Paradox of Faith and Believing Before You Believe

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A few years ago, having finally fully embraced the promises of Jesus, I set out on a journey of faith and pursued the impossible love only possible with faith.  I wanted to transcend that “it” that always kept me just short of success and finally put to rest the fear of being the servant who buried his talent.

My mom had always told me that God had saved me for a special purpose.  My name, she told me, meant strong-willed and the name was appropriate given that my first week of life was a desperate fight to survive.  But my fierce determination and persistence could not have kept me alive.  It is only because of the dedicated care of physicians (including my uncle Elam) and nurses, along with the prayers of relatives and friends, that I am writing now.

Still, that was a battle that didn’t end without some scars both physical and otherwise.  I was the late-bloomer, notably smaller than my same-age peers, often riddled with anxieties, and seemed perpetually stuck trying to catch up—but never able.  There have been many times in my life when it felt like one of those nightmares where you know what to do but your reaction is slowed and you can’t avoid the disaster.

Failure and Moving Forward

Over the years I began to doubt my mom’s words.

What great purpose could I have, a thirty-year-old living in Milton?

But, spurred by faith, I decided it was now or never; I put aside feelings of inadequacy and began to write.  I wrote a book, “Paradox of Faith,” and then started to blog here.  I decided to say “yes” when asked to speak at church and my confidence grew as a result.

However, I still wanted to trust God more; I decided to go all in on faith and reach out for something impossible for me.  I thought I should be a missionary overseas (an activity very encouraged in my church) and yet knew that it was something that I would need some help to do.  So I prayed earnestly for a way to overcome my limitations and then reached out to those whom I trusted were my brothers and sisters in faith.

What I got in response was a cold shoulder and harsh dose of the faithless reality behind their well-polished religious facade.  Not only couldn’t they help me, but they smiled to my face then slandered me behind my back, and drove my faith into the rocks with their complete indifference.  I have to wonder how many of them realize that I’ve stopped attending their church six or seven months ago?  I’m obviously not needed there, nor do I feel especially wanted or truly cared for by most who attend there.

I hit the rocks again.

If it was not for one person, someone on the opposite side of the world, who told me, “if you go, take me with you,” I would likely have ended my life by my own hand.  But, I had helped them through their own time of despair and desperation, I believed they would be thrown back into chaos and confusion if I failed them—I could kill my own hope, but I could not rob them of theirs.  My faith had been ruthlessly murdered by those who were supposed to help it, but my precious bhest was determined to pull me back from the grave.

It has been a real struggle, despite all the good things going on in my life, to see past this failure of faith in my church.  I’ve always been a Mennonite, I wore it on my sleeve, it has been my identity both religious and cultural, where I sought acceptance and validation—but there’s no way to remain there after all that has transpired over the past couple years.

But how do you go forward when you lost your faith?

I cared and yet I didn’t.

I was angry and simultaneously indifferent.

I continued living on the outside but my hope inside was dead.

I wanted to forgive those who had hurt me—but, without faith, how was it possible?  Why would I?

One of the reasons I continued writing was because of the unconditional love of a good stranger, now my editor and friend.  They came to me like the angel that ministered to Elijah, telling me that my writing had spoken to them and offering to help.  This wonderful person offered to be my faith when I had none and didn’t abandon or harshly judge me.

I began attending a church of another older Christian tradition.  That choice was the result of a fatherly figure who came into my life about a year prior and had gained my trust with his humility.  I was amazed by his prompt and detailed answers to my inquiries.  For the first time in years I left church feeling renewed.

But then something happened.  I spooked.  I looked back and became mired in those questions nobody could answer.

I did not attend any services for a couple months.  However, a few weeks ago, because of my special someone, my bhest, telling me she needed me to be strong in faith for her, and a timely meeting with my wise fatherly friend, I decided to follow the paradoxical advice given to John Wesley who also doubted:

“Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

As someone who sought to be authentic, that advice (basically “fake it until you make it”) bothered me when I first read it years ago.  It seemed dishonest to me.  It also seemed silly and irrational.  If we must fake something being real for it to become real in our mind, then what’s the point?  Isn’t that the very definition of delusion? Why not only believe what is real instead?

But now the choice wasn’t about me anymore, it was about the one that I loved, my bhest, and to love them properly required me finding my faith again.  I could not find it in those who took it, nor produce it of myself.  I was already reaching down as deeply within myself as I could to find faith and coming up empty.  And yet, right at the right time, right before a meeting with my fatherly adviser, my mind was ready to receive some council.

We met to discuss my “God problem” and first agreed that there is no rational means to prove the existence of God.  With the mystery of God established, he broke my dilemma down to two options: 1) accept a life void of deeper meaning and purpose—nihilism, or 2) live with the assumption of something greater to come, embrace the mystery of God, and have faith.

He encouraged me to attend services again and that’s what I did.  My questions are not all answered, but with his help I’ve established the right trajectory again, and—oddly enough—my feelings of faith have begun to return as I act in faith for those whom God loves.

What is the paradox of faith?

Jesus, according to the Gospel of Mark, came upon a crowd in an uproar and asked what was going on.  A man, the father of a sick child, explained that the disciples could not heal his son.  To this, Jesus tells the crowd, “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you?” and then requested the boy be brought to him.  The father explained the boy’s condition then gave his plea:

“…if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus.  “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b‭-‬24)

This father seems to have both belief and unbelief in him.  His initial plea is so weak that Jesus repeats it back as if to test the man a bit.  At this the exasperated father beautifully expresses a contradiction that only a person who has truly ventured out in faith can know: “I do believe, so help me to believe!”

It is this father’s contradiction that has become real to me as I ventured out in faith, the deeper we go the less we can rely on ourselves and must reach for something bigger.  Here are three paradoxes of faith I have encountered:

A) True faith is acting in faith before you have faith.  Faith is setting out in a direction, even when the outcome is uncertain, often while facing controversy and even despite some self-contradiction.  Faith is not the absence of doubt.  Faith is taking the first bold step in spite of your fears, anxieties and doubts.  Faith means deviating from what is our natural inclination, letting go of our own human understanding and reaching for what is only possible with God.  Faith, from a practical standpoint, is courage in the face of the impossibility.

Faith requires different things of different people.  It could mean swallowing pride and dipping in your own version of the river Jordan like was required of Naaman.  It could mean selling all you have, giving up your awesome plans and leaving your family behind.  It could mean marriage or remaining single.  There is no one-size-fits-all prescription in faith.  But faith is never passive, nor does it mean being placid; it takes persistence, and requires that we step out of the boat, like Peter:

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:27‭-‬31)

That is an astonishing story.  Peter is both believing and disbelieving at the same time.  He challenges Jesus to prove that he is who he claims to be: “Lord, if it be you…”  Peter, bold as ever, asked for a miracle that applied to him.  There is no passivity or hesitation there, either.  Peter is willing to get out of the boat and attempt the impossible.  He is actually putting to practice the “take courage” part.  He, like the father with the sick child, is asking Jesus: “I believe, so help me believe!”

There are many religious people who avoid the humiliation of coming up empty-handed by re-branding their true faithlessness as “godly contentment” or being “realistic” or not testing God.  But the truth is that it takes no faith at all to sit on your hands, take life as it comes and do nothing.  Faith aims for the impossible at risk of failure.

You don’t have faith unless you practice faith and to practice faith means to love as Christ loved.  Faith is like a muscle that must be exercised to become strong and atrophies when unused.  The exercise of faith is to love your neighbors and especially brothers and sisters in faith.

Faith comes from praxis of faith.

B) Faith is acting in love before you feel love.  Anyone can love as the world loves.  Anyone can “fall in love” with someone who is attractive, adventurous and otherwise convenient to their own personal ambitions.  It is easy to love those who have already proven their value or have what you want, but loving only those who are like you and only because you anticipate getting something in return is not Christian love.

The church of my childhood is good at loving their own and especially good at loving those who represent their ideals.  (I know, because I am like them; I have shared their ambitions, I wanted a Mennonite wife and friends.)  But we are not good at loving those who are different.   We do not love courageously or in faith.  Sadly, with few exceptions, the love I’ve received at my church seems primarily to be a very explicable human kind of love (for biological family or for their religious cliques) and not the exceptional kind of love that transcends differences.

Why don’t we love as Jesus commanded?

The problem is when feelings lead rather than faith.  Many go through the motions of outreach and missions.  However, it is too often only a do-gooder project, a chance to prove our religious chops, a way to feel good about ourselves, and not sacrificial or done in sincere love.  The problem is not that we are bad people.  The problem is that it truly is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to love those who do not produce feelings of love within us first.  We may excuse our lack of love as “being a good steward” and wise use of resources, but could it be that we simply do not have the faith to go beyond our own calculations of another person’s worth?

We use what we know about other people as a reason not to invest in them.  We treat idioms like, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” as if they are truths.  We use our past and prejudices as guides rather than give freely to those who ask (Matthew 5:42) and trust God.  We do not act in an open-handed way towards others when we presume to know the future based on what we know of past performance.  Unfortunately, in doing this, we too often feed a self-fulfilling prophecy and are actually contributing to their failure.

The paradox?

Sometimes feelings of love come only after you practice love first.  Sometimes it is only after we have invested significantly in another person’s success that we begin to care about their circumstances.  Faithful love is not based on feelings.  Faithful love is doing more than what we are able to rationalize or justify as prudent in our own minds.  Faithful love means loving even when you may never see the results.

Faithful love is only possible for those who know that they did not deserve love themselves and act accordingly.  We were saved by grace and therefore should show grace to those who need salvation.

C) Nobody can save themselves.  Some of us can live in an illusion of independence, but even those without my traumatic birth experience needed the life support of a mother’s womb to survive and could not exist otherwise.  We are not self-creating nor self-sustaining creatures and all have gained through the work of others.  Nobody gives birth to themselves—not even a hermit in Alaska or Chuck Norris.

The same is true of our Christian life.  No man has saved themselves through their own efforts.  We cannot come to faith and remain faithful outside of Christ and the church he established.  I did not come to faith by my own efforts nor has anyone else.  Even the Bible is a written testimony of faith given, compiled, preserved, translated and interpreted by the church.  We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and this means that someone else acted graciously on our behalf to even give us a choice to act in faith.

I could get more into the theology and theory here.  But cutting to the chase…

Here’s How the Theory Played Out For Me

My own journey of faith started a new chapter a few years ago.  My faith was stronger than ever, but still could not overcome that invisible enemy that always seemed to keep me just short of success.  So, putting it all on the line, I prayed, “God, make the impossible possible for me” and believed (despite my unbelief) that faith would prevail.

But I did not sit and wait around doing nothing.  I resolved to be an answer to prayer before getting my answer to prayer.  I began to say “yes” (despite my feelings of inadequacy) and became more willing to take on new friendships with strangers that my religious peers would consider risky or dangerous.  I decided to love as I wished to be loved and not worry about my image so much.

Meanwhile, as I reached out in faith, my own hope against hope hit a wall of opposition and from the very people I had trusted to be faithful.  These were supposed to be the ones who would stand up for me, give me a chance, and show me love, but instead I got betrayal and lies.  It was confusing to me.  They would all say that they believed that the extraordinary claims of the Bible were true, but they sure didn’t act like it.

Eventually their doubts became mine.  My experience over the past few years seemed to be only a delusion.  The promises about faith written in the Bible seemed untrue; the existence of God isn’t something we can prove, and I just wanted to be free from the commitment that had just drug my heart through the mud.

Two Are Indeed Better Than One

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9‭-‬12)

It was because of the words of one very precious person that I didn’t act on my suicidal ideations.  A year before it was my turn to save them from their despair.  She was a single mother at the end of her rope, a little lost sheep, in a cold, dark, indifferent world, and not sure where to turn for help.  In her first message, after I accepted her friend request, she basically apologized and told me she was unworthy to be my friend.  My heart was instantly filled with compassion for her and I made it my mission to restore her faith.

Little did I know that a year later she would be acting as my Jesus and refusing to let go of my hand as I slipped beneath the waves.  She was my only reason not to throw in the towel on life.  I lived for her because there was nothing in myself left worth living for.  Later it dawned on me, in my faithfulness to her over the past year, I had sowed the seeds for my deliverance from despair.  In my love for her I found just enough meaning to the fight when I needed it most.

Around the time I had given up on faith, I got a friend request out of the blue.  This person, someone of admirable conviction and unusual love, was excited about something I wrote in a blog about an unnatural love only possible with faith.  Unbeknownst to them, the paradigm of faith that inspired my words was crashing and burning around me.   As much as I wanted to, I could no longer believe my own words anymore and had given up.

I more or less told this inquiring reader, albeit in different words: “the show is over, I was a peddler of nonsense, so move along now and don’t trip on the wreckage of my hopes and dreams.”  But, this new friend, instead of taking my advice, offered to be my faith, to be as Hur and Aaron who held up the hand of Moses:

As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. (Exodus 17:11‭-‬12)

They believed in the mission even when I was too exhausted to continue.  More than that, they offered the love that could only be explained by faith, they loved me through some of my most unlovable moments, and have not once failed in their commitment to be my editor.  It is probably their encouragement that kept me plugging away and writing my experience.

Angels, Transition and Forgiveness

This is where the story gets interesting.  To me, offering to edit my blogs was something only an angel would do.  So, to express my gratitude, while feeling beleaguered like Elijah in the wilderness, I announced on Facebook that I had found an “angel” and that choice of wording would become significant a couple days later.

But just before all that, not having a clue what would soon transpire, before my faith ran into a road block, I had blogged about a job transition that I knew was coming and also a premonition that something else bigger was lurking ahead.  Since posting that blog, the word “transition” had indeed been a big theme of my life.   That is why I clicked on a link about transitions that came up on my news feed.

The video, posted by a Christian friend, was one of those prophetic speakers that play to confirmation bias in the same way that fortune cookies and horoscopes do.  Basically, if you keep an insight vague enough it can be personalized by the reader and applied to almost any situation.  I’m pretty skeptical of these things and normally don’t pay too much attention.  However, the word “transition” in the title had hooked me.

I listened, nodding, as he talked about the difficulty of transition, he compared our transitioning to how an army is vulnerable when moving and explained how God would send an angel to guard over the transition.  Suddenly he had my full and undivided attention.  His advice?  He stressed the importance of forgiveness as necessary for success in the new endeavor—which is a message hit me right in the heart and, after hearing that word, forgive is what I wanted to do.

I had been given someone as an angel to guard over my transition.  I’m not sure if it is just a coincidence or not.  Maybe I’m reading meaning into it that isn’t there?  But the message was a profound reminder that the only successful way forward is the path of forgiveness.

Some Final Thoughts About Faith, Doubt, Encouragement and Love

No man, no matter how strong in faith, talented or independent can do it alone.  We need each other and often more than we know.

Maybe you are too proud to ask for help?  Perhaps you believe faith means stoicism?  If that is the case, then please consider that even Jesus wanted companionship in his hour of tribulation and that some of the most noteworthy characters in Scripture were sometimes cowards even after seeing amazing things directly from God’s hand.

If Jesus literally could not carry his cross without help, why do we think we can bear our burdens alone?

If our Savior struggled with anxieties in the garden of Gethsemane, why do we feel like we have failed because of our own fear and doubt?

There may be times when our faith is tested while we are alone and we must do our best to stand.  But that doesn’t mean we should leave others alone in their trials and tribulations.  Being a member of the body of Christ means “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26) and James tells us that our faith is expressed by how those in the church help each other:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing for their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  (James 2:14-17)

There will be times where we all stumble and fall in faith.  We should encourage each other.  Do not be impatient when someone does not respond instantly to your love.  Sometimes it takes time for the water and nutrients to soak in.  Healing does not happen overnight for those who have been abandoned or severely wounded by the betrayals and indifference of others.

Who have you encouraged today?

Who have you helped?

My prior investment in others was the only thing that gave me the will to fight on.  The investment of others in my life is the only reason I am here writing today.  Do not neglect the important work of being your brother’s keeper.  Love those nobody else loves.  Love those that are unlovely and require faith to love.

Help With My Impossible Task

The church of my youth is full of nice people; a few did call to check in and probably more do care about me than took the time to inquire.  Most of them are very decent people, in my opinion.  However, I still found myself too often feeling spiritually malnourished while with them and I can’t live with settling for mediocrity or going through the motions.  A final act of betrayal by those in the group whom I trusted most left me spiritually dead and has convinced me of a need to change.  I would not have survived had not God provided ministering angels (in human form) to guard over me and I won’t ask for that again.

Thus, I find myself needing to do the impossible.  I am forced to transition from the church where I spent nearly four decades of my life to an orthodoxy that still feels foreign to me.  It is not my first choice, it has not been easy for me, and yet it is what I must do to remain faithful.  Big chunks of my identity, if not my entire identity, were caught up in my Mennonite denomination and letting go of that is difficult.  And not just that, the church is literally full of my family members; aunts, uncles, cousins and only remaining grandparent.  Until recently it was easy and comfortable to be there just putting in time.  But I know that I must live in faith and Jesus said to leave all behind and follow him.

So, as a final request, please pray for me to have a spirit of forgiveness.  I must do the impossible and move on from the denomination that I loved, but cannot move on while hanging onto my hurts or carrying bitterness.  My sincere faith was treated as garbage, the help provided by those I regarded to be my brotherhood for years was too often given grudgingly and seemingly always too little too late.  It is hard to forgive those do not take responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof) and should do better, but…

“Father forgive them for they know not what they do!”

The Church Brotherhood Lie

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

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

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

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

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

He thought that was preposterous.

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

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

Why do Mennonites fail to deliver true brotherhood?

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

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

But honestly, that is pathetic.

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

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

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

What is true brotherhood?

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

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

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

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

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

What Christian brotherhood should be according to Jesus.

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

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

Jesus defines this command to love further:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Too Busy To Read This Blog?

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I’ve been wanting to do a blog on Mary and Martha, but I’ve been…well…busy…

It seems appropriate, with the bustle of the holiday season soon to be upon us, to talk about distraction and keeping our focus on what actually matters.  There are two Biblical characters who are notable for being in the presence of Jesus and yet too caught up in the wrong way of thinking to care.

Jesus, in defense of impractical love, confronts Martha’s distraction and disillusionment of Judas.

There are several different Biblical accounts where we see a woman (not always identified as Mary) who pours out her adoration in a way that seems irresponsible.  She is rebuked by others for it, but defended by Jesus.

Here’s the first account:

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.'” (Luke 10:38-42)

Hosting a large group of people is not easy and it is completely understandable that Martha would be annoyed.  I can imagine her, hands on hips, showing her indignation and I can also see Jesus smile as he answers.  She was so wound tight that she was not enjoying life or appreciating the moment.  Martha was stumbling through her life blinded by distractions.  Jesus gently tries to redirect her attention from the multitude of tasks that cluttered her vision back to what was truly important.

Mary, in contrast to her sister Martha, was in the moment and focused on what mattered.  It is interesting that in another Gospel account Mary is also criticized by Judas Iscariot for her use of resources, he asks: “Why wasnʼt this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a yearʼs wages.” (John 12:5)  And Jesus, seeming to prefer the impractical display of affection, rebukes Judas as he did Martha.  In both cases Jesus is endorsing the fanciful over what we would call good stewardship of time and resources.

The disillusionment of Judas leads to betrayal of Jesus.

The Gospel accounts captured a feeling of distain for this man, the writers making sure to inform us that Judas was a thief and stealing from the common purse he carried for the disciples.  He’s obviously a complex character, he was chosen as a disciple and evidently had some interest in what Jesus taught.

But we do know that Judas, whether a disenchanted social justice warrior unhappy with the lack of progress or plain greedy and in it for his own gain, was distracted by money.  He betrayed his relationships, he was stealing from his friends (hence thier distain) and ultimately died miserable, taking his own life, after betraying Jesus for a little silver.

Many men today are similarly distracted by money and betray family for business and trade true faith for some numbers in a bank account.

The judgment against men who make an idol of money or financial security at the expense of relationships will be severe.  They will lose the hearts of their children, love of their wife, and possibly forgo their only chance for salvation.

Martha was simply too busy to enjoy life and too distracted to fully appreciate Jesus.

Unlike Judas (who was serving himself despite his altruistic rationalizations) we see Martha was very busy serving others.  She seems to be an extremely duty bound person and was probably completely exhausted.  She takes out her frustration on those around her, including sister Martha and even Jesus.

We are not told how Martha responds to the correction offered by Jesus.  If she’s like some of the industrious Mennonite women I know she probably scoffed at the suggestion before scurrying away to do all those other things that couldn’t wait.  But I can also see her later contemplating what was said, learning to worry less and relax a little.

In Martha I see my own mother (sorry mom, yes I do appreciate all you do and I can’t wait for thanksgiving day) who tends to stress out about hosting people.  The house must be perfect.  She scrubs, scours, cleans, and frets, often to the perplexed amusement of other inhabitants of the household who don’t mind a little dirt so long as the food tastes good—and it always does.

In conclusion, be a Mary, do not be distracted by things that do not matter and focus on what does. 

We to live in a time packed full of activities and work more hours than generations before us so we can afford more stuff that doesn’t satisfy us in the end.  Those who aren’t successfully distracted in their business can become bitter when others seem oblivious to their own concerns.

Most of us have our heads spinning because of smart phones, work obligations and social commitments.  Even good things, things that are good in their proper place, can keep us preoccupied and spiritually disconnected.

Dutiful religious devotion, reading a few Bible verses or going Christmas carolling and volunteering at the local food bank, is not always connection with the giver of life.  To be in the presence of Jesus is to be rested fully in the Spirit of God.  It could mean quiet contemplation alone.  It could also mean putting aside that carefully arranged schedule and really listening to someone who needs a friend.

Our devotedness to God truly is not measured by the amount of tasks we complete ritualistically.  True devotion is to love as God loves—to love the sparrow that falls and love the poor child without a father even more.

The first Christmas started with an impromptu visit of a pregnant woman to a stable in Bethlehem and yet things seemed to turn out just fine.  Keep that in mind.

Show devotion by trusting God—trusting God both with the minutia of details that you can’t ever control and also with the ‘big’ things that we delude ourselves to believe are secure and really are not.  Science can’t even tell us what keeps the universe glued together, nobody is guaranteed tomorrow, so stop banking on your own abilities and…

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under Godʼs mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7)

With the holiday season upon us, be sure to contemplate where real security is found, remember what is truly important to remember, and experience the real presence of Jesus!

The Blessings Of Not Being Married As Planned

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This was not the blog I had planned.  I have two finished blogs and had told a friend I may flip a coin to choose between them.  However, I was thrown a major curve ball which has caused me to wish to delay release of those blogs to go with a third option: Write this blog and share it first.

Enjoy…

When life does not go according to plan and you end up single, like me.

My plan was to be married by twenty-one.  I’m the relationship kind of guy.  I wanted to share my life with someone special more than anything else, wanted children, and therefore had planned to be married as soon as possible.  However, my plans to marry that high school crush passed along with my twenties and, despite my heroic efforts, I remain single to this day.

Anyhow, I decided to write this blog so my single (and wanting) friends can have a reason to smile.  I’m single, it was not entirely my choice, it has been extremely painful at times, profound loneliness stinks, and yet God has been faithful.  There have been many moments of deep despair and hopelessness, but I am here to tell you that there’s reason to hope and be happy.

I’ve decided to write about the things I would have missed out on and what I would not be today had I married when I planned.  It is hard to imagine what I would be for certain today had I married young and we have no way to know that counterfactual reality of might have been, yet there are some things that I am fairly certain about.

Six things I would not be had I as a married planned:

I would not be a blogger.  You are reading this blog because I have time to write it as a single person.  Writing is something I do not completely enjoy, but it is something that seems to be a gift I have and I do it mostly as an act of faith.  This blog was started a couple years ago as a response to the questions in my mind about my purpose in life that came after a “no” from a girl who was the embodiment of a the Mennonite ideal for a wife.

I would not own an awesome car.  Earlier this year it was my privilege to buy something most married men can only dream about and that being a brand new Shelby GT350 Mustang.  Sure, we should not live our lives for such material things, but it was nice to see my hard work and diligent saving pay off in a tangible (very thrilling) way.  So, while I would trade this mechanical beast for a wife and family in a heart beat, I still enjoy the memories of many grins and the experience.

I would not know the pain of rejection.  Pain is bad, right?  Well, not entirely actually, pain is temporary and with pain comes empathy and the ability to appreciate pleasure all the more.  Sure, we avoid pain, we probably should avoid unnecessary pain, and yet pain helps me to identify with those who suffer.  More significantly, it has allowed me the privilege of a deeper appreciation and understanding of my Lord and Savior who suffered for our sins.

I would not have the unique perspective that I do.  My experience as a single person with unfulfilled desires and social needs often unmet gives me a special vision for the church.  I say unfulfilled needs thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the idea that people need deeper connection to thrive.  I can recall the many times I felt spiritually deficient, isolate from human touch and longed for a church that was more than superficially concerned.  The fact is, we were made for meaningful human connection and without it we become unhealthy.

I would have missed out on many wonderful friendships.  As part of my dealing with my own disappointment I became more open to being the answer for the needs of other people.  Because of what I had gone through it was my desire to help others in similar circumstances.  I have stepped out in faith and as a result have been very blessed.  The friendships gained would likely be impossible had I been a married man.  Investments made in Christian love for other people always seem to pay back in surprising ways.

I would not have been asked on a date.  There is a first time for everything and I had a first over the weekend.  When I wrote my last blog it was not with a clear personal agenda or self-pity.  There are some unanswered questions right now that keep me from being ready to make a serious romantic commitment.  My blog was to create awareness of an issue that is not being adequately addressed in the conservative Mennonite church that I know.  One thing for certain, I had not planned on being asked out on a coffee date by a very intriguing young woman.

But I do like my unplanned blessings and especially when they come because of faithful actions.

I have much to be thankful for as one blessed more than he deserves.

My next blog will be on the topic of marriage as martyrdom.  But before that I wanted to encourage my single friends to see the bigger perspective.  Those who remain single (because they were rejected by the world’s standard and not for prideful selfish reasons) may obtain the bigger crown because they are most like our Lord and Savior. 

So, to my single friends, remain faithful.  God may have some unplanned surprises in your future of a very pleasant variety.  Trust God, the one who holds the future, and not your own human perspective or a worldly understanding.  Live in true faith today and may God soon grant you the desires of your heart.

Smile too, it’s attractive.

Courting Disaster: Why Mennonites Are Afraid To Date

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Secular society, in many quarters, has moved in a direction of sexual promiscuity and too often young women bear the brunt of consequences.  Single mothers are much more likely to live in poverty regardless of race.  Children without two parent homes often suffer from neglect that leads to behavioral problems and this creates a problem for society.  Men too, for their own part, have to deal with the unwieldy burden of child support and it is far far from ideal.

However, on the other side, in the opposite ditch, is the religious ‘purity culture’ dominated by patriarchal men (or controlling parents) and fear based reasoning.  As secular culture has abandoned traditional mores there have been those on the other end who are adding precaution and increasing the burden of requirements.  Young people, young women in particular, are manipulated by those in positions of authority over them and driven to unreasonable expectation.  The result is a growing rank of unmarried singles and deep disappointment.

Clearly there is a balance between both cultural extremes.  Unfortunately the consequences of the overbearing purity culture are often not as obvious as a crying baby and an exhausted single mother.  The pain of the girl never asked on a date or suffering of the young man rejected time and time again is very real. Yet, complaining about the current state of affairs could be perceived as weakness and drawing attention adds an additional penalty of shame—failure is often carefully concealed out of embarrassment. 

Too Guarded, Too Superficial…

The logic of ‘guarding heart’ is great when applied to an already established dating relationship and holding back on sexual intimacy until the commitment of marriage.  But when it is a reason not to even attempt a first date it is no longer helpful.  It is a Hollywood myth that relationship should be built off of some kind of magical initial feeling. That is a shallow ‘eros’ love at best. Feelings can come and go. 

Love, real love, cannot develop without relationship.  Love is a product of commitment to love. Commitment to love requires relationship and starting a new relationship requires a seed of faith.  Faith is a commitment to act in love even before the feelings exist. Faith provides a better foundation for a successful long-term relationship to develop than the shallow feelings based alternative.

The purity culture, as I have experienced it, is motivated primarily by fear rather than faith.  Young people are encouraged to be absolutely sure before even a first date. Communication between genders (outside of dating) is discouraged as potentially harmful. And the result is an impossible quagmire for many. Only the most superficially attractive or socially adept have a chance.  Be a shy guy or a too average girl and you don’t have a snowman’s chance in the Florida heat.

I know young women who say (evidently with complete sincerity) that they will only date a guy they are sure they would marry and seemingly turn down every guy who doesn’t ride in on a white horse  It is an absolutely absurd expectation and yet not uncommon in the religious culture of my birth.  Many never take a half step of faith to ask for or accept a date.  Many who do start dating feel pressured into marriage because they have this false idea that turns a dating relationship into engagement.

Of course the insanity is promoted by cherry picked success story anecdotes (sanitized of impurities to make them more compelling) and thus the fairytale myths perpetuated to a new generation.  Ignored is the wreckage, the many many stories of those who did everything right according to the purity culture, and now lay bloodied in the ditch as the successful cross to avoid contact.  I believe if both sides were told there would be an impetus to encourage a more balanced faithful approach to courtship.

Finding Our Balance Between Extremes

The religious of today have seemed to have picked the worse parts of two systems.  They copy secular society and the idea that feelings of immediate or superficial attraction are a basis for relationship.  But then they take on the most onerous requirements, practically betrothal, before even being willing to talk with a young woman and take seriously a suitor.  It is not a faith based system.

We do not find the purity culture standard in the Bible.  In Scripture we don’t see promotion of the silly notion of secular ‘love at first sight’ or the preeminence of feelings of initial superficial attraction as a basis for relationship.  We don’t see a ‘one size fits all’ template.  We do not see ‘perfection’ either. Instead there is diversity of experience in the examples and faith (not fear) as the driving force.

Fear has caused the religious to overreact and only faith can correct the course.  We in the community of faith need to stop comparing ourselves to our to secular neighbors and deal squarely with the shortcomings of our own side.  If we want leaders we must quit treating young men in the church (in good standing) as not worth a first date and basically untrustworthy.

No harm comes from a date.  In fact, my grandparents dated many different people and have been married faithfully for nearly sixty years.  Had my grandma governed herself by the current paradigm there may have never been the opportunity for her relationship with grandpa to even get started—I would not even exist today. 

We need to recognize that our current standard is often based in fear and overreaction rather than faith.  We do not need to fall in the same ditch as secular society to be as off base and faithless.  Love can triumph if we commit to loving faithfulness in relationships rather than live in fear of failure.

Sunny with a chance of violent death…

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It has been a serious few weeks for me.  I had been cruising along until then ran smack into a brick wall of reality and have been sorting the damage for what I can salvage since.

But, still, amid disappointments and deliberations, I have found enjoyment in various things, from meeting new and interesting people to learning more about quantum mechanics.  I have things to look forward to in the coming months, one right around the corner and that the chance to fly with my little brother.

My little brother actually isn’t too little.  He outgrew me to about 6′-2″ and is a (mostly) responsible adult.  He also followed through on a childhood dream a few years ago by earning a pilot’s license.  However, sad as it is considering he was my first ever wingman, I have not yet taken the opportunity to fly with him.

Well, weather cooperating, I will get my chance to fly with him and I thought those of you with a morbid sense of humor may enjoy are little email exchange.  The plan is for me to join him in flying into a family cabin or rather landing on a small airstrip cut in the woods beside the cabin. 

Here is my request:

I have a proposal that could maximize your use of a small aircraft and increase my risk of dying a terrible death at the hands of my own brother.  My idea is that I meet you in Lock Haven, fly with you to the Moyer cabin and then fly back with you later.  I don’t know how that fits in with your plans, but I put it out there as a proposal and under the condition that you agree to ditch only into trees or rocks rather than water.  Crashing would be terrifying enough without the prospect of drowning with a broken femur while trapped in the crushed confines of a small aircraft.  Burned alive has a far more romantic appeal.  So anyhow, bring a contact with correct legal language and I shall consent.

Joel

His response:

Oh fun! Violent death! Yes, it’ll be way more romantic to share those last, lingering moments with someone instead of slipping away unnoticed.

Lock Haven airport was part of the plan. I was going to stop by to refuel on the way back to Franklin (airport of origin). However, it doesn’t add much to stop there on the way to the Moyer cabin as well. It’ll be nice to have someone along to mutter to while I figure out if it’s possible to get the craft down at the cabin. Worst case, we’ll abort the whole thing and go back to Lock Haven. Or, in a shame-induced delirium at a failure to land, we could take it into the pond. There, amidst a flaming slick of avgas, we’d slip beneath the ripples before the horrified paddle-boaters.

Piper Memorial airport (Lock Haven) has public parking at the end of Proctor Street. Time of meeting TBD.

My response:

The benefit to you is having a backup plan for reaching the cabin.  We already know the Focus can get stopped on that runway…

We could try to cartwheel across the pond wing tip over wing tip, the visuals would be stunning for all observers.  Maybe someone would get our parting moments on video and we’d be a YouTube sensation postmortem?  I could try to flash a peace sign out the window or something…

His response:

Good point. It’ll be nice to have a backup plan. 

You’ll be the perfect right-seat man. We’ll fly over the place at altitude, do a low pass on the airstrip (to scare away forest critters), and then shoot an approach. If the approach is stable, we land. If not, it’s a go-around. Practice landings yesterday ranged from 800-1200 feet. The strip at Ponderosa is 2400, so we should be ok.

Hopefully, enough glory will be won by a successful landing to make a grandstanding exit unnecessary.

 

Wouldn’t it be great if all business could be handled that way?

Despite appearances and the risk inherent in flying, I am quite confident that we will arrive safely at our destination.  I trust my brother’s hands are capable.  But if they and our plans fail, then may our death be glorious!  So, if you are somewhere in the vicinity of Lock Haven and the mountains just north this weekend, keep an eye on the sky and be ready for anything.

Anyhow, pictures to follow…

(That, assuming the camera survives two crazy brothers in an airplane. — If things are looking down while we are up I shall attempt one last parting Instagram post before we become one with nature, intimate with the terrain, a flaming mess of twisted metal and broken bones, etc.)