Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)

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Jesus was not harsh out of hatred.

Behind his sharp rebuke in Matthew 23 was a deep love and longing for his people to hear his message, repent of their foolish pride, and live in faith.
The love of Jesus is evident in how he brings the sermon to a conclusion:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:37‭-‬39)

Jesus uses the imagery of a hen to describe his own feelings toward those who rejected him.  It is significant that Jesus describes himself with feminine attributes—it is significant in that it shows a divine nature that transcends gender and also in the contrast it provides.  

Jesus finished a harsh message about coming destruction by describing his desire to nurture rather than judge.  His words express profound sadness and deep disappointment before ending with a promise: “For I tell you, you will not see me again until…”

Until what?

Before answering that, there are a couple​other points that can be extracted from the example of Jesus:

1) Criticism is more loving than indifference…

We live in a time when legitimate criticism is characterized as persecution or hateful.  Be too blunt or honest and pretty soon you’ll have the niceness police on your case.  Criticism feels unpleasant.  However, rebuke can be extremely beneficial to a person who is truly humble and open to correction.

The importance of receiving rebuke is mentioned in Proverbs:

My son, do not despise the Lord ’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. (Proverbs 3:11‭-‬12)

And expounded upon by the Apostle Paul:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12:7‭-‬9)

Paul says that if we are not disciplined by God then we are illegitimate and not true children of God.  Rebuke, according to Proverbs, shows love.  

Good parents discipline their children because they love and want the best for them.  They realize that uncorrected attitudes and behaviors will cause more future pain for their children than a rebuke.  Discipline, therefore, is a preventative medicine against a deeper more permanent harm.

It is easy to be nice to someone in order to avoid trouble.  In confrontation there is risk.  Many prophets lost their lives for speaking truth to power.  At very least criticism can come at the cost of loss of popularity and friendship.  As a result, people play nice for their own sake, to keep people off their case, and not out of love.

I personally do not waste my time trying to correct a person I do not love.  Why would I?

A good rebuke is not a hit-and-run attack.  No, rather it is part of a true concern for the well-being of another and a part of a longer term investment to help another person reach their better potential.  Sometimes, when an audience is especially stubborn and unreceptive, there is a need to ratchet up the rhetoric until there is a change.

2) The future is being created by us…

Many religious people are fatalistic.  Yes, they might claim to believe in “free will” or choice, but then revert to an “it is what it is” fatalism and using God’s sovereignty as an excuse.  

In Jesus we should be free—free to overcome our human limitations and able to create a better reality.  That’s what it means to created in the image of the Creator.  That’s what it means to partake of the divine nature.  And, therefore, with faith, there is agency and choice.

Those whom Jesus addressed also had a choice, and that choice is recorded in the last words of the Old Testament:

See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:5‭-‬6)

The “or else” in the passage above indicates two options.  Either their hearts will be turned or there will be total destruction.  History was dependent on their choice and the future depends on our choice—repent or die.

We know that many did not heed the warning and that Jerusalem was destroyed.  Many of those in the audience may have ended up in Gehenna (the literal “hell” Jesus spoke about) because they refused to hear and repent.  Many of us will follow them to our own destruction unless we choose the abundant life.

In the end, fatalism is simply another form of faithlessness.  Often when we say, “It is what it is,” the truth is that we are simply unwilling to put in the effort or step out in faith.  Life is what we make it.  The future we get is always a choice and we should choose Jesus.

3) When will we see Jesus again?

I don’t know.

That is your choice.

I believe Jesus will return in those who choose to turn, who acknowledge him as Lord, receive his Spirit and follow him. 

 Jesus gave this promise:

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:21)

Jesus longs to reveal himself to us today.

(Artwork: Stanley Spencer)

Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

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Denial is our first line of defense.  Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment.  And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.

Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.”  Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge.  How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?

And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?

I should know.  I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite.  I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.

Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance.  Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it.  But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right.  Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message.  It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.

However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29‭-‬32)

The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad.  They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets.  But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link.  He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.

The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history.  They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.

What was so wrong with the Pharisees?

“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction.  They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.

Jesus once told his audience:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical.  Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable?  Moody or bipolar?  I doubt it.

Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously.  And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned.  But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.

The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people.  The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others.  Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?

Or were they content to simply do better than others?

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47‭-‬48)

A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved.  There is no room for arrogance when this is understood.  The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.

The Pharisees rejected faith.  They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves.  In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.

Are we better than the Pharisees?

Probably not.

The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.

That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees.  They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time.  They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.

However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?

Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write.  Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage.  As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.

But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either.  We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.

Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

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One thing about Mennonites is that we are good at maintaining our niceness.  But this niceness, while “nice” by outward appearance, is not always truthful.  We can hide many evil thoughts behind a polite smile.  We know the “right” words to say and use them habitually… all the while harboring harsh judgments in our hearts.

Why do we hide our true feelings?

First off, to be the “quiet in the land” is part of our Mennonite-cultural-default setting; we play nice because we were taught to not cause a fuss.  Second, we want to avoid conflict; trying to resolve a conflict is difficult and one way to “keep the peace” is to bury our own feelings behind a smile.  The third reason (and most insidious) is so we can appear better than the other person.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this cultural niceness.  It seems to be far better than the alternative of direct confrontation, open disagreement or being too honest about unpleasant things.  But beneath this veil of serenity can be a toxic mess of unresolved conflict, secretly held enmity, and hostility that leaks out as passive-aggressive behavior.

Yes, Mennonites may be good at appearing nice on the outside.  However, we are also good at gossip, backbiting, anonymous letters, slander and giving the cold-shoulder treatment.  A pretty face and pleasant words can hide many less-than-desirable attitudes.  These hidden sins of the heart are not often addressed, and likely because they are far more difficult to detect and define.  Nevertheless, there can be a rotten core underneath a righteous facade.

Some may call this kind of niceness “living peaceably” when in reality it is often nastier than the alternative of open rebuke and direct confrontation.  There is little chance of amicable resolution when a person refuses to openly state their grievances.  Worse, the person being whispered about often can sense the antagonism, yet is without a means to defend themselves.

Jesus had no problem directly rebuking those who were pretty on the outside and ugly inside:

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

The religious elites Jesus confronted were focused on outward appearance.  Earlier he rebuked them for their distinctive clothing and titles, but this time he goes right to the heart of the issue: True change comes from a transformed heart change and not through conformity of outward appearance.

The hidden sins of religious elites rebuked directly by Jesus are probably different from our own.  That said, our Mennonite religious culture is similar to theirs in that we also emphasize looking right according to our standards and we like to believe that this outward conformity is an indication of a spiritual condition.  However, according to Jesus, compliance with a religious standard is not an indication of a heart change.

The Mennonite “doctrine of non-conformity” is often a distraction and disguise for a sinful heart.

Many use the exhortation “be not conformed to this world” out of context and as a justification for their rules.  Unfortunately, this misses the point entirely.  The alternative to being conformed to the world is *not* a long list of standards but a transformation of mind, and that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mennonites need to focus less on their cherished doctrine of non-conformity (that is primarily concerned with maintaining an acceptable appearance) and more on change of heart.  As Jesus said, when the heart is changed then the behavior will follow—with or without rules.  But without spiritual transformation no amount of rules or conformity to them can change hearts.

I know plenty of Mennonites who wear the prescribed clothing, do the right Mennonite activities and are really nice people, but it seems they have no real faith.  It is possible to change on the outside through religious indoctrination while lacking in substance of faith and remaining spiritually dead.  So, if anything, Mennonite standards only serve to create a disguise for the faithless.

The focus on outward appearance and emphasis on rules in conservative Mennonite circles could itself be indication of a lack of heart change. It is a perspective that gets things completely in reverse and shows a lack of spiritual understanding so basic that it can hardly be anything but a sign of an untransformed mind.

True faith is not about cultural conformity and a pleasant facade.

People behave the way they do for many reasons.  We act in a particular manner or conform to the standards of our peer group in order to be accepted.  However, the faith that pleases God is not about fitting in or meeting religious expectations.  The faith that God seeks is about spiritual transformation that takes us well beyond anything that can be spelled out into code.

Sure, religious folks might be able to police themselves based on their rules (written or unwritten) and look down those who fall outside the lines.  Yet, without inner change, none of it matters; we are only succeeding at making people clean on the outside and neglecting what Jesus taught should come first.  Perhaps then we would be more accepting of those who don’t act right according to our favored ideas but have a heart for God?

King David didn’t always act right according to our standards.  He did some things that weren’t even allowed by God’s standard, was guilty of a terrible sin, and still was a man after God’s own heart.  David’s heart was right even though his behavior was not, and that is more important than meeting religious expectations or maintaining a nice appearance.

Are you truly transformed and changed spiritually from the inside out?

Or are you only a good Mennonite acting the part?

Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

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A biblical fundamentalist reads Scripture as a lawyer does a legal code.  Rather than read like the Bereans, who were open-minded and therefore receptive to the message the Apostle Paul preached (Acts 17:11), many people read with an agenda to prove their current beliefs.

Religious fundamentalist scholars are often able to find what they go looking for, and at the expense of what is true.  Their diligent search, rather than being a quest for Truth, is an effort to find proof-texts for their own theological presuppositions (often inherited positions), and is not guided by the Holy Spirit.

Some are very knowledgeable and respected people in their respective circles.  They parse words looking for specific permissions and prohibitions, or only to justify their existing doctrinal stances.

They are scholars of conservative or liberal persuasion and dogmatists for any denomination.

They all have their loyal followers.

They all believe they are right.

But they are also no different from those whom Jesus confronted when he said:

…the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40)

Those who were addressed by Jesus in the passage above had Scripture (graphé) and studied it “diligently” according to Jesus.  But they were missing something.  Jesus told them they lacked the word (logos) of God dwelling in them, thus they would not come to him for life.  They were impoverished when it came to true faith and the indwelling word of God.

There are many who have only Scripture and not the Spirit to teach them.

We are told there will be tares sown in the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30).  This means that there will be those who appear righteous on the outside, but they reject the most foundational concepts of faith.  Despite their many good works, they are spiritually dead and lost.

I recall discussions with a man unable to conceptualize the idea of a triune God.  Time and time again he would come back to his own flawed understanding and insist that I was polytheistic for believing in one God… three persons.  He also could not accept that the sonship of Jesus made him divine like his Father in heaven.

Sadly there are many who reject Jesus in a much more subtle way and by this I mean they have not placed their faith in the Spirit he promised:

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.  All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:23‭-‬26)

They claim to have faith, but are agnostics when it comes to the idea of the Spirit teaching “all things” as promised.  And, despite their Biblical religion, they have the same “worldly” perspective that Jesus describes:

The world cannot accept [the Spirit of truth], because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:17)

They are as Paul describes:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”  But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14‭-‬16)

Many who profess to believe have recast the Spirit’s work as mere emotionalism and cling to circular reasoning and poor understanding of the text.  They have a form of godliness; but, despite their diligent study and careful religious devotion, they are spiritually impotent because they lack the “mind of Christ” or the indwelling word of God.

Jesus addresses those “blind guides” who love the letter of the law while rejecting the Spirit:

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.” You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.” You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it. (Matthew 23:16-22)

Jesus started by ridiculing a legalistic controversy about what made an oath legitimate.  He dismissed the dispute as silly by taking a third position that supercedes the others and then continues:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:13‭-‬24)

These religious scholars missed the forest for the trees.

They were so focused in on legalistic details of application that they “neglected the more important matters—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”  Jesus insults these religious authorities, he calls them “blind guides” and knocks them off their proverbial pedestal.

Paul expounds on the blindness of those who only have Scripture and the need for the Spirit as guide:

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:12‭-‬18)

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse, they say we need the Scripture to understand the Spirit.  The truth is opposite, we need the Spirit in order to understand Scripture or we will be no better than the “blind guides” who diligently studied Scripture and yet never embraced Jesus (and the promise of the Spirit) who brings life.

Are you a minister of the new covenant powered by the Spirit?

The new covenant is different from the old.  In the new covenant, God’s dwelling moved from a temple of stone and gold to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), which is to say the individual bodies or collective mass of those who follow after Jesus and constitute the church.  The new covenant is a law written on hearts rather than on tablets of stone (Hebrews 8:7-13, 10:15,16) and that is the work of the Spirit:

Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4‭-‬6)

The silly controversies that divide the church are not caused by the word of God or the Spirit.  They are caused by those who have their own interpretation of Scripture, who believe their own opinion of the language is infallible, and yet do not have the indwelling word of God or life of the Spirit.

Without the Holy Spirit to guide our study, we will “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” and be no different from those whom Jesus condemned: blind guides with veiled hearts and puffed up with biblical knowledge, yet unable to correctly understand…too focused in on the technical details to see the bigger concepts of faith.

The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This generation could very well be the last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is a Mennonite population collapse in North America inevitable?

I don’t know.

I’m not expecting our complete extinction.

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

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

But, as a religious culture and tradition?

I believe that depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice a growing number of older singles?

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

Wonder why our missions are ineffective?

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

Where do we go from here?

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

Change is inevitable.

Be proactive.

Nuclear Fusion and a Positive Vision of Love

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Many people, whether they realize it or not, love for what they get in return and essentially are in love with their own image reflected in another person.  This can be dressed up in many ways, it can be hidden under religious motives or romanticized, but it is (once all the layers of rationalizations are removed) a selfish love.

For three years now I’ve sought after a different kind of love.  For three years I’ve sought after the kind of love that sacrificed personal ambitions and loved another purely out of love for God.  It was a love of faith, a love that transcends differences rather than be divided by them, and a love made possible only through God.

The impossible love meets human reality…

I set out to do the impossible in belief that the words “with God all things are possible” were true and pursued the love of someone who was completely different from me in everything but faith.

Unfortunately, this person—being that they are fundamentally different from me (despite our both being Mennonites)—did not see faith as a good enough basis and could not see the potential for love and refused even a friendly relationship.

I don’t blame her.  It was what she inherited from her parents and religious culture.  Mennonites, despite their bluster, are really no different from their secular neighbors and promote the same perspective of love.  That is to say Mennonites give advice like “find someone running the same direction you are” and centers on the wants of the two individuals.  You don’t need God to explain that kind of love.

But I sought something entirely different.  I sought a love that was not self-seeking and shallow.  I was seeking a deeper bond of a love that was truly self-sacrificial and put God at the center rather than the wants of individuals.  Instead of two people choosing each other because they are similar, a narcissistic love, I hoped to find the love of two people who formed their ambitions together in a spiritual union with God.

I met a wall of resistance.  Mennonites may claim to love their enemies and practice non-resistance, but don’t try to be their friend unless you fit their list of requirements.  I was not up to her standards.  She told me she couldn’t love me the way that I wished to be loved, except I didn’t ask for love—all I wanted was a little faith and a chance.

Imagine the exasperation of being told “hearts don’t change” by someone who plans to commit their life to missionary service.  It makes me wonder why they would even bother going over land and sea?  Evidently they aren’t going with actual faith in a God that makes the impossible possible.  Perhaps they are going for the excitement or for the praise of religious peers?

Anyhow, it is impossible to love someone who refuses to receive it.  In her mind, as one who was “thirty years old living in Milton” I had absolutely nothing to offer her.  She, taking cues from her father and religious peers, treated me more like a rabid dog than a brother in faith.  They actually denied me a means to love or be needed by them.

Meet Sarah, my sister from Congo-Brazzaville…

Severe disappointment leads to depression and many days I wished that I could disappear into my bed forever.  I was hurting and not in the mood to be sociable when the notification “Sarah Zinia has sent you a friend request” popped up on Facebook.

My initial thought was to ignore it.

However, I decided not to use my own pain as an excuse.  I remembered, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” and decided to apply that reasoning to this circumstance.

I clicked “accept” not knowing what to expect.

I was not kept in suspense.

Immediately thereafter a message “hey” came from this mysterious new friend.  So, still fighting the urge to ignore and deciding to apply the Golden Rule again, I said “hey” in reply.  We exchanged our “how are you’s” and that marked the beginning of a very special friendship between two very different people.

Sarah, I would soon learn, was in dead end of a town, living in a group home, a mother to a one month old baby Anthony, and had no car or public transportation.  It was obvious she was very bored, and I knew that if I were in her shoes I would want to get out a little.  So, in a moment of impulse, I offered to take her somewhere and she enthusiastically accepted.

After a first meeting (and being a good Mennonite by too carefully explaining my platonic intent) we were regularly going out to eat, hiking trails, visiting parks and even shopping!  She didn’t seem to care that I was a mildly miserable guy in his mid-thirties, she was simply glad to have a friend.

Our conversations were light at first, usually about the food we ate or the weather, but soon I was learning about the struggles of a teenage single mother and life from the perspective of a refugee from Africa.  Her story touched my heart and made my life seem like a walk in the park by comparison.

Sarah was pulled away from her home country, taken from her mother (who she has lost all contact with) in a new strange country, raised by the state system, treated as a slave and bullied.  I can’t go into details out of respect for her privacy and yet can assure you that she has gone through many awful experiences in her life.

Mennonites, like many others who are so privileged, take for granted the security that a family provides for them.  Sarah, by contrast, has been separated from her family and has been a half step from homelessness.  Yeah, sure, there are many government programs and private organizations to help, but none of that can replace family.  She needed real family and that is why she decided to accept me as her brother from another mother.

I treated her with respect.  She did not need to ask, it was easy to recognize the void in her life and that she needed someone she could trust to be there for her no matter what.  I tried to help her with her insecurities by assuring her that she would have a place to live even if I needed to give her my home and move back to my parent’s house.  

The friendship we have is impossible by a conservative Mennonite standard.  I’ve had various people in the church express their ‘concern’ to me.  Apparently, in their minds, a guy and girl can’t spend time together without bad things happening?  And then there were those who advised me to practice some ‘tough love’ and cut her off when she went against my advice and moved back to Arizona.

But I stopped caring what other people thought.  I trusted my heart and knew my intentions were right.  Sarah might be a net loss for my bank account, I’ve had to answer those late night calls, tune out a screaming baby (who had been perfectly delightful until alone with us in the car) and yet it was well worth it.  The moments of laughter, the happy and sad tears, seeing her progress—priceless.

She made my life meaningful again.  I probably needed her as much or more than she needed me.  She gave me a reason to care enough to get out of bed and her success has become my own.  Witnessing her accomplishments over the past couple years has encouraged me not to lose hope because the odds are against me.

Sarah has a positive outlook despite all the evil she’s endured—she still smiles with a big goofy grin and that brightens my day…

Helping my little lost sheep find God’s love again…

Last year I met another dear soul through social media.  I will never forget the first message where she apologized because she felt unworthy to be my friend.  She was a poor little lost sheep, shivering in the cold dark world, a nameless number to the machinery of capitalism, and had lost all hope.

Her family and her young son were far away in the Philippines.  She was working to support her son, and (because the wage was a little better than in her home country) she was pressured to take a three year contract in an electronics factory in Tiawan.  She lived in a dormitory with strangers.  Her life had fallen apart.

After her first message my heart ached with compassion.  I tried to convince her that she was indeed worthy to be my friend and assured that I would be there for her as long as she needed me.  But her descent from dreams of a simple happy life to the pit of despair was not overnight and restoration of hope would also take time.

Despite being on complete opposite ends of the planet (exactly twelve hours apart) we had the same schedule because she was on night shift.  So it worked out that every day she could be the first person I would greet and the last one I would talk to before going to bed.

There were many times early on where she would come away from work forlorn.  I would see the sad puppy sticker come across on Messenger and that was my signal to put everything down to get to the bottom of what was troubling her.  My mission was not accomplished until she smiled.

One day she asked me if it was okay if she called me “bhest” and, not seeing a reason why not, I granted permission.  Since then I’ve been her bhest and tried to live up to that special distinction.  My bhest has looked to me for assurance, for forgiveness when she made mistakes, and has privileged me with her faithful companionship.

The sad puppy sticker has not made an appearance for quite some time now.  Our daily reminders to each other to smile and be happy seem to create a sort of synergy or positive feedback loop.  It seems that we get more out than we put in.  We might be on complete opposite ends of the globe, but somehow we are twins and share one heart.

She has transformed from a sad puppy to a bouncy dancing and happy puppy—that is a great source of happiness for me.  It is my goal to continue to provide her with hope of that simple and happy life as long as I am able.

And, for the first time in my life, following her lead, I’ve started to call someone “bhest” and that makes me smile…

Anyhow, what does nuclear fusion have in common with a sister, a sheep, and the love I seek?

Nuclear fusion is a process in which two (or more) different atoms are pushed together with enough force that they overcome the forces that would normally keep them apart and they become one.  The result is a release of energy and particles.  Nuclear fusion is the process occuring in stars (like our sun) that continuously converts hydrogen atoms into helium and creates light.

There is research underway to replicate the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion to occur.  The reason for the effort is the tremendous potential for nuclear fusion to be a renewable and clean energy source.  Once the reaction was started (using a tremendous amount of energy) it would create far more energy than was used to start it and solve many problems of how to power our future.

My vision is for a love like nuclear fusion.  A love that takes two very different people who are not naturally attracted and bonds them together through a faith greater than the differences.  The idea would be a composite of two people of like faith with normally incompatible strengths and ambitions who are held together through a supernatural love.

That is why I set out a few years ago praying for the impossible to be made possible.  It was my hope to see this fusion of very different people who transcended their own independent dreams, sacrifice themselves completely (rather than find someone like themselves) and became bonded in a faith greater than themselves.  I had a vision of a tremendous potential yield.

And, I suppose, I may have gotten part way there.  I’ve seen people as different as black and white become family.  I’ve also found a love that can literally reach around the globe, and bridge east to west.  I’ve seen relationships that produce a synergy and seemingly more output than the energy put in.

But what remains to be seen and impossible?

I have yet to see a good Mennonite from the in-group make a commitment of love to someone outside their exclusive club.  Yes, I’ve seen them love a good project, I’ve seen them budge when hammered and make small concessions.

But, for these good religious people to truly reach for faith in something beyond their own comprehension and current abilities?

That, like nuclear fusion, remains out of reach (at least for this man) and impossible.

So what is my positive vision for love?

I asked God to make the impossible possible, and when I asked, I was seeking after that greater love—the fusion love of faith.  And, I’m not sure I’ve arrived at an answer yet.  I have many questions.

However, what I do know is that I have been changed over the past few years and now things that were impossible are closer to reality for me.  I have lived to be an answer to prayer even while my prayers seem to have gone unanswered.  I’m determined to help others see their own visions of a greater life become their reality.

 
The picture above is my family.  Not a family caused by biology or religious culture either, but one formed of obedience to conscience and love.  Do you share my vision for a transcendent love?

Caution: Mennonite In Transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

God had answered.

Or so I hoped.

“It is what it is…”

My faith crumbled against that awful reality.

“You are thirty years old living in Milton.”

It was true and the implications clear enough.

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

I had no defense.

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

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

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

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

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

I wandered off aimlessly.  

Into the wilderness of South Dakota.  

Into the dark of night.  

Into oblivion.

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

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

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

Escaping reality was impossible.

Doing battle with the it…

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

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

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

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

However, it was hard not to feel a failure.

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

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

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

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

It was many things and yet nothing at all.

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

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

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

It was inescapable.

It is me.

It is what we make it…

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

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

She was my last remaining escape plan.

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

I cried, “I have no vision!”

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

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

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

Why am I Mennonite?

I have never been the Mennonite golden boy.

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

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

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

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

It is question that I dislike.

I’m Mennonite because I like being Mennonite.

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

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

Can one actually out grow their home?  

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

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

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

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

Still there is a strong urge to remain a part.

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

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

Decisions, decisions…

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

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

Impossible, right?

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

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

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

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

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

Please pray…

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

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