The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

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A few months ago a Christian friend of mine shared a link to a news story and asked my opinion.

The story, “UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle,” did not seem to apply to my own conservative branch of the Mennonite denomination.

My initial thoughts were that this was one of those wacky liberal churches and therefore not relevant.

However, upon further reflection, I realized that my own brand of Mennonite is not impervious to cultural trends and, despite all the babies crying on Sunday mornings now, we could face a similar population collapse down the road.

Headlines about record-low fertility rates in the US or an unprecedented population collapse in another nation might seem irrelevant to our own situation.  But they can also give some indication of the patterns, telltale signs and changes in behavior that come before such events.

I’ve heard people say that we, as conservative Mennonites, are “50 years behind society” and there seems to be some truth to that.  I know with the advance of technology (like that which makes this blog possible) the pace of change is now quicker than most would have imagined a generation ago.

The conditions that allowed the Mennonite tradition to continue for hundreds of years are disappearing, and quickly.  It does not seem we are in an especially strong position to cope with the new social, economic and technological realities.

This generation could very well be the last.

Here are some factors that could determine where things go from here…

#1) We grow mostly because we have big families and convert our own children.  Like it or not, “Mennonite” is an ethnic group—complete with unique genetic disorders and a game based on our common surnames.  Yes, we do have some converts from the “community folks” and yet most of us came from Mennonite or other established Anabaptist stock.  If our birth rates were to continue to drop (as they have been amongst Mennonites in North America), then there will likely be some problems down the road.

#2) Marriage is being postponed and even avoided altogether, thereby decreasing birth rates.  Mennonites seem to be taking cues from society when it comes to committed relationship.  But, unlike society, we do not have children outside of marriage and therefore our postponing of marriages means older mothers and fewer children, and that is assuming they will marry eventually.  I just had a young woman (maybe mid-twenties) ask me to do a blog to advise her and her friends on how to tell pesky guys to get lost—not an unusual sentiment.  It seems women from conservative backgrounds are becoming less interested in marriage and motherhood, and that is a death knell to a church that can’t bring in more than an occasional convert from outside our own existing gene pool.

#3) The feeder system from Old Order groups and elsewhere could dry up.  It is not a big secret that Mennonites migrate from conservative to liberal.  My own church has lost many born into it and the casualties have always been offset with those gained from other groups more conservative than our own, or those escaping expensive land prices in overdeveloped Lancaster County.  But this means of growth via a continued supply from upstream (or downstream?) is not guaranteed.  It could change as economic pressures increasingly encroach on the Old Order lifestyle.  It is harder to support big families with higher land values, a tougher regulatory environment, rising healthcare costs, etc.  We can’t count on migrants for growth.

#4) Urbanization and loss of an agricultural lifestyle results in cultural change.  My grandparents moved up out of the Franconia Conference territory (near Philadelphia) in the 1960s to begin farming where the land was cheaper and roads less congested.  My grandparents have remained relatively unchanged in the way they dress since that time.  However, their friends “back home” have changed dramatically both in dress and perspective.  There are still a small number of “breakaway” conservatives in that region, but the main body of Mennonite churches there are extremely progressive and their trends could give us some indication of our own future.

#5) The decline of meaningful brotherhood and rise of alternatives reduces interest.  The Amish were right to identify transportation technology as a threat to community.  We might pride ourselves for having stronger communities than the church down the road (a disputable claim) and yet would we compare favorably to prior generations?  I know that even in my own three-decade life span there has been a dramatic change.  We seem less closely knit and more quick to leave for the church up the road rather than come together as one community of diverse members.  We do more world travel, have more activities for every specialized interest or age group, and are kept very busy.  However, we are also fragmented with less vertical integration, more homeschooled children, and less everyday connection—resulting in weaker communities.  Our communities could eventually disintegrate completely as they lose relevance.

#6) Lack of foresight and appropriate faithful preparation is endemic.  Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is because nobody else is talking about this.  We are chronically unprepared for change.  It seems many conservative Mennonites have their heads buried in the sand (or simply buried in day-to-day business and family affairs) and do not see trends coming down the pike.  There appears to be very little effort on the part of the ordained leadership to account for changes in culture (or technology) and even less effort to respond in a positive or productive manner.  Few advocate for a faithful and deliberate approach to problems.  We miss opportunities to increase our effectiveness because we do not utilize the greater means available to us.  We perish for lack of vision.

#7) In the void of thoughtful preparation, what results is only fearful reaction and hasty retreat.  Mennonites, like other Christian fundamentalist groups, began to withdraw from strategic high ground after being blindsided by the pushback against the state endorsement of religion in public schools and the rise of secularism.  Many decry, “They took prayer out of school!” but the sad reality is they did not remove prayer and a faithful witness from schools—we did!  We trembled like King Saul facing the Philistine giant and removed our children and influence.  We did not read 1 John 4:4, “greater is he that is in you, than he is in the world,” and believe.  It is little wonder why nobody believes us when we try to convince them of our great God.

#8) Our missions are often without purpose and out of touch.  I know a young woman (a very sweet person and sincere Mennonite) who told me, “hearts don’t change,” in response to a circumstance outside her experience.  I was astonished at the cognitive dissonance on display and it made me wonder why she was spending thousands of dollars to be at IGo Adventures and Spouse Seeking Institute in Thailand.  It reminds me of the time when we formed a committee at my church to discuss local missions where mailing out more tracts seemed to be the idea with most traction and nothing practical ever came of the committee.  Needless to say, I am not very optimistic about our abilities to do effective outreach.

Is a Mennonite population collapse in North America inevitable?

I don’t know.

I’m not expecting our complete extinction.

I’m pretty sure the Mennonite name will continue on in one form or another.

For instance, we do have a list of genetic disorders that will carry on our legacy.

But, as a religious culture and tradition?

I believe that depends.

It depends on how we approach the issues listed in #1-8 above.

Will we address problems head-on and work through them deliberately or be blindsided?

Will we adjust our thinking and adapt our methods as needed?

Or will we (like the dying Shaker movement) use hope as a strategy?

Nothing is written in stone yet.  But I do know that the conservative Mennonite culture is a frustrating place for innovative and forward-thinking people.  Old habits, functional fixedness, inability to think outside the box and a “don’t rock the boat” mentality all stand in the way of a faithful and vibrant future.

We need to ask and answer the hard questions rather than avoid them.  We should be taking note of trends, and be confronting them collectively as a group.

Notice a growing number of older singles?

Look into the Moravian option or at the very least reconsider the faithless courtship teachings that have created the current mess.  There is no reason why we should pretend there’s nothing that can be done.

Wonder why our missions are ineffective?

It could be that we are isolating our children rather than trusting God and teaching them to live in fear rather than faith.  They can’t empathize or understand anyone outside the Mennonite culture.

Where do we go from here?

It is up to you.  But, if you don’t want to be the last Mennonite standing, I suggest it is time to remove the stale items from the shelves and introduce some fresh ideas.

Change is inevitable.

Be proactive.

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Commitment Issues: Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

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There was a Baptism service at my church this past weekend and not the usual indoctrinated from birth teenager either.  This was a married couple in their thirties come in from outside the Mennonite religious tradition.

We had Communion that night and the devotional was about how Jesus asked “take this cup from me” when considering the suffering he would soon endure.  The cup we drink at Communion is a voluntary commitment to “take up the cross” and suffer with Jesus.

Baptism is a serious commitment.  Jesus urged to “count the cost” before making a commitment to follow after him and his converts were adults.  This seems in stark contrast to the evangelical emotional appeals for a decision and child conversion of the current conservative Mennonite culture.

Mennonites, or rather our Anabaptist ancestors, suffered persecution because they (among other things) rejected infant Baptism in defiance of the established religious order of their day and tied the ritual back to profession of faith.  This is called “Believer’s Baptism” and a commitment made with keen awareness that it could come at a tremendous cost.

Baptism Age: Then Compared To Now…

We, as Mennonites, especially conservative Mennonites, take pride in our Anabaptist identity, we like to use it as something that makes us unique, special or separated and, put plainly, better than other Christian denominations.

But are we?

Are we much like early Anabaptists and Mennonites who came before us?

In my own church experience, as noted, the ‘conversion’ to Christianity often comes at a very young age and most are Baptized as teenagers.  This is probably a reflection of a departure from our Anabaptist roots and embrace of more recent Evangelical innovations.  We, unlike our predecessors, have pulpits to pound on, Sunday school hours aimed at children and Revival meetings with strong emotional appeals.

So, what about our Anabaptist heritage, how does *their* normal for conversion compare to our own?

When did *they* get Baptized?

According to a GAMEO article on age of Baptism this is the answer:

“The estimated average age of baptism for 10 representative Anabaptist men and women, 1525-1536, was 36.4, with none under the age of 20, two between the ages of 20 and 29, four between 30 and 39, and four between 40 and 49.”

Early Anabaptist converts were often adults who could likely more fully understand the commitment that they made and knew it could be a death sentence.  Mennonite converts today, by contrast, are often children, products of a careful indoctrination from a young age, taught to please parents and through ‘conversion’ gain access to the perks of cultural acceptance rather than lose it.

Which leaves a question of whether or not our child converts actually able to count the cost of being a disciple of Jesus or are they simply doing what is culturally expedient and trying to keep up with their religious peers?

Sure, we could say that our children (because of our great teaching and example) are more ready for a serious commitment than say, for example, a 16th century German peasant facing death, a safe assumption, right?

However, then we get to the topic of marriage commitment…

Marriage Age: Then Compared To Now…

As far as I can tell our Amish and Old Order cousins are doing just fine in regards to courtship and marriage—It seems to be business as usual for them.  However, in the conservative Mennonite subset I am a part of there also seems to have been a shift away from marriage commitment.

When compared to prior generations we are waiting longer and longer to tie the knot.  My great grandma, not uncommon in her day, married as a teenager, and my grandparents married just into their twenties like my parents did.  But in my own church today there’s nearly two pews of those twenty-five or older who never married and hardly even dated.

The subset of Mennonite I belong to came under the influence of fundamentalist voices, men like Bill Gothard (who remains single) and others, that taught a courtship model.  They have embraced an idea that basically turns a first date into an engagement.  Friendship, let alone development of a romance, has become nearly impossible and it is because there’s this fear instilled in both genders to prevent even healthy interaction.

These fundamentalist Mennonites have also come under the influence of worldly entertainment.  Despite our traditional dress and slightly more cloistered communities, we are exposed (through internet and other media) to secular millennial generation values.  Mennonite fundamentalists, like their worldly counterparts, are postponing a marriage commitment longer and more never do tie the knot.

Could it be possible that we value freedom from responsibility over commitment and our temporal pleasures (like freedom to travel or other self-satisfactory personal projects both religiously or otherwise justified) over the risk of a long-term relationship?

But, more importantly, what does this reluctance to show romantic love say about our faith?  Can we claim to be committed to God when we can’t even make a serious commitment to loving each other?

Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

I believe our practices betray our inconsistency of thought and departure from the identity we claim as our own.  It is cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, etc.  We urge our children to commitment before they are able to count the cost as an adult, but then continue to mistrust that decision after they do so as if we do secretly know better. 

First we often urge them to wait to be Baptized.  We save that public confirmation for teenagers who went through a young believers class, which is nothing like the Baptism immediately upon profession of faith as was the case in the early church. 

But then, even after that, we continue to mistrust the commitment when it comes to courtship practice.  Mennonite suitors are not treated as an actual brother in Christ when it comes time to ask.  No, instead they are treated as if a hostile invader who must prove himself worthy by running a gauntlet and can be instantly disqualified if he dare be too honest about his own imperfection.

We might ridicule Catholics and Lutherans for doing the opposite of us (for Baptizing their infants and then confirming them as believers later on) but should probably be careful not to throw stones from our glass houses.  We should instead consider the beam in our own eye and ask why we are urging commitments that we don’t fully recognize or completely respect later on.

We tell tales of Constantine marching his troops through a river and calling them Baptized.  Yet could it be that we are really only manufacturing pre-programmed religious robots?  Sure, we produce children who recite back memory verses, spout out our dogmas on cue, and give all the right sounding answers with a smile on their face, but are as evil as the world at heart?

Adult Commitment Rather Than Premature Birth and Underdeveloped Faith

In Christian commitment (as in marriage) we should probably be encouraging our adults to commitment and telling our children to wait until ready.  If a person is too young to commit to marriage then they are also likely too young to comprehend the true cost of discipleship and make a commitment to God.

As one who was physically born early (my mother’s labor induced rather than natural) there is clear danger in going ahead of schedule like this.  I spent weeks in the hospital, in plastic box seperated from my mom because of a collapsed lung, and seemed to have developmental issues since as a result.

Likewise, encouraging premature spiritual birth could be to our detriment and leading our converts to struggles down the road.  Perhaps we have become like Abraham who tried to create a fulfilment of God’s plan through his own efforts?  Ultimately our children are not saved by our good parenting, frequent altar calls or courtship standards.

We need to return to a radical faith that emphasizes the cost of discipleship and encourages adult decision rather than urge premature commitments.  Perhaps the our young adults would be less fearful of lessor commitments and more ready to sacrifice all for love than cling forever to their childish fears?

Whatever the case, there is something very special about an adult Baptism and a decision made by one more fully aware of the cost of commitment.  May God bless Dan and Dina for their testimony of faith and their public commitment yesterday.

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

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Do you want to know a secret?

You are never ready for marriage nor are you ever worthy of anyone’s faithful abiding love—and nobody is.

We are all fatally flawed, even those of us who are more capable of hiding it beneath a facade, and eventually our own immanent human weakness will be made known.

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

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

Christian love transcends existing reality and, in true communion with God, seeks to find a more glorious future—it reaches out in faith rather than dwell alone in fear of our imperfection.

Jesus sacrificed all while we were still dead in our sins, Jesus healed even those who did not take time to thank him, and faithful followers must do the same. Christian love is a preemptive love, it is a truly selfless love only possible through means of God’s grace and a genuine spiritual transformation.

Christian love is always a gift given to those completely undeserving.

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

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

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

I must vote the latter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man?

Evangelist Billy Graham…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t handle the truth!”

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One thing I have not fully learned yet is that people are not emotionally able to handle the whole truth.  My penchant for full-disclosure of hopes, fears or intentions can be discomfiting to those who ask “be completely honest” and are themselves unaccustomed to the same level of transparency.  Few people are honest with other people about their own agenda and whether that is good discretion or dishonesty is debatable.

People may ask for the truth, but that doesn’t mean they are emotionally mature enough or able to handle the complete truth.  None of us can.  We may want to know, but we could not function if we knew the truth of everything.  It would overwhelmed if we knew completely what people thought of us, all of what we would face in the future or understood fully the consequences of our poor choices.  Lack of disclosure is not always a way to protect others or of conscious good discretion, some people withhold truth as a way to manipulate and get their way.

People are also not honest with themselves.  It could be a lack of logical maturity, mental development and ignorance.  It could also be a matter of emotional self-preservation and a deliberate semiconscious choice of mind or completely willful ignorance.  Our minds sometimes are more aware than we are consciously aware.  For example, most of us know we are going to die, our mind always is aware of this at some level and yet we are able to live in the present moment without consideration of our own mortality.  Even those who are thrill seekers or get an emotional high from taking risks because of the possibility of death are a conflicted mix of natural (subconscious) fear and conscious hope for survival.

The title of this blog comes from a movie classic.  The movie “A Few Good Men” is about a military murder trial.  The title quote, “you can’t handle the truth,” comes from a heated exchange, a climatic defining moment in the story and you will need to watch the linked clip to understand my commentary.  You will see the Colonel on the stand trying to simultaneously defend his own innocence, his honor and code.  But there is a conflict in his logic that the prosecutor seeks to reveal in his questions, the conflicted claims of Colonel become very apparent and the resulting emotional outburst exposes a lie.

This is a study on cognitive dissonance. The Colonel had two sets of ethics, one for his protecting of the greater mission of saving life and another that applied to discipline within the the platoon and the one that didn’t protect Santiago’s life. The Colonel becomes emotional when his own conflicted views are presented back to him, he’s being defensive of an irreconcilable position and thus his only defense is an attempt to attack the character of his questioner. He got caught in his own self-deception.

This is more than just good drama, it is a window into how our minds work and illustrates the need for an outsider’s perspective on our own consistency applying our ethics.  Most people are trying to be good, most people think they are good because they are trying to be good and do not see the exceptions they make to their ethical principles. The Colonel yells, “you can’t handle the truth,” when in reality he could not handle the truth of his own failure to consistently live up to the good ethics he claimed to be protecting.

We aren’t on trial, we do need to show discretion when we speak to others and not reveal truth.  We also have blind spots where we aren’t consistently living up to the ethics we claim to hold and need to be open to those who challenge our own assumptions about ourselves and that requires humility.  Our taking offense, our becoming defensive or burying our heads in the sand can prevent growth and is a form of faithlessness that kills us spiritually. If you’re religious, tradition and theological dogma can prevent knowing truth. If you’re scientific, materialistic logic and known evidence based reasoning can be likewise blinding.

Truth is something that exists beyond our own full ability to comprehend. Without truth, with tradition, theology, material evidence and facts we can only build a rational. Rationals are not truth. Rationals can be disproven with more evidence or changed with a different perspective of the evidence. We cannot handle the truth if we are unable to realize the fallibility of our own opinions or if we are afraid to have faith and trust. We must realize that we are shaped by our various influences and that those influences themselves could also give us a corrupted version of reality.

So be humble, be open to correction and be able to repent when wrong…