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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is further from the truth.

Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.

The text…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some say it is the thought that counts.

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

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

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

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

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

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What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:5-12)

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The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes.  Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.

The world judges by outward appearance.

People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold.  Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns.  The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.

The church, unfortunately, is not much different.  The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5‭-‬12)

The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.

Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves.  They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.

Jesus was unimpressed.  It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful.  Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then.  We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.

Here’s what we are doing:

1) Seeking the important seats:  I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter.  There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers.  Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention.  And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?

Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting.  From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.

Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children.  There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies.  We should always be considerate of others.

That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.

2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.

Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms.  The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.

How do I know this?

Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said.  I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.

Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying.  Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee.  With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.

And we do this too.  We may not seek fancy titles outright.  However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms.  Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls.  As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles.  Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…

3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress.  There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.

It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair.  They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23).  Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.

That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.

Which leads to my next point…

Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness.  They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion.  And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level.  We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are.  The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.

Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites.  We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded.  We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.

Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?

Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:

All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)

We are told to be distinctively dressed.  However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance.  Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:

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)

Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order.  We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded.  It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.

If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob.  Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist.  I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.

Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

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People divide up.  Segregation occurs naturally in groups as individuals seek out others who have something in common with them.  It students find those of common interests, social status, gender or race.  It happens in communities—people choose to live with people more similar to them.

But where division should not happen is in the church.  Not according to the Apostle Paul, at least:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2‭-‬6)

I believe the first sentence, “Be completely humble and gentle,” is key to the second part being true of us.  With pride comes contention (Prov 13:10) and without humility there is divisivion.

Paul further elaborates:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloeʼs household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10‭-‬15)

The message is clear in the words of Paul—the church should not be divided into competing denominations and, if Scripture is to be believed, we should be grieved by division in the church and preach against it.

We should stand united against this:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9‭-‬10)

Diotrephes evidently thought he was pretty special.  He desired preeminence, made slanderous accusations and was excluding other Christians from fellowship.  We aren’t told why he was banning people, but his attitude clearly is condemned as wrong in the passage.

A church divided against itself…

The church today is divided up into many denominations.  There was the big schism between East and West that was caused by disagreement over Papal primacy, the Filioque added to the church creed, canonization of Scripture and multiple other issues.  After various attempts to reconcile differences over many years the result was eventually mutual excommunications in 1054 that are regarded as the terminal event.

Then came the series of splits in the Western church, the so-called Protestant Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s protests over the sale of indulgences in the 1500s, leading to the formation of a “Lutheran” church and culminating in the 33,000 denominations that we have today.  My own Mennonite denomination was the eventual product of a radical and rebellious (sometimes violent) Anabaptist movement.

My church is part of many Mennonite “conferences” that recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree.  Some groups considered “old order” (who reject modern technology) with a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” as broad as the overall church and spawning more variations (some who resist being called Mennonite) recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree… yet typically only allow their own members to take communion.

Mennonites today, unlike the schism in 1054 or other splits caused by larger more meaningful matters of theology and doctrine, tend to divide over the minutia of application.  Things like the style of coat, size of a floral print on a dress, color of socks, facial hair, and any number of nitpicking details which nobody in the world outside Mennodom would care about, can precipitate a church split.

For example, in my church the two big controversies that led people to leave were over hair style.  First, several families left for a more conservative conference because a little girl had bangs.  Later, a liberal contingent left because of a feud over a bit of peach fuzz.

Complete absurdity.

This is a reality in clear opposition to the teachings of Paul and the “unity of the Spirit” he describes.

What is the problem?

We have names from A to Z in front of our church buildings to proudly tell people what church tradition we follow.  We announce “I am of Menno Simons” or of this “Lutheran” theological perspective or that “Methodist” doctrinal division and promote a form of tribalism.  The result is a confusing mess that only a religious historian could untangle.

But, I can hear the protest: “Shouldn’t people know what denomination we are?  I mean, they’ll find out eventually, better to let them know before they enter and disturb us, right?”

And thus we prove we value our denomination more than we do welcoming others of Christian faith.  It is the spirit of Diotrephes, a prideful desire for preeminence and control; it is love of our own dogmatic ideas over other people.  It is the kind of attitude Jesus condemns:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)

The “teachers of the law and Pharisees” thought they had every right to shut people out based on their biblical standards.  But Jesus warns them that they will be shut out the way they shut out others.  It seems the same message Jesus preached of forgive as you wish to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14) and judge as you wish to be judged (Matt. 7:2) and that should give pause to anyone humble enough to know their own imperfections.

The Mennonite church I grew up in will refuse to baptize a believer who doesn’t go through a class and agree to follow their own list of standards.  They would go so far as deny communion to a person from another denomination.  And this inhospitable attitude is not a problem to most of them.

Maybe God will be inhospitable to those who have denominational pride and shut out other believers different from themselves?

Some things to consider…

1) Reconsider having a denominational name in front of your church.  Do you understand the admonition of the Apostle Paul against division?  If so, why do you see it as allowable to emphasize a man’s name, a particular doctrinal slant or denominational tradition in front of your church?  What if our true worship was supposed to be less about theological correctness and more about our truthfulness in love and forbearance?

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12‭-‬14)

2) Stop attacking, belittling, and making slanderous accusations against other denominations.  I know I know, Catholics are idol worshippers, Joel Osteen isn’t negative enough (more about hell, please) and Calvinists are too fatalistic, predetermined or something like that.  But Scripture tells us, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and warns: 

If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)

Perhaps, before we get too sanctimonious, we should consider this:

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

3) Be less resistant to criticism and more receptive to correction regarding your own denomination.  It is easy to circle the wagons when our own church tradition is scrutinized, and to react defensively rather then be open to rebuke.  For example, nearly any time I blog about the defects of my own religious culture, there’s usually a chorus of those crying, “My Mennonite church isn’t like that!”  Many are in denial—but that is their pride.

We should practice introspection and be open to the possibility that outsiders might see our flaws better than we do, because:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8‭-‬10)

There is no weakness in acknowledgement and confession of fault.  There is no need for huffy recriminations (“Well, they do it too!”) if we are truly humble.  Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven, not about defending the image of our denomination.

4) Baptism should be uncoupled from denominational indoctrination and membership.  There is nowhere in Scripture where baptism is seperated from profession of faith.  Yes, we should disciple young believers, teach correct doctrine and encourage good application.  However, that can come after baptism.  There is no reason why a baptism should wait weeks or months.  And, if you belong to a church that ties baptism to extrabiblical church standards, speak out against it.  We should welcome the young in the faith rather than add our own prideful denominational requirements:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1‭-‬5)

5) Do not refuse to allow other Christians to participate in your Communion service.  Paul warns against eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27) and this is reason for introspection.  However, what is neither said nor implied is the idea that a church leader should determine who is worthy or not worthy.  Yes, we are told that an openly wicked and unrepentant person should be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13) and yet that doesn’t mean we should deny those of other denominational stripes from the table.

We must rebuke Diotrephes and welcome other believers even if they do not meet our own denominational standards.  There is one church and one Spirit—we must take a stand against the spirit of division.  We need to stand against sins of pride and denominationalism.

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!

Just Say Yes!

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Many of my readers may be too young to remember Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.  But, right off the bat, I want to make sure that y’all know I am not encouraging experimentation with drugs. 

What I do intend to share is a choice, a basic philosophy change, that is key to faith and spiritual growth for those who share my personality type.  If you are one of those confident types who go charging headlong into everything, this might not be the blog post for you.

Anyhow, most of my life has been defined by my cautious restraint and some deep feelings of inadequacy.  I have been reluctant to start off in a direction without knowing that I will stay committed, fearful of failure, etc.  Who wants to waste time and effort on something not your true ‘calling’ in life, right?

Well, this is an approach, taken to an extreme, is completely faithless and ultimately results in endlessly spinning your mental wheels trying to decide what is yours to do or not to do.  Which is ironic, because this effort to be focused and directed can actually be the thing that keeps many from finding a greater vision.

But I decided recently, within the past few years, that my last excuse for waiting to be ready (passing the age when Jesus started his ministry) was gone.  Now was do or die time—time to stop making excuses.  I needed to step out more boldly in faith.  The first part of that has been for me to start using a word difficult to use: Yes.

That three letter word “yes” or rather my newly minted use of it has been transformative.  No, I don’t use it for everything (sorry, Kevin, maybe some other time) and I’m not advocating going across to the other extreme of over-commitment either.  But generally I have decided that “yes” will be my answer when asked.

What I am referring to in particular is my participation in my local church body, but to pursue things beyond that and find the spiritual vision out there waiting for me.  I have, despite my feeling unqualified, begun to say “yes” when asked to teach, to give devotionals, or otherwise step outside of my comfort zone.

I must admit, this is not easy for me, public speaking is not my forte and that might surprise those who know I’m quite capable of speaking when there’s a small and safe audience.  Running your mouth is quite a bit different from trying to find something substantive and worthwhile for a congregation of those who might not be impressed.

However, the experience has been rewarding.  First, I have proved that I am marginally capable despite my reservations.  Second, I have been encouraged by positive feedback, I am learning something new every time about how to prepare and am starting to find my voice.  Overall my fears were overstated.  Nobody picked up stones to kill me yet.

I’m also in good company for my feelings that long held me back.  Moses didn’t feel he was able to speak.  Jonah ran from the prophetic duty God had given to him.  And even Jesus struggled “take this cup away from me” before he submitted to God’s will and started a painful journey.  It is that willingness to say “yes” that leads to the greater vision of our life to be fulfilled.

So, for those fearful, for those cautious to a fault, to all you over-thinking people and analytical types.  To you folks I encourage saying “yes” and, not just once or twice, make it a new habit.  Make it your philosophy of faith and see what happens.  May you find the same blessings I have in my deliberate choice to be more available.

Perhaps vision is not something decided in advance, but something that intersects our path when we start off walking.  As a friend recently told me “it is easier to steer a ship that’s moving.”  And, at very least, doing something rather than nothing might give us helpful experience for when we do find *that* something.

Now, for those of you on the extreme other end and full of big ideas, for those of you who are routinely over-commitmented and sometimes frustrated, I recommend something else.  Have you ever considered that you are so full of yourself that you are like Martha, too busy in your religious duty and missing out on really hearing God? 

It seems the key to success in ministry is not having your own ability, your own ambition or you own agenda.  It is depending on God as your strength, stepping out in courage despite fears and being available when asked.  It is saying faithfully “yes” when your mind has a million reasons for saying no.

The church could do with far fewer self-described visionaries and self-important missionaries. The arrogant should stay home where they do less damage.  Instead what is needed is humble and ‘incapable’ men who earnestly seek to do God’s will despite their known weakness, present fears or past failures. 

The church needs more faithful examples like Isaiah who, seeing God’s glory, exclaimed, “Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”  But later answered the call soon after and said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Or leaders like Paul…

“I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)

God doesn’t need the qualified.  It is not about our being extraordinary or special in the eyes of our religious peers.  It is about being humble, generally available to others and ready to accept an opportunity to serve.  God wants those who simply say ‘yes’ when asked. 

Willingness to serve is a habit and a good habit.  It starts with our learning to use a three letter word when called upon.  So, take courage my timid friends, put your faith in the one who asks, and just say yes!

Mennonite Millennials and the Good Samaritan

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Jesus was a great story teller.  Those raised in conservative Mennonite homes and communities are very familiar with his stories. 

Ask any of us about ‘the parable of the good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:25-37) and we will tell you of a man who was traveling, who was attacked by bandits, left for dead, ignored by two passersby and finally helped by a good man.  The man, a good Samaritan.

Some of us might even be able to explain how the Samaritans were looked down upon by the audience Jesus was addressing.  And also that those two who passed this man in desperate need of help (even crossed to the other side of the road) were important religious leaders and might have not wanted to risk defiling themselves by touching a man who by appearances was dead.

The moral to the story is in the question it answered.  Jesus was being questioned by a person identified as an “expert in the law” who was asking initially about how to gain immortality.  Jesus asks him what the law says and the man quotes the part of their law where it says to love God and your neighbor.  But, when Jesus tells the man he’s correct the man (being a legal expert) needs further definition of terms, he asks:

Who is my neighbor?

The typical definition of neighbor is those people who live next door to us.  Those people with the annoying yappy dog who you might wave to while pulling out of the drive.  Good Americans where I live and the kind who will offer to help push when your car is stuck in the snow.

But Jesus uses the parable to extend the definition of neighbor.  When he finishes the story he asks which of the three was the neighbor and the expert tells him it was the one who had mercy.  So, simple, cut and dried, we help a couple people with a broke down car or give a twenty to some homeless guy, pay our taxes on time and we are a good neighbor, right?

Well, maybe, maybe not…

Samaritan today means a helpful stranger.  The Samaritans when Jesus spoke were despised people and an enemy to those listening.  I think the parable might be told differently today. 

If Jesus were speaking to a conservative audience he might have the story of the two responsible gun owners, the stupid irresponsible traveler (who got what he deserved) and a good illegal immigrant.  If he was telling it to a liberal audience it could be about the two politically correct professors, the aborted black inner-city child and a good redneck.

More interesting is that the enemies of Israel today, Palestinians, have Samaritan blood.  So even after two thousand years the story is relevant in the place and religious setting it was originally told to.  In today’s language it could be told as the story of the good Palestinian or good Muslim. 

It could be any scenario where a person who has a historical grievance lays it aside to care for the ‘privileged’ person who may have previously treated them like dirt.  It is a story for a downtrodden and unimportant person helped a stranger when the people who should’ve helped didn’t.

So what does this have to do with Mennonite Millenials?

It is a quirky thing, but we probably have an easier time flying to the opposite side of the world than we do with being neighborly with our actual neighbors.  We may travel to some far away place to spend a week or two cleaning up from a typhoon.  It is exciting to experience a new culture.  The more dedicated may even spend years in a remote village somewhere or some other exotic outpost.

Yet, if we were asked to do something we personally find dull or undesirable, if there were a task we considered beneath our abilities, would we do it?

The men who passed by the beaten man were probably men with vision.  They had important tasks to do that could not be compromised by the needs of a person who probably should’ve known better anyhow.  They were missionaries, the equivalent of church leaders and had big things on their minds.  They also lived in a world of abstraction or theory and neglected practical application.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40 NIV)

Who’s least or greatest changes with cultural context.  We probably don’t think of a Samaritan as being lower than us.  We may not harbor animosity or a superior attitude to other races.  But we still do have our prejudices.  We still have our own religious rites or rituals that take precedent over practicality.  We still look too far down the road.

Think globally, act locally!

This generation is better equipped with technology, has greater access to information and the world.  But it is also a very narcissistic and self-absorbed generation.  With some of us the problem is not fear, the lack of opportunity (like prior generations) or the complacency that is common today, but for us the problem could be arrogance.  We need to be reminded that there is nothing too small for us to do.

Don’t be too important to do little things.  Indeed, sometimes it is a small amount of humility that does the world more good than the grandest of visions or best of experiences.  Don’t be aloof, don’t be a religious idealist, don’t be prejudicial against anyone, be a neighbor!

Transcending cliché and seeking truth continually…

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“If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences.”  (H.P. Lovecraft)

If there is a biggest pet peeve of mine it is cliché spoken or otherwise lived out.  Cliché is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.”  Or, restated in my own words, cliché is popular expression within a group assumed true and done thoughtlessly.

While I am likely guilty of over-thinking and suffer the downsides of that, many others seem to fall on the other side of not thinking enough which can be likewise perilous.  There is a grain of truth to many cliché phrases and the cliché ‘ignorance is bliss’ might apply as a reason most people avoid real critical thinking.

But it is not simply that some are too stupid to think independently, cliché living can be thought out and deliberate ignorance.  Parroting what your peers or cultural setting already believe (or ‘going with the flow’) comes with many perks.  Perks like group acceptance, not being thought of as weird, burned at the stake, persecuted, etc.

People do not like being wrong and people especially do not like being exposed as being wrong.  It is far easier to ‘kill the messenger’ than it is to humble ourselves to accept our own reasoning and logic could be flawed, incomplete or otherwise be made better.  Questions can make us uncomfortable, doubt is definitely uncomfortable and confidence (even misplaced confidence) is more emotionally pleasant.

Cliché, in some cases, can be overconfidence in what we know or what we think we know is best.  Confidence is good, but overconfidence can be deadly ignorance and is probably how George Anderson Custer became dead and remembered as a cliché.  What worked last time (or the last hundred times before) may not apply to the next time and thus we should always be open to further thought.

Framing reality in either/or ‘black and white’ terms provides a comforting simplicity of thought, but it can also be false dichotomy in an often multi-color, dynamic, both/and, evolving or complex reality.  For example, foreign cars may have had an edge in reliability over domestics, but that does not mean all foreign cars are more reliable nor that domestics still lag behind today.

Cliché thinking and acting can be a way to preserve our comfort zone.  Taking on popular prejudice, confirmation bias, false dichotomy, cultural psychosis, groupthink, and especially our own presumptions, requires extra effort.  Moving beyond the trite or simplistic perspective might require self-sacrifice, standing alone and being unpopular with your cultural peers.

But, most of all, avoiding cliché requires humility and an ability to identify our own blind spots.  If we have already concluded we are the smartest, we know best and others cannot do better, then we squander our potential to grow in our vision or understanding.  We need to look outside of ourselves (individually or collectively) for whole truth.

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.  Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.”  (Proverbs 16:18-19)

Do not be content with proud tradition or religious dogma, but actively seek the ‘mind of God’ that transcends culture and cliché.  Faith is not passed on like a family heirloom, it is taken up as a cross of humility, it identifies lovingly with ‘the other side’ and is the will to take a path less traveled.