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

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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?

Spaghetti in Grandma’s Kitchen

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Every moment spent with someone we love is precious.  But there are also those special and defining moments that stand out from the others.  The places where these memories were forged later become sacred reminders and a reason to reflect on love and life.

Grandma’s Kitchen

One of those significant places is my grandma’s kitchen.  Her kitchen table was once the hub that the family farm revolved around.  It was what met you walking through the front door, and was the central space of the home where my mother and her siblings were raised.

In years past, there was a fierce-eyed matriarch (the perfect complement and companion to the strong-willed patriarch) pacing about her domain.  Grandpa and the boys would come in for a break from their work and Grandma would be ready with a hot meal.

It was not an extravagant kitchen.  The decor, updated last in the 1980s as I recall, was nothing like those glossy magazine showplaces; it was a functional workspace and guarded by an extraordinary woman…the cooking area virtually off-limits to everyone (including my mom) at one time.

Nevertheless, it was a welcoming and warm place.  I remember many good meals, lively conversations, and happy moments around Grandma’s kitchen table.  

Spaghetti with Mashed Potatoes

In recent years, I typically planned my visits with the intent to avoid mealtimes.  I knew my grandma would never let me leave without at least offering me something to eat, and I wanted her to relax rather than worry about preparing food for me.  But I would occasionally stop over before dinner because what bachelor can resist a home cooked meal?

It was one of those occasional times when I stopped in around dinnertime.  Grandpa and I were talking at the table.  Grandma offered to cook a meal and as soon as she got the answer she was looking for there was no stopping her.  Promptly commenced sounds of steaming pots, frying ground beef and clanking spoons, and an aroma of smells that would soon lead to a hearty meal.

That evening, an old standby recipe was served: spaghetti along with mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.  Spaghetti and mashed potatoes, strange as it might sound, is an absolutely wonderful amalgamation.  Served with Coke, provided as a special treat for us grandchildren.

I know I had seconds and probably even a third portion, in an awareness that this was an experience that might not continue much longer.  Perhaps my awareness was due to my consciousness of the frailty of life heightened by the suspicious lumps (swollen lymph nodes on her neck) she showed me that night.

It was, in fact, the last meal my grandma would ever serve me.  After that, tests revealed the lymphoma, ushering in a new chapter of chemotherapy and a precipitous decline.  

My Opportunity to Serve

Grandma quit cooking while being treated, and; despite eventually winning the battle against cancer, she never did return fully to her former strength.  A mix of dementia and Parkinson’s disease began to erode her abilities.  Her process memory faded away, making her once nearly-unconscious routines into an impossible task.

It was during this time that I stopped in one day to chat around the table.  Before heading out the door, I jokingly made an offer to provide a meal and then quickly added with a smile, “it will need to be spaghetti; that is the only thing I’m good at making…”

“Nobody has brought us spaghetti,” they responded with pleading eyes.

To my surprise, none of the children (who took turns providing meals) had brought them spaghetti.  So I decided immediately, then and there, to return the favor of that last spaghetti meal Grandma cooked for me.

A week or two later, I returned with a pack of spaghetti noodles, a pound of hamburger, a jar of chunky tomato sauce and determination to not fail at my mission.  It is one thing to cook for yourself in your own kitchen, but quite another thing to cook in your grandma’s kitchen as your grandparents wait in expectation.

There were a few tense moments when Grandma attempted to help.  But Grandpa intervened, assuring her that I could handle the task, and ushered her into the other room.

Given a half hour and some ingredients, including my prayers, the meal was ready to serve.  

We again ate spaghetti together at Grandma’s kitchen table.

The Strength of My Grandparents

It seems many think of “strength” as the ability to impose one’s will.  The brute force of a body builder lifting a heavy weight comes to mind.  We might also envision a political movement that sweeps through and brings about dramatic change or at least garners a great amount of attention.

It is easy to believe that you’re strong when young and healthy.  It is not easy to be strong when your body and mind decline.  Nor is it easy to be strong for those watching the decline of a loved one to be strong.  That requires strength of character.

Grandpa, Grandma, and I

I have great admiration for my grandparents and their strength of character.  They worked day in and day out—with a commitment to love that has spanned over sixty years—they raised seven children together, and they did it all without much fanfare.

It has been difficult for me to see this incredible strength of my grandparents put to the test over the past few years.  There is no way to prepare.  No words of comfort or encouragement sufficient to take away the pall of inevitability.  The strong woman we had known, was fading.  There was nothing more to be done besides love her as best we could.

Grandma was provided with the best care possible by her loving husband and children.  She had given them many years of dedicated service, and they returned the favor with meals, medical care and attending to her needs.  Their resolve to repay her love to them mirrored the resolve she had shown in loving them.

Her strength became theirs.

A Loving Goodbye

Friday, three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit my grandparents again.  Grandma had been bedfast for weeks and was increasingly unresponsive.  But she was awake during my visit and still able to answer “yes” or “no” to my aunt’s questions.

She has not been able to recognize me over the past few months.  I wondered what was on her mind as she stared at me.  Maybe there was a vague memory of a familiar face?

I held her hand for a few moments hoping she could feel my love in the warmth of my touch and thought later how that hand that had touched and nurtured so many lives, including mine.

Her life was a life well lived.

A couple of days later, I was again at Grandma’s house.  This time she was surrounded by her children, with my grandpa at her side.  The dreaded hour had arrived.  I wept and prayed for God to take my precious grandma into his loving hands.  

The anguished silence was broken when we sang a verse of an old hymn together:

God be with you till we meet again; 

By His councils guide, uphold you, 

With His sheep securely fold you; 

God be with you till we meet again.

Till we meet, till we meet, 

Till we meet at Jesus’ feet; 

Till we meet, till we meet, 

God be with you till we meet again.

As we sang, Grandma took her last breath and entered into eternity.  The eighty years of her life remains written in the hearts of those gathered together in that moment as clear testimony of Christian love.  

Grandma’s kitchen was still full of love, but Grandma was now in a better place.

Mildred G. Moyer

Oct 8th, 1935 — March 19, 2017

Married May 12th, 1956 to Joseph Laverne Moyer