My Favorite Children’s Books

Standard

Growing up it was easy to take books for granted.  Books were always a part of my life as a child and nothing seemed unusual about having them readily available.  But, as an adult looking back, it seems that those books played a significant role in my development and were a privilege of a good home.

My favorite books from childhood also reveal much about my personality and interests later in life.  It is hard to know exactly how much difference books made in creating what I’ve become.  However, it isn’t difficult for me to know which books have sentimental value and contained lessons that I still remember today.

So, without further ado, here’s my list…

1) The Poky Little Puppy

When my mom used to sing “where in the world is my poky little puppy” I knew who that was.  Of my siblings, I am probably the most likely to get lost chasing after butterflies of thought and fall behind the crowd.  I was curious, a late bloomer, the family slowpoke, head in the clouds, and could truly identify with a little puppy in a Golden Book.  I’ve plotted my own course in life, both for better and for worse, and that book about being last was the first that came to mind.

2) The Story About Ping

This, another book about being last, is also a favorite.  It was a book at my grandma’s house about a duck that hides to avoid punishment, nearly is made dinner while out wandering alone, and returns to face punishment. (Reminds me of a time as a child when I ran and hid to avoid the consequences for throwing something at my sister Olivia and sending her off in tears.  I came out of hiding to face the music only after my parents threatened to leave without me.  I was so gullible.)  This book had a good lesson about punctuality and also piqued my interest in a culture different from mine.

3) Make Way For Ducklings

Okay, what’s not to like about a family of ducks?  I think as a child it was good for illustrating the dangers in the world beyond and also that there are people, like the policemen who stopped traffic, who are willing to help.  (Wait, now why do I suddenly feel manipulated by this story?)  I believe one of my gifts is situational awareness.  It is important to find those ducks out of water around us and return them to safety again.

4) Blueberries for Sal

This book, as well as Make Way For Ducklings, is the creation of Robert McCloskey and noteworthy to me for the artwork.  Sure, the story about a day picking blueberries and a mother mixup involving a bear cub and human child is entertaining enough.  However, I remember my appreciation for the drawing style even at a very young age.  I also like blueberries.

5) Choo Choo The Runaway Engine

Before there was Thomas the Tank Engine, there was another little engine that ran away named Choo Choo.  I’m not sure why steam engines are so fascinating to children, but I know that I loved all manner of machine and the railroad age still captures my imagination today.  This book by Virginia Lee Burton is the first of three of her books that made the cut for my list.

The next…

6) Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

This book about man, machine, and loyalty to the end.  I remember my empathy for Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Ann, as they face off with the big modern (and soulless) competition.  It is a book that captures many of my lifelong values.  I love underdogs and determination against the odds.  It seems also that loyalty is more and more uncommon in this age when bigger and newer is often considered better.  I love the creative and unexpected solution at the end of this book about change.

7) The Little House

Of the three books by Burton, this one probably hits me closer to the heart.  Change and the passage of time take their toll on this little house.  My feeling like an old soul probably started with the nostalgia this book inspired.  I pitied that little house, once so happy, later run down and forgotten.  I guess someone like me, who always had to struggle keeping up and understanding the longing to be loved, wanted that lonely old house in a crowded city to be happy again.

Some runners up…

Are You My Mother?

Horton Hears a Who

Freight Train

The Lorax

The Wump World

The Giving Tree

Curious George

And, last to make my list…

8) The Way Things Work

This comical book from later in my childhood explained everything from faucets to fission reactors.  What better for a child who asked why constantly than a book answering how?  I believe it was a gift to my brother Kyle one Christmas, but it was shared between us boys and definitely one of my favorite books.  It was a silly book of mammoth proportions.  Wooly mammoths, to be precise, and one of several by David Macaulay (check out Cathedral, Castle, and Colosseum) that contained beautiful drawings, great explanations and wonderful detail.

There’s one other book that I can’t recall a title for nor can I remember the exact story.  It was a book with an elevated rail line and corner stores reminiscent of Brooklyn or Queens near the turn of the century.  It would come back to me later in life while making one of my frequent trips to New York City.  What amazed me is how the Big Apple has retained some of that same character.  Apparently the city that never stops has time for a little nostalgia lane too.

What are your favorite children’s books?

“They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7)

Standard

When Iran, a nation where people held candlelight vigils in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, were themselves the target of a terrorist attack last week many Americans (including the Trump administration) added insult to injury and called it karma.

Apparently these Americans, reveling in a terrorist attack, are unable to differentiate between Saudi Arabian hijackers (Sunni Arabs) and Iranian civilians (Persian Shites) mercilessly gunned down in Tehran.  I guess to them terrorism is only bad when American and European people are the targets?

What’s worse is the missed opportunity to defeat a common enemy (ISIS) and also to bridge a divide between two nations that should never happened in the first place.  This is probably because we have selective memory and remember the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 (when 52 American diplomats were taken hostage) yet not the decades of meddling by our government that led up to it.

Americans forget that we drew first blood in the conflict with Iran when our government (via the CIA) participated in the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953.  It was called “Operation Ajax,” it was intended to serve British oil interests, and ended with our installing brutal monarchal rule under Mohammed Reza who was called the Shah (or king) of Iran.

With all the outrage over alleged Russian interfere in our election, and our own history of revolution against kings, it should be easy to understand what came next.  The Iranians took their country back, the Shah escaped to the United States to avoid accountability, our government refused to send him back to stand trial in Iran, and in response they took our diplomats hostage.

The great irony here is that the only Americans harmed were the eight U.S servicemen killed and four wounded in a helicopter crash during a bungled military operation to rescue the hostages.  That’s not to mention the one Iranian civilian, who was guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was killed by an Army Ranger’s shoulder-fired rocket.

Yet, despite our own casualties being self-inflicted, since then the U.S. government has made it their policy to do harm to the Iranian people.  For example, there is a reason why some in our government knew Saddam Hussain had chemical weapons: we enabled him to use them against the Iranians.

The Iran-Iraq war, started in the 1980’s when Iraq invaded Iran, was a bloody conflict that cost more than a million lives.  In response to the carnage Henry Kissenger, a former U.S. Secretary of State, smirked, “it is a pity they both can’t lose.”

It is little wonder that the Iranian leaders would seek a nuclear deterrence given our past (and present) aggression.  From their perspective it is simply a matter of survival given that U.S. leaders regularly threaten.  For example, long-term Senator John McCain who thought singing “bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” was funny and praised the leader of a Marxist terrorist organization that has murdered thousands of Iranians.

McCain actually met with the leadership of Mujahedin-e khalq (MEK) to express his hopes that they would someday rule in Iran.  The thought of this is horrifying to a secular Iranian friend of mine.  My friend, while not a fan of the current Iranian government, says that she (and most other Iranians) do not want the MEK in power and are shocked​ that a prominent U.S. politician would openly support terrorism.

How quickly the American public forgets that our government (including McCain) also gave support (direct or indirect) to Osama Bin Laden when he was fighting a holy war against the Soviet Union.  Of course they do remember the blowback when the terrorist we helped to create turned his attention on us as a result of our meddling in his own part of the world.  Talk about karma.

And, no surprise, U.S. interventions (supported by then Secretary of State, Hillary “we came, we saw, he died” Clinton, and none other than John McCain) have also resulted in the formation of ISIS.  It is obvious that our leadership never learns from the blowback and the American public—putting it too lightly—is woefully ignorant of the misdeeds supposedly done on their behalf around the world.

Any slight hope that the Trump administration would take a more sensible approach has pretty much disappeared when they responded to the terrorist attacks with political opportunism rather than solidarity against ISIS (who claimed responsibility for the attacks in the Iranian capital Tehran) and, in the process, we are driving further away many Iranians who once looked upon America as great despite our numerous violations of their sovereignty.

We put a travel ban on Iran who has never once attacked the American homeland and has only fought in defense against the attacks of the U.S. and our regional allies.  But then no travel ban is applied to Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries where the 9/11 hijackers came from.  It is absurd that we are still signing weapons deals with a nation that doesn’t allow women to drive, uses beheadings as punishment, funds the spread of Wahabbism worldwide, and backs ISIS, while opposing a nation merely fighting to keep us out.

Given our inability to admit hypocrisy or even to recognize our own mistakes, it is likely only a matter of time before the next group of U.S. supported “dissidents” and “freedom fighters” accomplish their objectives and then turn their bloodthirsty eyes on us, like Bin Laden did, and make their mission putting a permanent end to our hegemonic ambitions.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.  We are still sowing wind, covertly killing anyone (including the murder of civilian scientists) who stands in the way of our global dominance, supporting terrorism against those who do not want to be our puppets, and will likely reap still another whirlwind as a result.

The Confidence Conundrum

Standard

“Be confident!”  

Two words and some of the most unhelpful advice ever given.

Telling someone to be confident is like telling a depressed person to be happy or a short person to be tall.  A person who lacks in confidence does not know how to be confident or else they would already be confident.  Building confidence takes more effort than making a bold pronouncement upon someone.

People do not simply choose to be shy, unsure, uncertain, doubtful, confused, hesitant, timid, anxious or fearful.  No, those things are a product of life experiences and emotions that are all very real.  A confident person making a perfunctory statement does nothing to change the reality of a person who lacks confidence.

That said, confidence is desirable and something to be shared.  

Unfortunately, people who are confident often do not have reason to be introspective about it.  When you feel good about life there is not much need to know why or question it, there is only reason to be what you already are and enjoy the benefits.

Confidence is both a natural disposition and also something gained through positive experience.  Parents instill confidence in children through example or by helping them to overcome their fears and learn from failures rather than dwell in them.  Confident and successful parents seem to produce confident and successful children.

Confidence goes hand in hand with success, it frees a person to take the plunge rather than waste time in needless deliberation and makes them more attractive.  But, there is a sort of causality dilemma, in that confidence often leads to success while success builds confidence and without one the other becomes more difficult to maintain.

When confidence doesn’t produce success, it leads an intelligent person to doubt.  And with doubt comes less desire to risk effort and that results in even less opportunity for success, which often leads to even less success and even less confidence.  Pretty soon things can spiral downward into the pit of despair without a clear way out.

So, how do we help someone who lacks confidence gain it?

If you want a person to be confident then you must give them reason to be confident and good enough reason to overcome whatever reasons they have to lack confidence. To be helpful one must directly address root causes and not dismiss the realities that created the condition as silly or irrelevant.

What people need is T.IM.E.

Help must be practical.  Encouraging words don’t cut it.  Words, no matter how confident you are in saying them, are only words and do nothing to counteract the real life experience or emotional baggage of someone who has only known failure.  What is helpful, perhaps the only thing that does help in some cases, is meaningful long-term investment in the other person.

Loss of confidence happens over a lifetime, it comes as a result of traumatic experience or neglectful treatment, thus expecting a person to “snap out of it” because you say so is delusional at best and an excuse to be indifferent at worse.  There is more to be done than simple encouragement and that means an investment of time.

Here are three simple steps…

1) Take time to listen.  Confidence goes hand in hand with success, but success can lead to arrogance and unwillingness to hear first.  Many people want to “fix” another person without taking time to actually listen and assess the need.  This could mean many months or only a moment depending on the need.  It takes relating to the other person at their own level, earning their trust, without being in a rush or speaking in judgment of their situation.  Half the problem could be the lack of someone who will actually hear them out and care.  So listen empathically and try to identify with the other person emotionally.  Weep with them, laugh with them, eat with them and imagine with them.

2) IMagine a solution.  Without confidence, our ability to envision a better future dwindles and dies.  A successful person can easily take their ability to see a bright future for granted and yet a person who has continually failed does not share their rosy vision.  The first step towards any solution, therefore, is to think about it, to break the problem down into steps and help the other person mentally develop their path towards success.  After that comes execution of the plan.

3) Empower them.  This is where the rubber meets the road and is probably what is most lacking in our age of dog-eat-dog individualism.  Sure, there are many willing to spew their unhelpful advice and unasked-for judgments, but there are very few willing to partner in the success of another person and by this I mean make a substantive investment.  No, this does not mean a handout done in pity or religious obligation either, but an investment that physically and materially shows our confidence in the person who needs it.  Your willingness to partner together with them in a solution will, by itself, help build their confidence.

Anyhow, some final notes…

This is not a method or formula.  Each person and every situation is different.  Sometimes all that is needed is encouragement (more than saying “be confident”) which could mean something as little as a phone call.  While other times a lifelong commitment may be required.  It will likely require creativity, facilitating the right connections, and making recommendations.  

The goal is to get the person what they need to get on their feet and going in the right direction.  It also means getting out of the way and not being controlling or expecting anything in return besides enjoying their success with them.

Nobody is self-made.  If you are confident and successful, there are reasons why that go beyond your own abilities.  We did not pick our own home, communities, height, intelligence, personalities or luck.  We cannot take full credit for anything we have accomplished in our life.  This is reason to be humble and helpful.

If you are confident then share what you have been given with those who have little or less than you do.  Show your hope in their future with truth of action and not only your confidently spoken (but empty) words, be their heart…


There Is No Such Thing As Selfless Love

Standard

I had an idea of a supernatural love.  It was a love that would overcome differences in ambition, personality, experience, etc.  I had imagined a spiritual bonding of two people united only in their faith, going against their natural preferences and depending fully on God.

My pursuit of this greater love came as a result of what I had considered a spiritual experience and my desire to do God’s will.  I had a comfortable life and no real desire to disrupt my secure existence, but I sought to be uncomfortable and decided to step out in faith to pursue what was impossibility to me.

After a journey of a few years (and going against the flow of advice of people who claim to have faith yet live as if agnostic) I’ve realized something about love.  First, love is not supernatural, there is nothing inexplicable about love, and my chasing after more was a waste of time.  Second, we only love when we gain from it.

Not even Jesus loved selflessly…

Altruism, or selfless love, is an idea that doesn’t work in the real world and is not even a Christian ideal.

Jesus didn’t love altrustically.  Jesus loved as an investment, in a hope that he could gain followers, and with the intent to build a kingdom where he would be Lord.  He encouraged others to love as he did as a means of gaining his favor and inheriting eternal life.  Eternal life is a really big incentive.

All sustainable love is either a repayment for something already done or delayed gratification in hopes of future gain.  We love because we owe a debt or in anticipation of receiving a return on investment.  Yes, in some love relationships there is no balance sheet kept (because it would be cumbersome and ruin the mood) and yet all love is, at some level, about self-gratification.

We cannot live separate from our own desires.  Not even Jesus had an endless supply of unconditional love for those who went against his teachings, we see that expressed in his words of condemnation in Matthew 23, and his abiding love was only shown to those who continually submitted to his will.

Now, it can be argued that this demand of submissive love is only for our own good, as in a parent’s chastisement of their child in order to get the best from them, and yet ultimately the proposition was to love me or else you die.  That isn’t altruism nor is it extraordinary or inexplicable.

What love is and is not…

Love is a feeling of pleasure we get.  This feeling is a product of brain chemistry—the result of natural chemical substances, such as oxycotin, that underlie our emotional experiences and all human behavior.  Love is something involuntary, a natural attachment we get towards something or someone attractive to us.  Love requires no special spiritual explanation.

When a Mennonite woman told me she couldn’t love me as I wished to be loved it was true.  What I was hoping for was a supernatural love, the kind that is impossible by human standards, and only possible with faith in God.  I figured that two faithful people, equally in pursuit of God’s will, would be able to overcome their own differences and ambitions.

However, what I didn’t realize, despite my sincere feelings and delusion of faith, is that my love for her was nothing special or supernatural.  Sure, I believed it was something of God and was deeply offended when people would suggest I was driven by sexual desire.  Yet, at some subconscious level, it was all completely natural and my confirmations from God all hallucination.

What made it seem bigger was what it represented as far as acceptance in my birth culture.  There are first and second tier Mennonites.  The father and family that this young woman belonged to was squarely in the first tier.  They are popular, connected and sought after because of the pleasant feelings they produce in other Mennonites.

In reality, other than my being a second tier Mennonite and therefore not as pleasurable to her senses, I’m no different from the young man who did finally meet her criteria.  The only real difference is that he will be able to continue on in his delusion.  He can go on seeing her love as something supernatural and proof of God’s​ perfect plan.

Perhaps some day he will be oblivious (like her dad) and share, to a crowd of those craving love, that his dear wife made him who he is?

Love and conservative Mennonite idealism…

All that sounds pretty negative and depressing considering the high ideals that I had for love.

I believe we prefer to frame our love as a divine mystery because it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Who really wants to think of themselves as governed by their biological impulses and base desires?

And still, when we divorce ourselves from the reality of who and what we are, we do more harm than good.  The religious culture I was born into created many unrealistic expectations in me and this idealism has played a large part in my recent disappointments.

It was actually the father (of the girl that rejected my love) who had advised me against a relationship with a faithful woman outside the Mennonite denomination citing our cultural differences.  And, truth be told, it was advice that resonated only because I shared his ideals and was seeking after a perfect little Mennonite world like his.

Unfortunately that is the bad advice many Mennonite young people have taken and, in their uncompromising​ impractical pursuit of some kind of supernatural experience, they miss out on the best opportunities for love they may ever have.

One example is the attractive single woman who asked me to blog about how to fend off unwanted suitors.  This same girl later publically expressed her deep longing for children, as if she had no opportunity to make that happen, and yet she will go on rejecting the possibilities that exist because she is unwilling to compromise her own ideals for love.

It is sad that unrealistic ideals prevent so many Mennonite young people from taking those first steps that allow love to grow and why so many are choosing singleness over sacrifice—which is a trend will continue so long as we reject what is suitable to chase after our own grandiose delusions.

We can’t develop feelings because we are too carefully “guarding our hearts” to truly love people who don’t meet our own personal standards.  That is probably why we will never be very effective as missionaries.

The love I have found…

Over the past couple years, while in pursuit of a Mennonite ideal, I had opportunity to lower my barriers and be friends with people who didn’t meet Mennonite standards.

I have found true love in the crowd of misfits on the edge and outside of the Mennonite denomination.  I loved those who, like me, were lonely and in need of a friend.  As a result I feel I’ve gained more than I have in all my years amongst my spoiled and self-congratualtory religious peers.

The family of misfits I’ve gained might not know the right things to say and do to appear righteous, but they have a heart similar to my own.  My new friends, unlike my pretty-on-the-outside religious peers, are like me in the ways that really matter and that is why I love them.

Most Mennonites, like other religious fundamentalists, will not make a lifetime commitment to those whom they consider less than themselves and are not at all like the Jesus they claim to follow after.  They can’t love me because I am not like them and I’ve given up wasting my time with them because there are many others who do appreciate what I have to offer.

The irony is that I probably have more and deeper connections formed through social media than many who have had their face on a prayer card and spend thousands to fly around the world.  In fact, I pick up the pieces for the fly-by missionaries who seem motivated by passion for adventure more than compassion for people.  We could do more staying home using social media and MoneyGram.

We really only love ourselves. We love only the people who we can identify with and can only patronize those who we do not. This is why Mennonites are bad missionaries, their love (beyond their own clique) is often disingenuous or out of religious duty rather than true humility and real identity with the downtrodden, their love for the outsider is a fly-in-fly-out superficial kind.

I have found my twin, a special person who doesn’t meet a Mennonite standard and yet mirrors me in her simple devotion to love.  It is not supernatural or mysterious, nor is it adorned with the typical triumphalism of those who always get everything they want, but it is genuine.

Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)

Standard

Jesus was not harsh out of hatred.

Behind his sharp rebuke in Matthew 23 was a deep love and longing for his people to hear his message, repent of their foolish pride, and live in faith.
The love of Jesus is evident in how he brings the sermon to a conclusion:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:37‭-‬39)

Jesus uses the imagery of a hen to describe his own feelings toward those who rejected him.  It is significant that Jesus describes himself with feminine attributes—it is significant in that it shows a divine nature that transcends gender and also in the contrast it provides.  

Jesus finished a harsh message about coming destruction by describing his desire to nurture rather than judge.  His words express profound sadness and deep disappointment before ending with a promise: “For I tell you, you will not see me again until…”

Until what?

Before answering that, there are a couple​other points that can be extracted from the example of Jesus:

1) Criticism is more loving than indifference…

We live in a time when legitimate criticism is characterized as persecution or hateful.  Be too blunt or honest and pretty soon you’ll have the niceness police on your case.  Criticism feels unpleasant.  However, rebuke can be extremely beneficial to a person who is truly humble and open to correction.

The importance of receiving rebuke is mentioned in Proverbs:

My son, do not despise the Lord ’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. (Proverbs 3:11‭-‬12)

And expounded upon by the Apostle Paul:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12:7‭-‬9)

Paul says that if we are not disciplined by God then we are illegitimate and not true children of God.  Rebuke, according to Proverbs, shows love.  

Good parents discipline their children because they love and want the best for them.  They realize that uncorrected attitudes and behaviors will cause more future pain for their children than a rebuke.  Discipline, therefore, is a preventative medicine against a deeper more permanent harm.

It is easy to be nice to someone in order to avoid trouble.  In confrontation there is risk.  Many prophets lost their lives for speaking truth to power.  At very least criticism can come at the cost of loss of popularity and friendship.  As a result, people play nice for their own sake, to keep people off their case, and not out of love.

I personally do not waste my time trying to correct a person I do not love.  Why would I?

A good rebuke is not a hit-and-run attack.  No, rather it is part of a true concern for the well-being of another and a part of a longer term investment to help another person reach their better potential.  Sometimes, when an audience is especially stubborn and unreceptive, there is a need to ratchet up the rhetoric until there is a change.

2) The future is being created by us…

Many religious people are fatalistic.  Yes, they might claim to believe in “free will” or choice, but then revert to an “it is what it is” fatalism and using God’s sovereignty as an excuse.  

In Jesus we should be free—free to overcome our human limitations and able to create a better reality.  That’s what it means to created in the image of the Creator.  That’s what it means to partake of the divine nature.  And, therefore, with faith, there is agency and choice.

Those whom Jesus addressed also had a choice, and that choice is recorded in the last words of the Old Testament:

See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:5‭-‬6)

The “or else” in the passage above indicates two options.  Either their hearts will be turned or there will be total destruction.  History was dependent on their choice and the future depends on our choice—repent or die.

We know that many did not heed the warning and that Jerusalem was destroyed.  Many of those in the audience may have ended up in Gehenna (the literal “hell” Jesus spoke about) because they refused to hear and repent.  Many of us will follow them to our own destruction unless we choose the abundant life.

In the end, fatalism is simply another form of faithlessness.  Often when we say, “It is what it is,” the truth is that we are simply unwilling to put in the effort or step out in faith.  Life is what we make it.  The future we get is always a choice and we should choose Jesus.

3) When will we see Jesus again?

I don’t know.

That is your choice.

I believe Jesus will return in those who choose to turn, who acknowledge him as Lord, receive his Spirit and follow him. 

 Jesus gave this promise:

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:21)

Jesus longs to reveal himself to us today.

(Artwork: Stanley Spencer)

Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

Standard

Denial is our first line of defense.  Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment.  And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.

Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.”  Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge.  How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?

And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?

I should know.  I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite.  I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.

Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance.  Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it.  But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right.  Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message.  It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.

However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29‭-‬32)

The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad.  They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets.  But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link.  He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.

The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history.  They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.

What was so wrong with the Pharisees?

“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction.  They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.

Jesus once told his audience:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical.  Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable?  Moody or bipolar?  I doubt it.

Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously.  And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned.  But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.

The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people.  The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others.  Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?

Or were they content to simply do better than others?

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47‭-‬48)

A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved.  There is no room for arrogance when this is understood.  The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.

The Pharisees rejected faith.  They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves.  In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.

Are we better than the Pharisees?

Probably not.

The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.

That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees.  They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time.  They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.

However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?

Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write.  Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage.  As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.

But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either.  We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.

Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Standard

One thing about Mennonites is that we are good at maintaining our niceness.  But this niceness, while “nice” by outward appearance, is not always truthful.  We can hide many evil thoughts behind a polite smile.  We know the “right” words to say and use them habitually… all the while harboring harsh judgments in our hearts.

Why do we hide our true feelings?

First off, to be the “quiet in the land” is part of our Mennonite-cultural-default setting; we play nice because we were taught to not cause a fuss.  Second, we want to avoid conflict; trying to resolve a conflict is difficult and one way to “keep the peace” is to bury our own feelings behind a smile.  The third reason (and most insidious) is so we can appear better than the other person.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this cultural niceness.  It seems to be far better than the alternative of direct confrontation, open disagreement or being too honest about unpleasant things.  But beneath this veil of serenity can be a toxic mess of unresolved conflict, secretly held enmity, and hostility that leaks out as passive-aggressive behavior.

Yes, Mennonites may be good at appearing nice on the outside.  However, we are also good at gossip, backbiting, anonymous letters, slander and giving the cold-shoulder treatment.  A pretty face and pleasant words can hide many less-than-desirable attitudes.  These hidden sins of the heart are not often addressed, and likely because they are far more difficult to detect and define.  Nevertheless, there can be a rotten core underneath a righteous facade.

Some may call this kind of niceness “living peaceably” when in reality it is often nastier than the alternative of open rebuke and direct confrontation.  There is little chance of amicable resolution when a person refuses to openly state their grievances.  Worse, the person being whispered about often can sense the antagonism, yet is without a means to defend themselves.

Jesus had no problem directly rebuking those who were pretty on the outside and ugly inside:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25‭-‬28)

The religious elites Jesus confronted were focused on outward appearance.  Earlier he rebuked them for their distinctive clothing and titles, but this time he goes right to the heart of the issue: True change comes from a transformed heart change and not through conformity of outward appearance.

The hidden sins of religious elites rebuked directly by Jesus are probably different from our own.  That said, our Mennonite religious culture is similar to theirs in that we also emphasize looking right according to our standards and we like to believe that this outward conformity is an indication of a spiritual condition.  However, according to Jesus, compliance with a religious standard is not an indication of a heart change.

The Mennonite “doctrine of non-conformity” is often a distraction and disguise for a sinful heart.

Many use the exhortation “be not conformed to this world” out of context and as a justification for their rules.  Unfortunately, this misses the point entirely.  The alternative to being conformed to the world is *not* a long list of standards but a transformation of mind, and that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mennonites need to focus less on their cherished doctrine of non-conformity (that is primarily concerned with maintaining an acceptable appearance) and more on change of heart.  As Jesus said, when the heart is changed then the behavior will follow—with or without rules.  But without spiritual transformation no amount of rules or conformity to them can change hearts.

I know plenty of Mennonites who wear the prescribed clothing, do the right Mennonite activities and are really nice people, but it seems they have no real faith.  It is possible to change on the outside through religious indoctrination while lacking in substance of faith and remaining spiritually dead.  So, if anything, Mennonite standards only serve to create a disguise for the faithless.

The focus on outward appearance and emphasis on rules in conservative Mennonite circles could itself be indication of a lack of heart change. It is a perspective that gets things completely in reverse and shows a lack of spiritual understanding so basic that it can hardly be anything but a sign of an untransformed mind.

True faith is not about cultural conformity and a pleasant facade.

People behave the way they do for many reasons.  We act in a particular manner or conform to the standards of our peer group in order to be accepted.  However, the faith that pleases God is not about fitting in or meeting religious expectations.  The faith that God seeks is about spiritual transformation that takes us well beyond anything that can be spelled out into code.

Sure, religious folks might be able to police themselves based on their rules (written or unwritten) and look down those who fall outside the lines.  Yet, without inner change, none of it matters; we are only succeeding at making people clean on the outside and neglecting what Jesus taught should come first.  Perhaps then we would be more accepting of those who don’t act right according to our favored ideas but have a heart for God?

King David didn’t always act right according to our standards.  He did some things that weren’t even allowed by God’s standard, was guilty of a terrible sin, and still was a man after God’s own heart.  David’s heart was right even though his behavior was not, and that is more important than meeting religious expectations or maintaining a nice appearance.

Are you truly transformed and changed spiritually from the inside out?

Or are you only a good Mennonite acting the part?