The Beautiful City of Baguio

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It was a great relief to finally meet Charlotte.  We met outside the terminal in Manila and to accompany on the final part of my journey to Baguio.  I had left central Pennsylvania at 4 p.m. (EST) on Christmas day for a four-hour drive to NYC, boarded the Korean Air 747 (after navigating the check-in procedures at JFK) a little after midnight, arrived in Seoul about 5 a.m. (their time) and arrived in the Philippines around noon.

It was dark when we finally arrived in Baguio, a city with an altitude of 5000 feet (nearly as high as Denver, CO) and a history tied to U.S. colonialism.  Baguio, with a population of several hundred thousand, was established in 1900 by the Americans as a refuge from the searing Manila heat.  It is dubbed the “summer capital of the Philippines” because of the cooler temperatures found there and remains a popular Filipino destination.

The many lights dotting the hills were a beautiful sight as we rolled around the bend.  The weather was very pleasant when we waited at the bus stop for Charlotte’s uncle (Roland) to pick us up and take us to one of those houses perched on the side of the mountain.  Soon I was carrying my bags up, around and through the twists and turns that led to my home of the next few days.  It was strange crawling into bed that night realizing the day was just starting where I came from.

Baguio overview….

One of the best views in the city was from the apartment of Charlotte’s parents and that is where the following pictures were taken.  It was truly a spectacular view, there is no camera lens in the world that can possibly capture the color and depth, you’ll have to go there if you really want to appreciate the fullness.  But, for a small taste…

In the city…

We went to various locations around the city over the next few days.  There are various government buildings, markets with hundreds of vendors selling all manner of things, Burnham park in the heart of the city, McDonalds (and other US franchises) and a huge mall…

Transportation…

Driving presents a unique challenge, given the steep grades, busy roads and lack of parking available.  The roads into the residential parts of the city are too narrow at many points for two cars to comfortably pass and, in those cases, the car going down usually yields to the one climbing the hill.  Adding to the required skill is that most vehicles there have manual transmissions.

Oh, and everything is diesel powered, including many of the late model Ford Rangers that I loved so much.  Toyota, however, seems to be the favorite of the local population and the Tamaraw FX is everywhere.  Of course, then there’s the Jeepneys for public transportation, a vehicle that resembles a Willys Jeep that got stretched and turned into a piece of mobile artwork.  There was even a Ford Mustang (look closely at the last picture in this series) making its way through traffic in Baguio…

Trip to lowlands…

To celebrate New Year’s day the family loaded up and headed down to a resort in the lowlands.  That took us down Kennon road, past the Lion’s head and eventually to the Hundred Islands National Park where we loaded up for the boat tour.  That was a wonderful time of picnics, swimming and time together.  It was also an introduction to a slightly different version of Filipino life and a place where little motorcycles with sidecars (or “tricycles” as they called them) ruled the roads…

Igorot heritage…

The more fascinating parts of my visit to Baguio was learning about the local culture.  The Igorot people, who make up most of the Baguio population, were farming in the mountains there long before the Europeans arrived and still celebrate this unique heritage…

Family…

There was one thing more wonderful than anything else and that being the warm welcome.  I was treated as family and felt right at home.  In fact, it made me think about how truly deficient we are of this kind of true connection in the U.S.  Real wealth is not having an accumulation of stuff, real wealth is being a part of a family and loved…

The “culture shock” for me came upon my return to the U.S. and being alone again in Marriott room provided in Atlanta where we were diverted less than an hour from landing in NYC.  Sure, I didn’t need to use a bucket and water scoop to shower or flush the toilet, but I missed being called “Tito” (uncle) by children wanting my attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the wide open spaces of Pennsylvania and did miss my Ford Focus too.  However, I could see myself going back to Baguio.  There are plenty of seats on a 747 if any of you wish to join me!

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My Departure From the Ethnic Church

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Like many other things not appreciated until they are gone, there was a time when the unique character of the church of my youth was something I had mostly taken for granted.

You see, that church, unlike some other Mennonite churches, had many surnames not typically found within the denomination.  We had Cordermans, Gelnetts, Fiedlers, Schrocks, Schooleys and Rovenolts—all of them “community” people who decided to become Mennonites.

Over the years that near even split of Mennonite-borns and “community” people has slowly faded.  The non-Mennonite names displaced and replaced as more transplants arrived following cheaper land prices and a better place than Lancaster County to raise their families.

The original church, started a few decades before my birth, had been the result of a Summer Bible School program.  A group from Lancaster County drove several hours north and set up camp on the grounds of a small one room public school.

Eventually several young couples involved decided to move into the area where they held the summer program.  They purchased the little old school house and started the “East District Mennonite Church” with Lester Miller ordained as pastor.

That church, the one with Lester at the helm, is the one that had a greater focus on the local community and was basically a family of misfits.  As far as Mennonite churches go it was a very welcoming place and I believe still retain that reputation today.

However, over the years (since the time Lester moved back to Lancaster and with the influx of “cradle Mennonites” who didn’t necessarily share that original vision of outreach) there has been a subtle shift—a reverting back to a mostly ethnic church full of those who cater only to their own families.

What is an ethnic church and when is it a problem?

It used to irk me, coming from the mixed background congregation that I did, when people would describe Mennonites as being an “ethnic church” and unwelcoming to outsiders.  My response would be that Mennonites aren’t the only church with a distinct ethnic flavor and that my own church was diverse.

Truth be told, ethnic diversity isn’t a necessary ingredient for a vibrant local church either.  I would expect that a church in China would have mostly those of ethnic Chinese background and a church in central Pennsylvania to have mostly German or other Caucasian origin.  Most historical churches were made of those who shared an ethnic identity and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of local flavor.

Unfortunately these ethnic lines, when they come at the expense of a universal and united church, become antithetical to the Christian tradition left to us by the Apostles.  We are supposed to all be one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) rather than divided up by differences of gender, social status and ethnic background.

Ethnic division, very often linked together with sectarian or denominational distinctions, is a great weakness of the North American church.  Instead of local community is being unite into one church, as was the case in the early church, we hold onto our own racial and cultural identities.  We put ourselves first, our own ethnic families, over unity in the Spirit.

American churches are “intellectual ghettos” as well.  We separate over political ideologies, theological perspectives, traditional versus contemporary preferences and, in the case of Mennonites at least, over the most trivial bits of application.  This multitude of churches all claim to Jesus as Lord and yet each prioritize preservation of their own cultural “echo chamber” and focus on insulating themselves from any real challenge of their ideas.

What would Jesus say about ethnic churches in diverse communities?

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

That might be hyperbole.  It was addressing an audience that place great value on ethnic and family identity.  It seemed to contradict prior teaching that put emphasis on tribe and caring for one’s own first.  Nevertheless it is something Jesus said and something we ought to contemplate as it applies to our own times.

Did Jesus come to establish a church divided in so many ways?  Would he approve when people living in the same geographic area drive past multiple churches to find one that suits their own personal preferences?  At very least, is it appropriate to “plant” a new church in a town where there are already multiple options?

At some point there needs to be some introspection.  If the church you are in does not reflect the demographics of the local community you should ask why that is.  Was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ was about people congregating with people ethnically and otherwise similar to themselves?  Were newly converted Greeks required to live by traditional Jewish religious standards?

I’ll let this be the answer to that last question…

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.  You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? […] Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2‭-‬7‭, ‬11‭-‬12 NIV)

Strong words.

When we put our own ethnic and religious tribe above loving as Christ taught then we are like those whom Paul wished would cut themselves off completely.

Finding the universal church…

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. “ (Ephesians 4:4‭-‬6 NIV )

The divided western church does not represent the ideals expressed by Jesus or the Apostles.  What it does represent is our cultural value of independence over unity in Christ.  It is because we value our own ethnic groups and our own idiosyncrasies of practice over the love for the whole family of God.  It is because we are unwilling to “hate” our own families in order to find greater unity together in the Spirit.

There would no doubt be a blessing for those who gave up their own religious cultural and personal hang ups in obedience to their Lord who said to put love for his church first.  My own will to do that was crippled for many years by my want to feel loved, accepted and desired in my ethnic church.  In had placed being Mennonite above being Christian and truly loving my neighbors despite our differences.

I’ve recently started to go to a church that has members from many denominational backgrounds.  Yes, there are some of the “cradle” types who bring their own ethnic and cultural flavor to the group.  And, yes, I do need to drive past a couple other churches to get there.  But the mix is more representative of the surrounding community and the welcome I’ve received there reminds me of a little church that I once knew.

Cultural Problems: How the Real Slim Shady Became President

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I would be tempted to quote entertainment mogul Shawn Carter (aka Jay Z) who once told the world about his ninety-nine problems, but he uses a word that degrades women and it shouldn’t be repeated here.

Carter’s “99 problems” came to my mind, I admit because I’ve been a consumer of his products and also that of his cohorts.  Music and movies, from many producers, have been a part of my life and undoubtedly had an influence too.  I can still remember listening to Eminem (Marshall Matthers III) rap about using drugs, abusing homosexuals, killing his wife, etc.

It might seem strange that a straight-edge Mennonite kid from rural Pennsylvania would find anything in common with violent and hate-filled lyrics.  I could lie and pretend it was all for sake of amusement and didn’t reflect anything of my own character.  But, truth be told, even knowing nothing of a rough life in the ghetto, and having no animosity towards police or Sir Elton John, the words resonated with my own deep feelings of anger and frustration at the time.

Eminem actually offered some good insight into his lyrics.  He was right when he concluded a musical social commentary with the following words: “I guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us…”  That is probably what made his music so popular.  People could identify with him.  He gave a voice to millions, especially underprivileged young men who were tired of being told how to think and worrying about the correct political language to use and just wanted to let loose.

The Two-way Street Between Artist and Audience

Hollywood producers and musical executives often hide behind this idea that their art merely reflects what is real.  That is their way of washing their hands of responsibility and it seems reasonable enough considering what I’ve just confessed about my own inner struggles.  However, that is only half true, the whole truth is that their creative expression also shapes our world or we would not call it creative—what resonates or reflects can also help to shape and influence.

The entertainment industry is well-aware of their social influence.  True, we reject their most heavy-handed efforts.  I could care less about what Matt Damon thinks about gun violence, Brokeback Mountain didn’t tempt me in the least, and, sorry Dr. Dre, I still have no hate for police.  I take full responsibility for my own less than wholesome thoughts and wrong attitudes.  Nevertheless, I use the word “problems” and somehow Jay-Z comes to my mind.

Movies, music and other media are intended to influence and most definitely do have influence.  Sure, watching The Matrix didn’t cause anyone to go on a murderous rampage, but is it only coincidence that a mere month after this film was released two boys wearing long dark trench coats killed 13 of their classmates in Columbine High School?  Could it be they were partially inspired by a scene where two characters wearing long dark trench coats enter a building lobby and gun down everyone?

Again, individuals should be held accountable for their own actions.  But the same also goes for those who create content and play a significant role in defining popular culture.  Quentin Tarantino’s blood lusts might be portraying Nazis, Antebellum Southerners, or any of the others we have decided it is okay to completely dehumanize, but he can’t decide how others will apply the moral framework he presents and should probably think a bit more about unintended consequences of his violent ideations.

Writers, musicians, actors, artists, directors, executives, commentators, professional athletes, television hosts, and others employed in the entertainment industry are out to recreate this country in their own image.  And, many of them, in their race to profit off of the lowest common denominator, have shown themselves lacking in good moral judgment and need to take more credit for the results of their work.  Many have made their billions by promoting moral turpitude, have created an audience to consume their filth, and yet then are outraged that a vulgar man is elected President?

The entertainment media was all beside themselves recently with excitement when Eminem went off on an explicit rant parroting common accusations against Trump.  In breathless headlines he become a heroic figure, a part of their resistance, and suddenly relevant again.  I guess it doesn’t matter that he helped to condition a whole generation to think it is funny to degrade women and minorities?  He made dirty locker room talk seem tame by comparison.

Hollywood Hypocrisy Has Been Exposed

“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” (Luke 12:2‭-‬3 NIV)

Those within the media echo chamber might not see the hypocrisy yet many Americans do and are tired of sanctimonious multi-millionaire celebrity elites telling them what to think, how to vote, or who should lead them.  The rebellion is on, the plebs have started to tune out your lectures years ago when the double standard became too big to ignore, and it is time for some serious introspection.

When Larry Flynt, a purveyor of sleaze, gets on his high horse, and again offers millions to find dirt on the Donald, does he ever consider repenting of his own immorality first?

Then we have Harvey Weinstein, a prominent figure in Hollywood, a wealthy Hillary Clinton supporter, and known sexual predator.  I say known because his behavior was apparently common knowledge amongst media elites and ignored.  For whatever reason, perhaps because of shared political ideology or cash payoffs and career opportunity or fear of their own sins coming to light, for years and years nobody spoke out publically against him:

“Weinstein’s behavior was reportedly an open secret in the circles in which he ran, which includes entertainment and politics. So much so, in fact, that shows like NBC’s “30 Rock” openly referenced his predatory habits. Twice. The comedian Seth McFarlane also referred to Weinstein’s abusive nature during the 2012 Oscar nominees announcements. Despite all of this, Clinton maintains she knew nothing about the producer’s appetites.”

I guess what we deem to be “deplorable” depends on who does the crime.  If Joe Paterno and everyone at Penn State should be held responsible for Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of young boys, does that mean everyone in Hollywood and the media (who buried Weinstein’s transgressions) be held to the same standard?  Is it time to investigate the Clinton campaign to find out what they knew and when?

Those questions will be answered in time.  I personally do not know the circumstances or various actors involved well enough to render any judgment.  But there are many who should probably think carefully about what they say in condemnation of others.

Weinstein, perhaps in a bid to deflect attention from his own sins (or in a failed effort to garner the support of other progressive elites) said he would target his anger at the NRA.  The absurdity of this, a man in an industry that hides behind the first amendment (apparently only angry for getting caught) targeting an organization that defends the second amendment…

Maybe it is because men of his ilk have been using that script for years?

They objectify women, they glorify violence, they stir up racial animosity and then pick a scapegoat to act outraged about.  Instead of admitting their own role in the problem they would rather blame an organization that existed long before the upward trend in mass shootings of the past few decades.  They want to blame guns—nevermind the inconvenient truth that actual machine guns were completely legal until 1986 and long before this precipitous increase in violence.  It is time they stop deflecting and blame shifting and take ownership of their part of the problem.

Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Disease

Sorry, Hollywood hypocrites, many of those who consumed your entertainment (and found their own inner Slim Shady) also voted for the candidate who spurned cultural conventions in his rise the top and waved his middle finger in the air like he just didn’t care. In other words, he is just a slightly different version of you.

Trump is merely the first politician to take full advantage of the shift in American values.  He did not create the culture, he didn’t even create the character he is playing—we can thank Mike Judge, the movie Idiocracy and President Comacho for the inspiration.  So, if you really want to defeat Trump, start by addressing those privileged elites who lowered our cultural standards, encouraged the abandonment of traditional values, and created an audience primed for a vulgarian to lead them.

It is time we stop privileging a few with ready-made excuses.  It is time to stop lambasting only those who help our political ends and ignoring the problems of our own side.  We all share some of the blame for the society we together have created, we all need to take a long hard look at where we are headed and how our own actions contribute to the problem.

Mennonite Values and Love That Transcends Difference

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The other day it occurred to me that many of my most faithful Mennonite friends married across divisions of ethnicity and race.  In fact, three out of the three friends I was with yesterday are married to women who were born in foreign countries and later became US citizens.

Interracial marriage is not unusual in modern America anymore.  A full 17% of newlyweds in the United States married across racial or ethnic lines according to Pew Research Center.  This has been a steady trend for many decades and with this increase in interracial marriages the stigma has decreased—only a small percentage of Americans remain opposed to marriages across racial lines.

Mildred and Richard Loving who, in 1967, refused to be separated even when facing prison time.

Mennonites have tended to lag behind the general population in many regards and this is one of those areas.  It was only a few years ago that my Mennonite pastor (educated at Bob Jones University where interracial relationships were banned until the 1990’s) cautioned me against this kind of relationship citing cultural differences.  It is probably safe to assume that his views are not unusual in the conservative end of the Mennonite denomination.

Have Mennonites have began to catch up with the mainstream?

I know that interracial dating was unusual and even discouraged in the Mennonite church of my youth.  That is why my realization about so many of my friends being married interracially was astonishing to me.  I’m not sure if it is only a local anomaly or a general across-the-board trend.  However, I do know that there were very few others in the conservative Mennonite church when I was in a romantic relationship with a black woman just over a decade ago.

Some of it could be explained by inner-city outreach projects.  Typically Mennonites have been raised in rural parts of the country and sheltered from non-Mennonites.  My own experience was slightly different due to my public school education, which likely made me more open to relationships outside of my own ethnic group (my first real crush was not a Mennonite or white girl) and yet many of my religious peers caught up with a bit of exposure to the world outside their ethnic enclaves.  Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church (in Brooklyn, New York) accounts for many of the relationships across racial lines that I know about in the more traditional end of the denomination.

But, before anyone gets too excited, this does not mean attitudes have changed much with most conservative Mennonites.  I have heard many young men (who likely have not met too many girls besides their sisters or cousins) state that they would not be interested in dating a girl of a different race.  It is probably even less acceptable for a Mennonite female to marry outside her ethnic fold, and many of the couples in interracial relationships do not remain Mennonite.

Generally one cannot deviate too far from the Mennonite cultural norm and expect to be embraced.  It was hard enough for me, a Mennonite guy with some unorthodox views, to find a girl born in a Mennonite home that would give me the time of day.  I could not imagine being a convert from outside trying to get a date with someone of a popular family with an established Mennonite pedigree.

Mennonites barely have the faith to ask or date anyone—let alone someone who doesn’t meet a long list of qualifications, race and ethnicity likely included.

Why do some Mennonites marry across racial or ethnic lines?

One thing my friends have in common is that they married older.  I do not see them as purposefully trying to find girls from a different ethnic group or race either.  Most of them are down to earth and practical guys who found a girl who gave them a chance and connected with them.  It seems that girls from non-Mennonite background are more willing to be friends first, are less driven by impossible purity culture ideals, and much more appreciative of a guy who treats them with respect—even if he is not tall, smug or otherwise full of himself…

By all appearances, those Mennonites marrying across racial lines are not trying to make a political statement.  Ironically, the virtue-signaling types (the most outspoken cradle Mennonites about racial issues) seem to marry the whitest and then preach to everyone else about about being more accepting of immigrants, etc.  Those actually marrying across racial lines, on the other hand, are doing it for pragmatic reasons and real love for the person they married rather than to be superior to anyone else or prove anything about themselves.  And that’s not to say my friends will not defend their wives and children from racists—they might not be vocal or making a show of it, but are solid men and their loved ones not to be trifled with.

Those who married across racial lines seemed motivated truly by love.  They would have likely also married someone of their own ethnicity or race had the right circumstances come along.  But, that said, they are extraordinary, they married out of a love that could transcend superficial differences and therefore their relationships have a potential others do not.  They were willing to go outside of the conventional ideals of their parent’s generation, even of their religious peers, and may have even faced some extra resistance along the way.  That may be why they are some of the most loyal, caring and mature people that I know—they are simply willing to go in love where others have not.

My recommendation to those on the fence…

Those advising against interracial dating often don’t have a clue what they are talking about.  Yes, there are differences to overcome, but that is also true of any committed relationship and it certainly is not reason to quit before you started.  Go on some dates, find out if your personalities compliment or collide and then decide your next step—is that really too difficult or complicated?

It does not seem that my friends who married interracially regret their choice.  I do know there are a number of those who married ethnic Mennonites who have had second thoughts.  Indeed, sometimes those seemingly perfect candidates (according to Mennonite cultural ideals) are not what they appear to be at first glance and pleasing their near-impossible standards can be a real headache.  So, if it is a choice between being taken for granted by some entitled brat or more fully appreciated by someone who has seen real struggle in their lives, isn’t the right choice obvious enough?

Take my advice guys.  Stop pining for that girl that snubbed your first inquiry.  If she didn’t see your interest in her as reason enough to go on a date or two, then she isn’t worth any more of your time.  Quit being a pathetic lapdog.  That will only feed her sense that you have nothing to offer her (that she can’t already have) and further convince her that she is out of your league.  Be a man, go where you are needed in the world, be a real leader, move on.

For those girls who have never been asked, same deal.  Broaden your horizons, stop trying to please people who don’t lift a finger on your behalf, and you might soon find there are many faithful Christians who don’t have a familiar Mennonite surname.

Godly character, not skin color or religious pedigree, is what makes a marriage work.

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

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Jesus may have said his yoke is easy.  But it is not easy for someone born and raised outside the Mennonite culture to become Mennonite—especially not a woman who does not fit with our traditional ideals.

But conservative Mennonites are not the only ones that demand conformity to a list of cultural expectations.  Fundamentalist sects all have their fundamentals, their own special set of rules, cultural expectations, or doctrinal essentials that they use as tests for membership.

For example, a very sincere and sweet Christian friend of mine was asked about her view of Once Saved, Always Saved.  Her questioner, someone who believes in eternal security, did not like her answer and now counts her as lost.  To them salvation depends on our ability to parrot a theological position, a work of the mind, and no nuances are allowed.

And these false dichotomies, based on personal opinion, exist at all levels.  If your hermeneutic allows for some flexibility interpreting the creation narrative of Genesis, then Ken Ham (including his partner in self-promoting pseudo-scientific dogmatism, Bill Nye) will insist that you should be an agnostic.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.

The text…

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.  You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:13‭,‬15)

Jesus confronts the religious elites, who had positioned themselves as the final arbiter of truth, and he rudely knocks them off their pedestal.  He confronts them for shutting people out who might otherwise enter and says they make those few they do convert “twice the child of hell” as that they are.  That is a shocking reproach for those who are diligently religious.

Missionary service is typically unquestioned and perhaps that is because many of us feel guilt for not doing enough ourselves?  But missionaries get no free pass from Jesus; on the contrary, he rebukes them even more severely and describes them as being counterproductive.  I hope, after considering that, it goes without saying that missionary service can be a false indication of sincere faith and love for God.

There are many reasons why a person might want to be a missionary other than pure love for God and other people.  Traveling, in our day and age, is fun and many enjoy the adventure.  There are also the duty-bound “do-gooder” religious types, motivated more by fear than love.  But there is an even more insidious reason why a person may choose to be a missionary service, and that is the power over others it offers:

1) Power of peer respect: There is no question that being a missionary is considered honorable amongst religious people.  It draws positive attention.  Those who have served in a visible way are often given special praise and in my church it is almost a prerequisite to being ordained.  It can become a basis for ranking members of the church into higher and lower tiers.  When used that way, it goes directly against the admonition of Jesus to be a brotherhood of equals ealier in his sermon.

2) Power of material resources: I know missionaries who go out like Jesus sent his disciples (Mark 6:7-13) in the power of the Spirit and with little more the shirts on their backs.  Unfortunately, we do not embody that kind of faith anymore.  Our missionaries rely on the power of their own calculations and often with enough resources to live comfortably beyond the reach of the people they are trying to evangelize.  This can create a situation where people serve the missionaries’ whims for no reason other than attaining access to their resources.  Being treated as royalty can also be gratifying to those who hold this power.

3) Power to be a religious gatekeeper: Everyone, including the religious elites condemned by Jesus, believes they are right, and that sanctimonious feeling can be the basis to becoming an evangelist.  Recently a friend shared the testimony of Megan Phelps-Roper who was raised in Westboro Baptist Church and joined in their protests as a child.  It was through conversation with the “other side” that she realized her spirit was wrong and repented.

Unfortunately, there are many who never do get knocked off their pedestal, never do humble themselves in the light of God’s grace, and do damage to the cause of Christ.  They position themselves as the final arbiters of truth, as gatekeepers to the kingdom with the licence to shut people out, and the words of Jesus apply to them just as much as they did to the religious elites in the original audience.

Knowledge can become a barrier to truth when it leads to dead religion rather than following in faith.

We shut people off from the truth when we center our faith on our own religious “knowledge” rather than on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  These “all or nothing,” black-and-white propositions are a distraction from the substance of Christian faith.  Obsession on theological minutia causes confusion rather than bringing clarity, and our additional requirements take away from the simple truth of the Gospel message:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”  For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9‭-‬13)

We should remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they took issue with someone speaking in the power of Jesus’s name outside their exclusive club:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49‭-‬50)

It should be noted that in the verse just prior to this, the disciples were having an argument over who amongst them would be greatest.  Jesus answers them by bringing a child beside him and declaring that whoever would be most welcoming to that child in his name would be greatest.  I’m guessing that child wasn’t 100% theologically correct.

We should serve others in truth of self-sacrificial love and in humility rather than in superiority of knowledge.

There are many who go out in the strength of their own knowledge.  They never do comprehend the significance of God’s grace, and are blind though they think they see:

We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1b‭-‬3)

Some say it is the thought that counts.

It is also said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But before we say or think too much, we should take heed of what Jesus said and consider it a warning against an idea that our salvation comes from our religious diligence or right ideas.  Instead we must be an example of the grace shown to us while we were yet dead in our sins.

We need to hold the door open for those wishing to enter and lower the threshold, rather than trip them up with our own pet doctrines.

We are not called to be gatekeeper; instead, we are called to serve in love and humility.

Let’s let God be the final arbiter of truth.

Why Purity Culture Must Be Kissed Goodbye

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Those who are sincerely wrong are oftentimes the hardest to convince otherwise. Those who are the most sincere are also the most emotionally invested in their own position. This investment can lead to blinding confirmation bias and prevent a person from seeing the truth when it is staring them in the face.

The problem with many people raised in religious purity cultures is that they are very sincere and yet extremely misguided. Many in these cultures are convinced that their salvation is something they earn through their diligent efforts to please God and their own righteousness. Sadly, this is a complete misunderstanding of God’s grace and a form of false religion that will leave a person lost as ever despite their sincere efforts.

People often think of purity culture as it applies to romantic ideals. (And it does wreak havoc there.) However, purity culture is a religious mindset that goes far deeper than our courtship practice. It is a perspective that hurts everything we do as a church. It makes us less effective as evangelists and missionaries. It undermines the concept of church as a family and leads to division. The purity culture has produced a bitter fruit because it is based completely in human reasoning rather than God’s word.

A bold claim?

Let’s compare and contrast purity culture to the actual example of Jesus and what his ministry established:

#1) Purity culture externalizes blame for sin, but Jesus taught that defilement comes from the inside.

Many people blame external factors for the choices they make. This can be used as an excuse for sin. It is also used as justification for a long list of safeguards and arbitrary religious standards intended to preserve or protect a form of purity. They reason that since sin is a product of outside influences, they therefore must require people conform to their own rules and shelter their children carefully for fear they will be contaminated.

Obedience to rules of outward appearance and ritual purity pleased the Pharisees who trusted their Bible based tradition, but it did not please Jesus:

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!'”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.'”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. (Matthew 15:1-11)

The Pharisees, like their modern day religious purity culture counterparts, put their hope for salvation in their ability to maintain an outward distinction between themselves and others.

But Jesus was unimpressed.

First he points out their hypocrisy for neglecting weightier matters and then he goes on to explain something that many still miss today: Our defilement comes from something spiritual within us and therefore our purity cannot be preserved by external or physical means.

#2) Purity culture creates walls of separation between people, but Jesus removed barriers and bridged divides.

Purity culture teaches defilement comes from an outside physical source and it is for that reason those indoctrinated into this system are obsessed with maintaining physical separation as a means to protect themselves or their children from sin. But Jesus completely defies this kind of thinking:

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:37-39)

This was considered scandalous by the self-righteous and sanctimious religious people then. It would also be seen as a scandal in many churches today. Even the disciples (Judas especially) found cause to question the appropriateness of Jesus allowing this kind of behavior.

Can you imagine?

A single man, a leader in the church, being touched by a woman, and a sinful woman at that!?! Outrageous, right?!?

I do not need to imagine the raised eyebrows and expressions of concern. I know them all too well. We would never allow such a thing in my own church tradition. We segregate practices like foot washing and the kiss of peace for fear of impure thoughts. It is because we believe that defilement is something that comes through our physical contact (like a grade schooler’s aversion to cooties) and do not actually follow the example of Jesus.

Ironically, those who view any meaningful relationship across gender lines outside courtship as dangerous (or see any and all physical touch as a prelude to sexual behavior) are as guilty of a the same hypersexualized view as those in the world whom they condemn. They may be outwardly pure according to an arbitrary religious standard, but they have an unhealthy obsession with sex and a fear born of their own impure thoughts. Purity cultures are fertile ground for sexual abuse.

#3) Purity culture avoids ‘the world’ as to appear righteous to religious peers, but Jesus made his place amongst the sinners.

Purity cultures build walls to physically seperate people. Those in this type of culture, not recognizing that sin originates in the heart, believe there is safety in the guard rails they create to protect themselves against sin and worldly contamination. But Jesus directly opposed this mindset, he confronted those who promoted it by exposing them as hypocrites (or only outwardly pure) and led by a completely different example:

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

Those who were influenced by the modern purity culture ought to read the book of Hosea as Jesus told their religious forebears to do.

They should look for themselves and try to determine what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means as applied to their own mentality. If more did take this recommendation of Jesus seriously it would make a dramatic change in their perspective. It could shift their focus from a ritual religious devotion to something altogether different.

#4) Purity culture attempts to manipulate God through religious devotion, but Jesus taught to authentic worship is showing true love to other people.

Purity culture, no matter what disguise it wears, is always an attempt to be control and manipulate rather than actually love God. It is an idea that “if I do A then God will do B” that treats God like a vending machine (where we insert our diligent religious practices then out pops a blessing) and really only an attempt to make ourselves master over God. Devotion in a purity culture is no more than a cynical calculation rather than a true commitment to love God.

This is exactly what was condemned in the book of Hosea. The charge made early in the book is “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.” Later on, the Israelites, after experiencing the consequences of their neglect of true worship, try to regain God’s favor through false repentance, say “come, let us return to the Lord” and think their going through the motions of will force God to take them back. But God is not fooled and asks like a disappointed parent: “What can I do with you… Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.”
It is at this point where the phase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” comes in and we get to the heart of the matter: The Israelites, like the Pharisees after them, and our various purity cultures today, tried to please God by a devotion expressed through religious practice. However, no amount of sacrifice, no amount of religious practice, and not even a life of poverty or missionary service can save anyone.

The message of Hosea seems to be that the mercy we show to others is the true measure of our love for God. Love for all people as expression of love for God is a theme throughout the teaching of Jesus. Jesus taught to “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and left his disciples with this commandment:

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

True love of God is expressed in our love towards each other and most especially out mercy shown to those who need it most. We are told to love everyone and not only those who we believe are deserving according to our own religious score card. Our love must be genuine or all of our worship and diligent religious works will be in vain.

#5) Purity culture is obsessed with righteous outward appearance, but Jesus focused on religious hypocrisy and the inner reality of hearts.

Purity cultures work overtime to maintain a superficial visual distinction between themselves and those outside of their own religious group. They take pride in their maintenance of dress standards and see themselves as better than others for their ability to conform to the expectations of their religious peers. But Jesus exposed their counterfeit faith and true shallowness:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:25-28)

Some people are able to please man-made requirements and earn themselves the praise of their religious peers for this. But this righteousness of outward appearance is not evidence of an inner heart change. It is a false security established on meeting human expectations. No amount of church attendance, missionary service, or religious devotion proves a person’s heart is pure.

Jesus taught that true faith is something that transforms a person from the inside out and is something completely dependent on God’s grace. Purity cultures get things completely reversed, they put the cart ahead of the horse (put works of the flesh before God’s grace experienced through faith) and for this reason it is impossible for them to love as Jesus did.

#6) Purity culture loves selectively with a judgmental unforgiving attitude towards outsiders, but Jesus consistently showed grace to those who needed it most.

People in religious purity cultures often do the exact opposite of what Jesus did. They judge outsiders harshly and then give themselves a pass for their own grave sins of self-righteousness and pride. Jesus, by contrast, was gentle with those outside and made them feel needed, appreciated and useful:

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ [His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.] The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ [For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.]” (John 4:7-9)

Jesus, unlike many so called ‘Christian’ evangelists today, did not try to scare the hell out of this woman. He did not condescend. But, instead Jesus made himself dependent on her (a lowly Samaritan woman) and treated her as an equal and with respect. Through this loving humility he gained opportunity explain a greater spiritual reality to her and then tactfully addressed her sin while offering forgiveness rather than condemnation.

The hellfire and brimstone Jesus preached was, without exception, reserved for the smug and sanctimious religious insiders who turned to their own righteousness for salvation. The people who had their act together according to religious standards are the ones condemed by Jesus.

Why is it that the religious can be so demeaning of those outside their tradition and yet so sensitive when criticism comes their own way?

Because they are afraid and should be, that’s why…

#7) Purity culture is motivated primarily by fear and deep down insecurity, but Jesus told us to walk steadfastly in faith and trust God with the future.

Purity cultures are negatively focused. They see only moral decay, the live in a world of slippery slopes and anxiety about the future.

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anaïs Nin)

Those who live in fear are like the men described in the book of Numbers (chapter 14) who’s pessimistic faithless outlook led to a rout and years of wandering aimlessly.

People who are extremely condemning of others are often the most insecure themselves. Those in purity cultures are so sensitive to criticism because they are attempting the impossible without God’s help and do not know the true meaning of grace.

Perhaps they think if they throw enough people into the pit of hell behind them (through their words and judgments) that God’s wrath towards them will be somehow satisfied?

At a deeper level those in a purity culture may know their own inadequacy. They fear of not being able to measure up and therefore are competitive against those of lower social status rather than truly compassionate.

Whatever the case, true faith relies on God’s grace and leads us to love rather than fear:

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

True devotion to God is born of faith that comes through grace and not human effort. It is a commitment to a love that is impossible by our own standard. The love God seeks is unreasonable and irrational by human standards. It is a divine love made possible only through means of the Spirit. It is the love of Jesus who died to save us while we were yet lost in our sin and a love that takes away our fear of not measuring up.

In conclusion, we need to rid ourselves of counterfeit faith based in human ability and embrace the truth of God’s word.

Purity cultures, because they are based in human effort, do not lead to real faith or true repentance. They do little more feed obsessive compulsive disorders on one side and arrogance on the other. Those who believe that their salvation depends on reciting the right words or reading a requisite amount of Scripture daily are more hopelessly lost than their worldly counterparts.

It is what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees and also what Paul addressed as false religion in the early church:

These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:22-23)

Purity cultures attempt to manipulate God rather than live in faith and genuinely love their neighbors. They are condemning rather than compassionate and are more concerned with what people may think than they are in true purity of love. For fear of being defiled or viewed as less pure they (unlike the good Samaritan) cross the street rather than address the needs right in front of them.

True faith runs like a man on fire to where the need for mercy is greatest. Those who walk in faith know the truth of God within them is always greater than the world and therefore fear no evil. Faith always rests in the adequacy of God and never in our own.

True purity of heart comes from being clothed in the righteousness of God.

Disposable Men: Millennial Rejection of Marriage and Mennonite Bachelors

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​We live in an age that prefers convenience over conservation.  We do not want long-term commitment to that plastic cup at the picnic over the weekend or anything else really.  Even marriage has become disposable and cheap to match the current generation.

Marriage in the conservative Mennonite community is one of those things that has not undergone this silverware to plastic transformation.  Divorce is not an option for those raised in this tradition.  However—having been otherwise assimilated into the prevailing culture—many of us are choosing to divorce from a marriage commitment altogether and remain single.

In some cases there can be abstinence from marriage for religious and other good reasons.  Paul wrote: “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man (unmarried) to remain as he is.” (1 Corinthians 7:26) That recommendation likely being for the “present crisis” of widespread persecution and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

But, the awkward unholy alliance of Mennonite and millennial values is not a Christian ideal.

In this age I suspect the choice to remain single is often selfish and simply a reflection of millennial generation values having rubbed off on us.  To many marriage seems inconvenient, it would impose on their freedom to travel the world and require maturation.  We, like other millennials, postpone our adulthood and some would rather remain perpetually childish.

There is some difference between us as conservative Mennonites and the typical millennial.  We, unlike them, are afraid to date and young women encouraged to turn down all suitors who do not fit their (or their mother’s) idealistic list of requirements.  They are convinced (and perhaps because of a culture too focused on women being submissive) not to take a risk until they simply lose interest.

You’ll note that I’ve positioned women as the gatekeepers to courtship and marriage and that’s because they are.  It is the one place in conservative Mennonite culture where they know their voice is heard.  Can we really blame a young woman, especially one raised around a patriarchal dad or controlling brothers, for being reluctant to sign away her independence?

Unfortunately her reluctance is not equally matched by male counterparts.  I know many exasperated unmarried guys who followed all the rules, who jumped through all the hoops, and have only known rejection.  A good Mennonite guy will not even get a first date unless he is judged worthy by some incomprehensible measure.

Our not choosing commitment in the present will cost our faith and future potential. 

I’m all for choice and choosing wisely.  However, that is something altogether different from choosing not to choose altogether for fear of choosing incorrectly.  There is an unbalance in favor of over-caution (or a commitment phobia) that could result in lasting consequences and serious disappointment if not addressed.  

Marriage, a relationship where Christian commitment to self-sacrificial love is tested and exampled, should not be so easily discarded.  Men, especially non-resistant men who can’t serve society as soldiers and police, have strong desire for something of tangible concrete value to protect.  Women, by contrast, can have this need to nurture fulfilled in caretaking, a career in the medical profession or elsewhere, and even profit handsomely.

A single man is often ineligible for leadership positions in the church.  Conservative Mennonite employers often offer less compensation men without families or overlook them entirely.  And, in youth obsessed American culture, his disadvantage only grows and increase in age only increases the stigma.  The married men brag from the pulpit how their lovely wife made them everything they are while the bachelor wonders why he is amongst those unworthy.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many unmarried and wanting women either.  For as many young women who got asked two dozen times and said “no” every time, there’s also probably as many who never got asked once.  It is because Mennonite guys won’t risk asking a girl who doesn’t fit their list of requirements for fear of rejection and getting a reputation for a girl they were unsure about to begin with.

Yet, in my estimation, it is unmarried men and the future of the church that are hurt most in the current paradigm.  Our culture is still traditional enough that a single woman can expect to be under the care of her parents.  She can enjoy a special flexibility whilst waiting for her white knight.  Not true of her brothers, they can’t afford to go on adventures and yet risk being judged as unspiritual for preparing for the responsibility of marriage.

Unmarried conservative Mennonite men are the most disposable.  We must be always available without complaint at a moments notice and be providers protection without compromise.  It is pathetic, actually, what men give out for free.  But to be more guarded, to carefully guard our hearts as something precious or preservable, and keep our strengths to ourselves is impermissible.  

We must be like a paper plate, an adequate stand-in performer, something wanted around for temporary use, and okay to be tossed in the trash.  And, yet, we must also live up to the traditional Mennonite male role and display the qualities of fine chinaware.

Respect your own value if you wish to be respected.

Here’s my recommendation for those single people who wish to be married and have been routinely rejected or overlooked: Stop grovelling in front of the unappreciative, open your eyes like Peter did envisioning the expansion of the church (Acts 10:9-16) and open the doors of your wedding feast to those who understand the value you intend to offer them.

Jesus spoke about not casting our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6) and not persisting with those who do not value us: “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5) We might want to consider this advice when the value of our commitment is rejected in our own communities.

Loyalty can be a fault.  There are unmarried men and women outside your own religious community who might better appreciate your Christian testimony.  So don’t waste the remainder of your virile years wondering why the ‘right one’ won’t even have coffee with you.  

God isn’t a Mennonite and, as a faithful child of God, you aren’t garbage.