Should the Church Have Rituals and Traditions?

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Of those traditions kept by my conservative Mennonite church, a foot washing ritual was one of the more notable. It is a practice based in the example of Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples and then instructed them to follow his example:

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17, NIV)

So, twice a year with Communion, after a sermon about some aspect of the sacrifice Jesus made, after partaking of some bread and grape juice together and then another short reminder of why we were doing the stuff we did, the men would be dismissed to the basement (leaving the women the upstairs to do their symbolic washing) and on the way down we men would pair up with the guy beside us or another guy that we selected for whatever reason.

We would remove our shoes and socks, then proceed to one of the plastic basins arranged in front of folding chairs, then take turns solemnly splashing water on each other’s feet and dabbing them dry again with a towel provided. Once finished with this ritual procedure most would shake hands (those less inhibited would kiss) and engage in awkward small talk or make a comment about keeping their washing partner in prayer over the next few months.

In our time, this act of foot washing is little more than a symbolic act of service. But when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples it was something of practical value to those traveling the dusty roads in sandals and a task typically reserved for the servants. In that context it was a very significant gesture and represented a whole new approach to leadership. In the Mennonite context this practice is sometimes nothing more than a ritual and tradition.

Is reinvention of orthodoxy the answer to dead faith?

People often equate ritual and tradition in the church to dead faith. As a result, those disgruntled with dead faith swing in the direction of innovation and spontaneity hoping to find something authentic and real. Unfortunately, while the first generation of those discarding established tradition often experience the excitement of something new, their children do not get a temporary emotional bump from the change. It should be no surprise when these children continue down the same path and throw out practices that their parents considered to be sacred and essential.

The idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” (derived from a German proverb “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütte”) is a warning against destroying something good in our zeal to be rid of what is bad. This saying was first recorded in 1512 and right before Martin Luther touched off a revolt against the established church. It is a phrase, frequently used by Luther himself, perhaps worried people would take what he started too far. It remains a very popular expression with Protestants (including Mennonites) who are trying desperately to retain their own children.

There is much in Scripture about the sins of fathers being transmitted to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:39, Deuteronomy 5:8-10) and seems to apply to our own circumstances today. Children, through genetics or behavioral patterning, often acquire the strengths of their parents. A parent’s good example can lead their children to good habits. And, in the same manner, children often also inherit the defects, blind-spots and weaknesses of their parents as well. Children build both on the success and also on the sins and/or shortcomings of the prior generation.

So, it should not be a big surprise that the children of Protestants continue down a path of independence, reinterpretation of Scripture and departure from what was established. Protestantism, with the inordinate focus on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, has led to further division, ever-increasing individualism, and significant loss of Christian character. Many Protestants, following the example of their forefathers, assume that the path to spiritual life is found in throwing off of traditions and rituals—but I believe they are terribly mistaken.

Orthodox tradition and ritual is not at fault for abuses of the institutions of the church…

What is the basis for tradition and ritual in the church?

Many seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew and faithfully kept the Jewish religious tradition. Jesus did speak against those who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV) or in other words those who prioritized religious rituals over love for others.

Yet Jesus did not dismiss ritual and tradition as completely unimportant either. Jesus and early Jewish converts to Christianity (while ranking the substance of faith higher than the religious symbolism) did not totally disregard the traditions that had been established.

To truly love Jesus means to follow his example and keep his commands. This, according to the words of Jesus, is requisite to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15‭-‬21, NIV )

Many church rituals (like Baptism, Communion and foot washing) are directly from the Gospels and given as instruction to the disciples by Jesus. And, it is in the Gospels that we read that Jesus gave authority to his disciples. He told Peter and the disciples this:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19, NIV)

The early church clearly had a hierarchy with real authority and one that built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. It is the writings of these early church fathers that contain their witness to the life of Jesus and also provide their reader with further divinely-inspired instruction. This is what they said:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NIV)

Scripture didn’t just drop out of the sky written on golden tablets. No, rather it is a collection of inspired writings compiled and later canonized by the authority of a church council. That, the Bible, is the written tradition of the church (or “letter”) and is a source widely accepted as authoritative. However, in Protestant churches, because they reject any authority besides their own, the “spoken word” of church tradition has not been firmly held—it is neglected and forgotten.

The complete disregard for the oral tradition of the church is no different from cutting a chunk out of Scripture. Sure, as a person can refrain from applying the instruction Paul gives in regards to veiling (and not veiling) in 1 Corinthians 11 and still be Christian, these things aren’t necessary to be saved. However, this represents the deterioration of church tradition and a serious problem. At some point we cannot claim to be following after the example of Jesus and continue to abandon the practices of the church he established.

There is a real loss when the established tradition is tossed in favor of a more ‘contemporary’ program. Moreover, those leaving their religious tradition often continue to benefit from the values it helped to instill in them. Sadly, the full cost is often only felt in subsequent generations who didn’t have the unappreciated benefits of the old tradition—the children raised without tradition have lost the helpful reminders given to their parents and also an important stabilizing tie to the historic church.

What makes tradition and ritual important?

The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains the following monologue:

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you in a word—tradition!

Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything—how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you—I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Tevye’s character is a Jewish father standing at this intersection of religious tradition and compromise in the name of progress. He points to one of the reasons why traditions are formed and that is balance. Traditions and rituals are established to help provide stability and order to our lives.

Rituals also help reduce anxiety and increase confidence even for those who do not believe they are beneficial:

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (“Why Rituals Work,” Scientific American)

At practice and before games my high school football team went through the same “warm up” routine. Some of the reason for this was to physically prepare us to prevent injury through stretching and get us warmed up. But the other part, perhaps even the larger and more significant part, is what this ritual did psychologically to calm our nerves and get us mentally prepared. This practice and pre-game ritual made us better individually and also helped our cohesiveness as a team.

Beyond that, it is what Jesus taught and showed by example. Jesus did not entirely do away with his Jewish rituals and traditions. In fact, he added to them, going as far as to give the disciples a template for a simple prayer (given in contrast to the arrogant public prayers of religious elites and “babbling like pagans”) and this “Lord’s prayer” is still practiced—even in Protestant churches. If one understands the value of Baptism and Communion then there should be no argument. Rituals are important to help to pattern, influence and shape our minds.

Traditions provide us with a structure that helps us to navigate our lives. When Paul urges believers to conduct their worship “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40) it is not intended to stifle their freedom or individuality. It is rather to free them from chaos and confusion. We are creatures of habit, we do not do well in a constantly shifting environment, and therefore ritual is even more important in these tumultuous times.

As Tevye said, traditions are reminders of who we are and what God expects from us.

So what to do with dead orthodoxy?

It is fairly obvious that people can continue in religion long after they’ve become spiritually dead. Ritual and tradition, while a benefit to the faithful, cannot preserve faith. Christianity is not as simple as checking the right boxes. As Jesus told the perplexed Nicodemus “you must be born again” and about how the Spirit works like “wind” that “blows wherever pleases” (John 3:1-21) there is a profound mystery in this that goes beyond a religious program and all human rationality.

Protestants, of all people, should know this. Every generation there is a new method that comes along, another “remnant” group sharing their own version of the Gospel, the next author trying to pump the purpose back into Christianity or yet another list of fundamentals, ordinances or doctrines, and all these movements eventually seem to end up in the same place again. Often these re-inventors end up leaving their children even more ignorant of church history and with even less to grasp onto. Some might declare themselves to be the more pure, but they are also void of any tradition with staying power and the proof is in the legacy they leave.

Dead orthodoxy is a result of dead faith. And, in the same manner that new window dressing won’t help to stabilize a wooden structure weakened by termites, reinventing traditions and rituals will never bring spiritual life back where the church has fallen off its foundation. The foundation of faith is Jesus, his faithful church is constructed upon that foundation—with the traditions it has passed on both in written and spoken form for our benefit—and there is no spiritual life gained in throwing this legacy out.

In fact, it is arrogant to think that we would be better to start from scratch and create our own new orthodoxy rather than draw from the experience and wisdom accumulated over many generations. It is basically to say that we today are better than all those faithful Christians of the past two millennia who kept these traditions and saw fit to pass them on to us.

Does the ritual of Baptism ever take away repentance?

Can our Communion practice come at the expense of our love for Christ’s body?

Should we stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they aren’t found in the Bible and have been corrupted by American culture?

Our ridding ourselves of these established and orthodox Christian practices will not draw us any closer to God.

Yes, the foot washing tradition practiced at my Mennonite church is worthless if the act does not truly represent our heart. The veiling is often associated with the failures of Mennonite men to lead in the example of Christ and thus the practice of the veil is often discarded by ex-Mennonite women. But both represent cases of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is not the ritual of foot washing or the imperfect application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that is at fault. Tradition and ritual should never be blamed for our lack of those things that should come from the heart.

True, faith is not established upon religious rituals or traditions and they certainly can be corrupted. The apostle Paul had to sternly warn early Christians against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper and had to further define the practice in an effort to prevent them from abusing it. But what he didn’t do is throw his hands up and say: “Okay, no more Communion, let’s go back to the basics and just show our love for each other through charitable acts!” No, he urged them to rediscover, not reinvent, and that is what the faithful do.

The solution to dead orthodoxy is not reinvention. The solution to dead orthodoxy is to address the real problem and renew the heart of faith that makes the tradition meaningful and allows the ritual come alive.

What tradition should we keep?

Every denomination has rituals and traditions. The format of a Mennonite service, for example, intended to be a bit less formal, can be very dry and predictable. The song leader leads some songs, men argue our pet issues in Sunday school class while women sit in stoney silence in theirs, the deacon (after pleading for us to think about the meaning of the hymns we just sang) goes through the laundry list of activities and repeat prayer requests, after another song the preacher does his thing as some doze in the pews, and finally the congregation is dismissed to talk about farming, hunting, sports or politics.

At some point all new “movements” end up creating a new ritual and tradition. John and Charles Wesley introduced a radical new “methodical” approach to study and life. This eventually became the “Methodist” denomination. Mennonites take their denominational name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest that became caught up in the Anabaptist movement, and now are mostly an ethnic church known for a “peace witness” and shoo-fly pies.

Not all religious rituals and traditions are equal in history or value. Sunday school, revival meetings, VBS, “sweetheart banquets,” mother’s day celebrations, Bible schools and church retreats are part of the Mennonite church calendar, but they are certainly not the equivalent of Ascension day, Lent season, Paschal feast or many of the other long established orthodox practices that some have abandoned in the past few centuries. I would rather we started to look at what was established early and has worked for many generations than try to create a dumbed-down, less historically grounded version.

The tradition of many Protestant churches has become so watered down there is little left to reinvent besides the Bible. As a result, those seeking an emotional high through change are running out of options and when their current experience isn’t satisfying anymore, some decide to toss the Bible next. That is the progressive approach. That is the approach that confuses their own temporal feelings of pleasure with spiritual gain.

In conclusion…

Faith is not created by ritual and tradition nor can it be increased by discarding them. Spiritual life comes through obedience and is also a mysterious work of God. We aren’t saved through our religious devotion. A person can go through the motions of Baptism, Communion, foot washing or any other orthodox Christian practice without ever having a change of heart.

That said, the truly faithful do benefit from the reminders, the structure and patterns for behavior that orthodox rituals and traditions provide. In my own experience it has helped me to worship in a manner that has been established over many generations. To join together with that “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and to worship as Christians did for thousands of years has been a tremendous experience that cannot be duplicated with a new light show and smoke machine.

A person who burns down their house because they don’t like some of the decorations on the walls might be momentarily free. But the enjoyment and empowerment of this new found simplicity and freedom will soon be a desperate struggle to protect themselves from the elements. And the same goes for those who think they gain through taking an eraser to the rituals, traditions and established orthodoxy of the church. The benefits are fleeting and the cost of trying to restore what was lost is great.

Yes, some necessary structure can be built back in a generation or two after the full loss of the change is felt, but not without slavish effort to restore it and where is the freedom in that?

A life unfettered by any established ritual and historical tradition might seem ideal for the freedom and simplicity that it promises. However, not all is as advertised, the freedom is an illusion and the reality created is often quite complicated. Taking a wrecking ball to established order often leads to only chaos and more confusion. Worse, it robs the next generation of their religious inheritance and leaves children worse off than their perpetually dissatisfied parents.

Our faith should be founded on Jesus, our religion grounded on the truth of his word, our life lived in obedience to the Spirit, and that means keeping the traditions passed down by his church. Spiritual life is restored through genuine repentance and not by abandoning ritual. Renewed faith comes with our humble obedience and not by reinventing traditions.

Jesus did not discard all ritual and tradition nor should we. There is a place for both in the church. It is a connection that we need now more than ever in the shifting sands of our time. Perhaps it is time for some reflection, rediscovery and restoration?

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Mind Your Own Business — The Christian Response to Gossips and Busybodies

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A few weeks ago a story swept across my Facebook feed about a young Mennonite man from Indiana who went missing after a visit with his girlfriend in Arkansas.  I quickly determined, after a brief look on Google maps at the points mentioned, that there was very little that I could do to help.  There are plenty of situations where my own inputs and interventions are truly needed and this was not one of them.

The need for my personal involvement didn’t change after he was found.  Yes, as a normal human being, I was curious about the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and hoped to eventually hear more about what happened.  However, there was no reason for me to pry or persist in an effort to find information, I was content to wait until his family was ready to share and truthfully didn’t need to know anymore than I already did.

However, some were not satisfied to simply rejoice with those who rejoice.  Some felt entitled to information, they felt that they deserved an explanation and more or less demanded immediate answers.  Making matters worse, the online discussion (including a page created to help locate the young man) quickly became and a cesspool of gossip and den of busybodies who seemed to take great pleasure in sharing their scandalous revelations.

Anyhow, because this does effect my newsfeed, and having had malicious nonsense spread about me in the past, and knowing what Scripture says on the topic of gossip, I want to make three points:

1) The young man didn’t ask to be turned into a public figure.

Family and friends decided to take their search public and the network of Mennonites on social media responded in force.  But that doesn’t mean that we should not respect the privacy of the young man.  The public handling of this was not his choice.  If their best interests (both his own and those of the people more intimately involved) are better served by not sharing more than has already been shared, then so be it.

2) You are not entitled to anything more than has already been revealed.

I’ve seen the spreading of rumors explained as need for closure and blame being put on those closest to the young man for their not revealing more information at this time.  That, of course, is complete nonsense.  Being asked to pray and assist in a search does not give anyone a right to know the juicy details and nor does morbid fascination.  There is no need to know anything more than what needs to be known.  He has been found, he is with those who love him, and that should be everything a reasonable person needs for closure.

3) Gossip is a sin and busybodies are severely condemned.

Curiosity is excusable.  I understand the want to know more about a story than is already known.  I can even see good reason to share, in the right time and place, about unflattering things discovered.  However, what I cannot excuse is sharing dirt on another person and publicly trashing them for no good reason.  True or not does not matter, what does matter is that we show the grace we wish to be shown and handle such matters in the way appropriate for a Christian.

There seems to be some confusion about what is appropriate and inappropriate sharing of information…

Fortunately there are Biblical passages that offer us strong clues.  In fact, being a “meddler” (1 Peter 4:15) or “gossip” (Romans 1:29) is mentioned in the same context as theft and murder and slander.  We are even told to disassociate ourselves from those who are “busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11, 1 Timothy 5) as a result of their idleness.  And, if that condemnation is not enough, there is also this clear instruction:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12 NIV)

The word “slander” in the passage above is also translated as “speak evil” or “speak against” and doesn’t simply refer to false tales.  It comes from the Greek word “katalaleó” (καταλαλέω) and is defined by International Standard Bible Encyclopedia as follows:

Slander (etymologically a doublet of “scandal,” from OFr. esclandre, Latin scandalum, “stumblingblock”) is an accusation maliciously uttered, with the purpose or effect of damaging the reputation of another. As a rule it is a false charge (compare Matthew 5:11); but it may be a truth circulated insidiously and with a hostile purpose

It is important to note that this goes beyond the modern definition of slander.  It is saying something, true or untrue, in a way that is unnecessarily harmful to another person.  In other words, this means *not* revealing things in public about an individual that detract from their reputation.  That in contrast with sharing only what is helpful to another individual and of benefit:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)

There is a time and place for confronting sinful behavior.  However, unless the sin is already public knowledge and obvious (as in 1 Corinthians 5) or something that must be reported immediately to civil authorities like sexual abuse, the process of confrontation should always start one-on-one with the offending individual in private:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.  If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15‭-‬17 NIV)

In light of this, spreading scandalous information about another person just because you can is never appropriate for a Christian.  It goes completely against Biblical instruction to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” and to “mind your own business” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and amounts to a sin as bad as any other.

As for closure…

There are certainly those who should be working with this young man to help and restore him.  But there are many more (in the online crowd) who have no role in that and should be mindful of what Jesus told those who brought an adulterous woman out to be condemned: “Let anyone of you who is without sin cast the first stone…”

Christians should have no time for gossip and no place for busybodies in their ranks.  There is no duty to tell the world about things than can (and should) remain private and absolutely no need for salacious appetites to be fed.  So, if you desperately need closure, use the opportunity to reflect on your own attitudes and actions.

Caution: Mennonite In Transition

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A couple years ago, upon realizing my life was going nowhere in a hurry and not wanting to settle for mediocrity, I called out for God’s help.  I wanted a truly abundant life, I knew that I was wholly inadequate to bring about the necessary changes to make that reality (God knows I’ve tried) so I begged for the impossible be done.

I have seen many dreams die in my life because of fear of failure, inexplicably poor timing, etc.  I was well-aware of the cliché definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result) but could not seem to break from the patterns of life that limited my potential.  I was what I was and deeply dissatisfied with that.  

There was an undefined something that always seemed to crush my higher ambitions.

I could not beat an enemy that could not be defined.  So I told God in no uncertain terms that I would literally crawl on hands and knees across a wilderness of broken glass to be made right.  Throwing every bit of faith I could muster, like a gambler going all in with a desperate last gasp effort, I prayed “make the impossible possible for me” and then concluded my morning prayer.

It was an hour or two after that when I hopped out of my truck and went down writhing in pain.  My knee buckled under me.  In that moment what had been diagnosed as an MCL sprain became a full ACL tear and I knew that the implications were huge.  I would be unable to perform the duties of my job and with that was facing financial uncertainty.

Still, despite excruciating pain, I was serene and confident.

God had answered.

Or so I hoped.

“It is what it is…”

My faith crumbled against that awful reality.

“You are thirty years old living in Milton.”

It was true and the implications clear enough.

I was a stick in the mud, already past my prime by the standards of some, and certainly not the adventure her heart was set upon.  I simultaneously loved her brutal honesty and hated the harshness of judgment.  My worst fear realized.

I had no defense.

When we finally parted ways I was lost in a haze.  The rug yanked out from under me.  My sputtering attempts to articulate my own heart had no effect on her whatsoever.  Blissful hopes were mercilessly cut down by an otherwise nurturing soul.

My conversation with her end with my mouth involuntarily echoing her “it is what it is” plea and with that accepting the rationality of fatalism that had long dogged me.

A continuing cruel loneliness now seemed inevitable.  I had tried many times before, taken my hits, always got back up again by believing next time would be better—that something greater would come from my suffering rejection.  But this time I could not delude myself with hope.

My faith had lost the day—my hope against hope had failed—and now a terrible fate of a despairingly cold and isolated life was upon me.

My mind, a place normally full of noise and activity, went totally blank as if unable to comprehend any of it.  I was in shock about what had transpired and numb.  

I wandered off aimlessly.  

Into the wilderness of South Dakota.  

Into the dark of night.  

Into oblivion.

The storm brewing in overhead seemed to perfectly mirror the log-jam of conflicted thoughts and swirl of deep emotions.

My delusion of hope that a young ambitious woman might find me desirable enough to consider a romantic relationship was shattered into a million fragments.  My failure to achieve now clung to me like an unforgivable sin.  Very soon I awoke from my stupor into an inescapable nightmare of reality.

The uneasy calm broke when Johnny and Brian somehow found me.  The rain, which had coincidentally held to precisely the moment they carried me to the shelter of an awaiting truck cab, began to pour down in torrents and so did my tears.

Escaping reality was impossible.

Doing battle with the it…

Most people nowadays pursue career first and romance second.  But I had these things in reverse order.  I prioritized relationship and postponed all else.

My reasoning was that it would be better to form life ambitions and goals together as a couple rather than apart.  And I might have pulled it off had I been a bit less socially awkward.  Unfortunately I had this vexing tendency to freeze up as soon as my interest was piqued and thus my early romantic pursuits failed miserably.

Years were frittered away with unfulfilled dreams, chasing one false hope after another and waiting for opportunities that never came.

Not to say that I did nothing of value in that time either.  I gained life experience, slowly built confidence in my abilities, learned to live independently, and gained perspective.

However, it was hard not to feel a failure.

There seemed to be this mysterious “it” that always kept my best efforts from panning out and nobody had the answers for this that I craved.

I’ve heard all the cliché advice I could ever stomach.  One person says try harder and the next will say you’re trying too hard.  One tells you “you’re intimidating” and the next says you lack confidence.  You’re basically wrong no matter what you do.

The same one who says they want someone “mature” rejects your offer and then dates a teenager whom she later marries.  It is incredibly confusing when the same person who says you’ll make a “great husband” refuses to even consider a date.

It is impossible to define exactly what the “it” is.  It was a ball of anxieties, that inexplicably poor timing, a curse of a jealous enemy, the lack of true community and help.

It was many things and yet nothing at all.

It was an invisible monster that chased me throughout my life.  It was the glass wall that seperated me from those who were more able to conquer the obstacles in their way and achieve their goals.  It was my doing too little too late or too much too early.  It was my always being close to the mark and yet never hitting it.

The “it” is not something external to be vanquished.  It is everything from my formative years up until the present moment that I’ve experienced or thought.  It is my home, my genetic and cultural inheritance, the good and bad together intertwined and inseparable as part of my own character.

The “it” is a sum total of what defines me as a person.  

It was inescapable.

It is me.

It is what we make it…

Her certainty about her own direction was why she was so attractive to me.  It was never my plan to grow old in Milton.

However, she seemed to believe that her personal ambitions were something that made us incompatible.  To me our lack of similar résumé was not a disqualification, I saw our differences as an asset, considering her strengths as being complimentary rather than contradictory to mine, but she disagreed.

She was my last remaining escape plan.

I did not eat in the days after because I had no desire to continue as I had and seemingly had no escape.  I wanted to die and would rather starve than keep feeding myself with more false hopes.

I cried, “I have no vision!”

I so desperately wanted free of a mind seemingly incapable of focus.  I had seemed to do fine in a structure.  I was a diligent worker, a loyal friend, responsible and dedicated.  But leave me too free to choose my own path and I would dither indefinitely in indecision.

God provided just enough reason to get me out of bed.  I cleaned up, composed myself a bit, ate the cup of yogurt and glass of water mom provided.  I faced her again, my elusive hope against hope, and then in the weeks following I went under the knife to have the torn ligament replaced with a graft and after that began the months of rehabilitation.  My goal to come back stronger than before and physically I did.

What also happened in my time off of work was a book (written but shelved pending further review) and this blog.  I’ve found some answers in blogging.  Writing my experiences and recording some of my thoughts has seemed to help provide some direction.  The more vulnerable I’ve become the more friends and opportunities to serve I’ve seemed to gain.

Why am I Mennonite?

I have never been the Mennonite golden boy.

I’ve never had the swooning attention of the favorites who better represent the ideals of Mennonite culture.  I’ve always done things a little different.  I was who I was and gave up on being anything besides that.  But still, I longed to gain acceptance in the Mennonite culture.

In Mennonite culture marriage is acceptance and not all are.  Yes, sure, we’ll let most anyone be a member so long as they complete the required steps, but marriage is where the reality of a two tiered system becomes very evident.  There are the kids born in the right homes, the ones able to do all the things that make them popular within their cultural context and marriageable, and then there are those of us who don’t fit the mold.

She represents a direction that I thought my life should go in.  Her Mennonite idealism, her simplicity of role or purpose in life, represented something deep within my own heart and desirable.

However, many who have read my blogs question this and ask… “why are you still Mennonite?”

It is question that I dislike.

I’m Mennonite because I like being Mennonite.

We have such a neat and tidy cloistered existence.  We have beautiful families.  We are the happy Hobbits living in the Shire of Middle-earth.  Everything we do is safe.  Even our missionaries typically go out to all the corners of the world yet never leave the protection of their religious confines.

It has been suggested to me recently that I have “out grown” the tradition.  That is the question that I have wrestled with as of late.  

Can one actually out grow their home?  

I’m running out of arguments why to stay in a denomination that is more about conforming to cultural expectations than transformation of mind and living a life of true faith.

It is hard not to notice that most of the help on my journey came from those leaving the Mennonite tradition or outside of it.  The support I’ve gotten from those within has been grudgingly or something that needed extracted and done as mere religious duty.  I hear brotherly love spoke of by Mennonites, but it seems more relic or ritual than actually reality.  The real brotherhood I’ve experienced, the genuine Christian love, comes from beyond my own Mennonite tradition.

Does a man of faith belong with those who shrug “it is what it is” rather than risk a small step into unfamiliar territory?

Should I have any part with those who eagerly travel over land and sea to win a single convert and yet would never go in a direction they don’t understand?

Still there is a strong urge to remain a part.

I’ve always thought all voices were needed in the conversation and the including mine.  If everyone capable of challenging the cultural status quo leaves it would create even more tunnel vision and further imbalance.  My strengths, rejected or not, would be of benefit to those who think they have all the answers and are confident about the tradition they received.  

Composites make a stronger material than their component parts—shouldn’t the bond of love be able to do the same with two dissimilar people?

Decisions, decisions…

There is a time to wait and there is a time to take decisive action.  I have given up many opportunities for placing my hopes within the context of my Mennonite culture and gone many years without seriously considering the alternatives.

Mennonite is my cultural identity.  Despite my many idiosyncrasies, I’ve always been Mennonite at heart and somewhat proud of my ethnic and religious heritage.  How does one unbind and divorce themselves from their cherished past?

Impossible, right?

It is not like I haven’t ventured out before in search of what I might find only to return again as if drawn by an invisible force that grew stronger the further away I got from whoopie pies and covering strings.  But things do change and there could be a force stronger than that which always pulled me back.

When I asked God to make the impossible possible for me, I had a personal vision that included remaining Mennonite and the young woman that I knew was an impossibility as far as worldly logic is concerned.  But it now seems possible that my vision then was too narrow and that I should look beyond to the other options available.

Being Mennonite is not the be all end all.  God calls us to go beyond the limits we set for ourselves or those set for us by our cultures and that is my intention.  It doesn’t matter what my religious peers or even my blood relatives think—Jesus called us to follow Him and leave our fears, insecurities and inadequacies behind us.

Maybe impossibility made possible for me is something I never anticipated?

That is what have I learned since that day tearing my ACL, in recovery from yet another slap of rejection, and from the battle with the “it” which drove me to extremes in search of answers.  I learned that I do not have all the answers and don’t need all the answers before I am able to step out in faith.

Please pray…

There are many things that will soon come to a head for me and most I am unable to talk openly about at this time.  Many of these things being pivotal life changing decisions that must be made.  What happens in the next couple months will determine many things.

Your prayers to help me through this transitional time are very appreciated.  Pray that the impossible is made possible.

When Love Remains — A Guest Blog By Linda Stoltzfus

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This is my first guest post.  It is written by my mom (a person who encouraged my writing) and resonated deeply with me.  It is something my mother shared recently about her own mother’s decline in health and I asked permission to share here.  I felt it was something relevant and worthwhile for those who have faced or are facing similar circumstances.  A story about memory loss and love…

Sitting on the couch my mom reaches for her phone. She snaps it open and stares at the face that greets her. The man who has been at her side for over sixty years stares back.  Her fingers haltingly push the button that calls him.  It rings and I hear his voice answering.

She pauses; words no longer come easily for her.  But I know what she will say.  She will ask him to come back into the house.

As I reach for the phone I reassure her that Dad has just gone out for a walk and he will be back in time for supper.  She seems to understand, but I know that as soon as I leave the room she will be trying to call him again.  Her mind can no longer retain anything that was said a minute or two ago.  She wants her husband, my dad, to be by her side night and day.  He has become her memory and her security in this foggy world of hers.

My mother has been given the diagnosis of dementia likely caused by Alzheimer’s.  At the age of eighty this isn’t really that unusual.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in nine people over 65 has Alzheimer’s disease.  One of three senior citizens will die with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia.

My Mom has beautiful eyes: big, bright and blue.  She had lovely long hair which never turned gray and kept its blonde streaks into her seventies.  She would faithfully wash it once a week, often using whipped egg whites as conditioner.  It was her pride and glory.  When she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgins Lymphoma, I believe the most severe blow was that treatment would cause her to lose her hair.  But to live she had no choice.  The cancer was stage four and her swollen lymph nodes were giving her a lot of pain.

Except for her hair loss, she tolerated the heavy duty cocktail of chemo drugs rather well.  It was with much relief that after her last treatment she was pronounced cancer free.  However, she seemed to becoming more and more confused.  Her once sharp memory wasn’t there and she constantly wanted pain pills for some ache somewhere.

Instead of getting her strength back she wanted to do nothing but curl up on the couch. She began refusing to shower, or even comb the hair which had begun to grow back.  Having to leave the house and attend any activity with people made her extremely anxious.  My dad desperately held on to the hope that she was still recovering from the cancer.  He insisted that once her strength came back things would get better.  But after cognitive memory testing by the doctor, it became obvious that she was showing signs of dementia.

I was aware of symptoms of dementia and saw the effects it had on my grandmother and the toil it took on my aunt as her caretaker, but they lived several hours away and our contact was minimal.  The reality is much harder when you deal with it day to day.

Dementia is often misunderstood as being something all old people have; however it is actually a part of different diseases.  Alzheimer’s is the one that often comes first to mind but mini strokes, vascular issues, Lewy’s disease, Parkinson’s and even brain trauma can lead to the diagnosis of dementia.   My mother has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s but the doctors seem to think the cause of her dementia is Alzheimer’s.

Today when I look into my mother’s eyes they look back at me empty of emotion.  Occasionally she surprises us with a smile, and for a brief moment I see them light up.  But most of the time, they remain dead to her surroundings.  Her face seems fixed into some sort of mask of confusion.  During her calm times her eyes stare blankly into the distance.  When agitated she has the look of a distressed child.

It is now supper time and my mother makes her slow trek to the kitchen gripping her walker for support.  I pull out her chair and she sits down.  I hand her some napkins which she seems to enjoy folding. It is one of the few things she still can do.

My dad comes into the house, and with his usual style, asks Mom how she is feeling.  Although he hasn’t had a positive answer from her concerning her health for months, he seems to retain some sort of illusive idea that it may yet happen.

He deeply misses his soulmate.  They were unusual by today’s standards.  There was no independence in their relationship: they did everything together and it seemed to work for them.  Dad enjoyed driving and Mom did the navigating.  Dad liked watching people while Mom did the grocery shopping.  They both enjoyed going out for fast food, Burger King was a favorite, and they preferred eating in the car together rather than inside.

Mom always made sure Dad had three meals a day and that his needs were well taken care of.  However, that all changed with her cancer diagnosis.  She hasn’t cooked since.  Today we all take turns making sure they have a cooked meal each day.

At the supper table, I try to bring back some sort of connection by talking about my birth fifty some years ago. Mom is still able to recall my date of birth but she isn’t sure how old she is or even what day or year it is.

One of the frustrating things about dementia is the way it plays with your emotions.  One minute the person can be reciting a date or event in perfect order but then a moment later have no idea who they just talked to or what was said.  A person with dementia has good and bad days just as any normal person does.  This puts caretakers on an emotional seesaw, since the good days make you want to believe that the person is getting better.

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word dementia is loss of memory.  Of course this is true but we all experience some loss of memories throughout the years.  The disease or injury that causes dementia is much more complicated than simply forgetting something.  It takes many cranial connections to make a decision, to recall how to turn on a stove, know the steps in taking a shower.  Once this processing is damaged, or gone, a person becomes more and more limited.  They need someone to give them step by step directions for each and every process of the day.

Today is one of Mom’s good days.  She seems relaxed, when several of her younger grandchildren show up, she smiles.  Instead of lying on her couch she remains sitting watching the activity.   She motions to me.  I can see that she wants to say something but her voice is subdued, and hard to hear.  I move next to her.

“Do we have any smarties?” she asks me.  It is her favorite treat for the children.

I check the dish she keeps next to her bedside.  It has several pieces and I give her the dish.  Her face lights up as she hands them to the children, and for a short time I see my mom back.

My mom’s biggest goal in life was to take care of her husband and family. She faithfully raised seven children and celebrated the birth of each 30 grandchildren and 20 some great-grandchildren.

My mom enjoyed listening to music, reading and going to church and social activities.  Now she no longer wants to attend any type of social activity and refuses to have any music playing around her.  She can’t focus to read.  Although still able to read the words the comprehension is no longer there.  She has always been a follower of Christ with strong convictions but now no longer prays before a meal unless my Dad reminds her.

One of the cruelest things of dementia is the loss of the personality of the person you love. The disease has robbed her and us of some of the most precious parts of the human relationship.

In exception of one thing:  unending love. My mom is surrounded by agape love.  For sixty years my dad has been with her and is committed to being there until the end.  Although he has taken on the role of caretaker, his love for her remains the same.

Each of her four daughters is involved in her care, making sure her daily needs are being met.  Her daughters in laws have faithfully been making meals for several years with even some of her grandchildren helping out.  We all play different roles motivated by love.

One evening as I sat next to my mom who was lying on the couch with her eyes closed, seemingly sleeping, she reached out her hand and put it in mine.  She then took her other hand and laid it on top.  A wave of warmth spread over me. I haven’t felt that kind of emotional connection from her in a long time.

In that simple gesture, I knew that in spite of her confused state Mom was feeling loved.  In return she was offering the one thing she could still give back: affirmation of her love.  No disease can ever take that away.

What Are ‘Christian’ Values?

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The culture war continues. 

The latest salvo in the fight is over the current segregation of public restrooms.  The proponents of change and traditionalists battle it out for control on social media and in the public arena. 

Both argue the moral inferiority of the other side.  Both claim to be defending the security of their loved ones.  Both threaten to take punitive measures against those who do not comply with their demands. 

It is a fight where nobody seems to win and everyone comes out a loser.  But what if this two sided debate is actually false dichotomy?  Could there be a third option solution where all could win? 

Perhaps, if all sides of this struggle for control could put down their rhetorical and political weapons for a moment, there is a better example to follow?

I believe there is a better ‘third’ way that is neither dogmatically religious nor demandingly progressive.  I believe there is an alternative where all can win and none lose. 

However, before I can get to the solution I need to discuss where the other options fall short and to do this I have defined a few categories. 

(Please understand in advance that there is overlap between my categories and many people may not fall neatly into one or another.)

1) Liberal ‘progressive’ or secular values are marketed as love, tolerance, inclusion and open-mindedness.  The promise is a more fair or high-minded society, but the result is often as petty and even more divisive than what it seeks to replace.  It is morally incoherent, in one breath claiming to be non-judgmental and making more allowance for free expression, but in the next moment enforcing strict dogmas of politically correct language and behavior. 

Those who do not comply with the moral edicts of progressives should be prepare to be shamed, belittled and bullied into silence.  Those who fall away, question or challenge the new orthodoxy will be labeled as a bigot, racist, homophobe, misogynist, hateful or insensitive.  The shouts of “don’t judge me” are often only a tool to drown out dissent and not a consistently applied principle.  These bleeding hearts are out for blood as much as those they accuse of lacking understanding or compassion.

2) Conservative ‘nationalistic’ or established values are the present cultural norms and current notions of common sense.  This is the flag waving proud patriotic perspective held by those who believe their own values (football, freedom and frequent beer consumption) represent the greatness of the American past, present and future.  These are the biggest defenders of the status quo, their status quo, and never minding that their current cherished culture was formed yesterday.

These are the people who complain about outsourced jobs while simultaneously shopping at Walmart and criticizing as lazy those who aren’t as successful as them.  This is the moral majority of the moment that sees their own privileges and preferences as fundamental rights without respect or consideration of those who see differently.  They have also abandoned the traditional values of their parents and grandparents yet still condemn those who go a step further than them.

In their eyes America was almost always right.  Historic injustice is white washed with a brush of romanticism.  Slavery, racial inequality, segregation of schools, massacres and other abuses against native people are forgotten.  The sins of our modern imperialistic aggression and global hegemony are downplayed.  “It’s ‘merica, baby, land of the free, home of the brave!”

3) Religious ‘fundamentalist’ or traditional values are those out of the mainstream who claim to represent God’s will and freely judge all people—especially those outside of their own sub-cultural group.  These self-proclaimed sanctimonious gatekeepers to the realm of moral truth annoy everyone who doesn’t share their own interpretations.  People call them the “Bible-thumpers” and they come with a “holier then thou” attitude that is a major turn off to those outside their own cult.

They pose as authorities on spiritual matters.  However, their knowledge doen’t seem to know much beyond their proof-texting and dogmas.  They use “the Bible says” and selectively quote the Old Testament when it suits their own agenda.  But gloss over and don’t deal honestly with other culturally inconvenient Biblical realities like captured brides, naked prophets and daughters sacrificed in God’s name.

They make fun of the sensitivity of the progressives and then cry “persecution” when they themselves are opposed.  They feel entitled to a special privileged position in society as God’s favorites.  They use grace as a cover for their own sins without extending the same to those who sin differently or disagree.

4) Faithful ‘Spirit And In Truth’ followers are those who pick up the cross and live to be a consistent example of self-sacrificial love.  These are those who seek to be the literal embodiment of Jesus Christ. This means they follow his commandments to love their neighbors as themselves, to do unto others as they would have them do for us and, while seeking to purify themselves of evil, leave judgment outside to God. 

It is a way that doesn’t seek power to impose on others and instead is committed to self-sacrificial love and leadership by example.  It is the beautiful alternative to the endless cycles of reaction, retaliation and repeat again.  It forgives and frees others of their sin debt to us.  It builds a new identity in Jesus and is a truth that is lived more than preached.

How are Christian values different from progressive values?

There are some similarities.  Jesus broke from the established religious and cultural standard.  He identified with the societal outcasts and was full of compassion for hurting people. 

But Jesus did not turn to more law or greater regulation of offending behavior as the solution.  He did not urge a political fight or demand his voice be heard by government authorities.  He did not lead massive protests against the privileged and powerful.  Instead Jesus showed the example to follow, he offered his own life as atonement for the sins of others and forgave offenses.

How are Christian values different from ‘traditional’ American values?

There are many who characterize America as a ‘Christian’ nation and really do a disservice to the truth in this.  America does have some ‘Christian’ values reflected in its history and did certainly provide a haven of religious freedom. 

However, this conveniently glosses over the fact that founding fathers were not faithful.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, cut out portions of the Bible he found disagreeable.  Ben Franklin lived immorally according to a Christian standard. 

The individualism, materialism and entitlement mentality of modern America is not in the least bit reflective of the teachings of Jesus.

How are Christian values different from religious and Biblical fundamentalist values?

Oftentimes it seems those who are closest to the truth who are the furthest away.  Or, at least, this was the case with those who inherited the Scripture in Jesus day and thought of themselves as experts in morality.  But human efforts, even the most diligent of human efforts, cannot bring anyone a step closer to the truth. 

The truth, as found in Jesus, is not an accumulation of knowledge and careful application that leads to moral superiority.  No, the way of Jesus is acknowledgement of our inability—it is humble, repentant and is fully dependent on the grace of God.

Putting down Peter’s sword

We could have everyone forced to use the ‘right’ restroom without accomplishing anything more than Peter’s sword:

“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away!  Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?'” (John 18:10-11)

Peter thought he was defending the truth and mission of Jesus, but actually stood in the way of God’s plan.  Peter, who was rebuked on several occasions for his lack of understanding and overzealousness, treated the servant as sword practice.

By contrast, the John’s account treats the man Peter wounded as a unique individual with a name: Malchus.  And, in a parallel account (Luke 22:51) Jesus demonstrates a different way, he heals the ear of Malchus—a man sent to bring him to his death—and showed the true Christian value.

Peter was fighting a losing battle.  He had his own vision different from that of Jesus.  He thought he was defending truth when in reality he was a part of the problem.  He thought his act was one of total commitment to the cause when it was in fact the opposite.

Peter’s act is perfect a metaphor of what happens when those of us who claim faith in Jesus go out militantly defending our own religious values with political force—we cut off ears.

And picking up the cross to follow Jesus…

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  ‘Never, Lord!’ he said.  ‘This shall never happen to you!’  Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.'” (Matthew 16:21-23)

Here Peter was completely willing to fight for the kingdom of God, but for his enthusiasm is called small minded, a stumbling block and mouthpiece for Satan.

Can you imagine how Peter felt? 

Jesus continues…

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?'” (Matthew 16:24-26)

This was not what Peter or the other disciples had in mind.  They pictured themselves as co-rulers of a worldly kingdom and had been arguing things like who would sit on the right hand of Jesus on his earthly throne when they finally defeated Rome.

But Jesus paints a picture entirely different.  He’s predicting his death, a painful and humiliating death on a Roman cross, while urging them to follow the same path of self-sacrificial love.  He was trying to explain a reality bigger than their worldly political visions and values.

What are Christian values?

Jesus, after being baptized, after receiving the Spirit’s anointing and being tempted in the wilderness, announced the start of his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:18-19)

That is where we start.  That is Christian values in a nutshell. 

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already…”  (John 3:17-18)

That’s the good news.   Jesus didn’t come to condemn anyone, but to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, forgive impossible debts, reconcile relationships with God and bring freedom to those condemned to death.  It was a message of restoration and hope, not condemnation.

Christian values begin and end in living out the example of Jesus Christ.  Jesus was not a progressive, not a defender of cultural status quo nor a religious fundamentalist, his values were higher and spiritual.  He was not seeking legal power or political advantage so he could impose on others, that wasn’t his fight.

“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.'”  (John 18:36)

Having Christian values means one shares the same priorities as Jesus.  It means talking up the cross of self-sacrificial love and showing the way of grace.  Jesus was not a cultural warrior seeking to impose values by force of law or a sword, instead he is an advocate for those lost in sin. 

Ultimately it doesn’t matter what restroom your neighbor uses, that is an argument where both sides lose and a distraction. What matters is how our own attitudes and actions reflect those of Jesus Christ. 

We must put our rhetorical swords down. We must love our (political) enemies and heal rather than cut off ears.