His name was unknown.
He is a walk on linebacker on a college football team who started this season as a backup to a backup. But, undaunted, he practiced and committed to being ready for that moment.
That moment came last Saturday when this unknown finally had his number called. Brandon Smith, a number 47 on his iconic ‘no name’ blue and white jersey, finally got his chance.
After yet another injury in a season plagued with injuries he was called upon and took the field. He used the opportunity to lead a bruised and battered defensive unit and preserve a win for the team.
Smith, despite only having a few snaps at a college level until last week, was no bench warmer.
Smith, a humble soft-spoken leader, was on the most successful high school football team in Lewisburg Green Dragons history, a team that advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals in 2010, and the backbone of an outstanding defense.
But more significantly than all of that, Smith was active in the local church and is by all accounts a young man fully committed to using his talents for the honor and glory of God. He even turned down two scholarships to prestigious universities to walk on and suit up for Penn State because that is where he believed God wanted him.
The reason why Mennonites do not show up to play ball.
The Mennonite tradition I was born into has a long list of activities that are not encouraged. And, of those activities restricted or outright banned, one being participation in organized competitive sports and football was considered especially intolerable.
The reason for this is an idea called ‘non-conformity’ that is common to Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups. It is based on a statement “be not conformed to this world” found in the book of Romans and in other Scriptural teaching about separation from the world.
This idea of non-conformity usually amounts (ironically enough) to conformity to a religious standard that is enforced primarily by church leaders. The standards are different from group to group, but generally apply to technology usage, clothing style and entertainment. Through their idea of non-conformity various Anabaptist groups have maintained their cultural distinctiveness in an ever changing world.
Unfortunately too often it seems the focus is on preserving a religious heritage and an ‘Anabaptist identity’ rather than a radical pursuit of God. Wearing black socks or using a horse named Fred as transportation rather than a Ford does not change a person’s heart.
The problem is when non-conformity is nothing more than a human effort to please cultural expectations.
Conformity without transformation misses the point entirely and will keep us spiritually sidelined.
The bigger problem with Mennonite non-conformity and separation teaching is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.
Read the context:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
The ‘be not conformed’ above is not a standalone statement. Paul doesn’t leave us to guess his meaning and quickly follows with “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and is basically describing the need for something transformative to happen within us.
The word “transformed” is translated from a word “metamorphóō” (μεταμορφόω) that looks like metamorphosis and basically means the same thing. It is a word used four times in the New Testament, twice it is translated “transfiguration” in reference to Jesus and twice (including Romans 12:2 above) to describe the change that takes place in a believer.
Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) is a very significant event, the “greatest miracle” according to Thomas Aquinas, thought of as a bridge come between heaven and earth or perhaps what modern science would describe as a portal between dimensions. It is where Jesus is seen by his disciples talking to Moses and Elijah and a voice proclaims Jesus as son.
The other time this significant word is used is in this passage:
“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18)
It is quite clear in contextual usage that this word “transformed” is something spiritual, something God does, and not a matter of human effort. In the passage from 2 Corinthians above it is about having a “veil” removed by the Spirit that allows us to be able to understand Scripture that leads to transformation. In Romans 12:2 it is about a transformation that leads to renewal of mind.
What is renewal?
The word “renewal” as in “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is translated from a word “anakainósis” (ἀνακαίνωσις) and describes a process. In Romans 12:2 it is about the mind being changed through this transformative thing. It is also a word used one other time in Scripture:
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)
Again we see a process in which God intervened on our behalf while we were still lost, hopelessly blind to spiritual reality, and did something to change us. It is not something we do for ourselves or a list of do’s and don’t’s passed down from generation to generation, it is something spiritual done in us by God’s grace.
Why Mennonites should stop playing for fun only and need to get serious about using their all for God’s glory.
Should I be brutally honest?
Our idea of non-conformity is more often a path to complacency rather than spiritual renewal.
We are doing it wrong…
We have become as the Pharisees who were obsessed with details, considered themselves to be the experts on all things Biblical, yet despite their diligent study of the book they rejected Jesus as savior (John 5:39-40) and totally missed the point. They were “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24) and we are there with them.
Instead of seeking after true transformation, and using everything in our life to bring glory and honor to God, we attempt to carefully divide up our activities into categories of “worldly” and spiritual. Instead of integrate all areas of our life into our witness, we compartmentalize and become ineffective.
When we do participate sports, rather than see it as a way to a witness, we play for fun only. In similar fashion, when we work we do it for money only, when use social media we use it exclusively for recreation only. We think missions is only something that happens when we join our earnest religious peers on an airplane ride to Africa and otherwise arrange our lives in such a way that we miss opportunities staring us right in the face.
Instead of seeing athletic pursuits as a means a greater end, a chance to display Christian character to others, we see only the frivolity of sports. Instead of seeing business as a mission to our customers and employees, we take a worldly approach by make profits a higher priority than people—then excuse it because it will give us more spices to tithe on Sunday or an opportunity to “travel over land and sea” as Jesus said (Mathew 23:15) the Pharisees did while calling them hypocrites and blind.
It is a problem called functional fixedness. In problem solving functional fixedness is when a person can only see things one way and therefore miss better solutions.
Could it be possible that this is because we got our poles reversed and have put our effort to achieve righteousness before real faith in God?
Could it be because we are non-conformed in outward appearance through artificial religious means, but have the same ‘worldly’ attitudes in our hearts and are not truly transformed through a renewal of our mind?
If so, we should stand up against our own hypocrisy like Jesus…
Jesus defied the religious expectations that he was supposed to conform to and so should we.
Jesus infuriated the adherents to the Bible-based religious tradition of his time. He broke their rules of do’s and don’t’s as a way to point out their hypocrisy and true lack of faith. Jesus, while they were busy arguing the theological minutia and details of application, was out healing and showing love.
Mennonites, like many other Christian denominations, are often so distracted by their own doctrines and dogmas that they fail at being actually faithful. We are so concerned with preserving our own fundamentals that we neglect the larger matters of following after God’s way and the largest being genuine love for the world.
The truth is that we are never told by Jesus to physically separate ourselves from the world.
We should be in the world and not of the world, set apart in our attitude and approach to life rather than in outward appearance only. To truly follow after Jesus we need to be in the world, in places where the real people are and in the places that religiously self-righteous people avoid.
We need to consider the example of Paul:
“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)
It is interesting to note that Paul, directly after telling us that for sake of the Gospel he has “become all things to all people” in the quote above, uses an analogy of an athlete preparing for competition. It reminds me of the dedicated preparation of a faithful young man named Brandon Smith.
Smith was not only ready to take the field in terms of physical preparation either. This week, after his debut on Saturday, his wife, Andrea, posted a status update on social media from her personal prayer journal. It was an entry from exactly a year before and asking that her husband would have the opportunity to take the field:
That, my friends, is where it gets real.
We do not battle against flesh and blood, our battle is spiritual. We do not win victory by artificial conformity and meaningless arbitrary rules either, we are fighting an unconventional war using asymmetrical tactics, we need the mind of Christ:
“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)
Do you have the mind of Christ? Have you been transformed by supernatural means of the Spirit? Or are you just outwardly and artificially non-conformed through human efforts? Whatever the case, do not bury the talents God has given you for fear of what others may think.
Smith is expected to get his first college start on Saturday afternoon against Michigan. And, win or lose, I know #47 is playing for the right reasons. I pray God blesses him and his wife as they serve. I hope we all are prepared to serve wherever and whenever our own number is called.