The Day My Little Hope Died

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I was a failure in my own mind.

My engagement ended.  I had hurt someone that I loved deeply.  My lofty romantic ambitions ended in a grinding and painful defeat.  I was not the hero that saved the day.

I was confused, embarrassed, disappointed and determined to make up for my failure to deliver as promised.

That feeling of obligation only intensified when my ex-fiance became pregnant to another man a bit later.  The relationship with the child’s father had not worked out.  I was worried for both mother and child.

I wondered how my friend would be able to provide and decided I would offer the best support that I could as a friend.  When I met Saniyah for the first time my fears began to subside.  Holding her filled me with a fatherly pride.

Eventually, as my friend and her child were sufficiently cared for in her community, my initial fears were replaced with a little hope.  Saniyah was real living proof that something good could come out of failure and represented hope that my friend would have the lifelong companion.

Nothing could prepare me.

It was a normal sunny spring day, March 26, 2009, a Thursday.  I was still getting adjusted to my life on the road as a truck driver and had run hard that week.

I was still on the road when I received a text message.  The contents, something about my friend’s baby being in the hospital, really didn’t register for some reason.

However, the message that came a bit later, the one telling me something unthinkable, I did understand and it hit hard.

“Why!?!”

My mind screamed for an answer.

There was a moment of intense anger.

Saniyah, only eighteen months old, was no longer with us.  She has been found in her crib lifeless and blue.  Her death caused by a combination of asthma and pneumonia.  There was nothing that could be done to save her.

My work week ended abruptly.  I told my dispatcher (whose office I was in at the time) that I would be unable to finish the week and had decided I would drive to be there for my friend.  Soon after I was on the road headed east.

A surreal night and a mother’s wail.

The morning sun had been replaced by dark skies and driving rain.  I drove through the torrential downpour, at the edge of control, the worn grooves of I-80 filled with water, and at a higher rate of speed than safe.

I arrived in Brooklyn that evening not even sure how I got there or what to expect.  I had left without any real plan where I would stay or what I would do.  All that mattered to me was that I would be there for my friend if she needed me.

I was soon feeling a bit better.  My friend was willing to see me, her composure was amazing and soon we were back at her apartment with the small gathering of family and friends.

I had settled down on the couch.  My friend was in the other room, which was connected by a large opening, she was looking through pictures as I chatted and then came a moment that will probably be with me to my dying day.

My strong friend, whose calm had been my comfort until then, let out a groan, a wail only a mother could make, and it was a sound that penetrated me to the deepest depths of my being.

That night, while she cried, I bit my lip and held back trying to be strong.  But in that moment something broke, something tore deep inside me, I stared through the hole down into a hopeless and terrible darkness that I had not known before.

That was the day my little hope died.

We buried Saniyah a few days later.  I recall staring at that little lifeless body, feeling helpless, overwhelmed and knowing that I did not have the faith to bring her back to life.  I would have traded my own life to give Saniyah back to my friend.

The hole that stared back at me.

I stopped talking to members of my immediate family who did not attend the funeral.  Before then I had been frustrated with a couple of my siblings who always seemed too busy when I called and now were too busy to honor the life of Saniyah.

It was not fair to them that they bore the brunt of my feelings (nor was it fair to the online community that I was a part of then) but I had a deep anger raging inside that could not be calmed.  They became the more tangible enemy that I so desperately wanted.

And then there was the guilt.  My friend had told me about Saniyah’s health issue and how the doctor seemed more interested in scamming the state than providing quality care.  Why had I not intervened then and insisted that she see another physician?

I was not thinking rationally.

I was trying to stay one step ahead of a monster inside of me.

But I could not always run fast enough and in moments where I felt helpless, things that would only cause a healthy person a bit of concern, my gaze would turn inside and the nightmare would catch up to me.

I would look deep into that hole that had opened the night Saniyah died and a despair that I cannot begin to describe in words would envelop me.  It is that thing of Lovecraftian horror, the words of Friedrich Nietzsche come to life, a terror that would leave me in pieces and sobbing.

My religion, largely an intellectual project, failed to provide me with good answers.  I was, despite regular church attendance, an agnostic for all intents and purposes.  My inability to protect those who I loved or prove my way to faith, along with a string of other failures to realize my dreams, left me hollow inside and feeling totally helpless.

The return of a new hope and purpose.

Tears still well up when I talk about Saniyah and the circumstances of her death.  Life is never the same after an experience like that.  But those episodes of helplessness and profound loss, of reliving that moment from the night she died, have gone away.

My anger subsided.  My estranged relationships restored and mostly better than ever.  My faith now built on foundation more substantial than the book knowledge that had been so woefully inadequate to save me.  I have a bigger hope now than the little one based in my own efforts.

After years of struggle and questions too big for my own mind, I realized that the hope Saniyah represented still lives on.  It is a hope built on trust on faith not of my own works and found in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

My temporary loss is heaven’s gain.

Making Your Life Matter

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Kayla Mueller had a life that mattered.

Her name has been in the news lately because of her death at the hands of ISIS.

But her courage and sacrifice for the good of others will live on.  She loved others, not because they looked like her or shared her tribal identity, but because she loved God and knew God loved them.

Kayla’s example made an impact on everyone now reading her story and her life mattered in particular to those whom she served and rescued.  She is remembered especially by Julie, a young Yazidi girl, who knew Kayla as a protective older sister and true friend.

Kayla’s selfless attitude and actions are a true reflection of Christian love and is an example of a life that mattered for all the right reasons.

Does your life matter?

We all want our life to matter.  My Christian faith has led me to believe human life has intrinsic value.  But does this mean all life has equal value?  Is your life worth the same to society as a serial killer’s life?  Is my life equal in value to a President who is guarded by dozens of armed secret service agents?

The answer is both yes and no.

It depends on perspective.  My life may have equal value to the President’s if you ask my own family and friends.  However, I would expect that the answer would change if the random person from the street were asked and that is one reason why we do more to secure the President.

A President’s death would likely be far more disruptive to more people than my own and that gives their life more value as far as national security is concerned.  It does not mean my life has less intrinsic value, but it does reflect a reality of life that does matter.

What we contribute and value matters.

President John F. Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had lives that mattered to someone.  And, despite the fact Kennedy is responsible for more deaths than the man who killed him, his life was valued more than Oswald’s by many Americans.

Why?

Kennedy, in his inaugural address, challenged those listening to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  He had the right idea and how much we matter to others depends on what we do for them.  Kennedy’s life mattered more to many people because he worked within their own established system rather than defy, resist or rebel against it.

Our value as individuals will be judged better or worse depending on what we contribute to the whole. Our outcomes, in part, will be shaped by our own attitudes good or bad and the respect we show to others.  All people are supposed to have equal protection under the law. However, this does not mean all people contribute the same to society and that matters.

We live in a time where many have an entitled self-centered mindset and wish to be valued without being willing to make a positive contribution.  Many Americans are only in it for themselves or people like them.  When no life matters except our own then our own life loses value.  When we treat others like they do not matter it hurts them and is sabotage to our own value.

Make your life matter for goodness sake.

We make our life matter more by loving all people as we wish to be loved.  When we treat other people with love we create value where it did not exist before.  By loving others as we wish to be loved we create value and make our life matter more as a result.

Yes, certainly that does not mean all people will value us.  Some might despise us no matter what we do because of their hateful ideologies or judgemental assumptions about us.  We cannot force others to love us or treat us as if our life matters.  If our life doesn’t matter to someone then all the pleas, protests and demands for respect can’t change that.  Even our kindness will not matter to some.

Nevertheless, we can always make others matter to us, we can always live a life that matters for the right reasons, and nobody, not even ISIS, can stop us.

Be like Kayla Mueller who died to save others.

My challenge is for all of my readers to go out and love someone who others do not care about or notice.

Find someone who is different from you (not your own race, family, culture, religious affiliation or political background) and then show them unconditional love.  Love them as thoroughly and completely as the good Samaritan did.

Be like Jesus who laid down his own life so others, including his personal enemies, could find their salvation in his example and together have opportunity to live a more abundant life.

Live a life that transcends differences and expands the scope of love to all people deserving or undeserving alike.

Live a life that matters.

The Lost Witness of Christian Community and Finding it Again

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There has been much focus on the family in the church.  Popular media commentators (like James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard and Doug Philips) encourage making a high priority of our own immediate families. 

Family is important.  But the “no greater joy” in 3 John 1:4 is not written about a man’s own family or his blood relatives.  Instead the letter is written about the church.  John is describing love for spiritual children and the family of God.  Do we find as much joy in the church family as we do in raising our own children?

Christian community has been watered down over the years.  Yes, we might have more ‘church’ activities than ever and yet, as far as real interdependence, we are lacking.  Those of you from good homes, who are happily married and in your prime, may not notice.  But there is great social need beyond your doorstep.

This blog will explore where we are, where we were and where we need to go from here; it will address the enemies and also the benefits of faith community.  One blog can’t even begin to do the topic justice, but hopefully it will spark thoughts and discussion.  My prayer is that those reading will take faithful steps to restore the Christian community where they are.

Where we are…

The loss of community in the world around us is profound and the results are tragic.  Isolated people are unhealthy people.  The family unit itself has been degraded.  Many children do not have opportunity of dinner time conversations together with their parents at home.  Child care is increasingly outsourced.  More people survive on food cooked by strangers than ever.  The elderly are interned for sake of convenience, out of sight and out of mind.  It is madness.

The church has not fared much better.  People in many churches have very little meaningful interaction with each other during the week.  After the church service is over most go their seperate ways and expect the needs to be taken care of by those appointed to do so.  There is very little difference between the mainstream church and the world in regards to community.  Sure, many churches bustle with activities, and there are many good people who are trying to make a difference, but there are many unmet social needs.

My conservative Mennonite culture has a more distinct history of community.  Other Anabaptist groups, our spiritual (and often biological) cousins, have a stronger community emphasis than our own.  Amish have taken dramatic steps and have rejected technology (starting with the automobile) in an effort to preserve the integrity of their communities.  The Hutterites have a long communal tradition.  But conservative Mennonites lack a clear structure and could lose this strength of community entirely.

I’ve seen changes in my own Mennonite community in my own lifetime that indicate the erosion of our community.  We are following after the mainstream and the world more than we often realize.  The Anabaptist prioritization of brotherhood has been replaced with a more individualistic mindset.  

We do not pursue the concept of Gelassenheit anymore.  Instead we turn to our own biological families for support and our fellowship is growing apart.

Where we were…

The early church example is very clear.  The family language used by early church leaders meant something.  When Paul spoke up for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-25) he speaks with the urgency of a father speaking for his son.  It is not casual usage of words.  It is not us singing “I’m so glad to I’m a part of the family of God” on Sunday mornings and then doing next to nothing for each other during the week.  The chuch then was a true family in every sense of the word…

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47)

And repeated again later in the book of Acts…

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Their commitment to each other was clearly not a superficial commitment like our own too often seems to be.  What is described in the passages from Acts above is not coincidence.  No, what is described is what will happen when people commit fully to the teachings of Jesus and love as they ought to love.

Where we need to be…

What we need, first of all, is intention—we need to want to make the ideal of community a greater reality.  We must realize our own weakness alone, confess this to each other and then bear our burdens together… 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It is not a meddlesome or controlling spirit, but rather a growing recognition of our own need for community and deepening commitment to the good of our Christian brothers and sisters.  This kind of love is the truest expression of obedience to the law of Christ.  

Jesus said the world would know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:34-35) and this is expressed in Koinonia (κοινωνία) or our common union as believers.  We are to be intimately involved in fellowship together, and in all things, or we are not fully living the example Jesus taught.  This must be made a reality today in our own time or we cannot claim to be fully living in faith. 

The church should be extending our family to those without.  Our elderly should never be left to a commercially operated nursing facility.  Young single mothers should be able to find a restful place amongst us.  We need to be less focused on our own individual family and more concerned with the family of God.

Enemies of community of faith…

There are many reasons why we do not follow the Acts church example today and it is mostly because we fear that the arrangement will not benefit us as an individual or our own family.  This is a short list of reasons why one may resist a greater expression of Christian community:

1) Individualism: There is no doubt that our American culture centers on ideas of independence and rugged individualism.  Unfortunately this has evolved into a rat race where everyone pursues a dream (unattainable for many) at the expense of real and fulfilling relationship.  We seek independence, and it is good when we are working to support ourselves, yet we have social needs that cannot be fulfilled in ourselves alone.

2) Prosperity: People can create an illusion of their lack of need for other people because they are wealthy.  Our wealth as Americans is used as defense of the status quo.  The argument goes that since everyone has food, shelter and clothing there is no need for a better application of what we read in the book of Acts.  Unfortunately government programs, while keeping people from physical death and complete destitution, do nothing for social or spiritual needs.  Even materially wealthy people can be very isolated and miserable.

3) Pride: Religious people can easily imagine they are better than other people including their own brothers and sisters in the church.  They do not want their children influenced by other children and adults, therefore they remove them, homeschool, etc.  It is the oldest sin in the book.  It was what seperated mankind from God and it is also an enemy of Christian community.  Pride is dangerous, it causes divisions in the church and decieves us into believing we are better off when we are in complete control.

4) Technology: The Amish were right.  The automobile dramatically changed and has aided in the decline of community.  Add to that the television and smartphones.  Children nowadays have more reason to stay inside and isolated.  Adults are not much better by choosing to live in some suburban home with a privacy fence.  We are increasingly buried in technology, addicted to the quick fix of social media and at the expense of true relationship.

5) Fear of commitment: It takes faith and commitment to seek after deeper relationship and many of us are simply avoiding it.  In the conservative Mennnonite church we are afraid to court and adopting the same reluctance towards marraige of the Millennial generation.  Commitment is scary.  The rewards of community (like marriage) are not immediate and the risks loom large.  Unfortunately we miss out on a blessing because of our fear.

The practical arguments in favor of community of faith…

First and formost, there is need.  Again, just because your own needs are met does not mean that there is no need.  The plight of our older singles and elderly people would be a little less severe if they were intergrated into a community rather than the afterthought that they often are.  The church shold be a place where everyone has an equal seat at the table. 

Unfortuantely many of us our too preoccupied with our own families to notice or care about those who are lacking.  That is not the spirit of Christ who told us to leave all (including family) to follow after him.  The irony is that those who actually have by some means found their security in themselves may actually have the most need.  Wealth, whether it be that of material or biological variety, has always hindered commitment to faith.  Our need to repent of our religious individualism and spiritual pride could be our greatest need of all.

Then there is the matter of efficient use of resources.  As most of us currently live there is this ridiculous redundancy.  We all need our own seperate lawn mower, garden tools, pickup truck and would be so much further ahead sharing.  That’s not to mention our reliance on commercial lenders rather than each other.  It is sad that we would rather our brothers pay interest to a bank and struggle to stay ahead than help them as we might our own son.  It is a wasteful use of resources that could otherwise be used to further the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the most spurious arguments against a more real expression of Christian community is the idea that it would come at the expense of evangelism.  The reasoning goes that existing groups that practice a community of goods concept have failed in one regard or another and often in sharing the Gospel.  This, of course, is the same argument used by those saying that we should drop other non-mainstream Biblical practices currently practiced by conservative Mennonites.  If we start abandoning practices that can somehow be associated with abuse or neglect we would probably need to join the faithless and stay home.

Community of faith is actually the most practical witness of the Gospel we have.  How better to meet the needs in the world around us than to offer them the clearest possible alternative?  There is no choice between missions outreach and Christian community because one can compliment the other.  In fact, one enhances the other and makes it much more effective.  Sure, maybe the commitment would require more of us.  However, there are many people with needs who would benefit greately from a church that truly acted as a family.  

Change comes upon us slowly…

The book of Acts describes a reality quite a bit different from our own today.  Then, unlike now, there was a willingness to give up financial independence and truly be a part in a community of faith.  This is something that must be restored for the church to function as it was supposed to fuction.

I believe that the contrast between then and now is something that must be part of our discussion.  Even in my own lifetime there seems to be a weakening of our commitment to each other.  There was a time it seemed we spent more time together visiting on a Sunday afternoon, when we worked closer together and had a more meaningful impact on each others life.

There needs to be radical steps taken in faith.  We need not recreate the past, but rather we do need to walk in obedience to the same Spirit that caused the early church to want to have a better communion (or common union) together.  We must ask what has changed between our priorities today and theirs then.

Many of us would scoff at the idea of a commune.  However, do we see the absurdity of our own time and way?  Do we see the cost of paying strangers to prepare our coffee in the morning or care for our elderly?  Do we see what the loss of community has done to our neighbors and nation?

There needs to be a vision for community of faith.  We need to take steps to get off the tragectory that the world is on and present something different and better.  My own conservative Mennonite church family can lead the way in this regard.  We have this better prioritization in our Anabaptist history and could use this as a basis for a fresh push in that direction.

We need to be intentional.  We need to challenge the thinking of the world that has crept into our lifestyle and has convinced us that we are better off in our own corners rather than in loving community together.  Jesus said “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:29) not only our own biological progeny.  The church should be our family.  

So my encouragement is that we pursue the true ideal of church community with all sincerity.  We should tune out the radio and internet commentators and commit to love each other more.  I believe we will find God faithful when we do.  

Marriage as Martyrdom: The Truly Christian View of Love and Romance

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​Do you want to know a secret? 

You are never ready for marriage nor are you ever worthy of anyone’s faithful abiding love and nobody is.  We are all fatally flawed, even those of us who are more capable of hiding it beneath a facade, and eventually our own immanent human weakness will be made known.

Some, for fear of being exposed as the frauds, never open themselves up fully to the love of others.  They prefer the safety of the illusion that they are able to create (in the solitary confines of their own minds) to the risk of honesty about their own hopelessness.  This is a worldly approach to love, it is all about proven performance, all about carefully maintained outward appearances and it lacks true faith.

Others make themselves vulnerable.  They confess their faults openly and let their flaws be known.  They would rather deal with the pain of rejection than deal dishonesty with themselves or others.  These people have hope of finding real love because they have humbled themselves, they have taken this risk to confessed their own sinful imperfection, and choose to live in faith of forgiveness rather than in fear.

Christian love transcends existing reality and, in true communion with God, seeks to find a more glorious future—reaches out in faith rather than dwell alone in fear of our imperfection.  Jesus sacrificed all while we were still dead in our sins, Jesus healed even those who did not take time to thank him, and faithful followers must do the same.  Christian love is a preemptive love, it is a truly selfless love only possible through means of God’s grace and a genuine spiritual transformation.  Christian love is always a gift given to those completely undeserving.

In contrast, the secular world has a version of love that is special favor distributed based on past performance, it is only given out in expectation of a return bigger than the investment made and abandoned quickly when the initial pleasurable feelings of an expected return fade.  It it is a selfish false love despite the selfless romantic language it is often disguised in.  It is a love of “what’s in it for me?” and is the only kind of love those without the Spirit of God can show.

The religious hypocrite may too use the language of faith and grace to describe their love.  However, with a bit of testing of spirits, sometimes their lack of truth in love can be revealed and their acting the part (as hypocrites) will be known.  This self-seeking love and self-serving spirit is found all over the church—even tacitly sanctioned in the romance and courtship arena.  But in marriage the truth of our love is known.

Is our conservative Mennonite idea of romance purely Christian or somewhat worldly?

I must vote the latter. 

As much as I hear talk about being the “right person” and emphasis on past and anticipated performance it is quite evident that we have an idea of love being something that is deserved.  It is the very antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we profess.  If love were indeed something earned then we would all be stuck in an impossible situation in relation to God and hopeless.

It is paradoxical, but many of the things the world uses as a basis to reject people and withhold love are the very things only love can cure.  For example, many prefer to criminalize addiction and take putative measures against addicts.  Unfortunately this approach is often extremely counterproductive, we drive those suffering further towards the margins of society, and a growing body of research shows that connection (a practical expression of love) is the solution.

We in the church, as religious people, do make an effort to reach out to those on the margins of society.  I have great respect for those faithfully involved in prison ministry, who visit the elderly interned in nursing facilities or for those who conduct clubs for disadvantaged children.  However, these are also things that can be done mostly out of obligation or religious duty, an attempt to earn the favor of God, and not out of genuine Christian love for others.

We can maintain a facade of Christian love in church and church activities.  But there is a point when the truth of the kind of love we possess will be brought to light.  And, while I’m not talking about only romantic love, our romantic and marital love is where this mask can no longer be maintained.  Sure, we can fake self-sacrificial love around our religious peers when preening for their approval, but we will not give away our whole life for our lie and therefore must keep some places off limits.

It is ironic that many conservative Mennonites (the same who affirm a belief in a doctrine that would preclude them even defending loved ones) also preach an extremely self-serving me-first worldly idea of romance.  I’ve had a father literally whip out a calculator while trying to explain why I was ineligible to court his daughter.  It is appalling faithless hypocrisy and yet never really seriously questioned.

My way or the highway: If I can’t marry who I want to marry, why marry at all?

Marriage, as something self-interested, means we will only marry when the calculations favor our own interests.  This, again, is a worldly idea of love and the antithesis of actual Christian love.

Unfortunately many in the church, going against their profession of faith, will only marry when they believe that it will produce a future advantage for them and choose based in things like family pedigree or past performance.  They rely on their own understanding and not faith in God.

Such might have been the case when a young woman named Emily Cavanaugh turned down a suitor back in the spring of 1938.  She rejected a young man’s love because he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere in life and she believed he would never amount to much.  She wanted a leader in the church and, by her analysis, he lacked that potential. 

That young man rejected by Emily later preached to millions.  He even acted as a personal advisor in matters of faith to Presidents of the most powerful nation in the world.  I had the honor of hearing him speak to the multitude at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.  His name is familiar to many people today.

The man? 

Evangelist Billy Graham…

One should note carefully that all of the significant men in Scripture were losers and outcasts by worldly standards.  Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old, Isaac had his head in the clouds, Jacob was a liar, Moses had murdered a man and couldn’t speak confidently and this pattern of God using the unlikely candidates continues into the New Testament.  Matthew was a collaborator with an enemy occupation, Thomas had doubts about Jesus, Peter was a basically racist (with a bark much bigger than his bite) and a Paul was actually abusive against the faithful.  They were misfits, but God saw what others did not.

Consider what God told Samuel when he was in search of a leader for his people:

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

The man who fit the requirements was King David.  David, unlike Saul before him, was not a man of impressive stature and was a mere shepherd (a menial task) at the time Samuel found him.  What David had was a strong faith that was not recognized by his peers and yet was already known to God.  The courageous warrior and Biblical hero that we know today only emerged later in the story.  One can imagine the faith that it took for Samuel to anoint this unknown commodity as the future leader of a nation.

I believe those who reject a suitor (or a marriage eligible woman) based in their own expectations and arbitrary standards may want to reconsider their own profession of faith in a man run out of his own home town as a false prophet.  I would recommend some reflection on the words Jesus spoke to his Bible-believing (and deceived) detractors: 

“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus was also turned down by his rightful bride because he was deemed unsuitable.  That is a reality worth considering when it comes to how we pick and choose today.  Perhaps our reasonable standards today are wrongheaded and unGodly?  Perhaps we are no better than our unfaithful religious predecessors?

Do our American ideals for love and marriage fail in delivering orthodox Christian imagery?

Marriage, in western society at least, has somehow become a legal arrangement dependent on human vows and will.  But this “till death do we part” contract view of matrimony is not necessarily the most faithful understanding in Christian tradition.  In fact it is this view that makes the very definition of marriage dependent on human whims.  Marriage has become about us rather than about God.

But, what if we were to put God at the center of the marriage union instead of human effort and need?

The Orthodox Christian marriage tradition (in contrast to our Western and somewhat Catholic originated ideas) puts much more emphasis on the eternal perspective and mystery of God.  And, in fuller recognition that God is the one who creates the martial bond, they make no wedding vows.  To them God makes a marriage commitment sacred, not human promises.

Most significantly, the Orthodox view puts stronger emphasis on the symbolic and positive spiritual value of Christian marriage.  It does not treat marriage as if a mere compromise for human weakness.  As an Orthodox friend of mine explains it:

“…marriage is the means blessed by God from the very beginning for a man and a woman to be yoked together in order that they might achieve union with God.  In Orthodox Christian teaching, the original intention of God is reaffirmed by Jesus in his teachings and in his blessing of the Marriage Feast at Cana. Furthermore, the Orthodox put a great deal of emphasis upon the mystery of Christ and his Church—the Bridegroom imagery of Ephesians 5 and see marriage as one very important manifestation of God’s love for his children.”

(Fr. Anthony Roeber, priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and Professor of Early Modern History & Religious Studies, Penn State.)

Conservative Mennonites do like their symbolism.  We have persistently held onto symbolic Christian practices (like veils, kisses of charity and foot washing) long after the mainstream church abandoned or neglected them.  This cultural penchant for resisting change could give the impression of faithfulness.  Unfortunately, our reality of heart can sometimes be vastly different from what we display outwardly.

Is our concept of marriage a reflection of a radical commitment to Christian self-sacrificial love?  We might say that our romantic endeavors are God honoring and rooted in faith, but is this actually true?  Or, beneath the veil of religious symbolism, is our romance spiritually vacant and about our own personal preferences?

Love as God loves and for God wants to do through us, not for what we want to choose for ourselves.

I believe emphasis on choice and knowing (on our own terms) often comes at the expense of faith.  There is cognitive dissonance in the church when you compare our courtship ideals to what we expect in marriage.  In courtship we forget about God’s perspective and adopt a worldly approach.  Yet then we expect that self-centered attitude to disappear once some religious ritual is performed? 

Marriage is not about our choosing what is best for ourselves.  To be successful in marriage requires commitment to self-sacrificial love and giving up our own rights to another.  I believe that our American/Western culture is hung up choice and independence, it is to our own spiritual detriment too, but there are few who address this weakness in our courtship ideal.  We push human calculations, our own personal or political advantages, and not faith.

The worldly perspective of romantic love is self-centered and is only about a person getting what they want.  But the true Christian ideal is martyrdom:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:21-33)

That, a text oft used at weddings, is a great guide to marital relationship.  However, to remain consistent, isn’t this the same reality of love that should be guiding our lives and including the whole process leading to marriage from start to finish?  Can we truly expect Christian love to be made manifest in marriage when we married for selfish gain or to advance our own personal agenda religious and otherwise?

A faithful follower of Jesus should marry because they wish to better serve God by their devoted self-sacrificial love to another.  It should not be a market based decision, a weighing of available options and determination to select what will be most beneficial to ourselves.  When marriage is about our own plans and ambitions it becomes as a business transaction between two people.  Yes, we can dress it up in the language of love or romance and celebrate it together in religious formality, but we might as well call it what it is: legal prostitution.

There is sometimes a vast difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe in practice.  We can claim to be ready to sacrifice anything in service to God, but are we actually willing to sacrifice our right to marry or marry the person of our own choosing?  Do we bring honor to God in our romance or are we as self-seeking and carnally minded as our secular neighbors?

It’s not what you can obtain through romantic pursuits, but about the glory God will obtain.  Marriage, for a Christian, should be a great testimony of our faithfulness, a practical display of a transcending self-sacrificial and eternal commitment to love.

Our romance, according to the most ancient of Christian traditions, can be our greatest witness and testimony of faith put to practice.  In truest form marriage is a dying to ourselves for love of another or martyrdom. 

The Blessings Of Not Being Married As Planned

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This was not the blog I had planned.  I have two finished blogs and had told a friend I may flip a coin to choose between them.  However, I was thrown a major curve ball which has caused me to wish to delay release of those blogs to go with a third option: Write this blog and share it first.

Enjoy…

When life does not go according to plan and you end up single, like me.

My plan was to be married by twenty-one.  I’m the relationship kind of guy.  I wanted to share my life with someone special more than anything else, wanted children, and therefore had planned to be married as soon as possible.  However, my plans to marry that high school crush passed along with my twenties and, despite my heroic efforts, I remain single to this day.

Anyhow, I decided to write this blog so my single (and wanting) friends can have a reason to smile.  I’m single, it was not entirely my choice, it has been extremely painful at times, profound loneliness stinks, and yet God has been faithful.  There have been many moments of deep despair and hopelessness, but I am here to tell you that there’s reason to hope and be happy.

I’ve decided to write about the things I would have missed out on and what I would not be today had I married when I planned.  It is hard to imagine what I would be for certain today had I married young and we have no way to know that counterfactual reality of might have been, yet there are some things that I am fairly certain about.

Six things I would not be had I as a married planned:

I would not be a blogger.  You are reading this blog because I have time to write it as a single person.  Writing is something I do not completely enjoy, but it is something that seems to be a gift I have and I do it mostly as an act of faith.  This blog was started a couple years ago as a response to the questions in my mind about my purpose in life that came after a “no” from a girl who was the embodiment of a the Mennonite ideal for a wife.

I would not own an awesome car.  Earlier this year it was my privilege to buy something most married men can only dream about and that being a brand new Shelby GT350 Mustang.  Sure, we should not live our lives for such material things, but it was nice to see my hard work and diligent saving pay off in a tangible (very thrilling) way.  So, while I would trade this mechanical beast for a wife and family in a heart beat, I still enjoy the memories of many grins and the experience.

I would not know the pain of rejection.  Pain is bad, right?  Well, not entirely actually, pain is temporary and with pain comes empathy and the ability to appreciate pleasure all the more.  Sure, we avoid pain, we probably should avoid unnecessary pain, and yet pain helps me to identify with those who suffer.  More significantly, it has allowed me the privilege of a deeper appreciation and understanding of my Lord and Savior who suffered for our sins.

I would not have the unique perspective that I do.  My experience as a single person with unfulfilled desires and social needs often unmet gives me a special vision for the church.  I say unfulfilled needs thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the idea that people need deeper connection to thrive.  I can recall the many times I felt spiritually deficient, isolate from human touch and longed for a church that was more than superficially concerned.  The fact is, we were made for meaningful human connection and without it we become unhealthy.

I would have missed out on many wonderful friendships.  As part of my dealing with my own disappointment I became more open to being the answer for the needs of other people.  Because of what I had gone through it was my desire to help others in similar circumstances.  I have stepped out in faith and as a result have been very blessed.  The friendships gained would likely be impossible had I been a married man.  Investments made in Christian love for other people always seem to pay back in surprising ways.

I would not have been asked on a date.  There is a first time for everything and I had a first over the weekend.  When I wrote my last blog it was not with a clear personal agenda or self-pity.  There are some unanswered questions right now that keep me from being ready to make a serious romantic commitment.  My blog was to create awareness of an issue that is not being adequately addressed in the conservative Mennonite church that I know.  One thing for certain, I had not planned on being asked out on a coffee date by a very intriguing young woman.

But I do like my unplanned blessings and especially when they come because of faithful actions.

I have much to be thankful for as one blessed more than he deserves.

My next blog will be on the topic of marriage as martyrdom.  But before that I wanted to encourage my single friends to see the bigger perspective.  Those who remain single (because they were rejected by the world’s standard and not for prideful selfish reasons) may obtain the bigger crown because they are most like our Lord and Savior. 

So, to my single friends, remain faithful.  God may have some unplanned surprises in your future of a very pleasant variety.  Trust God, the one who holds the future, and not your own human perspective or a worldly understanding.  Live in true faith today and may God soon grant you the desires of your heart.

Smile too, it’s attractive.

The Disposable Men: Millennial Rejection of Marriage and Mennonite Bachelors

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​We live in an age that prefers convenience over conservation.  We do not want long-term commitment to that plastic cup at the picnic over the weekend or anything else really.  Even marriage has become disposable and cheap to match the current generation.

Marriage in the conservative Mennonite community is one of those things that has not undergone this silverware to plastic transformation.  Divorce is not an option for those raised in this tradition.  However—having been otherwise assimilated into the prevailing culture—many of us are choosing to divorce from a marriage commitment altogether and remain single.

In some cases there can be abstinence from marriage for religious and other good reasons.  Paul wrote: “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man (unmarried) to remain as he is.” (1 Corinthians 7:26) That recommendation likely being for the “present crisis of widespread persecution and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

But, the awkward unholy alliance of Mennonite and millennial values is not a Christian ideal.

In this age I suspect the choice to remain single is often selfish and simply a reflection of millennial generation values having rubbed off on us.  To many marriage seems inconvenient, it would impose on their freedom to travel the world and require maturation.  We, like other millennials, postpone our adulthood and some would rather remain perpetually childish.

There is some difference between us as conservative Mennonites and the typical millennial.  We, unlike them, are afraid to date and young women encouraged to turn down all suitors who do not fit their (or their mother’s) idealistic list of requirements.  They are convinced (and perhaps because of a culture too focused on women being submissive) not to take a risk until they simply lose interest.

You’ll note that I’ve positioned women as the gatekeepers to courtship and marriage and that’s because they are.  It is the one place in conservative Mennonite culture where they know their voice is heard.  Can we really blame a young woman, especially one raised around a patriarchal dad or controlling brothers, for being reluctant to sign away her independence?

Unfortunately her reluctance is not equally matched by male counterparts.  I know many exasperated unmarried guys who followed all the rules, who jumped through all the hoops, and have only known rejection.  A good Mennonite guy will not even get a first date unless he is judged worthy by some incomprehensible measure.

Our not choosing commitment in the present will cost our faith and future potential. 

I’m all for choice and choosing wisely.  However, that is something altogether different from choosing not to choose altogether for fear of choosing incorrectly.  There is an unbalance in favor of over-caution (or a commitment phobia) that could result in lasting consequences and serious disappointment if not addressed.  

Marriage, a relationship where Christian commitment to self-sacrificial love is tested and exampled, should not be so easily discarded.  Men, especially non-resistant men who can’t serve society as soldiers and police, have strong desire for something of tangible concrete value to protect.  Women, by contrast, can have this need to nurture fulfilled in caretaking, a career in the medical profession or elsewhere, and even profit handsomely.

A single man is often ineligible for leadership positions in the church.  Conservative Mennonite employers often offer less compensation men without families or overlook them entirely.  And, in youth obsessed American culture, his disadvantage only grows and increase in age only increases the stigma.  The married men brag from the pulpit how their lovely wife made them everything they are while the bachelor wonders why he is amongst those unworthy.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many unmarried and wanting women either.  For as many young women who got asked two dozen times and said “no” every time, there’s also probably as many who never got asked once.  It is because Mennonite guys won’t risk asking a girl who doesn’t fit their list of requirements for fear of rejection and getting a reputation for a girl they were unsure about to begin with.

Yet, in my estimation, it is unmarried men and the future of the church that are hurt most in the current paradigm.  Our culture is still traditional enough that a single woman can expect to be under the care of her parents.  She can enjoy a special flexibility whilst waiting for her white knight.  Not true of her brothers, they can’t afford to go on adventures and yet risk being judged as unspiritual for preparing for the responsibility of marriage.

Unmarried conservative Mennonite men are the most disposable.  We must be always available without complaint at a moments notice and be providers protection without compromise.  It is pathetic, actually, what men give out for free.  But to be more guarded, to carefully guard our hearts as something precious or preservable, and keep our strengths to ourselves is impermissible.  

We must be like a paper plate, an adequate stand-in performer, something wanted around for temporary use, and okay to be tossed in the trash.  And, yet, we must also live up to the traditional Mennonite male role and display the qualities of fine chinaware.

Respect your own value if you wish to be respected.

Here’s my recommendation for those single people who wish to be married and have been routinely rejected or overlooked: Stop grovelling in front of the unappreciative, open your eyes like Peter did envisioning the expansion of the church (Acts 10:9-16) and open the doors of your wedding feast to those who understand the value you intend to offer them.

Jesus spoke about not casting our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6) and not persisting with those who do not value us: “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5) We might want to consider this advice when the value of our commitment is rejected in our own communities.

Loyalty can be a fault.  There are unmarried men and women outside your own religious community who might better appreciate your Christian testimony.  So don’t waste the remainder of your virile years wondering why the ‘right one’ won’t even have coffee with you.  

God isn’t a Mennonite and, as a faithful child of God, you aren’t garbage. 

Does One Voice Make A Difference?

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“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'”

The book of Ecclesiastes paints a bleak picture of life.  It describes how cycles of nature repeat and nothing really changes from before.  We labor yet we are soon to be forgotten along with our labor.

If that is how he felt then, then how should one feel today?  Meaning can be further lost in our current understanding of the vastness of time and space.  We rush with an ever quickening pace into a sea of nothingness.

“Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18)

Wisdom goes hand and hand with sorrow because the unwise do not realize they are unwise.  So a wise person is often stuck watching the foolishness of others unfold before their eyes without being able to do anything to stop it.  Knowledge of the patterns of people and history is often a source of painful helplessness.

What can a compassionate and intelligent person do but mourn the world then bury themselves in pleasurable indulgences so they can forget?  

The excesses of king Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, were not a product of foolishness, they were an attempt to escape a maddening reality where all men (wise or foolish) would eventually perish.  His knowledge and wisdom made all of his pursuits become empty.

“The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.  Then I said to myself, ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?’  I said to myself, ‘This too is meaningless.’  For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!” (Ecclesiastes 2:14-16)

It is a reality that is inescapable, watching people make the same mistakes over and over again, seeing where the patterns of today will lead, being treated as a fool by those whom you are trying to warn, unable to convince them until it is too late and the die is already cast.  It is enough to make a wise person stop wasting their efforts.

This is the battle a writer who wishes to make a difference in the world must face.  There is no point in writing if there’s nobody to read or comprehend.  We wish to be understood so that others might gain from our experience and insights.  But in a world of over seven billion voices who has time to listen?  How can true wisdom seperate itself from the inane chatter?

Even my triumphs, even when a blog I write hits a chord and is viewed a thousand times, there is often a feeling of morose that follows.  My writing is never good enough and even if it was who’s actually listening?  I feel compelled to speak my mind yet then wonder if it is meaningful that I do say a word.  I fight off discouragement until it is time to write again.

However, what matters to me ultimately is not the thousands of anonymous visitors here.  No, it is the people, small and unimportant to the world, whom I’ve been able to encourage.  Whatever lofty ideas I share here matter very little in the end.  What matters is those who have found my love to be genuine and will remember someone cared about them.

The meaning in my life doesn’t come from being important to the world.  My meaning comes from being remembered and appreciated by those unnoticed and forgotten by the world.  If our efforts make a positive difference for one person then it is enough.  

My voice might not make much difference in the world.  But if I can change the world for one person and give them hope or answers then I have made a world of difference to them.  

I find the most meaning in life when I narrow my focus to loving one person.