjected to change. Traditionally the moderator of the board and conference was the bishop with the most years of service. Not long before I came on the board, a senior bishop who realized his limitations declined the honor. The board then instituted a five year term of office for the moderator who was second in seniority. Soon after I became a member the board decided to elect a moderator and secretary for the five year terms. David Thomas was elected moderator and Paul Landis secretary. Compared to the senior bishops who served before them, these new officers were young both in age and in years of service. They guided the board in an era when the Mennonite church and the Lancaster Conference allowed significant change.
However, there was variation in the conference. Individual bishops had different styles of leadership based, I think, on the relative strength of their faith as defined by Paul in Romans 14. I’ve reflected on this. It seems to me that anyone who knew little of God’s grace was described by Paul as being weak in faith. Another person more aware of God’s grace was described as being strong in faith. Thus, the bishops who were less alert to God’s grace tended to regard a word from the conference as a word from God and felt that it was their responsibility to use conference rules to bind the people they served. Other bishops who were more conscious of God’s grace were more gracious to others. Thus the rate of change differed from one district to another.
The conference had a simple rule that said a bishop should not meddle in another bishop’s district. To my knowledge, this rule was carefully observed by all bishops. However a bishop could ask the board to appoint bishops to advise him and mediate when he was in need of help.
There were other obvious differences in the districts. Geographically, the districts ranged on the eastern seaboard from New York to Alabama and Florida. Some districts were deeply rooted in the conference’s rural roots. Others had a shorter history and tended to be on a cultural edge.
The Lancaster Mennonite Conference met twice each year for all day sessions on the third Thursday in March and September. The ordained ministers and deacons and their wives met with the bishops for these two days of conference. The women, of course, were quiet. Members of the laity were welcomed, but seldom spoke and could not vote. On those special days the bishop board reported its work and offered statements which had been approved by four-fifths of the bishops and ratified by a two thirds vote of the entire body of ordained men to become conference positions.
A bishop of the conference or a bishop from another conference was asked to preach the conference sermon. Soon after I became a member of the board I was asked to preach one of these special sermons. It was a simple sermon that must have been appreciated because preachers and deacons in the audience came to greet me afterward and to thank me for it. I was embarrassed, and I wished I could go away and hide somewhere. Seeing my discomfort, one of the senior bishops pulled me aside and said quietly, “Martin, it’s all right to feel good when God uses you.” I’ve used these simple words to encourage others.
I once invited a non-Mennonite college professor to go to conference with me. He was trained in social anthropology. His first observation to me was “your women are not happy.” The observation was likely true because bishop’s ordination affected the whole family. His sons, daughters, and wife were expected to be models of conference decorum. I know because I married the daughter of a bishop. After his death at reunions her older siblings often lamented the change from the happy Papa they knew as children to their father as a bishop who was burdened with the expectations other bishops laid on him. Her younger siblings never knew that happy Papa.
In our home we had one child, a daughter, who wished for a brother as we wished for a son. When we visited a new son in another family we often said to the parents, “If you don’t want him give him to us.” We visited a mother of five who had given birth to a sixth. When she realized the frailty of her health she told her husband that if she should die, her son was to given to the Lehmans. She died suddenly one month after she gave birth, and one month later the baby’s father and grandmother brought the baby boy to our door. I decided God had some things to teach me through a son. We named him Jonathan Conrad which means “God has given good counsel.”
A bishop was expected to work with the ministers of his district. I was soon clearly under the influence of three groups. The first, of course, was the Lancaster Conference Board of Bishops. The second to influence me were the ministers of my district. I am indebted to them for their part in forming me to be their servant.
Soon after my ordination I convened the ministers for our first meeting. I asked them what they wanted me to do. They said, “Help us to be better ministers.” We decided to sponsor a series of seminars with resource persons coming from outside the district. After one or two of the seminars we began to invite the pastors that belonged to other conferences to join us.
At our first meeting the district ministry also endorsed the youth camp program sponsored by the Eastern Mission Board and the Tampa ministry and set in motion a process that resulted in the incorporation of the Southern Mennonite Camp Association and the eventual purchase and development of Lakewood Retreat. We looked to both Eastern Board of Missions and the Sarasota churches for support of the camp program. With the help of Chester Wenger, Eastern Board’s home mission’s secretary, we initiated a lay leadership training program called “Project Timothy.”
The third group to influence me was the Sarasota Mennonite ministers who met monthly for a prayer breakfast. Soon the Sarasota ministers began to invite the minsters of all five conferences in the Southeast to their breakfasts. The group’s agenda evolved from prayer to consultation, to coordination of events and sponsorship of a youth minister. We had a common treasury, and discussed becoming a southeast conference.
My relationship to these three groups, — bishops, district ministers and the Sarasota ministers’ prayer breakfast — was pivotal. No one else in the Southeast had the connections to the three groups that I had. Soon I knew that I would need to choose to follow either the counsels of bishops who lived a thousand miles away or the counsels of the pastors who were my neighbors.
I chose to lead in the direction of change. To change is difficult when beliefs and practices are thought to be based on biblical texts.
A seminar sponsored in 1963 or 1964 by the Eastern Mission Board at Black Rock Retreat in Pennsylvania gave me new light. Harold Bauman used Romans 15:7 to teach us how to relate to others: Paul wrote, “Accept one another, then, as God in Christ accepted you.” This changed the question. It was no longer, has God accepted them, but how has God accepted us? I believed that God accepted me as I was, a sinner saved by grace, and now as a young churchman I was to learn to accept others in that same godly way. I had no idea where this new perspective would lead me.
In the sixties I was a bishop driving alone on a lonely road in south Georgia on a hot day, and I was tired and bored. So when I glimpsed a small used bookstore in the small town I was passing through, I slid to a stop and went inside to browse. For five cents I bought an old and tattered book of systematic theology.
What I had learned about changing perspective when I traveled from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Appalachian hills helped me to accept what was revealed to me in that old book. Truth never changes, the theologian wrote, but our view of the truth changes the closer we get to it.
This metaphor became clearer to me one day when Rhoda and I traveled north on I-77. I was dozing while Rhoda drove. As my eyelids drooped I was seeing a single mountain range on the distant horizon. As we sped onward I opened my eyes to see a series of mountain ranges. Still closer, my eyes opened to see valleys among the mountains. Soon, in the midst of the mountains I saw streams, flowers, trees, and vistas. The mountain range on the horizon had not changed a bit, but what I saw of it changed the closer I got to it.
The metaphor said to me that a new view of truth does not change truth. But a new view of truth might not only permit me to change, it may even demand that I change both my belief system and my behaviors. I believe that when we happen to meet along the way we should honestly tell each other about the mountain of truth that we see in the distance. But it is fruitless for any of us to hold too tightly to our present views. That mountain I see before me will surely look different to me further down the road.
Another way of seeing came to me in 1966 when Eastern Mennonite Missions gave me a one-year sabbatical at Eastern Mennonite College. This was a first for the Lancaster Conference, so who would do the work of a bishop in my absence was a logical question. Although some bishops advised caution, the Home Missions Council allowed me to inform the pastors that they were assistant bishops, that I trusted them, and was delegating my responsibilities in each congregation to them. Thus, the pastors baptized and served communion in my absence. When I returned to the district nine months later I did not reclaim any of these special privileges unless a pastor specifically asked me to do so.
The special study program for pastors at EMC/U allowed me to select classes from both college and seminary programs. I chose a class on New Testament Theology taught by Willard Swartley. He saw that my lack of formal training would force me to study the Bible in English only and recommended a booklet titled, “The Joy of Discovery” by Oletta Wald. This booklet and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance gave me the tools to do inductive Bible study in the English language, and I have experienced the joy of making discoveries. Swartley taught me to ask questions. Oletta Wald taught me to make careful observations.
Wald taught me to look for repetition. I was surprised to discover that the Pharisee most zealous for the law repeated four times in his first letter to the Corinthian church that “All things are lawful to me.” Could the man we call Saint Paul lawfully do anything a Corinthian did? Just the thought is amazing, perhaps alarming! Yet he emphasized his freedom by repeating it four times in one letter.
Wald also taught me to pay attention to the small words that connect the parts of a sentence. When Paul claimed that all things were lawful for him, he always followed that radical claim with a powerful little word, “but” that connected the main clause to a subordinate clause that asked for prudent use of such freedom. Twice he said that though all things were lawful, not everything was expedient, that is, not everything is practical, beneficial, and advantageous. The third time he explained that though all things were lawful, not everything is edifying, that is, not all lawful things are enlightening, enriching, and helpful. The fourth “but” connects to a bold declaration. Though everything was lawful, he allowed that he, Paul, would not to be brought under the power of anything, though lawful. The law has indeed lost its strength and death has lost its sting.
But why did Paul repeat this radical claim four times in one letter? Perhaps he feared his words might one day be given the weight of law and women far from Corinth in time and space would be required to cover their beautiful, uncut hair. Perhaps he feared that long after he had written words that were appropriate for Corinthians they would be used to keep women silent in their churches. Woman would be denied the right to exercise their Spirit-given gifts and the church would be robbed of their benefit.
Though no law in the Bible saves me or anyone else, the book still has a purpose. Paul wrote to Timothy that scripture is useful and able to make one wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. The Old Testament reveals the filth of human depravity and attempted to control it by law. Within the filth are diamonds that point forward to Jesus and his way of life. The Gospels record the life and teachings of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles bridges the time from Jesus to the Epistles. The epistles and the book of Revelation point back to the incarnation and forward to Jesus and his second advent. The Bible provides adequate bases for the church to change its confession of faith and its practices from time to time. From my perspective the Bible should be given a new place and more respect in Christendom.
Near the end of my year at EMU the college sponsored a two-week long Evangelism Institute for more than fifty home and overseas missionaries. Pastors from the Southeast joined me at EMU. A pastor from my district confided to Don Jacobs that he believed that his plain suit was a hindrance to his ministry. He had decided to get a regular suit and necktie. But, the pastor asked, how can I tell my bishop? Don said, “We’ll tell him tomorrow morning.”
Don invited the other ministers from the district to meet with the pastor and me. I don’t remember that meeting or what I said. But the pastor assured me in a recent conversation that I told the group that I had decided that anything that stands in the way of making Jesus known must go. I think I don’t remember the meeting because for me the matter under discussion was settled. It had not come as a flash of new insight. This signaled to pastors of the district that Lancaster Conference standards for ministers no longer applied. The pastors exercised their freedom.
In 1965, The Mennonite Church opened the way for change when the General Conference decided to reorganize the denomination at all levels and formed a Study Commission on Church Organization to recommend the way. The commission sensed that the power of the conferences was waning and that the locus of authority was moving from conferences to congregations. The study group discerned that this shift had scriptural support and offered some options for congregations to consider.
The shifting terrain of denominational organization freed churches to decide what to wear, how to worship, whom to baptize and to form new alliances. Some elements of the denomination could not endure the changes that were allowed them and formed separatist groups.
Other churches welcomed the opportunity to form new alliances. The churches of four of the five conferences with churches in the Southeast formed a Southeast Mennonite Convention that fully accepted the notion that the locus of authority was in the congregation. Churches of this new convention were given the option of retaining their conference membership. Over time, the churches of my district chose to discontinue their ties with the Lancaster Conference and I moved gradually from being a bishop and was given new roles in the convention.
I am grateful that in the sixties the denomination and the conferences did not get in the way of congregational autonomy. I regret that in the decades that followed the conferences tended to reclaim their status, power and authority.
In 1982, I was invited to attend a meeting of conference leaders from Region V in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the meeting was to promote Homosexual-Anonymous type ministries within caring congregations. Counselors described gays and lesbians as deviant, but likeable people who intended no harm. A theologian cautioned us not to quickly judge sexual behavior based on a simple reading of the English Bible because biblical scholars were uncertain how to interpret the metaphors used by ancient writers to describe private behaviors. Two gay men of the Washington community were allowed to be present and to speak for only thirty minutes. Their anger at being excluded while they were being talked about rendered them almost speechless and made a lasting impression on me.
Two members of Region V’s Executive Council were asked to summarize the Washington meeting. Their second point suggested that the council provide a framework for discussion with gay persons that would minimize rejection and intimidation. Listening would be important.The council appointed a committee to create such a framework. I was a member of the committee. As I recall, the framework was not to include judgment on anyone, attempts to change or convert anyone, or to affirm anyone in their orientation. We were to exercise the power of listening only. When the denomination ended its regional structures the Board of Congregational Ministries continued the listening committee.
Most of our listening was done at General Assemblies of the Mennonite Church. The assembly planners put a room at the committee’s disposal. We used it for our own listening purposes and set aside times when the gay community could use it. On one occasion the committee was asked what it did with what it heard. To satisfy that legitimate concern we began to report more directly to the MBCM and the General Board, the agencies that were responsible for our appointment. However, we kept confidential the names of those who came out to us.
Most homosexuals told us that they knew they were different from others in early childhood. They had long periods of spiritual depression while they pled with God to change them, but received no answer. Finally they found peace and joy when they accepted God’s unconditional love for them.
While scholars and churchmen debated what to do with homosexuals who believed the gospel and begged for acceptance by the church, I listened to gay’s confessions of faith with respect. When I listened to these outcasts, I felt I was being more like Jesus than in any other role in my life
The leaders of the Southeast Mennonite Convention were aware of my listening activities, and trusted me. However, one pastor became suspicious, fearful and angry. He made a motion on the floor of conference that was obviously aimed at me and my listening. The motion was lost for want of a second. Another member of conference moved that a group be named to study the homosexual issue and report to the conference with recommendations. This motion was seconded and passed. As a result of these actions the convention did a conference-like thing and for the first time took a position that was later used to obstruct a congregation’s mission.
It was in 1982, that I was introduced to listening, and that same year I began to find my voice in justice and social issues. I read The Company of Strangers by Parker J. Palmer and realized that thus far in my life I had preached primarily to friends. That book and an automobile accident one night while Rhoda and I were traveling toward home emboldened me. The accident happened on a bridge had stopped all traffic. I went to see if I could help. I held a flashlight while others attempted to free injured persons by prying open jammed car doors with jack handles. The experience prepared me for what came next.
A few months later I volunteered to speak for Mennonites at a rally promoting a nuclear freeze. I had attended some social justice events and heard people wonder why the Mennonites weren’t there. I fasted for a week or ten days before I marched and spoke from the front steps of the First Congregational Church in Sarasota. I tried to explain that so few Mennonites supported the nuclear freeze because the goal of a nuclear freeze was too limited. The prophets of the Old Testament foretold of a time when simple, lethal weapons, such as swords and spears, would be reshaped into productive tools. Mennonites believed that Jesus wants his followers to lay down all weapons and be people of peace.
I explained why I marched in support of a nuclear freeze when other Mennonites did not. I used the accident on the bridge to explain that some matters are so urgent and the future so dangerous for others that strangers must work together without introducing themselves, discussing faith perspectives or considering family connections. It’s true that I may have held the flashlight for an atheist that night. The possibility did not even occur to me at the moment. We were too intent on helping the injured women who were trapped in the car.
I included my speech in an article for the Gospel Herald titled, “The Day I Went Public with my Faith.” Editor Daniel Hertzler included the article in his 1908-1983, Gospel Herald Sampler. Not by Might.
In March 1992, at age 65, I retired from conference work. Before the retirement date I learned of an anniversary reunion of the Gulfport CPS unit. Rhoda and I had a reason to take a trip immediately after my retirement.
Before we left for Mississippi, a friend loaned us a copy of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. Rhoda read the book to me as we traveled. As I remember Bridges, no one can fully prepare for bereavement, divorce, loss of job, retirement, or other transition. After a loss there is usually a period of confusion followed by a serendipitous event that opens to the future.
Our route to Mississippi took us through Mennonite communities along the gulf coast. We used the Mennonite Your Way plan to reconnect with Mennonites in Northwest Florida and Alabama. On our return we spent a few hours with a successful Mennonite entrepreneur in Alabama. He told me of the DISC Personality Profile System promoted by the Institute for Motivational Living. He said the system changed his managerial style and his relationships with his peers and his employees. As an example, he said his bishop annoyed him by asking so many questions. The DISC system taught him to value the questions and the questioner. Instead of being annoyed, he decided to hire his bishop so he could observe more closely and ask more questions.
Could the DISC system be the serendipitous event described by Bridges? Open to that possibility I immediately ordered the manual I needed to learn the system, and within six weeks I was certified to administer the DISC assessment tool.
The system taught me about myself. I was a “DSC.” My high “D” showed that I could be decisive, dare to attempt to do what others doubted could be done and often do it by defying rules. When under pressure my “SC” behaviors were more prominent than the usual “D.” I used my “S” style to try to establish steady and stable environments. I used my “C” style to competently set and meet high standards for myself and for others.
With this new understanding of myself, I moved confidently into the future. I had told my friends that I would approach retirement as if it were a long hallway with many closed doors. It was my responsibility to try the doors to discover which of them would open to me.
The first open door was a six week consulting ministry in a church outside the Southeast. The second open door was to serve for a year as a half time interim pastor for the Pinecreek Chapel in Arcadia. I did these things without moving from Sarasota. During these ministries I honed my skill in the use of the DISC behavioral system.
Don Augsburger, pastor of the Bahia Vista Mennonite Church, presented another door for me. He suggested that I represent the Mennonites to the Suncoast Evangelical Association of Sarasota. Charles Heinlein, founder and chairman of the association, welcomed me. At my first meeting with the association he asked me to tell about the Mennonites in Sarasota County. At the next meeting he asked me to speak on Mennonites and patriotism.
I used a small handmade cross and a small flag to illustrate my point. I told them that the US flag was limited to certain boundaries. I explained that the cross was greater than the flag because it is knows no boundaries. I do not pledge allegiance to the flag or the nation for which it stands. I pledge my allegiance to Jesus and his worldwide reign of peace.
The speech was published in the Gospel Herald under the title of The Flag and the Cross. For a time it was posted on the web site of The Third Way Café to be available to anyone exploring the faith of the Anabaptists. It was also published in a Mennonite Brethren bulletin as part of a discussion of certain aspects of their historical faith. It may have been the most widely read of my writings.
Somewhere in this account I must include a visit from a respected conference minister. He invited me to have lunch with him and then he urged me to careful and be sure to retire in honor. I understood him to be cautioning me to be wise, but I chose rather to be a “fool” for Christ’s sake. I began to refer to myself as “the old fool.”
Also along the way I read a line from J. D. Graber, veteran Mennonite missionary and mission administrator, about how to do mission work. He said that the missionary must take off his shoes before he enters another person’s “holy of holies” and attempts to rearrange the furniture. That wisdom remained with me through the years, and most significantly in my retirement. Though I still had the boldness of a high “D” behavioral style, it was restrained when I took off my shoes to gain admission to the holy of holies of others.
With shoes off I accepted the position of First Vice President of the Suncoast Evangelical Association. I listened without passing judgment to the testimonies of faith in Christ as told by extreme right wing Christians even as they took positions and actions that I could not. On at least one occasion I told members of the SEA board that if I were as judgmental as they were, I could have nothing to do with them. Yet they respected me. I felt that ultimate unity of the church could not be achieved if we Christians did not exercise grace among ourselves.
Most of what I include in these concluding paragraphs describe one-day experiences in a life time of events.
The Christian Coalition advertised a workshop that would include a video on what was called the “gay agenda.” Several lesbians told me they wished they could know what was said at such meetings. I told them I was a friend of the chair and invited them to go with me. With shoes off I introduced them to the chair. When he introduced the video he acknowledged graciously that many Christian gays and lesbians who lived in Sarasota County did not support the radical gay agenda portrayed on the film.
I was invited to represent Mennonites in a meeting of cults in search of world peace through individual inner peace. I delayed a reply, so I was put last on the list of speakers. I took off my shoes and went. The first speaker was a Baptist preacher who gave an evangelical sermon and left the meeting. I stayed while a Native American smoked a peace pipe. He smoked overtime, and refused to be interrupted because he was in his holy of holies. Others testified to finding inner peace after not finding it in a traditional church.
In late afternoon the group decided to form a circle and dance. At the end of the dance someone said, “We haven’t heard anything from Mr. Lehman.“ I confessed that I had never before danced in worship and thanked them for the privilege. I then told them that the longer I lived the more thankful I was for God’s grace. A woman leader rebuked me sharply exclaiming, “Oh no, you Mennonites are so good!” That, I think is one of our problems. We appear to be so good. I replied by saying that our church meetings were open to the public and invited them to come and hang around with us. I knew that if they knew us better they would understand our need of God’s grace.
I was among a few gentiles who met in the synagogue with mourning Jews when they observed the fiftieth anniversary of the holocaust. When the rabbi prayed for God to send the Messiah, I prayed, too, with my shoes off.
With shoes off I met with gays and lesbians in the Sarasota Metropolitan Church when they mourned the murder of Matthew Shepard. A young woman cried as she sat beside me on the back bench. I asked her why she cried and she told me her story. I prayed with her.
I continued to refine my skill in the use of DISC System until I was certified to instruct others to administer it. A lesbian minister attended one of my classes and then invited me to hold a workshop for the leaders and members of the Suncoast Cathedral Metropolitan Community Church of Venice. I accepted this call, and informed my pastor of what I was about to do. With shoes off, I moved through the same kind of workshop I had held in Mennonite churches. I found these gays and lesbians to have the same behavioral patterns and the same problems as members of Mennonite congregations.
The Metropolitan church was a collection of refugees from main line, Pentecostal, Anabaptist and other faith traditions. They longed to return to their roots.
After my Sunday morning sermon on the “Four Faces of Jesus,” the church’s tradition called for a communion service. The elders of the congregation stood in front as the members of the church came forward, many as couples, to talk/weep quietly with an elder and receive the emblems. I remained seated behind the pulpit. An elder brought bread and wine to me and I accepted with thanksgiving. It was the most memorable communion of my long experience as a member of the Body of Christ and a minister of the Gospel.
That involvement with the Metropolitan Church was reported in a newspaper of the gay community. Mysteriously, it fell into the hands of a member of the Bahia Vista Mennonite Church. I was told about it, but no one told me who had it or showed it to me. At this time the church leadership secured a consultant to assess the health of the congregation. After meeting with the church members who wished to speak with him, the consultant told me that there were members who should talk with me. He arranged for LeRoy Bechler to convene a group of about a dozen men to meet with me.
Bechler opened the meeting by saying that the group members had something to say to me. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Finally, I broke the silence. I said that if no one had anything to say to me I had something to say to them. I told them I had heard of a news item that reported my activities in the Metropolitan church. Had they seen it? I asked. One by one they admitted that they had. I said that I had not seen it. I reminded them that if someone had shown it to me I could have told them what had happened from my perspective. They agreed that they should have shown it to me instead of allowing it to be used to raise suspicions about me. We all agreed to be more brotherly in the future. I still have not seen the newspaper article, but as far as I know it has never again been used against me.
Sometimes I am asked how I avoided harsher sanctions from the conference or denomination for my position regarding homosexuals and lesbians. Perhaps it was because I had done only what the church had asked of me. Neither before nor after retirement did I use pulpit, pen or any other means to advocate the practice of same sex orientation.
I do strongly advocate faith in the God of all grace, grace that brings a salvation that justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies all who believe. It saddens me that the marked difference between advocating a practice and being an ambassador of the God of all grace is not yet acknowledged by all churches everywhere.
Through the years I have been asked, “What does your father think of you now?” This was a good question and was asked sincerely. My father is best known for his early conservative positions. Less well known is a later counseling ministry in which he developed sensitive listening skills. A mission church of the conference led a divorced and remarried couple to faith in Christ. The pastor and church wished to receive them as members. Uncertain what to do, the bishop sought my father’s counsel. My father said simply, “The congregation has spoken.”
My faith journey has taught me to believe that the Bible, the written word, should be read from beginning to end as an unfolding revelation, not a final revelation. Such reading propels the believer on a trajectory that carries the reader to Jesus, the Living Word. That same Jesus taught his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come to teach them more. The Spirit would be as free as the wind to change course and force. My faith journey teaches me that it is futile for a church, Mennonite or otherwise, to try by dead law to shut out those whom God by grace has already accepted.
In 2000, we were invited to choose a home in an apartment for independent living in Sunnyside Village. The required deposit was paid from a special Sunnyside fund intended to assist persons who had devoted a life-long ministry to the church. We accepted this generosity and moved into a garden apartment. Mennonites were in the minority in the village.
The retirement village buzzed with activities. We dined with new friends and shared stories, sang in the choir, put puzzles together, joined the clown troop, attended prayer meetings, preached occasionally in the village chapel, and preached off campus, lectured about Mennonites to a class on religion in the University of South Florida. I did research and wrote about Anabaptist history in the Southeast.
On this day in my 85th year I own a fragment of I John 2:8 as the compass that gives direction to my life. It reads “the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” From my present perspective, I understand that the dark past of this world and the shadow it casts over the church and me is fading away, and that the Kingdom of God is at hand and its glow is already lighting the horizon. So I turn my back on the dark and travel onward with eyes fixed on the easterly glow. I am at peace and live in joyful anticipation. Or as Rhoda and I sang on our way to Tampa in 1950:
So we go singing onward,
So we go singing onward;
We’re pressing upward,
We’re marching homeward,
To Him unafraid.
(I conclude the major writing of this testimony on January 5, 2012. On the third day of this New Year, my beloved wife, Rhoda, unexpectedly left me. Tomorrow after a memorial service at the College Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana, the family and friends she left behind will surrender her body for cremation. We intend to place her cremains in the columbarium at Bahia Vista Mennonite Church, Sarasota, Florida. I note this now only to acknowledge that another great change has been imposed on me. Telling our health journey would be another story and I cannot tell it here and now.)
If interested in my further spiritual pilgrimage click on the Biblical Interpretation category