I went to a wedding this weekend, back in my old hometown in Southern Ontario. It was a lovely service, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The reception was held on the lawn outside the church. The food was in large bowls along a long table, and all of us lined up and we were served our lunch, and then sat on the lawn for an afternoon picnic.
This was a Mennonite wedding, and those of you who listen to Revisionist History know that I have a great affection for Mennonites. One of my favorite episodes from Season 1, “Generous Orthodoxy,” was about a legendary Mennonite pastor named Chester Wenger. In Season 7—which debuts on June 30!—I also have an all-Mennonite episode, devoted to an extraordinary man named Lester Glick.
Mennonites are a small evangelical community devoted to service, community, and reconciliation—which explains what I saw when I made my way to the top of the food line.
The people serving the meal were the wedding party. The bride’s father gave us our picnic basket. The bride’s sister made the pulled pork sandwiches. The groom did the cole slaw. And at the end of the line, the bride—who had put an apron on over her wedding dress—served the mac and cheese. The receiving line was turned into a service line.
I have three thoughts about this.
The first is a sociological observation. One of the core concepts in cross-cultural studies is “power distance,” which refers to the degree to which a culture values hierarchy. Places such as France and Saudi Arabia and Colombia have high power-distance cultures: authority, in all its manifestations, matters a lot there. Places such as Australia and Israel are low power-distance cultures. A friend of mine, who was the Middle East correspondent for a major newspaper, once told me that he would sometimes call the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence, and the Prime Minister would pick up. That’s low power distance. I guarantee you that the President of France does not answer his own phone.
Mennonites are famously low power distance. I remember not long after we moved from England to the heavily Mennonite town where I grew up, my mother told me that from then on my father would be known as “Graham Gladwell,” not “Professor Gladwell.” Mennonites don’t do honorifics.
I think we sometimes overlook how unexpectedly liberating it is when a culture abandons the aggressive pursuit of status markers. The relentless accumulation of awards, the fancy prefixes, the ostensible display of prestigious alma maters all get a bit exhausting, in the end. And they only serve to drive a wedge between the haves and have-nots. Far better to call Professor Gladwell “Graham.” And far better, if you are a bride, to have as your chief concern whether an apron will fit over your wedding dress.
Second thought. This is a very beautiful example of a scriptural notion made real. Those of you who know your New Testament will know of the passage from the gospel of John, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. When the disciples look at Jesus with astonishment, he says to them: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”
What he meant was that the highest function of leadership is to set a standard of sacrifice and humility. Thus does the bride, on the day of her life when she is center of all attention, put on an apron and serve her guests mac and cheese.
Third thought: Man. We could use a whole lot more of that these days.