My Favorite Children’s Books

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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?

The Confidence Conundrum

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“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…


Taking on Matthew 23 and the Uncomfortable Topic of Hypocrisy

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Several years ago, my church designated the fifth Sunday of the month as an opportunity for laymen to preach.  I passed on the invitation when my name came up.  I did not feel qualified to speak and therefore decided not to embarrass myself or bore an audience with my scattered thoughts.

Much has changed since then.  A couple years ago (upon realizing that I could no longer use the excuse of being younger than Jesus when he started his ministry) I decided to start saying “yes” when called upon.  And, surprisingly enough, I did survive my attempts at teaching and giving devotions.  In fact, I did well-enough that I started to think about what I would preach, given the chance.

What sermon would I preach?

I’ve heard dozens of sermons parsing 1 Corinthians 11.  Modesty (the word “modest” only found once in Scripture) has been a frequently preached on topic as well.  Biblical proof-texts pertaining to our doctrinal hobbyhorses make their regular appearances—I’m pretty sure my Mennonite readership is quite familiar with the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew.

I’ve heard many “fire and brimstone” messages about the danger of television, rock music, sports and “worldly” entertainment.  Where I come from there is no shortage of sensational stories and titillating tales included in the message.  Even the occasional myths about wells to hell and erroneous silver dollar arguments get mixed in to spice things up a bit when the pulpit-pounding theatrics aren’t good enough.

However, amongst those numerous messages I’ve heard from across many pulpits, there is one particular Biblical text that I cannot recall a sermon being preached on.

That text being Matthew 23, the chapter where Jesus levels seven accusations against the religious elites of that time, a sermon full of unpleasant words and bitter reproach that culminates into prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction and the ending of that age.

I have long pondered why this significant portion of Scripture (mirrored in the six woes of Luke 11:37-54) is so often neglected.

It could be confirmation bias.  It is very easy to only see evidence that confirms our existing worldview (or “cherry picking“) and ignore evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps it is preoccupation with defending the current tradition that distracts us from a sermon about the hypocrisy of other religious people?  We’d rather dismiss that as irrelevant to our own time and unimportant.

Or…does it hit too close to home?

In a denomination known to split over religious minutia a discussion of personal hypocrisy might be a sore subject.  When I read it, the parallels between the attitudes of those Jesus called out and some I’ve witnessed in our circles today are clearly recognizable.  So the passage might simply be avoided as an uncomfortable topic.

Anyhow, as one not striving to follow the path of least resistance, and as one who believes that faithfulness includes challenging the complacent, I would choose Matthew 23 for a sermon text and explain how the message Jesus gave then still applies to us today.

Blogging—today’s medium for delivering a message to a broader audience.

I felt called to be a minister of the gospel at a young age.  Back then, I had thought that meant being ordained or or serving as a missionary overseas.  Both of those things have become more and more unlikely as I’ve aged.  I do not tow the denominational line, so to speak, therefore my chances of ordaination or being sent to represent a Mennonite organization are about nil.

I may never have the opportunity to preach in a Mennonite church given my current trajectory.  But life is strange.  This thing called blogging did not exist until the mid 90s nor did social media and now it does.  My writing here reaches a larger audience than ordained Mennonite men do on Sunday mornings and that’s something I could not have imagined as a child.

So, I’ve decided to do a series of blogs on Matthew 23.  I want to be faithful with the platform I’ve been given, and I believe that you are here reading because the message is relevant to you.  My hope is that this encouragement to go beyond our own religious comfort zones is received as intended.

Part 1: Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

Part 2: What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:6-12)

Part 3: Missionaries From Hell? (Matthew 23:13-15)

Part 4: Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

Part 5: Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Part 6: Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

Part 7: Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)

Rudolf Diesel: Thoughts about Idealism, Despair, Progress, Politics and Hope

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Diesel powers the world economy.  I never considered the extent to which that is true until watching a documentary (click here to view it) about this type of internal combustion engine.  It is named after the inventor, a French-German mechanical engineer, Rudolf Diesel, and is the reason why global trade is possible to the extent it is.

Early Diesel design, circa 1897

In considering the story of Diesel, his brilliant invention and the results, I could not help but see the pattern all too common with innovators.  Diesel’s life turned tragic, he was found floating in the North Sea, dead of an apparent suicide, and likely a result of his despair over the unintended consequences of his own design.

According to biographical accounts, Diesel was a utopian idealist who had hopes that his invention would be a catalyst for social change, free the common man and break corporate monopolies.  Unfortunately, while a revolution for transportation, Diesel power did not achieve the lofty social vision. 

Worse, the Diesel engine found use as a part in an efficient killing machine, the German U-boat, and this no doubt grieved the pacifist inventor.

Here are some observations…

#1) What is intended for good can often be used for evil.

Diesel had never intended his invention be used as a means of terrorizing North Atlantic shipping lanes.  And, likewise, many scientists and inventors had regrets related to their greatest contribution to the world.

German U-boat, the original stealth weapon 

There are lists from K-cups to A-bombs online and many others.  For example, Henry Ford seemed to dislike the vast social changes and consumerist mindset made possible by his manufacturing revolution that helped automobiles become a fixture of American life.  Even this media, the internet, once thought to be the beginnings of an information age, has become a cesspool of pornography and ill-founded claims.

I worry about this as a blogger.  Once my thoughts are out there they cannot be contained again.  Will someone pick up my words and run with them in a direction I never intended?  It is a potential outcome that could scare a sensitive soul into silence and is at least a reason for me to be prayerful in what I post here.

I believe there are many people who do not thoroughly think through the potential unintended consequences of the ideas they promote.  There are many government programs and social movements intended for good that might actually be creating more problems than the one that they were intended to solve.

Which takes me to a second point…

#2) Yesterday’s revolution is today’s loathed source of inequality and evil.

It is ironic that the invention that did actually outcompete coal for market supremacy is now enemy #1 for many.  The internal combustion engine won in the marketplace because it was by far the cheapest most efficient means to power transportation and still remains. 

Given there are no steam powered cars, tractors, trains and ships anymore, it is clear that internal combustion is the best bang for the buck and remains to be rivaled.  Diesel powered locomotives and ocean going container ships are extremely powerful while being very economical.    

109,000-horsepower Wärtsilä-Sulzer RTA96-C

Diesel power still outperforms hybrid technology—A loaded Diesel powered class 8 truck is more efficient pound for pound than a Prius.

Think about it: It takes one gallon of fuel to move an 80,000lb truck five to seven miles.  A 2016 Prius, by comparison, carries a weight of around 4000lbs can go anywhere from 50 to 58 miles on a gallon of fuel.  It may seem the Toyota is greener until you consider that it is moving twenty times less weight.  Twenty Prius cars combined together, after dividing their individual consumption by twenty, would consume 2.5 to 2.9 gallons of fuel.  Now, obviously, combining Diesel and hybrid technology on the scale of class 8 truck would undoubtedly yield even greater results if fuel economy were the only concern, but the point remains that Diesel power is extremely efficient and effective—and only more so the larger the application.

So what’s the problem?

Well, the current popular perception is that the petroleum industry “big oil” is the enemy and conspires to hold back technology that would dramatically increase efficiency.  Worse than that, we are told that petroleum power is a source of global climate change and a threat to the global ecology.  Poor Diesel would be driven even further into despair if half this is true.  We fight over oil.

 #3) Progressive aims of our time are at odds with each other or self-contradictory.

Globalism, higher standard of living for more people and environmentalist ‘green’ movements are at odds with each other.  Pushing one direction will almost invariably come at the cost of the others. 

Progressive politicians may tout an idea of a ‘green economy’ as a jobs creator, but the reality has been that wind and solar energy can only remain competitive through heavy use of government subsidies.  Beyond that, even with the help, domestic ‘green’ manufacturing is unsustainable against foreign competition.  At best we will merely replace jobs lost by the heavy regulations placed on fossil fuels and raise costs of living across the board.

Furthermore, it was the progressive policies of the past century that have created the current conditions.  Government policies like the Rural Electrification Act, the Interstate highway system and trade agreements have actually moved us away from a more sustainable less polluting lifestyle.  Our cheap and easy movement from place to place has harmed community and local markets.

Rural Electrification Act propaganda poster.

It is hard to know how the current landscape would look had the progressives of yesterday had not literally paved the way for suburban sprawl, the trucking industry (that currently employs me) and driven us to embrace a coal powered grid.  But I do suspect more of our food would be locally grown, more of our products locally produced and solar energy far more the norm in places utilities would be to costly to maintain unless mandated by law.

In final analysis things might not be as dismal as they seem.

It is easy to focus on the negative without considering the good.  The means of today are likely as unsustainable as the means of yesterday and therefore the progress of the past century might not be the end of us after all.  The only consistent reality in the past two centuries has been that markets constantly change.

Canal boats an all the infrastructure to support them were soon replaced by steam power and railroads.  In Pennsylvania the lumber industry rose in prominence before a rapid decline after the states wooded mountains were reduced to stubble.  The coal industry once put food on the table for boat loads of immigrants before cheap efficient oil and a multitude other factors conspired against it.

Bay State Mills, Lawrence, built 1845.

Manufacturing, from the once mighty water powered textile mills of the New England states to the formerly unstoppable domestic steel industry, has also migrated following cheaper labor and energy.  Each time promoting deep consternation and fear.  But so far the Luddites have yet to have the last laugh and a new balance is eventually found that usually benefits everyone.

Certainly the overconfidence and optimism about today’s new solution may become the big disappointment of tomorrow.  Yet, do we really wish to go back to a time when a transatlantic voyage was only something a religious zealot or crazy Viking explorer would do?  Would we really rather spend most of our time scrounging for just enough to eat as to avoid the possibility of mechanized warfare?

Nobody knows for certain why Diesel died... 

However, what is certain is that his invention changed the world and provided a means for interstate commerce and global trade that never existed before.  The pacifying effect of global trade, economic benefits of an expanded market place and inexpensive power are largely unappreciated.  But we probably do have Diesel to thank for helping create the long peace and prosperity of our time.

Maersk, Triple-E design, Diesel powered, container ship

In an age of information overload, where we know about beheadings in the Middle East before the people the next town over would have heard a century ago, it is difficult for our finite minds to contextualize and easy to become overwhelmed.  This, with an accompanying loss of faith, could be why middle-aged American white males are committing suicide (supposedly the most privileged in the world) and at an alarmingly increasing rate. 

Diesel’s pessimism about the future in retrospect seems to have been premature and his nightmarish perception of reality overstated.  In like manner many of our modern fears and despair inducing thoughts about the future could be negativity bias and nothing more.  Every generation seems to believe that the world is falling apart and still here we are.

Whatever the case, ignore the fear-mongering propaganda of the punditry and politicians.  Embrace temperance, a spiritual quality developed through faith, over mindless reaction and fearful impulse.  Trust God to secure the future, we can only live one day at a time and never ever lose hope!  If you are depressed about events in the world today, I invite you to see the higher perspective:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Perhaps the greater of two evils will be elected come November and drive the nation to complete ruin.  

Who knows besides God?

We may all die tomorrow, we will all die eventually, our work blown away in the wind of time and forgotten.  Everything comes to pass, nothing will remain as we know it today, but there is hope beyond all hope found in an eternal perspective.  So look up, because the sun is still shining and the future remains bright!

Do you see the light and feel the warmth of hope eternal?

If not, my prayer is for the blind to see…

What Mennonites Could Learn From Brandon Smith

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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.

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.

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.