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?

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What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:5-12)

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The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes.  Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.

The world judges by outward appearance.

People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold.  Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns.  The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.

The church, unfortunately, is not much different.  The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5‭-‬12)

The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.

Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves.  They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.

Jesus was unimpressed.  It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful.  Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then.  We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.

Here’s what we are doing:

1) Seeking the important seats:  I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter.  There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers.  Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention.  And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?

Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting.  From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.

Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children.  There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies.  We should always be considerate of others.

That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.

2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.

Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms.  The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.

How do I know this?

Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said.  I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.

Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying.  Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee.  With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.

And we do this too.  We may not seek fancy titles outright.  However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms.  Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls.  As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles.  Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…

3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress.  There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.

It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair.  They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23).  Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.

That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.

Which leads to my next point…

Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness.  They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion.  And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level.  We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are.  The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.

Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites.  We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded.  We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.

Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?

Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:

All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)

We are told to be distinctively dressed.  However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance.  Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)

Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order.  We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded.  It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.

If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob.  Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist.  I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.

The Church Brotherhood Lie

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I once had a conversation with a Mennonite man who idolizes his wife and children.

I told him he was unloving towards me, and, as one careful to meet his religious duties, he was perplexed—what more could he do?

He remarked that he can’t love me with a romantic love (I never suggested to him that I wanted a card on Valentine’s Day) and then asked me how I wanted to be loved by him. 

So I asked him for brotherly love and quoted an example from Scripture:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)

He thought that was preposterous.

He loves his wife very much, he has made his own biological offspring his main mission in life, and for him to love me more would be impossible.

He did not truly love me as a brother and could not because he lacked authentic faith.

Why do Mennonites fail to deliver true brotherhood?

Mennonites take pride in their greater commitment to each other and the concept of a brotherhood of believers.  The comparison they like to make is between themselves and those whom they dismiss as being nominal Christians.

The assumption seems to be that church attendance equates to brotherhood.  And, since we compare favorably to those who only attend church on Christmas and Easter, we are doing well.  Besides that, we continue to go through the motions of servanthood (with a ceremonial foot-washing) and even do it twice a year.

But honestly, that is pathetic.

People only compare themselves to those downstream from them because they are making an excuse to be pathetic.

If you want to be more than pathetic you compare yourself to the perfect example and pursue that.  Mennonites fail to deliver on true brotherhood because their own pride blinds them from the possibility that they are falling short and could actually do better.

They lack the faith to break with their religious status quo and shoot for the impossible.

What is true brotherhood?

It is a shame conservative Mennonites shun competitive sports.  If they had learned to commit to others like high school athletes must dedicate themselves to a team then they might know something of the potential for brotherhood.

I have a cousin who just returned from his years of active duty in the military.  He says that while the challenges were tough, he will miss the comradery and brotherhood.

In practical terms, this means falling on a grenade to save your buddies (or just something as mundane as taking the time to run a lunch out to a brother in arms who forgot his) because in the military the good of the individual is sacrificed for the good of the team.  The individual dies when they enter the brotherhood.

The church I’ve been a part of for decades is a disappointment.  Many of the so-called leaders are apologists for complacency and promote faithless religious devotion.  Instead of being advocates for others (like Paul was for Onesimus) and helping them to carry their burdens as is Christian, these frauds teach that more Bible reading is the answer.

I’m sorry, but vacant promises to pray for each other twice a year while splashing water on each other’s feet is not brotherhood.  Telling me that a book is some kind of magic elixir cure for all needs is spiritual ignorance.  And the book that these phonies claim to revere says this is not the case very clearly.

What Christian brotherhood should be according to Jesus.

It does not take a high level of reading comprehension to find the central point of the New Testament.  The point is to have the kind of faith to live out the self-sacrificial example of Jesus.  What this means is following the command to love each other so the world can see clearly that we are his disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34‭-‬35)

Jesus defines this command to love further:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:12‭-‬17)

The idea of dying to self that is expressed in the teachings of Paul is often taught as if it is some kind of religious devotion devoid of a practical end.  As if we prove our love for God through emptying ourselves of any and all desire.

But the self-sacrificial love of Jesus is not aimless or vague, it is being “devoted to one another in love” to honor others above ourselves (Romans 12:10) and practicing brotherhood.

Be real or I’m not interested in your words.

The reason the church falls short is because it has compromised love for the brotherhood and made it secondary to family, business, or other personal ambition.  But Jesus did not teach individualism.  He did not promote patriarchalism either, and instead taught us to be a brotherhood.

The relationship of David and Jonathan is a picture of true brotherly love:

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1‭-‬4)

Our devotion to brotherly love should not come second.  Unfortunately there are many in the church who are not willing to come to the aid of another the same as they would their own family.  There are many who put their religious agenda and protecting their own biological progeny above all else.

That is the case with the man I had the conversation with.  He is regarded by many as a model citizen; his children do all the ‘right’ Mennonite things and are treated with favoritism, but his family is a bunch of religious self-seekers—like their dad.

The language of brotherhood should not be used lightly.  Don’t call me a brother or sister unless you are actually willing to treat me as one.  I don’t like being lied to.

Truth: A Concept Bigger Than Words

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A couple Sundays ago I was riding along with a some church friends on our way to a hymn sing (something us conservative Mennonites do) and we came upon a hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker, a young man, was strumming some sort of ukulele.  He had a sign asking for a ride west.  We were going west.  We conferred quickly, decided to make use of our extra seat and soon were on our way with one more passenger.

The young man, a friendly nineteen year old from Raleigh, North Carolina, has spent nearly two years on the road and told us of his nomadic lifestyle.  He relies on the hospitality of others, often sleeps under the stars, and is on his way to California.

Being that we are religious and on our way to a church service, the conversation turned to religion.  He explained that he is uncomfortable with the “Christian” label.  He described himself as “a follower of Jesus” and later that evening mentioned the influence of Taoism.

We invited him to church.  He accepted the invitation and soon he was amongst us Mennonites as we sang acapella music.  To my ears we sounded pretty good.  He stayed until the end of the service and soon enough was being introduced by me to others in attendance.

One of those introduced, after some friendly chat (the usual Mennonite game banter and assessment of pedigree) ended by quoting John 14:6 at the young man, “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life” and emphatically stating this is the only way… 

As we paused with this sort of nonsequitar concluding statement, presented in such a religiously cliché way, I almost asked this ordained Mennonite man if he knew what it meant.  But, fearing he would try to answer if I asked, I restrained the impulse and smiled.

I have no idea what my guest was thinking, he was courteous and didn’t seem too uncomfortable in our midst.  And so the evening went, some polite conversation and some awkwardly presented evangelical dogma, me holding my tongue with slightly annoyed amusement and answering his questions.

Incidentally, nobody offered this young man shelter for the night (one of those asked apparently making excuse for himself because of his wife) and so we took him a few miles further west to ‘civilization’ where he would have more options.  We prayed with him, gave him some cash and bid him farewell before returning east again.

What is truth?

The incident above, especially the quotation of Scripture, seemed like a good basis for a blog and reason to consider the meaning of truth.  Truth, in this case, the idea of truth (alétheia) found in the passage, the truth of Jesus, that was partially quoted at my young hitchhiker friend.

The words “I am the way and the truth and the life” are cherry-picked from the Gospel of John.  It is a part of a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about imminent events.  The disciples, as usual, were bewildered and asking questions:

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'” (John 14:6-7)

Philip was still confused.  He goes on to ask Jesus to reveal the Father to them. 

Jesus responds to explain in further detail, stating that he is one with the Father, that his words are spoken by the authority of the Father and telling them that the Father will be revealed to them through obedience to his teaching and by the Holy Spirit.

The truth of Jesus is more than book knowledge.

It is interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to diligently study Scripture.

Instead Jesus told them to obey what they knew and that more would be revealed by the Spirit after their obedience.  It might seem backwards, but faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) and salvation is a gift from God:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

That is not to say that the Scripture is unprofitable, it most certainly is profitable to a believer.  It is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 2:3-15) that Scripture is able to make us “wise for salvation” and only through this truth of faith can we ever understand.

Book knowledge is not the same as correct understanding and those who opposed Jesus most vehemently had a great knowledge of Scripture.  In fact, it was because of their own understanding of Scripture (and dogmatic literalism) that they rejected Jesus.

The truth of Jesus is something more than mere book knowledge, it is more than religious devotion to the study a text or a theological proposition.  The truth of Jesus is something more profound and powerful than words on a page.  It is a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than fallible human knowledge or our finite ability to understand.

The truth of Jesus is something beyond description in words.

Truth is a word, but truth itself is not a word.

We use words to paint pictures in the minds of our audience.  Words are symbols used to describe ideas, they are things we use to describe other things and yet words are not themselves the thing being described.  Words are not truth of themselves anymore than a portrait in acrylic color on canvas is the actual person being portrayed.

Words depend on the ability of our audience to understand them.  One could tell their cat to “take out the garbage” and the poor critter would stare at them blankly.  Language, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and depends on the interpreter to understand the word usage correctly.  Communication is an interactive affair requiring both parties to be on the same metaphorical page.

Furthermore, talk is cheap, words can also be used to construct a false image of reality and deceive.  Jesus warns of false teachers, people who profess with their mouths to be faithful, who present themselves as sheep and yet are inwardly wolves—We are told we can know people by their good or bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-23)

So truth is more than words.  Truth is an abstraction, it is something greater than the sum total of words and language used to describe it.  Truth is something bigger than us and beyond our own concept of reality.  Truth is trancendent and still it is something that can be fleshed out and represented.

The truth of Jesus is God’s word and a living testimony about a greater reality.

Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, a Roman civil authority, to be judged.  The Gospels give slightly different versions of the events.  In summary, the religious leaders accuse Jesus, they say he claims to be their king (a crime amounting to sedition against the established state) and insist that he is evil.

Here’s one account of the beleaguered governor questioning Jesus and trying to get the bottom of the issue:

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’

‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’

‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.'” (John 18:33-38)

This conversation is interesting and especially when Jesus claims to have come to “testify to the truth” and says those on the side of truth listen to him.  It is reminiscent of when he told the religious dogmatists that his sheep hear his voice and makes an incredible claim:

“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,  but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.'” (John 10:24-30)

For this Jesus is accused of blasphemy.  But to that charge he replies by quoting their Scripture to them.  He quotes from Psalms 82:6, where it says “I have said you are ‘gods’,” and uses that to argue against their idea that his claim of divine sonship was blasphemy.

Pilate seems agnostic about truth and exasperated by Jesus.  He is dealing with a contradiction, he sees an innocent man not worthy of punishment and the religious crowd sees a man guilty of blasphemy against God who deserves death.

Pilate ultimately bends to political pressure and, while washing his own hands, complies with the demands of the crowd.  However, both Pilate and Herod (who’s part is described in Luke 23:8-12) seem to see Jesus as a curiosity rather than as a direct threat to the state.

The truth of Jesus is found in our following his example and being a self-sacrificial testimony of God’s grace.

The truth of Jesus is not a reasonable or rational proposition by worldly human standards.  It is only understood through spiritual means, through having the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and a process that starts in the heart (2 Corinthians 3) rather than through outward means.

It is transformative, as Paul explains:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 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 12:1-2)

The Orthodox Christian tradition would call this theosis or divination.  Unfortunately my own Anabaptist tradition has picked to focus on the other negative end (the “be not conformed” part) and the result is an idea of “non-conformity” that usually amounts to a reactionary worldly effort to control outward appearance. 

The truth of Jesus is about more than our ability to conform to a man-made list of requirements.  It is a truth that transcends all worldly means and is expressed in our unrelenting, unapologetic and uncompromising pursuit of the divine.  The truth is a positive vision.  The truth is God’s grace made manifest in us.

The truth of Jesus is a path we walk that leads us to greater life and the perfection of divine love.

The words “the way” (hodos) refer to a journey.  It is a path to walk and live out.  The trail was blazed by Jesus who died for our sins, but it is lived also by those who truly believe and wish to be disciples.  As Jesus said:

“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.'” (Like 9:23-24)

Jesus is using the cross as a metaphor.  A cross, in human terms, represented suffering and shame.  However, in following after Jesus, for a believer this is not useless suffering, it is not pain for the sake of pain or self-flagellation, it is suffering for the good of others or making a path to something greater.

Jesus promises a more abundant life (John 10:10) to those who follow him.  In this he is not promising material or worldly wealth.  But he does say that we should use our worldly wealth to gain friends and gain true riches (Luke 16) which is to prioritize God through our loving people:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21)

Jesus said we can know the truth of a person’s profession of faith by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23) and that the fruit of the Spirit is described by Paul “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)  Our truth must be more than words.

So what does ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ mean?

To understand this we need to understand the context.  The context is the last supper, it is during the Passover feast, the night Jesus is betrayed and an intimate moment.  In these passages of Scripture (John 13 and 14) the implications are clear. 

Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for each other, he says he must go so they may know the truth more intimately (promising the Spirit to those who obey his instructions and example) and then goes on to demonstrate a truth of love worth dying for.

The truth of Jesus is not a theological proposition, not a religious profession or book knowledge. His truth is not a product of human reasoning and founded on scientific research or evidence. The truth of Jesus is something found in our walking in the Spirit, it is demonstrated in our love for others and bringing the dead to life.

Truth is living a reality greater than our reality, something that transcends worldly knowledge and human understanding. Truth is both known and still yet to be known, it is reality that goes beyond the currently available evidence and is something that can only be experienced through a true walk of faith.

The truth of Jesus transcends religion and is a walk of faith.

In some respects it seems my hitchhiking friend may have a better grasp of faith than his religiously indoctrinated counterparts.  He is more literally taking no thought for tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) and depending on God to provide.  By contrast we too often rely on our own understanding, planning and abilities.

I wish my traveling friend well on his journey and pray that the truth of God’s word (Jesus) is made manifest in him.  May God’s truth of self-sacrificial love and spiritual life be found in us who claim to know Jesus.

Performance Anxieties and Worship

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The Mennonite culture I am a part of has had a tradition of music that spans a few generations.  The tradition is acapella congregational singing (typically in four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and hymn music.  It is my preference, it is what I am accustomed to and comfortable singing in a church worship service, but some conservatives would have it as the only right way.

The other night, as is not uncommon, we had a choral program at my church. A group of a few talented individuals (dressed with matching outfits and practiced) sang together in front of an audience of family and friends.  Their selection of music had meaningful lyrics focused on distinctly Christian themes and the Christmas season.  It was a beautiful presentation.

Afterwards, the pastor (asked to give the benedictory prayer) went to pains to explain that the presentation that preceded was not a “performance” or “entertainment” and was worship.  I understood what he meant.  However, is it actually truthful to say that a presentation to an audience is not a performance?  Are concepts of worship and performance mutually exclusive?

Mennonite Tradition, Progressive Evolution and Lingering Guilt…

Mennonites have historically avoided elevation of some in the group.  Leaders were expected to be servants to all rather than a privileged hierarchy.  In fact, even raised pulpits were a controversial topic because of the potential for pride and spiritual inequality they represented.  Traditionally there was a table for those who preached to put their Bibles on and no pulpit.  Preaching was not to be done flamboyantly or in a way that drew special attention to the presenter.

Music in worship was ordered likewise.  There were no solo instruments or vocals in worship services because it was believed that would draw too much attention to the individual(s) performing.  In the church service singing was strictly congregational and in unison rather than divided into parts.  Four part singing only became part of Mennonite practice in the late 1800’s and special singing groups likely followed some time after as Mennonites adopted more mainline practice.

But it is an uncomfortable position to the conservative Mennonite mind.  There is still an urge to distinguish between performance for entertainment and worship of God.  In my own congregation we allow solos and special singing groups.  However, we are also dutifully reminded that the point is the worship God rather than recognize those presenting and (except for a few occasional outbursts by rebels) we do not offer any applause.

It is this careful avoidance of applause and tendency towards the over-wrought explanation that makes me wonder what is truly amiss—It seems too anxious.  If nobody else but God is getting the attention, shouldn’t that just be self-evident, why the need for an explanation? Why the contrast and comparison?

Our Worship *IS* Imperfect, Be Honest…

I believe the reality is that a special group singing before an audience is obviously a performance and for entertainment.  No, this does not nullify the reality it is intended as worship for God either.  What we do for others is an expression of our worship for God and that can certainly include wholesome entertainment.  Our performance for the good of others is ultimately what brings God honor and glory, is it not?

Furthermore, we aim to be perfect expressions, but we are not and might as well be honest about it.  Of course there is potential for pride in performance.  Did anyone on the stage not want to please the audience they sang to?  It would be utterly absurd to claim otherwise and with that the danger of self-aggrandizement. 

Yet, denial of that potential for self-centered worship doesn’t get us any closer to perfection of worship either.  If anything it is the same fatal error of Ananias and Sapphira who were judged instantaneously for dishonesty in their claiming to give all while secretly withholding some for themselves. Their deception, likely rooted in their wanting to maintain appearances of perfection or religious pride, was their downfall.

We are imperfect even at our best. Yes, even in our worship we can have mixed motives. We enjoy being talented, we often keep some of the praise for ourselves, and that’s okay if we are honest about it.  We are saved by God’s grace and not by our own perfect efforts.  It is this admission of our own imperfection that leads us to be more gracious towards others and a more true expression of the worship Jesus described.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

In conclusion, we should do as Jesus instructed and learn what it means in Hosea 6:6 where it says God desires mercy not sacrifice.  This is a reference back to the religious sacrificial rituals observed as worship in the Old Testament.  Sacrifice is an impractical expression of worship whereas mercy is not. 

Our better worship is not having the right mode or music style as much as it is in our expressed in our genuine love for each other. 

Truth and Hypocrisy

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In the midst of this age of information overload is it any surprise that deep thinking people give up on the idea of discernable truth?

Competive and contradictory claims assail us from all angles. Advocates on all sides are seemingly equally convinced that they see more clearly than those who of a different perspective. 

We would be persuaded, they say, if we just opened our minds, examined the facts fairly and were honest with ourselves.  But, despite their confidence, to me often all sides seem to lack a clear perspective and bring a bias that is only obvious to those on the other side.

Hypocrisy in Action

How is it the same people who want to string up leaders as war criminals are the same who demand only compassion and understanding for a woman who aborts a life because pregnancy is inconvenient?

How is it that gun owners and passionate pro-lifers are some of the same saying that we should judge all Syrian refugees as a potential terrorist and protest to keep them out rather than value them as individuals as they demand for themselves?

Everyone is convinced in their own minds.  Everyone believes that they think rationally and most can give reasons for what they believe.  But somehow everyone, including some very smart people on both sides, cannot agree on everything and oftentimes we vehemently disagree.

Even those who claim the same religious texts as their guidebook to life arrive at vastly different conclusions about what it says—often with perspective each claiming they are authentic and the others are the imposters.  Both come with carefully crafted theologies and neither side shaken from the moorings of base assumptions that lurk somewhere outside the realm of their conscious thought.

Muslims see terrorism as the result of western intervention.  They can point to the fact that terrorist organizations like Islamic State and al-Qaeda were nurtured to life or a direct consequence of foreign policy decisions of the United States of America.  Many Americans, by contrast, see radicalization as a genetic flaw of Islamic faith and downplay their own responsibility.

We tend to see only the noble intentions of those who share our own particular ideological alignment.  The same people who demand absolute accountability for others are often the most creative at manipulating the evidence in order to absolve themselves of even shared guilt.

Meanwhile, with a smug satisfaction (that I cannot know is genuine or facetious) I sit here thinking I know something and maybe I do?

Could it be that none of us can claim to have a complete picture of the truth and that all of us share some in creating this flawed reality?

I know it is more comfortable to assume our perspective is infallible and the we ourselves have no major fault.  It is easy to outsource blame for the problems of the world, wash our own hands of responsibility, and pretend it is moral to distance ourselves sanctimoniously.  However, isn’t that exactly what is wrong with the other side?

I say we all resolve all the more to clean our own side of the street.  Lead the world by making no excuses and being an example.  If you wish for people to be open to your own perspective try to see theirs.  If you do not wish to be judged wholesale by the actions of a few bad actors then do not judge others that way.

Truth in Action

I believe there is truth to be found, but it is not something we profess so much as what we practice.  The truth is the love that we live and not a proposition that is only possible when others do our bidding.  Truth is our walk in consistent love not our words in hypocritical judgment.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:1-5)

Do we give up on describing truth?  No.  I believe that there is some value in trying to put truth into words and arguing for what we believe is right and good.  However, we must always speak in humility and be as brutal to ourselves as we are to those who see things differently.

A Community Perspective of Mass Murder

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Another well-armed angry young man goes on a murderous spree and again political ambulance chasers jockey to take advantage to win points for their pet projects.

President Obama used the recent massacre at an Oregon college as an opportunity to campaign for gun control measures that would not have prevented it.  Militant 2nd Amendment gun rights advocates responded with the tired ‘good guys with guns’ arguments and arming teachers as the solution.  Others ranted about correlations between pharmaceuticals and deranged minds.  (Well, duh?) 

Those using the issue for their various (political) causes seem to be vastly misunderstanding the actual issue.  Their response is a knee-jerk reaction rather than a careful analysis of fact and their canned solutions show the functional fixedness in their thinking.  There are too many assumptions that steer the current conversation and could be distracting us from addressing the real problem.

Many seem to assume that killers are simply incurable killers and we simply need to better secure ourselves (with more guns or gun control laws) against this inevitability of angry men.  But could a killer be stopped before they stockpile weapons and act out their violent fantasies against those who they blame for their unhappiness? 

Perhaps more guns, curbs of liberty and drugs (more or less) are not the solution to the real problem?

The root issue is that a young man made a choice to act violently.  He had reasons, rational or irrational, for the choice that should be understood.  (Note, I am not saying that the choice was justified, I believe murder is always immoral and a sin.)  We should acknowledge the choice as a choice and at least explore the possibility we can help those who are tempted by violence to choose rightly.

#1) Understand the Problem is a Person

I think often there is an urge to sanctimoniously distance ourselves from the bad actors of society.  Simply labelling the perpetrator of violence as a “thug” or “monster” or “animal” allows us to build emotional wall of separation between ourselves and evil deeds.  If we were to acknowledge the humanity of the person doing the evil act we would be tying our own humanity to the evil and in a sense making ourselves responsible.

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Fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias is an assumption that another person’s behavior is all a product of their defective character.  (And, again, I do absolutely believe in personal accountability and responsibility for choices.)  But then, what it comes to our own bad choices we always have an external excuse or justification and blame circumstance for our choices.

Killers do what we do.  Killers often feel justified in what they do like we do because they were cheated or mistreated.  They take out their jealous rage against those who they blame for their unhappiness.  It is actually their humanity, the fact that they have emotions or just desire for significance—like we all do—that they act.  The difference is that they choose to turn to acts of violence rather than grace.

The answer to the perceived offenses we endure is not hate or vengeance and love for our enemies needs to be encouraged.  We need to fight against our own urge to be consumed totally by securing our own rights and love others as we would like to be loved.  We should distance ourselves from using their evil choices to justify our own.  We must love the hurting person behind the choice before they make it.

#2) Recognizing that Social Needs are Real

The elephant in the room is the vast changes in American culture and lifestyle that correlate with the trend of mass murder.  We are linked with more and more technology, but are actually less connected (in flesh) than generations prior.  Community has been replaced with increasing individualism and isolation.  It is not a change without consequence.

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People are not good in isolation, people have social needs and can be damaged by lack of adequate human interaction.  Just a bit of research into solidarity confinement or extreme cases of child neglect quickly show the psychological consequences are profound when social needs are not fully met for extended periods.

Perhaps the ideal of suburbia is not so ideal after all?  Suburban life is not extreme isolation.  But, in many cases, it is an environment deficient of social interaction—and especially in the case of single child homes.  A child without brothers or sisters and separated from regular intimate interaction with other people is probably going to feel a deficit.

The problem is exacerbated for those who are socially awkward or shy.  Some people are able to make friends everywhere, they are outgoing, easily put others at ease and popular.  Other people struggle getting past that initial barrier of first contact, they watch frustrated as others interact with ease and feel ignored.  Nobody wants to be marginalized.

We need to start recognizing that society and lifestyle do have a part to play in the choices of individuals.  We need fewer fenced in yards, fewer spiritually empty McMansions and more opportunity for inclusion for those who would otherwise be marginalized by their natural dispositions or disabilities.  We need less individualism and more community spirit.

#3 Bringing Outliers into our Community

There are some people who are probably gone beyond hope unreachable.  There are some who have a defect that makes them almost impossible to relate to and interact positively with. 

However, I do not believe that is the case in all cases or even most cases and we could do better at finding a place for those who need a place to belong.  There is no amount of entertainment or material wealth that can fill the void of purpose caused by social isolation.  We should not underestimate the role of community in shaping individual attitudes and mental health.

I see a solution in intentional community.  A friend recently posted a story about a preschool in a nursing home.  It was a beautiful example of the social needs of elderly being met by their inclusion with children.  That is the type of mindset that could be applied more broadly. 

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But intentional community doesn’t need to start with a collective managed structural change like melding elderly and child care.  It can start with how we as individuals interact with the outliers among us.  It starts with our being aware that there are those who are marginalized and suffering from social isolation.  If we look for it we can be a help.

It takes a change in perspective.  Perhaps the weirdo is weird only because they have no friends to help them assimilate?  Are you willing to be that weird person’s friend and bring them into your circle of friends?  Forget mass killers even, what if we could prevent one suicide by being more proactive and inclusive?  What if we could make one person’s day better?

#4 Know the Individual Power You Wield

I believe many of us underestimate our own influence.  We turn to solutions like guns and laws because we feel too small to fight the demons of our culture without them.  We look for ‘silver bullet’ solutions (pardon the expression) and forget that people are complex social creatures.  One-size-fits-all solutions are not the best answer.

We need to fight back against evil, but not with superior firepower which is often misused or increased enablement of governments that often ends in abuse.  We need to overcome evil with good.  We need to fight isolation with inclusion, beat social awkwardness with understanding and prevent the seeds that lead to violence from ever taking root.

It takes a community of willing individuals to solve community problems.  Violence against the community is intended as an attack on the community and must therefore be addressed as a community.  But the community is not those we elect to represent us, the community is us and the problems of community require us as individuals to take part in being the solution.

Stop looking side to side or over your shoulder waiting for someone else to save society from its own destruction.  Instead use your own unique talents and abilities, search out the needs in your own community and fill them.  As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and maybe even just a hug or smile can make a life changing difference.

#5 The Example of a Social Physician

Jesus was an advocate for unpopular people.  The religious people of his day criticized him for what they perceived as his lack of judgment for his inappropriate mingling with women and men who they saw as inferior.  Jesus turned the tables, he condemned the socially powerful and popular, he spoke for those marginalized by society.

There are many Gospel accounts like this…

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

We don’t like the IRS today, but tax collectors in Jesus day were traitors who had sided with the Roman occupation of Palestine and were hated by the Jews.  In the eyes of his accusers he was guilty by association.  How could a great man find company with traitors, prostitutes and other sinners?  But what is greatness without mercy to those who need it most? 

Jesus was greater because he was merciful to all people, even the least of society and we should follow the lead he offers.  We should be doctors of social ailments.  We do not excuse or offer justification for sin anymore than a doctor is an advocate for disease.  No, we, like a doctor, need to diagnose the true problem and provide the right cure.

We can exercise the same power to heal as Jesus did.  We have a choice to create a better society.  We can choose to respond to problems with love and not fear.  We need to be the solution in the same way as Jesus, by overcoming prejudice through self-sacrificial love and love for the enemies we face every day.

God bless.  Be strong.  Be a solution not a spectator.